04 August 2013

"Culture" and "Race" are not interchangeable

Take a look at the following 10 people, one at a time

Think about who they are.
What do they likely do for work?  How much do they make?  What do they enjoy doing on their off time?  What would you guess their religion is, what kind of food do they eat, where did they grow up, and how do they vote?  Who do they socialize with, and what inspires their morality?

Tell a story about each one.

Also:  Where are these people probably from?  What is the cultural background of each person?  What is their ethnic heritage?
What is each one's race?
How do you know?

A reader recently sent me a link to an article about housing discrimination:
(and, oddly enough, it was not in response to my recent controversial post on race, but rather on a fairly neutral post on perception, ideology, and the naturally unscientific human brain.)
Its quite short, but if you don't care to read it, I'll summarize it briefly:
A Black professor had just moved to teach at Stanford, and was looking for a place to live.  Upon arriving at a place, he was told by 4 landlords that the apartment had already been rented to someone else.
He suspected the landlords were lying, because they didn't want a Black tenant, and as a way of testing this theory, he started responding to ads while deliberately talking in what he called "an African-American or Latino accent", or in "professional standard English".
His theory of discrimination was supported by the rates at which each accent generated a call back and an offer to view an apartment.
Discrimination, obviously.
But was it racism?
When the professor spoke in professional standard English, his calls were returned and he was offered a chance to follow up.
But here is the key point that both he and the post's author seem to have neglected:
When he spoke in professional standard English, he was still Black!
Which means the landlords were discriminating, but not necessarily on the basis of race.  They were discriminating on the basis of culture.  And it is fair to question whether that discrimination is actually unreasonable.
Suppose instead of "professional standard English" to simulate "white", he had said:

Wal how does y'all? I’s mahnear fixna move, an' so I's recon I'd call an' git up wit' yo' 'bout thet thar hase yo' haf advahtised in th' paper.

We don't know what the response rate really would have been, since he didn't try it, but we can probably safely guess that it would have been lower than for the professional English accent.  Why?  Because they way a person talks often is at least somewhat an indication of their level of education.  And a person's level of education is frequently associated with their level of income, their stability, and their responsibility.  These are all things which matter to a landlord, because they are trusting someone with what is likely their most valuable asset and a significant portion of their income.
Certainly people with low education can still be responsible and economically secure, and people with thick accents can be educated, and that's where the prejudice lies.
This isn't to say that many landlords (and employers, and judges, and cops) may not also be racist.  But the mere fact of discriminating on cultural lines does not at all imply it, and almost never do anti-racism activists take that distinction into account when trying to prove their case via statistics.

Yes, its true that the person who drives this car is likely to be watched a little more closely by the cops:

But then again, the people who drive these...

...are all more likely to get more police attention than the people who drive these:

Not because of being able to guess the race of the driver, but because choosing to drive those particular vehicles is a possible sign that the person belongs to a subculture which, among other things, has a lack of respect for certain laws.

In other words: if you sag your pants, you don't get to claim that you are discriminated against because of your race.
If you speak "ebonics", you don't get to claim you are being discriminated against because of your race.

And here people generally object that I am saying that in order to be accepted, black people should "act white".
Except, as I already pointed out, there is a world of difference between the accent, slang, and culture of your stereotypical "Deliverance" type inbred Southern country redneck, hick, hillbilly and/or bumpkin, and a Stanford Professor (whether white or black).
So many people have claimed that the dialect of poor uneducated urban black people should be legitimized that the term "ebonics" itself is recognized by non-linguists.
And few seem to notice how extremely racist that is.
It is not unique to modern America, nor to racial sub-cultures, that poor uneducated people distort the predominate language of the society they live in.
Take, for example, the 1912 English play "Pygmalion" (known to American's as "My Fair Lady") in which two high society types make a bet over whether a low class girl can be made to fit into respectable society by teaching her to speak properly.  There is zero race element involved:  this is England in 1912 - everyone is white.  This is about class, and it's affect on education.  No one has ever tried to give poor white slang (British or American) its own name, and suggested deliberately teaching it in schools.
The attempt to legitimize it in the case of (poor urban) black people is equivalent to saying "yours is naturally the culture of poverty".  To say that speaking proper English is "trying to sound white" is saying "If you are Black, you should sound ignorant."
The linguistic history of the way in which many poor black urban people speak does not trace itself back to any African roots.  It did not develop from slaves holding onto their native languages and incorporating old and new words to build an African / English hybrid language.  It developed for the same reason redneck and cockney and the lower-class and rural versions of every other language did: the lower-classes are denied access to education. 
Suggesting that speaking proper English is trying to "be white" is like telling black people they should voluntarily ride on the back of the bus in order to honor their heritage.

