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Two Views of Race in America: where you stand depends on where you sit

Uploaded: Dec 8, 2014
Two articles bearing on race caught my eye this past week ? even before the deluge of mostly righteous anger that has followed the Garner killing non-indictment. Both came from thoughtful observers of the scene, who start from very different places on the American spectrum. They illustrate just how wide is the divide in our conceptions of race, and how far we have to go to bridge it.

David Brooks grew up in Stuyvesant Village, Manhattan, as the son of professors. He schooled at UChicago and studied further in Stanford's Hoover Institution. Writing his regular column in the NY Times, he believes we inhabit a post-racial world ? a place where there's been "a migration away from prejudice based on genetics to prejudice based on class." He suggests that the fascination of the proper gentlefolk in an earlier era with 'slumming' is comparable to the popularity of reality TV's housewives, dynasties and victims of Judge Judy.

Brooks sees a similar "sharp social divide" between those who inhabit "the 'respectable' meritocracy" and those who live beyond it. Characteristics like "executive function, grit and a capacity for delayed gratification" are thought to abound in the crusty uppers, and be largely absent from the lower social strata who are seen to be "disorganized ? violent and scary."

He then states that "(t)his class prejudice is applied to both white and black poor, whose demographics are converging ?. Every civil rights issue is now also an economic and social issue." From his vantage, the national conversation on race that has been called-for post-Ferguson, really needs instead to be a common project to improve social mobility for everyone, citing President Obama's My Brother's Keeper initiative. Ironically, 'MBK' is intended to primarily benefit at-risk youth, of color.

It seems clear that from where Mr. Brooks comfortably sits, social issues have transcended traditional notions of race, in a "let's all make an effort to just get along" kind of way.

Chris Rock tends to see the world much more starkly in terms of black and white. Also a New York product, he grew up mostly in another Dutch-themed neighborhood, Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant. Mr. Rock came up from mean circumstances, in which color meant getting your tooth pulled by a veterinarian (via the back door lest the genteel clientele be discomfited). I have always considered him to be an astute observer of the American culture, albeit hilariously. His brand of humor cuts with a sharp edge; his audiences nod in agreement as much as they slap their knees. His language is often direct and profane, but not gratuitously so ? it is a projection of his particular American heritage.

In a wide-ranging interview in New York magazine, he muses about doing a special on race ? with no black people. "When we talk about 'race relations' in America, or 'racial progress,' it's all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they're not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress is to say they deserve what happened to them before."

Further, on the meaning of the Obama presidency: "To say Obama is progress is saying that he's the first black person that is qualified to be President. That's not black progress ? that's white progress. There's been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years. ? My kids are smart, educated, beautiful, polite children. ? The advantage they have is encountering the nicest white people that America has ever produced. Let's hope America keeps producing nicer white people."

His success has not made him feel like an Insider in America: "As I told Bill Murray, 'Lost in Translation' is a black movie. That's what it's like to be black and rich. Not that people are mean to you. He's in Tokyo, and it's just weird. He's seems kind of isolated. Look at me -- I'm the only black person here (in a posh NY hotel) who's not working."

Still, he does see some generational progress: "? my kids grew up not only with a black President, but with a black Secretary of State, black joint chief of staff, a black attorney general. My children are going to be the first black children in the history of America to actually have the benefit of the doubt of just being moral, intelligent people."

So, we have two widely contrasting views of race in America. One widely-read person thinks it's 'over,' whereas for another observer it is not only omnipresent, but also very unfinished business ? and isolating, despite material success. It won't surprise any regular readers to learn that I think Rock's a lot closer to 'actual' state of affairs. Race is genetically trivial, but also the first thing we see when we look at another member of our species. It carries baggage for everyone ? consciously and unconsciously. (See Malcolm Gladwell's book "Blink" for more on the latter phenomenon).

I don't think that either racism or race-consciousness are capable of being easily or casually overcome. They certainly are not to be dismissed. To me, there's a large element of 'the fish being the last to know he's in the water' in Brooks' benediction. Being Caucasian in this culture means that everybody else adjusts to You.

Regardless of whether you agree, there's another take-away from this contrast ? both views are sincere, and both reflect experiences and learnings acquired over at least half of a standard-issue lifetime. It's important to recognize that bright, capable, sincere people can view the world so differently. I do agree with Brooks' conclusion that the answer in overcoming prejudice (whatever its source) is not just dialogue, but actually working together ? getting comfortable in each other's skin, and being able to view the world through each other's lenses. I'd call that racial progress.
What is it worth to you?


Posted by Ed, a resident of Pleasanton Heights,
on Dec 9, 2014 at 8:09 am

Racial and class differences, and differing levels of income are related in my opinion.
I have a middle-aged friend ( a white woman and a teacher ) who grew up in Berkeley and moved to Pleasanton in her high school years. In Berkeley she would take the bus to school and elsewhere as a middle-schooler and was always on the alert, unconsiously she noticed later, about her surroundings, who was walking on the street, etc.
Upon moving to Pleasanton she felt all these "alerts" in her head melt away.
She considered her parents very progressive and they gave her that same attitude of not judging others, accepting differences, etc. Remember, we're talking about Berkeley. Nonetheless, despite what she had been taught, she still found herself assessing the person towards her on the street or walking behind her in terms of a threat level based on appearance, body language, smell, etc.
Could this be coming from our animal beginnings? Are we humans hard coded to some extent?

Posted by Herman Glates, a resident of Danville,
on Dec 9, 2014 at 9:41 am

Herman Glates is a registered user.

Why are white males like Tom or David Brooks talking about race?

Haven?t they been told to just STFU and listen? That?s what they?re supposed to do, right? Isn?t that racial ?dialog? today? Tom, why are you saying anything at all?

Tom needs sensitivity training. Hopefully Tom will visit the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. It has cost $500 million to build. When completed, it will display important historical artifacts, like Trayvon Martin?s hoodie. Perhaps Tom could go look at it and reflect on how Tom was born racist.

Tom could then stop by the Supreme Court and listen to Justice Sonia Sotomayor lecture him about how, ?A wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life.?

Too bad Tom wasn?t in Washington DC last week. He could have listened to the Congressional Black Caucus on the House floor talk about reparations for slavery. Rep. Charles Rangel, the longtime New York Democrat, said white people should be made to pay African Americans restitution for past crimes. No doubt that will help Democrats win support from American voters and help Democrats return to their election glory following their recent stunning loss. Like Tom says, Democrats can win again if they just embrace liberalism a bit more.

The next time our Dear Leader Obama is in town for another $25,000 per person fundraiser, perhaps Tom could stop by and listen to our President lecture everyone about white people. Perhaps Obama could repeat again his famous line, ?That's just how white folks will do you?[they have] a particular brand of arrogance, an obtuseness in otherwise sane people.?

Or perhaps Obama could again remind Latinos why it?s important to vote, like when Obama said, ?We?re gonna punish our enemies and we?re gonna reward our friends who stand with us on issues that are important to us.? Clearly, some Americans are the enemy.

It?s a mystery why there is so much racial animosity in America. But obviously all the fault lies with white men like Tom.

Posted by Cholo, a resident of another community,
on Dec 9, 2014 at 10:16 am

Remember the KKK: Web Link

yup...the KKK is alive 'n well in Danville...BUSTED!

Lets not forget to mention the GENOCIDE of Native Americans in the USA, Canada, the Americas and the Carribe.

libdis is indeed as disease...tee hee hee...

as for Gladys and the Pips...i always luv a hummy tune...

Posted by Gendy Pendy, a resident of Avila,
on Dec 9, 2014 at 10:46 am

Reverse what? Web Link

B U S T E D!

Posted by Damon, a resident of Foothill Knolls,
on Dec 9, 2014 at 10:53 am

@Herman Glates: "Hopefully Tom will visit the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. It has cost $500 million to build. When completed, it will display important historical artifacts, like Trayvon Martin's hoodie."

Well, that comes off as a rather bigoted, insensitive remark, doesn't it? Also, I'm surprised that conservatives such as yourself even want to remind everyone of the Trayvon Martin case, a case in which the character of the shooter, George Zimmerman, appears to be more and more questionable with every additional arrest that he racks up. But that doesn't matter to you, does it? Trayvon Martin must have been the guilty party because after all he was black and - to clinch the case - he was wearing a hoodie!

You want a clue why there is so much racial animosity in America? A lot of it stems from bigots who often don't even recognize their own bigotry.

Posted by Mac-goo Lobelia, a resident of Birdland,
on Dec 9, 2014 at 10:54 am

Stanford Psychologist wins Genius Award: Web Link

Posted by Herman Glates, a resident of Danville,
on Dec 9, 2014 at 11:18 am

Herman Glates is a registered user.

I?m not a conservative. I?m with you Damon. Right on!!

Whites need to ?Check Their Privilege.? I love that phrase. Do you ever use it? It?s great. It puts whites in their place. Try it. Whites don?t even realize that they have white privilege. They?ve not smart like us. They?ve probably never even heard of Peggy McIntosh or what it means to ?Unpack the Invisible Knapsack,? you know? Thank goodness there?s smart educated people like us to put whites in their place.

Whites are trying to distance themselves from Zimmerman, just because Zimmerman was half Latino, half Jewish. They are such losers. They need to own Zimmerman and pay for what he did, because he represents every white person.

Posted by Damon, a resident of Foothill Knolls,
on Dec 9, 2014 at 11:43 am

@Herman Glates: "I'm not a conservative. I'm with you Damon. Right on!!"

Oh, sorry, must have misread your post. Glad you agree with me.

Posted by American, a resident of Danville,
on Dec 9, 2014 at 11:55 am

First, at a minimum, it is a good thing to have an honest and open dialog about race. I do like Chris Rock, think he is extremely funny and smart person, with keen insights, although I do not always agree with his conclusions or observations.

We need to remember that we are animals, and there are innate feelings and fears that are often triggered by things, and often cause the fight or flight response. Things and people that look different from what we are accustomed to can cause these feelings. It does not make you a bad person to have these innate feelings, but how you handle and act on these feelings is important.

Tom, I am sure that you have noticed at dog parks over the years, that some dogs seem to get along great with others, but then suddenly get aggressive, defensive, or submissive to other dogs, for no apparent reason. I think dogs, just like us, have innate feelings that are triggered by things they are not accustomed to, things that look or smell different than what we are use to.

So, how do we fix these innate feelings that sometimes surface? Diversity is good, for coming into contact with others different from us and having a positive experience, getting to know we are not really that different from each other, makes us less fight or flight, and more judgmental on actions rather than race, creed, religion, culture, etc. When I studied abroad for a semester undergrad, I was shocked at the stereotypes and actual assumptions my host country had of Americans, and I also had some incoming assumptions about them that turned out to be very untrue. Having a few beers with each other will actually help break down stereotypes!

Following the golden rule, of simply trying to treat everyone the way you would want them to treat you, would also go a look way in overcoming race relations.

The media, I believe, is actually largely responsible for fostering the innate fears and suspicions we have of each other. The news will focus on films of African-Americans looting and rioting and creating criminal mischief allegedly due to their anger over the Missouri or NY grand jury conclusions, and that will make Caucasians feel even more separate and different from their black counterparts. However, although I have [no] empirical evidence to support my hypothesis, I believe almost all of African-Americans are in agreement that looting and rioting and non-peaceful demonstrations are wrong, but you will not see any news reports about this. The media will seek out the criminal burning the police car or breaking windows, as that sells papers and generates income.

We can have honest, informed differences, but respectful of each other. For example, from what I have read and seen, I think the grand jury in Missouri got it right, and the officer acted in self defense. However, from what I have read and seen, I think the police exceeded what was necessary in New York, and the video looks like literally overkill.

If you disagree with me, fine, but do not call me a racist, just like I will not call you a racist if you think the police were wrong in both cases. Calling each other racist does not help relations.

[fixed, in [ ]s, per your later comment. -- Moderator]

Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Alamo,
on Dec 9, 2014 at 11:56 am

Hi Ed:

I think the issue of what we're born with vs. what we learn (nature/nurture) is always fascinating. I also think that it's just a place to start, not a place to end-up. Our species, and others, are capable of moving beyond any instinctive tendencies to reflect and act on higher-order values. You may find that Malcolm Gladwell stuff on Implicit Associations to be interesting.

