With Christmas almost upon us, here’s a story that made me smile. Larry Jefferson, who recently made headlines as the Mall of America’s first-ever black Santa, says he had a great time in my home state of Minnesota. According to “Santa Larry,” Minnesotans were welcoming and excited to see him, with many driving considerable distances to join in the cheer. He was booked with appointments throughout his entire visit, and he only heard from one racist crank.
That’s great to hear, but not the impression you would get from the multiple stories documenting the “racist freak-out” over Santa Larry’s visit. I was feeling pretty bad about my home state until I read the stories, and realized that the only place racists were congregating was on Twitter, and possibly in online comment threads. Then again, even the com-box problem may have been exaggerated. Reports that the Star Tribune’s comment thread was shut down (Gasp! Horror!) seem to have been mistaken.
Basically, it appears that somebody was nasty on the Internet. This is a national story? To that I say: “Bah! Humbug!”
Stop Crying Wolf
I’m not here to tell you that racial prejudice isn’t a problem in America. I think it is a problem, of sorts. It’s just tough to get a grip on the real issues when we’re pouring our energy into arguing about fake ones. A bogus “Black Santa” controversy is exactly the sort of thing liberals like to invent. It’s also the sort of thing conservatives expect them to invent. And so we go on preaching to our echo chambers.
Ben Shapiro recently gave an interview in which he advised the liberal press to stop “turning everything up to 11.” He meant that liberals should be careful about turning everything into a crisis. Keep things in proportion. Realize that a few hundred people at an alt-right conference is a blip, not the return of a Reconstruction-era KKK. People won’t start listening until you stop crying wolf.
On the whole, that’s pretty good advice. For conservatives, though, I offer a few corollaries. First, don’t assume that prejudice is a non-problem just because the liberal press cries wolf a lot. Second, don’t imagine that “11-level” prejudice is the only kind that should bother us.
Don’t Fixate on the Antics
A common conservative take on racism is that it’s terrible and extremely offensive, but only really a problem for a small and marginalized group of people. Condemn white supremacists all you want, but recognize that they are an extreme aberration, and that we probably shouldn’t worry too much.
This is almost exactly backwards. We should worry, but not primarily about the sort of racists who do the Sieg Heil salute to Richard Spencer. Yes, that is offensive. It’s also the sort of juvenile antic you expect from a teenager desperate for attention. The Sieg Heil salute? To Richard Spencer? How very cliché. That kind of joker is obviously just gunning for headlines.
The truth is, there aren’t really so very many people like that. Consider, for instance, this listing of “racist incidents since Donald Trump was elected president,” which Slate ran a week after the election to underscore the point that America is now crawling with energized bigots. To my mind it made exactly the opposite point. Having scoured the land for racism anecdotes, their top five include three harrowing tales of graffiti and two about middle or high school students shouting offensive things. What is the world coming to?
When liberals turn graffiti and com boxes into national stories, conservatives breathe a sigh of relief. This is just an issue of graffiti and rude online comments! Don’t lose sleep!
Do Think About the Attitudes
It’s good that most Americans don’t want to be viewed as racists. That’s not necessarily the whole story, however. Out-and-out bigotry is not the only objectionable, racially toned attitude that should concern us.
Here’s one way of making this point. Over this past year, I’ve listened to any number of appeals from white voters who clearly believe that they, specifically as whites of a certain class and education level, have been scorned and neglected by America’s elites. They believe that copious efforts have been made to extend opportunities to black children, Hispanic children, gay and lesbian children, and so forth, while they were denied at least in part because they are white. They feel that white kids should get more of a chance to dream.
Now imagine if I were to respond, “You’re obviously paranoid. How could liberals be prejudiced against whites? They love Jon Stewart.”
That would be awfully insensitive, not to mention obtuse. Of course anti-whiteness wasn’t the only issue behind Trumpite resentment. It could still very reasonably factor into the mix. Even for those who reject certain elements of that narrative (like the suggestion that minority children are in general over-privileged), it’s still important to consider that real and pervasive anti-white prejudices might exist and be specially burdensome for people who also fit a few other “white” stereotypes.
Liberals like Stewart have amply proven that they aren’t that sort of white guy, so they escape the stigma. But should you have to be an effete, over-educated liberal to be both respected and white?
