Thinking out loud (about race)

By Michael J. Smith on Saturday March 31, 2012 10:14 AM

One of the things I'm trying to clarify for myself in these anti-anti-racist posts is the thought that racism hasn't 'gotten better' or 'become less severe' or 'diminished' -- as if it were some self-subsistent entity in its own right. 'It' hasn't changed or weakened; rather, there is a significantly different 'it' at work. (Not necessarily an improvement either, because the new 'it' is more elusive and harder to characterize.)

Classical racism of the 19th and early 20th centuries was a pretty specific and well-delineated congeries of beliefs and attitudes and institutions which fit into the structures of domination of its day in a particular way. Like any instrument of domination it was well worth attacking, and it was attacked with considerable success(*) -- to the point that the term itself is almost invariably now used as a term of opprobrium.

Indeed I think one of the reasons the notion is clung to so strongly by liberals and lefties is precisely the polemical power of the word: racism has become so disreputable that people will go to some lengths to avoid being tarred with it. Whoever deploys the notion first has to some greater or lesser extent put his opponent on the defensive.

Perhaps another reason that I view 'anti-racism' with some suspicion is that I see contemporary racism as far more an effect than a cause. I mean at a macro scale; obviously at the retail level, some kind of racial, or at least ethnic, antipathy or affinity is involved in things like the Black Name Effect, mentioned by an earlier commenter -- change the name on a resume to something that sounds blacker and you get fewer interviews. But at the big social scale I see racism as fundamentally a consequence of inequality and anxiety, though as always, the causal arrow does point both ways, at least to some degree.

Thought experiment: Suppose by some miracle the Gini coefficient suddenly got a lot smaller. Suppose we had universal single-payer health care, full employment, robust trade unions, and an effective social safety net. Would racism increase, diminish, or stubbornly persist unchanged -- unless fearless anti-racist campaigners called it out it at every opportunity?

Lots of people are willing to get riled about racism; fewer about inequality. But if inequality is more the cause than the effect of racism...?

I realize this is not an original line of thought, but perhaps it's worth pondering.


(*) Partly of course because the structures of domination themselves were morphing into new forms which required it less.

Comments (39)


Institutional and attitudinal racism, and exploitation of the latter, have been, and persist in being, barriers to single payer, full employment, robust trade unions, and a strong social safety net. This is so uncontroversial that it's hardly necessary to point it out.

I agree that the sanctimonious media anti racists are useless at best and more likely a barrier themselves. They dare not train their rhetorical guns on the very institutions that employ them.

My sole argument here is that institutional vs attudinal racism is a false either/or. Both are factors, and persist in being so. If this is an old chestnut or a stultifying observation, or a bore, so be it. High Arka claims attitudinal racism is no longer an issue. I'd only.... Take a stroll through Duane Reade with a black person, or observe how the children of black folks can be suspects, affirmative action babies, and low IQ miscreants, all in the span of any random 12 hours. Only white fingers, I'm afraid, could type the thought that all if this is an old chestnut or no longer a problem somehow. Only a white mind could be so dismissive of the actual experience of actual people.

I'd love to share MJS' hope in our young people and Michael Yates' sense of promise. But I think institutional and attudinal racism have been the rot at the very heart of our benighted nation, from its very founding,!and will likely accelerate it's demise. Maybe what will emerge from the ashes will be more just.

Here is a quote from a book by Esteban Morales, Cuba's foremost scholar of race in Cuba. This book will have its English edition published by Monthly Review Press this fall. Food for thought, given that Cuba's gini is low, there is universal healthcare, egalitarian schooling, and a government committed to building a revolutionary society.

"The revolutionary process has made us advance in the problem. Cuba is not any longer the racist society it was before 1959, and racial tensions do not dominate today’s social environment. This has been the result of the extraordinarily humanist social policies of the Cuban Revolution, making the levels of discrimination and racism of any sort a lot lower than in other societies surrounding us, especially in the United States.
Racism and discrimination are not institutional in Cuba, neither are the stereotypes supporting them, but the trilogy of racial stereotypes, discrimination and racism, is strongly present in our society, trying to remain entrenched, not just like simple inherited remnants, but as a phenomena. Racism still exists in our society, with its imperfections, and is able to reproduce itself. As a result racism, unless it is firmly counteracted, threatens to reinstate itself in the macro-conscience of today’s Cuban society.
Thus, the importance of understanding the phenomenon is to attack it decisively, to banish it from our institutions, family, the individual conscience and from our collective culture. This elimination is an indispensable condition to eliminate a reality that prevents us from advancing at all levels of social, cultural, economic and political life. Because in Cuba, it is not possible to speak of the existence of a truly learned, democratic and functional society, if we do not banish racial stereotypes, discrimination and racism from the way of life of Cubans. Therefore, the essays compiled in this book aim to provide an understanding of the existence of a problem affecting all Cubans, either whites, blacks, and mestizos. It positions all of us, the discriminated and the discriminators, in a moral condition that degrades us and inhibits us to advance toward a more just, educated, and truly revolutionary society."

