Joseph Heath: How to beat racism

More Joseph Heath, this time on racism. Helpful to have so much of his book in the National Post, not sure if this is helping book sales for Enlightenment 2.0 or substituting for them:

… What matters is not so much the differences between individuals but which differences we choose to invest significance in. This is the good news on race. It suggests that the best way to overcome race may simply be to distract people from it. If there is nothing else to attract people’s attention, the set of physical characteristics that distinguish race will be regarded as significant, but this can be overcome by reducing the salience of these characteristics. There is probably nothing we can do to stop people from classifying others into groups and developing animosity toward those whom they regard as belonging to an out-group. Yet even if we are unable to change this basic feature of human psychology, we can develop an effective work-around, by manipulating the environment so that people classify each other in ways that are less socially pernicious. For example, instead of allowing people to fixate on inherited features of individuals — such as skin colour — we could encourage them to focus on arbitrary or symbolic features — like hair style. The advantage of hair style is that it can easily be changed, and so does not translate into permanent disadvantage for any class of individuals.

This may explain why the military and sports teams have been far more successful at creating racial integration than many other institutions in American life. What distinguishes both of them is that they cultivate very intense, particularistic loyalties. There is good reason to think that these forms of group identification simply crowd out the other ones based on race. This can be far more effective than asking people to subscribe to some universalist ideal, one that forces them to overcome or suppress their “groupish” instincts.

From this perspective, the real problem in America is not so much racism as it is race consciousness. (Indeed, to any non-American, the most oppressive feature of intercultural relations in America is not that people are racist, but just that they talk and think incessantly about race, even worse than the way the English talk and think incessantly about class.) And yet this feature of American culture seems to be one that everyone, white and black, conservative and liberal, is involved in a giant conspiracy to sustain and reinforce. This is because most Americans who are progressive on the subject believe that racism must be overcome directly, and that this can only be done by increasing sensitivity and awareness of racial difference. A lot of progressive black politics has done the same, by rejecting the older ideal of a “colour-blind” society and insisting upon the recognition and affirmation of a positive black identity. This winds up being an inadvertent recipe for the reproduction of racism. Even though the intention is to create a positive group identity, its dominant effect is to make race salient as a basis of group identity, which means that it will also, inevitably, become a locus of negative valuation for some.

Joseph Heath: How to beat racism | National Post.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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