Two days ago, while on a quest to find one of the vanishing breed of waterbed stores, my wife and I had to drive through a slum section of Wilmington, Delaware. The streets were full of black people, and I had a strong “Ugh! Don’t want this kind anywhere near me!” reaction. Only it wasn’t to their blackness. It was because, with a few teenage exceptions, they were graceless and ugly and fat. Women wearing sack dresses in garish floral prints that would look bad even on a mattress liner, men in wife-beater T-shirts, rolling oceans of sloppy adipose tissue, not a smidgen of self-respect or good taste in sight. Awful…
I might not have written about this, except that later in the day I was reading a blog discussion of the Bradley Effect and its possible impact on the 2008 presidential race, and someone’s comment noted that it could be caused not only by hidden racism but by fear of seeming a racist even if one is opposed to Obama but knows oneself to be innocent of actual racist sentiment.
Then I flashed back to my experience in the Delaware slums a few hours previously and realized there is a third and subtler possibility. If I were a left-liberal rather than a libertarian, might I have confused my own reaction to the black people in that slum with racism, and felt eager to expiate it with displays of pro-blackness like telling posters I’m an Obama fan? Is it possible the Bradley effect is largely a rebound phenomenon driven not by “hidden racism” but by unjustified white guilt?
The more I thought about this, the more likely it seemed.
I have a very simple definition of anti-black racism: an anti-black racist is one whose behavior towards individual blacks is prejudiced by unjustified beliefs about blacks as a racial group. Let’s call this “I-racism”.
There are much broader definitions of racism floating around. Notably, something I’ll call “PC-racism”. It works a lot like the Catholic concept of sin. In the PC-racist belief system, all whites are, if not born racist, presumed to have absorbed racism from their early environment. It lurks in white brainpains, ineradicable, ready to leap out at any moment. Believing you are not racist is not only false, but in itself evidence of racism. Individual whites can atone for it only by ritual displays of confession, humility, and self-abasement. They are required to cringe before accusations of racism and can only demonstrate good intentions by zealously cooperating in the detection and persecution of racism in other whites.
Individual absolution from PC-racism, even for the most anti-racist whites, is always conditional and temporary and can be revoked at any time by any black person, or any white person more zealous in the eradication of racism, on the basis of any behavior these privileged ones choose to define as “racist”. Collectively, whites can never be freed of the stain of racism.
I’m not an I-racist. In order to be clear how strong a statement this is, you need to know that I have at least one factually-justified negative belief about blacks as a group, namely that the average IQ of self-identified blacks is about a standard deviation lower than for self-identified whites — and since IQ is a predictor of important things such as rates of school graduation and criminal deviance, this actually matters. But while this belief has consequences for how I expect blacks to behave en masse, it has no consequences for my dealings with black individuals. The individual is not the mass, and I’m not stupid enough to confuse them.
Note that I also believe, on similar factual grounds, that East Asians and Ashkenazic Jews have significantly higher average IQ than whites and that this matters for exactly the same reasons. So if I am a “racist” in any sense, I am also a racist against my own putative interest, that is against non-Jewish whites. See how silly it gets when “racism” gets used for any belief about racial group differences, whether justified or not?
Many years ago, I was with a girl named Eve for a while. This was before anybody had the concept of ‘geekgirl’ but she was one, all right. Computer programmer, very bright, very funny; wrote software for missile-control systems. And she was black; not just what blacks call a high-yaller, but a broad-hipped, kinky-haired, full-lipped African-looking woman with dark skin. I liked her for her brains and her poise and her sense of humor and her precise, considered way of speaking, but I thought she was beautiful, too.
(Having said “many years ago”, I’ll also note that neither of us was being particularly brave or transgressive. Our peer group, science-fiction fans, had no taboo against interracial dating, and none of us gave a damn what the mundanes might have thought about it.)
One night we were happily tangled up with each other and I said to her “Eve…I’ve decided that the fact that you’re black does make one significant difference to our relationship.” I felt her tense up. “Oh?…” she said. “Yes,” I said, peering at her owl-eyed in the dim light. “It makes you more difficult to see in the dark.”
She paused for a long moment, giggled, and jumped me, and I mean “jumped” in a good way. Well, of course; that was exactly the intended short-term result. But Eve also got the message that I had enough confidence in both her and myself to tease her like that. When we parted, we stayed friends. Years later, I bought a couple of very tasteful pieces of jewelry she’d made as a birthday present for my wife.
