Can George Zimmerman lead to a Productive Conversation on Race?

One of the big issues in the past few weeks has been the criminal trial of George Zimmerman. In the aftermath of that trial there has been a great deal of argument about the rightness of the verdict and of the “stand your ground” law. To be honest I do not want to make comments on either of those issues. I have found a lot of the discussion on these issues to not be very productive. But there is one aspect that has risen after the Zimmerman trial that I do want to consider. After the Zimmerman trial, there has been a lot of talk about having a conversation on race. Some argue that unless we have this conversation then we will soon see more racial tension from another incident. I agree that unless those of different races communicate with each other that racial misunderstanding and alienation will continue. However, I am skeptical that this current call for a conversation will create that channel for communication.

I know something about having a conversation across different racial groups. I worked in the area of racial reconciliation for about fifteen years. I have done my share of the hard work it takes to create an atmosphere where real understanding develops between racial groups. I have seen conversations that helped create the type of racial healing some are talking about. Although I now work in a different research area and towards a calling distinctive from racial reconciliation, I will always have a heart to see our society overcome the racial divide that has troubled us for so long. So I should be very excited at the prospect of an emerging conversation on racial issues.

And yet I am not excited about this possible conversation. I am doubtful that it will do us any good. I am reminded that we have had other attempts to have a conversation on racial issues and those efforts do not seem to have helped. Merely wanting to have a conversation on racial issues is not a guarantee that we will create an atmosphere of racial understanding. In fact some conversations can actually make our racial situation worse. Why am I fearful that these calls for conversations may lead to a worsening racial situation? I believe it is because I have my doubts that these calls for conversations are for honest discourse on racial issues. It is important for parties to be willing to talk and listen to each other. Those consistently calling for a conversation do not talk about listening to others, but seem to focus just on what they want to say. I think this is how they see the talk on race going.

Activist: We need to talk about race
Person of different race: OK
Activist: You need to know A, B and C
Person of different race: Wow, I did not know all of this.
Activist: Since you now know A, B and C we need to do D and F for our society.

Person of different race: You are right. I am so glad we had this talk. You have taught me so much.
This may be the way people see the conversation going, but this is not the way an honest talk on race will go. People from different sides of the racial spectrum have contrasting, and deeply set, ideas about racial issues. They hope that when they tell others their point of view that other people will almost automatically accept their view as truth. What we often do not realize is that while our point of view seems logical to us that it is not that way for all individuals. Other people have their own concerns and interests which do not correlate to ours and if we really want to have this conversation then we had better be ready to honestly hear where other people are coming from. I am not convinced that those who want to have this conversation are ready to provide much respect for what others have to say and thus expect the one side conversation I stated above.

It is not fair that I just critique current efforts at a conversation on racial issues. I should also offer possible solutions that can set us up for this conversation. To that end I am grateful for the chance to have worked with Michael Emerson on Transcending Racial Barriers before I stopped doing research on racial issues. In that book we outlined principles and a process by which a productive racial conversation becomes possible. In that spirit I offer up these points for those who want a real interracial conversation that may result in breaking down racial barriers.

1) Define the problem – First thing that has to be done is that the issue of concern has to be carefully defined. Emerson and I suggest that we have to clarify what we want to discuss and keep our conversation in the context of that particular issue. We all have had discussions where we start on one subject and then jump to other subjects before we really finish discussing the subject at hand. We contend that our conversation on race will require the discipline necessary to stick to a given subject and a one subject at a time approach.

2) Identify what we have in common – There is no use in glossing over the differences between activists from different racial groups. But we also have important values in common with each other. Identifying what we agree on is an important way to start a meaningful conversation. Let us not assume the worst of those who disagree with us. They agree on certain values that we have and knowing this can help humanize those we want to have a conversation with.

3) Recognize our differences – Of course if we agreed on everything then all of this talk about needing a conversation would be meaningless. We have to be honest about why we differ from each other and why. At this point it is important to not only enunciate how we disagree with others, but why we have the concerns that we do. Clearly pointing out why we have developed the concerns we have is important so that all parties have a chance to understand why we have our points of contention.

