“It Wasn’t Me!” Post-Intent and Correlational Racism – More Better, More Terrible

More Beautiful and More Terrible
The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States

by Imani Perry

American history is longer, larger, more various,
more beautiful, and more terrible than anything
anyone has ever said about it.
—James Baldwin

Chapter 1
“It Wasn’t Me!”
Post-Intent and Correlational Racism


Today, there is no longer any single articulating principle or axial process which provides the logic required to interpret the racial dimensions of all extant political/cultural projects. 1

—Howard Winant

Since the mid-1960s, Americans have lived within a nation that announces racial equality, democracy, and fairness as fundamental to its creed. During the same period, Americans have witnessed little movement in the most egregious signs of racial inequality. Although the percentages of African Americans and Latinos in professional schools and occupations have improved over the past several decades, these groups are still significantly underrepresented in virtually all professions relative to their percentage of the general population, 2 and, while Asian Americans and African immigrants have become distinguished as two of the most highly educated sectors of the U.S. population, 3 these groups are minorities within minorities. Ongoing and dismaying racial gaps in health, employment, education, wealth, and imprisonment persist. The American Dream is not lived by all hardworking and upstanding residents of the United States. While the borders to achieving that dream are more porous than ever, the forces diverting many from the dream are extremely powerful.

In the early 1990s, scholars studying race began to alert the nation that we were failing in our equality mission. 4 Their accounts were divergent, even competing or conflicting, but few could neglect the reality that the twenty-first century would arrive with the problem of race unresolved. Although academic interest was high in the 1990s, this message hadn’t translated to an understanding in popular culture for the most part, with the general public reporting a belief that racism was dead or dying. 5 But things began to turn at the dawn of the twenty-first century, and while 9/11 forged a thin nationalism across our differences, it also highlighted our hysterical fears of difference. 6 The deep partisan division in American politics reignited debates about race and racial ideology. And, by 2006, the public at large acknowledged that we were faced with some sort of race problem, as evidenced by the decision of CNN (a cultural common denominator of sorts) to run a special series on race 7 and, in 2008 and 2009, to offer featured programs titled “Black in America” and “Hispanic in America.”

Most of us, from our various points on the political spectrum, look to the current state of Black and Brown people in the United States—the persistent gaps in income, education, health, crime, and other measures—with frustration. Yet we are divided, in the midst of our shared frustration, about where we place blame, why we are frustrated, and what we think ought to be done about the situation. These divisions do not fall along simple race, class, ethnicity, gender, or political party lines. However, in the midst of a complicated set of responses to this landscape, there are two dominant explanatory frameworks provided in both the academic and the popular literature to describe why racial gaps persist, despite our nation’s transformation under the moral authority of the civil rights movement. One says that racism has been largely ameliorated in our society but that gaps persist because of deficits (moral, cultural) among these particularly low-achieving populations (especially poor Blacks) and because of misguided remedial efforts that encourage dependence and victim complexes rather than striving and achievement. The other argument says that the civil rights revolution failed to resolve the structural inequalities that are responsible for ongoing poor outcomes for people of color. We are still seeing the effects of a historically, as well as contemporary, racially discriminatory society with inadequate policy and judicial responses to racism. 8 Although universities today are filled with those who have devoted entire careers to presenting sound evidence of persistent racial inequality, our popular culture sways in the direction of the former explanation. We are all quite familiar with the argument that, given that the society no longer embraces formal or philosophical racism and yet gaps persist, they can best be explained by behavioral failures or lack of human capital among sectors of communities of color. Depending on the political perspective of the authors of these explanations, the inequality may result from moral or cultural problems inherited from the oppressed generations past or from paternalistic social policy that offered handouts and expected little responsibility. 9

