There is an old African American proverb that was born in the mists of time: “White people be crazy”. This is less a statement about mental health and more a statement about lack of understanding motivation. It is used to account for foolish and otherwise inexplicable behavior of white folks that goes against reality, common sense, decent conduct or  proper upbringing. If for example one looks at horror films in which the white protagonists do something that furthers the plot but otherwise makes no sense, then the catch-all explanation is that “white people be crazy.” That lone man who stood in front of the tank in Tienanmen Square might be explained by “Asian people be crazy” but making him into a hero in white mainstream media is another example of “white people be crazy.” Tea Party statements especially anything Michele Bachman says are full of “white people be crazy” examples.

This is clearly an example of racial thinking.  I am defining racial thinking as the idea that a person exhibits a characteristic or behavior because of membership in a group that is commonly called a “race.” I am not defining race precisely because it has been used so loosely throughout history and is a biological myth though a social reality. However amorphously the “race” group is defined the important point here is that an individual’s behavior is attributed to membership in the group. Such racial thinking has a long history probably dating back to tribal times when identification with a group was a survival necessity. In Europe  it has a long history going back to the first encounters with others white and eventually non-white.  In the Americas it certainly dates back to the encounters with native American groups by representatives of European tribes. It is undoubtedly a survival tool at first but unless experience allows one to know others as individuals it can harden into stereotypes that continue to guide one’s behavior. Racial thinking is always false as a quick survey of one’s own group and one’s professed individuality suggests but it continues to define the others one encounters.

I want to contrast this racial thinking with racist behavior.  By racist behavior I mean actions that limit the life possibilities of others based on their membership in a “race.” Racial thinking can of course lead to racist behavior, but only in the case when it is held by those who somehow achieve power to enforce changes in behavior in others. Thus the ‘whites be crazy” proverb is an example of racial thinking but unless blacks were suddenly granted the power to put all white people in institutions for example it isn’t racist behavior. United States history is full of racist behaviors like the “Indian” holocaust, slavery, segregation, immigration policy, Japanese concentration camps etc. People sometimes have trouble understanding this so let me put it simply.  Every example of racial thinking or even just a mention of race is not racist behavior if it does not negatively affect life possibilities of others based on their membership in a “race.” They have even more trouble with the converse of this which is also true: behavior can also be racist if it “limits life possibilities of others based on their membership in a “race” even if it does not specifically mention race or involve racial thinking. If a bank redlines an area so that people in that area have limited possibilities to get a loan, if a voter identification law or if police practices all disproportionately limit “life possibilities of others based on their membership in a “race” then that is racist behavior. Racist behavior is in the deed not the word.

The United States today is a society in which the use of racial terms and legal racial segregation is taboo. Paradoxically racial thinking as well as racist behavior is rampant with de facto segregation in residential areas, schools and social interaction commonplace. Politicians talk about the white vote or the Latino vote or the African American vote as if those were monolithic blocs where people base their voting behavior on their “race.” “Race” is used to keep different segments of people who should be united by class, separated by racial groups. Issues undoubted affect people differently, but  the media and politicians keep encouraging the racial thinking that makes immigration a “Latino” issue or the murder of black teenagers an African American one.  What these issues need is a coalition of people uniting across races to effect change.  That is indeed happening on a small scale but before progress can be made more people need to realize that these issues cross the racial boxes into which they have been assigned.  People also need to understand that many policies that, and here I am being charitable, have professed no racial motives, and claim to be fair, equitable or objectively based, can be racist in their consequences. Only then will we be able to change our country into what we want it to be.

You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply