Afternoon Inquisition

Afternoon Inquisition 2.16.09

One night last summer, I was talking to a skeptic from Savannah, Ga. He brought up the topic of racism,the KKK and such, and asked why skeptics don’t talk about racism at all. I said that I didn’t think there was much of a reason to talk about it because no one takes groups like the KKK seriously.

This conversation happened a while back, and a few beers into the evening, so the details of it are fuzzy, but I seem to recall him saying that the KKK is not so easily dismissed as ridiculous down in Savannah. Growing up in a relatively well-off (read: pasty white) suburb of Chicago, racism for me had always been discussed as a hypothetical/phlosophical/intellectual topic. And at the end of the discussion, no one ever uttered the words, “Really, the Nazis had a point.”

But the reality is, I know people who didn’t vote for Obama solely for the reason that he’s black. And I now live in a community that just a few years ago was considered rural, now it’s considered a suburb. There has been talk about extending the train line out to our town, we’ve even built a train station (and if you go to the train station now, you can take the bus to another train station that has a real train going to it).  But the people out here have voted against actually extending the train because they’re afraid it will bring crime (read: black people) in from Chicago.

Turns out, I don’t talk about racism beause I think it’s ridiculous, and I’ve naively thought that everyone else does, too.

Why do you think racism isn’t talked about much in the skeptical community? Should it be?


Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

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  1. I think there’s two ways of being skeptical about racism.

    The first, most obvious one is being skeptical about the claims that racists make, i.e. that there is something inherently good about their lot and something inherently bad about others. Claims like that should be testable, even when they’re about opinion-based, rather than fact-based claims.

    For example, “alls Norwegian peoples ams immorals”, relies on an opinion about what’s moral. But once you’ve pinned down a personal definition of morality, you can measure how many Norwegians comply with it, and how that compares with worldwide standards. Most racist claims I’ve encountered rely heavily on very cumbersome over-generalisation, and can be picked apart from that angle alone.

    The second way of being skeptical about racism is by challenging those who claim that they are hindered by the racism of others. And it’s probably fair to say that most of them are being honest, cos there’s a lot of racist fuckers about, at least where I live.

    But there are definitely also those who use accusations of racism to conceal personal incompetence, to deflect blame and to slander anyone they don’t like. There is definitely room for critically examining such claims of racism, so that nobody can be fooled by them. (I vaguely recall something like this coming up once, on a very old episode of SGU, but I don’t remember the context.)

    Why aren’t these two things commonly talked about in skeptical circles? Dunno. Maybe because all the loudest skeptics live in happy, egalitarian societies? But assuming that’s not true, then it probably should be discussed a little more often.

  2. This may be a good question – I am not sure that the premise is correct however (that racism is not talked about in skeptical society…)

    My quick and dirty simple google search shows 253,000 hits for pages that contain both the words “skeptic” and “racism” …

    As to whether it should be – I believe a general precept is that no topic is off-limits.


  3. Thanks Spatula, you just wrote what I was trying to write for the last ten minutes. Damn brain, why won’t you cooperate with me.

    I have trouble discussing racism, because its a foreign concept to me. I was not brought up at all to think another person was inferior to me because of their ancestry. It boggles my mind that people can actually think like that.

    I have been taunted and teased before because of my heritage, (Native American with Irish and Scots) and it hurts. I didn’t understand at first, and when I talked to my dad, he did a good job of making me understand.

    I see a lot of racism in the area I live towards Mexicans (Hispanics, etc.. whatever you would like to call them, here I call them Mexicans because most are from Mexico.) But, most people if I called them out would say something like, I am not racist, they aren’t black people. Yes, this has happened.

    Damn, I ramble…….

  4. Can severe racism be viewed as a mental disorder? Milder forms can be ameliorated by education, but the more severe it is, the less education seems to make an impact.

  5. I always have to remind myself that someone identifying as a skeptic does not mean they’re not racist, homophobic or sexist. The strangest part of all of that is that my negative experiences with these misguided folks is not from the white, bearded skeptical crowd — it’s from guys (& twice, ladies) my age (30) or younger, and it never ceases to surprise me.

    My disappointment in this lot is the skeptical equivalent to trendy bi-sexualism. You just have to shake your head and back away quickly so no one at the club sees you looking at them.

  6. Also, immigration — here in Arizona, I hear a LOT about “illegal immigrants”. I could see a skeptical discussion on that and how to treat undocumented immigrants (I REALLY REALLY hate the terms “illegal” and “alien”; completely dehumanizing).

  7. I think at least part of the reason is that it’s so hard to get most people to admit that they have racist ideas or feelings in the first place, and it’s even harder to get someone to defend them.

    First, we tend to tackle high-value targets. It just makes sense, if we’re going to waste our valuable, non-paid blogging time, that we’re going to take on the alpha-woos, rather than the five-dollar palm readers.

