If equal opportunity in America were an accomplished fact, black families could send their sons and daughters to public schools that truly offer the hope of a better life.
Upon hearing those words, my immediate internal reaction was, “Wow. There it is. There it is.” The “it”, is a brand of unconscious racism with which I have become extremely familiar over the course of my life.
It is the unconscious racism of low expectations rooted in old and at this point in my life, exhausting racial stereotypes and generalizations. The low expectation in that statement, was the very clear implication that black children attend only public schools.
Now let me be clear. I do not believe that that expectation is “low” because it is public schools that black children are expected to attend. I am a long time, resolute supporter of public education. Like millions of other kids of my generation, I received a terrific public school education during my formative years. Public education is one of the great equalizers in American culture that should be protected for every generation.
That said, however, Governor Romney’s statement that, “If equal opportunity in America were an accomplished fact, black families could send their sons and daughters to public schools that truly offer the hope of a better life”, communicates the message that of all of the education choices available to parents for their children, public, private, parochial, and charter, (which although technically public, are in style, something of a public/private hybrid), black childrens’, “place”, is in public schools.
Absent that unconscious bias, Governor Romney’s statement would probably have more closely been akin to the following:
If equal opportunity in America were an accomplished fact, black families would have the opportunity, in the same proportion as do other American families, to choose which form of education, traditional public, charter, private or parochial, to send their sons and daughters, for the hope of a better life.
The fact that neither Governor Romney himself nor his speech writers were aware of the bias inherent in his remark, is extremely telling, demonstrating just how deeply rooted, racism can be.
It’s what I refer to as “file cabinet bias”, the phenomenon of relating to people not as the complex beings that we are, but as easily understood entities that belong in specific mental file cabinets. “Ok, here’s an Asian person. I know what to do them.” “Oh, a Hispanic. Alright, they go in this cabinet.” “Black person. Got it. They get filed here.” “White person. No problem. Here’s their cabinet.” “A woman/man? Easy. Over here.”
We have file cabinets for people with disabilities, for gay, lesbian bi-sexual and transgendered people, for older people, for younger people, for people from the South and people from the North. We have file cabinets within file cabinets. We have file cabinets that we don’t even know we have.
It’s file cabinet bias that caused a European American acquaintance with whom I was having dinner some years ago to say to me, “So growing up Baptist, you must have heard a lot of good gospel music.” In response, I very politely said, “I actually grew up in the Methodist church.”
It’s file cabinet bias that was the source of the following story told by a young African American man in a workshop that I facilitated some years ago:
I was in line in the Seven Eleven this morning, waiting to pay for my coffee. The guy in front of me was also black. All of a sudden, for no reason that I could see, this guy started going off on the cashier, who was white. I mean screaming at her, calling her names, everything. I think maybe he was mentally ill. He left, then I was next in line. When I walked up to the counter, that lady looked like she saw a ghost. I know what her thought probably was. It was probably, “Oh God. Here comes another one!” I didn’t even know that guy. I didn’t know him from Adam. Now, if I had been a white guy in line behind another white guy that had just gone off on her, she probably would’ve looked at me and said something like, “What was his problem?!” But as a black man, I don’t have any individuality. That hurts like hell.
It’s file cabinet bias that resulted in my personal Trayvon Martin-like incident about eighteen months ago. I had left my office at the University at which I am employed, for a lunchtime walk, dressed in a business suit and sneakers. When I reached a residential neighborhood several blocks from campus, a European American man came literally running out of his house, diagonally across his lawn to confront me. “What are you doing here?! Do you live around here?!”
It’s file cabinet bias that is at the source of the over-the-top-friendly, vigorous handshake – accompanied welcome that I often receive as a new person to a group in which I am either the only or one of very few other people of color. I refer to it as the, “Hi! Hi black person!” greeting.
File cabinet bias is the source of the “Black Like Me” article that I wrote as one of my last acts before graduating from law school.
File cabinet bias is unconscious. (Conscious bias is the “stuff” of other articles.) It is not intended. Intent and impact, however, are vastly different. Just because you didn’t mean to step on my toe, doesn’t make it hurt any less. Indeed, it’s the fact that file cabinet bias is so deeply ingrained, that in part, makes it so painful.
File cabinet bias, when verbally expressed, often feels like a real zing, a punch to the gut, because it is by its very nature, so objectifying, and thus, so dehumanizing. For many, it stings. At this point in my life, it no longer stings. It’s just tiring.
My guess is that many people in the NAACP audience yesterday both heard and felt Governor Romney’s zing. The fact that he was apparently so totally unaware, so utterly unconscious of the racism of that one remark, communicates very clearly, that were he elected President, his policies that would most affect African American communities would originate from his black people file cabinet, a cabinet in which the people, to use the governor’s own words which, astonishingly, he spoke to an audience of African Americans, “want free stuff from government.”
The policies that would originate from that place, and thus the thought of such a presidency, terrifies me.