4) Create solutions that answer the concerns of those we disagree with – Here is where our listening skills become very important. If the only thing we want to do is tell people how we feel and expect them to agree with us then our conversation will break down into yelling at each other. But if we have really been listening to the concerns of others then we will be in a position to articulate ways we can have our concerns addressed that also help those we are in conversation with to know that their concerns will be addressed as well. Of course our proposed solutions will tend to address our concerns more than the concerns of others. That is why we need the last step.

5) Find the compromised solution that best addresses the needs of all parties – If both African-American activists and white conservatives each develop solutions that address the concerns of the other group, those solutions are not likely to be the same. They will each develop solutions that more closely solve their concerns than the concerns of the other group. But they will be solutions more similar than the positions each started out with because there will have been an attempt to meet the needs of those in the other group. This will make it easier to combine those proposed solutions to come up with the compromise solution that they can live with. In any compromise no one will get all that they want, but hopefully all will receive enough so that they can accept and support the solution.

It is not surprising that individuals may not want to use such a system of compromise to set up a conversation. It takes hard work to truly listen to others and attempt to address their concerns. We would much rather try to force them to accept our perspectives as truth and to use political capital to force them to capitulate to our desires. But that is an effort that leads to failure. It will lead to failure because if we force others to capitulate to our plans without working with them to find a compromise solution, then we institutionalize enemies to our approach to racial issues. Those enemies are committed to defeating our approach because they will feel like they did not have a say in constructing the solutions we are implementing. This is why finding a solution through some type of mediated conversation that considers the ideas of all concerned interest groups is vital to creating a solution where everyone has some degree of skin in the game and will work to make the solution a success.

I realize that all of this is theoretical and that I have not offered a concrete example of how such a process can work. Furthermore, the space limitations of doing a blog do not allow me to fully fill in all the details of these steps. In our book Emerson and I do go through these steps with more details and illustrate with an example. My doubts about current calls for conversations emerge from my doubts that those calling for that conversation are willing to make those commitments. But hopefully providing this outline of the process will indicate the sort of commitments that have to be made for a real conversation that will move the needle forward on racial issues.

Conservative Sins, Progressive Sins and Forgiveness

Right now Eliot Spitzer, Anthony Weiner and Mark Sanford are trying to become Bill Clinton. Not that they are trying to become president of the United States, at least not at this time, but they are trying to overcome past sexual “indiscretions” and renew their political careers. Who can forget the big hullabaloo over the sexual mores, or lack thereof, of President Clinton? Except that we have largely forgotten about it. Clinton today is seen as a respected elderly statesman instead of a lecherous pursuer of young flesh. While part of the Clinton legacy will always include a mention of Monica Lewinsky and his sex scandals, he has largely marginalized those incidents so that now when we think of him we focus on his presidential accomplishments instead of his shortcomings as a husband.

The three men I mention above would love to be in the position Clinton is in today. They deeply desire to create a new image where their sexual infidelities, while not completely forgotten, pale in comparison to their other accomplishments. You know what? I think they have a chance to achieve this. In our society we seem to have a high level of tolerance for these types of sexual immoralities. If they have a solid political career from this point forward, then they will gain that second chance.

This brings me to Paula Dean. Our society is not so eager to forgive her of her immoralities. The best I can see for Dean is that she will maintain a certain core group of fans who will keep making her money. But generally she is always going to be linked to racist comments and seen as a racist by the general public. I cannot see the scenario by which she can get her reputation back. Can you? Has anyone been guilty of making a racist, sexist, or homophobic statement and been able to shake that statement from their reputation to the degree that President Clinton has been able to shake from his reputation the image of sexual infidelity? We like to think of ourselves as a forgiving society, but we are selective in whom we are willing to forgive, or more specifically what we are willing to forgive.

Dean can still be judged to some degree on her culinary skills. Years ago the pitcher John Rocker made a series of racist, xenophobic comments. He did not automatically lose his job. He could still get batters out and that is what matters to a MLB team. But even as he kept his job, his reputation as a racist never went away. So I am not arguing that if a person makes a racist or sexist statement that he or she will lose his/her job or be thrown in jail. But the taint of being a racist or sexist will never leave that person. If you think I am wrong then please provide the name of a person who made such a statement and recovered to the degree that President Clinton has from his mistakes.