    Purveyors of other stupid ideas tend to be a lot more prominent. They’re on every other episode of Oprah. Finding someone espousing racism on the kind of scale that Sylvia Browne, Casey Luskin and Stephen Green promote their ridiculous beliefs isn’t nearly as easy.

    Secondly, When we inveigh against irrational supernatural or pseudoscientific beliefs, the trolls come swarming out from under their electronic bridges. They arm themselves with the torches of blind faith, the pitchforks of fallacious logic, and the rotten tomatoes of cut-n-paste manifestos, and proceed to defend their village of stupidity until they lose interest and go off to pummel some other rational speaker.

    Whereas when we comment on the illogic of or lack of evidentiary support for racism, the folks from Stormfront don’t send their members here to argue with us. They stay in their comfortable, lily white space, and groan about how we’re all race traitors and n-word lovers, without actually trying to refute our arguments.

    Also, and not for nothing, I think we as a culture like to believe that racism is a bad thing that used to happen, but that we’re too modern these days to let it happen. I think even rational people want very badly to live in a society that’s better that it used to be, and it’s tempting to think that electing a non-white president of America has put the last nail into the coffin of racial inequity.

    Did you miss me while I was on baby leave?

  8. I talk about it all the time. I think I talk about it in a slightly odd way compared to non-skeptics because I find myself discussing it in terms of dismissing the premises that racism is based on as failed arguments. The best science I’ve seen says we’re all very, very related and that culture has much more to do with our differences than race. And that each individual should be measured on their own merits, not on grossly inaccurate “group theory”.

    But just like my stance on Gay Marriage (it should be legal) these rationalist arguments tend to disregard the humanity and emotional trauma that all kinds of civil rights and discrimination can inflict on people. I find myself wondering how it is that I ally myself with groups for rationalist reason first and then humanitarian rather than being driven by empathy first, then reason to justify the empathy?

    That’s probably too meta. But I do talk about it and wonder about it frequently. Like many humanists, I’m waiting for that Star Trek TOS bridge where everybody can get along and work together – only I’d like it to be on Earth rather than having to wait for the Federation…

  9. Skeptics don’t talk about racism? Can we put some figures to that, discuss it in a way not wholly dependent on anecdotal evidence? I mean, I don’t want to imply that we naturally end up talking about everything that needs to be talked about, but we should be able to get a better idea of the scope of the problem.

    Anecdotally, I’ve had to tangle with racist assholes spouting pseudoscientific garbage more than a few times. Check out the neo-Nazi trolls who’ve been banned from Pharyngula, for example.

  10. @Oskar Kennedy (LBB): I’m not quite sure whether you’re saying it’s a good thing or not that most woo-heads will charge out to defend their beliefs. Yes, it makes them easier to confront directly, but if you’re saying that they mostly just retreat to believe their crap elsewhere, then how has the confrontation helped? What do we gain from them that we can’t get from self-insulating racists?

  11. Racism does not make for good skeptical discussion. There is ample evidence that it exists so we all agree on that. What should be done about it is more of a social or psychological problem.

    Racism is usually just classism dressed up. Your example with the trains is a common one. It is poorer people coming out of the inner city that the suburbanites are afraid of. Skin color is just a handy if not terribly accurate short-hand for identifying the city dwellers. If pushed I’m sure the people against extending the trains would be happy to include poor people of every skin color in the group they’re discriminating against.

    What I think is more strange is the people who self-identify as a particular race and form groups to fight “racism”. Isn’t this using racism to fight racism? In other words aren’t these groups promoting the very thing they claim to be fighting?

    Nothing drew this into sharper focus than all the discussion of whether Obama is really “black” or not. True his father is from Africa and now Obama lives in America so by any reasonable definition he is African American. Still there are those who argue he’s only half-black so he doesn’t count or because his ancestors were not kidnapped into slavery he’s not African American in the truest sense. I wonder what sort of litmus test one would have to pass in order to join either group. It all goes to show whether race is used to promote a group or denigrate a group it is all gets very silly once you start trying to define the group. When I talk to silly people I try not to let them frame the debate.

  12. @Blake Stacey: Yeah, I would say Michael Shermer does his share of tackling racism with the whole holocaust denial thing. And there’s lots of skepticism when dumb shit about “race” comes up from, for example, evolutionary biology or social psychology studies.

    So do things like this not count as “talking about it”? Or are we literally supposed to be going “racism is bad, mmkay”? Because with all the anti-racism stuff out there, I think that’s overkill for the skeptical community to get involved.

    Within the “scope” of skepticism, refuting the pseudoscientific claims or clarifying misuse of science, like skeptics have been doing, counts IMO.

