Wednesday, July 16, 2008

More bigotry chopping

[If you visited this blog Monday morning, you may have seen a post appear and disappear. What happened was that I decided to use the post as the basis for a letter to the Washington Post. I immediately received an automated email from the paper telling me several guidelines, among them that they would not publish my letter if I had posted anything similar to a website. I quickly deleted the blog post, though the paper's staff subsequently told me I could reinstate it as soon as the letter was published, and today it was. Here is the original post.]

At a 2000 conference, James Watson asserted that dark-skinned people have stronger sex drives than light-skinned people. "That's why you have Latin lovers," he said. "You've never heard of an English lover. Only an English patient." When I first read about this incident, I was sure he was jerking people's chains. Only gradually did I learn that he has a long history of defending theories linking race with behavior and intelligence. But in a recent column, Henry Louis Gates argues that Watson is not a racist but a "racialist."

I'm familiar with the term "racialist." White supremacists use it all the time to describe their own beliefs. But I've never before heard anyone in the mainstream suggest it is distinct from racism. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, it was coined in the early twentieth century to describe British and South African discriminatory policies. The word racism emerged later, in reference to doctrines of the Third Reich. There was no essential difference between the two words (and according to many dictionaries, there still isn't). Racism simply became the more popular of the two.

But the meaning of racism has changed with the social climate. Few people today openly espouse racist beliefs. Instead, the perception is that racial prejudice lurks inside many people without their necessarily being consciously aware of it.

According to some observers, virtually everyone is a little racist. Blogger Julian Sanchez recently elaborated on this point: "It's the subliminal reaction of the manager looking for a new cashier who, for some reason he can't articulate, just doesn't think the minority candidate seems quite trustworthy enough." Megan McArdle considers this argument overkill: "With civil rights, we were asking people to slay dragons. Now we're asking them to spend the rest of their lives exterminating mosquitos." And it puts those accused of racism in a Catch-22 where denying the charges is practically tantamount to admitting to them. As Geoffrey Nunberg remarked, the statement "I'm not a racist" has come to sound like "I don't have any homosexual anxiety."

Not everyone takes such an extreme perspective, but most people these days do think of racism as more of a mindset than an ideology. The latter is reserved for the older term racialism. But you'd think it would still be considered at least a form of racism.

Gates, incredibly, doesn't think so. He admits that he doesn't agree with Watson: "Watson's error is that he is too eager to map individual genetic differences (which do exist) with ethnic variation (which is sociocultural and highly malleable), and to provide a genetic explanation for ethnic differences." But despite some skepticism about Watson's motives, Gates refuses to call him a "garden-variety racist."

Gates avoids the question of why Watson would be tempted by racialist theories in the first place. One of Watson's comments in particular suggests that his beliefs do not stem from science: "people who have to deal with black employees find that [the belief that everyone is equal] is not true." That's nothing more than good old-fashioned bigotry, and it refutes the idea that Watson is an openminded truth-seeker interested only in the data.

Gates writes that his conversation with Watson has reluctantly convinced him that "the idea of innate group inferiority is still on the table." But why reach that conclusion simply because a great scientist does? Has Gates examined other views? Scientists are human like the rest of us, and, in principle, just as capable of believing erroneous things as anyone else.

When I read articles like this, I begin to wonder if we've all lost sight of what racism means. When we talk about it as a defect in thought or behavior, we forget that the intellectual justification for such attitudes was once widely accepted in society. That changed for intellectual as well as moral reasons, and we ought to remember what those are.

(Note: The title of this post is taken from an earlier post of mine, which happens to converge in theme.)

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