Question: How do we wipe out racism by making racists not be so racist?
Answer: We don’t.
We do something else that actually works.
The expanding Trump-fueled conversation about racism
It has been absolutely fascinating to observe myriad conversations reacting to the Trump electoral win. All the usual suspects are engaged, but also, many others who had previously been little involved, or not at all involved, in the national political conversation, are saying things.
And along with this has come a certain amount of method or concern questioning. I won’t call it trolling because only some of it is that, and “trolling” is one of those terms of art used in a not very artful world. Let’s just say that people are questioning approaches in ways that are sometimes interesting.
Many people seem to think there is a way to communicate to those who hold opposing views that will make their views more entrenched, and a better way to communicate that will change their minds. This opinion is often based on very strongly held feelings but lack reference to any scientific study or valid body of data.
Communication experts are not as dogmatic, because communication is an academic field, a science (an artful science, perhaps) and therefore, complex. Communication experts know that, for the most part, people don’t change their minds much, or if they do, not for very long. People’s opinions on widely discussed issues do not alter in the face of argument, and when they appear to do so, it is often only a little, and only temporary.
(I quickly add that people do change their minds completely, going into a process with dogmatically held beliefs, later leaving the process with nearly opposite beliefs. I’ve seen this happen may times in the evolutionary biology classroom. Go to any meeting of atheists, and you’ll see it there too, people who were dogmatically religious who are not dogmatically not. Numerically, these people are rare. But, they do count.)
A few days ago I said something insulting to or about (can’t remember the details, it happens so often) someone or some group that was spewing racist hogwash. I was mildly scolded (as often happens) for being so nasty. You catch more flies with honey. People are going to hear that sort of thing and not change their minds. You can’t convince anybody of anything that way. And so on.
And yes, that scolding was half correct. A harsh approach will rarely change someone’s mind. But, the obverse assumption, that being nice would change someone’s mind, is almost nearly as incorrect.
Convincing someone was not my objective, and when it comes to racism, rarely is. Getting people who are deeply racist to become un-racist is nearly impossible. Changing those minds should not be the objective if one wants to be efficient (though efficiency is not always the goal, I quickly note).
There is a different goal, and that is to make people shut up.
“… go right into the zoo where you belong …”
I have a story that I think is true. I am a trained anthropologist, and I’ve focused some of my work on racism, so I believe myself when I tell this story.
Act I: Once upon a time, closing in on 20 years ago, I moved from the Boston area to the Twin Cities. Before moving, I lived in that space between Harvard, MIT, and a half dozen other colleges, where most of the people one meets are progressive and liberal, and standard white American racism simply isn’t something you encounter on a day to day basis, even if it is more common in other parts of the metro area or elsewhere in New England. Indeed, the majority of people I worked with on a day to day basis were not even white Americans, so it would take extra work to locate that sort of racism. A nice, safe, academic bubble.
Soon after moving to the Twin Cities, I ended up in a northern near-outer-ring suburb (we classify our suburbs by which ring they are in). The northern outer ring suburbs are working class, conservative (but often Democratic because of the Union presence), and a bit xenophobic. If you hear a story about something bad happening in the Twin Cities area — something racist, or just plane Coen-Brothers-Fargo — there is a good chance it happened somewhere between Fridley and Coon Rapids. This is where I lived for a while. Also, Falcon Heights, which is an odd mix of academic university people and white fear (google that city’s name, you’ll see).
So, I go to Target for the first time. Targets were everywhere in the Twin Cities but had not taken over the entire planet yet. A young white woman is greeting each customer in a friendly matter, a fitting attitude in Friendly Fridley, Minnesota (yes, that is the town’s motto). Each customer had a few items (this was the fast lane) and she put them carefully in a bag, took the money, handed the bag graciously to each customer, and send them on their way with a “Goodaytcha” (a traditional Minnesota greeting, like Aloha or Chow).
Until the black customer came up in line. She did not speak, scowled instead of smiling, slammed his two or three items on the counter expecting him to bag them himself, and gave him nothing close to the time of the day. I was the next customer. I got the bagging, the greeting, the goodaytcha, all of it. That was my first observation of racism in the checkout line in Minnesota, and it turned out to not be a unique experience. This turned out to be how it was done most of the time in Friendly Fridley and many other northern suburb communities.
(I’m careful to get the geography right, because other parts of the Twin Cities are diametrically opposite in attitude.)
On another day. I’m just leaving a BP gas station, the one on Snelling and Larpenteur, just a few meters away from the exact location Philando Castile was murdered by a local cop.
As I’m heading for the door, the young woman who worked there came around the counter to do some stock related task or antother, so she’s standing by the door, and I’m about to leave but holding back because I’m messing with the bag of items I just bought. At that moment, a man who had just exited a fairly fancy but rented car, wearing a three piece suit (the man, not the car), black, enters the establishment and asks directions.
“I’m looking for Como Zoo, I’m late for a conference,” he said, in a medium-thick West African accent. “Can I please get directions?”
I was about to answer, but the girl beat me to it.
“Go right down that street,” she said, pointing to Larpenteur Avenue. “Take a right at Hamline, go down a few blocks…”
At this point the man is starting back out the door, hearing the directions, in a hurry, but still listening.
“Then turn left where you see the sign, and head right into the zoo…”
At this point the door is about to close behind the man.