Perhaps we should not forgive Dean or Rocker. That is a moral question I am not attempting to address right now. But as a scholar I am curious as to why certain acts of deviance can be forgiven in our society and others cannot. Note that we are not talking about illegalities as most sexual infidelities and intolerant comments are not illegal. What occurs to me is that there are progressive “sins” and there are conservative “sins.” In general sexual infidelities tend to be conservative sins. This is not to say that political and religious progressives do not care about people who cheat on their spouse or visit prostitutes, but generally political and religious conservatives show more concern about such shortcomings. Exhibitions of racism, sexism, homophobia and xenophobia tend to be progressive sins. Once again I am not arguing that religious and political conservatives do not care about those issues, but my observation is that political and religious progressives care more about these transgressions. If I am correct about who tends to care about certain human failings, then I have some insight into why some actions are forgivable and others are not. It seems to me that conservative sins can be forgiven but progressive sins cannot be.

The question becomes why we, as a society, forgive conservative sins more than progressive sins? One possibility is that the value of forgiveness is more prevalent among conservatives than it is among progressives. Why might this be? Research has shown that political conservatives have higher levels of religiosity than political liberals. (This does not mean that atheist conservatives or highly religious progressives do not exist, it is just that they are not the norm within their respective political group). It is possible that forgiveness is a value they learn through their religious beliefs. Thus, if we perform activities conservatives hate, then we have more of a chance to be forgiven due to their religious beliefs. This explanation has potential, but it is not convincing to me. Quite simply, this explanation assumes that all religions emphasize forgiveness. That is an unwarranted assumption. Furthermore, this seems like a surface explanation for what seems to me to be a fundamental difference in how conservatives and progressives understand social reality.

My speculation begins at the basic worldview of conservatives and progressives. I contend that religion matters, but not because religious individuals are taught how to forgive. Since research has shown that conservatives are more religious than progressives then conservatives are more likely to envision the need for supernatural assistance. They are more likely to see themselves as incomplete without that assistance. They are also more likely to see others as incomplete without supernatural assistance. This is a point of view that expects humans to fail. Forgiveness is an expected response to these failings. This is not to say that forgiveness is always provided. Often conditions placed upon individuals so that they can receive that forgiveness. However, I suspect there is a general expectation to forgive others among religious individuals since they have a religious ideology where those individuals expect to fail themselves and may one day need that forgiveness.

An alternative understanding of human nature is one born out of a more secular, humanist perspective. This perspective is based upon the idea that humans are perfectible. Human reason and ability are the keystones to a healthy society. Progressives seek for our society to “progress” to a state where we can use our human abilities to our fullest extent. This is not only the idea exhibited in documents such as the Humanist Manifesto, but it was an ideology I heard time and again in my interviews with atheists and read in answers to the open ended questions I gave to cultural progressive activists. Our emerging enlightened society is one that will be free of racism, sexism, homophobia etc. So individuals who exhibit these qualities are bridges to a new and better world.

This by itself does not explain the lack of a willingness to forgive progressive sins. Theoretically, we can help those who have engaged in racism, sexism or homophobia to overcome those failings and then forgive them after they have made their transition to a progressive human. But since redemption is not usually given to those who have committed those offenses we should ask why would forgiveness be denied? I speculate that when we have the vision of human perfectibility then we have less sympathy for those who do not obtain that perfectibility. While the religious conservative understands that he/she is also vulnerable to doing wrong, the non-religious progressive may not understand how individuals still have intolerant attitudes. This provides less empathy towards those who participate in progressive sins and thus they are not likely to gain the benefits of forgiveness. The stain of their sins can be linked to their reputation forever. With this theory, forgiveness is tied to whether we think we are likely to engage in future societal sins and thus may need that forgiveness ourselves. If conservatives believe that they are likely to “mess up” while progressives do not have such fears, then it is reasonable that conservatives will be more forgiving of those that violate norms that they hold dear than progressives.