When a person grows up on a backcountry Southern farm, gets good grades in high-school, goes on to college, and starts a successful business, few chastise that person for speaking standard American English.  Few say that they are denying their heritage by not continuing to talk in the style of the independent paragraph above.  Few say they are "trying to be urban mid-western" or "trying to be urban northern Californian", (which are the accents which most America's think of as a "neutral" American accent, even among people who have a different accent themselves.)

Looking back at the cars and clothing above; does it count as a prejudice to suspect a person of having a higher than average chance of criminal conduct if they have made a deliberate choice to externally identify as part of a sub-culture which, among other things, accepts - or even glorify - criminal conduct?  Is it prejudice to suspect Bubba-Joe Jed Walker of being a moonshiner before suspecting Chris Johnson?  Is it prejudice to suspect the guy driving the lowered Honda with a spoiler and tinted windows is more likely to speed than the person driving a Yaris?  Or to suspect the Harley rider to have a higher chance of drunk driving, or the raised pick-up driver more likely to have a gun?
As soon as you cross the line from "I have a higher suspicion" to "I am sure that this particular person is guilty" then it becomes prejudice.  Until then, all you are doing is recognizing patterns.  That's one of those things the human brain does that allows us to function in the real world.
There are always going to be some people who can't make that distinction.  Even after they meet the goose that walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, and the goose explains that it is a goose that grew up around ducks, but that it has rejected the negative aspects of duck culture even while appropriating those that it personally enjoys, those people will still insist on calling the goose a duck, and treating it as such.  But the vast majority can and do make that distinction.
This is why I, a Black male who grew up and spent most of his life in a poor, high crime area, can say that, no, actually, I haven't ever been unfairly targeted by the cops, I haven't ever been followed in a store, I haven't been unfairly denied a chance at jobs or housing that I was qualified for, and the only two times I have been called a derogatory race-based word (which I will not repeat here, because, in my opinion, it is not anymore ok for me to use just because I happen to be black then it is ok for anyone else to use it) were both by drug-addict white trash at the very bottom of society. 
Because, no matter what initial thought flashes through the sub-conscious of whatever cop / employer / landlord, all it takes is a couple seconds of me opening my mouth and speaking to correct whatever preconceptions they may have had about me as an individual.
This is something we could be teaching our minority urban youth.  It would go a long way to reducing both violence and prejudice.

I have linked to this video before, after the uproar over Oscar Grant's shooting, but it is still a lesson a lot of people need to learn:

Unfortunately, our culture basically teaches young black males the exact opposite lesson - that the cops are out to get them, and they should fight back - with predictable, and not so funny, results.

