Humans are wired to generalize. Evolved to make snap judgments rooted in familiarity or the lack of it, and the comfort or fear that often accompany each. It’s how we survived in the early days of our species, by sizing up danger and protecting ourselves and our tribe from harm.
But the instinct that responds to the unknown often leads us astray. It’s an imperfect mechanism for discerning threats, vulnerable to faulty assessments of those with whom we come in contact, and of course, social conditioning.
In the latter case, this can take the form of biases picked up from the cultures in which we live: against racial, ethnic, or religious others, for instance.
And since we tend to remember negative experiences with so-called “others,” more so than similar experiences with members of our own group, such interactions are magnified in our minds, especially if they line up with social stereotypes for which those interactions serve as a kind of trip wire.
You can often see this play out when discussing an issue like racism in America.
The all-too-common interaction goes like this:
First, you say something, and back it up with quantitative evidence, about the growth of white supremacist groups or white terrorist violence in America. Or perhaps you share the latest data showing the breadth of the racial wealth gap, or disproportionate arrests of black folks for drugs, despite similar racial rates of drug offenses.
Then the person to whom you’re speaking responds with some story about the Latina who was rude to them at the convenience store last week, or the black person who once called them “cracker.”
In fairness, sometimes the experience they recount was more harrowing than that — perhaps involving an actual assault of some sort — but even then, the underlying message is: don’t annoy me with these broad social truths about inequity and white advantage. I’ve been a victim too, so aggregate reality means nothing. My personal experience is equal to or more important than any of that.
Although this retreat to anecdote is predictable, that doesn’t make it legitimate. Not because personal experiences don’t matter, but because it is impossible to make social policy based on anecdote. There are millions of individual experiences out there, and unless we can discern sociological patterns from them, we are left with no social science upon which to order a society’s practices.
Not to mention, generalizing about groups of people based on personal experiences with a statistical handful of the group’s members — and using those experiences to rationalize prejudice — is absurd.
We realize this when it comes to assessing members of our own group. So, for instance, we didn’t generalize about whites after the Oklahoma City bombing, or the crimes of the Unabomber, or the Olympic Park Bomber, or any of the dozens of abortion clinic bombings over the past two decades, all of which were committed by whites. But for people of color, we’re quick to extrapolate from the particular to the general.
Naturally, those who seek to rationalize their biases will sometimes try and provide a patina of factual justification for them. So they will point to crime statistics, indicating that black folks commit a disproportionate share of violent crime, relative to their percentage of the population.
While this is true (because of the correlation between concentrated poverty and crowded urban conditions on the one hand, and crime on the other), it still doesn’t mean that fearing black people as a group makes sense.
With 33 million African Americans over the age of 12 (thus, eligible for consideration in crime data), if blacks commit about 1.3 million violent crimes a year, even if each offense had a unique perpetrator, the maximum percentage of blacks who would commit a violent crime this year would be less than four percent.
Meaning that at least 96 percent will not commit a violent crime this year, let alone against a white person, let alone against a white stranger, let alone against us.
In fact, according to the data, blacks victimize whites about 540,000 times annually: mostly simple assaults without injury and without the use of a weapon. As a percentage of the white population over 12, at 172.6 million, this comes out to a victimization rate of only 31 victimizations for every 10,000 white people annually.
And as a share of all blacks in the country, 540,000 crimes against whites means that at most, 1.7 percent of blacks will commit a violent crime against a white person in a given year.
What’s more, if we are going to rely on statistics to indicate dangerousness, then whites should have an intense fear of other whites. After all, we are four times more likely to be victimized violently by another white person than by a black person, with roughly 2.1 million such white-on-white crimes annually, according to Justice Department data.
But not only do we not generally fear white-on-white violence, we don’t even call it that, which speaks to how white misdeeds are filtered through a colorblind lens, while those of others are seen as group pathologies.
Of course, because racists are reluctant to reassess their biases, they have another pivot. It sounds like this:
“If we know that certain breeds of dogs are more likely to bite than other breeds, doesn’t it make sense to avoid the more dangerous breeds, and to be more fearful of them than others?”
It’s at this point they mention pit bulls and poodles, so as to analogize blacks to the former and whites to the latter (and presumably more docile) breed of canine.
But there are several problems with comparing dog breeds to different “races” of humans. First — as even an avowed white nationalist was forced to admit on a white nationalist web board several years ago — genetic differences between dogs are much larger than differences between so-called races of people.
Second, even if one has been bitten by a specific kind of dog, it wouldn’t be logical to then fear all other dogs of the same breed. And surely, the knowledge of aggregate dog bite data can’t serve to justify such fears. What would be rational would be to fear any dog, regardless of breed, which behaved the way the biter had been before the attack. Dogs that bite almost always do so because they were agitated. Avoiding agitated dogs makes sense, as does avoiding agitated people. But avoiding people who are black, irrespective of their level of agitation is ridiculous.
