Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Post No. 2: Why Racism, Although Problematic, Serves a Pragmatic and Utilitarian Purpose

© 2008, The Institute for Applied Common Sense

Hold tight, give me a moment while I put on my Kevlar protective vest and body armor. “Racism problematic!,” you say; that’s an understatement. I realize that I’m about to take a journey filled with land mines and sniper fire. As I have often said, sometimes you have to go to a place to appreciate that you don’t want to be there on a regular basis. At least I know that I am going to take some heat on this one. Well, maybe not…

I’ll tell you at this point – my intentions are good. Additionally, it is my hope that by the time that you finish reading this, you will consider at least some of what I have said, and return your weapons to their rightful and appropriate place. I’ll also warn you that this piece should be read while sitting on the toilet seat of your favorite bathroom. It’s a tad labyrinthine in nature. Addressing the entire racial history of humankind requires at least two pages.

You see, I’m 56 years of age, and I’ve never really given much thought to this thing called racism. It is a concept that I recognized from a theoretical perspective, and about which I had read. However, I simply could not imagine spending much of one’s time dwelling on it.

I also was afraid that by visiting the issue, even intellectually, it might have a “bittering” effect. Consequently, I came up with a construct in the 1950’s that worked for me, and I must say reasonably satisfactorily, at least for most of my years.

You will recall the recent furor generated by Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s comments during a sermon. In the context of the Obama campaign, many commentators reminded us that “America has never really dealt with the race issue,” or that we “have never had a conversation about race.”

I beg to differ. We’ve dealt with it in many different ways, and during the course of many conversations. The frustration expressed has really come about as a result of our inability to reach some satisfactory resolution, or at least some consensus about the issue.

I would submit that the reason that America has never really come to grips with the issue is because America has always dealt with it in a manner that results in it becoming an emotional issue at the very beginning of the conversation.

It is difficult to come up with an effective way to address a problem if you just focus on the symptoms, and do not really address the underlying sources. Approaching the subject from a little different perspective might enable us to formulate new solutions.

Quite frankly, although I do not have any empirical evidence to support this, it is my suspicion that we really have not made any progress in racial relations over the past fifty years. By relations, I mean how we feel about other races in our hearts and private thoughts.

That’s what really matters.

America has mucked this whole thing up in about as many ways as possible. There is plenty of resentment and seething anger out there, although it may be “inappropriate” to express or display it.

I actually hold my former secretary, Anne, responsible for setting me up on this racial thing. Virtually everyone who knows me knows that it is not a place that I like to go. (I’ve even been accused of denying that racism exists because of my philosophical attitude.)

Anne sent me an e-mail and inquired as to whether I thought that Obama (who I understand is African-American) was “for real.” She said that she was somewhat intrigued by him, but that she had her reservations, as she did with virtually all politicians. She was interested in my take.

I responded by first noting that at a very early age, I remembered someone saying that the most important thing that an elected leader can do is to convey an attitude or feeling to his or her followers. That person went on to describe the attitude that Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill both displayed during their terms. They had the hearts and minds of their people. Both made their respective nations feel that certain goals were achievable. Some would say that Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator, did the same thing for most of his years in office, whether you agreed or disagreed with his policies.

I continued by proposing to Anne, on a more personal level, that we might take some cues about this leadership thing from our parents. Fortunately, for most of us, when we were kids, we thought that they were the greatest people on earth. When we became adults, particularly when we had to deal with them during difficult times, we realized that they are just people, ordinary people, with all of the human flaws and problems that we see in others, and in ourselves.

However, during the period of time when their “leadership” was most important, and had its most significant impact, namely our developing, childhood years, they did what they needed to do to provide sufficient guidance for us to become decent, thinking, human beings and hopefully positive contributors to society.

Whatever our personal issues with them may be, that is about the best that you can ask where there is no instructional or operational manual, or even agreement as to what is right or wrong. I suggested to Anne that it’s not dramatically different with the Leader of the Free World. Stay with me, I’ll get back to this racial thing.

One other thing: When one observes celebrities and famous people, one person can say or do certain things, and you have some doubts about their sincerity. You’re just not quite sure whether it is about the celebrity and his or her ego, as opposed to their really being interested in doing things for the benefit of society.

