Thinking Change in an Anti-Thinking Culture

The U.S. needs to think differently and more complexly than it does about race, unfortunately, we are steeped in a culture that is deeply resistant to thinking at all.   This is a conclusion I’ve reached in my own research about cyber racism and this seemed to crystallize in the juxtaposition of a new report from the Center for Social Inclusion and an article at Slate by Christopher Hitchens (thanks to jayrosen_nyu and joegerstandt via Twitter).

The article by Hitchens (not usually a favorite) is a scathing piece about what he calls the “GOP ticket’s appalling contempt for knowledge and learning.”    Hitchens is right to call out Palin for her speech in Pittsburgh last week in which she lamented the:

…wasteful expenditure on fruit-fly research, adding for good xenophobic and anti-elitist measure that some of this research took place “in Paris, France” and winding up with a folksy “I kid you not.”

Hitchens goes on to point out the that it’s “especially ridiculous and unfortunate” that Palin chose to make these remarks in Pittsburgh, “a great city that remade itself after the decline of coal and steel into a center of high-tech medical research.”  Clearly, the McCain/Palin have set themselves in opposition to any sort of funded research as these are invariably the butt of the “earmark” joke that structures many of their speeches.    I’ve been disturbed about the celebration of stupidity and anti-thinking that seems to scaffold the Palin nomination and Hitchens does a decent job of articulating this problem.

So, what does all this have to do with race, you may ask?   As the last couple of posts here illustrate (one by Adia about the unprecedented support by whites for Obama, followed by one by me about a neo-nazi plot to assassinate Obama) racism in the post-Civil Rights, pro-Obama era is complicated.

In the face of this complexity, what we need is more critical thinking about race, not more race-and-color-blindness.   And, a new 28-page report called, “Thinking Change,” (opens .pdf) funded by the Ford Foundation and prepared by the Center for Social Inclusion for the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, makes this point very powerfully.    The whole report is worth reading and I may write more about it another time, but for now I want to highlight a few key findings.   The authors of the report reviewed a wide swath of social science research about race and concluded:

• The concept of framing, or the ways ideas are shaped and presented to the public, is very powerful. Framing affects our response to data and research.  Studies show that if the data and research do not fit the frame, people tend to reject the data and research, not the frame.
• Group identity shapes racial attitudes and behavior.  Facts and self-interest are not as important as values and identity in influencing behavior.
• Context and environmental factors shape and shift our identity, attitudes and behaviors.
• How we construct the discussion around race can influence our behaviors and attitudes.

Throughout the report, the authors emphasize the importance of “framing,” that is the way that ideas around race are shaped and discussed in public, and largely their findings support what Joe and other writers here have been saying about the “white racial frame.” The authors note that the current dominant frames don’t support race-consciousness and that this, along with structural unfairness, blinds whites to the reality of social inequality:

“Many Whites are blind to structural unfairness precisely because of their structural advantages. Access to social, cultural and economic capital protect[s] whites from having to face…the market forces that they so readily see as the solution to the disadvantage of blacks and other nonwhites.”

In many ways, this is an example of the sort of epistemology detached from an acknowledged awareness of race is to what philosopher Charles W. Mills calls “an inverted epistemology, an epistemology of ignorance, … producing the ironic outcome that whites will in general be unable to understand the world that they themselves have made.” The report is less interested in epistemology and more focused on what is necessary for change.  It’s the lack of critical thinking about race on the part of whites is a key element the authors identify that needs to change.  They go on to conclude that “race-neutral strategies” are doomed to fail.   So much for color-blindness.

The reality is that if we want to address racial inequality in the U.S., we need to think differently and more complexly about race.  Of course, the additional struggle is to build a culture that values knowledge and thinking at all.   Perhaps having an intelligent, African American president who not only reads books but has written a couple of books, will begin to counter both the dominant frame of anti-intellectualism and the frame of color-blindness.