Last week, I was walking from a class at UC with a friend of mine, Brenda. I was telling her about a methamphetamine article I was working on, and we started talking about cultural trends and drug use.
She caught me off guard when she said, "I don't think black people do methamphetamines much because you have to be smart to do that." I think she sensed that her comment made me uncomfortable, and she tried to explain herself. "I mean, the people that make it in their bathtubs, you have to know all about chemistry and stuff."
When I told her that a couple of the users I'd interviewed didn't strike me as particularly bright, she seemed surprised and said, "Oh, you've been talking to black people who use it?"
Now you might be thinking Brenda is a racist who doesn't like black people, but I can tell you that's not the case. Brenda is black.
When I was a teenager, I believed white people were smarter. What else could I have thought?
At Walnut Hills, I was told by classmates that the black kids who got in were given easier entrance exams. When I attended high school in Akron, we had a nice 50/50 racial mix, but there were only three black kids in our advanced placement program. They were subject to constant ridicule by the other black kids for "acting white."
Demographics from proficiency test scores also supported the idea that white kids are smarter. Fortunately, I went to college and was able to reevaluate my ideas by learning about physical and cultural anthropology.
My 17-year-old brother sounds just like I did at his age, but he has no plans to go to college. As a matter of fact, he's in a vocational program to become a police officer.
So is my brother a bad person? No, he's a good-hearted, wonderful kid. Is he a racist who hates black people? No. Will my brother be the kind of cop who sees a group of black teenagers and automatically assumes they're up to something? Probably.
The problem goes beyond police officers. I once heard about a study in which researchers sent two similar resumes to hundreds of companies. None of the resumes listed the applicant's race, but one would have a white name, like Robert, and the other a black name, like Devonte. The white names were 80 percent more likely to be contacted by employers, not because these employers hated black people but because they didn't even realize they were making a decision.
But how can we change unconscious cultural attitudes? By forcing people to think.
Here's the thing: If we really believe black people are in any way less intelligent than white people, we need to adjust our policies accordingly. First of all, every black man, woman and child should be getting a monthly S.S.I. check. Hey, I have friends and family members who are getting a nice check every month because their child is a little slow, and if we honestly believe that a whole race of people is mentally challenged then it's our duty to help them.
Furthermore, if we really believe black people are intellectually inferior, they should be able to use that as a defense in a court of law. "Come on, Your Honor, how was I supposed to know I couldn't take that stereo without paying for it? I'm black!"
You see, if we really think about the notion that black people are less intelligent, it's obviously ridiculous. The problem is we don't think about it, and these unconscious ideas continue to influence our judgments and attitudes.
It's easier for white people to assume their kids are more intelligent, because if they acknowledged the gross disparities between suburban and inner-city school districts they might feel obligated to change the system. For their part, black people need to stop perpetuating a culture of inferiority by associating academic success with "acting white."
Racial hatred and discrimination are no longer acceptable in our society, but we still bear the scars of slavery and segregation. This new racism is just as damaging but harder to fight because it's subconscious and because it seems benign when compared to lynchings and church bombings.
Many white people feel racism is no longer an issue in this country, and some even think black people have an unfair advantage because of programs like affirmative action. I hope they'll wake up when they're faced with pictures of the thousands of poor people stranded in Hurricane Katrina's path, the overwhelming majority of whom were black.
Now is the time for white people to stop ignoring the obvious and demand equality for all people.
Living Out Loud runs every week at citybeat.com and the second issue of each month in the paper.