@Damon: Don't mind Glates -- he's in full-on troll mode today. He is also living down to his admonition that, as a white guy, he should have practically nothing to say about race -- in eight paragraphs.

Posted by American, a resident of Danville,
on Dec 9, 2014 at 11:58 am

Oops, typo, meant have no empirical evidence.

[fixed in [ ]s -- Moderator]

Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Alamo,
on Dec 9, 2014 at 12:16 pm

Hi Am: I agree with a whole lot of your comment. (Parenthetically, I do think we sell dogs short when we assume they perceive the world according to our relatively dull senses-other-than-sight. That's the Worst kind of anthropomorphizing. Often we just have no idea what's actually going on between them.)

I'm also generally no fan of status offenses, like somebody IS a racist. It's what they/we Do that matters, and I heartily agree that we can/should move beyond any built-in biases, if they are. Nature needn't be destiny in these things.

Thanks for your thoughts.

Posted by Damon, a resident of Foothill Knolls,
on Dec 9, 2014 at 12:23 pm


Do people stereotype? Yes. In terms of statistics, do blacks as a group commit more crimes than many other racial/ethnic groups? Yes. That's coming from my perspective, a half-asian/half-white male. The problem occurs when we go from taking a statistic like that to negatively prejudging each and every member of that group. The Trayvon Martin case (kindly suggested by Herman Glates) is a good example of that. Note how many people were immediately placing blame on the teen, Trayvon Martin, for little other reason than he was black (and was wearing a hoodie!). Would those same people have been blaming Trayvon Martin if he had been white and the shooter had been black? I doubt it. Black +Hoodie = Guilt.

I remember a tale told to me by someone (who is white) once facing racial discrimination in Japan during a police investigation of a crime there. This person was indignant that he was immediately eyed with suspicion by the police because - get this - he was white! Was it wrong for the police to harshly prejudge him? Sure. But look at this from the perspective of the Japanese police: Foreigners in Japan (including whites) commit crimes far out of proportion to their numbers. Looking at the situation in terms of cold-blooded logic and statistics, the Japanese police had every reason to cast a skeptical eye at my acquaintance. As you can imagine, though, this person was very indignant. It was also probably an eye-opening experience: It's probably the first time in his life that he was negatively judged on the basis of his skin color. Too bad that some people who pooh-pooh the complaints about blacks and other minorities about being prejudged can't go through the same enlightening experience.

Posted by Damon, a resident of Foothill Knolls,
on Dec 9, 2014 at 12:27 pm

@Tom Cushing

Thanks for the info. I have to admit that I didn't read through all eight paragraphs of Herman Glates post, though, as he lost me on paragraph three with the "Trayvon Martin's hoodie" comment.

Posted by American, a resident of Danville,
on Dec 9, 2014 at 1:04 pm

Damon: You make some good points...I agree with Atticus Finch that you need to walk around in someone's shoes for awhile before you judge their feelings or concerns...However, at the same time, it is not helpful to "always be looking for discrimination" to rationalize things that occur in life, or using it as an excuse for your actions or life station...As an Irish-Catholic, I am aware(although for some reason the media and schools do not teach our youth much about it) that for decades in America the Irish-Catholic were discriminated against openly, with businesses and companies having signs that said "Irish" or "Catholic" "Need not apply" for jobs...However, thru hard work and focus on education, rather than simply giving up due to discrimination, the Irish-Catholic in America became police officers, attorneys, politicians, and created better lives for their children than they had...That is the American dream, and I still believe it exist for everyone, despite discrimination.

Posted by steve, a resident of Parkside,
on Dec 9, 2014 at 3:13 pm

American, very good post. What we're experiencing now with race relations is nothing new or unique. One major factor that has changed the dynamic over the years is the media providing a larger megaphone for the loudest, most shrill voices and non-stop exploitation of the violent protests for the sake of entertainment. I, too, am Irish (and Italian) Catholic and my grandparents all came through Ellis Island and experienced prejudice. They worked through it, not expecting govt handouts and reparations, but made a life for themselves performing any work they could find in order to support their family. It's sad to see what's transpired today: politicians and race hucksters taking advantage politically and monetarily on people's fears and hatred. It's only gotten worse in the past few years and it doesn't appear to get better any time soon. That's where it sits......

