I feel uneasy writing or posting things that aren’t centered around this basic fact: black Americans are being disproportionately broken by the way things are. I am not going to pretend like I know anything about the real impact the events of recent history have made on my fellow countrymen. I am uncomfortably but undoubtedly cushioned by white privilege, but I want to help. Maybe I can’t do anything that will make a difference, but I know that some of my audience are young white conservatives. If any single word I say sticks with you, reader, then I have done something. There has to be a starting point somewhere. Well, there have to be starting points, plural. No one, not even any one organization will be able to effect the necessary change on their own.
I’m going to post the thesis I wrote on “colorblind” ideology among white Americans and how racism can persist despite the general consensus we have that being prejudiced against someone based on skin color is wrong. It’s dense. I refuse to call it boring. This is the very root of the problem, I think. White Americans are taught from the time our cognitive functions come online that the way I, the individual, sees the world reflects truth. We make our own reality, and in that comfortable bubble we can act in ways that may wildly contradict ethical truths with which we say we align ourselves. I hope what I’m about to post resonates with you, friend. No matter what beliefs landed here with you, I hope that you can at least see from my eyes for this brief moment.
Black or White: How White Racism Persists in Modern America
The history of the United States cannot be wholly understood without a grasp on the concept of racism, particularly that of white Western Europeans against African Americans. Racism is defined by scholar Thomas Schmid as “the infliction of unequal consideration, motivated by the desire to dominate, based on race alone” (32). This year’s cultural upheaval in the United States has shed light on the present existence of white-to-black racism, even amid a modern society that openly decries racial prejudice. There seems to exist a contradiction between the evidence of this lingering anti-black bias — the disproportionate deaths of black Americans by both COVID-19 and police brutality, the disparity in incarceration rates between white and black people, etc. — and the widespread understanding that racism is morally reprehensible in today’s world. A question that arises seems to be an epistemological one, and the answer seems to, in kind, reflect a flaw or contradiction somewhere in the process of learning, understanding, and acting upon one’s perceptions of truth in the world. With this essay I aim to outline the evolution of white racial prejudice against black Americans and explain the role our history of institutionalized slavery plays in its continuation, despite the general consensus that racist speech and action are moral wrongs. I assert that American slavery of black people allowed for the development of two starkly different epistemic structures between black slave and white slaveowner and that this philosophical split along racial lines has resulted in mass self-deception among white Americans who claim to be “colorblind” while continuing either to engage in racist behavior or to fail to recognize or address systemic racism in the country. I consider this question through an epistemological lens — as opposed to, say, an ethical or logical one — because the longevity and persistence of this self-deception indicates a fundamental difference more deeply ingrained and thus difficult to remedy than a contrast of ethics alone would be. It is the very formation of truth and the ways in which that truth is transferred between people of the same in- group that seem to have forged and cemented the racial divide that remains apparent in 2020 America. After defining certain key terms and providing relevant background on and evidence of the issue at hand, I seek to pinpoint the philosophical roots of white Americans’ racial bias and explain the role of epistemic individualism in the persistence of that bias.
The concepts of “self-deception” and “moral blind spots” are epistemological phenomena that play a major role in the continued survival of white-to-black prejudice. Cases of self- deception are ones “where, despite [belief] p being undesirable, the self-deceiver still believes it” (Echano 134). Similarly, a “moral blind spot” is defined by Mark Button as referring “to the occlusions in individual moral perceptions and the limits that circumscribe moral sympathies owing to our ineluctable partialities as socially embedded beings” (695). These two ideas overlap significantly as seemingly inexplicable contradictions between an individual’s understanding of what is morally right or wrong versus his or her engagement in behavior that ignores or undermines those moral understandings. Seeking out the root causes of the self-deception and moral blind spots evident among a considerable portion of today’s white America will hopefully allow us to unwind and analyze the philosophical evolution that allowed anti-black racism to endure despite a number of historical attempts to remedy that prejudice, particularly in the American South.
Community and the social or political pressures within said community play a massively important role in the formation of epistemic structures among a given in-group. In her study of epistemologies of ignorance, scholar Cynthia Townley writes, “I need membership in a community of epistemic agents who will advise and correct me as I cultivate, refine, and maintain skills of reasoning and inquiry” (40). Our perceptions of the world are products of our relationship to other beings around us. After ruminating on these facts, my central concern with this project came to the following: how is it that white Americans can deceive themselves or have these moral blind spots on the topic of race when they have coexisted with black people and witnessed their disadvantaged sociopolitical position for centuries? If the determination of justified belief arises from or is transmitted through social interaction, how did white and black Americans end up with such disconcertingly apparent and dramatically different understandings of what constitutes racial inequity or whether that inequity ought to be addressed? This project’s aim is to understand moral blind spots, “a feature of our moral perception about which we are largely unaware” and how they can “shape judgment and action in ways that can subvert both individual and collective well-being” within the context of American race relations (Button 697).
