B. The Culture of Anti-Black Racism

It can be quite difficult to dissociate the cultural framework within which anti-black racism develops from the purely psychological motives that are likely to promote the latter's growth. In other terms, one cannot comfortably argue for a cultural basis for anti-black racism without referencing the personal experience(s) of the individual(s) who engage, whether consciously or unconsciously, in the practice of discriminating against dark-skinned people. One common description of culture is that it consists of a set of attitudes, values, and beliefs which allow individuals to identify with a given community. An individual's experience with racism is, therefore, theoretically part of the larger group experience. If, in the minds of many whites, “blackness” is a compelling reason why blacks should be treated differently, then anti-black racism should be considered a cultural phenomenon. It should also be considered a cultural phenomenon for blacks to consider being white a reason to perceive someone as evil-minded and racist. In either case, “difference” (both in essence and treatment) is a shared perception. Sharing roughly the same perceptions about something with members of the community to which one belongs is one of the basic characteristics of culture. In this particular case, whites and blacks have systematically opposing views about one another's ethnicity, race, and culture--views that are shared by whites (in general) about blacks (in general) and vice-versa. The negative stereotypes that many whites have about blacks are likely *361 based on the latter's personal interaction with blacks, but such stereotypes are part of a wider structure of symbols, connotations, assumptions, and beliefs that can be referred to as a culture, since it affects whole groups of people. As repeatedly demonstrated throughout the history of race in the United States, this (anti-black) culture has had disparate influence on the behaviors and attitudes of people, depending on location, culture, socioeconomic status, and personal history.

As noted earlier in the discussion of the 2008 presidential election, many whites still feel little embarrassment in expressing in public their apprehension about having an African American president. Such an apprehension, or uneasiness, is quite common among small-town, working-class white Americans, while a better acceptance of an African American president was clearly observed in the cities, where people have access to better education, better employment opportunities, and are accustomed to racial and ethnic diversity. This apprehension bears out two key assumptions about race and racism in contemporary America. First, the geography of race has not significantly changed since the civil rights era. More than four decades after the passage of the civil rights legislation of the sixties, the traditionally conservative regions of the south and west remain incontrovertible bastions of racism. These regions are where African Americans tend to have the lowest average annual income per household. The regions with the lowest annual income per household (including African American households) are those known for hostility toward African American presence, namely the south and west. Secondly, the personal profile of an individual counts for much in determining his racial attitudes and behavior, independent of the larger community culture with which he might identify *362 himself. Younger and more educated individuals tend to be more tolerant of people from different racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. The negative stereotypes about the black community arise from the dogmatic representations of blacks as an inferior race. Being the product of repeated distortions of African history and civilization, they reproduce themselves and gradually gain acceptance among the least educated, conservative fringes of the white community. Time all but helps consolidate such misconceptions as deviant patterns of behavior, made almost inevitable by the lack of genuine opportunities for blacks to integrate, become tantamount with black culture. In the collective memory of white society, blackness is then more than just a symbol for the nonstandard and the odd; mystification ultimately gives way to an organized structure of beliefs and attitudes meant to perpetuate the perceived cultural differences between black and white communities. Anti-black racism, which originates from the negative stereotyping of black culture, therefore becomes a world-view--a whole way of life in which fantasies about difference and otherness combine with the historical and contemporary realities of black/white relations. Images of past white subjugation of blacks further reinforce anti-black sentiments as racism is more than just a “simple delusion of a bigoted and ignorant minority,” as race historian Joel Kovel points out. It is “a set of beliefs whose structure arises from the deepest levels of our lives--from the fabric of assumptions we make about the world, ourselves, and others, and from the patterns of our fundamental social activities.” This fabric of assumptions about the world is specifically what makes racism a cultural phenomenon that is deeply anchored in the individual's personal experience. The fantasies and images about blackness that white society transmits to the family are systematically bequeathed to the younger generations and are *363 then assimilated and reproduced in the form of anti-black prejudice. This is obviously a highly complex psychological process where memories of infancy build on social and cultural experience to finally give shape to the particular way an individual perceives the color distinctions around him. Blackness and whiteness are projections of the white individual's internal fear from a possible blurring of the demarcation line that separates the self from the other and the known from the unknown. Yet, from being a promising way of self-definition, the distinction between black and white soon turns into a source of anxiety, as the white individual becomes obsessed with keeping images of “blackness” down the color scale.

Blackness comes to connote shadow and darkness in the mind of the white individual in early childhood, as the negative stereotypes about it are transmitted through stories and tales. A toddler, scared by the glimpse of dark shadows in his room who runs up to his father saying that he saw “black people” in his room, definitely has no idea why the dark shadows should be “black people” in the first place. The frightening glimpse that the child caught could as well be of anything from a toy to “a pair of black shoes.” The reason why he should assume that the shadows were those of black people has to do with the negative images with which culture has filled his imagination. The cultural association between “black” and “dark” (as opposed to “white” vs. “light”) is thus “inculcated” in the child's subconscious and is later consolidated through social experience.

The negative stereotypes about blacks in general have often proved to be particularly difficult to obliterate from the collective consciousness of white Americans. As recently as 2008, jokes about African Americans were still those about the latter being prone to decadent behavior, licentiousness, and extravagance. White comedians did not often articulate such stereotypes. Instead, they often pass through African American comedians especially in ceremonies, movies, and news shows, reflecting what black feminist bell hooks *364 describes as “internalized racism.” Some of the best known African American comedians with whom Americans tend to associate controversial racial jokes are Richard Pryor, Paul Mooney, Eddie Murphy, and Chris Rock. Commenting on President-Elect Barak Obama's proposed Affordable Care Bill, comedian D.L. Hughley, who hosts a weekly show on CNN called “D.L. Hughley Breaks the News,” joked that the plan was going to “provide ‘grills,’ or metal teeth caps for all.” While the joke was certainly not meant to hurt, and despite Mr. Hughley being an African American himself, he was severely criticized by bloggers from his own community, for whom the joke all but reinforced the old stereotype about the African American as a “thug” (or gangster) with gold-capped teeth and eerie tattoos. A popular culture icon, the African American gangster, in turn, epitomizes the “delinquent [African American] culture” with which he is associated and for which he is a metaphor. Finally, the psychological processes involved in the negative representations and perceptions of blacks and blackness are not exclusively detectable in the media. The stereotyping of blacks as members of a “deviant” culture can be observed even in the way black students are treated in class. A recent Stanford University study conducted on the race-based disparities in school discipline found that black students were perceived by their non-black teachers as needing tougher disciplinary treatment “if led to believe [an infraction] was committed by a Black student than if they thought it was committed by a white student.” The study, whose findings invoke the research results of a 2002 study by Skiba et al., concludes that such disparities in school discipline can be explained in terms of the “racial stereotypes that can lead teachers to escalate their negative responses to Black students over the course of multiple interpersonal [ ... ] encounters.” *365