But I think institutional and attudinal racism have been the rot at the very heart of our benighted nation, from its very founding, and will likely accelerate it's demise
Then I guess they're not all bad.

Sorry. Tasteless gallows humor.


My interest was much piqued by the quote from the Cuban guy, but I don't know enough about the state of affairs in Cuba to respond with anything other than generalities and hypotheticals. I do note his observation that racism is less of a problem in Cuban society than in the US, which coincides with what I'd expect. Beyond that, it seems rather hortatory and unspecific. I am even tempted to say 'moralistic'.

Michael, This quote is from his Introduction. I can't send you the book yet. But most posts and comments here are pretty unspecific to put it mildly. Suffice it to say that Esteban Morales has more to say, chapter and verse so to speak. Plus we are always free to try to learn about the state of affairs in Cuba, racewise. One issue is remittances from the US by those who left Cuba. More whites left relative to blacks and they were richer. Also, blacks have not gotten a proportionate share of the monetary benefits that have come Cuba's way via tourism. It could be argued that tourism represents a kind of infiltration of capitalism into Cuba, so we would expect this. On the other hand, I doubt tourists would care if blacks rather than whites were seeing to their needs. So how to explain this?

I think, Mr. Smith, that you seem to subscribe to the old school M-L conviction, very broadly expressed, that come the revolution, the symptoms will be (eventually) abolished.

Others might argue that these are not all symptoms, of themselves. That these decedents also themselves become causes.

Distinguishing between a few different notions of racism might be helpful. It seemed to me that MJS has been trying to note that the social acceptability and prevalence of overtly racist ideas is declining. So that basically means fewer people openly defend the "concept of racism."
Meanwhile people are certainly being treated differently because of their race (racist outcomes), likely as a result of attitudes of individuals ("attitudinal racism"), differential treatment by institutions ("institutional racism"). and/or other processes. People are probably also defending ideas that aren't overtly racist, but are racist in effect and maybe some subtle winky-winky racism too, e.g. immigration, drug war.

As for the topic of this post, we know that at levels ranging from neighbourhoods to nations that income inequality (measured by Gini, or other similar ways) is predictive of a variety of risk-taking behaviours, including various measures of violence and drug use. That evidence is correlational, so you can't use it to infer causation in either direction. But increased risk-taking is a fairly rational response to a social environment where there are a few big winners and a bunch of losers (i.e. high inequality), or, as the philosopher Dylan once said "if you ain't got nothing, you ain't got nothing to lose." A million animal behaviour studies support "risk-sensitivity theory." Meanwhile there is some experimental psychology evidence that can be reasonably interpreted as showing that recent victims of inequality elevate their risk-taking, and that subsequent correction of the inequality immediately lowers the risk-taking.

So, in a country like the US where certain racial/ethnic groups bear the brunt of the violence, drug abuse and other nasty (risk-taking-related) shit that accompanies inequality, it seems reasonable to speculate that reducing inequality would lead to fewer dead brown people, i.e reduce a racist outcome. Whether that would be accompanied by institutional changes is hard to say. There's probably some research that bears on the question of whether you'd expect attitude changes with inequality changes, but I don't think those are as clear-cut as the inequality-risk issue.


It would be awfully stupid of me to try to explain it, MY, since I don't know anything about the situation. But if you put a gun to my head and said, "Your explanation or your life!" I might stammer out something about how a small island in the Caribbean can't insulate itself entirely either from history or from the increasingly mad larger neoliberal world.

I would like to hear more about the disproportionate benefits of tourism as between darker and lighter Cubans. I'm quite willing to believe in the effect, but it would be interesting to examine the machinery.

I think, Mr. Smith, that you seem to subscribe to the old school M-L conviction, very broadly expressed, that come the revolution, the symptoms will be (eventually) abolished.

Others might argue that these are not all symptoms, of themselves. That these decedents also themselves become causes.

Got me dead to rights. m'Lud. In many ways I am still an old-school M-L, and I don't believe racism is an autonomous force: it's more an effect than a cause, I'd say.

Of course anybody fond of the dialectic acknowledges that effects feed back into causes.