Evidence of these moral blind spots among the white American population has become increasingly prevalent in the post-Civil Rights era. In Pamela Perry and Alexis Shotwell’s study on relational understanding and white antiracist praxis, they highlight the fact that the “last four decades have seen a proliferation of research about the complex and largely hidden ways that white racism and white racial dominance pervade U.S. culture and institutions” (33). White-to- black racism remains apparent as “white people’s feelings, attitudes, and behaviors consistently reproduce the laws and structures that privilege them, even when they espouse principles of equality” (Perry and Shotwell 33). In order to illustrate the evolution of racism from outright promotion of white supremacy to the racial apathy or color-blindness of contemporary American culture, we look back to the historical beginning of this shift.
The reaction of white Americans, particularly in the Southeast, to the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education planted the seeds from which the “subtle racism” of the following decades sprung. That ruling established that the racial segregation of public school systems was unconstitutional, but its reception in the South showed a “new brand of determined resistance by its white citizenry” (Jones 45). Though historically “if the law retains the moral force of the constitutional and ethical principles that bring it into being out of need, the hearts and minds of the citizenry will usually follow,” progress toward desegregation in Southern states was “slow to nonexistent for ten years” (Jones 49, 52). Despite the fact that the highest judiciary body in the nation had clearly begun working toward racial equality in 1954, Mississippi, for example, though far from the only state guilty of prolonged racism, did not desegregate its public schools until the Fifth Circuit court demanded it to do so in 1969, a time when “popular acceptance of the whole civil rights agenda peaked” throughout the nation (Jones 48). At that point, white racial prejudice and privilege began being rebranded so as to protect those who benefitted from it from having to confront any moral wrongdoing or uncomfortable changes in social hierarchy. From that point in the 1960s on, racism “persists under a new guise, fitting more appropriately within the contemporary political climate” (Perry and Shotwell 36).
Tyrone Forman proposes the concept of “racial apathy” as a newer manifestation of the “subtle racism” of the post-civil rights era. As he defines it, racial apathy “refers to lack of feeling or indifference toward societal racial and ethnic inequality and lack of engagement with race-related social issues,” and he links this apathy with the “color-blind ideology” that “fosters a view that existing racial inequality must be the result of personal choices, not blocked opportunity” (44, 45). Forman’s large-scale survey on racial prejudice shows “overwhelming liberalization in racial thinking in response to traditional survey items,” but on questions “designed to capture the present-day racial climate there is evidence for the actual worsening of racial prejudice” from 1976 to 2004 (43). Though the outright resistance against racial equality in the 1960s seems different in kind to the subtler apathy concerning racial inequality today, these two social phenomena have in common the ability to justify white citizens’ failure to address the social struggles of the black population. As the surrounding sociopolitical climate became increasingly critical of racial prejudice, some white Americans adapted by simply denying that it persists or plays a role in modern society. This evolution of racial bias seems paradoxical, but taking into account fundamental epistemological differences between in- and out-groups better explains this “irrationality of racism” as well as “the profound effect that the history of American race relations has had on the individual and collective unconscious” (Lawrence 323).
