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Acceptable Prejudice

A few more thoughts on the Capeheart swivet over “hate” [1]

During the 2008 campaign, I was worked up over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and his flat-out racist theology and rhetoric. Worked up, because I saw a media double standard at work, allowing black folks to get away with publicly stating racist opinions for which white folks would be pilloried. Later, though, I moderated my views somewhat. I still believed (and believe) that there is a double standard, but the more I read about Wright’s life, the more sympathy I had for him in his prejudice. He was an older man, and had suffered all kinds of injustice and indignity under Jim Crow. Ideally, he would have come through that without prejudice in his heart. But painful experience had taught him to mistrust white people as a general category. To expect Wright to put the lessons of bitter experience — that is to say, his prejudice — aside for the sake of virtue would have been expecting an awful lot.

I don’t excuse his prejudice. But I understand it, and find it easier to be merciful to him, given what he endured.

Along those lines, when I lived in New York I had a white friend whose elderly relatives once came to visit her from the small-town Deep South. She told me they were visibly shocked to encounter middle class black people. My friend at first dismissed this reaction as the racism typical of that generation, raised in the rural South. But the more she thought about it, the more she realized that her relatives had literally never seen black people who weren’t poor and culturally rough. They took the black people they had been around all their lives, and assumed that all black folks were like that. Visiting New York showed them that what they thought was a black thing was, to an extent their experience hadn’t prepared them to see, a class and culture thing.

Again, this isn’t to excuse their racial prejudice, but does explain where it came from.

Another tale: Back in the 1990s, when I lived in Washington DC, the city was suffering a crime wave. If you were a victim of violent crime, your assailant was almost certainly going to be a young black man. This was inarguable, per crime stats. Unless you were some sort of idiot who disabled his spidey-sense based on political correctness, you would view young black men who were dressed down with suspicion, at least in particular contexts (e.g., walking down a semi-deserted street after dark). You didn’t worry about young black men who dressed like Jonathan Capeheart. But if you saw Jonathan Capeheart coming wearing a hoodie  and suchlike, you made a snap judgment — one that may have been unfair, but one that might save your life.

Even if you are a black man. From a 1994 Washington Post article:

The Reverend Jesse Jackson was walking alone at night in Washington DC. He heard footsteps behind him and was afraid he was about to be mugged—which is a common occurrence in Washington, especially at night, and especially when you are alone on a street. The Reverend turned around and saw a white man. Immediately he felt relief that he was not going to be assaulted. Then he felt shame because he had just stereotyped kindred black men. He understood during that split second of observation, that he had assumed the worst of his own race; he assumed he would be mugged if the man was black, but that he would be safe if the man was white. Reverend Jackson felt shame because he was not thinking in the recommended politically-correct approach. The truth is, he could just as easily been mugged by a white man (after all, there are white muggers). If he had seen a black man, he most likely would have been safe (after all, most black men are not muggers). So, why did Jesse Jackson, a very intelligent gentleman, make the assumption he was safe if the person following him was white, and that he might be mugged if the person had been black? The answer will not please the politically-correct person.

Because stereotypes are based upon sound statistics, the serious harm is in not paying heed to stereotypes when danger is present, and in paying attention to stereotypes when no danger is involved.

Even today, I consider the snap judgments I and Jesse Jackson and most Washingtonians of the era made about young black men an entirely acceptable prejudice — a prejudice based on practical experience. The author of the WaPo article, Lynn Duke, makes the right point: the problem with stereotyping, as with cliches, is not that they aren’t true, but that they are taken for general truths, instead of things that are only sometimes true.

Which brings me to the delicate point I want to make. Is it not the case that when people from Group A hold negative opinions of people from Group B, it is not on its face a case of “hate” — which connotes blind rage — but in fact might be opinions that are justified by observable facts?

