Believing You Are Doing Right When Doing Wrong

A trait we all share as human beings is the ability to rationalize our actions and find fitting excuses for our decisions, priorities, shortcomings, habits, and behaviors. We can take the worst part of ourselves and put a positive spin on it, explaining away the negativity or at least explaining why we are justified in our wrongdoing. Ta-Nehisi Coats looks at this human ability in terms of racism in his book Between The World and Me.

 

Coats quotes Solzhenitsyn and writes, “‘We would prefer to say that such people cannot exist, that there aren’t any,’ writes Solzhenitsyn. ‘To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.’ This is the foundation of the Dream—its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works.”

 

In the passage above, Coats refers to The Dream as the false history and false memory of our nation’s founding, of slavery, and of our nation’s reconstruction following the Civil War. The Dream is not any one particular thing, but a set of experiences and life expectations afforded to white people in America but historically denied to African Americans. At the turn of the 20th century The Dream was denied to African American’s based on a false understanding of biology, genetics, and race, and allowed stereotypes to mascaraed as evidence based truths, lodging deep within our countries consciousness and as Coats would argue, still affecting us today.

 

We do not see overt racism very often in the United States today and it is generally quickly condemned by all. With overt segregation behind us, it is easy to assume that we have opened the doors of opportunity to all, and to assume that our success as an individual was no more likely than the success of any other person. We all had to make good decisions along our path and we all had to fight through obstacles with a sense of pride. Surely if we could do it, then so could any other person. Our focus on ourselves and the challenges we surmounted blind us to the reality that other people did not have the support, the starting point, and the random good luck that we had. What Coats refers to as The Dream is a set of circumstances that provide opportunities to some (opportunities that are hard to see) and criticizes those who do not achieve the same level of success without also having the same opportunities.

 

We think that what we are doing is good and just, but we are failing to recognize the ways in which we are maintaining division within society. We explain away our failure to act to help people by focusing on the sacrifices we had to make, on the frugal decisions we made with our money, and on the challenges we overcame. We do not see how our jokes, our inability to act, and our hidden acts of segregation (hiding behind economic household segregation) change the lives and opportunities of others.

 

This way of thinking allows systems to operate with unjust consequences and outcomes for racial minorities. Our human mind finds ways to take the blame off us and to place it on others who suffer, face greater challenges without support, and have historically been discriminated against. The act of recognizing the opportunities afforded to us but not others, and the act of recognizing how much we would struggle in another person’s shoes without the same opportunities is quite humbling, and takes away the facade of The Dream that Coats describes. Ultimately though, if we cannot recognize our self-interest and our brain’s ability to manipulate how we describe our self-interest, we will never reach a point where we are more just in our actions and decisions.

Exoneration

In the United States we love labels. We fully embrace the part of our brain that wants to categorize and classify everything around us, and when it comes to people we search for the right label to apply to every person to help us understand who they are, what they believe, and what they are likely to do or think. Our brains are constantly looking for patters, and labels are a type of heuristic to make people easier to understand.

A label that has been used more and more over the last several years, but has only become more complicated, is the word racist. Most people do not think seriously about race, though unavoidably race does influence our behaviors. Race triggers tribal instincts deep in our brain, encouraging us to look at others and decide whether they are like us or not like us, and associate and act accordingly. Where we live, who we hang out with, the jokes we tell, and where we go out for dinner are all areas where our tribal brain shapes our behavior based on perceptions of race, which is to say perceptions of sameness and otherness. Without self-awareness these implicit biases are hard to observe, understand, and counteract in ourselves, but they can be observed and criticized by other people or within a larger society.

It is this conflict, the challenge of seeing how implicit bias impacts our individual decisions and the ways in which implicit bias manifests in racial injustice, that has made the label racist so charged and so difficult to understand. We want to group social injustice, white people who make jokes about minorities, and our segregated society into the racist label, but the people who are tied up in everything described by the label are unable to see how they could be described by such a term.

Ta-Nehisi Coats in his book Between the World and Me describes this problem and how white people in our country have reacted to the charge of racist. “My experience in this world has been that people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration.” In a sense, those who are grouped under the umbrella of racist become singularly focused with making excuses to show that they do not fit within the label. They demonstrate ways in which their behaviors are inconsistent with the most obvious forms of racism, and argue that their individual actions could not contribute to the system which has been oppressive for minorities and contributes the segregation that our society sees today.

Those charged with the label racist view racism as being overt actions, demonstrable discrimination, and unabashed ill-will toward minorities. The type of implicit racism that is rampant throughout society is somehow shielded (by hiding behind economic excuses) from the understanding of what racism is for those who are criticized as being racist. Society however, can see the way that individual decisions and historical injustice have piled on to create a society that is deeply affected by racist politics. Somehow we need a new label and new description to accurately explain society and individuals without forcing an exonerative reaction form those at fault.