This is speculation as I have no sociological data to back up my assertions beyond the argument of who receives forgiveness in our society. I wish I could say that this is a research direction I would be undertaking in the near future, but alas that is not the case. Nevertheless, it would be fascinating to question individuals in an effort to learn why they are more tolerant of certain shortcomings as opposed to others. Whether there are religious differences in how people forgive is also a question of empirical interest. I am not certain if anyone has looked into that question. Finally, one can argue that society is better off not forgiving those who transgress certain moral boundaries. While forgiveness is an important quality for our mental health on the individual level, providing such forgiveness on the corporate level may encourage more transgressions. Exploring whether forgiveness of shortcomings encourages more problems is another fascinating direction for future research.

A Partial Review of “Why are Professors Liberal and Why do Conservatives Care”

Early next year I am going to attend a symposium on Neil Gross’s book Why are Professors Liberal and Why do Conservatives Care? (2013). So last month I read the book and have been working on my assessment of it. This book tackles the important academic issue of the political makeup of academia within our current political economy since the disproportionate politically progressive nature of academia is well established in previous work. Gross uses data to theorize why academics are so politically progressive and also why the political nature of academia has captured the concern of political conservatives. When I present my talk next year I will address the way he answers both of these research questions. But for this blog I will only concentrate on his explanation of why academia is so politically progressive.
Before I get into the critique of his work I first want to state that I respect Gross’s attention to data as he attempts to answer these questions. I have seen efforts on academic bias that are basically thinly veiled attempts to push for a certain social or political agenda. I never received that impression from Gross’s work. I am going to disagree with him as it concerns his conclusions but I do not want my disagreement to be interpreted as disrespect for his work.
When the issue of the political makeup of academia is discussed, the explanations roughly come down to two major reasons. One is that there is a self-selection mechanism that encourages political progressives to take academic jobs at a higher rate than political conservatives. The other is that political conservatives face discrimination and prejudice hindering their ability to succeed in academia. Gross postulates a variation of self-selection that relies on the notion of the political typing of occupations. He argues that academia has been “politically typed” so that progressives feel more comfortable making a commitment to academic study than conservatives. One way to think about this is to consider how jobs are often sex-typed. The job of elementary school teacher is generally sex-typed for women while the job of fork lift driver is generally sex-typed for men. Men are allowed to teach elementary school and women are allowed to be fort lift drivers but we generally do not expect them to be in such occupations. Likewise, both conservative and progressive students will do well in college. But conservatives who do well are generally expected to go into certain types of occupations such as business or law enforcement. Progressives who do well are generally expected to go into other types of occupations, academia being one of them. According to Gross, these expectations naturally sort out progressive students into academic, scientific careers and sort conservative students into other careers.
An alternative explanation is that political conservatives do not simply choose to avoid academia, they face barriers to entry that dissuade them from entering academia. I do not come into this debate unbiased since I have published on the subject of anti-conservative prejudice in academia. But I do not assert that it is only bias keeping conservatives out of science. I argue that it is both self-selection, and Gross’s version of self-selection is more convincing than other variations of this theory, and barriers of discrimination and bias playing important roles in producing a progressive academic institution.
But to get to my argument we should first look at why Gross argues that discrimination is not a major factor in the political makeup of academia. In his book, Gross reports on his audit study with directors of graduate studies (DGS). He sent out an email from a fictitious graduate student seeking more information about the program. Sometimes the email contained no political information. This was the control group. Sometimes the emails contained information suggesting that the student worked on the presidential campaign of Barak Obama. Sometimes the email contained information suggesting that the student worked on the presidential campaign of John McCain. He found that the differences in how the DGSs reacted to the three types of letters were not significant. With such results of his study he argues that while there may be isolated cases of discrimination or bias that these are not major factors in determining the political makeup in academia.