  13. @Oskar Kennedy “I think at least part of the reason is that it’s so hard to get most people to admit that they have racist ideas or feelings in the first place”

    Are you saying most people are racist and won’t admit it?

  14. After reading Blake Stacey‘s comment, I think I should have used the words “probably” and “it seems to me” more often.

    @Spatula: I think that there is some value in the sense that the conversation isn’t completely conducted by one side of the argument. When we discuss homeopathy or transubstantiation, we can usually count on folks who actually believe in those things showing up to state their (laughably weak) cases. It saves a skeptic from potentially misstating the opposing argument while having to play “moron’s advocate.” And maybe, once in a very long while, one of the believers takes something away from the argument that helps nudge them toward thinking more critically.

    @davew: I don’t believe that most people are racist. However, based on my experience, and reading about research into unconscious racial bias, I’m comfortable concluding that far more folks have some amount of racial bias than are willing to admit it, and an even smaller percentage of people are willing to proclaim it proudly or publicly.

    I figure that this is less the case with something like chiropractic, where there is less social stigma involved in being a wholehearted supporter. My sense is that a greater percentage of the people who believe that chiropractic treatments are efficacious would be willing to talk about it on the bus, whereas they’d be less willing to discuss their own racial biases.

    Again, all IMHO.

  15. I think racism isn’t talked about partly because it verges on being a political topic, and political topics that people can’t all agree on tend to be avoided unless one is prepared for the inevitable drama that will follow. Also, skepticism as a movement is often critiquing things that in mainstream society are accepted as something a normal, reasonable person might believe (psychics, astrology, homeopathy, UFOs) but which skeptics can easily laugh at and see as bunk. Whereas, when it comes to racism mainstream society does not accept overt, blatant racism, and the shared views that unify skeptics will not necessarily unify them on racial topics. In addition, (as Oskar Kennedy said above) those that are are overtly racist are not eager to invade comment threads so we do not see them as those that we need to engage.

    However, the mushy area comes in when we consider less blatant racism. This is harder to talk about for skeptics, partly because it’s less provable. If someone says Obama is “articulate”, or someone else says they “just don’t trust him,” or “I’m not racist” or “I have black friends therefore…” or “we live in a post-racial society” or use any other racially coded phrases which aren’t obviously racist on the surface, it can be much harder to convince someone that such phrases are borne of latent racist sentiment that even the speaker may not be aware of.

    It’s this unconscious racism, this less obvious racism that results from the racist society we live in that’s harder to talk about. The main reason for this, i think, is that any of us can be accused of, or exhibit, this kind of racism whereas we can hardly be accused of believing in homeopathy if we don’t.

    I also think that it’s just as well that skeptics who are luminaries in other fields don’t talk about race if they haven’t put a lot of thought and study into it. I read lots of anti-racist blogs every day, and I also still learning things and formulating my own opinions based on what I read. There are so many things (such as the unavoidable political implications of black hair, the racist associations of the words “articulate”and “boy” etc) that I would not be aware of if I didn’t read anti-racist blogs, because being white and having mostly white influences around me I don’t have access to that kind of discussion in my own non-internet life.

    That said, I believe we definitely should be talking more about racism, especially the less obvious kind because that is where most people need to have their views challenged. The more we talk about it, the more enlightened our views can be.

  16. I live in a small north Texas town. (I know. Nuff said.) A year or so ago I saw a Job Wanted ad in the local newspaper that began, “35-year-old Caucasian. Hard worker….”

    Racism ain’t dead yet. Not by a long shot.

  17. There is a great podcast called RadioLab out of WNYU and they have a nice episode on race. I’ve felt that it seems that race is a social thing and not a scientific thing, so not as important to the skeptical movement. I also think we may be a bit superior against the racists, though, much like we are against the Creationists- their argument is SO weak how can we respect their side? Getting into an argument with a racist is like wrestling a pig- you end up dirty and the pig isn’t going to change.

  18. @davew:
    “What I think is more strange is the people who self-identify as a particular race and form groups to fight “racism”. Isn’t this using racism to fight racism? In other words aren’t these groups promoting the very thing they claim to be fighting?”

    Not at all. Just because you acknowledge race doesn’t mean you are promoting the use of race to discriminate against others. Are you saying that we ought to be a truly color-blind society? Do you think that’s possible?

  19. I haven’t been through the entire skeptical community or anything, but one thing that irks me is that almost every time I hear people discussing racism, it’s about white people who hate everyone else. Granted, I’m sure that’s still a problem, especially in some areas, but I’ve seen the opposite a lot more.

    I’m a football and basketball referee, and my pigment (or lack thereof) seems a definite liability. One fellow official told me of going to a camp, from which a couple of college basketball jobs would be filled, and the assigner flat-out said, “If you’re not six feet tall and black, we can’t use you.” Somehow, this is acceptable, even though if the situation were reversed, and they said they couldn’t use anyone who isn’t white, they’d immediately be sued and picketed into oblivion.