On the other hand, you observe others, who might say or do some of the exact same things, and folks will say that he or she is sincere and really means it. Then again, there are some folks in whom you do not have much faith or confidence initially, and then you have to mature, or you see them mature over time, resulting in you having a different view.

I suggested to Anne that she had to follow her heart; feel it in her gut. I told her that if you think too hard, and look too long, you’re bound to find disappointment and flaws. It’s inevitable. They exist in us all – and we know it.

Actually, I had not paid much attention to Obama until Caroline Kennedy endorsed him. I had not even entertained the theoretical possibility that a black man might become President in America at this point in our country’s evolution. However, Caroline crystallized a nebulous uncertainty in my mind. Those few, carefully delivered words did the trick for me.

Paraphrasing, she essentially said that in her youth, she did not appreciate or comprehend what her Father meant to others. However, listening to the expression of feelings by others who were around when she was a youth, Obama instilled in her the same type of inspiration that those folks claimed her Father did for them. It’s obviously not about experience, is it?

Is he more qualified than any of the other candidates? Hell, I don’t know. I’m not sure, contrary to the case of race, that it really matters. (Parenthetically, I wondered whether a person, contemplating the selection of a spouse, might consider whether various potential “candidates” were more qualified than others, and whether experience would be a prime determinant.) But, then it hit me – the realization that race was not the primary, instinctive, instantaneous factor that I processed upon focusing on him.

Kennedy’s comment suggested that (1) he had the potential to inspire something in us to move beyond our personal crap; (2) this certain amorphous quality was rare; and (3) we really haven’t seen it for far too long a period of time, and yearned for it. It reminded me of Jack Nicholson’s comment to Helen Hunt, “You make me want to be a better person.” It draws or tugs on your whole being. For millions, Obama apparently makes a lot of people want to follow him, regardless of his position on issues, and irrespective of his lack of experience.

I told Anne that it was, quite frankly, transcendental, in nature.

It occurred to me that not knowing, or not paying attention to, Obama’s race, like the position that most of you occupy vis-à-vis me at this point, might be a good thing. But it also got me “athinking.” Are there some “good” things about racism? Well, “good” might be too strong a word. Although the academicians would question the appropriateness of this, I use the words “race” and “racism” interchangeably, since, as a practical matter, if you did not have the latter, the former would be a non-issue. Let’s get back to why racism, although problematic, serves a pragmatic and utilitarian function in all societies, and has done so since the beginning of humankind. Are you still angry with me now?

There is analysis, and then there is drawing a line for one’s self. A few years ago, I met this gal of a different race. A number of her friends had met me and said that I was “acceptable.” She was apprehensive and uncomfortable about meeting me, and had to get drunk and show up at 11:00 pm in order to face me alone. She reiterated that she had been brought up in a home in a working class town, where her Father had clearly expressed his disdain for members of other races.

Her Sister in the Navy had married a man of a different race, and they had an interracial child, who her Father refused to acknowledge or even see. The Father disowned his daughter. My friend struggled with our relationship for years. She frequently made reference to her internal conflict in getting to know me better, and what she had been taught by her Father. She also noted that the friend, who was most supportive of her Brother as he was dying of AIDS, was a member of a racial group that her Father despised.

What I told her, and what I have come to accept about folks who hold views with which I disagree, is that people adhere to the principles and values that they think or feel work for them. It does not advance our cause to be angry with them if our view of race is different.

While some might view it as ignorance, or a lack of sophistication, I call it “muddling through.” Some folks do not seek out information, education, or people of other races, because knowing more stuff complicates their thought process and ability to function in everyday life. There is, after all, only so much time in a day.

For some folks, occupying it with trying to understand what is really going on is problematic. If one has the benefit of being around certain groups of people, and the time, interest, and resources that permit you to engage others outside of your group, you will probably not view those new and different as threatening. However, if your position in life is less secure and more tenuous, the threat appears to be more real. That is not to suggest that it should, or that I am an apologist for racists.

However, for certain segments of the population, it is simply more efficient for them to deal with people and cultures that they recognize, and concepts that they understand, or take positions that someone else, or some other institution, controls. Does that sound familiar? I admit that it may not be the most palatable thing to say in certain settings.