But JC, am I wrong in inferring that you think racism is a sturdier plant -- something that has its roots outside of specific social arrangements, or which might persist even if the social arrangements that historically produced it were altered?

If so, where do we look for the etiology of this pathology? And of course -- to bring us back to the original topic -- what do we do about it if so? Is it a big step forward that Bill Maher is now an on-record anti-anti-anti-racist?

Michael, the "how to explain this" wasn't aimed at you but at all of us. One possiblity is that white Cubans had past ties that gave them connections usable even today that made it easier for them to get a piece of the tourist action. Black Cubans might be much more likely to have gotten their employment directly through the state, in positions in which it would be more difficult or morally reprehensible to take positions in tourism. A black doctor, for example, might feel such a commitment to treating poorer Cubans or to go abroad to perform eye surgeries or help in disaster relief or be in the armed forces as a doctor, that it would be impossible for him to become a cab driver hauling tourists around or be a waiter in a swank hotel. Blacks might have gained so much through the revolution that they don't feel the same sense of deprivation that whites do, given the austerity forced upon people by the demise of the Soviet Union and the US blockade. Just some admittedly off the top of my head. thoughts. When I do my detailed edit of Esteban Morales's book, I'll know more.


All that seems very plausible. I look forward to hearing more. I'm not allowed to buy any more books these days, but if I were, I'd get a copy.

MJS, It will be my pleasure to send you a copy without charge when it is published. A gift to you for all the new words you have taught me!

Happy Jack:

Blacks might have gained so much through the revolution

It's hard to believe that judging by the ruling clique. To be fair, I don't know the percentages of blacks in Cuba.


Happy, I don't follow your reasoning. Is it inconceivable that the 'ruling clique' might be lily white and yet do things which would not only benefit the darker Cubans, but even narrow the gap between darker and lighter? If it's not conceivable, why not?


Overt bright letter Institutional racism was the target circa 1960

The target now ?

To me we have personalized racism put the sin on the individual sinner
Right where enlightenment fraternity and reformation humanism want it
And are most comfortable battling it

And where society despite stasi like vigilance and punitive correction
thru it's state and it's various other institutions
Can't exterpate it or in the deepest sense even reach it

Racism in the end as a set of mind motions thought patterns
is a matter of free conscience for free conscience acted on
by the free conscience itself

Like the viral entity it is

Reproduce itself ?

Yes require vaccinations and re vaccinations ?


But a deep Hank up is not a sin
To the extent we live in a secular non superstitious society
Group racism now
is like witch craft in 13th century Italy
A social product of socially produced minds
But there is more harm in extirpating it
Then letting it blow itself out

If we see it intensify then the social system is running into intensified disorder
And as father suggests out of great disorder comes a new order

Good or bad new order
depends on the winning class

Win the class struggle and racism recedes back into the heads of the conflicted
It becomes a private matter


The state has it's duties

Reasonably Equal national group outcomes and
A system to sustain that equality
Do we have such here ?

Absolutely not

Group outcome equalization is on the political agenda
The black power black national movement the black liberation movement
Quotas reparations etc
These were blocked by the Reagan reaction
They are on the struggle agenda
The question is of course what is to be done NOW
And that I submit is a decision each national group must make for itself
Those of us on the side of the job class in the global class struggle ought to see within our national group what has to be done now
for the job class and for our nation

What ever suggested national groups of job class souls couldn't form coalitions
Or multi national organizations

The vietcoms were very good at suggesting "do both "
When faced with two positive sets of activity


The US
A really big Sweden
could it exist ?
If not
forget the thought experiments about triumphant wall to wall social democracy
As an end point for racism

Ya if we were all one race then minds would need to find other
Useful means to gather an enemy under a stereo type
And our human minds in large numbers would

The angel is nothing but the shark well governed

I not this is not the same as saying
The angel is the same as the shark well self ...self.. Governed

Consider this
One law for the ox and the bull is tyranny

Why is balks line
The ox and the lion?

Overloading the dice ?


smith, like most of us, does better after some flak. thank you, sir.


Inequality of opportunity is the big rile behind the anti racists movement

Racism threatens meritism's hegemony

I think Burke was a very clear bench market
A node of weighing the social value of legacy over bald merit

Property over talent as he put it
Covers this present scuffle
If we are using those two words
as plastically as Ned did

Recall your race is a property of you
A feature in you as human being
Not the prevered view u as human doing

For some reason the anti enlightenment still
Has not won over the radical fringe of pwogmerica

Too much Stalin hate not to mention Hitler hate

The rise of nationalism was profoundly anti enlightenment
As was of course
in the up shot
the rise of class struggle

The heroic clash of nations and classes with each other

Each nation with her unique vitalities

each class with it's assigned agencies

The national and class concentration camps

put those Time specific notions
in Clio's copious garbage can

Gaze on Hegel's slaughter bench
What poofs it makes of parlor pwogs


And what clowns it make of nihilists


Seems the point of comments is to write them not read them

Unless you are like myself elsewhere
And say ...the crow- fer here


Poorly lit

back door dwelling

Site groupies


Galloway was mentioned elsewhere. Nice clip via Louis from the proyects:

Fond memory of Galloway was him tearing about that drunken fraud "Hitch" in a "debate" over Iraq.

