Subtle Versus Overt Racism

by David Shipler
29 December 2002

David K. Shipler is the author of the recently published A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America, the product of five years of research on race relations in America. As a former correspondent for the New York Times in Moscow, Jerusalem and Washington, Shipler wrote Russia: Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams and Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize.

In Washington recently, after a panel discussion on race, a black attorney approached me with the following story. He had just headed a project for a federal agency. Midway through the work, one of his subordinates, a white woman, had confided to several other whites that she could not bear to take orders from a black person.

The whites, one of whom had been regarded by the black attorney as a friend, said nothing to him about her remark. Not until months later, toward the end of the project, did the friend finally inform him of the white woman's bias, and he then realized that the woman had been quietly sabotaging the work. The Federal agency dismissed her.

Incidents like this pockmark the surface of America, but they're rarely visible. Usually, whites camouflage their prejudices more deftly and are seldom fired for them. Here, however, the contradictory contours of the country's racial landscape were in plain view. On the one hand, a black man had risen to be the boss, and the white woman lost her job for acting out her bigotry -- testimony to the anti-racism that has evolved since the civil rights movement.

But hidden roots of racial prejudice and tension were revealed: the white woman said what many whites feel but do not say -- that blacks in authority make them uncomfortable. And many whites, like the black attorney's friend, are paralyzed into silence by others' expressions of racism. Where was the white friend's loyalty to the black boss? Had the friendship survived? I asked the black man: "We're working on it," he said.


The United States now finds itself in an era of race relations more complex than in the days of legal segregation. Bigotry then was blatant, so entrenched that it could be shattered ultimately only by the conscience of the country and the hammer of the law. Today, when explicit discrimination is prohibited and blatant racism is no longer fashionable in most circles, much prejudice has gone underground. It may have diminished in some quarters, but it is far from extinct. Like a virus searching for a congenial host, it mutates until it finds expression in a belief, a statement, or a form of behavior that seems acceptable.

The camouflage around such racism does not make it benign. It can still damage life opportunities. Take the durable, potent stereotype of blacks as unintelligent and lazy. In 1990, when the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago asked a representative sample of Americans to evaluate various racial and ethnic groups, blacks ended up at the bottom. Most of those surveyed across the country labeled blacks as less intelligent than whites (63 percent); lazier than whites (62 percent); and more likely than whites to prefer being on welfare than being self-supporting (78 percent).

Much of this prejudice is no more than a thought, of course. To inhibit the translation of biased thoughts into discriminatory actions American society has built a superstructure of laws, regulations, ethics and programs that include affirmative action and diversity training. Still, images manage to contaminate behavior, often subtly and ambiguously.

It happens that the Air Force, explained Edward Rice, a black B-52 pilot who was a lieutenant colonel and a White House Fellow when I met him several years ago. I asked him why, despite the military's exemplary record of opening doors to minorities, only about 300 of nearly 15,000 pilots in the Air Force were black. This shapes careers, since key commands are barred to Air Force officers who are not pilots. Why do many blacks wash out of flight school?

Rice offered a theory. In the cockpit with a black trainee, a white flight instructor must make split-second decisions about when to take control of the aircraft. If he thinks the trainee is flying dangerously, he will grab the stick. If in the back of the instructor's mind there lurks that age-old, widely held suspicion that blacks are less intelligent and less capable, perhaps he will move just a little more quickly to take control from a black trainee than from a white. And if he does that repeatedly, Rice noted, the black will not advance to the next level of training.

Consider another example. A white couple in northern California adopted a bi-racial girl as an infant. Their two biological children, both boys, were close in age, so all three youngsters attended the same high school at around the same time. When the white boys fell behind in class, notes and calls came home from teachers. But when the bi-racial girl had academic problems, there were no notes or calls. She looked black and hung out with black friends, and her parents concluded that the teachers had written her off.

Those teachers did not wear white hoods and stand in the schoolhouse door. They came from the mainstream of white America, where the images of blacks as less capable run strongly just beneath the surface of polite behavior. Even in the finest integrated schools across the country, I found black youngsters, pushed hard by their parents, who complained that white teachers made insufficient demands on them, assumed that they would be satisfied with less than A's, and discouraged them from taking honors courses or applying to top colleges.

Echoes of the Past

Decoding such encryped racism is an uncertain art that requires a sense of history -- the history of racial stereotyping in America -- and a capacity to listen and observe how frequently the present echoes the past.

Many institutions that look integrated, or example, are often segregated within, for integration has largely meant the mere physical mixing of people of various races, not the sharing of power and the blending into an integral whole. Therefore, blacks who enter mostly white institutions often feel like invited guests -- and not always very welcome guests -- who are there at the pleasure of the whites. Rarely do the blacks attain ownership, authority, or the standing to set agendas. They are confronted by glass walls that whites often do not see.

A black man worked for IBM for three years before learning that every evening a happy hour was taking place in a nearby bar. Only white men from the office were involved -- no women, no minorities. Had it been strictly social it would have been merely offensive. But it was also professionally damaging, for business was being done over drinks, plans were being designed, connections made. Excluded from that network, the black man was excluded from opportunity for advancement, and he left the job.

This is a common experience among blacks and women who have integrated the workplace, and it raises questions about possible remedies. Two come to mind: affirmative action and diversity training.

Assume that the white men at the happy hour are not extreme racists, do not decide deliberately to exclude blacks and don't think about the implications of their gatherings at the bar. They go to the bar with people with whom they are most comfortable, and the most comfortable are people like themselves.

If an affirmative action plan were in place, promotions into management would be monitored by race and gender, and the marginalization of minorities and women -- whether intentional or not -- would become a matter of concern.

