How Racist Are We?

How Racist Are We?

8 Mins
December 19, 2010

I’m a bit of a racist. I’ll bet you are one, too.

Okay, no one wants to admit it. But I find I’m like most people: I take race seriously in making practical decisions. I think American blacks are likely to be less efficient and less capable at most jobs than are American whites. I think whites are likely to be sloppier and ruder than East Asians. I think Southeast Asians are likely to be cheerier than everyone. I’m worried that poorly-educated Latino immigrants might create a culture of Catholic poverty and Latin populism here in the U.S.But then, more than a racist, I’m an interesting-conversation-ist, a stands-up-straight-ist, a decent-grooming-ist, a beauty-and-fitness-ist, a pro-literacy-ist. I discriminate in favor of people I think can hold down a job and do decently at it. I especially favor those who do great work in their jobs or study successfully in school. I’ll bet you, do too.


I live in a city that is around 35 percent African-American, but over 60 percent of the kids in the public schools are black. My kids attend a school where students are more likely to be Asian than blonde. (For the record, my two kids have supplied a substantial portion of the blonde component in their schools in recent years.)

What matters most is whether someone is intelligent, capable, independent of mind, productive, honest...

My city is a state capital, and the state government hires minorities with elaborate procedures in place to prevent pro-white prejudice (indeed, affirmative action in my state ensures prejudice in favor of minorities). So if any city would be integrated, you would think my city would be. Sure enough, we are all earnest about trying not to seem racist. But still, racial divisions abound. The neighborhoods in the older city core are pretty sharply divided by race. In the region around the older city, the suburbs are almost entirely white and East Asian.

Does this sound like anywhere you live? If not, I congratulate you.


As an individualist committed to reason, the universal racial classifications and divisions make me extremely uncomfortable. The ethic that Ayn Rand argued for is based in the universal traits shared by all normal, healthy human beings. It’s not an ethic for men but not women, for blacks but not whites, for rich but not poor. It’s a morality of life and happiness for every human being who is willing to choose to think and to live. And it’s for every human being who is capable of independent action and rational thought.

The color of a person’s skin, his genetic origins, the community of his parents: none of that is essential in judging another. What matters most is whether someone is intelligent, capable, independent of mind, productive, honest, and has integrity, to mention a few key points.

As racist culture survives, we need to push back against it.

In this view, it should be pretty surprising that there are sharp ethnic or tribal divisions in modern society. Insofar as people act on the basis of reason, free association should erode any existing divisions and build bridges across social divides. That has certainly happened to the old European nationalities in America—the storied “melting pot.” My city was heavily settled by Irish and Italian immigrants 100 years ago. You can still see traces: Italian restaurants are a-dime-a-dozen, local politicians have names like McEneny and Sano, and Catholic churches are thick on the ground. When you get right down to it, though, none of this matters much, and one would be hard pressed to find any sharp social divisions there. But that’s not what one can say about the racial divisions, more than 40 years after Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” speech galvanized the country.


The “white flight” from minority-populated inner cities (especially if the minority is black or Hispanic) is a well-known phenomenon. But sorting people in terms of my-group-versus-your group is as old as time and transcends all borders. As modern culture has become more open, the truly superficial trait of race has held on to its power even as divisions among nationalities, tribes, and religions have eroded.

Today, in American culture, overt white racism is unacceptable, both in law and in public conduct. Black racism is another matter. It passes as a kind of in-group self-esteem booster. And it helps shape contemporary society, too.

A brief spotlight shined on black racism a few months ago, when a group of white girls from the University of Arkansas Zeta Tau Alpha sorority won the national “Sprite Step Off” step-dancing competition. Step-dancing is a coordinated stomping, hip-hop dance routine style that gained popularity first among black fraternities and sororities. When a team without a single black member won the competition, beating several all-black teams, an outcry arose from advocates for black culture and black pride. The Coca-Cola Company, sponsor of the competition, quickly back-tracked and awarded a second first-place result to an all-black team, Alpha Kappa Alpha of Indiana University. Coca-Cola said they had found a “scoring discrepancy.” But they divulged no details, and no one believed them. Many black commentators decried the Coca-Cola cave-in for the racism it represented, yet the fact that the decision was demanded by many and that it stood shows that some varieties of racism are more equal than others.

The U.S. is not the most racist country in the world, by any measure.