    And, of course, if I were applying for the last spot at a highly-sought-after university, and equally qualified along with a black man and a Hispanic woman, affirmative action would guarantee that I’d be the first one eliminated from consideration.

    A few months ago, I accepted a (slightly more traditional) job in Santa Fe. Big mistake. If I were to venture any farther north, I’d need a darker-skinned escort to safely patronize many of the local businesses. One of my coworkers tells me that if I were to work basketball here, I “would be dead.” “Dead,” he repeated for emphasis. And he is not the kind of guy who would joke about something like that.

    As for the skeptical community, I’ve seen a few posts dedicated to bashing people who think that their skin color is inherently superior, and rightly so. What I’d like to see discussed more often are things like the group mentality that views any outsiders as suspicious (whether the group is whites, blacks, Hispanics, cops, Scientologists, whatever), and the apparent fact that the only group more socially acceptable to discriminate against than atheists is white people.

  20. To quote the musical “Avenue Q”–Everyone’s a little bit racist.

    In my personal experience, I’ve seen this be true, although as davew said it is quite often dressed up classism.

    No one I have ever met can honestly say they don’t judge people at least a little bit based upon their appearance. It comes from that handy little pattern recognition part of our brains we skeptics are so fond of talking about that helped us recognize potential threats and now is used to make snap judgments. In my opinion, what makes something truly racist/classist/sexist/ is not acknowledging the fact that we all experience this human act of immediate judgment. If we recognize the fact that seeking patterns is a human thing to do and choose to make a conscious judgment based on actual facts, than we’d all be less likely to judge someone based on outward apperance (and less likely to find the virgin mary on grilled cheese sandwiches).

  21. I think one area that skeptics could hammer on is that the fact there is zero physical evidence that correlates to currently accepted racial categories. None.

    I know that a lot of skeptics naturally reach for their guns when they hear terms like “social construction,” but the fact remains that racial categories are arbitrary, conventional, and localized to a particular time and place. And even as we’re getting better and better at tracking things like allele distributions for skin color or hair texture, we find that the haplogroups fail to correlate significantly to pre-existing racial categories. (“Haplogroup E1b1a drives like this, but Haplogroup R1b drives like this! Amirite, people?”)

    And in fact, different parts of the world use different racial categories. A self-identified African-American visiting Venezuela, for example, might be surprised to suddenly find himself mestizo (or “just normal,” as my amiga Alexandra once put it), while an Arab-American visiting France or a Korean-American visiting Japan might find herself a subtle victim of Local Nigger Syndrome.

    Racism is real, but race is not. (And I’ll buck the consensus here and suggest that racism is ubiquitous. Everyone’s a racist. If you can walk into a room and identify the people there by race, you’re a racist. You may not be prejudiced, but you can see race. I know I can, and I can’t unlearn it.)

    Of course, this brings up the nut of the issue — a great many skeptics will insist on the physical reality of race, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. (And, miracle of miracles, the racial categories they recognize as real just happen to be the racial categories used in North America — or South America, Western Europe, or wherever they happen to be.) The lack of evidence for racial categories seems to me to be a skeptical winner. Let others argue the politics of race, but let’s first establish that race is strictly social, not physical.

  22. @vreify: “Just because you acknowledge race doesn’t mean you are promoting the use of race to discriminate against others. ”

    That’s exactly what it means. How do you form a group of people of the same race without discriminating against people who are not of that race?

    I think a color-blind society is what we should strive for, but I don’t think it is attainable. I feel the same way about religion/superstition.

    I do acknowledge race. I look around and see all different phenotypes, I just don’t make many assumptions based on what I see. Experience has taught me that I suck at identifying races. I can’t tell a Kenyan from an Ethiopian, a Korean from Japanese, Irish from Polish. And just in case you think I’m being cute, there are parts of the world where your life may depend on being able to tell a Hutu from a Tutsi. The last time I made the mistake of trying to guess someone’s race was in college when based on appearance I asked a fellow student what part of India he was from. He pointed out that Cleveland was not now nor had ever been any part of India, his parents were from Pakistan, and that I should jump off a building immediately in case my ignorance was contagious. Knowing what I know now I’m a little surprised he was that nice.

    About the only thing you can really tell from skin color is how quickly someone will get a sunburn.

  23. @Howard “Everyone’s a racist. If you can walk into a room and identify the people there by race, you’re a racist.”

    If you can walk into a room and identify people you don’t know by race I’ll give you $1000. No bet. Just a gift. My gift to you. It’s also my level of confidence. It is hard to tell race even with a DNA sequence. It is almost impossible to tell ancestry from phenotype. You may think you know, but given a truly diverse sample you’ll be wrong most of the time. If you don’t believe me let Google be your guide. This topic has been well researched.

