Racism, Pt. 2

Clyde Davenport (clyde@BUS.HIROSHIMA-PU.AC.JP)
Tue, 19 Mar 1996 16:42:38 +0900

reproduction of ethnic prejudices is not merely a complex and
fascinating academic topic, but also a crucial social problem that
needs thorough and critical inquiry. Most of our 'Western' societies
have become increasingly multiethnic in the past decades, and the
persistence and growth of prejudice, discrimination and racism
against ethnic and racial minorities are threatening not only the
rights and the well-being of these fellow citizens, but also the humane
and democratic values and goals of our society as a whole. The
sociopolitical fight against such deeply rooted, structural tendencies
presupposes, however, that we have insight into the complex
mechanisms that underlie their reproduction among the dominant
White groups.
"This study focused on a key element of this process of cognitive
and social reproduction, namely, discourse and communication. It
has been our main thesis that the ethnic attitudes and prejudices
that form the cognitive basis of discrimination and racism cannot
become socially acquired, shared and confirmed without the
multiple processes of public and interpersonal communication.
Apart from--often minimal or even absent--observation and
interaction, White people "learn" about minorities mainly through
talk and text. The hear and read about extant minority groups or
new immigrants in country, city, and community through myriad
discourse types that define the communication lines of our society:
parent-child and family talk, conversations with peers, friends, or
neighbors, through children's books and comics, movies and TV
programs, novels or news reports, political propoganda or academic
research reports. Whereas (still too few) previous studies focused
on the important role of the mass media, primarily the press, TV
and movies, this book focused on more direct, interpersonal
communication among majority group members, namely, on
everyday conversation." (pp. 383-384)

"Topics, defined as semantic macrostructures, are essential
for the conversational as well as the cognitive organization of
information. . . . We found that just as conversation in general,
the--often spontaneous, and hence not interviewer-induced--
selection of topics [in the interviews which formed the basis of
van Dijk's study] is highly stereotypical. . . . What people tell us
about the 'foreigners' in the Netherlands or the 'illegal aliens' or
'immigrants' in California is essentially the same, with variations
depending on context: Too many of them are (coming) here,
immigration should become stricter, they make us feel unsafe on
the streets, the neighborhood is being run down by them, they are
aggressive and involved in crime, some of them work hard but many
of them are lazy and on welfare (for which we pay taxes), they take
our houses and jobs and are unfairly favored by the government, they
do not adapt to our ways, do not speak our language or do have strange
religion and other customs, they do not value education as we do, have
too many children, do not respect their women, live in dirty places,
and in general are different and have a different mentality--they do
not belong here.
"This informal sequence summarizes the main topics that people
bring up in their talk, sometimes in blatantly negative, sometimes in
more understanding, ways. Further abstraction of such topics yields
the elementary topic classes: They are different (culture, norms,
mentality) and do not adapt; they are involved in negative acts
(crime, nuisance); they threaten our interests (take space, housing,
jobs, and social facilities). The notion of perceived "threat" can be
inferred from many of these topics: They threaten our norms and
values, our safety and well-being, as well as our interests. . . .
"Fundamental, but carefully implicit--indeed never expressed in
most interviews--is, of course, the hidden concept pair of superiority
and inferiority. Changing social values and norms have taught people
that other groups are, of course, (no longer) inferior to us. And yet,
it is not just perceived threat or competition that otherwise
inexplicably motivate the dominant White groups of the Northwest of
the globe to keep precisely the people of color (or people with other
inherent characteristics assumed to be different), out of the country,
the city, the neighborhood, the club, the circle of friends, the family,
the job, the company, the high position, social security, decent housing,
and so on. This distancing, if not (still) segregation, indirectly
expressed in so many topics and seemingly innocuous remarks ('They
keep to themselves'), also signals the dissimulated feeling of group
superiority." (pp. 385-386)

"Difference is not merely a neutral difference, difference at the
same level, or a positively valued difference. The different culture,
goals, norms, and behavior are inferior to those of the in-group, and
so is their assumed socioeconomic and personal behavior: They profit,
steal, are criminal or aggressive, and, hence, less 'civilized' than the
dominant in-group." (p. 221)

"Poor Whites, victimized through the socioeconomic oppression of
their class, will tend to look down, instead of up, for the most likely
causes and agents of their misery. And the dominant consensus,
preformulated by the elite, and distributed, further detailed, and
dramatized by the media, will, of course, have little tendency to
counterargue such racist dimensions of the ideology." (p. 387)

"At the local level of analysis, the management of delicate
topics and opinions requires strategic moves to combine the
sometimes conflicting goals of positive self-presentation and
negative other-presentation. Thus, we get the many variants of
the widely known move, 'I am not prejudiced, but . . . ,' which we
called an *apparent denial*." (p. 388)