White racism has a lot to answer for. The United States could have better fulfilled its promise of liberty to all without the racism that permeated its culture and politics. Slavery and Jim Crow did immense damage to millions of lives over generations. Anti-Asian discrimination denied the U.S. the talents of millions of talented people. And white racism has a lot to do with anti-immigrant attitudes. But the U.S. is not the most racist country in the world, by any measure. For instance, the U.S. added around 700,000 foreign-born citizens per year in the last decade (while a similar number of illegal immigrants also found a precarious living, too). The vast majority of these hail from non-European origins. With its openness to immigrants, its ongoing internal struggles against its racist heritage, and its pluralist traditions, the U.S. is more open to human variety than practically any other country. Just go to New York if you don’t believe me.

In East Asian countries such as Japan and China, other Asians rank below natives, Europeans pass muster as civilized creatures, Middle Easterners are a cut below, and Africans are barely tolerated—most think of them as second-rate humans at best. In Latin America, where most people are “mestizos” of mixed racial heritage, there still exists a kind of caste system headed by creoles of mostly European descent. Taking up the rear there: the native Americans and the blacks. The exception that proves the rule is the current Bolivian President, Evo Morales, who has a native American heritage. So of course he’s a populist, Leftist idiot who is spasmodically destroying his impoverished country’s nascent capitalist institutions and further dividing an already divided land! Meanwhile, Latin mestizos are fighting back in the U.S. by championing “La Raza.” Let’s see: we overcome racism by acclaiming “The Race”? I don’t think so.


In the U.S., overt racism is very rarely tolerated. Coca-Cola could have left the Sprite Step-Off result alone and come through just fine, had they possessed an ounce of principle. Interviews with large numbers of people show that Americans of all races have become much more tolerant of other races in recent decades. For instance, one U.S. study showed that when people were asked to locate themselves in an ideal neighborhood, they tended to want about 50 percent or more of their neighbors to be of other races.

And yet, that same study showed that people tended to prefer a neighborhood where their own race was at least the plurality—the dominant flavor, as it were. And this helps explain a strange phenomenon.

In-group solidarity based on superficial characteristics is a characteristic form of human bias.

Whatever one thinks of government economic regulation, there is no doubt that the civil rights movement signaled a radical turn in U.S. culture. Now, going on half a century later, the fruit of that change can be seen in the way differences in income and educational attainment between racial groups have dramatically narrowed. There is a large black middle class today; there wasn’t one fifty years ago. Yet residential segregation remains stubbornly persistent. It hasn’t changed nearly as much as the economic and educational indicators, where it has improved at all. My city, which has many integrated workplaces, yet also sports plenty of white flight to the suburbs, is a case in point.

What’s going on? According to the economists Rohini Somanathan and Rajiv Sethi, most Americans would rather live in a mixed-race neighborhood than a single-race one. If we could find a mixed-race area that met our other criteria for a good neighborhood—such as good schools, nice houses, and fun entertainment—we would like to move there. But there’s a catch. Most would prefer any neighborhood where their own race dominates to any neighborhood where they are not members of at least a racial plurality. So middle-class whites won’t move into a nice, middle-class—but mostly-black— neighborhood, and vice versa. In this way, each race stays segregated, though it is practically no one’s first choice.

There’s evidence, too, that in-group solidarity based on superficial characteristics is a characteristic form of human bias. Rebecca Bigler, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, Austin, did one study with pre-school students that revealed how easily such a bias can form. Like Sylvester McMonkey McBean (the “fix-it-up chappie” from Dr. Suess’s anti-racist parable “The Sneetches”), Bigler fixed up a classroom of pre-schoolers by randomly giving half a red shirt, and half a blue shirt. When the kids had worn these shirts for a few weeks, without receiving any other reinforcement from adults they began to claim that kids wearing their own color shirt were better than kids who wore the other color. And they did so despite the fact that they often had friends from before the experiment who had been assigned the other color. The little tykes had become shirt-ists.

Maybe the kids just responded to the difference in look. Or maybe they assumed that the adults had chosen them for the red or blue shirt group for a reason, and perhaps then their native self-esteem urged them to think it must be a for a good reason, like “I’m better." The alternative—“I’m worse”—is too painful to bear.

Children exemplify not only a natural will to live and grow, but also a lack of self-control and a tendency to jump to conclusions. In their non-rationality, they make errors characteristic of adult irrationality, too. Experiments like this remind us that in-group bias is an abiding vice. We too, can be tempted to think that people who look like us must be better. That could be true, but it’s not likely. We need countervailing tendencies of objectivity, fact-checking, and testing our intuitive social discomfort zones. We need to challenge our premises, especially when it comes to something as superficial as race.


But is race actually superficial? In America, the racial divisions developed through prejudice, isolation, and oppression. They have survived in part through irrational in-group bias of the type the preschool kids showed. But however it came about, the races have become reified into cultural groups. It is commonplace to talk of “white culture” and “black culture,” and there’s truth to the generalization: most black and most whites adhere to distinct cultural patterns. If you doubt this, just ask yourself: Who is likely to be more warm and easy-going, whites or blacks? Check: does the question compute?

I do think poverty is a culture. It’s associated with an entitlement attitude, low standards for work performance, and little support for education and learning.

If so, it is because race often indicates culture. And, now, with growing appeals to “Latino” identity—despite the fact that Uruguayans and Mexicans have quite different cultures and histories—people of Latin American descent are getting into the act, too. Sonia Sotomayor, a sitting Supreme Court justice and card-carrying liberal, thinks being a “wise Latina” makes her a better judge than a “white male” would be. Whether or not we agree, we all know what she means.

There’s lending and blending among the racial groups, to be sure (hence the Zeta Tau Alpha girls at the stepping championship; hence the Obama family’s trans-racial appeal). Still, many people expect and demand certain behaviors, values, and traditions from people of their own race. And they assume they will see a different, less agreeable set of behaviors, from people of another race. All this gives new life to race as a meaningful explanation for a person’s likely values and tastes.

When I see the deficits in education and professional values among the inner city children at my kids’ school, I put it down to “the culture of poverty.” I do think poverty is a culture. It’s associated with an entitlement attitude, low standards for work performance, and little support for education and learning. Population groups who have a different, pro-achievement culture tend to perform better. We see this in the difference between black Caribbean immigrants, on average, and inner-city native-born blacks. We see it in the outstanding performance of immigrant Asians in the U.S., while most Asian countries still lag far behind U.S. income and productivity levels. (Maybe the U.S.-immigrant Asians have more independence, flexibility, and drive than their stay-at-home countrymen do.) A similar gap is developing between white professionals and intellectuals, who tend to intermarry, and less-educated whites, with whom they are losing touch. Cultural values matter, especially in a mostly free society like the U.S., where each individual has a moral right to go his own way and pretty much has the responsibility to do so, too.

Yet, even if culture lies at the root of racial differences, the reality of racial culture in the U.S. means that it’s hard to ignore race in making broad social generalizations. If you meet an Asian family at a neighborhood picnic, you’d likely be right if you assumed they value their kids’ educational performance highly. You wouldn’t always be right. Statistical generalizations are just that: statistical, probable—and sometimes wrong. But still, it’s a good guess to start with, and you couldn’t navigate society well without such generalizations.

My children recently started asking me why so many black kids are bad. Bad? Talk about your sweeping over-generalizations! It’s not like my kids don’t have smart, nice black friends, either. They do. And there are ill-behaved, under-performing white kids in their schools. But let’s be frank: in my city black kids are much more likely to come from impoverished households that stint on reading and educational support. Black kids are disproportionately likely to be involved in crime. The proportion of black kids in education-oriented groups like orchestra, honors classes, and math club declines with age. Blacks do worse than whites (who do worse than Asians) on intelligence tests, on average. Black teachers are few, while white teachers are many. That’s what my kids are picking up on. It’s part of the social landscape they live in.


Whatever our differences, we have much more in common as individual human beings than as members of any particular group. To make the most of what society has to offer, we have to learn to see people for what they are, not what they seem to be or what we assume them to be.

Are we like Bigler’s shirt-ist preschoolers, tending to jump to conclusions about the importance of superficial differences like race, accent, and style? If so, we need to stay vigilant against this error. We need to find culture affinities in groups that reflect deeper shared values. And as long as racist culture survives, we need to push back against it, rejecting facile racist explanations, rubbing up against our discomfort zones, taking a second look at neighborhoods we wouldn’t have considered, putting up with un-cozy cultural tics. We need to make the effort to get to know people from other ethnic groups. That’s what it will take to break down irrational group-think and make the most of what the individuals around us really have to offer.