Racism and the Myth of a “Victim Mentality”
By Tim Wise
February 20, 2010
Recently, I received an e-mail from a college professor who shows a video of one of my speeches in her classroom. She explained that she was in need of a citation for a claim I had made in the video, to the effect that although blacks and Latinos are far more likely than whites to be searched by police after a traffic stop, it is whites who are more likely–four times more likely in fact–to be found with drugs or other contraband on us, on the much less frequent occasions when we’re the ones searched.
I happily obliged, sending her the web link for a 2005 Department of Justice report, in which the data can be found. Apparently, she was being challenged by one of her white male students, who was certain the claim must be wrong. Of course. Because everybody knows black and brown folks are the ones with all the drugs. Armed with his high school diploma, he felt confident challenging the person who is academically certified to teach him something, as if her years of experience and research counted for nothing, and as if mine (twenty-plus at this point) were irrelevant to the search for truth.
As a side note, and before continuing with the real focus of my remarks, it has always fascinated me how readily people without the slightest bit of knowledge on these subjects will challenge those of us who have spent our lives studying them. And this they do, in a way they would never think to challenge, say, the plumber who came to fix their toilet. In such a case as that, most anyone would recognize and defer to the plumber’s specialized knowledge about their craft. But not with a subject that has ideological or political implications. The fact that everyone is entitled to their opinion leads millions to believe that their opinions are actually just as valuable as anyone else’s, no matter the yawning chasm between their own expertise on a topic and that of someone else. Thus, we end up with Glenn Beck helping to shape public opinion: a guy who readily admits his lack of education, but whose views we are supposed to take seriously anyway. Or Sarah Palin, whose sub-mediocre academic record is viewed as a badge of honor by conservatives who consider those with substantial academic accomplishments to be elitist snobs.
But anyway, I digress.
What was actually more disturbing about the instructor’s e-mail was the part after she asked for the data citation, where she noted that in addition to challenging the facts I’d presented in the video, the white guy had also insisted that even if the claim were true–in other words, even if police really are racially profiling people of color unfairly–we shouldn’t talk about it, because to do so will discourage black people from trying hard to achieve. It will, presumably, turn them into permanent victims, whose expectations of mistreatment will make them essentially give up.
The Racist and Ignorant Underpinnings of the Victim Mentality Argument
It’s a common argument, made by those who would rather ignore or finesse the problem of racism in America. If you can’t argue the facts, never fear, just suggest that certain facts are too dangerous to be spoken. The possibility that persons of color might adopt a victim mentality once they learn the extent of racism, means we simply have to move on, and tell those who are, as a matter of fact, often the victims of injustice not to dwell on their experiences too much, lest their commitment to self-help be vitiated.
That such an argument as this is fundamentally racist should be obvious. First, it presumes that persons of color are too stupid to already know what it is they’re experiencing. Those who bemoan the so-called victim mindset appear to believe that no one would think about racism were it not for the constant presence of liberals and leftists raising the issue. Secondly, the argument supposes that black and brown folks are so weak-willed that if they really understood the obstacles in their way, they would crumble like pie crust. As such, the fact that prominent black conservatives like Shelby Steele or Walter Williams are among the most outspoken proponents of this argument–that discussing racism risks the inculcation of a permanent victim mentality–suggests how little they think of their own racial group.
The truth is, folks of color (especially African Americans) are well aware of the negative stereotypes held about their racial group by an early age. Indeed, recent evidence indicates an awareness of these stereotypes by as soon as the third grade, and rarely later than the fifth: around the age of, say, eleven. This awareness–which is not due to liberals bringing it up, but rather, the result of black and brown folks living with the mistreatment that stems from the stereotypes and being exposed to them in media and elsewhere–has been found to dramatically impact academic performance. Even (and especially) among highly capable and motivated students of color, the fear of living down to a stereotype has been shown to generate such anxiety that it can suppress performance, relative to ability, thereby perpetuating the very performance gaps that feed the stereotypes about black intelligence in the first place. In other words, whether or not white racism is discussed, the knowledge of its existence is sufficient to negatively impact black and brown success. Talking about racism isn’t the problem: racism itself is.
Are Some Victims are More Valid Than Others?
Naturally, none of the conservatives who worry about blacks adopting a debilitating mindset of victimhood ever fret about the same thing happening to others who have been victimized by injustice. They don’t tell Jewish folks to get over the Holocaust, or not to talk about those unhappy matters so much, lest they cripple themselves under the weight of a victim syndrome. They don’t warn crime victims against the adoption of a victim mindset. No indeed, the right even praises “victim’s rights” groups, as if to suggest that, for these poor souls, victimhood is the highest station of human worth, and even provides special insights when it comes to proper crime control policy. And the right, even as they decry black and brown claims of victimization–all for the best interests of those folks of color, naturally–are quite skilled at proclaiming themselves the victims of all kinds of things: taxes, big government, immigrants, reverse discrimination, secular humanism, gay marriage, “radical Islam,” you name it. The right loves victimhood, so long as they’re the ones who get to choose which victims count, and so long as they don’t have to actually deal with the history of injustice meted out to those who, by and large, are not them.
So why is it acceptable for these other groups’ members to focus on their victimization, while it’s somehow untoward of even self-destructive for blacks to do so? Keep in mind, there has been a steady push for curricula that addresses the destruction of European Jewry under Hitler, and no one has suggested that teaching the Diary of Anne Frank might be debilitating to Jewish children. Classes on, and special materials on the Jewish Holocaust are ubiquitous in American schools. Meanwhile, discussion of the Holocaust of America’s indigenous populations remains largely off-limits, even to the point that the term Holocaust can’t be used to describe it, lest we be seen as disrespecting the supposed uniqueness of Jewish suffering. As a Jew myself, I was raised on a steady diet of “never again” rhetoric, and not once was it suggested that such thinking was somehow going to diminish my willingness to work hard. Quite the contrary, it was intended to make damned sure I never allowed my people to be subordinated again. And that, it appears, is the real concern of conservatives. They aren’t worried about blacks and other people of color adopting a crippling victim mentality. They are worried about such folks fighting back against the victimization that continues to happen on a daily basis.
Preparation is Not Capitulation to Victimhood
Logic suggests that there is a big difference between being prepared for potential injury of some sort (as those who challenge racism insist one must be) and wallowing in victimhood. When we buy insurance, for instance, we are preparing for the possibility of something bad happening to us–becoming sick, getting in a car accident, or having our house wiped out by a flood or tornado, or broken into by a burglar who then steals our valuables. Yet only the most cynical would say that by thinking about these possibilities (even to the point of paying money to insulate ourselves against them), we were somehow mired in a mentality of perpetual victimization. No indeed, such preparation, and the foresight that precedes it would be taken by most as signs of supreme rationality, level-headedness and maturity. And this is true despite the fact that, statistically speaking, the odds that a person of color will experience racism at some point are far greater than the odds of, say, a catastrophic weather related destruction of one’s house, or the likelihood that one will be the victim of a home invasion. Research indicates that people of color will be discriminated against in about one out of every three job searches, as well as a third of the time when looking for housing. Though not clamoring for racism insurance, people of color logically think about the potential of racist injury, and given the possibility of such injury, doing so is no less rational than to contemplate other forms of ill-fortune. It is far more rational, for instance, than buying air traveler’s insurance, in the event that one’s plane were to crash, and yet many people purchase this kind of thing every year. Are they paranoid? Locked in a victim mentality? Neurotic? No, just cautious. Being prepared does not paralyze you, in these or any other cases.
To put this in terms that are especially easy to understand, let me offer a personal story, which illustrates the difference between being prepared for something and being paralyzed by fear of it. When I was quite a bit younger, I was an accomplished baseball player, especially when it came to hitting. As was my habit, during pre-game preparations, I would pay special attention to the opposing team’s pitcher as he warmed up. I would watch to see how fast he threw, his motion, his delivery, and what kind of movement, if any, he was able to put on the ball. I did this even though I knew that sometimes these guys (who were almost always bigger than me and a bit older) were zipping balls into their catchers at over 85 miles an hour, which, to a 5’3″ 14 year old, can be intimidating, to say the least. Several others on my team wouldn’t watch the pitchers that intently. But I did, religiously. And not only did it not psyche me out or make me less confident of my ability to get on base. If anything, it prepared me for what I’d be facing, and made me more confident.