Additionally, we wouldn’t respond with this kind of generalized hysteria to children who bit us. Occasionally kids do bite other kids, teachers, child-care workers, or even their parents. But those who are bitten don’t tend to respond by getting rid of our kids, quitting our jobs as teachers or running in fear when passing by a playground.
Oh, and not to put too fine a point on it, but if you really think white folks are like poodles, remember, we commit well over 3 million violent crimes each year. Although our violent crime rate is lower than the rate for blacks, three million violent crimes makes us some mighty dangerous-ass poodles. As such, I’m not sure this analogy does us many favors or holds up very well.
So why do people rationalize their biases with reference to limited personal experiences, or by appealing to flawed data? Are they stupid?
Not at all. Despite the irrationality of racist thinking, such thinking makes a kind of twisted sense in a society such as ours.
To understand why people may develop biases towards others, and even act in a racist fashion against them, consider the example of Irish immigrants to the United States.
At the time of massive Irish immigration to America (the mid to late 1800s), the Irish had had little experience with blacks; so they would have had little opportunity to develop anti-black biases rooted in first-hand experience. Yet, they had had considerable experience with the English, most of which had been negative: centuries of oppression, virtual enslavement, and state terror imposed by Anglos.
Given that history, and since personal experience is often used to justify prejudice, it would have made sense for Irish immigrants to detest the Anglo elite. It would have made sense to join the fight against slavery — indeed they were implored to do so by religious leaders in the mother country — because they had been the “slaves of the British” for generations.
But after a short time in the states, Irish immigrants were rioting against blacks (as with the New York draft riots during the Civil War), joining in the barring of blacks from labor unions, and seeking to “become white” by assimilating to the system of WASP domination.
However irrational this racial bonding might have been in the long run — it divided the Irish working class from the black working class, when both would have been better off joining to push for more opportunities for all — it was hardly illogical. The Irish recognized the status differences between whites and blacks, and desiring to be closer to the top than the bottom, swallowed their pride, joined the club of whiteness, and collaborated with the oppression of black folks.
So engaging in racist behavior and rationalizing one’s racism makes sense from the perspective of people hoping to improve their status, relative to a despised “other.”
Likewise, for whites who have accumulated advantages, racism becomes a mechanism by which those can be justified and maintained. If persons of color can be denigrated and made to shoulder the blame for their status, the pressure to equalize opportunity is diminished, and white privilege is perpetuated. So the logic of racism, in a profoundly unequal society, is nearly unassailable, at least at first blush.
But however logical it may be to rationalize one’s advantage and the inequality it portends, doing so is detrimental in the long run even to most whites who reap the short-term benefits. After all, when folks start believing that a particular group is dangerous, to be avoided or marginalized, they let down their guards to the dangers posed by others and advocate policies that often come back to harm them.
White middle-class families move to “nice, safe” communities outside of the city while letting their guard down to the emotionally disturbed young white men in their midst who are plotting to blow up the school or mow down everyone with a heartbeat.
We rationalize the racist war on drugs for years, advocating prison rather than treatment, only to discover that when the opioid crisis ravages our own communities, needed rehab and compassion are scarce.
We oppose things like universal health care for fear that “those people” will take advantage of the program, and then are left without affordable care for ourselves or our families too.
We arm ourselves against a largely manufactured fear of black and brown home intruders — even amid rapidly falling crime rates — ignoring how our desire for easy gun access has helped facilitate tens of thousands of white male suicides. Indeed, the typical white man is far more likely to end up killing himself with his gun than to end up stopping a home invader with the same. The research on this is clear: the presence of guns in the home is associated with a much greater chance of death by homicide, suicide or accident, and all three of these are far more likely than to have those guns used in self-defense.
We worry about being mugged on the street or having our homes burglarized by criminals (whom we often envision as black or brown); meanwhile, according to the FBI, wage theft by employers — skimming money owed to employees and keeping it for themselves — costs at least three times as much annually as all the losses due to robbery and burglary combined.
As such, dispensing with racist thinking is not merely an issue of ethical concern but also a matter of personal self-interest. To hold socially-defined groups of people up to scorn or ridicule, or to fear them based on limited experience or misunderstood data, is to put not only those “others” at risk for mistreatment. It puts us at risk as well.
In this regard, racism should be seen as a toxin, the first victims of which are folks of color, but which then claims as collateral damage millions of whites too. While those folks of color may figure out a way to liberate themselves from such a system of mistreatment, it remains an open question as to whether whites will be liberated from the mental straightjacket into which such a system has placed us.
Or rather, into which we have placed ourselves.