  24. There’s a fundamental difference between racism and the typical set of skeptical issues. With other skeptical issues all the true believer needs to do to win over the skeptical comunity is provide sufficient evidence their belief is true.

    With racism is there any amount of evidence that would convince you to judge someone not by the content of their heart but by the color of their skin?

  25. @davew:

    The point of that original comment was not that if you walk into the room and identify people by race that you’ll always be right, but that you will think about what race they might be at all.

    The point is that we all unconsciously judge people by their race or perceived race, whatever our ideals and opinions about ourselves.

  26. @davew: Perhaps I was unclear — I think everyone can walk into a room and say, “There’s a black guy. There’s a white lady. There’s an Asian dude. And she looks like some kind of mixed-race person.” I’m not saying they’ll be accurate — again, race doesn’t exist physically, so there’s no such thing as an accurate racial designation.

    I’m trying to use the word can here in a very specific way: Labelling people by race is a thing people can do. The focus is on the people doing the labeling, not the people being labelled.

    Here’s a crappy analogy: You can watch one of those old Universal monster rally movies (The Son of Frankenstein meets Dracula’s Wives or something), and say, “That guy’s a Frankenstein’s Monster. And that guy’s a werewolf. And she’s a vampire.” Monsters aren’t real, but you can still recognize one when you see it in a movie. Race isn’t real, but I’ve never met an American who couldn’t label people by race.

  27. @davew: Oh, and also:

    It is hard to tell race even with a DNA sequence.

    That’s not true. It is impossible to tell race with a DNA sequence. The only way to identify someone’s “race” is through conscious and unconscious socially constructed cues.

  28. quote:”That’s exactly what it means. How do you form a group of people of the same race without discriminating against people who are not of that race?”

    When you live in racist society, and a group with less social power because of their race decides to form a group based on their race, that’s not “using racism to fight racism.” That’s responding to a social reality in a way that recognizes that reality and allows the group to discuss things in a more productive manner.

    If a group of asians/chinese/japanese/blacks/latinos want to form a group based on their race, I, as a white person, do not feel discriminated against because of that. They have shared experiences I don’t, and they want a space to have discussions where they don’t have to explain themselves to ignorant people who don’t get it and don’t have those experiences. If they want to use discussions they’ve had among their own group to then expand their discussion to include others, that’s great, but they’re under no obligation to do so.

    quote:”I do acknowledge race. I look around and see all different phenotypes, I just don’t make many assumptions based on what I see.” and “The last time I made the mistake of trying to guess someone’s race was in college when based on appearance I asked a fellow student what part of India he was from. He pointed out that Cleveland was not now nor had ever been any part of India”

    If you don’t make assumptions based on what you see with regards to race, why was it important to ask that student what his race/background was? By the way, it’s experiences like these that are exactly why a racial group may want to organize a group that includes only members of that group – because many of them have had these experiences, and enjoy being in a situation where they are normal, and they don’t have to explain themselves to clueless people.

  29. @covertvector: “The point is that we all unconsciously judge people by their race or perceived race, whatever our ideals and opinions about ourselves.”

    Then I did miss the point. I cannot make an argument for or against people’s unconscious judgments.

  30. YES. Yes yes yes yes. The current segregation of society had lead many well-meaning, tolerant, nice white people to honestly believe that racism no longer exists. These same people usually have at least some beliefs that are incredibly racist, and often behave in ways that are incredibly insulting to non-whites.

    98% of discussions I have involving race, especially those with strangers, consist simply of me attempting to convince the other person that racism does, in fact, exist. I don’t even bother pointing out how offensive some of their comments are. The denial is too deep.

    Someone has to freaking talk about it.

    The sad part is, if it hadn’t been for a hefty round of substance abuse (in which I lived in several crack neighborhoods, learned that police does not equal friend, and was treated universally with suspicion because of my lily-white skin) I might never have been awakened to reality, either.

  31. @covertvector

    “If a group of asians/chinese/japanese/blacks/latinos want to form a group based on their race, I, as a white person, do not feel discriminated against because of that.”

    Just because racism is tolerated by some doesn’t mean it’s not racism. There is no way to define the membership of any of the groups you mention without making some highly arbitrary and biased decisions. The rest of our argument is indistinguishable from the arguments most racists use to defend racism. (And I am most certainly not implying that you are a racist. I rather think that you aren’t. We’re just having a conversation here, right?)

    “If you don’t make assumptions based on what you see with regards to race, why was it important to ask that student what his race/background was?”

    Did you catch the word “mistake”? This may come as a shock but I have not always been the fair, honest, balanced, ferociously intelligent, devastatingly attractive, and modest man I am now. It took a year or two.