Mainstream media conversations about racism in the twenty-first century have frequently been episodic responses to celebrity episodes of one sort or another. Sometimes public figures make racially inflammatory statements that hearken back to old-fashioned racist discourse and yet also prompt accusations that the subjects of racist language are “too sensitive” or “can’t take a joke” because, after all, we aren’t really a racist society anymore. Other episodes are framed around the treatment of a public figure who is a person of color. The treatment looks undeniably like racism to some and like innocent or easily explained behavior not involving racism to others. In both scenarios, what follows is a headache-inducing soup of outcries, humiliations, hysteria, public apologies or standoffs, a flurry of anonymous hate speech, cries of unfair treatment of Whites, abstraction from individual episodes to general truths for people of color, public outcries from civil rights activists, right-wing backlashes, and then the proclamation of racial exhaustion. These moments, which have the potential to be highly instructive, often leave us simply confused, angry, or self-satisfied (either because we are not like “that” or because “that” is unusual). The reality is that the media and most educational institutions do not train us to think about race in its complexity. We don’t learn how to put together our understanding(s) of race in terms of material realities; everyday race talk; new, old, and corporate media; law; religion; geography; patterns of consumption; economic competition; and human interaction. Sure, Americans generally disavow a belief in an ideology of racism. 10 But we must understand the terms of that disavowal. What, precisely, is being disavowed? What is the definition of racism that we have rejected in our purportedly racially egalitarian society? In U.S. race talk, we generally define racism as comprising two components: intentionality and determinism. More specifically, racism requires both the intent to disadvantage someone on the basis of race and the belief that a person must necessarily be a particular way or have particular characteristics because he or she belongs to a specific racial group. Likewise, in constitutional law, with the exception of the employment discrimination context, in order to prevail, one must show intent to establish racial discrimination. 11 This is an extraordinarily difficult standard to meet and often requires a “smoking gun”—virtually irrefutable evidence of intent to discriminate. Rhetorical gestures (e.g., “judging by the color of your skin,” “color-blind society,” “I’m not a racist,” “White guilt”) reflect the way constitutional interpretation has dovetailed with the popular interpretation of the messages of the civil rights movement. Racism, in the minds of many, is a question of blame, what is in someone’s heart, and the impoliteness of race altogether. There is an analogy to this popular perception in our constitu tional law. In constitutional law, courts fixate on a concept of equality that depends upon treating “like” in “like” fashion, that is, treating person A in the same fashion as person B, irrespective of differences in race or national origin. The absurdity is that, in our culture, we know that our behavior isn’t consistent with the principle that we are all fundamentally (a)“like.” Federal courts have not completely abandoned the idea that remediation of cultural and institutional practices of discrimination is lawful, but they are seen as barely legitimate departures from the principle of equality. The dependence on “likeness” as a principle central to equality also creates discomfort for many people over the differences we see and about our awareness of the aggregation of certain “differences” in groups. Who can deny the concentration of certain ethnic groups in service jobs and their invisibility in other professions, the state of disrepair in certain neighborhoods, and the rarity of certain types of people in others? In acceptance of a narrow multiculturalist poetics that was adopted in the late twentieth century, we can generally celebrate differences in food, clothing, traditional music, and (sometimes) language, but the differences that aren’t decorative or entertaining aren’t so easy for us to engage.

To say “I don’t see color” not only is likely to be inaccurate but also reveals a central anxiety about race. Indeed, it is perhaps the fact that “no one wants to be called/considered a racist” 12 that animates our mainstream sense of racial justice. And yet the disparities and distinctions between groups are so visible that they cannot be denied. As a result, no explanatory frameworks for the “seeing” and “not seeing” of race emerge. In this vein, one deeply troubling trend is the proliferation of what Howard Winant has identified as a civil privatist vision of racial equality. This “civil privatist” vision is one in which “equality is strictly a matter of individual actions, of striving, merit, and deserved achievement on the one hand; and of intentional discrimination against specific individuals on the other.” 13 Hence, the apparent disparities appear not because we “see” race in ways that lead us to act in a racially discriminatory fashion but because of the accumulation of behavioral failures in the underachieving “group” or the accumulation of behavioral successes in the achieving group.

But, as shall emerge over the course of this book, social scientists continue to demonstrate that in fact people do act in ways that reveal both “seeing” and distinguishing and advantaging or disadvantaging on the basis of race. And so the civil privatist vision is clearly false.

