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Individual and Group

The general state of race-relations in America has recently been highlighted nationally by President Clinton’s “Dialogue on Race”, and in California by ballot propositions like 187 (limiting government benefits to illegal immigrants) and 209 (eliminating state-sponsored affirmative-action). The desire for an unemotional and realistic conversation on race — where we stand, where we are headed, and where we want to be — is noble and desirable. It seems, however, that our initial attempts have been thwarted as much by the terms of the conversation as by the subject itself: just as the underlying context, assumptions, and forms of historical discrimination were largely defined by its beneficiaries (to whom ‘race-relations’ were a closed issue), the underlying context, assumptions, and forms of the fight against discrimination — and, more generally, of our discussions about race — have been largely defined by those to whom ‘race-relations’ have historically meant ‘race-based oppression’ — to whom ‘race-relations’ were very much an open issue and a dominant factor of their lives. While this is understandable, and perhaps even just, it almost ensures that racial difference is viewed and debated as a chasm to be crossed — or into which to fall — rather than as a boundary to be transcended.

These essays were intended to broaden the scope of the dialogue. The first was originally submitted to the San Jose Mercury News for consideration as an opinion piece. The two were later submitted as a pair to both the San Francisco Chronicle and Newsweek for proposed inclusion in an ongoing series on the “National Dialogue on Race”. Neither was ever accepted for publication.

Part 2 of 2: Individual and Group

20 July 1997

Whenever perceptions of injustice or inequality, or inequities of income or power — issues of race, or gender, or class — rise to the surface in America, the discussion will inevitably include some condemnation of the “white-male power structure” which has for so long imposed its will on the powerless and less fortunate. We hear about the “angry white male” who resists attempts to alleviate discrimination and sexism by jealously guarding his entree into the club where power is wielded and fortunes are made. We hear about the “old boys network”, the back-door path to success-through-connections available exclusively to (white) men.

Some of this hyperbole contains seeds, if not bushels, of truth. Although the last 30 years have seen great progress, racism and sexism still plague us. Although women and minorities are no longer uncommon in almost any profession or at any level of authority and compensation, statistical disparities stubbornly persist. And,having largely eradicated open and explicit forms of discrimination, it is exactly those furtive, implicit, systemic forms of discrimination which now demand our attention and our diligence.

And, although our public society is integrated to an extent unparalleled in our history, our private society often still self-organizes around a segregated vision of group affiliation — a vision blessed and encouraged by our cultural and intellectual leaders. We hear about the views/cultures/fortunes/feelings of “whites” and “blacks”, of “men” and “women”, of “anglos” and “hispanics”, of “gays” and “straights” — of a group identity in which individuals are assumed always to align themselves exclusively with “their own kind”, defined by the color of their skin or their ancestral homeland or the number of “X” chromosomes in their genes. It is a common conceit for writers, and academics, and social and political leaders to represent the “black experience” or the “female experience” or the “hispanic experience” as if there could be one monolithic life-history embracing all members of each group. And by implication, by fencing off ways of seeing the world as proprietary to one group or another, they define a mythical hegemonic “white-male experience” against which they define their struggle for equality.

But to reduce all race and gender relations to this simple formula of group identity ignores the messy complexities of reality. In particular, the “white-male experience” is a myth, because the white-male as-a-group is a myth.

Minorities and women, in response to centuries of group-based oppression, often do define themselves — at least in part — by their gender or race, by their common experience of degradation and by those shared attributes which have been used as the excuse for that degradation. And this sense of brotherhood (or sisterhood) often does manifest itself as an assumption of common interest, an unconditional acceptance and support for the new student or the new employee or the new neighbor — or for the stranger on the news — solely because they share that common heritage.

But except in a few fringe cases, there is no such sense of brotherhood among white males. While the group affiliation of a minority or a woman is generally self-selected and inclusive, rooted in an assumption of common experience, the group affiliation of a white man is generally assigned and exclusive, reflecting the judgement of others about his alienation from their common experiences. White males tend not to think of themselves as part of a cohesive brotherhood. Our “white-maleness” implies no particular common interest, elicits no unconditional acceptance or support. Rather we generally view ourselves as individuals, as much in competition with other white men as in collusion with them.

This dichotomy of viewpoint between the self-as-group-member and self-as-individual explains much of the misunderstanding and discord which characterizes our conversations about race and gender.

Consider a company which employs 1000 people, 120 blacks and 880 whites. Assume that the authority and rewards are largely allocated to 10% of the employees, 100 high-level executives who have climbed the corporate ladder to the top — who have “made it”. Further assume that, although they constitute 12% of the employees, blacks constitute only 1% of these paragons of success — a single person. For every black person who has “made it” there are 99 whites, an appalling statistic which should invite our outrage and condemnation.

But consider this another way: for every black person who does not “make it”, there are more than 6 whites in the same circumstance. For every black person who does “make it” there are almost 800 whites who do not. And if we could magically fix the inequities and achieve proportional parity, there would still be 88 whites (and 12 blacks) who have “made it” on their merits alone, with no help or hindrance from prejudice or discrimination.

Does this mean that blacks are actually getting an even shake? No. Does it mean that the distribution of power and rewards is fair? No. Does it mean the proportional disparity between blacks and whites should be ignored? No!

But it is pointless to view those whites at the bottom (and those fairly at the top) — who constitute a sizeable majority of the total population — as “the enemy”.  It is ironic to accuse them of being part of the “white male power structure”. It is unfair to assume they have benefited by their “privileged position in the racial (or gender) hierarchy”. And it is unrealistic to expect them to be sanguine about policies designed to arbitrarily move someone else — anyone else — up the ladder ahead of them in the name of “equity”, no matter what the statistical justification may be. It is of no consequence to them that “whites” overall have done well when they, individually, have not: those “white” successes are not, in any sense, their own; the designation has no resonance for their own identity, no connection to their own aspirations.

This is the heart of the problem with the way we discuss and address discrimination — racial or otherwise — in this country. While the policy of prejudice is dispassionately communal, the act of prejudice is intensely personal; while the environment of discrimination disadvantages an entire group, the act of discrimination falls wholly on an individual.

It is likewise with our solutions to these evils. We aim to replace the policy, to transform the environment, and so we focus our efforts on groups and statistics. We forget that our remedies, our alternate policies and environments, also comprise multitudes of individual acts, acts which affect not the group but solitary people with their livelihoods, their hopes, and their pride at stake.

For all our talk about disparities between all blacks and all whites, between all women and all men, very few individuals are handed either success or failure based exclusively on their membership in one of these sets. For all our acknowledgement that some groups are disadvantaged more than others in their pursuit of happiness, it is still true that most individuals will never achieve all they hope for. And, while it may feel good and just and honorable — “turnabout is fair play” — to switch the disadvantage from one group to another, there is no justice or honor in the means of discrimination no matter their lofty ends.

If we truly want to move beyond recrimination and despair, beyond misunderstanding and mistrust, we must recognize this disparity between group equality and individual equality, between group justice and individual justice. We must decide as a nation, not as competing factions, what equality and justice mean. Only then may we, perhaps, achieve them.

© Copyright 1997, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell

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