Monday over at my place I wrote a lengthy "investigative" piece on the question of whether the boxing promoter Don King had or hadn't endorsed the presidential candidacy of Mr. Trump, as if anybody cared; it was a lot of fun to write, and maybe fun to read, but I felt it was too long and too silly to post here.
At the end, though, there were a few paragraphs on an important question: How is it that when somebody says, "I am the least racist person that you've ever encountered," you know that person is a racist? Yesterday a commenter kindly wrote to express the wish that I had run it as an independent post, so I'm adapting it for you all.
The passage was roused by Trump, obviously, and an unexpected confluence with the NPR philosophical interview program, "On Being", which I listen to (as long as I can stay awake, which is not the show's fault) very early on Sunday mornings. Last Sunday it featured the social psychologist Mahzarin Banaji, and was extremely worth hearing. (I mean you should listen to it, really.)
Banaji's research concerns what we used to call "unconscious bias", for which the term of art is now "implicit bias", the tendency that seems to be baked into the developing human brain to discriminate, in assessing other people, on the basis of identity factors like gender or skin color, at a level below our threshold of awareness; first on the basis of preferring what's more like ourselves, and then on the basis of what's culturally presented as the norm—like the people we see in TV advertisements.
We all have heard a little bit about this work, I imagine, but I'd never heard it presented with so much depth and warmth as Banaji gave it, and it was very stimulating. And since everything is about Trump these days, it made me think about that "I am not a racist" line.
Everybody is, in a very precise sense, a racist and a sexist. It's not how we think, it's how we process when we're not particularly thinking, or beneath the thinking, invisible. It's not a bad thing, in that precise sense, it's just who we are and how we evolved as a species, but it's very inappropriate for the communities into which we've evolved over the past hundred thousand years, and it's a problem to be overcome.
People need to work to overcome their implicit bias. Kids need to spend time in proximity with kids who are different so that they can learn how superficial the differences are, adults need to ask themselves all the time, "Am I doing this? Am I favoring person A over person B for reasons I'd be ashamed of if I were aware of them?" Trying to teach ourselves to use inclusive language, what the wingers call "political correctness", is important too.
Somebody who's doing the necessary work of not being a racist never says, "I am not a racist," because they know how much work it is. This has always been true since people started talking about it (I think the conversation goes back to the 1970s, when Eta Schneiderman was studying biases of children in Welland, Ontario toward French-speaking vs. English-speaking puppets), and it's truer than ever now that so much of the research is in. It's not our fault! But just as it's not natural to delay eating that marshmallow, or to say "please" and "thank you", it's not natural to control our implicit biases. Rodgers and Hammerstein ("It's got to be carefully taught") were wrong, unfortunately. It's un-teaching it that has to be done with special care.
The corollary is that somebody who does say "I am not a racist" is somebody who hasn't tried at all; obviously not an open KKK racist, but somebody who hasn't started doing the work and doesn't know that work is required. And somebody like the Trump, who compares himself favorably on this score to everybody in the world (by which he clearly means the white men in his social circle, not realizing that anybody else in the world has an actual point of view, and he's even wrong about those people, of course), is in deep denial. As well as being the fatuous idiot you always thought he was.
That's what I wanted to say.