There are two phrases that I have begun to use with more frequency now that I have reached my mid-fifties. They are, “Don’t try to make your issues my issues,” and, “It’s not the way that I want to spend my time.” Racism is frequently about efficiency, with respect to conduct, thought, and emotion.

We only have so much time or energy that we are willing to devote to relationships with folks outside of our known realm, or our realm of priorities. Racism is also about probabilities. Arguably, there are fewer complications and unexpected events associated with sticking with our own and what we know. Is it limiting? Perhaps it is, if that is an issue for you. However, for people who subscribe to it, racism “works.”

Additionally, there will always be a need for humans to feel that they are better than some group of people, and a recognition that they are less well off or fortunate than others, even though it might not be accurate, fair, or justified. Are there perhaps other ways, not comparative in nature, to establish one’s place in society and establish self-worth and value? That we are still uncomfortable with the subject of race, during an era when Obama might have a chance, is reflective of its enduring problematic legacy.

Have you ever watched any shows following animals in the wild, and wondered about their applicability to understanding human conduct? Imagine that you are a tiger, amongst other tigers. Let’s assume that there are other, different animals in your vicinity. If you are familiar with them, and have had other experiences with them, then your reaction or attitude will reflect that prior experience, however limited it may have been.

If the new animal in your midst is a total stranger, who you have not encountered before, then you need to size it up, your guard is immediately raised, and you must make a decision fairly quickly as to whether it is friend or foe. You may or may not be able to run away or successfully fight the strange new animal.

As humans, we have advantages over our animal counterparts. We can move to certain parts of town, join certain organizations, place our kids in certain types of schools, and otherwise take steps to reduce certain undesirable events, and to increase the probability or number of those events occurring that we consider positive in nature.

But having a larger and more complex brain, we can also do others things. We can depersonalize acts that might be interpreted as racist acts toward us, and realize that the act is really not about us, but about the actor. We can also try to address those systemic and structural issues or conditions that encourage the practice of racism, or that make it such a useful coping mechanism for so many.

Hope springs eternal. Laughingman, of the Institute for Applied Common Sense, wrote in a recent piece:

“[T]he dilemma that this Nation faces is significantly more apparent amongst us aging baby boomers, than amongst the kids who will be inheriting the future implications of our, and our parent’s, mistakes. Half of our racial perception problem is hard wired genetic preference. Those of our ancestors who sought out their own kind, (and we still do this on the basis of first blush visual similarity), were more likely to enjoy the support and protection of the group. Adherence to group think advanced the chances of finding a desirable mate and passing along one's genes through reproduction.”

“The other half of the boomers’ perceptual problem is environmental. We may have learned to shake off the fear driven prejudice and behavior, acquired as children from our less enlightened parents. However, acting equal and thinking equal are different things. This may help explain why the most libertine, least cautious, generation in recent memory (we were, after all, willing to swallow damn near anything put in front of us) has become the most compulsively concerned, micro-managing, group of parents...ever.”

“The good news is our kids seem to have inherited our best thinking, rather than our worst fears. So, the ground work put in by MLK, Muhammad Ali, Bill Cosby, and Malcolm X, is showing up as a very new irrelevance of the importance of racial background. Affirmative action has nothing to do with the value of Tiger Woods' endorsement contracts, Oprah's audience, Senator Obama's chances to be our next president, or with the extraordinarily talented Lewis Hamilton's probability of being the next Formula One World Racing Champion.”

“I can't think helping that this is a very good thing. As the population continues to divide into ever smaller tribes based primarily on personal interests, those who pick their leaders based on performance, and emulate their behavior by choice, will enjoy more than their fair share of economic prosperity, and the unfair advantage in the genetic crap shoot.”

“Those who limit their learning to conforming to a previous generation’s preferences may go the way of the Dodo.”

Earlier this week, the world witnessed a generational and philosophical chasm between Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Senator Barack Obama. Rev. Wright has personalized this whole of issue of race, and a result, feels that it is about him.

Obama on the other hand, and this is why he will probably not prevail, has recognized all along that the significance of him even being in the hunt is bigger than the racial factor. However, I don’t think that we are ready for that level of conceptual evaluation yet in this country. (Remember Adlai Stevenson?) That’s why many in the media have turned this into a media circus and resorted to demeaning and demonizing those with whom they disagree.

