Bias

It’s a lightning rod issue today. I know because I just left what seems to be a never-ending debate on a Facebook page about race and racial bias.

I am neither a Republican nor a Democrat and I tend to be skeptical of both conservatives and progressives. I tend to criticize both, but I also try hard to see what each gets right. The issue of racial bias is an area where I try to see truth from both sides.

I agree with progressives that racial bias is subtle and often subconscious. I distinguish racial bias from racism this way, in fact. I prefer to reserve the word racist for those who are consciously and overtly prejudiced against other races. In this sense, I think racists are in a tiny minority in this country. But racial bias is common.

Racial bias isn’t something we articulate. It’s not something we hold as a belief. It’s something we can’t help much. It’s a kind of poison we’ve ingested somewhere along the way. It shows itself whenever we react emotionally–in fear or revulsion or derision–to someone from a particular race. It’s when we make assumptions about people based on their skin color. Racial bias is something we believe without maybe knowing we believe it–black people are violent, Hispanics are lazy, the Irish are drunkards, Asians are bad drivers, etc.

I agree with liberals that racial bias is a real and serious problem. I think it’s the lingering after-effects of genuine systemic racism. And I think we all owe it to ourselves to examine our behavior to eradicate it.

But I also agree with conservatives in that becoming obsessive over racial bias can become self-defeating. Everything isn’t about race. Seeing everything in light of race ends up widening the divide, not closing it.

My encounter with Albert the other night shed light on this in a particular way. I’m white and I drive in a very racially diverse area. In just two months I’ve had passengers from Panama, Cuba, Russia, Spain, Uzbekistan, India, Morocco, Eritrea, Kenya, Scotland, Bulgaria, and England. Our area has a large Filipino population and large, predominately black neighborhoods. I often find myself unintentionally anxious when picking up folks in neighborhoods known for poverty and crime. But hundreds of rides have proven that the great majority of people of all races and backgrounds are friendly and kind. I can count on one hand the number of genuinely unpleasant people who have been in my Uber and they were not of a single ethnicity.

Albert was one of only three return customers I’ve had. You can’t request a driver with Uber, so it’s just coincidence if you give the same person a ride more than once. The first time I picked up Albert was at a barber shop in one of the more urban areas. It was late. Albert is a tall black man of about 28. He was unshaven and wore a do-rag and ragged jeans. I pegged him as a typical street kid from the hood.

Albert started talking the second he opened the door and didn’t stop for long the whole eight-minute trip. I learned that he was a surveyor by day and washed dishes at a burger joint at night. And that he loved to read. All the time. All kinds of books, but autobiographies in particular.

I tried not to look shocked when he started talking about his book addiction. But he could tell I was surprised. I assured him that it wasn’t that he’s black, but that his generation aren’t generally readers. But that was a lie. I didn’t peg him as a book-lover because he’s a twenty-something black guy with a do-rag. I had prejudged him.

I was so happy to recognize him the second time. He recognized me too. We had recommended books to each other the last time, and neither of us had acted on the recommendation, so we took notes and assured each other we’d get to the books before the next time. When I dropped him off, after another long discussion of books, I felt like I was saying goodbye to a friend.

I hope I pick up Albert again. I may even tell him how he’s helped me confront my own racial biases.

 

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3 thoughts on “Bias

  1. Brian, you spoke about the lingering after effects of systemic racism. Do you think the US still is struggling with systemic racism.? I know we are probably close in age because my husband knew you when he was in school in Notfolk/Va Beach. I still feel like as a nation we are plagued by systemic racism and have never heard anyone describe it as a thing of the past. In fact I feel like when it comes to racism we are actually moving backwards. Courts have now struck down the laws that integrated schools and we as a society seem to be okay with high poverty schools because everyone should be able to go to his neighborhood school. In fact I recently racism defined as indifference to the injustice people marginal people experience. I won’t ramble on. My job allows me glimpes the lives of those living in poverty and I find myself thinking s lot about racism, bias, and dominant/minority culture. I really like your blog BTW. Oh and I to teach ELA.

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  2. Hi Ginny. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    My wording is a bit vague here. I think it has to do with what we mean by “systemic.” Of course I believe racism is still a problem in this country. Overt racism still exists, even if racists have learned to keep their views largely hidden. What is worse is what I prefer to call racial bias–the subconscious but pervasive tendency to judge people by the color of their skin.

    And racism remains systemic in several ways, I believe, including in our criminal justice system.

    But it’s not legally sanctioned racism any longer. That’s what I meant by “genuine systemic racism.” Overt, legal racism backed by laws that allowed for discrimination in hiring, education, and the marketplace. Civil rights legislation has corrected this kind of racism.

    What I was trying to say is that just because we have done the job of ensuring equal rights via legislation doesn’t mean racism doesn’t remain a lingering problem. I think too many white people feel like passing laws is somehow enough and that there is nothing left to be done.

    Does that make sense?

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