  32. @Howard: “And in fact, different parts of the world use different racial categories. A self-identified African-American visiting Venezuela, for example, might be surprised to suddenly find himself mestizo”

    I have always wondered why those race classifications have not been looked at more closely. Ethnicity, culture, and the idea of race are often confused or lumped together- and it can have real consequences.

    I work at a treatment facility that houses over 100 children. Often we know nothing about the kids coming in. When we get kids with black skin, they are classified as African-American, tan skin kids are Latino or Hispanic, and so on. Part of our treatment over the last year has focused on teaching these kids about “who they are” and “where they are from”. These kids could be descendent from any part of the world- depending on how far back one may wish to take it. Teaching these kids about their ancestry is very popular and looked at as a way that we can be more sensitive and multicultural. It pains me that we are spending time and money on this kind of thing when both could be used in much better ways.

    I tried to make the following point during a meeting:

    My grandparents are originally from Spain but moved to Mexico and then to the U.S. My father and mother were born in the U.S. I have somewhat dark skin, but not very dark. Further, I have brothers and sisters that were born and grew up in Mexico while I grew up in the U.S. So…

    While my brothers, sisters, and I are descendant from the same gene pool and have roughly the same skin tone, we do not share ethnicity (depending on how ethnicity is defined) or culture.

    The point was that it is not a good idea to make assumptions based on skin tone, a point that was completely lost on all but one other in the room.

  33. @Howard “That’s not true. It is impossible to tell race with a DNA sequence. The only way to identify someone’s “race” is through conscious and unconscious socially constructed cues.”

    I think we agree on this more than we disagree. Races can be defined and separated with DNA sequencing. The definition of race from the DNA perspective, however, will differ from the more usual phenotype definition. For one thing it is not possible to determine skin color from DNA, although in some cases a fairly accurate guess can be made. A lot of what we know about the human exoduses from Africa comes from DNA sequencing. Depending on when your group left Africa, where they went, and how insular they were a number of things can be determined about you. For example if you carry the Tay-Sachs trait your DNA can determine whether your ancestry is French-Canadian or Ashkenazi Jew. What confounds this process is our tendency to mix with other groups. Most of us are a bit of this, a bit of that, and not enough of any one thing to be considered a member of a single race. This doesn’t mean there is no such thing as race at the DNA level, it just means it is not a useful metric.

  34. I actually know of a Democrat in Arkansas who voted Republican for the first time ever because he couldn’t bring himself to vote for a black man. Racism matters, and it’s a problem that a lot of people are making the mistake of underestimating.

  35. I think that one of the problems with racism and skeptics is that it’s tough to get a scientific handle on the extent to which it exists. In my experience, by and large, white folks (or at least, liberal white folks) tend to underestimate the amount of racism that exists. I also believe that minorities tend to overestimate it. (Evidence: if I meet a white person in a position of authority who is an incredible jerk to me, then because I am also white, I don’t assume it’s because of racism. But if I was black and met that same person, it would be hard NOT to make that assumption, rather than correctly deducing that this person was simply being a jerk. Since there are still more white people than black people in positions of authority, black people are more likely to run into these jerks and falsely impute racism.)

    I think everyone would be closer to the truth and get along better as well if whites started assuming there was more racism out there than they were aware of, and blacks started assuming there was less.

  36. We all acknowledge that race has no biological component & thus no one should be dis or pro advantaged based on that.

    The better topic would be affirmative action.

  37. I don’t know why as skeptics we don’t tend to discuss it. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that we tend to be predominately white males (thankfully that is changing due to communities like this) and as white males we aren’t as affected by it.

    I grew up among a fair bit of subconscious racism. I don’t think I knew anyone that actually believed blacks or Jews were any different (the two main targets in our redneck of the woods). But assumptions were rampant, jokes were common and the social circles were very WASP.

    Skepticism, or rather the tools it gave me, helped me to recognize the flaws with the thinking, and the unconscious acceptance of certain ideas. I still would consider those people to be basically good people and I’d bet they have grown as society changed around them. But they were wrong.

    I see no reason why we shouldn’t discuss it, in some ways it fits perfectly with topics we do discuss such as conspiracies (Jewish controlled media). I think we’ve just been occupied with other types of prejudice, such as people who think Atheists are evil and trying to distroy the world with materialism.

  38. @PrimevilKneivel: we tend to be predominately white males (thankfully that is changing due to communities like this) This is a racist statement as you value other “races” above a particular one.

  39. @davew – I live in GA and see REAL skin-color based racism all the time. Members of my family are racist and I don’t mean in a vague “fear of the poor” kind of way.

    And if you go to – you can see a picture of the 4-way diner in my home town. That door is the “colored” entrance. Not just a bit of historic detritus, mind you. When the building burnt in 1993 they rebuilt it with two counters and two entrances.