“… where you belong.”
Because he’s an ape, I remember thinking. She is telling this man, probably a doctor or scientist or something from a West African nation visiting us and giving a talk at the local zoo, which is often the venue for small conferences, that he is an ape.
The man stopped, holding the door open, almost said something, then instead, kept going and drove off.
The Decline of Overt Racism in the Twin Cites
None of that is unusual. I saw stuff like that all the time.
It might be a surprise to some that overt racism was widespread in the great state of Minnesota, which gave us Hubert Humphrey, Paul Wellstone (I first met him, by the way, in Friendly Fridley itself!), Walter Mondale, and all that. I’ll note that in the months after first moving here, the two things I heard again and again from others who had moved here a bit earlier were these: 1) Wow, people are really racist here, I had no idea; and 2) “Minnesota nice” … it is not what you think it is.
Act II: During this period of time, a large number of Hmong people had recently moved into the Twin Cities, many to the neighborhood I lived in for a year. Indeed, Hmong farmers grew food in my back yard, they kinda came with the house. Great efforts were made to make the Hmong feel welcome, though there was also plenty of racism. Then Somali people started to move into the area. Almost no effort was made to help them feel comfortable. Apparently, Asians are tolerable, Africans are not. Similarly, people from West Africa, mainly Liberia, were moving here, and it turns out there has long been a strong Mexican presence. I discovered that in some parts of the Twin Cities, anti-Mexican racism was clearly more rabid than anti-Black racism.
And things started to get worse and worse. Bullying in schools was becoming more dangerous. This was not likely related to racism, but was closely linked to intolerance, in this case of transgender and gay students. The CDC almost shut down the largest school district in the state. Take the most populous county in the state and combine it with a very rural county. Remove the major city (Minneapolis) and all the wealthy suburbs. What you’ve got left is traditionally white but with recent non-white immigrants, working class, conservative. That is the Anoka-Hennepin school district. The death rate from suicides, mainly caused by bullying supported by teachers and administrators, was so high that the school district became a point source of youth mortality, which set off alarms, and broght in the CDC.
Two African American women were severely beaten by a bunch of white dudes in a pickup. Transgender people were attacked, some killed. Other bad things happened, joining the intolerance against Somali people, other racist things, the suicides, all that, and ultimately seemed to create a backlash. Programs were implemented. Non profits formed from the blood of some of those who were killed. Government officials and agencies responded. The school districts got involved. There was a not very well organized but widespread push against racism and general intolerance.
Making intolerant remarks and acting in a racist manner went from being expected, normal, maybe even a form of local enterainment, to becoming not OK, frowned upon, disallowed, and in some contexts, punishable.
I believe that overt racism in the northern ring suburbs of the Twin Cities declined.
Did this happen because people got less racist? No. It happened because racists learned the one thing that we can actually teach them, and that they can actually do.
They learned to shut the fuck up.
They learned to top being so overt.
This is important because overt racism normalizes racism. Overt racism provides a daily ongoing lesson for the young, growing up and trying to figure out how to act. Overt racism perpetuates racism. Racists shutting up attenuates the cultural transmission of racism.
Making racism not normal, making racists shut up in as many contexts as possible, slows down the spread of racism, and can lead to its decline, much more effectively than being nice to racists can ever hope to accomplish.
The rise of white supremacy, with Trump
Then Donald Trump gets elected. Act III.
I’m not going to argue about whether or not Donald Trump is some sort of leader of the American white supremacy movement. He has been cagy in what he has said, and rather than definitively repudiating the white supremacists, he appointed as “top advisor” one of the country’s best known and most active white supremacists. His immigration policies are mainly directed at people not considered white by white supremacists, and that policy includes getting certain people on a registry, which is the first step in incarceration which is one step closer to elimination by some means or another. I assume that when Trump tries to throw people out of the country because of their ethnicity, he will encounter problems similar to those encountered by the Nazis in their efforts to get rid of undesirables. For example, you can’t just expel people to another country. The other country can say no. In the end, the Trump administration will have to find a solution to that. What, I ask, will be Trump’s final solution?
Within minutes, it seems, of Trump’s victory, we had overt racism everywhere. In these places in Minnesota that had experienced serious intolerance, where this intolerance was just starting to be handled (making people shut up being the first step), we see the name “Donald Trump,” the name “Hitler,” the symbol of the swastika, and phrases like “whites only” or “fuck niggers” and “white America” scrawled on walls and doors and other things in schools, added to notebooks handed in to teachers, and so on.
Racism, rather than being pushed down and smothered, is being normalized, and those who would normally keep to themselves, and thus not be contaminating the up and coming generation, have found their voice.
It is not time to be nice. It is not time to make reasonable, thoughtful, convincing, logical, nuanced, historically contextualized arguments. Well, sure, do that, we all love such things, that’s why we watch the Rachel Maddow show. But when it comes to communicating with racists, don’t bother. Just shout at them, and tell them to sit down and shut up.
The two images I’m showing here are from the a high school in the northwestern suburbs of the Twin Cities. From a farther Western suburb, I could show you a homework assignment with swastikas and “Trump” and “Hitler” written all over it, but I don’t have permission to use the photo. White supremacists, racists, the other scum of the earth that always live among us are rearing their ugly heads and letting us know who they are. Even when they are violent, as they often are, we should not be violent against them. But we can make them shut up.