I might've dragged myself to the voting booth to cast one for George.


Galloway seems to sense something far bigger then himself

The social ground is shaking itself these days


The social ground is shaking itself these days


Weather's warming up here in the US of A too. I understand there's some fun planned for May 1....

Mr. Smith,

Succinctly, because other matters press: I do not think revolution is ever so comprehensive that a change in causes necessarily results in a 1:1 alteration of symptoms and effects. Even a cursory view of those environments where socialism (fabian, bolshevik, anarchist, syndicalist, Makhnovist) took some root suggests that the older prejudices persist, and take on revolution-friendly forms: the Han, Russian, Ukrainian, British, Cambodian efforts all preserved the racial norms and beliefs of the majority, and often enough made it even worse for the minorities under their control.


please leave the pretenious gibberish ' round here
to me

That last comment was dangerous to unescorted small children
and cornered wild life

Go suck a tailpipe, Owen, you tiresome boy-man.

Mr. Smith, it's been fun. The mangy dog is off his leash and shitting in the kitchen, now, so there's that. But thanks for the questions and answers.


That father s treats u well is evidence of his gracious hosting
And chronically open mind

To me you're pub dart board


But despite of it all
i love you all the same

As st peters hippie friend once said to him

Shirley Ardell Manson:

Nice to see the multiple personality disorder in full swing. I suppose some find it incredulous that only one typist could write all these comments and attribute them to different persons, but I'm here to tell you that even if you're a skeptical "Bright" like Dani Dennett, it's very possible for a single typist to imagine multiple characters and inhabit then while typing various comments, keep them cubbyholed separately, and maintain the charade for as long as bored cubicle farm animals are kept at their workstations.



U put to much effort into crafting significance into your internet names

Try a range of florid styles under one simple name

Dazzle the cubicle troughsters


OP and Jack
Sittin' inna Tree


Fine with me anon

So long as crow treats me like a small boy

Brian M:

Sorry OP. That was me.


Thus JC:

I do not think revolution is ever so comprehensive that a change in causes necessarily results in a 1:1 alteration of symptoms and effects.
Not right away, certainly. And 1:1, never; everything is too overdetermined for that. But look at things like anti-Catholic prejudice in the US, which was very strong when and where I grew up and has now practically vanished.


The changes in attitudes like changes in language performance
are deeply complex in their pre determinations
Though by no means sensitive to small or often even large differences
in surface conditions

We do all seem headed toward one basin of behaviors
Here in Finland and in Borneo too

Even revolutions are merely surface shutters at the depths
These changes come from


Valley speak spread like Dutch elms disease

Attitudes toward anal sex have opened up

Sun tans are passé among the deb set

Self love is a form of self abuse
In true post merit America

Happy Jack:

Inconceivable? No, I wouldn't go that far Mr. Smith. I just can't think of many (any?) examples of the altruistic white leaders of this generation practicing true equality. I'll admit my knowledge of the demographics of Cuba is limited, but I find it hard to believe that the government leadership reflects proportional representation.

If, as you say, there are structural barriers based on inequality, I would think that a society based on working class solidarity would have dispensed with these problems. Furthermore, I would expect that this barrier removal would extend to the upper echelon of government. If there was anything approaching equality, why would blacks need to depend on the kindness of whites?

As far as benefits blacks may have received in Cuba, couldn't you make the same argument in the US? There's been quite a bit of improvement post-Civil War, Voting Rights, Civil Rights, etc., yet racism remains. I think the Cubans are dealing with the same cultural baggage the US is.

The Catholic example you give does show some possibilities. My son's generation has more enlightened views towards race than any previously did, but it will be twenty to thirty years before they have any say in the matter.


It's certainly a process that takes a generational time scale to consolidate.

Post a comment

Note also that comments with three or more links may be held for "moderation" -- a strange term to apply to the ghost in this blog's machine. Seems to be a hard-coded limitation of the blog software, unfortunately.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on Saturday March 31, 2012 10:14 AM.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

Creative Commons License

This weblog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
Powered by
Movable Type 3.31