Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Paralysis of Racism

By the end of the 20th century, "racism" had become such a "bad word", so politically incorrect that even racists took offense at being called "racist" ... Of course this didn't mean that racism had vanished; what it did mean was that our society had made substantial progress in the hundred years between the aftermath of the Civil War and the legacy of Civil Rights. In the heat of the moment it's sometimes difficult to keep things in perspective, to suppress one's feelings that nothing has changed.

Nevertheless as an African American, I must never delude myself into thinking that I have ever been subjected to the kind of violent racism that was inflicted on my mother's father, who was born a slave. Things have gotten substantially better, yet not nearly as much as justice demands. But as the world's Jewish community raised its fists and cried "Never Again!" after the Holocaust, American blacks raised theirs to say that the only acceptable direction is forward, that we are never going back to "that", ever, never.

It's useful to distinguish between two kinds of racism: individual and institutional. Individual racists betray themselves by the racist things they say and do;  whereas institutional racism is built into an organization's structures and operating procedures, so its exposure usually requires statistical analysis.

  • For example, our suspicions would be raised if we discovered that only 5 percent of the police force was black in a city whose population was more than 30 percent black.
  • Or we might become suspicious of a city's voter registration requirements if only five percent of its black residents were registered. 

Of course, both of these examples are so clear cut as to preclude explanations other than institutional racism. But in the real world, the data is rarely so indisputable nor are individual racists so clumsy as to utter the "N" word.

Nowadays, politically correct racists invoke euphemisms, e.g. Governor Romney's recent "anti-entitlement campaign strategy", and achieve their racist objectives by quietly perpetuating the structures and procedures of institutional racism. Worse still, politically correct racists cite the very statistics that should be used to demonstrate institutional racism to insinuate the inferiority of its black victims. As an educator, my favorite example is using statistics that document the persistent achievement gaps between black and white students, not as evidence that our schools and universities are failing our black students, but to insinuate that the black students are inherently inferior. As one of my black students said to me a long time ago in one of the first classes I ever taught, "Statistics is the white man's trick bag"

This misuse of institutional statistics by crypto-racists, like Governor Romney, paralyzes the thought processes and discussions that are essential for our society to continue to make progress in eradicating institutional racism. I must admit that whenever I detect racism, I become hypersensitive and furious ... and then I notice my non-racist white friends and colleagues moving on quiet tiptop out of range. There can be no dialogue until I calm down. Of course, being a to-the-bone-Libra, I eventually do calm down and coldly perceive the real danger: the inconvenient truth that lurks within the misused stats, a truth whose burdensome, unfair implications cannot be ignored.

For example, most of the professors in most colleges have minimal teaching skills. This should surprise no one because most professors receive no formal training as classroom instructors. Nevertheless substantial learning occurs in all colleges, even in classes taught by the most incompetent instructors. Why? Because students come to class with varying degrees of prior preparation and motivation that compensates for the pedagogical deficiencies of their instructors. Students who come with better preparation usually do better than students with less; and those with less have to work harder for their A's and B's. White students generally come to college with stronger academic backgrounds than black students; so the black students have to compensate for their deficient preparations by working harder. Like my grandmother once told me when I was a small child, a black man has to be "twice as smart as a white man and work twice as hard to get half as far." That's unfair, but so what. Black students have no choice but to grit their teeth and work harder.

For educators, especially for black educators like myself, the challenge is to develop more effective teaching methods that would make it easier for students with entering deficiencies to master the missing fundamentals as quickly as possible, then move into the deeper, more interesting aspects of a course's subject matter. And this is what makes teaching such an exciting opportunity today. Information technology has finally given educators the tools we need to meet this challenge ... but the challenge won't be met if blacks and whites are distracted and/or paralyzed by racism.

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