When it comes to race, reality is not black and white

J. Martin Rochester

By Marty Rochester

I regularly tell my classes that the best definition of education is “getting students to learn to cope with ambiguity.”  That is, most reality is not black and white but grayish – nuanced, much more complicated than the caricatures often depicted by our left- and right-leaning media and accepted by their partisan audiences in our highly polarized political culture.  

Nowhere is it truer that things are rarely black and white than, indeed, in the case of blacks and whites in America. Race relations in America are complex. Yet you would never know it from much of what passes for public discourse on the subject. 

We need to stop oversimplifying race. Let me give some examples of what I mean.

Ever since the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, race has been discussed almost daily on the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and other newspapers. Much of the coverage has distorted reality, exaggerating the problem of police brutality and white police killing blacks, while underplaying the problem of blacks as victims of crimes generally, including black-on-black crime. If an incident does not fit the dominant “race narrative” of rampant racial discrimination in America, for example, if a black cop kills a black, it will rate relatively little attention. Black lives do, in fact, matter, whether they are taken by whites or blacks. But the selective rage suggests otherwise.

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John Legend, when he accepted the Oscar for best song (“Glory,” from the movie “Selma”) at the recent Academy Awards ceremony, complained about the high incarceration rate of blacks in American prisons. While factually correct, he failed to note, as University of Pennsylvania Law School professor Amy Wax writes, “the facts overwhelmingly show that blacks go to prison more often because blacks commit more crimes.” 

Of course, there remains considerable racism in America. (Did someone say University of Oklahoma?) 

But, just as we do a disservice to that conversation when we are in denial about ongoing racial discrimination, it does not help the conversation when we deny the considerable racial progress that has occurred, manifested most plainly by a black occupant of the White House who is the first presidential candidate in half a century to win a majority of the popular vote twice, by the fact that two of the last four U.S. secretaries of state entrusted with American national security have been black (appointed by George W. Bush, whose Republican Party has been accused repeatedly of playing “the race card” to curry favor with white voters), by black CEOs heading such high-profile corporations as McDonalds, Merck, American Express and Xerox (granted most Fortune 500 companies continue to be headed by whites), and by other “inconvenient truths” that underscore improvement in race relations.

To illustrate my point further, that racial reality in America is more complicated than is often portrayed in our everyday discourse, note two recent op-eds by Charles Blow, an African-American columnist at The New York Times

On the one hand, his column of Jan. 26, “At Yale, the Police Detained My Son,” was a poignant and useful reminder of the persistence of racial profiling of African-Americans. As Blow put it: “I got a call that no parent wants to get. It was my son calling from college — he’s a third-year student at Yale. He had been accosted by a campus police officer at gunpoint,” supposedly because he resembled “a burglary suspect.” 

One might ask, though, when Blow constantly writes about “white privilege,” is he not also guilty of racial profiling, of grossly stereotyping an entire demographic group (all whites from Appalachia to the Big Apple), and even engaging in hate speech? This would seem a gray area, no? One need only cite the recent St. Louis Jewish community study that found over 25 percent of Jews (almost all of whom are white) “poor” or “near poor.” Nationwide, 20 million whites live below the poverty line, constituting 40 percent of the country’s poor. 

Blow also touched upon a gray area in his Feb. 2 column, “A Future Segregated By Science.” He lamented that the current emphasis on creating jobs calling for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) skills might aggravate the inequality between whites and blacks, “since black people are 12 percent of the United States population” but receive “just 7 percent of all STEM bachelor’s degrees, 4 percent of master’s degrees, and 2 percent of Ph.D.s.” 

However, this begs the question as to what is preventing blacks from studying those fields. There is little evidence that they are being barred or discouraged from studying math or hard science in K-12 and higher education. If racial inequality were to widen due to STEM developments, it would seemingly have less to do with the usual “victimization” arguments than with educational choices made. Even if black education choices may be somewhat more limited by economic and other factors, there is nothing to prevent greater numbers of blacks from excelling at STEM more than, say, at sports.  

Mere bean-counting is not evidence of discrimination, unless one wants to claim that the dearth of white basketball players (especially short Jews) on NBA teams reflects anti-Semitism and bias against the vertically challenged. Does anyone seriously want to make the argument that NBA jobs are merit-based, whereas STEM jobs are not? Or that Major League Baseball has a race “problem,” given the lack of black baseball players on the Cardinals and other teams today, as if any team would pass on signing the next Ernie Banks if they could, and as if teams that are investing heavily in developing players of color from Latin America and Asia are not interested in developing players of color closer to home? 

The typically small black representation on suburban police forces, in Honors and Advanced Placement courses in high schools, on major league teams and in other areas of American life may or may not be evidence of racism that demands redress. Chances are there is a complicated mix of variables operating, some more grounded in race than others. If you think not, read the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, which devotes considerable space to “the trouble with race” and concludes that the United States might well be “post-racist but is hardly post-racial.”

I have taken great pleasure in seeing many of my African-American students at UMSL succeed academically (for example, the Washington Bureau chief of the NAACP, who once graciously acknowledged me as his mentor). However, I often find myself in a damned-if-I-do, damned-if-I-don’t dilemma in relating to African-American students. 

If I refuse them extra support and help, I invite the accusation that I am “insensitive,” insufficiently sympathetic to their needs as disadvantaged students and blind to the historical baggage of slavery they carry with them. Yet if I do the opposite, give them special treatment and cut them some slack, I risk being called “patronizing” and “condescending” in not holding them to the same expectations as whites.  

Neither I nor society can have it both ways. I resolve this in favor of reminding myself that all students — all people — should be treated as individuals and at the same time held to the same high standards. That would seem as unambiguously non-racist as could be.

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is author of 10 books on international and American politics, including the forthcoming “New Warfare:  Rethinking Rules for An Unruly World.”  In addition to teaching courses in international politics, international organization and law, and U.S. foreign policy, he has served as Chairperson of the Political Science Dept. at UM-St. Louis.