Isabel Wilkerson's impressive book, "Caste: A Brief History," tries to explain why America has found it so hard to combat racism. She finds many similarities between American racism and India's intransigent caste system.
Wilkerson's analogy between caste and racism sheds interesting light on recent American events. But there is an additional reason why racial problems are so persistent: a fundamental flaw in how we have sought to combat them.
Our reform efforts have given insufficient consideration to the nature of the language with which we think and communicate.
My political science specialty is systematic conceptualization, an interest motivated by an early focus on physics, foreign languages and the ideas of Alfred Korzybski (1879-1950) as popularized by S.I. Hayakawa (1906-1992).
Hayakawa's key book, "Language in Thought and Action," was a primer on straight thinking, as its preface made clear:
"The original version of this book, ... published in 1941, was in many respects a response to the dangers of propaganda, especially as exemplified in Adolf Hitler's success in persuading millions to share his maniacal and destructive views. It was the writer's conviction ... that everyone needs to have a habitually critical attitude towards language — his own as well as that of others — both for the sake of his personal well being and for his adequate functioning as a citizen."
Exaggerating the importance of a category into which people can be classified is the essence of stereotyping, the heart of racism.
Hayakawa continued: "Hitler is gone, but if the majority of our fellow citizens are more susceptible to the slogans of fear and race hatred than to those of peaceful accommodation and mutual respect among human beings, our political liberties remain at the mercy of any eloquent and unscrupulous demagogue."
The words with which we think and communicate point to categories of things: actions, bicycles, Communists, dogs, etc. Like all words, those pertaining to race point to classifications — in this case, classifications of people.
Although categorization is indispensable, it is easy to misuse it if we aren't careful.
Above all we must avoid stereotyping. Columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. explains stereotyping beautifully:
"I am reminded of those people who would end racial prejudice by having us all claim to be 'colorblind,' i.e. pretend we don't see race," he says. "But prejudice doesn't come because we 'notice' so-and-so is black. Rather , it comes with the assumptions we attach to that fact."
Hayakawa emphasized that exaggerating the importance of any one category into which we can classify an individual is crazy, as is assuming that it is all we need to know about that person.
Like all human beings, individual members of a particular race are very different from each other in many important ways. But stereotyping tells us "when you have seen one such person, you have seen them all."
American reformers trying to combat racism spend great amounts of time talkingabout race. The New York Times, for example, is full of articles decrying racism and pointing to the scarcity of people of color in high status positions. But this talk is itself a big problem.
When we talk about a category a lot, the words we must use give the impression that that category is really important. But exaggerating the importance of a category into which people can be classified is the essence of stereotyping, the heart of racism.
Reformers have a dilemma: ignore racism and it won't just go away, but talking about it all the time can reinforce people's tendency to exaggerate the importance of race and to think in racial terms.
Indirect attacks on racism could produce better results. S.I. Hayakawa had an excellent idea: Get people to be more thoughtful about how they use and react to language — in other words about how they think.
To combat racism we should, among other things, encourage more people, especially students, to read "Language In Thought And Action" or books like it.
Paul F. deLespinasse