In truth, the racism we see in the United States is more appropriately called “correlational” racism, in which disfavored qualities or, for preferred groups, favorable qualities are seen as being highly correlated with membership in certain racial groups and dictate the terms upon which individual members of those groups are treated, as well as the way we evaluate the impact and goals of policy, law, and other community-based decision making. Correlational racism is communicated in a plethora of ways that provide powerful counterscripts to the idea of “racial equality.” Certainly, the fact of disparities in education, wealth, and power can and do support correlational racism so long as those disparities are not explained in the light of historic and current practices. Additionally, the ideology of correlational racism is communicated outside the formal talk about beliefs in race and in informal ways that people can easily write off as not reflecting sincere racial beliefs but rather as offering entertainment or emotional release, such as jokes, pornography, comics, the talk of intimate association, adolescent social banter, and workplace chatter. 14 There are clearly both external and internal evidences of this practice. An external example can be found in research that shows that people associate Black faces with primates, even though it is socially unacceptable to walk around now saying, “Black people are monkeys.” 15 An internal example can be found in the evidence of the impact of stereotype threat and stereotype lift 16 on student performance, even though it is unacceptable to walk around saying, “Black people are intellectually inferior.”

That said, while biologically deterministic ideas of race (i.e., the idea that “Black people are stupid”) may be out of the mainstream of popular currency, they intermittently recycle back in through publications like Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve, 17 which identified Black people as having lower levels of intelligence in general, and through the comments of DNA pioneer James Watson about the intellectual inferiority of Africans. Although public outcries ensued over the work and comments of these men, the construction of their statements needs to be watched for indications of an increasingly popular riff on racial determinism; indeed, these statements can arguably be reconciled with the antideterminist and correlationally based racism of today. This is a result of the idea, present in both arguments, of “in-group difference.” Neither has said that people of African descent cannot be intelligent—in their eyes, there is the prospect of intelligence among Africans— but both believe that the levels of intelligence among Black people as a group are significantly lower. For example, Watson has said that, while he hopes everyone is equal, “people who have to deal with black employees find this is not true.” But he also says that people should not be discriminated against because of their color, because “there are many people of color who are very talented.” 18

The search for subcategories of Black people who possess deficiencies through practices like looking for a “crime gene” 19 indicates the presence of a form of “new biological racism.” At the same time, the concept of in-group difference allows a logic to emerge whereby people consider themselves nonracist even when they feel disdain for the overwhelming majority of the members of a racial group.

The kind of racism that we currently generally decry but that had broad currency in an earlier era includes the following elements: a belief in the inherent racial inferiority of non-White people, a belief based either in biology or theology or some combination thereof, along with the belief that such distinctions should find expression in our social and political lives, through mandated or informally practiced segregation and domination. In the social science literature, this kind of racism has been given several names, including redneck racism, 20 blatant racism, 21 and classical racism. 22 While there are distinctions between biological/theologically rooted racisms and other kinds of racial bias, there is a murky space in which “behaviors” are attributed to racial groups without accounting for whether the cause is found in biology or in culture. Here is a sphere in which correlational racism exists and even draws in believers with widely divergent political perspectives. The stereotypes of Black people as lazy, stupid, amoral, loud, violent, and out of control have been in circulation for many years even as popular explanations for these traits have changed. 23 Even those who believe that such behaviors reflect social inequality may be likely to believe that social misbehavior has greater currency among African Americans or within African American culture than in the majority population.

There have been many theories developed about “new racism,” including symbolic racism, 24 modern racism, 25 subtle racism, 26 racial resentments, 27 ambivalent racism, 28 laissez-faire racism, 29 and aversive racism. 30 And these theories have their critics. One line of criticisms has questioned whether racism today is actually any different from what it was in the past, suggesting that those with racist attitudes have simply learned to superficially mask their attitudes. Others have said that focusing on the sentiment behind the racism is a troublesome diversion, because it doesn’t matter whether the racism is rooted in biological or in cultural arguments if the negative impact of the racism is the same. This approach is philosophically consistent with the “victim-centered approach” to problems of racial discrimination espoused by the critical race theorist Alan Freeman as early as 1978. 31 It suggests that the immediate causal explanation for the discrimination is less relevant than the impact of racial inequality and the structure of racial hegemony, which may take different forms at different moments but ultimately supports one particular ideological position—the superiority of Whites.

