Naive Political Commentaries and White Racist Performances

Numerous observers of the current political scene, liberal and conservative, seem to think that white racial views are much more liberal than they were a decade or two back and that a political candidate like Senator Barack Obama will not face serious racism if he is the Democratic party nominee. Indeed, many argue white racism is now dead or nearly dead.

However, much social science research suggests clearly this not correct.
Indeed, it is in my view rather naïve and far too influenced by the colorblind rhetoric now dominant across this society. Let us consider just two research studies. Research by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Tyrone Forman (“‘I Am Not A Racist But’; Mapping White College Students’ Racial Ideology in the U.S.A.,” Discourse and Society, 2000; see also here) on white students at three major university campuses in the West, South, and Midwest indicates that racial attitudes expressed by whites on short-answer survey items are often quite different from those expressed to similar questions requiring more detailed commentary. For example, on a brief survey item 80 percent of 451 responding college students said that they approved of marriages between blacks and whites. However, when a smaller group of comparable students were interviewed in depth this figure dropped to about one-third. (Ninety percent of this smaller group had shown approval on the survey question.) When given more time to explain their views, the majority of white students expressed significant reservations about marriage across the color line. A similar pattern was found for a question about affirmative action. These whites frequently used a variety of hedging phrases (for example, “I agree and disagree”) to disguise or play down their negative views on various racial issue. Thus, the in-depth interviews strongly indicated that a majority of well-educated whites still hold significantly negative attitudes on issues like racial intermarriage.

Moreover, in a recent research book Leslie Picca and I have examined how whites think and act in regard to overtly racist language, ideas, joking, and other behaviors as they move from public arenas to private networks of friends and relatives. We gathered 626 journals from white college students at more than two dozen colleges and universities in several regions, journals in which they recorded for a few weeks (6-8 weeks on average) various events and incidents taking place around them that entailed some racial issue, image, performance, or understanding. Unmistakable in these relatively brief journals from well-educated white Americans is the harsh and enduring reality of blatantly racist stereotyping and action, much of it accented or performed within their important friendship and kinship networks in what we term backstage settings. In one typical and recent account, for example, one white college student provides details on certain discussions and performances that occur when he gets together with his network of five white male friends:

When any two of us are together, no racial comments or jokes are ever made. However, with the full group membership present, anti-Semitic jokes abound, as do racial slurs and vastly derogatory statements. Jewish people are simply known as “Hebes”, short for Hebrews. . . . Various jokes concerning stereotypes that Jewish people hold were also swapped around the gaming table. . . . These jokes degraded into a rendition of the song “Yellow,” which was re-done [in our group] to represent the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. It contained lines about the shadows of the people being flash burned into the walls. . . . A member of the group also decided that he has the perfect idea for a Hallmark card. On the cover it would have a few kittens in a basket with ribbons and lace. On the inside it would simply say, “You’re a nigger.” I found that incredibly offensive. Supposedly, when questioned about it, the idea of the card was to make it as offensive as humanly possible in order to make the maximal juxtaposition between warm- and ice- hearted. . . . no group is particularly safe from the group’s scathing wit, and the people of Mexico were next to bear the brunt of the jokes.

As children and as adults, whites typically learn a strong white racial frame for viewing the world within personal networks such as these. We expected only a few hundred such accounts such as these from our 626 well-educated white college students. We got 9,000 such accounts of racial events, some 7,500 or so full of blatantly racist performances and commentaries. These white students average about 12 such blatantly accounts in these relatively brief 6-8 week diaries, and almost certainly did not record all they did or saw their white friends and relatives (or sometimes white strangers) do. Multiply that 12 or so events by the millions of white college students, or by the number of all whites over 16 (some 100 million plus) and we can speculate conservatively that tens of millions of such racist events occur in the United States every few weeks or so. “Houston,” as the astronauts say, “we have a problem.”

Seen from the perspective of these research studies, the apparent decrease in antiblack prejudices and stereotypes shown in opinion surveys of whites from the 1930s to the present day is very misleading and probably reflects to a significant degree an increased white concern for outward appearance and social acceptability, especially in public frontstage places, including phone calls with pollsters (strangers). Today, it is less socially acceptable for whites to publicly avow strong old-fashioned racist attitudes in diverse public spaces, so many whites may reserve most of their blatantly racist comments for the private spheres of home, locker room, and bar—usually with friends and relatives. This does not mean, however, that these old racist views and the white racial frame of which they are part have died out or have no effect on much white thought and action in more diverse public places. They are still of great consequence for black Americans and the larger society, as we saw in the Dr. Jeremiah Wright case.

Among others things, we need to actively teach whites (and others) how to “out” backstage racist ideas and performances, those which generate discrimination frontstage. Whites (and others) can counter racist performances by using humor (“Did you learn that joke from the Klan?”), feigning ignorance (“Can you please explain that comment?”), and assertively reframing (to justice, fair play, stewardship, responsibility). Teaching to disrupt racist performances is one key, as is creating support groups for such interveners in everyday racist actions.

These social science research studies strongly suggest that all Americans concerned with significant racial change must get out and intervene in racist performances. They, and we, must work actively for that change. Such change will not likely come from rather short political campaigns, but only from years of hard action disrupting racist performances — and from hard organizing for racial change, as in the 1930s-1960s civil rights movement.

Recall Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s. famous words: “Justice for black people will not flow into this society merely from court decisions nor from fountains of political oratory. . . .White America must realize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society.” And in another place, “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”