"These properties of strategic management of delicate talk
are also exhibited in style, for example, in lexical selection.
Only a few people used blatantly racist language, and more
generally it seemed obvious that for relative strangers, people
used moderate language. Negative expressions are, of course,
necessary in so much negative talk, but either these tend to be
mitigated by next moves, or people try to formulate their opinions
in generally 'acceptable' expressions. Another striking element
of style appeared to be some kind of "name taboo": Instead of
ethnic group names, people overuse pronouns and demonstratives
(*they*, *these people*)." (p. 388)

"Yet, people not only speak as indiviuals who want to make a good
impression even when saying bad things about others; they
essentially talk as group members and speak about others as
group members, and this opposition between *us* and *them*
also underlies many semantic, stylistic, and rhetorical
operations." (p. 389)

"A systematic analysis of some 200 'source passages' in our
interviews suggests, however, that in their own talk, people
predominantly refer to conversations with other people and
to the media, especially TV and the newspaper. In accordance
with other work, we found that the media are typically used for
information as an an opinion basis regarding the more public
topics of immigration, social issues (welfare, unemployment),
crime and discrimination. Personal information is especially
relevant for topics that deal with everyday conflicts in the
community, such as noises, smells, decay, children, clothing,
food, or typically 'ethnic' habits." (p. 390)

"For 'ordinary' people in everyday life, the prejudiced cognitive
programming of interethnic perception, representation, and
interaction will usually support minor everyday actions and lead
to neighborly conflicts and everyday discrimination of individual
ethnic minority members, only. Both their prejudices and the
discriminatory practices they monitor are in many respects 'local
phenomenon.' In order for these to become shared and integrated into
the consensual attitudes and practices of a racist society, other
important factors must be at play. In our Northwestern societies
this means, for instance, that such attitudes and practices are also
represented and reproduced by the mass media. . . . People not only
defend or legitimate ethnic prejudice with reference to the media, but
also learn about negative opinions of others from the media . . . ."
(pp. 359-360)

"Whereas most social information processing about ethnic
groups is discursive, only in specific areas may 'direct' information
about ethnic groups be based on personal communication, such as
rumors and stories. Yet, ethnic prejudices are widely shared in
society at large, so that even the forms of personal communication
based on 'experiences' often go back to media stories or to people
interviewed by the media. It follows that for society at large, the
major direct or indirect source of information about ethnic minority
groups are the mass media." (p. 362)

"prejudice is *not* just an individual attitude of (bigoted) people, but
a stucturally founded form of social cognition." (p. 391)

Having looked at some of the main points in van Dijk's treatment of
racial prejudice, one point which can be made is that the attribution
of difference is more constitutive of the structural aspects of
prejudice than what I wrote previously suggested. While this would
seem to lend a somewhat greater validity to JM's previous definition, it
is important to note that the "difference" in racism also implies
inferiority. In addition, van Dijk's data is based on White informants'
reactions to living with other ethnic groups within the same country
(the U.S. or the Netherlands). In this context, the notion of
universally shared democratic values (in the Western sense) is
important, and relevant since this is the background of the political
culture of the countries in question; in other words, politically
difference needs to be deemphasized. On the other hand, when
making comparisons between ethnic groups living in different
countries, and different socio-political environments, I am not so
sure that we can downplay the significance of difference in the
same fashion. This gets back to the issue of whether we should
actively (even militarily!!) intervene in order to help "democratic"
Taiwan save itself from "communist" (i.e. totalitarian) China. This
is a difficult issue which deserves much thought. I tend to believe
that the tendency to universalize the Western experience of
democracy can be problematic. Thus I believe a more Taoist approach
of taking no action is best. I will comment on this point in more
detail later; here I only wish to say that the problem of how to
approach the issue of difference is a complex one. JM's
identification of my attitude with racism was overly simplistic,
and obstructed the continuation of a true debate or discussion.

My own point of view is that while core human values exist (a desire
for a good life, for freedom, etc.), the manner in which they are
expressed through language and culture is often (and in certain
areas) necessarily different. People like the linguist Anna Wierzbicka
(see her _Cross-Cultural Pragmatics: The Semantics of Human
Interaction_, Mouton De Gruyter, 1991) emphasize the importance of
these cultural/linguistic differences, and point to the prejudice in
the scientific community in wanting to blot away all difference in the
totalizing (and ethnocentric) rhetoric of universality. But here we
have returned to the issue of postmodernism. What do we do about
difference? Is it to be cast aside, used as pastiche, or celebrated as
a form of political resistance?

The last point I wish to make is how in van Dijk's analysis the role
of the media in maintaining racial prejudice clearly emerged. Since
few Whites have much in the way of direct experience of other ethnic
groups, the media has become their main source of information (and
images). This is true not only for more factual information, but also
for the more anecdotal material which forms an important part of our
talk: "even the forms of personal communication based on 'experiences'
often go back to media stories or to people interviewed by the media."
What is going on here may in fact be able to be represented as a form
of the colonization of the life-world of "talk" by the media. But to
establish this point will require more research.