While impact is of paramount importance, if we want to move through remediation and ultimately achieve a society where racial fairness and equality are the norm, we have to look at how to stave off the perpetuation, the practices of inequality. And we have to do so in both practical and informed ways. One problem with ascribing old-fashioned racism to these times is that it implies that little has changed since the social transformations of the civil rights movement, and, whether one is satisfied or not with the current state of affairs, it is undeniable that significant changes have taken place with respect to racial inequality. Moreover, given that no one wants to be called a racist and that few will admit to being racist, why would we remain committed to a definition of racism that is dependent upon a self-consciousness about racist beliefs? Do we try to force people to admit they hold racist beliefs that they don’t believe they possess because we have an inapt definition of racism? Do we encourage people of color to always assume that inequality has conscious malice associated with it? 32 As an ethical matter, if we imply that the practice of inequality is nothing more than a contemporary manifestation of old-fashioned racism, then we run the risk of accusing millions of Americans of deliberate hypocrisy, rather than developing opportunities to revisit how we define and respond to racism. Another problem with holding fast to the concept of old-fashioned racism, and even the term “racism” generally, to describe practices of inequality is that it limits our interpretive frame. Dave Chappelle’s ironic skit about the blind black racist is satirical as well as instructive. We consider it absurd for a black person to be racist against black people. But, in fact, it is not so unusual for African Americans to hold negative in-group stereotypes about African Americans. African Americans have countercultures around race but are part of the larger project of racial socialization and so participate in the practices of racial inequality even as their efforts have been key to eradicating many of the most egregious forms of racism. Or, take for example this response to Glenn Beck’s accusation that President Obama is a racist, which I read on many a message board: “He is biracial, so how can he be racist?” This, to me, is an illogical response, although I was sympathetic to the expressions of support for the president. One’s parentage, lineage, and intimate associations do not determine the existence or nonexistence of practices of inequality. They may have an impact upon them, but that impact cannot be assumed, given how complex our lives and relationships are. We must look to how people make decisions to treat or respond to others, not just how they are situated.

Moreover, if we identify racial inequality exclusively in terms of impact, institutional formations, and unconscious bias, we limit our belief in our capacities to change the society in which we live. If we locate the problem outside our conscious actions, we also move it beyond the realm of individual or small-scale community intervention. In order to advance racially democratic principles, we have to maintain some belief in will, deliberation, and agency. Research in the fields of metacognition and “critical thinking” are established enough that we should all know that we have the capacity to think about and revise both our thinking and our learning. There is ample ground for hope in human agency and capacity for change. So, while our definition of racism need not be dependent upon intent or determinism, we must be intentional and determined or, in other words, willful about addressing racial inequality. We have to challenge the assumptions that accompany “correlational” racism and racial narratives in all their guises. As Banaji and Bhaskar write regarding evidence of unintentional bias, “Unawareness of the discrepancy between intention and behavior as well as the discomfort that accompanies awareness of such discrepancies cannot justify the characterization of these errors as anything but errors . . . conclusions about decision-making that are disturbing ought not be mischaracterized as benign or correct.” 33

The demands of addressing race today are distinct from those of a previous era. It is clear that the civil rights generation understood that the terms of the particular social, cultural, and historic moment had to be considered in strategizing action. For instance, the movement changed significantly after the Brown v. Board of Education (1954) Supreme Court decision because, for the first time in nearly sixty years, advocates enjoyed the prospect of having the law on the side of racial justice. Likewise, part of working for racial justice in the twenty-first century is developing a nuanced understanding of the politics of race in this particular moment.

