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Seeing Through Camouflaged Racism

By David K. Shipler
Wednesday, October 15 1997; Page A21

Several years ago, Edward Rice, a black B-52 pilot who was then a lieutenant colonel and a White House fellow, offered a thought-provoking theory about why so many black Air Force officers were washing out of flight school: A white instructor, in the cockpit with a black trainee, must make split-second decisions on whether to seize the controls. If the white's confidence is eroded by the age-old stereotype of blacks as less competent, "if his perception is that you're dangerous and you can't fly," said Rice, he may intervene too soon, never letting the trainee advance.

The scenario illustrates the ambiguity of much of the interaction that confronts President Clinton's call for a national dialogue on race. The country is divided, but not simply along racial lines; a huge gap separates Americans who see racism from those who do not. To some, bigotry has to wear a white hood, burn a cross and blatantly exclude minorities from jobs and restaurants to qualify as a problem. To others, racism looks more camouflaged, for a good deal of prejudice has gone underground since the civil rights movement and now produces insidious, coded behavior that impedes blacks but is hard to attack.

This subtle bias needs to be addressed by Clinton and his advisory board if the country is to get a good education on racial matters. It is no longer sufficient to illuminate the obvious and the outrageous. That is because the difference in perceiving racism is directly linked to a difference over remedies. The cruder the bias, the more decisive the society's weapons and the greater the consensus on using them. The more cunning the discrimination, the more nuanced the mechanisms of restraint and the less popular they are. In other words, anti-discrimination laws have much more support than the more refined tools of affirmative action and diversity training.

Forty years ago, it was easier to mobilize the nation's conscience against the closed doors of Central High in Little Rock than it is today against the invisible walls that separate blacks from whites inside the same school. Bigotry then was so explicit and brittle that it could be shattered by the hammer of the law. Now, more hidden, it is supple enough to insinuate itself into acceptable practices. Deeply embedded images of blacks' mental inferiority, for example, still influence who gets into honors classes, who gets hired and promoted, who is trusted to make decisions and share power.

Polling by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago reveals that most Americans regard blacks as less intelligent (53.2 percent), less hard working (62.2 percent) and more desirous of living on welfare (77.7 percent) than whites. Such prejudices are merely thoughts, of course, and to dampen their expression, the society has created a structure of laws, ethics, educational programs and other mechanisms. But bias is agile enough to worm its way through the inhibitions.

A white California couple saw it happen. They were routinely alerted by teachers when their two white children slipped at school, but never when their adopted half-black child fell behind. Those teachers did not wear hoods or stand in the schoolhouse door; they merely acted on their assumptions about a black's lack of drive.

It may not have been deliberate, for there are many ways to discriminate, from the intentional to the unconscious. A white supervisor who thinks a black employee "lacks leadership ability" may be correct, or he may be operating from that silent, widespread sense that blacks don't quite belong in positions of power. A white's diffuse feeling that blacks are "different" can magnify his thought that a black subordinate "lacks communications skills." Where a white may be praised as "independent" and a "self-starter," a black may be seen as "not a team player." Affirmative action can help blacks leapfrog over these obstacles, and diversity training can help revise institutional attitudes.

But sometimes the remedy has to be personal, as in the case of a flight instructor. Nobody can say for sure that he is acting out of racial prejudice. And if he is, the only solution is introspection. Nobody is going to order him to disregard safety for the sake of more black pilots. No affirmative action plan will solve the problem. Only an instructor's awareness of his own biases will enable him to correct for them if he chooses. That would be the best result of a national discussion on race – self-examination by the country, its institutions and as many of its citizens as are willing to question themselves.

David K. Shipler is the author of "A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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