How To Talk About Racism. An Interview With Ian Cromwell of The Crommunist Manifesto

Ian “Crommunist” Cromwell is a scientist, musician, skeptic, and long-time observer of race and race issues. His interests, at least blog-wise, focus on bringing anti-racism into the fold of skeptic thought, and promoting critical thinking about even those topics that make us uncomfortable. More about Crommunist here. E-mail: crommunist at gmail dot com. 

The interview below was done as part of a blogathon to support the Secular Student Alliance. Please donate to this worthy organization! And see more links to the many diverse conversations from the blogathon, updated throughout the day, at the blogathon conversation table of contents.

Daniel Fincke: Can you explain your conception of the difference between being a racist and either doing a racist thing, having a racist attitude, or perpetuating a racist injustice? And can you talk about any ideas you have about how we can get people emotionally to be receptive to learning about what is racist in what they’re doing or what has racist effects even where they don’t consciously conceive of themselves as racist. Put simply, many people get offended when tell them their action or attitudes or words are objectively racist in effects independent of their intentions. How do we most effectively deal with this huge stumbling block?

Ian Cromwell: As far as I’m concerned, being “a racist” is a meaningless term. It’s like being “a stupid” or “an angry”. Behaviours, institutions, attitudes, and policies can be racist. To the extent that someone buys into or advocates those, they are being racist; however, that doesn’t make them organically racist. It makes them susceptible to bad ideas. Considering how much we know about the ways in which religious belief sways people to believe strongly in bad ideas (or at least have a blind spot toward how bad their ideas are), it’s not exactly a huge leap to recognize racism as simply another set of bad ideas.

The thing that I find people most resistant to is the idea that something can be racist in the absence of intention. These are the crowd who pull out dictionaries and point to phrases like “one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others” as proof positive that intent is a necessary component. Those are the people who throw up the biggest tantrum when someone like me describes a specific statement or idea as ‘racist’. I usually try to move the conversation away from the ‘inputs’ of racism and toward the ‘outputs’, by describing the way in which blind processes lead to disparate outcomes.

You use the term “emotionally receptive” in your question, and that speaks pretty strongly to my approach vis a vis conflict resolution. Some people enter into a conversation or debate looking to learn something. Others come in spoiling for a fight. It’s not exactly rocket surgery to distinguish one group from the other. I don’t try to “deal with this stumbling block” – I’m not trying to change minds in the room. If you ask me questions, I’ll answer them as best I can. I don’t necessarily expect my answers to be accepted right then and there – minds get changed over a long process of resolving cognitive dissonance. Some people aren’t ready to have this conversation – they may never be ready. I see my job as equipping people who want to talk about it with some basic language and perspective, so that they can feel more comfortable talking about it in their own lives.

Daniel Fincke: Everyone is always talking about how we never talk about race. The culture is always talking about how there is this race conversation that never happens. Now, it seems like a lot of people are terrified of talking about race either for fear of saying something racist or suffering the consequences of upsetting people, etc.

So one of the problems I’m seeing is that because, as you say, there are behaviors and meanings and attitudes that have racist connotations independent of intentions, it is quite likely (and often actually the case) that just talking about racism some racist things are going to be said. And people would rather avoid those screw ups than have the conversation that risks them.

This was why I thought The Daily Show sketch where Larry Wilmore declared that for a short segment of time nothing would be considered racist and Jon Stewart acted relieved and excited was perceptive. But we’ve talked about this and you loathed that scene.

So what was wrong with that scene and how can we talk about racism without saying racist things when racist connotations are loaded everywhere in our language and behaviors, etc.

Is there any way to bridge that gap?

Ian Cromwell: 

Everyone is always talking about how we never talk about race

Correction: very few people actually have enough insight to recognize that fact. The people who want to talk about race are always talking about how we never talk about it. There’s a reason for that.

My problem with the Daily Show segment you’re talking about is that Mr. Wilmore essentially promotes the stupid idea that victims of racism react to racist behaviours out of choice or because we enjoy playing ‘the victim card’. Yet he magnanimously decides to drop that ‘pretense’ and let Jon get away with saying things without having to think about their impact first. To me, this is roughly akin to an atheist apologist saying “okay, well let’s grant your assertion that atheists actually do believe, and then we’ll go from there”. It irked me.

I have many (in fact mostly) positive interactions with people when I have discussions about race. Sometimes people say things that are facepalmingly ignorant (the “but there’s a black president now” one is probably my least favourite), and I try to let as much of that kind of stuff slide as much as I can. The problem arises when people who haven’t bothered to think before speaking, or learn before thinking, feel as though I owe them an explanation. That somehow their ignorance obligates me to teach them. I’m sure you’ve encountered this from creationists who want a Biology 101 lesson, or from libertarians who need to be schooled in introductory ethics in order to even scratch the surface of why the premise of their initial question was stupid.

Any time I take time out of my life to hold your hand and walk you through how “stop and frisk” or “English as the national language” or “reverse racism” is a sandcastle of stupidity on the shores of rationality, I’m doing your ass a favour. If your response is then (and it often is) to try and lecture me instead of listening to my answer to your question, then you’re damn right I’m going to smack you for it. If you’re having a series of conversations about racism where you’re getting your head bitten off, maybe it’s because people are tired of dealing with the monumental sense of entitlement behind your belligerent questions.

