Breaking the Vicious Cycle of Racism

by Ben Mathew | 11/9/95 6:00am

The turnout at the Masters-D'Souza debate indicates how important the issue of racism is to most people. It was a good sign. People care, and so we can progress toward the goal of a racially indifferent society. The Masters-D'Souza debate was an important milestone on that road to a racially indifferent society. It was a very illuminating experience for me to hear two people talk about their views on how to eradicate racial differences -- a goal both agreed on.

Let me first give my personal definition of prejudice and racism. I am prejudiced when I take in one aspect of a person -- say, the length of his hair or the type of clothes he wears -- and arrive at another conclusion about the person -- say, about his job. Racism is a special case of prejudice. I am a racist when I take in a person's skin color and arrive at another conclusion about the person -- say, about his education. But society is more worried about racism than about other forms of prejudice because race is something we are born with. One can change the length of one's hair, but not one's race.

One becomes prejudiced about a group of people sharing similar attributes when this group tends to behave a certain way. Prejudice is not a choice. Whether, I like it or not, I will be prejudiced about long-haired men if most of the long-haired men I know are math whizzes. Whether I like it or not, I will be prejudiced about black men if I have been mugged ten times, and each time it a black man was the culprit. The only way to end racial prejudice would be to eliminate the differences between races to such an extent that the color of one's skin means nothing more than a difference in skin pigments.

The issue of racism and racial differences has become a vicious cycle. Racial differences lead to racism. And racism leads to the maintenance of racial differences. People are racially prejudiced because some groups behave differently. Those groups behave differently because they are the objects of prejudice. The debate in 105 Dartmouth boiled down to a dialogue on which of these issues is more important with D'Souza maintaining that the former is the more important and Masters maintaining that the latter is more deterministic.

D'Souza put forward the view that the main cause of blacks' underprivileged position in American society is a breakdown of black culture. There is a significant difference between black American culture and the typical western culture; black culture is not suited to succeeding in a westernized society. That is why blacks are faring so poorly in America, he argued. D'Souza's proposed solution was to eliminate the vertical differences (meaning differences which can clearly be classified as positive or negative) persisting between blacks and other Americans by reforming black culture. And by eliminating the racial differences, we would eliminate the problem of racism.

Masters argued that racism is still the biggest problem facing blacks. He attempted to support his argument by citing the fact that environmental pollution was concentrated in inner cities. But this evidence was not very convincing. First, having to live in an area of higher pollution is more likely to be a function of a person's economic status rather than a function of his skin color. Well-to-do people can afford to live in higher priced pollution-free areas while poor people will have to make do with more polluted neighborhoods. Not completely fair, but still an indication of earning and only indirectly an indication of skin color. Still, the point that Master was making was that racism exists. And by eliminating racism, we would eliminate the problem of racial differences.

To break the vicious cycle of racism causing racial differences, which in turn cause racism, D'Souza suggests that we concentrate on ending racial differences, and Masters suggests that we concentrate on ending racism. In order to achieve the goal of racial indifference in our society, we need to approach the issue both ways. We need both our Masters and our D'Souzas.