Just calling attention to the problem could be enough to make the white men conscious of the need to consider the black man for promotion. They might even reflect on how to bring him into the loop. Beyond that, diversity workshops, where office dynamics are discussed and minority employees can be heard, would highlight the happy hour as a tool of exclusion.

The difficulty is that one has to perceive the problem to embrace the solutions. If you think that racism isn't harmful unless it wears sheets or burns crosses or bars blacks from motels and restaurants, you will support only the crudest anti-discrimination laws and not the more refined methods of affirmative action and diversity training. If you recognize how subtle racism can be, the subtler tools seem appropriate.

One of the great divides in the country is between those Americans who see only blatant racism and those who see the subtle forms as well. It is such a fundamental disagreement that it has shaped much of the current debate over affirmative action.

Opponents of affirmative action believe that prejudice and discrimination have diminished enough to have leveled the playng field for non-whites. The argument holds that affirmative action introduces unfairness and demeans non-whites by suggesting that they could not succeed without it.

Feeling Branded

Every solution, however, creates at least one new problem, and affirmative action is no exception. It is designed in principle to require that the best candidates be recruited from groups that have suffered discrimination. Nothing in the concept calls for the acceptance of unqualified people. Yet some managers have been so skittish about lawsuits or so eager to prove themselves non-racist that they have pushed certain black employees into jobs where they have foundered. That has played to the age-old stereotype of blacks as less competent than whites.

Many blacks complain about being branded with an assumption that without affirmative action they would not be in this college or on that construction crew or in that corporate office. Occasionally that reinforces self-doubt. A few black students at Princeton told me that when papers came due and exam time approached, they wondered if they really belonged at such a demanding school.

But it is wise to remember that these doubts -- and even blacks' self-doubts -- have existed for generations, since long before desegregation and affirmative action. The assumption that blacks were less able was a major reason that affirmative action was needed to overcome the obstacles to admitting, hiring and promoting them.

The old stereotype of blacks as unintelligent and lazy remains a constant as the remedy changes, and the constant changes itself on whatever hook happens to be available. Before, it was said that blacks were unqualified and therefore weren't hired. Now, the argument goes, blacks are unqualified but are hired because they're black -- same belief, different outcome.

If we have to choose -- and apparently we do -- it is the outcome that matters more than the belief. Would the black student rather be at Princeton and be thought less competent, or be thought less competent and not be at Princeton? Before affirmative action, Princeton and other top colleges admitted precious few blacks.

Another key criticms of affirmative action holds that it works against more qualified whites. Here again, the assumption is that whites are more qualified than blacks. Polls and focus groups have found that while most whites think that under affirmative action less qualified blacks are hired and promoted over more qualified whites, most blacks think that without affirmative action, less qualified whites are hired and promoted over more qualified blacks. Both sides want fairness, but each has a different notion of how to achieve it.

Surveys show that few whites can cite personal experience to justify their fears. With the total black population at just 13 percent, and a smaller percentage of blacks in a position to compete for jobs covered by affirmative action, the change of edging out a more qualified white is slim. Moreover, even when a white person thinks he has been passed over for a less qualified black, he may be wrong. Some supervisors admit that they have told whites whom they didn't want to hire or promote, "I'd love to take you, but I've got to take a black -- you know how it is." It's easier than telling the applicant that he doesn't measure up.

The Bottom Line

Paradoxically, just as affirmative action is being chipped away by the courts, legislators, and by voters in referendums, it is putting down deeper roots in colleges, corporations and government agencies. In many places, institutional ethics have evolved to the point where an all-white workforce or management team is automatically seen as inadequate and a diverse staff is seen as beneficial. The rationale has shifted from altruism to pragmatism, from high-minded compassion to bottom-line competition.

Business, for example, looks at the demographics of its potential employees and of its customers and reasons that it must diversify racially to profit. Colleges look at the world for which they're preparing students and conclude that a homogeneously white setting does not provide the best education. It may be sad, but morality is les potent than self-interest.

For the last 20 years, the military has managed race relations by emphasizing behavior, not beliefs. "You can think anything you want -- that's your business," the military says to its members. "But what you do is our business. If you act in ways that deny opportunity on the basis of race, you interfere with the cohesivenes of the unit, and it becomes the concern of the service."

As practical as this is, it is a bit of a false dichotomy. Thoughts and actions interact with each other, cause each other, reinforce each other. And to assess behavior across racial lines, you have to keep coming back to beliefs as a reference point. It is not an institution's role to enforce certain beliefs on its students or employees, but in addressing racial dynamics the entrenched stereotypes need to be kept in mind. They illuminate and explain the actions.

Getting at the stereotypes requires some acknowledgement that whites benefit from racial prejudice, even as society suffers as a whole. Few white Americans reflect on the unseen privileges they possess or the greater sense of worth they acquire from their white skin. In addition to creating the traditional alignments of power in America, negative beliefs about blacks tend to enhance whites' self-esteem.

If blacks are less intelligent, in whites' belief, then it follows that whites are more intelligent. If blacks are lazier, whites are harder working. If blacks would prefer to live on welfare, then whites would prefer to be self-supporting. If blacks are more violent, whites are less violent-- and the source of violence can be kept at a safe distance.

Many conservatives these days urge us to make an "optimistic" assessment of the racial situation. At the same time, they refuse to see the pernicious racism that persists. That blindness does not justify optimism. Legitimate optimism comes from facing the problems squarely and working to overcome the insidious subtleties of bigotry that still abide in the land.

Reprinted with thanks toThe Washington Spectator, a communications vehicle of the Public Concern Foundation, Inc., 668 Greenwich Street, #607, New York, New York 10014.

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