It’s a logic that most any responsible parent would immediately understand. What kind of father would I be, for instance, if I never told my girls about the fact that there are some boys and men who think girls and women are less capable, and that there will be some among these who may treat them unfairly? The answer is, I’d be a damned pitiful one. To tell your kids that they can be anything they want to be if they try hard enough is nice, but unless you warn them about the obstacles in their path, which, unconquered, can derail them on the road to success, you are ill-suiting them for the real world. You are doing them no favors, but rather, are setting them up for a terrible fall, once they come upon the hurdles for which you had failed to prepare them, and as such, equip them to overcome. On the other hand, by discussing those obstacles honestly–and discussing individual and collective strategies of resistance to them–persons who are the targets of unjust treatment can steel themselves against the headwinds in their way, persevere, and accomplish in spite of those headwinds.
Victim Mentality Arguments Ignore History and Common Sense
Frankly, it’s stunning that anyone would deny this basic truth, especially given the historic evidence at our disposal to prove its veracity. After all, if you ask most any black person over the age of forty what their parents told them about race when they were younger, you will hear one or another version of the following in reply: that they would have to work twice as hard as white folks. And this they were told, not as some free-floating, de-contextualized notion, but precisely because the system was so profoundly unjust and discrimination so deeply ingrained, that despite their best efforts and talent, they would too often be overlooked for the best jobs and opportunities solely because of the color of their skin.
But does anyone–including, especially the black conservatives who decry the so-called victim mentality–condemn the older African Americans (including, one can safely presume, their own parents) who previously prepared generations of blacks for hard work and success by telling them in no uncertain terms that things were unequal and unfair? Does any conservative suggest these blacks in prior eras were crippling their children with the message that they would need to work harder than whites because of racism? Better still, is there any evidence whatsoever that being told such a thing did in fact cripple black folks, or make them try less hard than they otherwise might have? Of course not. If anything, the exact opposite is true. Knowing the odds, black and brown folk tried even harder, because to do otherwise would all but guarantee defeat. In short, the claim that discussing racism and discrimination creates passive victims out of people of color flies in the face of every bit of empirical evidence on the subject, which suggests that the opposite is true: knowing the truth inspires perseverance and passionate resistance to victimization, not resignation to one’s status as a target.
In fact, one could even argue that downplaying the reality of racism and discrimination so as to avoid the inculcation of a victim mindset, and so as to spur greater individual initiative, could backfire. After all, if a person is led to believe that there are no obstacles in their way, and that their hard work, intelligence and ability are all that will matter, they might slack up. They might coast on the assumption that surely all will recognize their potential, and that they won’t have to go that extra mile to make a good impression. They may overestimate the extent to which whites will recognize their effort and hard work, or the extent to which that recognition will be sufficient to overcome the implicit (and even explicit) biases that years of research indicates are still very much ingrained in the minds of most white folks. So not only may a “see no evil, speak of no evil” mindset not help folks of color in a society where racism still functions, it could actually do substantial harm.
In the end, there is only one question we need ask: does the truth matter or not? If racism is a problem–and research makes clear that it is–then there is no responsible path forward but to discuss it, to call it out, and to address it directly. To ignore it, or minimize its importance will not make it go away, will not smooth the path for any person of color confronting it, and will only leave folks ill-prepared to deal with it, on those occasions when it rises up to smack them in the face. Surely, anyone who would leave millions of others so unprepared for the world as it is can’t be taken seriously when they claim to be compassionate. The right doesn’t care about people of color adopting a victim mentality. They simply wish to avoid a discussion of injustice, because such a discussion might lead us to do something about it. And they rather like things the way they are.
Tim Wise is the author of five books on race and racism, including his latest, Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity, to be released in the Spring of 2010 from City Lights Books.