I assert that the reason for our continued inability to reach a point of peaceful agreement between black and white Americans is rooted in the cleavage between Western and non-Western epistemologies coming out of the American slavery era. Theoretically, the American people, regardless of race or creed, generally agree on what is deemed ethical, just, or fair. Thus, the inability to wholly remedy anti-black sentiment seems to be a product of a deeper kind of clash, one not of ethics but of knowledge itself. The fraught dynamic between white and black Americans is deeply rooted in the country’s history of slavery, and that dynamic stems from the fundamental difference of epistemologies. At one end of the social hierarchy rests the white European’s determined self-reliance, his ultimate trust in the autonomous, rational self to rightly judge the facts of the world as they are presented to him. For white Americans expanding into new territory and establishing dominance therein, it follows that opening oneself up to realities of people of different colors or backgrounds may likely seem unnecessary, if considered at all. The fact that “white people’s feelings, attitudes, and behaviors consistently reproduce the laws and structures that privilege them” is not a surprising discovery when taking into account that the Western European, Enlightenment-era worldview is centered and dependent upon the autonomous self (Perry and Shotwell 33). This deeply individualistic perspective can lead and has led to, in the words of Adale Sholock, an “inapplicability and insensitivity to the cultural contexts of non-white and non-Western” people (702). In her “Methodology of the Privileged,” she writes that “the epistemic certainty and intellectual arrogance of white Westerners rests upon the institutionalization of racial and geopolitical hegemony” (711). Having risen to a comfortable position of unprecedented global power, white Westerners were poised to believe that their perception of the world was somehow superior to those of other peoples, that they saw things with an unmatched objectivity. These “ethnocentric universalisms and arrogant perceptions” are indicative of the fundamentally egocentric worldview of the Western conqueror who need not consider the implications his actions may bear on other people (Sholock 702). The slave, however, risked losing his or her very life for failing to be considerate of those of different in- groups.
As foreigners suddenly placed at the bottom of the sociopolitical hierarchy a half a world away, black slaves could not afford to view the world with the same level of egocentrism as the white slaveowner. Their outlook generally favored more so the “non-Western epistemologies that challenge the notion of a rational, autonomous self, which is hegemonic in U.S. culture” (Perry and Shotwell 35). Popular in Eastern philosophical tradition — particularly in Buddhist belief systems — is the idea that “the bounded ‘self’ is but a momentary instantiation of otherwise fluid, permeable, and elusive boundaries between self and other” (35). This basic idea of no-self, of there not existing an individual, executive agent that governs any other aspect of the body, creates a radically different perception of the human experience when compared to that of the white conqueror. The no-self mentality leads to a more inclusive understanding of the world and how to treat others; the suffering of one individual is regularly seen to be interconnected with, or even indistinguishable from, the suffering of another or the suffering of the community at large. Everyone should seek to rid the world of pain regardless of the particular entity experiencing that pain. This concept is markedly different than that at the base of white Western thinking during the Enlightenment era, that of the power of the autonomous self that may seem to rightly privilege the individual’s perception of reality over those of other people.
Evidence of the non-Western epistemological influence on the black population of the United States can be garnered from the National Survey of Black Americans (1979-1980), hereafter referred to as the NSBA, and the more recent National Black Feminist Study (2006), or NBFS, that compare the responses of black women versus those of black men on a number of questions about race, class, feminism, and the intersectionality of their social struggles (Harnois 75). The NSBA found that “black men and black women were equally likely to support women organizing for women’s rights,” an indication that, even at the time this study was conducted in 1979, black men did not prioritize their own class struggles over to those of women (Harnois 71). In the later NBFS, the study participants were asked to what extent they agree with the idea that racial, class, and gender inequality are interconnected, and the survey yielded similar results. The percentage of men who agreed that those three are indeed interconnected was, surprisingly, even higher (at 77.9%) than the raw percentage of black women who expressed support for this statement (Harnois 77). When asked whether black people should fight for the rights of both black people and women, the proportion of black men who agreed with that statement was still higher than that of black women (Harnois 77). These study results reflect an understanding of the intersectionality of social problems that seems to result in a more inclusive idea of responsibility. The rugged individualism so lauded by white American culture leads to an every-man-for- himself mentality, where one’s hardships are not the problem of those who are not affected by those hardships. With these studies, however, there is evidence of another way of thinking about sociopolitical struggles as problems that deserve everyone’s concern, regardless of the actual impact of those struggles on those involved. These studies seem to reflect the aforementioned non-Western epistemological system, that of no-self, where the fight to limit pain in the universe is not limited to the scope of the one particular class or individual experiencing that pain. One person’s struggle is everyone’s struggle. This intersectional understanding of social hardships contrasts sharply with the egocentric ignorance or moral blind spots of some white Americans.