I respect this study. However, it is only part of what we know about academia bias. Putting this study in the context of the other work on this topic allows us to gain a more holistic picture of this research question. Previous research, such as that in my previous book mentioned above, has confirmed that academics state a relative unwillingness to hire political conservatives. Empirical work (by Rothman and Lichter in 2009) has also documented that social conservatives tend to wind up in positions that are of lower status than is warranted by their professional accomplishments. Gross’s study has to be understood in light of these results.
Beyond having published in this area I have another advantage to understanding Gross’s study. I have the position of graduate advisor at my own school and so I understand this position he is studying. It is one of the places in academia where there are powerful institutional interests that work against personal and social prejudices. It is in the interest of DGSs to maximize the number of students applying to a given program. So we are more likely to overlook potential political, religious and social incompatibilities with incoming candidates than other academics. But it is important to remember that there are several steps in the process of becoming an established professor. One must obtain an undergraduate degree, contact graduate programs, be accepted into a graduate program, complete the requirements of the doctorate, find an academic job, obtain tenure and then finally obtain full professorship. Gross’s work may have caught academics at the stage of making contact with graduate programs where there are institutional pressures for acceptance. Thus while his work informs us on the issue of potential discrimination, it clearly is not the last word on this subject.
Furthermore, I admit that I often skim emails from prospective students. It is in my interest to persuade them to apply for the program and so I look at information that will help me to construct a response to meet that interest. So I wonder how much I would pay attention to the political activities of the emailing student. I also wonder if I would have even noticed such an activity. Audit studies can be useful by supplying subtle cues respondents may react to, but there is the danger of the cues being too subtle to activate the potential prejudice of the respondent. I am not certain that this is the case with this particular study, but my experience as a graduate advisor suggests that this may be a problem.
A final issue should be brought up concerning Gross’s study. Although he does not state so in the book, in his paper with this research he comments that he chose to use John McCain as the representative of conservatives instead of Sarah Palin because he wanted the email to be believable. That very statement is an indication of a larger atmosphere of discrimination. If supporting Palin potentially disqualifies a graduate student from a program then political discrimination is at play. McCain has a reputation, whether deserved or not, as a rebel or maverick to his own Republican party. While most academics clearly are not supportive of Republicans, a Republican who often goes against the policies of that party, as McCain is willing to do, is likely to be more acceptable than other Republicans such as Sarah Palin or George Bush. (Some may say that the mere act of supporting Palin indicates that a student is not ready for graduate school. I find such an attitude highly prejudicial and tapping into a stereotype that conservatives are dumb. It is a stereotype that has flourished in a media that emphasis that Palin is dumb instead of the Democrat Hank Johnson). The audit study would still have the weaknesses I outlined above if a more conservative Republican was used instead of McCain, but it would have been a stronger finding if DGSs showed little or no prejudice even when a candidate worked for a Palin election team.
At best Gross’s study indicates that at a key point of the process – when the prospective student contacts a graduate program – it is fairly likely that politically conservative student will not run into a great deal of discrimination. However, discrimination is more likely at other points of the process. As I have argued elsewhere academic bias is not equally likely to show up at every stage of the process or for every type of conservative. Research suggests that social and religious conservatism is more likely to be stigmatized than economic or foreign policy conservatism. Thus the weakness of choosing McCain, who is not known for social conservatism, instead of Palin or Bush adds more questions about the accuracy of Gross’s conclusions.
All of this is not to say that discrimination is the only factor in the political makeup of academia. My argument is that it is an important factor. Is discrimination more important than self-selection in determining this political makeup? To date we have not come up with the proper methodological techniques that adequately compare these two potential effects. My inclination is that instead of arguing whether discrimination matters, that we should concede that it matters and focus on whether discrimination matters more or less than self-selection. Hopefully future research will explore such a question.