Yes, America, racism works; and it runs both ways.
© 2008, The Institute for Applied Common Sense


  1. I realize that I harbor some racism, but it is something in my life that I have endeavored to confront, understand and minimize. I whole-heartedly believe that Barak Obama is not only capable but absolutely the best choice for our next president. He is smart, he is a leader and his potential is compelling. This article has gone a long way to help my own though process regarding race and racism, and the statement about how the threat of racism is more real for those whose lives are more tenuous struck a chord. I have struggled with my own disdain for racism not quite clearly understanding it, categorizing those who espouse racism as ignorant and beyond the pale. Although I have come to understand that racism is seated in instinct and the drive for survival, as members of the human race and of an interconnected social system, I believe we have the obligation and responsibility to examine and minimize its impact in ourselves. I do think that I will be less judgmental of those who find the need for racist views, but I do also think that I have the obligation to encourage the examination of racist thoughts.

  2. Thanks much "anonymous" for commenting on our blog. ALL of us harbor some racism, in varying degrees, and depending on the our then current circumstances. We're hard wired to do so. (In fact, check out the article on racial hard wiring later this evening or early tomorrow morning, since I just returned from a lecture by one of the leading researchers at Stanford University re same.)

    That you even recognize that aspect of your consciousness is significant and comforting. Thanks for the compliment regarding how the article assisted you in a re-examination of your views on race. That's our goal, to stimulate thought. Once you read my next article on the work of the Stanford professor, you should feel more at ease. Thanks again.

  3. OK, I'll admit that I have not yet absorbed but a very limited bit of this essay, so this reply is a lot of gut response.

    But it seems by your interpretation I must be an outlier.

    As a 55 yo Caucasian I distrust my tribe more than the 'other' tribe. Always have. Perhaps because of my significant first bond was outside my tribe.

    Racism is a wedge tool. For many end goals.

    'Hard wiring' can change via mutations, natural selection. We are a babe-in-arms-young species.

    I'll be reading more here.


  4. Thanks much RBM / Anonymous, for posting a comment on our blog. We also apologize for the delay in responding to your post. We are usually better in this regard.

    This was one of our lengthier piece, and consequently, it would not surprise us if it took someone a bit of time to absorb it. In fact, that's the manner in which we would like all of our posts to be addressed. Additionally, probably the most interesting aspect of this whole blogging experience has been the number of times that we have re-visited our own blogs, and read them over and over. (Some of them I have personally read at least seven times. I, for one, like continually revisiting my thought process and the results reached.)

    You so appropriate used the word "tribe," which sums up much of what we have to say in the race arena. In some of our other posts, we refer to the work of Jeffrey Sachs, Founder of the Earth Institute at Columbia (, who takes the position that we are hard wired to think in terms of "us" versus "them," and badly led.

    We believe that racism naturally exists. The goal is to create systems and conditions where it is less likely to have a detrimental impact. Obviously there are many who manipulate this natural impulse to drive a wedge between people or groups. Check out an upcoming article about the biological basis for racism, following our attendance at a recent lecture by Stanford University professor Robert M. Sapolsky. Heavy duty stuff. Just a little preview, you are absolutely correct that the "hard wiring" can change via mutation and natural selection. More later.

  5. Later today, at 2pm EST and on tomorrow, Sunday, 2/22 at 7:30 am EST, C-Span2 Book TV will once again air a book discussion centering around the Mississippi Freedom Riders:

  6. Ward Connerlly, a former University of California Regent and black man, who lead the fight for the elimination of affirmative action in California governmental institutions, just stepped up to the podium to speak at the Conservative Political Action Committee Meeting. Turn to C-Span right now.

  7. In just a few minutes, at 9am EST, C-Span2 Book TV will air an in depth interview of Professor Ronald Tataki of UC - Berkeley, about multi-cultural contributions in the United States and the clashes.

  8. Right now, as we type this comment, Dr. Ronald Takaki of the University of California is discussing the contributions of multiculturalism to the United States and the clashes between cultures. The program is being aired on C-Span2 Book TV.

    Interestingly, he refers to multiculturalism as a patchwork of cultures, and questions Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s "Disuniting of America" as a concept. He also does not like to refer to the United States as a melting pot.