  40. @mxracer652: No absolutely not, I value multiculturalism as it helps us see things from different perspectives.

    I am a white male but I’ve always been wary of homogeneous groups, not because they are bad but because I wonder if they could be better. I’ll take a thick and hearty stew over thin broth any day.

  41. @PrimevilKneivel: And why would more cultures necessarily make something better?

    There’s only one culture that matters, reason & logic.

    Giving additional (or less) credit to someone based on pseudoscience or PC “feel good” new agey BS is just that. Pseudoscience.

  42. I love that it’s cool to vote for Obama because he’s black but it’s racist to not vote for him because he’s black! (Doesn’t bother me, I voted for Howard and still got stuck with Rudd.)

  43. Irony : Here in Germany on April 20th, the NPD and Nazis get together and march for Hitler’s birthday. (4.20 … makes me think of Phelps…) Its an organized march with all forms filled out and police protection and everything. (Seriously we outnumber then easily by 4-to-1. )

    Where the Irony comes in, is there are quite a few Turkish and non-aryan guys mixed in with the whole thing. It makes me think ‘WTFF?’*

    I see it maybe not every day, but often enough to know its not gone. Not by a long shot. It also doesn’t help that I grew up near Ft. Worth Texas and my dad had a condo in Euless, where David Duke had one of his last cross burnings in the 80s.

    *What The Fucking Fuck

  44. I think there are a few reasons racism might not come up much with skeptics. Racism doesn’t have the public approval that pseudoscience does. That’s not to say it’s not real, just that it exists in circles with private approval, and small enclaves where it might be public, but not in the way astrology or homeopathy is public. If Jenny McCarthy were talking about her whitey sense instead of her mommy sense, I’d hope we’d be talking about her unscientific racist tirades instead of her simply unscientific ones, but that’s not happening.

    Racism is complicated, besides. Sometimes it’s mostly color-coded classism. Sometimes it’s just ignorance and upbringing. Sometimes it’s subtle, never overtly taught, but learned from observation. Especially with that last one, it’s awkward. It’s hard to debunk something that’s never actually spoken about.

    And skepticism might not be the best way to focus on it. You don’t need science to tell you racism is wrong, and relying on the current state of scientific knowledge to not be racist is shaky. You might get some useful ammunition from science if you do get in an overt discussion of race, but science is a changing thing.

    None of that is to say we shouldn’t talk about race, though it’s a topic that can lead to high tempers and hurt feelings even in the most agreeable company.

    So, to throw in my two cents.@mxracer652: That isn’t valuing one race over another, that’s valuing a variety of experiences. No matter how empathetic or well studied I might be, I’ve never been any race other than my own, that’s an experience I can’t have. If the entire group shares too many traits, you’re going to end up with blind spots. A good metaphor would be genetic diversity. A population without enough diversity tends to fall apart, all from one problem.

    @sarahcookson: It should bother you, that’s racist. If you happen to see that as a common point of view or project that view on, say, me for example, I’d dispute that claim. But voting for Obama because he’s black isn’t reasonable, either. Now seeing the importance in his success despite him having a Kenyan father might be important, but that doesn’t mean “it’s cool to vote for Obama because he’s black.”

    And curiously, I’ve not met anyone that thinks racism is gone. I’ve met a few who think it’s overblown or insignificant, but they aren’t those in the stereotypical white, liberal circles I travel in. It’s been the older conservatives I’ve known that’ve generally brushed racism aside as not an issue in conversation. Maybe it’s the age thing more than the conservative thing, and this is anecdotal and just from the small sample of people I know, but my experience runs entirely counter to the referenced stereotype of white liberals who don’t see racism.

  45. @mxracer652:
    Not every thing in life is logic and science. As merkuto pointed out there is experience too and everyone’s is limited.

    I really don’t care if you see value in multiculturalism or not but don’t call me racist just because I do and then claim logic and reason is on your side.

  46. I suspect that we don’t talk about it as much because it’s the end result of unreason, and fighting irrationality in general is what we spend the bulk of our time doing.

    I think it’s also because there is no legislation that can stop racism, just the aforementioned assault on bad reasoning. With Evolution, anti-vax nonsense, abstinence education, equal pay for women, gay rights, etc, these are all issues in which our vote and the votes of unreasonable people matter in terms of policy.

    With racism, we can only change minds – we can’t legislate against it in most cases. In the cases where we can legislate protection for the ethnic races, those decisions are so firmly in place that we need not worry about challenges to them. Not so with the issues we do spend our time on.