Over a decade ago I wrote an essay [2] citing research by Baruch College political scientists which showed that the “God gap” — that is, the sorting of religious believers between the increasingly secularist Democratic Party, and the increasingly religious GOP — was one of the most important in US political life, but one of the least covered by the mainstream media. From that article:

The divide has become so stark that the authors have discerned a new kind of voter: the “anti-fundamentalist.” According to the 2000 ANES data, the hatred of religious conservatives long apparent among Democratic convention delegates has found a home among a disproportionate number of Democratic voters. Twenty-five percent of white respondents in the ANES survey expressed serious hostility towards religious conservatives, as opposed to only one percent who felt this strongly against Jews, and 2.5 percent who disliked blacks and Catholics to a strong degree. (Ironically, these are people who say they “‘strongly agree’ that one should be tolerant of persons whose moral standards are different from one’s own.”) Eighty percent of these voters picked Bill Clinton in 1996, with 70 percent choosing Al Gore in 2000. Conclude the authors, “One has to reach back to pre-New Deal America, when political divisions between Catholics and Protestants encapsulated local ethno-cultural cleavages over Prohibition, immigration, public education, and blue laws, to find a period when voting behavior was influenced by this degree of antipathy toward a religious group.”

So, let me ask you: Were the liberals who expressed such animosity toward religious conservatives guilty of “hate”? Or were they forming a negative judgment about that demographic based on their observations of that group’s behavior, relative to what they (the liberals) believe to be right and wrong? In other words, was their prejudice against religious conservatives acceptable, or unacceptable?

I would say: it depends. Why shouldn’t secular liberals have a lower opinion of religious conservatives in general (and vice versa), given what the two sides stand for? As a religious conservative, I would hope and expect that secular liberals would judge me as an individual, which is how I try to be towards them, and toward everybody. But it is not really fair for me to expect them not to have negative views toward my “tribe” as a group, given what we believe, how we vote, and how we behave. And likewise from the other side.

To put a fine point on it, I understand why many gay people hold prejudices against conservative Christians. And I understand why many Christians hold prejudices against gay people. I have seen — I do see — instances all the time in which those prejudices, on both sides, are, in my judgment, justified, and instances in which they are not. Same between blacks and whites. Same between gays and straights. I move in what I suppose are rarefied circles, but most conservative Christians I know oppose same-sex marriage not out of hate for gays, but based on what we believe to be true about marriage and sexuality. To a gay person, this might look like a distinction without a difference, but to spend any time in serious conversation with a conservative Christian who thinks this way is to have your prejudice challenged. You will still believe that the Christian is wrong, but it will be hard to hold on to the belief that the Christian believes it out of irrational hatred. This is a distinction that can make a powerful difference; it’s not at all insignificant that many Christian leaders, while opposing same-sex marriage, also preach respect and understand for gay people.

The point, I suppose, is that “hate” and “prejudice” are not the same thing. Everyone is prejudiced to some degree; it comes with being human. We all form judgments of groups based on what we are told about them, and based on our experience with them. What’s the difference between acceptable and unacceptable prejudice? Acceptable prejudice is based on reason and experience, and is open to falsification (e.g., “I used to believe X about those people, but I see that I was wrong.”); unacceptable prejudice — bigotry — has no ground in reason or experience, and, being held dogmatically, is immune to challenge, e.g., “This is how Jews/Catholics/Baptists/blacks/Hispanics are, and nothing is going to change my mind.”

Of course everyone who holds a prejudice assumes that it is rational — that it is not a prejudice, but an accurate interpretation of facts that others would see if they weren’t blind. It is worth considering, though, that statements and beliefs that sound prejudiced at first glance may actually be reasonable — that the prejudgment is confirmed by a more considered judgment. For example, if you were to believe that black Americans were more promiscuous than whites, you could point to the fact [3] that 70 percent of black American children born today are born outside of wedlock (versus 29 percent of whites). Or, on second thought, you might conclude that this figure tells us nothing about promiscuity and everything about use of contraception and abortion among whites, versus among blacks. What you could not plausibly conclude is that the statistic is meaningless as a sign of cultural difference.

Anyway, this is why throwing the word “hate” around is so meaningless these days. When prejudice, no matter how mild or rational (even if ultimately unjustifiable), is characterized with the strongest word we have for irrational spite, then all kinds of everyday judgments become “hate,” and “hate” loses its descriptive power and moral force.

Mind you, I say that as someone whose basic prejudice is to think the worst of people in general, and the best of individuals. I offer these random thoughts as a discussion-starter; I am still working through my own views on prejudice, and look forward to reading what my more thoughtful and balanced readers have to say. Fair warning: I am going to police the comments on this thread with particular vigilance, so take care.