    One of the things which we love about C-Span2 Book TV, is that if you watch it regularly, and listen to the views of authors on all sides of the various issues discussed, you will begin to recognize the merit of the positions of others, which may be contrary to your own long held views. Viewing the channel also makes you appreciate the value of listening to others. We can all learn something, resulting in changing our views.

    Tone and delivery are very important. We often hear panelists, with diametrically opposed positions present them in a civil manner, and thus you get to hear what they have to say, not the noise and the anger.

  9. Jules: Thanks for taking the "long trip" to visit our forum. We'd appreciate your perspective on a regular basis. There are obviously different forces in operation in the UK, and yet there are also similarities.

    We could not have articulated your message any better than you did.

    We do have a slightly different view of something that you mentioned, although we suspect that we end up in the same place.

    You made reference to "the sole purpose of getting information from the interviewee." We strongly believe that an interviewer, using a civil tone and not placing the interviewee on the defensive, can actually acquire MORE information from someone. Aggressiveness and nastiness, as you correctly stated, clouds the issue and is more likely to make the interviewee clam up, become protective of information, and resent the questioning.

    This is not rocket science. It's only common sense.

    Thanks for visiting, and please tell your other friends (or even those who disagree with you) around the globe about this forum.

  10. Brenda: We are ecstatic that you brought up the role of the judiciary. A truly "appropriate" response to your statement probably requires 3 or 4 pages of explanation; however, we'll try to be brief here.

    The Judiciary is not supposed to rubber stamp the acts of the Legislature or the Executive Branch, and theoretically, they are not supposed to be subject to the whims and popular sentiments of the citizens. The judicial branch is the 3rd branch, and serves a check / balance function which most in society do not fully appreciate.

    The function of the judicial branch is to ensure the proper "application" of laws (including the state and federal Constitutions.) One of the reasons that many judicial positions are for life, is that you do not want justices behaving like politicians in order to get re-elected.

    Two very quick examples: (a) The internment of Japanese-American citizens during WWII. The Supreme Court determined that to be unconstitutional, even though the vast majority of the people in the US may have wanted it.

    (b) In the 1970s, if we remember correctly, the people of California enacted a law through the referendum process stating that a landlord could discriminate against a potential renter for ANY REASON they wanted, including race, religion, children, pets, etc. If we recall, close to 75% of the voters approved it. The Supreme Court found it unconstitutional.

    To some extent, constitutions (laws) protect us from ourselves, and establish ideals applicable to all times, not just good times or bad times. They are the rudders which keep our boat floating under control during rough waters.

    All that being said, there is a difference between an "activist" judiciary, like the Warren Court of the 1950s, which affirmatively "makes law," which is the province of the legislative branch, and a court which "responds to legal disputes" presented to it by ruling whether the law has been properly applied.

    Many have argued said that the civil rights legal decisions of the Warren Court were improper and beyond the court's authority. The people of the United States did not want black to have equal rights. The desire of the populace was that blacks be treated as 2nd class citizens. They contend that their desire should have been honored until the Legislative branch thought otherwise.

    On the other hand, some argue that the Equal Protection clause prevented disparate treatment of similarly situated citizens, and that the Jim Crow laws were therefore unconstitutional.

    We apologize for not being able to more fully respond to your frustration; however, the system is constructed in this fashion to achieve certain purposes.

    It is a beautiful and well thought out system, even if it does not always yield what we want as citizens.

  11. Douglas wrote: "...[T]he problem is that we do not come around to the other point of view. We insist that our way is right, regardless of history, regardless of majority opinion, regardless of the rules of common sense. Even when we know we are wrong, we refuse to accept it."

    You've made it clear that's your view of the world. However, that view is not universally held.

    "The Desire of the Majority of the Citizens." Let us ask you this. You and a male friend of yours, who happens to be the mayor of your town, get into a heated argument at a restaurant. You stomp out in anger, and many in the restaurant see your emotional outburst.

    An hour later, your friend is found dead, slumped behind the wheel. Some of the patrons who witnessed your outburst exit the restaurant during the investigation, and conclude that you are responsible and so convey that to the police.

    They get into their cars and follow the police to your home, and as you are being arrested and led out of your home, a mob scene develops.