  47. Wow, this is right up my ally. First let me say I am a “new” skeptic hence the name “virgin”. Second let me say that there are skeptics who point out race. I met one who was amazed at how any black people could be Christians due to the content of the Bible and its reference to and acceptance of slavery. I’m black…so I imagine that was at and for me…but fortunately a smarter skeptic pointed out that , this could also apply to women…and we moved on …. I left that…only my second skeptic meeting..wondering if I was making the right choice. Then once I recovered my brain in favor of my thin skin, I realized that more of this is exactly what we need to discuss.
    I’ve said and will say again that when we start the conversation about “special” and “unique” beings, we open that can of worms where we decide who is better than the other guy. If through natural selection, we’ve all just come out as the best for where we live and how we survive, then that is in my humble opinion is a better situation.
    I don’t believe that I connect to people based on race…but like a little girl…I am always amazed when I run into rejection based on stereo-type.This occurs even within my own race….I wear locks…and I don’t know how many times somebody has asked if I know where the “bud” (pot???) is or do I have some. Not for nothing…and no judging from me…but I don’t smoke pot…and the connection to my hair has nothing to do with that…although, it is a generalization. I wouldn’t mind it if they were “Rastas” but most times they aren’t. And of course words like “some” and “most” don’t represent the evidence that would qualify this as fodder for SM …no nothing scientific about this. So indulge me….
    The American Dictionary defines the word:
    rac·ism (rā’sÄ­z’É™m) Pronunciation Key
    n. 1. The belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others. 2. Discrimination or prejudice based on race.

    Princeton Dictionary:
    noun 1. the prejudice that members of one race are intrinsically superior to members of other races
    2. discriminatory or abusive behavior towards members of another race
    I think it necessary to also introduce another word “bigotry”
    1. The state of mind of a bigot; obstinate and unreasoning attachment of one’s own belief and opinions, with narrow-minded intolerance of beliefs opposed to them.2. The practice or tenets of a bigot.
    American Heritage:
    The attitude, state of mind, or behavior characteristic of a bigot; intolerance.
    I defer to an argument of “word” authority only to say that – racism can apply to the systematic judging of others based on perceived”differences. It only becomes a problem when “bigotry”..the refusal to let another’s ideas gain value that it is, in my opinion, dangerous. In other words, racists are difficult…but I have swayed many a racist with consistent proof that all black folks aren’t the same..but bigots..don’t listen…they already know…I guess, that’s an argument of ignorance.
    I rest my case.

  48. @PrimevilKneivel: I’ll ask in a different way. Appreciating culture for culture is fine, but how exactly does something like race or a person’s background help society?

    I’ve always thought race & culture were pretty much neutral? Like saying person X’s idea should be considered first b/c they’re not like the rest of us. Where’s the logic in that?

  49. @mxracer652:

    I think what PrimevilKneivel is trying to say is that a culturally homogeneous group is going to lack some perspective. It doesn’t mean that someone else’s ideas come first because they’re black/Jewish/a woman, it means that in a group of all white men, no one is going to gain insight from anything other than white men. That’s not to say that all white guys have the same experience, but there are experiences you are lacking because you’re not black. Just like I lack certain insight because I’m not a male, because I’m not hispanic, because I’m not gay, because I don’t live in Arizona, because I’ve never been to Canada.

    It’s not that any one group is better or worse than another, or that every group must have at least “1 of each”, but to dismiss the differences as irrelevant or unimportant is naive.

  50. Racism makes for a very poor skeptic. Something is wrong with your thinking if you have something against pigmentation and origin.

    There are other reasons to have distaste for groups of people. Government mandated social engineering is enslaving whole sections of our civilization to each other, and we are all losing.

    As to the start of this thread, I didn’t vote for the first time in my life. The choices were crap sandwich vs. gigantic douche.

    I discriminate against idiocy of all kinds, creeds, colors, and scents.

    (like Lilac, and WTF is Febreeze? I prefer mustard gas, thanks!!!)

  51. Thanks Elyse, you said it much better than I.

    If I had said we need less white males that would be racist, but what I was getting at was we need more people and the wider a range of experience those people have, the stronger we are as a group.

    To me that seems logical and based on reason.

  52. Originally, I was convinced that I wasn’t racist. Growing up, I had very little exposure to people different from myself. Additionally, I was privileged, in that no one oppressed me because of my race. But as I grew older, I realized that I would often react in fear when I saw people very different from me.

    Eventually, I realized that my reaction was subtly learned. My epiphany came when I saw a PBS special call “Race: The Power of an Illusion”. Since that time I try to recognize when my reactions are racist, and squelch them. Additionally, I try to identify and deconstruct any societal structure that promotes racist ideas.

    As a skeptic, I feel our primary weapon against racism is critical thinking. Because racism’s greatest strength is irrational emotion.

  53. Racism needs to be discussed in EVERY community, skeptical or otherwise! Along with non-/religious prejudices, well, xenophobia of any kind, homophobia… All phobias and prejudices should be discussed at all times! Lol

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