Monday, May 10, 2010

What makes a person racist?

This was brought to my attention today. It's a report of a law student's e-mail that says some things some people find racist and it's apparently hurting this person's career, perhaps permanently.

From reading that article (and not seeing the actual e-mail or knowing the conversation that took place leading up to this particular statement), I don't see what's wrong with it.

She didn't actually say anything. It depends on what data she was looking at and using. There's a book called The Bell Curve that incited death threats against the authors because it used scientific methods and psychological theories and came to the conclusion (with data; how conclusive or well done is up for debate, as all science is) that different races are generally predisposed to certain levels of intelligence. It stated a lot of inflammatory things that pissed off a lot of people. Were the authors of the book/studies racist? I don't think so; they were scientists who were studying intelligence, saw a correlation and reported it.

It's akin to killing Galileo for proving that the Earth isn't the center of the universe; it's not his fault, it wasn't done with malice, it's just what the data shows.

I don't think this law student said anything that should destroy her career and I frankly don't think she did anything careless. Everyone in their lives has done or said something that could be damaging to them; the only issue here is that she's someone who seems to have a very powerful future and someone else wants to stop that. This is law school politics; no different from senators screaming at one another for cheating on their wives while they themselves are buying prostitutes. It's pointing out another's faults because it's on record while hoping no one has any of yours documented.

Is it a LITTLE BIT racist? Perhaps. But everyone is. If a crocodile attacks you, our minds learn to avoid anything that looks like a crocodile. If a dog bites you when you're 3, it's likely you'll develop an aversion to dogs throughout your life. If you don't live in a predominantly black neighborhood and have a bad experience with a black person (violent or otherwise threatening, either first hand or hearing stories) it's just biology and psychology that we'll associate black people with such actions. The same has been true throughout history for various races from Irish to Asian to Middle Eastern.

Does that make it correct? Of course not. One dog biting you doesn't mean all dogs will--the vast majority just want to lick your face and cuddle with you. Hearing stories of black/Irish/Asian/Middle Eastern people causing problems doesn't mean all black/Irish/Asian/Middle Eastern people will--again, the vast majority I've ever met are fantastic human beings.

People categorize things in their minds from an early age by what makes sense to us. Survival is largely based on learning to avoid dangers; people who look different are easier to categorize, and thus a bad experience with a member of that group can cause us to categorize the entire group poorly.

Don't get me wrong, I am not justifying racist actions. I'm saying that what many people claim as racist isn't intentional and many people today try to do whatever they can to get past it. But it's not easy. I'm sure in my life I've done some things that people might consider racist, be it maybe walking on the other side of the street to avoid the congregation of Mexicans by the apartment complex from my childhood or by being friends with people who are mostly white. (In my defense, growing up in the Northern Midwest doesn't provide for much racially diverse friendships.)

What am I getting at with all of this? What this girl said was not damning. It was not bigotry. It was not racism. There does exist data that justifies what she says--the LA school districts have struggled with it in the past. (In the 90's there were studies done on test scores and found that white/Asian students scored on average much higher than Latino/black students; in that case, if I recall correctly, Asians scored highest, then whites, blacks, and Latinos at the bottom. Incidentally, the issues this raised and the riots that were in the school systems are what some of the songs from Rage Against the Machine's 'Battle for Los Angeles' album are about.) I do think cultural and environmental factors are the strongest play in all of this, but does it mean that there aren't some genetic factors? It would be scientifically irresponsible to dismiss the possibility.

All this girl, Grace, did was state that there is a possibility that genetics play a role, and that if given the same environmental and cultural variables the test scores/intelligences could show the same outcomes. I don't see how this is inflammatory save for people taking it out of context.

Science isn't always fair and pretty and nice. If the next 100 years of research in studying psychology, biology, neurology, genetics, environmental and cultural factors, it is found that certain races have different average intelligence levels, would you call science racist?

I'm not saying that will happen; right now it looks like it probably won't, but it would be scientifically irresponsible to say that it can't.

1 comment:

Jaime said...

good point and discussion. i totally agree. i HATE when people get all worked up over things like this, when there was no mal-intent from the person.

at my work, there is an arab pharmacist. we let him use our office to pray in. he comes several times a day, stores his rug there, and prays. he's very friendly and we dont mind providing the space.

he wanted to schedule an appointment for an eye exam. i didnt catch his REAL name so i just scheduled it and in the note, i put "the arab pharmacist" not thinking ANYTHING of it.

EVERYONE thew a HUGE fit about it saying i "couldnt SAY something like that. something SO racist." i was like, what...? Should i be offended if i lived in a predominantly black area and someone said, "the white girl"? apparently i SHOULD be. but why? that's what causes this whole problem. i guess it's all in how they say it, but, sincerely, i meant no harm. it was more, matter-of-fact.