That said, the fact that I am arguing that we should look beyond intent and determinism as signature elements in the definition of racism does not mean that intentional racism and racial determinist ideas are gone from the American consciousness. Any look at an online message board that has even a marginal reference to race will reveal extant old-fashioned intentional and deterministic racism. Even though the cyber world allows angry individuals to overrepresent themselves through repeated entries, the ubiquity of these assertions cannot be ignored. Following Obama’s election to the presidency, White supremacist militia activity dramatically expanded. 34 Old-fashioned racism is still around, but that’s not the normative form of practices of inequality.

We should no longer frame our understanding of racially discriminatory behavior in terms of intentionality. It is too unsophisticated a conception of discriminatory sentiment and behavior. It doesn’t capture all or most discrimination, and it creates a line of distinction between “racist” and “acceptable” that is deceptively clear in the midst of a landscape that is, generally speaking, quite unclear about what racism and racial bias are, who is engaging in racist behaviors, and how they are doing so.

If articulating a deep antipathy for a people is against the rules, not just as a matter of politeness but as an ethical norm, that doesn’t mean the antipathy necessary disappears. Rather, it means that the terms according to which that antipathy is ordinarily communicated and taught are no longer a matter of simple articulation. Our continued devotion to defining racism by the simple articulation “I don’t like X people” reflects two things: a resistance to really addressing the antipathy and an anxiety about how diligently we must monitor the simple articulation precisely because the ethical norm of racial egalitarianism seems so frail in American society. Both situations demand a better toolkit.

To say we must think post-intentionally is also a means of escaping a problem with what is meant by intentionality. One could read post-intent as simply referring to the growing body of cognition research showing that there is a great deal of unconscious bias. But, at the same time that there is unconscious bias, there are quite conscious racial narratives about groups and places that are expressed all the time, in our humor, our entertainment, our schools, our news, our government, our places of employment, and on and on. When Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Let us be judged not by the color of our skin but by the content of our character,” perhaps he wasn’t prepared for the widespread impugning, in the twenty-first century, of black character, not on a deterministic basis but through what appears to be race-neutral evaluations regarding behaviors, culture, and morality. 35 As Glenn Loury notes, “It is a politically consequential cognitive distortion to ascribe the disadvantage to be observed among a group of people to qualities thought to be intrinsic to that group when, in fact, that disadvantage is the product of a system of social interactions.” 36 It is not a simple matter to assess whether we, collectively or as individuals, are saying or thinking what we mean when it comes to race. So, rather than say that racism is now unintentional, I am saying that intentionality isn’t a good measure any longer, in part because the notion of intentional racism truncates the realm of intent. An employer can intend to hire a particular person and make that decision while being highly influenced by racial stereotypes and yet not intend to be “racist.” One can promulgate racist imagery and ideas without having any interest in identifying oneself as a racist. One can decry racist jokes and opinions as morally untenable while acting in ways that diminish others on the basis of race. Americans have a long tradition of reconciling inconsistencies between professed values and cultural practices. These inconsistencies have existed in arenas as diverse as domestic norms, sexual mores, economic policies, political rights, and democratic principles. Therefore, we do not experience cognitive dissonance when such inconsistencies arise; rather, we cultivate explanations that allow them to operate in tandem.

In sum, our cultural logic allows us to easily distance ourselves from both the people who make mean-spirited racist remarks and the inequality of the society we live in. The problem is that such a neat package neglects a great deal of research that has been accumulating for decades about the persistence of race-specific inequality, its operation, and its meaning, research showing that our habits, attitudes, behaviors, entertainment, and a plethora of choices we make actually work to support racial inequality. The question with regard to this evidence can no longer be “What is wrong with the Black and Brown poor and how can we fix it?” Rather, the question must be “What is wrong with a nation where people act against the racial equality we trumpet, and how can we fix it?”

  1. Howard Winant, “Difference and Inequality: Postmodern Racial Politics in the United States,” in Racism, the City and the State, ed. Malcolm Cross and Michael Keith (New York: Routledge, 1993), 110.
  2. See Victor M.H. Borden, Pamela C. Brown, and Amy K. Garver, “The Top 100: Interpreting the Data,” Diverse Issues in Higher Education 23 (June 2006): 36-39, and “African Americans Continue to Flock to Graduate and Professional Schools,” Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 40 (Summer 2003): 10-11