Defeasible Prejudice Is Still Prejudice
The insensitivity of the “but Jon Stewart” argument was, to my mind, mirrored in the oft-repeated claim that Trumpism couldn’t possibly have racial overtones, because look at the 2012 election! Many Trump voters seem to have supported Obama four years ago. How could such people possibly be racist?
It does seem unlikely that recent Obama voters would be diehard Aryan-superiority fanatics. Is that the only kind of negative, racially tinged attitude that should worry us, though? People frequently hold scornful or dismissive attitudes towards demographics or groups of people that are defeasible in individual cases. White men are over-privileged jerks, but Stewart has proven he’s the good kind. Conservative Christians are mostly a menace, but we’ll let Chris Pratt slide. You didn’t finish college? You must be a moron. Unless you’re Mark Zuckerberg, in which case we’ll give you a pass.
Now, think about Barack Obama, and the prejudices some Americans might have about black men. Wouldn’t it be fairly obvious, especially to the already prejudiced, that he didn’t fit the stereotype? Some people might have given Obama a pass, not because they were free of discriminatory ideas about blacks, but because they saw him as a proven outlier.
Soft prejudices like these are certainly less toxic than a full-blown “Master Race” narrative. It’s hard to be totally free of them, because there isn’t always a bright line between harmful prejudice, and the sort of rough-and-ready judgments that we make on a day to day basis, just as socially functional citizens. It doesn’t follow, though, that such prejudices are benign, especially when combined with other class prejudices, and even more when incorporated into polarized political narratives. That’s exactly the sort of fusion that we seem to be seeing in America today.
A Simple ‘Bias Detector’
Here’s a trick I’ve developed for ascertaining where a particular group fits into a political narrative. Ask yourself: Do people see personal affiliation with this group as something that conveys insight or as something that conveys bias? When people are sympathetic to a group, they tend to regard insiders as having special insight. When they aren’t, they tend to presume that insider judgments from that group are too biased to be trustworthy.
I noticed this a few years ago when I started doing research on policing and the justice system. Liberals, I found, would frequently ask how much contact I’d had with social activists, re-entry workers, or residents in high-crime neighborhoods. They regarded those as insight-yielding contacts. On the other hand, if I mentioned things I had heard from cops or prosecutors, they were dismissive. Cops are prone to wagon-circling; prosecutors are drunk on power. They’re biased.
With conservatives, it’s exactly the opposite. They ask how many ride-alongs I’ve done, and whether I have relatives or friends in law enforcement. They regard prosecutors as the obvious go-to source for understanding the legal questions. On the other hand, if I mention things I learned from re-entry workers or legal academics, I am warned not to be too credulous. Those bleeding-hearts have all been indoctrinated by the Left. Apply plenty of salt.
The truth is that personal experience can yield both insight and bias. When we strongly presume one over the other, that usually says something about our own sensitivities and biases. Immoderate credulity and unyielding insensitivity can both be barriers to appreciating the truth.
Now ask yourself. Are you the sort of person who took to the Internet on Wednesday, November 9, to beg your friends to immerse themselves in the real-world experiences of blacks, Hispanics, women, and gays? Or are you more the sort of person who dismissed multiple people’s opinions this last season on the grounds that “they’ve probably never met a Trump voter”? That might be a good place to start in assessing your own sympathies and non-sympathies.
A Touch of Compassion
As I was reading about the Black Santa “controversy”, my son peeked over my shoulder and said, joyfully, “It’s Santa!” I was touched. Not yet initiated into the dreariness of America’s racial politics, he only saw the jolly.
It would be nice in some ways if we could all be so innocent. Realistically though, maturity requires a more nuanced appreciation of different groups and sub-cultures and the political ramifications of demography. We can’t really just be color blind all the time.
What we can do is aspire to the good humor of Santa Larry, who declined the opportunity to be a race martyr, and chose instead to enjoy the children and celebrate the spirit of the season. I couldn’t be happier that this happened and was a moving experience for people, and I especially appreciate his kind remarks about Minnesotans after HuffPo and others had unfairly maligned us. Merry Christmas to you, Mr. Jefferson!
In the same spirit, perhaps the rest of us could likewise look for opportunities to be a bit more magnanimous, for Christmas and in the year to come.