Racism is a fraught subject anywhere but especially so in America, where the intolerance is increasingly freighted with, as TIME magazine’s late great art critic Robert Hughes put it, a sugary taste for euphemism. Hughes was writing much before a black man moved into the White House.
Today, he might usefully have added lurid exaggeration to his lament. In this, August being the month that Martin Luther King delivered his ‘I have a dream’ speech 50 years ago, the issue of race relations seems to have been reduced to three highly-charged symbolic items: An anniversary, an opinion poll and an acquittal.
The acquittal in mid-July of a light-skinned Hispanic man, George Zimmerman, for shooting dead a black teenager, Trayvon Martin, in Florida set off massive national debate about the quality of social justice available to African-Americans. It roiled the country’s apparent racial harmony and prompted NBC and the Wall Street Journal to conduct a poll that came up with rather dismal findings.
Just 52% thought race relations were ‘very good’ or ‘fairly good’, down from more than 70% between 2009 and 2011. A mere 54% — down from 60% in 2009 and 2010 — agreed with the statement that America is a nation where people are not judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.
This appeared to be a damning indictment of the state of the nation because the question was a reference to one of the most famous lines from the ‘I have a dream’ speech. In its 50th anniversary, concluded pundits, pollsters, public-spirited individuals and interest groups, Martin Luther King’s famous speech remained no more than an aspiration for America.
Can this really be true? Especially when Barack Obama has been president five years? Wasn’t his accession to the highest office in the land supposed to signify that America was moving towards, if not already arrived at, the post-racial society?
The problem with labels is they use ordinary language to convey extraordinary concepts. And ordinary language can be misleading. This is why Ludwig Wittgenstein suggested it was as futile for philosophers to search for an all-encompassing logical form of thought through ordinary language as for a fly to escape a transparent bottle by charging against the side.
The aim of philosophy, Wittgenstein said, was “to show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle”. In terms of the current buzz about race relations, that means disentangling the facts from popular perception.
What are the facts about race in America?
Seventeen-year-old Trayvon’s death does not mean America is back in the 1950s, when the equality of man envisioned by the Declaration of Independence was far from a reality, interracial marriage illegal in many states and housing and education segregated. And the US has moved very far down the road from the early 20th century, when some churches hung a pinewood slab on the door, a comb dangling from it, and entry was allowed only to those whose skin was lighter than the wood and could run the comb through their hair without it snagging.
It is a long road from there to the suspicion that Trayvon died because he was ‘living while black’ and that Zimmerman was acquitted because he wasn’t. Perception is all very well but no one really knows what happened that February night last year. Zimmerman, a neighbourhood-watch volunteer, said Trayvon knocked him down, punched him, slammed his head into the sidewalk, and that he shot him in self-defence.
Trayvon could not tell his side of the story and there were no other witnesses. Though Zimmerman cursed ‘punks’ who ‘always get away’, prosecutors found it difficult to prove a case that was, as The New York Times put it, ‘weak on evidence and long on outrage’. For better or worse, justice is generally seen to be done in America and as Cornell University law professor William A Jacobson pointed out “the jury reached a verdict which was consistent with the law” after 15 hours of deliberation.
So to the perception that racial profiling consistently picks on and picks out young black males. Yes it does. And yes, they are more likely to be in trouble for a variety of reasons that include socio-economic and historical factors. Even Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic magazine’s African-American senior editor, rejects “racial profiling writ large” for himself, his 12-year-old son, nephews and other male family members, but concedes that “it would be senseless for the police to be stopping Danish tourists in Times Square just to make the statistics look good”.
After all, says Coates, 78% of all shooting suspects in New York are black even though they make up just a quarter of the city’s population.
Racial profiling illustrates the eponymous phenomena of Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s bestselling book, Thinking Fast and Slow. Quick thinking is based on emotion and intuition and relies on assumptions and stereotypes; the slower thought process uses logic and deliberation. Profiling is also a manifestation of a contemporary, subtle form of prejudice described by Yale psychology professor John Dovidio as ‘aversive racism’.
Such fast thinking cannot be prevented even by a nation-wide version of New York city council’s ludicrous attempt to prevent police from using race, age, gender and other elements of physical description while on patrol. Aversive prejudice transcends legislative barriers as well as the election of the first black president.
It can only change by evolving slowly into a more nuanced attitude, which enables ‘thinking fast’ using a mixed set of positive and negative assumptions about black people. This evolution may take a hundred years. Or longer. But it will come about, perhaps rather like the change from the segregated 1950s to Obama’s election and re-election.
Rashmee Roshan Lall is a senior journalist based in the US
The views expressed by the author are personal