White Racism Forever

White racism is back. Not so much any actual racist behavior by any actual white people, but rather the charge leveled against political opponents of President Obama.
Obama's election supposedly ushered in a new post-racial era where old animosities would fade from memory, but if anything, charges of white racial vitriol are as prominent as ever. 

Let me try to explain this eruption and suggest why accusations of white racism will become increasingly strident. In a nutshell, white racism has become the glib reason for imperfect racial progress, and the term's definitional fuzziness, it's resistance to scientific confirmation makes it perfect for coming to grips with uncomfortable realities.  It is a "devil did it" theory.    

Some history. Until the 1970s "white racism" never arose as explanations of racial inequality. Admittedly, many whites disliked blacks but aversion by itself hardly explained inequity. Dominant accounts stressed slavery's horrific legacy (including undermining black family life), restricted electoral access, third-rate schools, explicit "no colored need apply" policies among employers and landlords, ubiquitous self-esteem lowering segregation, physical intimidation and other outwardly visible culprits. White behavior, not attitudes per se, were decisive. The era's leading academic studies eschewed "white racism." Talcott Parsons and Kenneth Clark's 750 page encyclopedia-like The Negro American (1964) had no index entries for either "racism" or "white racism." Howard Ehrlich's The Social Psychology of Prejudice published in 1972 reviewed 600 plus studies on ethnic prejudice without mentioning "white racism." 

This explanatory menu stressing behavior and unequal resources shaped ameliorative measure. The 1964 Civil Rights Act targeted discrimination in public venues; the 1965 Voting Rights Act remedied exclusion from elections while affirmative action took up unfairness in employment. Over a trillion dollars has been spent on untold anti-poverty efforts like Head Start, and largely focused on black poverty. Hundreds of government bureaucracies, many staffed by African American activists, were created to fix readily discernable injustices. Remedies included policies widely disliked by whites (e.g., school bussing). America's war on racial inequality, by any historical standard, has outshined almost any other government enterprise.

Yet, sad to say, the Herculean exertion has faltered despite signs of progress. Upbeat accounts of notable individual accomplishments cannot obscure pervasive failures. These are just as observable as the ameliorative efforts: gaps in educational accomplishment, unequal rates of criminal incarceration, uneven life expectancy and healthiness, enduring gulfs in upward mobility and disparities in financial assets. Even in the political realm blacks are largely successful in black dominated localities, e.g., Detroit. Black-run forums addressing race predictably stress unfinished agendas. Only in certain sports and entertainment fields has the Promised Land of racial equality been reached and even here, the beneficiaries are few in number.   

Into these troubling and unexpected situations comes "white racism" as a new-kid-on-the-block explanation. Now, motive and subsequent behavior were divorced so the nefarious attitudes of whites by themselves inflict the damage. Of the upmost importance, since these racist inclinations lurk so deeply in whites, typically unconsciously, guilt for perpetrating harm almost arrives with skin color.  I think, therefore I harm, so to speak, and there can be no credible defense. Consider "discrimination" versus "white racism" in accounting for, say, lower black academic performances. Discrimination is plain-to-see -- outdated textbooks, resource-starved classrooms, poorly trained teachers -- compared to what whites receive. But what if these objective conditions were made equal? How, then, can varied outcomes be explained?

An explanation requires ingenuity and what is offered -- white racism -- is impervious to science and wholly invisible, except to blacks whose blackness renders them the sole judge and jury. If failing blacks were entirely educated by blacks and enjoy equal if not superior resources, no matter: society is so infused with racism that its debilitating impact is inescapable. It resembles gravity -- its just pulls downward. Not even extra resources can overcome gravity-like white racism. 

In a catalogue of possible explanations of any outcome, to insist that black suffering results from white racism resembles attributing floods to "God's will." Consider the case of Seattle, WA, a city that has failed to level academic outcomes despite perennially spending millions plus untold other measures. A local black expert on the city payroll explains it all: the culprit is institutional racism, officially defined as "an indirect and largely invisible process that operates automatically and results in less access to services and opportunities of a society based on race." Now, just try banishing what is undetectable. (And, for good measure according to this sage, not even the outward appearing equal resources are really "equal")

Putting "white racism" under the microscope as one would study a killer virus is futile. Scientific investigation of the causal link between white beliefs and black problems might even be construed as racist -- doubting the feelings of blacks regarding what they know to be the indisputable painful truth. As a scientifically theory, this explanation is only a tentative hypothesis, at best. Academics are undoubtedly aware of the necessity of testing the causal nexus between what whites believe and subsequent black behavior, but few might want to risk a "no impact" verdict. Better to expose debilitating evils in "white" math textbooks or everyday language like "black market."

