Never put money in your mouth; you never know what colored man had it in his pocket. This is the problematic wisdom I inherited as a young child growing up in Baltimore in the 1950s. Here are some others: Never put your mouth on a drinking fountain; you never know what colored person drank from it. Police know that if you arrest a black man you can’t let him take off his shoes; he’ll run away faster when he’s barefoot.
In those days the local swimming pool was segregated. It was a “private club” and could exclude anyone it wanted from being a member. The public pools downtown were filled with black kids. Whites were never seen there. The amusement park was off limits to colored, as was the local TV dance show. Later each had a special day once a week that was designated as colored day. My friend Michael who is African American called it “our day.” (The TV show was the basis for the John Waters movie “Hairspray.”)
Diners sometime had signs posted above the counter that said: “We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone.” Everyone knew what this vaguely worded message meant.
In fact everyone seemed to know a lot about the race relations we lived with, but no one discussed it with us kids. The unspoken rules were that it was okay for blacks to ride buses with whites, but not to eat with them. Blacks and whites could work together, but not marry. (My mother said it was because the children had such unfortunate lives, never able to fit in anywhere.) It was rumored that if a white man married a black woman he grew a beard to cover his face. There was supposedly such a rare household on the next block and we kids would try to catch a glimpse of this amazing renegade with a beard, but without success.
The unspoken message was that there was something impure or unclean about black people. Not that they didn’t bathe or wash their hands, but there was some unnamed intangible essence that could infect you somehow. Passing a black man on the street was safe, but eating next to him was apparently not. To my child mind it must have had something to do with fundamental impurity. They were not quite human. You didn’t eat with them the same way you didn’t eat with a dog or a farm animal.
What was weird about this unspoken strangeness of black people was that they seemed scary and magical at the same time. To a boy like me the unspoken differences made black people so interesting. Why was their music so infectious? Why were there so many great black athletes? Why were the black women at the bus stop all so jovial? They were always smiling, making jokes, and laughing uproariously with one another. My family had fun and told jokes, but we never laughed that way in public. And who were the freedom riders that white people had disdain for? (Here’s a joke another kid told me: “What’s yellow on the outside and black on the inside, and makes everybody happy? A busload of freedom riders going over a cliff.” No one explained the joke to me; I was supposed to know why it was funny.)
Please understand that my parents and grandmother were kind, loving people. They didn’t belong to hate groups. They weren’t unique in our family, certainly not in my father’s family. They were always respectful of black people and I never heard them use the “N” word. Their term was “colored people,” a polite term used by the NAACP and good white people. By the same measure, black people were polite and respectful of us. They knew their place.
All this changed for my siblings and me when we started school. Our local Catholic school was integrated when I attended. The nuns who taught us had been missionaries in places like Panama and treated all of us kids, black and white, exactly the same, as did the parish priests.
Our neighborhood became integrated, as well. White flight began with the Jewish families and soon my brother, sister, and I had black friends at school and at home. The disparity between what I had been taught when small and what I was experiencing growing up became unresolvable. The black kids were just like us, neither impure nor magical. My generation began the social revolution that came to be known as “the 60s.”
Over half a century later what do we have in our post-Obama, post-racial America? The legacy of segregation, and the continued unspoken words. The idea that white supremacy is something that Nazis and the KKK are guilty of is an unfortunate misperception. What we are only beginning to acknowledge is that white supremacy is baked into the American culture. The arguments about black intelligence, black aptitude, black dysfunction, and judgements on black morality and violence are a smokescreen for the real unspoken belief in white superiority. White culture still harbors an unspoken belief in the impurity of the black race. This conflict is all the more powerful because it is unspoken. It comes from the mental models we constructed in our earliest years, models that included the notion that black is unclean, black is dangerous, and black is evil.
The issue is all the more remarkable because there is no biological basis for designating groups of humans as “races.” There is only one human race; the rest is cultural. (cf. The Race Myth by Joseph L. Graves) But that’s a discussion for another day.
A social revolution like the 60s involves change on several levels. The Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, the 13th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, and decades of court rulings, all address the legal, institutional level. The ascendance of African American Supreme Court justices, Congressional Representatives and Senators, and finally the election of Barack Obama, addressed the political level. The rising black middle class and African American entrepreneurs and successful business leaders address the economic level. But the push toward genuine equality is stymied. Voter suppression, the myth of voter fraud, and congressional district gerrymandering are a result of the unspoken belief that certain people shouldn’t be allowed to vote. This is not about hate. It is about social inequality, an American caste system.
