This morning I listened to an interview with Carole Simpson on The Madeleine Brand Show. (The podcast isn’t available as I write this, but when it is it will be here and you can subscribe. Update: it’s now available; you can download the .mp3 directly from here) Summarizing from memory: Simpson said that the racism and sexism early in her career were constant and pervasive. She was called a “ni—- slut”; male colleagues would unzip her dress or plunge their hands down her blouse; when she started out, assignment editors would enjoy the “joke” of telling her to cover an event but giving her a time that was well after it was scheduled to end.
But when Brand asked whether the sexism and racism had “dissipated” over time, Simpson said no. “Every six to nine months” until she retired, she would get an email or a call, or encounter something in person, that reminded her that in someone else’s eyes she was “just a black woman.” Simpson’s examples made it sound as if “black” retained much more salience than woman: One colleague offered to fetch her a “collard green sandwich”; an executive, encountering her at an office party in business attire, still assumed she must be a maid.
Still, to complain about discrimination that occurred “every six to nine months” might at first hearing sound a bit bit petty. Surely that can be laughed off? Not so fast.
Back when I taught a course on affirmative action, I remember reading an author (it might have been Glenn Loury, though I can’t lay my hands on his book at the moment) point out how such intermittent discrimination has real costs when reckoned over a career. Consider that most people get a big break on a personal level—a boss, colleague, present or former co-worker, ex-college buddy, etc., remembers you as competent and chooses you for a job or promotion—every few years. Now assume that those breaks happen, because of racism or sexism, once every five and a half years instead of five, because one in ten people is a little bit biased, which seems not a radical estimate. Worse, assume that once in a few years somebody with a bit of power wishes you ill instead of well and quashes the promotion instead of facilitating it. Multiply that by a whole career and suddenly everybody who isn’t a white guy ends up at least a level or two below where he or she would have been without bias. This happens even if one doesn’t assume high or pervasive levels of animus and even if one doesn’t take the psychic costs of racial and sexual insult into account (though the latter seems unfair, especially since the souls of conservative white males seem acutely sensitive to the slightest accusation of racial insensitivity, and is of course not how our civil rights laws see things).
I suspect that one reason that most white males like me find this whole process hard to credit is that we don’t have a personal analogy: it seems there’s nothing in our experience that this intermittent animus closely resembles. Actually there is, but we don’t think about it that way, and the frame of “institutional” racism obscures it: intermittent racism is like a guarantee that somebody in every workplace you experience will be a personal enemy.
Define an enemy as someone who for no good reason (as you see it, anyway) has it in for you. Such enemies don’t intend to break your legs or kick you out of your house, but hold you to much higher standards than they hold everyone else to, as well as much higher standards than everyone else holds you to. For most of us, if we’re fairly decent people and team players, such enemies are uncommon—call them one co-worker in a hundred—but when they appear they really rankle. They make the workplace unpleasant; they make every meeting fraught; we remember them for years; we’ll do all we can to get rid of them (in the process becoming their enemies) and if we can’t, might well change jobs to avoid them.
Now imagine that in your workplace, one out of every fifteen or twenty colleagues is such an enemy. Further imagine that your enemies are much more often than not more powerful than you are, since enemy-of-you, while still an uncommon descriptor among those with more power than you, is still highly correlated with having more power than you. (Translation: most white people don’t hate have it in for blacks, but by far most people who hate have it in for blacks are white.) This means that you probably can’t fire your enemy, but your enemy may over time be able, especially by biasing job assignments and assessments so that non-enemies come to think ill of you, to get you fired or at least not promoted. Finally, imagine that each of your enemies will have every interest in concealing that enmity, because it’s socially taboo, as well as every possibility of concealing it, because asserting the continued existence of such enmities is also socially taboo.
All this might make you want to quit your job and take another. Unfortunately, you can pretty much guarantee that exactly the same circumstances will obtain in every job. A one-in-fifteen or -twenty rate of enmity obtains in society as a whole.
Welcome to contemporary American society—and to the grand costs of continued petty racism, even assuming that most people don’t practice it and that the way they practice is much less violent than it once was.
Update: I’ve replaced “hate” by “have it in for” to stress the non-virulent quality of the enmity at issue.