Clearly, many whites, deep down, still harbor some lingering aversion toward blacks. Equally true, many blacks passionately believe that their difficulties flow from white racism. But, to my knowledge, no scientific research demonstrates how white racism, as a mental state among whites, independently hurts blacks. For example, the data base Psycinfo, which covers the field of psychology broadly defined, yielded 87 entries from 1967 to 1995 under the key word "white racism." None, however, sought to explain just how white racism operates; the evil impact was assumed. Books by Cornel West, Derrick Bell and other champions of white racism as the Mother of all Evils are likewise mute when it comes to offering hard evidence. Henry Lewis Gates in his bones instantly knew the Devil's power when he experienced it.

It is almost as if a germ-like theory of debilitating illness is being offered sans germs. After all, equally powerful, centuries-long, hostility towards Jews and Asians has not incapacitated them. Women now prosper in "male" fields like business and law despite centuries of negative stereotypes. Being typecast as inept is not a court-like sentence for permanent failure. Success could just as well be predicted from data depicting white hostility -- "I'll show them!" To insist that bad thinking among whites, in and of itself, injures blacks may be more accurately labeled "magical thinking," a psychiatric disorder, not a scientifically verified social theory.

To condense a complicated story, a market for un-provable, often outlandish "theories" to explain the unfathomable has always thrived. The inclination knows no particular race or era; it is probably an intractable human instinct. In the 14th century bad weather was blamed on witchcraft and witches were murdered. The bubonic plague was similarly attributed to Jews. In today's obsessing over racial equality of outcomes one must account for multiple discrepancies, and with the declining veracity of historic explanations, the impossible-to-refute, even imperceptible boogyman of "white racism" satisfies this powerful urge.

So when Obama's ill-conceived, extravagant healthcare plan "unexpectedly" floundered in Congress, blacks point the finger at white racism. Qualms about the plan being too expensive or too bureaucratic are just ruses. When the public loses confidence in Obama's economic stimulus plan, just repeat the now familiar indictment as if witches killed the crops. Rep. Charley Rangel even blames his tax problems on "white racism." This unseen devil theory of politics is almost addictive, a handy substitute for time-consuming serious analysis (and no prudent white public figure dares challenges blacks about their feelings). So, as more verifiable explanations for continuing racial inequality or inept policy-making by a black president are forcefully pushed aside, the reflexive "white racism" explanation fills the vacuum. And since white racism's debilitating power is invisible and beyond scientific verification, it will be with us so long as there are racial inequalities.

Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science-Emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana.

White racism is back. Not so much any actual racist behavior by any actual white people, but rather the charge leveled against political opponents of President Obama.
Obama's election supposedly ushered in a new post-racial era where old animosities would fade from memory, but if anything, charges of white racial vitriol are as prominent as ever. 

Let me try to explain this eruption and suggest why accusations of white racism will become increasingly strident. In a nutshell, white racism has become the glib reason for imperfect racial progress, and the term's definitional fuzziness, it's resistance to scientific confirmation makes it perfect for coming to grips with uncomfortable realities.  It is a "devil did it" theory.    

Some history. Until the 1970s "white racism" never arose as explanations of racial inequality. Admittedly, many whites disliked blacks but aversion by itself hardly explained inequity. Dominant accounts stressed slavery's horrific legacy (including undermining black family life), restricted electoral access, third-rate schools, explicit "no colored need apply" policies among employers and landlords, ubiquitous self-esteem lowering segregation, physical intimidation and other outwardly visible culprits. White behavior, not attitudes per se, were decisive. The era's leading academic studies eschewed "white racism." Talcott Parsons and Kenneth Clark's 750 page encyclopedia-like The Negro American (1964) had no index entries for either "racism" or "white racism." Howard Ehrlich's The Social Psychology of Prejudice published in 1972 reviewed 600 plus studies on ethnic prejudice without mentioning "white racism." 

This explanatory menu stressing behavior and unequal resources shaped ameliorative measure. The 1964 Civil Rights Act targeted discrimination in public venues; the 1965 Voting Rights Act remedied exclusion from elections while affirmative action took up unfairness in employment. Over a trillion dollars has been spent on untold anti-poverty efforts like Head Start, and largely focused on black poverty. Hundreds of government bureaucracies, many staffed by African American activists, were created to fix readily discernable injustices. Remedies included policies widely disliked by whites (e.g., school bussing). America's war on racial inequality, by any historical standard, has outshined almost any other government enterprise.

Yet, sad to say, the Herculean exertion has faltered despite signs of progress. Upbeat accounts of notable individual accomplishments cannot obscure pervasive failures. These are just as observable as the ameliorative efforts: gaps in educational accomplishment, unequal rates of criminal incarceration, uneven life expectancy and healthiness, enduring gulfs in upward mobility and disparities in financial assets. Even in the political realm blacks are largely successful in black dominated localities, e.g., Detroit. Black-run forums addressing race predictably stress unfinished agendas. Only in certain sports and entertainment fields has the Promised Land of racial equality been reached and even here, the beneficiaries are few in number.   