54 Comments (Open | Close)

54 Comments To "Acceptable Prejudice"

#1 Comment By sdb On November 1, 2012 @ 10:52 am

@philosopher interesting post, but I am not convinced that the photo you linked to demonstrates what you think it does. Rather than a sign of hate, a plausible interpretation is that it was a set up to embarrass the Romney campaign. The fact that a non-negligble fraction of conservatives believe that no right thinking person would ever express such a sentiment is a positive sign.

I generally agree with the rest of your post. My fellow conservatives would do well to understand the role unconscious bias plays in limiting opportunities for various subgroups and the need for state action to ameliorate those effects (of course my progressive colleagues at work would do well to recognize the same when it comes to conservatives and the religious).

The next question is what to do about it. Are there policies that can smooth the effects of this bias without generating unfortunate unintended consequences that are worse than the cure? That is a much more difficult question. I do think an important step forward is for conservatives to more fully embrace the scholarship that demonstrates the existence of unconscious bias towards various groups and for progressives to realize that skepticism about various policies does not necessarily entail racism and to dispense with trade-off denialism.

#2 Comment By philosopher On November 1, 2012 @ 5:43 pm

Hi sdb,

That’s _possible_, about the dude in the awful t-shirt, though it doesn’t strike me as particularly _likely_. Like, for all the attention that the shirt got, there weren’t reports later of people at the scene particularly objecting to it. And, really, it’s just one vivid f’rinstance, and there’s been plenty of other cases of nasty racist stuff floating around out there, and I’ve seen enough of it with my own two eyes, frankly. But I do want to definitely agree with you that we should always be super-cautious about drawing much by way of conclusions from any one observation or one bit of off behavior from one person.

Regarding the “what is to be done?” question, it is indeed a very good question! Let me just point you towards a nice blog post on that question in a different, but related issue: implicit bias against women in my own field of philosophy.

One thing that makes it a nice example for the purposes of discussion here, I think, is that academic philosophers are overwhelmingly liberal as a group, and their sincerely-professed _explicit_ values tend to be strongly egalitarian when it comes to both race and gender — and yet one sees very ample _implicit_ bias even in such a population. It’s a good illustration of how the problem of widespread unconscious biases is a problem that _everyone_ has to work on addressing.

#3 Comment By Jay On November 2, 2012 @ 2:17 am

Oops. The quote formatting didn’t come through in the previous post.

Non-snarky answer from a non-Christian. I’ve heard conservative Christians occasionally use the term Sodomite, quote Leviticus 18:22, and attribute natural disasters to be God’s Wrath Against Homosexuals and those who protect them. While not representative of all Christians, it does seems representative of a substantial portion of the Religious Right sort of Christians.

Taking these people at their word, this says to me that they truly believe an all powerful being hates homosexuality and will eventually punish everyone for allowing such behavior. These beliefs are not up for debate or verification, so lots of luck changing them.

But if you adopt Rod’s own definition of acceptable prejudice then this wouldn’t seem to qualify at all:

Acceptable prejudice is based on reason and experience, and is open to falsification (e.g., “I used to believe X about those people, but I see that I was wrong.”); unacceptable prejudice — bigotry — has no ground in reason or experience, and, being held dogmatically, is immune to challenge, e.g., “This is how Jews/Catholics/Baptists/blacks/Hispanics are, and nothing is going to change my mind.”

The rationale you gave is based on neither reason nor experience, is dogmatic, and is not falsifiable. In fact, if you substitute Muslims for Christians and Jews for gays then you would have an almost word for word justification of anti-semitism. I hardly think this is any sort of acceptable prejudice.

#4 Comment By MH – Secular Misanthropist On November 2, 2012 @ 8:45 am

Jay said:

The rationale you gave is based on neither reason nor experience, is dogmatic, and is not falsifiable. In fact, if you substitute Muslims for Christians and Jews for gays then you would have an almost word for word justification of anti-semitism. I hardly think this is any sort of acceptable prejudice.

I would counter that all chains of reason depend upon axioms that can not be challenged. If two people share a set of axioms then their chains of logic seem reasonable to each other, but not to someone who doesn’t share their axioms.

A fundamentalist Christian has an axiom that the bible is the word of God, and is correct in its entirety. This seems reasonable to them, and my conclusion that the biblical God does not exist sounds crazy and immoral.

Conversely I view their God/bible axiom as crazy talk because I don’t share it. However I have my own axioms that nature is regular and predictable, the predictive power of mathematics is significant, and man is the measure of all things. All of which seem perfectly reasonable to me.