A lefty friend once asked me whether I thought I held any subconsciously racist opinions. One should always be on the lookout for one’s own intellectual and moral defects, so I’ve been thinking about it, and I have a possible candidate: As I suggest in my NRO piece today, “Asian-American” seems to me to be an obviously nonsensical category, because it includes people of origins ranging from Pakistani to Japanese. But “African-American” has never seemed immediately nonsensical to me in the same way. This may be because I know a little bit more about Asia than I do about Africa, or it may be because Indians and Koreans strike my white American eye as obviously and visibly different in a way that is not true of members of many African groups. It should go without saying that I detest racism, and it is also the case that racial and ethnic feeling, even of the benign, St. Patrick’s Day variety, seems to me atavistic and primitive. My self-analysis here is not meant to be taken as normative, but rather an examination of the semi-subconscious impressions of what I believe to be a fairly typical middle-class white guy from Texas.
While I don’t buy the race-as-a-social-construct position entirely, there is a great deal of cultural specificity to racial perception. Surely I am not the only white American guy in the history of the world to meet a Somali or an Ethiopian and have his brain simultaneously register “black” and “not black.” And I believe that that is the real psychological fault line for white Americans: not white vs. not-white but black vs. not-black. Ethiopia, Wikipedia informs me, recognizes more than 80 different ethnic groups on its census and, for whatever reason, members of some of those groups only push some of the buttons of perception associated in my particular brain with “black.” I think it probably says something about the culture that at some level my mind really wants to make that distinction in absolute terms. We all know that Barack Obama has one black parent and one white parent, but my impression is that people generally look at him and see black, rather than biracial.
It is of course practically impossible to get into somebody else’s perceptions. During the Rwandan civil war, I was as perplexed as anybody to read that the Hutu-Tutsi divide is considered an enormous, fundamental ethnic distinction — and that most Rwandans can’t tell one from the other by looking. Conversely, I had a colleague in India who had very long hair and a long beard, who lived in a city with lots of Sikhs (whose men traditionally do not shave or cut their hair), but nobody would ever mistake him for a Sikh, and it wasn’t just his lack of a turban. To him, the fact that he didn’t “look Sikh” was as obvious as the fact that I don’t “look Chinese.” But it was not obvious to me.
I do not know how much racial feeling is learned and how much is inherent, but we do seem to pick it up at a young age. I once shared the story of a relative of mine who at a very young age was taken to the grocery store, where he encountered the first black man he had ever seen. He pointed, screamed, and cried. What was surprising to me was how many other people had more or less the same story. I’ve heard the same tale told about children from Iceland and Kazakhstan.
I am, I confess, a little bit pessimistic about black-white relations in the American context. Being from West Texas, I’m familiar with life in a culture with a different sort of ethnic divide. Despite a great many ugly historical episodes and the persistence of a minority tendency toward supremacist views (on both sides of the divide), relations between Anglos and Mexican-Americans in West Texas are what I would broadly call “normal.” The Anglos and Mexican-Americans have both been there for a long time and, other than water, there’s not really that much to fight over. We’ve been inter-marrying and doing business together for a long time. In that context, race is a thing, but it’s not a big thing. At least that’s how it looks from the Anglo side.
But it’s a big thing in the black-white context. When I was a young newspaper editor in Lubbock earning every penny of $400 a week, I rented a house in a downscale neighborhood between the university and downtown, an area then known affectionately as the “Tech ghetto,” which is where you lived if you were a Texas Tech student without much money. Beyond college students and those financially indistinguishable from them, the neighborhood was heavily Mexican-American, though not exclusively so. I can’t exactly remember — and that’s sort of the point — but I’d guess that the block I lived on was probably about one-third college students and young singles, most of them white, and about two-thirds Mexican-American. I don’t exactly remember because it’s not the sort of thing that I was inclined to notice — but I am quite confident I would have noticed if the block had been two-thirds black. Everybody’s perceptions are different, but it’s worth noting that for a white guy from West Texas, moving into a downscale and largely Mexican-American neighborhood is a fundamentally different proposition from moving into a downscale and largely black neighborhood. (And if you’ve ever spent any time in West Texas, you’ll know that “Hispanic” and “Latino” are problematic terms, too — members of old Mexican-American families can be positively brutal on the subject of such relative newcomers as Guatemalans and Salvadorans.) I am skeptical of many claims about the extent and maliciousness of racial prejudice in the United States, but I do believe that there is something to the observation many black Americans have made, which is that wherever they go and whatever they do, they are first and foremost black, as though that were the most important thing about them, whether that means a black criminal or a black Harvard professor — and whether they are beheld by the eyes of an old-fashioned racist or those of someone who deplores racism.
The fundamental fact, I think, is that when a white American sees a black American, he sees history, and that history looms far more significantly over black Americans than it does over Hispanics or Asian immigrants or other minority groups. Conservatives see that history and generally don’t want to think about it; progressives see that history and want to use it for their own political ends. And I don’t have the imaginative capacity to guess what the view looks like from the black perspective. In that sense, it’s hard for me to believe that black-white relations in the United States will ever be normalized, as much as I wish it were otherwise. The fact that “black” exists in my internal taxonomy as a unitary and exclusive category — even though at some rational level I know better — suggests to me that while “Asian” maybe be only a geographic term in the American political mind, “African” is a very different kind of term, one that has more to do with realities on this continent than realities in Africa.