    Word has spread throughout your town that you killed the beloved mayor. 15,000 citizens, out of your town of 25,000, gather around and demand that the cops release you to them so that they can "take care of you."

    Enter the Logistician who argues that despite the demands and sentiments of the citizens, the majority of whom are shouting for your head, you should be afforded the full due process of law, and that he will file papers with the Supreme Court of Florida to stop this mob action, despite the fact that the majority of the town's citizens want you dead.

    What say you now Douglas about judicial intervention?

    Just playing of course Douglas. But something to think about.

  12. the logistician said: "To some extent, constitutions (laws) protect us from ourselves, and establish ideals applicable to all times, not just good times or bad times. They are the rudders which keep our boat floating under control during rough waters."

    I absolutely LOVE this statement! I'm going to quote this on my blog if you don't mind.

  13. On race/racism. I'm of the opinion that it's not entirely about skin color; to a degree it is, yes.

    However, I think a lot of it has to do with class and culture than anything else (as far as perception of individuals of a differing race). For instance, I can't state how many times I've run across a white person insinuating that "that black guy" was nice in a way in that he was not like "most black buys". Meaning, to me anyway, that he was sufficiently white enough (in white mannerisms) to be acceptable to them.

    Now, is the culture by which these people make assumptions white and black (etc)? When I was growing up the roles were reversed for me in respects to the majority of white people. I grew in a predominately mixed neighborhood (mostly latino and blacks; as I don't recall having any white friends until I entered junior high). Suffice it to say that I was immersed into black and latino culture from a very young age and, short of my family, I wasn't around very many white people. LOL, So, then, am I "white enough"?

    Conversely, my mother largely grew up under similar circumstances and instilled in me an attitude of acceptance of other races and cultures.

    I guess what I am saying (about culture from the outset) is that black people may grow up and integrate within white communities and are often viewed as "acceptable" within those communities. On the other side of the coin a white person may grow up and integrate within a black community and similarly be "acceptable" within that community.

    So, then it's not so much about skin color as it is about integrating within the culture, sub-culture and community that one finds oneself and finding acceptance therein.

    However, I can't go any further without mentioning class. Which, thinking on it, may be far more pertinent to this issue than anything else. How do we define class and what is it's role in society? Should there even be a role of class and class separation?

  14. I'm not so sure "racism" is the correct word in much of the essay. To me, "racism" means hostility toward an individual based on his race. If you're talking about suspicious caution in deciding whether and how to deal with an individual of another race, I would think "racial prejudice" a more accurate term. (You're making a snap judgment, but aren't hostile.) If you're talking about what seems like a natural, widespread preference for being around people who appear similar to yourself, perhaps "affinity for one's own race" is more accurate, and there may be words to express that more concisely (self-segregation?)

  15. Robert:

    Thanks for taking the time to read this piece. Your point is noted, and well-taken. You make very valid points.

  16. Robert:

    By the way, upon re-reading your comment further, we have two thoughts. First, thanks for prefacing your comment with the phrase, "I'm not so sure...." It makes one far more receptive to one's position/point of view than the "You're wrong" approach of many. Second, as we often do, we looked up the definition of "racism" since we were not so sure that hostility was a "necessary" element as opposed to a frequently encountered element.

    Here is one definition from one respected dictionary: "(1) The belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability, and that a particular race is superior to others; (2) discrimination or prejudice based on race."

  17. At this moment, the History Channel is airing its program entitled, "The Ku Klux Klan: A Secret History." Click here for further information on the program.

  18. Thanks much Bee for visiting us. Check out some of our other posts.

  19. Interesting. Thank you for sending me here.

  20. I agree with what you said in this piece. I have met individual people of other races whom I have really liked. However, I can not meet every person in the world. Therefore, I have to generalize. While it would be stupid to say that every single person of a certain race acts a certain way because that particular race generally acts that way, it would be equally stupid to say a certain race doesn't tend to act a certain way because some individual members of that race you've met don't fit the stereotype.

  21. Thank you AlexHorton55 for paying us a visit and sharing your thoughts. Please come back soon, and check out some of our other posts.

  22. There is a very interesting program which will air at 11:40 am EDST today on CSpan2 Book TV. It explores how we construct beliefs and convert them into truths, particularly in connection with religion and conspiracy theories.


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