The way to “bridge that gap” is for people to learn to listen. If you find someone willing to break some things down for you, don’t object, don’t nitpick, don’t “yes but…”, just listen. You might not agree, but that’s your problem, not theirs. Go away from the conversation, think about it, try to do some research to find out if your objections have been brought up before (chances are they have). You have a pretty good chance of learning something. The other piece of advice I’d give, and this is just for life in general, is to constantly entertain the wild possibility that you might be wrong about something.

Daniel Fincke: I get the frustration, but the educator (or is the Stoic) in me says that we all need to be patient with ignorance and realize that it’s never going away unless we explain things a million times to a million people. Joe Scarborough was talking a few months ago about how Ronald Reagan gave the same speech for 30 years. Scarborough was like “it was the same speech.” And I’ll tell you, it worked because now the ideas in that speech are repeated on a thousand right wing radio shows every day and they blares from FOX News and the internet. Church is the same way. Preaching the same goddamned message every week in perpetuity.

And we wonder why the grip is so strong on people’s minds.

So forgive me for making you do this for the millionth time, but what are the bullet points for the ignorant about affirmative action, “stop and frisk”, reverse racism, and the myths about both genetic differences between the races and laziness in the black community?

Ian Cromwell: It would help if the ignorant didn’t assume that their stupidity somehow deserved my intelligence.

Bullet points. K.

Affirmative action: diversity is good for organizations, but doesn’t tend to happen by accident. We’re not in a place yet where race doesn’t play a meaningful role in hiring decisions. As such, it’s worthwhile to put our thumb on the scales a bit, since they’re already grossly imbalanced.

Stop and frisk: When you treat a group like they’re unwanted, they get the message. This does damage to the entire society. Demonizing an out-group is certainly convenient, but has severe deleterious consequences in the long run. Also, profiling doesn’t fucking work, so there’s that.

“Reverse racism”: “Reverse racism” is a stupid term for two reasons. The first being that racism is racism – “reverse” implies that there is a way it’s supposed to go, but it’s happening in the opposite direction. Second, it’s simply the whine of a privileged group who no longer get away with the advantages they didn’t even realize they had. Also, it’s based on a fundamentally ignorant view of the impact of race in even our contemporary society.

Myths about genetic/behavioural differences: There are a group of assholes out there who call themselves “race realists”, whose position is basically just the ecological fallacy writ large. They look at a cross-section of the population as it is now and conclude that everything is this way for a reason. Blacks face disproportionate unemployment? It’s because they’re lazy. Whites are among the top performers in pretty much every conceivable endeavour? Must be because they’re superior somehow. “It’s not RACIST, I’m just NOTICING things!” It’s a wonder to me that these folks don’t accidentally choke on their own tongues or forget to breathe or something. I think most people today are aware of the essentially non-existent relationship between genetic race and any behavioural traits. The “race realists” are on their own little island of crazy, and I’m happy for them to stay there.

This is nothing – I once explained racism in two tweets.

Daniel Fincke:I saw your post the other day complaining that James Croft wants to use music as part of humanist meetings. I understand the dangers of trying persuade people with music but what is wrong with expressing and reinforcing one’s already held values with music. You’re a musician! You even sang some atheist songs in your blogathon where you took song requests. It sounded to me like those religious people who are afraid of the devil in everything. I saw part of your concern was that not everyone wants music. But why must every kind of humanist meet up be the same? Right now it seems our only options are skeptics in the pub or a lecture. Which are great things but not family friendly (and one of them is not for kids typically). Why not let multiple approaches to humanist meetings flourish including those which meet the needs people presently sell their soul to churches for? (Or have to suck it up and join with some theists at Unitarian churches for.)

I pretty much agree with all of this. James posted an excellent response to my initial complaint, and the TL/DR version is that I am wrong and he is right. I will be following up with my own formal retraction as soon as I can get some time to finish writing it.

Daniel Fincke: Yay! I win!

Ian Cromwell: Technically, James wins.

Daniel Fincke: What do you think is the most important reason that the atheist movement has so few people of color and in tangible terms how do we reverse that situation?

Ian Cromwell: I don’t know that you can parse this question out like that and talk about individual causes without trying to unravel the entire skein of societal racism. I’m a relative latecomer to organized atheism (and to my own atheism additionally), but my understanding is that the biggest ‘feeder’ group for organized atheism is people who are in the sciences rather than the humanities or law or athletics or other fields where there isn’t already a major dearth of dark faces. I think a better question is “what can we do to make organized atheism more attractive to people of colour”, and I have a few answers to that.

The first is to recognize that churches serve a much larger function than simple theological instruction in many black communities. They are the focal point of the entire social structure, and provide many of the social services that government is supposed to provide but doesn’t. The second thing is to understand that there are many people who are atheist in fact, but whose atheism doesn’t play a major role in their self-identity – the “spiritual but not religious” crowd. Third is to recognize that it’s a very different experience walking into a room when you’re the only dark face there. Not everyone’s up for that.

If organized atheism is going to make any inroads with communities of colour, they (we) have to be proactive in reaching out and engaging in dialogue with those groups. Too often I find that atheist discussions about race tend to be ABOUT people of colour rather than WITH them (us). Every time some well-meaning but utterly clueless atheist says “but religion is so bad for black people – why do they stick with it? It doesn’t make sense!”, God gives someone esophagaeal cancer. I would love to see a lot more discussions like Richard Dawkins had with Sikivu Hutchison to bring the mountain to Mohammed, so to speak. It’s stupid to just wait for people of colour to “get over” their “shyness” in this regard. If you want them (us) to be part of the discussion, go talk to them.

Also, get a Snow-Cone machine. That’s not a race thing, it’s just that everyone likes Snow-Cones.

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