Christian Persecution – Fact or Fiction

“Persecution!” is the cry that we hear from some Christians today. Detractors of those individuals complain about a “wahbulance” attitude these Christians have. Supporters of these individuals point out ways in which Christians have faced discrimination or are victims of unfair measures. The historical persecution of Christians is not an illusion. Knowing that Christians in the past have been tortured and killed for their faith may make it easier for Christians to see themselves as victims of persecution. There is need for a level-headed assessment of the question about contemporary Christian persecution. Hopefully, I can provide some perspective that may aid such an assessment.

The basic definition of persecuting is “to harass or punish in a manner designed to injure, grieve, or afflict” and specifically “to cause to suffer because of belief”. So the question becomes – Are Christians being harassed or punished because of their belief? We know that this sometimes happens internationally. Youcef Nadarkhani is sitting in an Iranian jail over his refusal to recant his Christian faith. He clearly is being harassed and injured because of his Christian belief and has every right to complain about being persecuted. All of us, Christian or not, should be willing to speak on the behalf of men like Nadarkhani.

But when Christians talk about persecution, they do not limit themselves to international persecution but they imply that Christians in the United States are being harassed or punished for their faith. It is a given that there are certain countries where Christians face persecution but the real question is whether persecution of Christians occurs today. When I read other Christians referring to persecution, they tend to fall into one of two schools. Either they see Christians as always wrong and thus are just crying wolf about persecution, or they believe that just about every slight Christians suffer from are examples of persecution. Yet, there is a more reasonable middle group position.

Are Christians consistently harassed and punished in the United States because of their faith? My short answer is no. We are not subject to arrest, to firing, to violence simply because of our Christian beliefs. This is not to say that Christians do not face discrimination. My previous work (Compromising Scholarship - Baylor University Press) documents discriminatory attitudes some academics have towards conservative Christians. There is other research, such as Inbar and Lammers (2012), documenting the propensity of academics to discriminate against Christians. There are practices such as Vanderbilt’s insane policy about student group leadership being open to everyone regardless of their religious beliefs that institutionally discriminate against Christians. So yes, Christians face discrimination just as other religious groups in our society can face discrimination. But this does not rise to the level of persecution.

If we had real Christian persecution then we would see authority figures attempting to find Christians in an effort to jail them. In countries where there is real persecution, believers have to meet in underground churches because their actual churches are often burned or closed down by the government. These things are not happening in the United States. To be sure, there are individuals who hate Christians and often that hatred is at an unreasonable level. But if Christians decide to quietly sit in their churches and homes, then nobody will bother them. This is not to deny the right of Christians to participate in society beyond their churches and homes, but if Christians were being persecuted then they would not be able to stay safely in their own spaces.

When Christians in the United States cry that they are being persecuted then they are making claims not evident in reality. They are taking incidents of unfairness or discrimination and claiming that these are  an examples of persecution. This cheapens the language of persecution and makes the individuals making the claim look foolish. The Vanderbilt policy forbidding religious student groups from having religious requirements for leadership is idiotic and unfair. The enforcement of the policy appears to be disproportionately aimed at conservative Christian groups. But this is not persecution. Vanderbilt is not throwing Christians off campus for their Christian faith. When the Christian leaders complain about persecution, people rightly see them as trying to play the role of the victim, rather than honestly pointing out real problems. Arguing that Christians face discrimination is more sustainable than attempting to provoke images of a Nazi-like persecution.

Some Christians are hesitant to discuss discrimination as an issue. Christianity is the majority religion in society, and it may seem rude to compare the discrimination of Christians to that of other religious groups. But, given what we know from current research, it is highly likely that discrimination occurs in segments of society where Christians do not have majority group power, such as academia. Even with the reality of discrimination some may argue that our duty is to ignore this discrimination and turn the other cheek. But while Christians have a duty to make sure that those in other faiths are treated fairly, so too should we make sure that those of our faith are treated fairly. It is not any less unjust if a Christian is discriminated against instead of a Muslim. Furthermore, the failure to acknowledge anti-Christian discrimination is a factor that drives some Christians to make unwise claims about persecution. When Christians who face discrimination are ignored, they may naturally make more extreme claims of that discrimination in hopes of drawing attention to the problems they face. Christians who simply tell other Christians to be quiet do not help us achieve a comprehensive state of religious fairness in our society.

In my life I have learned that a sense of balance is one of the most important qualities we can develop. This is true when it comes to the idea of Christian persecution in the United States. The answer is not to see persecution in every slight. Neither is the answer to ignore the reality of discrimination against Christians. Finding ways to address real issues of misunderstandings and discrimination without resorting to wild charges of persecution is the type of balanced approach we need to develop.

I have largely written this blog for the sake of other Christians. Part of the need of addressing this topic is because we have a more multicultural, multireligious society than in the past. Christians used to have a certain level of social control through their religious identity, but now they have to find ways to deal with this new reality. But as Christians lose power as a group, they can be vulnerable to religious discrimination in ways that escaped them in the past. Thus, just as they have to adjust to a new culture where they do not have complete dominance, so too do non-Christians have to learn about using their enhanced status to create a culture where everyone from the most conservative right-wing Christian to the most radical atheist have maximum freedom to live out their beliefs.