Into these troubling and unexpected situations comes "white racism" as a new-kid-on-the-block explanation. Now, motive and subsequent behavior were divorced so the nefarious attitudes of whites by themselves inflict the damage. Of the upmost importance, since these racist inclinations lurk so deeply in whites, typically unconsciously, guilt for perpetrating harm almost arrives with skin color.  I think, therefore I harm, so to speak, and there can be no credible defense. Consider "discrimination" versus "white racism" in accounting for, say, lower black academic performances. Discrimination is plain-to-see -- outdated textbooks, resource-starved classrooms, poorly trained teachers -- compared to what whites receive. But what if these objective conditions were made equal? How, then, can varied outcomes be explained?

An explanation requires ingenuity and what is offered -- white racism -- is impervious to science and wholly invisible, except to blacks whose blackness renders them the sole judge and jury. If failing blacks were entirely educated by blacks and enjoy equal if not superior resources, no matter: society is so infused with racism that its debilitating impact is inescapable. It resembles gravity -- its just pulls downward. Not even extra resources can overcome gravity-like white racism. 

In a catalogue of possible explanations of any outcome, to insist that black suffering results from white racism resembles attributing floods to "God's will." Consider the case of Seattle, WA, a city that has failed to level academic outcomes despite perennially spending millions plus untold other measures. A local black expert on the city payroll explains it all: the culprit is institutional racism, officially defined as "an indirect and largely invisible process that operates automatically and results in less access to services and opportunities of a society based on race." Now, just try banishing what is undetectable. (And, for good measure according to this sage, not even the outward appearing equal resources are really "equal")

Putting "white racism" under the microscope as one would study a killer virus is futile. Scientific investigation of the causal link between white beliefs and black problems might even be construed as racist -- doubting the feelings of blacks regarding what they know to be the indisputable painful truth. As a scientifically theory, this explanation is only a tentative hypothesis, at best. Academics are undoubtedly aware of the necessity of testing the causal nexus between what whites believe and subsequent black behavior, but few might want to risk a "no impact" verdict. Better to expose debilitating evils in "white" math textbooks or everyday language like "black market."

Clearly, many whites, deep down, still harbor some lingering aversion toward blacks. Equally true, many blacks passionately believe that their difficulties flow from white racism. But, to my knowledge, no scientific research demonstrates how white racism, as a mental state among whites, independently hurts blacks. For example, the data base Psycinfo, which covers the field of psychology broadly defined, yielded 87 entries from 1967 to 1995 under the key word "white racism." None, however, sought to explain just how white racism operates; the evil impact was assumed. Books by Cornel West, Derrick Bell and other champions of white racism as the Mother of all Evils are likewise mute when it comes to offering hard evidence. Henry Lewis Gates in his bones instantly knew the Devil's power when he experienced it.

It is almost as if a germ-like theory of debilitating illness is being offered sans germs. After all, equally powerful, centuries-long, hostility towards Jews and Asians has not incapacitated them. Women now prosper in "male" fields like business and law despite centuries of negative stereotypes. Being typecast as inept is not a court-like sentence for permanent failure. Success could just as well be predicted from data depicting white hostility -- "I'll show them!" To insist that bad thinking among whites, in and of itself, injures blacks may be more accurately labeled "magical thinking," a psychiatric disorder, not a scientifically verified social theory.

To condense a complicated story, a market for un-provable, often outlandish "theories" to explain the unfathomable has always thrived. The inclination knows no particular race or era; it is probably an intractable human instinct. In the 14th century bad weather was blamed on witchcraft and witches were murdered. The bubonic plague was similarly attributed to Jews. In today's obsessing over racial equality of outcomes one must account for multiple discrepancies, and with the declining veracity of historic explanations, the impossible-to-refute, even imperceptible boogyman of "white racism" satisfies this powerful urge.

So when Obama's ill-conceived, extravagant healthcare plan "unexpectedly" floundered in Congress, blacks point the finger at white racism. Qualms about the plan being too expensive or too bureaucratic are just ruses. When the public loses confidence in Obama's economic stimulus plan, just repeat the now familiar indictment as if witches killed the crops. Rep. Charley Rangel even blames his tax problems on "white racism." This unseen devil theory of politics is almost addictive, a handy substitute for time-consuming serious analysis (and no prudent white public figure dares challenges blacks about their feelings). So, as more verifiable explanations for continuing racial inequality or inept policy-making by a black president are forcefully pushed aside, the reflexive "white racism" explanation fills the vacuum. And since white racism's debilitating power is invisible and beyond scientific verification, it will be with us so long as there are racial inequalities.

Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science-Emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana.