Racism and sexism: it’s time to change the paradigm

Richard Thompson Ford, professor of law at Stanford University and author of The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse, spoke last month at Google. In his talk and in his book, Ford argues that we should think of racism not as a crime, like murder, where we have to find bad people and fix them, but rather as a social problem that we can come together to work on and fix, “kind of like air pollution.”

He disputes the notion that Americans don’t like to talk about race. He says we talk about race obsessively, just not very productively. “Every few weeks there’s a race scandal, but we don’t talk about the real problems and we don’t talk about real solutions.” Instead we talk about phony scandals generated by people paid to be offensive (stand-up comics, cable news pundits and radio jocks). And the problem is this distorts our understanding of race and distracts us from the real issues we could be addressing.

Ford sees a good news/bad news story about race relations in a world of “racism without racists.” The analogies between racism and sexism aren’t perfect but I think they’re there and they’re worth exploring. From his talk:

The good news is that attitudes are better than they’ve been in American history. I think it’s fair to say that they’re quite a bit better than they were 20 years ago… and they’re certainly better than they were in the 1960s during the time of the civil rights movement. Not only is racism taboo and people are unlikely to express racist attitudes openly but… actual attitudes are improved. Fewer people are racists and racism is on the wane. So that’s the good news.

The bad news is that many racial inequities are as bad as they were during the time of the civil rights movement. For instance… many inner city neighborhoods are as segregated as they were during the Jim Crow era, poverty in poor minority neighborhoods is in many cases worse, joblessness is in many cases worse… incarceration rates particularly for men of color are much, much worse than during the era of Jim Crow.

So this juxtaposition has led to it to be difficult for us to know what to think and what to do about problems of race relations. Some people looking at the problem of real inequities that continue to trouble our society conclude that if racial injustices are as bad as in the Jim Crow era than racism must be just as bad too and it’s all just undercover, it’s all on the down low. And that leads people to assume that when there are conflicts, when there are problems, there’s a racist to be blamed for it.

And that’s one type of conflict that has given rise to this phrase, “playing the race card.”

Far too long for a blog post (he’s a law professor after all) at 56 minutes it is well worth watching:

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My suggestion is that as Democrats grapple with racism and sexism in this campaign, Ford’s discussion of racism can inform both. Ford is clear that there are still racists. We can agree, too, that there are still sexists.

Ford’s argument is that ubiquitous accusations of discrimination frequently distract us from the real issues and keep us from making real progress. That argument certainly seems worthy of some serious consideration right now!

  • http://dsadevil.blogspot.com David Schraub

    I made a similar point in this post — I think racism is properly viewed as problem to be solved rather than a crime where we need to punish specific identifiable perpetrators.

  • DLS

    “He disputes the notion that Americans don’t like to talk about race. He says we talk about race obsessively, just not very productively.”

    Pretending it is is endemic and deep, or to demand unmerited “guilt” and scenes of “penance” (regurgitated late-1960s pathology) achieves nothing. Little in this year’s Dem contest has been achieved positively by the reverse racism and sexism (euphemistically called “identity politics” to avoid earned criticism) that we’ve seen among the Clinton and Obama camps. Far more is said about racism and sexism than has been merited for decades; the talk and the pathology driving such talk is a much worse problem than any actual post-Sixties residual racism or sexism. This is 2008, not 1968. Grow up, people.

  • runasim

    “I think racism is properly viewed as problem to be solved rather than a crime where we need to punish specific identifiable perpetrators.”
    There is some validity in that thought, but it leaves the burden of solving the problem on the shoulders of those victimized by it. Those individuals and groups having enjoyed the privilege of not being victimized now enjoy the privilege of walking away unburdened by having to deal with the solution.

    This smacks too much of sweeping things under the rug and pretending there is no dirt in the house.

    I do think that a progmatic approach is necessary. Not all ‘solutions’ work, and some may even be counter-prouctiive. However,since it’s a national problem, how do you solve it without involving all of society, or without codifying unexceptable expressions of racism.?

    If racists just stayed at home being racists, that would be one thing. As it is, however, racism reaches out and into the lives of those on the receiving end of it.
    Since it’s a national problem, how, do you, then. find a national solution?

    I don’t think it’s helpful that we discuss the different tendrils of bigotry separately..
    Racism, sexism, anti-semtism, are bifferent aspects of the same kind of mentaltiy. With due respect for the diffrences in historic expeirence, finding a solution for one of htese shoud be a guide to solving the others.