There are two factors that should be kept in mind when looking at statistics around race.
First, a higher proportion of Black people commit violent crime than other races.  This rate is still very very low, but it is disproportionately high given the size of the population.   This means that the vast majority of people are innocent, but you should still expect the population with the higher level of crime to get the higher level of police attention, even if every cop were color blind.
Second, on top of that, you have a significant portion of the population that deliberately attempts to emulate the criminal subculture.  Its right there in the word!  Gansta.  As in gangster.  As in professional, organized, and violent criminal.  The subculture's media has been explicitly glorifying violence and criminal behavior since about the mid-80s, and it has been one of the dominate influences on culture ever since.  Most people (and birds) mistake the viceroy for the monarch.  That was the viceroy's intention.  It would be odd for the viceroy to get mad at everyone for confusing it with the monarch.  It would be odder still for the birds to internalize that, and feel guilty for having trouble telling them apart.  No one is confusing a red admiral, or a yellow swallowtail for a monarch.  If they were, sure, I'd agree with the suggestion that the person claiming "all butterflies are exactly alike" is being speciest. But before you can call it racism, you have to factor out all the wanna-be viceroys getting pulled over for Driving While Viceroy, because they are representing a sub-culture, not a race.
Will these two factors (actual statistical crime rate, and a sub-culture of emulating criminals) account for 100% of apparent / perceived prejudice?
Probably not. As I have pointed out in the past (Heading 14; in Which Reparations are Still Due and Race (Whites still winning)  and Awareness of White Privilege VS Actually Working to Change it)  the effects of past racism are definitely still a factor in today's society and in the inequality between different races.
But if we are going to have an honest and / or productive discussion about American race relations, everyone needs to be aware of, and acknowledge, that those factors exist.
No one should be punished for attributes they were born with, but it is reasonable to hold people accountable for their choices.
Culture is not race.
Race is not culture.
One you are born with.
The other is a choice.
By the way... you know that purple cowboy in that picture above? 
He's an Aboriginal American ("American Indian" / "Native American"). Not a white guy.


  1. I know little about Trayvon Martin, only that he was an innocent victim of a terrible crime. I know little about Andrew Zimmerman, only that he was recently exonerated of Martin's murder. What I do know, as a fellow observer of the post-tragedy media coverage, is how strongly Americans reacted to the story. Martin, in essence, has been thrust into the role of poster boy for white-on-black racism. Only God (and the families) know the truth. But personally, I don't support the desire to use others' tragedies to reinforce negative stereotypes.

    The phenomena of internalized (and often generational) abuse is a lesser-acknowledged problem, one that needs to be called out in order for it to be weeded out. Case-in-point: Just as soon as American society dropped the inclination to show blacks the back door or refer to them by profane names, blacks began to speak in denigrating ways to one another. Just as soon as racist attitudes became politically incorrect, black artists began to reinforce negative stereotypes about the supposed waywardness of young black men. By the late 1980s, gone was the nobility of the Civil Rights era, present, instead, were an onslaught of MTV/media depictions of criminality/warfare (life "in the hood"). Gone too was the relative innocence of Motown. Rap, by contrast, ostensibly reflected a reality about urban black life. The problem? In so doing it also perpetuated negative PR — narrow, if not self-reinforcing imagery of black life, for all to see.

    I feel black adults must stop tolerating stereotypical images of youth culture because fear/violence-based media rightly or wrongly defines and informs others' expectations for the way young black men might be expected to behave. (For instance, they're all "packing" or they've all got a "rap sheet".) Was Zimmerman a black-hating white? Or was he inclined to assume the worst by a media-entertainment empire that glorifies the "dangerous male minority"?

    Blacks and minorities need and deserve respect. In this regard, people of color have a lot more power to mold perceptions than they take credit for. Blacks can and should, for example, work in their churches, schools and communities to break the hold of generational prejudice by not condoning or consuming negative images of modern black youth in pop culture.

    Self respect is not about "acting white" — it's about the dignity you bring to your life and to your culture at large. A big part of standing tall that ought to be of particular concern to celebrities and role models, is a conscious decision not to contribute to harmful, stereotypical imagery in entertainment — only to wonder why others are apparently prejudiced (or stupid) enough to buy into the *fear* it perpetuates.

    Just as there is a difference between "culture" and "race", there is a difference between "fear" (as conditioned by media) and "hate" (intrinsic racism). Again, I wasn't there and I can't and won't make excuses for Zimmerman's actions. All I know is that it merely scratches the surface of the issue to characterize Martin's death as little more than age-old white racism. It is possible that Martin died a senseless death because icons in entertainment have made multimillion-dollar businesses out of a bad-ass "brand" consisting of troubled, young black men (among other urban-dwelling minorities). Such images are now so pervasive and powerful that perceiving Martin as an "individual" rather than a "stereotype" may have failed to warrant distinction in Zimmerman's mind. Tragically, violent self-depictions in entertainment/media may have very well deprived Martin of receiving the benefit of the doubt when he needed it most. We might not have the means to cure the human spirit of racism, but we certainly have cause to elevate not-so harmless media portrayals of race and culture.


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