Posted by Cholo, a resident of Livermore,
on Dec 9, 2014 at 3:41 pm

I believe that it's the responsibility of all Americans to make the United States a better/safer place for all citizens/residents.

That we are experiencing "race relations" could lead to a more functional and healthy society.

We only get one time around and it depends upon responsible citizens to create a world where we all matter.

Posted by Cholo, a resident of Birdland,
on Dec 10, 2014 at 12:13 pm

I would like to know if the Harrington Gallery has ever exhibited the art of individuals who happen to be Latino/Hispanic, African American, Pacific Islander/Asian or LGBT?

There are so many people of color who are artists in the greater Bay Area, it would be greatly appreciated if such exhibits could be mounted!

I believe that it would enrich the entire community!

Posted by Ed, a resident of Pleasanton Meadows,
on Dec 10, 2014 at 2:30 pm

Here's a thought for the distant future - with the gradual increase in inter-racial marriages and pairings taking place in the world with increased travel, lower taboos, etc. what will the world's population look like in 500 years? As the races mix together will the world be filled with tan-skinned folks who will look back at these discussions and laugh?

Posted by steve, a resident of Parkside,
on Dec 10, 2014 at 3:02 pm

Ed, maybe, if we don't end up killing each other first.

Posted by Cholo, a resident of Livermore,
on Dec 10, 2014 at 4:36 pm

I believe that "marriage" as it's practiced in the US today will cease to exist. It's waaaaaaaaaay over-rated anyways.

In 500 yrs., the "human race" will cease to exist. There may be plants and animals but not likely identifiable life forms.

None of us will be around to know what happened. Nuclear holocaust? A new Ice Age? Planet earth taken over by alien beings? Mass suicide?

How come it matters to some folks how the future will look? A kind of Planet of the Apes? You won't be around who really cares?

Posted by Pleasanton was nice forty years ago, a resident of Del Prado,
on Dec 11, 2014 at 5:49 am

"Creepy ass cracker". Is that a racist term? I rest my case

Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Alamo,
on Dec 11, 2014 at 7:16 am

P40: that term probably needs a hyphen between the first two words to clarify its meaning. And even then, you Might get this mental image: Web Link

Or worse -- it's a big internet. .

If your point is that everybody has derogatory terms to describe others they fear, then: yup, they do.

Posted by steve, a resident of Parkside,
on Dec 11, 2014 at 8:34 am

"If your point is that everybody has derogatory terms to describe others they fear, then: yup, they do." True, but that's where the similarity stops. Case in point, the use of cracker versus the dreaded "N" word. Once this small example of the double standard employed by the self righteous goes away, then we will be one step closer to some version of equality.

Posted by Ed, a resident of Pleasanton Meadows,
on Dec 11, 2014 at 3:03 pm

As always Tom, your articles stir a lot of debate judging by the number of comments you get. Keep 'em coming!

Posted by Tom Cushing, a resident of Alamo,
on Dec 11, 2014 at 4:07 pm

Thanks Ed -- sometimes the comments are even on-topic.

Regarding yours about the human melting pot, I recall a Molly Ivins column at the end of her time as a Visiting Prof at Berkeley. She said she'd been struck by all the gorgeous students of indeterminate heritage that she'd had in her classes. Apparently, there's less of that in Tejas, but I agree with you that it bodes well for the future of the species. People will ALways find some reason to try to put somebody else down, but at least they'll have to work harder to do it.

Someday, we may be down to star-bellies. Web Link

Posted by Cholo, a resident of Livermore,
on Dec 15, 2014 at 10:57 am

the US has made some progress but much remains the same:

Web Link

the killing of black citizens will likely continue...

Posted by steve, a resident of Parkside,
on Dec 15, 2014 at 11:29 am

The killing of citizens of every color will continue, as it always has. A much larger issue for the black community (based on the FBI's crime statistics) is black on black crime, as evidenced by the ongoing carnage in Chicago.

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