Equality between two groups with totally unbridgeable differences of perception about each other is doomed. As a result, the great strides toward school desegregation, fought so long and hard for, are being reversed by unspoken attitudes, so much so that New York City, the bastion of freedom and liberalism, has the most segregated school system in America. Housing in Fairfield County, Connecticut, a New York suburb, is not segregated by law, but is segregated by group identity and presumably real estate industry bias. 97% of African Americans in a recent NPR survey said that racism existed in America. At least half of black Americans surveyed said they had personally experienced racial discrimination in employment, and large percentages also reported bias in interaction with police, housing, college admission, healthcare, and participation in politics and voting.
In the same survey, 55% of whites said that white Americans were discriminated against.
African Americans are baffled by the unspoken belief in white superiority. Whites don’t even believe it is true. They are not conscious of it, do not rationally accept it, and would deny it if asked. But we know it is there because it shows up in the IAT.
The Implicit Association Test (IAT), introduced in the scientific literature in 1998, measures attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable to report. The IAT may be especially interesting if it shows that you have an implicit attitude that you did not even know about, but that appears in the test results. The test is a measure within social psychology designed to detect the strength of a person’s automatic associations. It uncovers unconscious bias. The Race IAT shows that more than 70% of individuals tested have an implicit preference for Whites over Blacks. At the same time, half of Black individuals tested also prefer Whites over Blacks. Malcolm Gladwell discussed IAT and his results in his remarkable book Blink.
The IAT studies unconscious attitudes, not people’s attitudes that they express in surveys or are aware of. In the white American unconscious, blacks are associated with violence, drugs, gangs, immorality, and laziness. These attitudes and buried beliefs ae directly contradicted by hard data. African Americans are no more violent or drug addicted than any other group. But poverty, perniciously widespread in a subculture derived from slavery, has a devastating effect on African American health and percentage of single-parent households.
If the Race IAT data can be applied to various parts of the population, then 70% of police, prosecutors, judges, and juries unconsciously favor white over black criminal suspects. Potentially 50% of African American police officers would also unconsciously prefer white over black suspects. Is it any wonder that, according to the ACLU, “Sentences imposed on Black males in the federal system are nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes . . . and with comparable criminal histories?” The report states: “These racial disparities result from disparate treatment of Blacks at every stage of the criminal justice system, including stops and searches, arrests, prosecutions and plea negotiations, trials, and sentencing.”
It is hard to improve African American poverty when, according to the US Department of Labor, the unemployment rate for African American men is consistently double that of whites, and the rate for young African Americans age 16-19 is over 25%. It is hard to improve the African American social situation when, according to US News, nearly two-thirds of black and Hispanic students attend schools with at least 75 percent minority enrollment, segregated schools unequal in quality to white schools. The article summarizes: “Though legal segregation has long ended, few white and minority students share a classroom today.” In dozens of studies, African American students attending predominantly white schools do better academically with a higher graduation rate than students in all black schools. The situation is clear. Segregated housing and schools maintain social segregation and African American second class status. As young Donald Trump once said to the prosecuting attorney who was suing him for housing discrimination, “You wouldn’t want to live next to one either.”
What can be done? Freud believed that people with psychological problems could be cured by making conscious their unconscious thoughts and motivations. Perhaps this is true for societies. It’s time to recognize that unconscious white supremacy pervades our culture. Reject shallow analysis of pundits and politicians that maintain that the victims are to blame, or that racism is something a few bad people do. Openly professed racist ideology may be rare, but unconscious racism is a fact of American life, unspoken, irrational, and unyielding to rational analysis and legal enforcement. It is rooted in a belief in white superiority dating back to the white European genocide of the Native Americans who had the bad fortune to inhabit the land that the Europeans coveted. White supremacy is what America has been about for over 500 years. And not just America. What are imperialism and colonialism if not racial supremacy in other guises? It’s time, on this Martin Luther King Day, to challenge white supremacy’s unspoken hold on our culture.
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Stephen James is a member of The Writers Collective. He is the award winning author of American Stew: Hope in a Toxic Culture, is the president of Contemporary Heroism Initiative, Executive Director of the Humanist Society of Metropolitan New York, and is a member of the Ernest Becker Foundation and the New York Society for Ethical Culture. He is a producer of communications media in the New York area.