Investigating “the ways that ‘white’ culture, epistemology, values, and interests silently iterate and legitimize white supremacy in the seemingly neutral guise of ‘the norm” brings to light the central role of epistemic individualism in the development and persistence of racism in the United States (Perry and Shotwell 38). Leading scholar of American race relations Robin DiAngelo asserts that “individualism is one of the primary barriers to well-meaning (and other) white people understanding racism” and that it is “so deeply entrenched that it is virtually immovable without sustained effort” (195). A major hindrance in white Americans’ understanding of racism is the failure to recognize that being able to think of oneself as an individual agent in the world is, in itself, a privilege exclusive to the dominant in-group. Ignoring one’s position in the overarching sociopolitical structure is only possible when that position is not threatened by any systemic disadvantages. If the idea of individualism reigns supreme within a population, the consensus would be that “there are no intrinsic barriers to individual success, and that failure is not a consequence of social structures but of individual character” (DiAngelo 196). However, this concept fails to consider that “in reality, we do occupy distinct race, gender class (and other) positions that profoundly shape our life chances in ways that are not natural, voluntary, or random” (DiAngelo 196). White Americans, having established social and political dominance in the country, have not, as a whole, been challenged to change their epistemic orientation of the self as sovereign agent at the center of all knowledge and understanding. This individualistic worldview is so deeply ingrained because it is not even consciously understood; “these beliefs are so much a part of the culture [that] they are not experienced as explicit lessons…instead, they seem part of the individual’s rational ordering of her perceptions of the world” (Lawrence 323). Therefore, even when surrounded by people with opposing opinions, the white American can more readily preclude themselves from falling in line with beliefs held by the general public that may seem unfavorable to the individual.
Moral blind spots and self-deception surrounding racial prejudice and/or privilege are logical products of such deeply rooted egocentrism. Denial of racism’s endurance is made possible by this “insistence on individualism [which] hides the reality of white advantage at every level of our past and present society” (DiAngelo 197). Moral blind spots are somewhat of a coping mechanism for those who can afford to privilege their own personal ethics over those of their peers; as “culturally situated moral subjects” there are “strong incentives to keep blind spots in place and to avoid or resist a moral and political consideration of their operation and effects on others” (Button 698). The fact that such an individualistic epistemology can defend moral blind spots regarding race is exemplified by the the argument that “I didn’t own slaves so I have not benefitted from racism” (DiAngelo 197). This “lamely straightforward” but “visceral objection” to being saddled with responsibility for past wrongs highlights the fact that those who use this defense are concerned first and foremost with their own individual experiences and desires, even when they have potentially harmed the wellbeing of other human beings (Jones 58). By “removing historical dimensions from the analysis” in this way, people render themselves incapable of understanding that “we are products of our historical lineage,” and the “individual is thereby positioned as a unique entity — one that emerged from the ether” (DiAngelo 197). This thinking leads to a narrow frame of reference incapable of grasping a matter as socially, culturally and historically complex as racial prejudice or privilege fully, so mutual understanding between black and white Americans is thus more difficult to gain. This radically individualistic perspective explains the ease with which a white individual, when he or she “experiences conflict between racist ideas and the societal ethic that condemns those ideas, the mind excludes his [or her] racism from consciousness” (Lawrence 323). The privilege of thinking of oneself as an individual not at all hindered by his or her placement in society is that of the white Western conqueror for whom that is a reality, and that very same idea is responsible for white Americans’ ability to seemingly put on blinders and refuse to acknowledge the hardship black citizens experience in a system asymmetrically built to their disadvantage.
The emergence of rugged individualism as a defining characteristic of American culture played a major role in the fundamental worldview of those who could afford to prioritize themselves over others, and I assert that its influence is at the root of the continuation of white- to-black racism today. Though it has assumed various guises over the course of American history, racial bias has remained evident within a particular population that has been forced into self-deception so as not to threaten their own individual (and in-group) wellbeing. The Western versus non-Western epistemological divide rests, I believe, at the heart of the racial discord that has persisted to this day. White Americans influenced by individualism are ostensibly less inclined to hold an intersectional understanding of social issues than black Americans are, by and large. The history of race relations in the United States is a story of friction between those who hold their own unique selves at the center of their perception of truth in the world and those willing to include other people and communities in their judgment of what is true and what is right. If everyone on the planet considered themselves totally insular beings only responsible for that which they personally have done, there would be a much more limited ethical framework in which no one took accountability for matters bigger than themselves — i.e. climate change, animal rights, etcetera. Taking all of this into consideration, it strikes true that for some white citizens “our own contamination with the very illness [of racism] for which a cure is sought impairs our comprehension of the disorder” (Lawrence 321). In order to even attempt to accurately understand the experiences of others different from ourselves, we must be receptive to their perspectives and prepared to respect and validate those perspectives as we do our own. Racism will be more likely to persist if white Americans do not evolve out of this every-man-for- himself, individualistic understanding of the world. It is together that true progress is made.
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