I’ve described Eve and my dealings with her in some detail partly to make a point about the underappreciated difference between racism and classism. My bad reaction to the slumdwellers in Wilmington was, basically, because they were lumpenproles. Eve, on the other hand, was a product of about the same level of family affluence and education as myself, and jammed up the same end of the IQ bell curve as me. These qualities mattered in exactly the way her skin color didn’t.
OK, it may be in some absolute egalitarian sense unfair of me that I choose my friends that way, but we all do it and it’s not racism. Joseph Biden got slammed for describing Barack Obama as “clean”, but he wasn’t hounded out of public life for it because even the racial-grievance crowd knew that what he meant by it was a sort of class description rather than an implied slur on other blacks. That was an unusual moment of sanity, unfortunately; all too often, Americans confuse classist reactions with racist ones just because a lot of the relatively poor are also black. That’s the mistake I might have made, but didn’t, in Wilmington.
Most Americans don’t have anything like the basis of fact I do about group differences in IQ, criminal deviance, sports performance, etc.; attempts to talk about these things in public tend to be met with frenzied downshouting and denial. So most Americans actually fail the I-racist test the other way than I do; they might incorrectly jump from facts about the mass to prejudices about individuals, but they don’t have the politically-incorrect facts to start with.
I don’t think there are many white Americans left who are I-racists; the rest of us condemn them, and rightly so. But I also think very few of the rest of us could summon up the nerve to make the joke I did to Eve in those circumstances; I almost didn’t dare do it myself, and certainly wouldn’t have if she weren’t so ferociously intelligent. The social stigma attached to racism is too great, even when we don’t fear directly offending a lover or friend. White Americans today are in general too terrified of being seen as racists to go near that kind of humor.
But it goes deeper than that. Most of us, especially left-liberals, have been successfully indoctrinated in the PC-racism of perpetual and collective white guilt. We believe simultaneously that we must atone and can never really atone enough. We’ve been taught to look in the mirror and see a racist even if we ourselves are innocent of any desire to oppress blacks; still more, we’ve been taught to look at other whites and see racists even though we know nothing about their intentions or their behavior towards individual blacks.
Publicly, PC-racism has become an entire hall of mirrors, everyone pointing publicly at racism that has become increasingly imaginary, and whites too often believing each other guilty merely because decent people are supposed to believe that and atone, atone, atone. And this is what brings us back to the Bradley Effect and the 2008 elections. Because the hall-of-mirrors model may not change the frequency with which pollsters hear lies, but utterly changes the meaning of that number.
If most Americans are “hidden racists”, then the Bradley effect will be stubborn and negative and completely pretty much independent of any individual qualities Obama has or proposals he makes.
On the other hand, if most Americans already live in the post-racial hall of mirrors, Obama can in fact gain much by positioning himself as a bargainer with whites, trading redemption for votes. In this scenario, the Bradley effect is susceptible to sudden collapse or even reversal as whites realize they can be what they have wished to seem.
It’s pretty obvious that Obama himself has counted on the hall-of-mirrors model being the correct one; none of his rhetoric about race would make sense otherwise. This would explain neatly why as his poll numbers have dropped to parity with and then below McCain’s in the last week, he has ignored Democratic heavyweights (the news story I saw didn’t specify who, so I’m not chasing down the link) warning him that the Bradley effect is putting him in severe danger of losing. In Obama’s world, he’s not going to be sunk by white anxiety but rather elevated by white desire for redemption (thus the savior-like imagery his campaign trades in).
As far as that goes, I think Obama’s instincts are right on this and the unnamed Democratic heavyweights are wrong. He is in severe danger of losing — in fact, I now think he’s going to lose — but he’s right that the Bradley effect isn’t his big problem. That one lies closer to home.
Obama probably thinks his big problem is that Americans aren’t ready for his policy prescriptions, or that the damned surge actually worked, or that the Republican attack machine is getting traction. I think it’s that he’s shown extremely poor judgment in his choice of friends (Ayers, Dohrn, Wright, Rezko), the management of his campaign (Joseph “The Plagiarist” Biden?), and his response to the Palin phenomenon. And, as I suggested some time ago, that he peaked too early. Mass worship is a fickle thing; you’re a messiah one week, then next week they’re all off chasing a shoe or gourd or something.
But whatever my other differences with Barack Obama, I agree with him on one thing; the hall of mirrors is a trap. It’s time to shatter them all and banish the guilt. So we can actually see each other.
And, Eve…if you happen to read this? I still think of you fondly. Drop me a line sometime.