20 February 2010

In The United States

One of our faculty members has a habit of adding "in the United States" to any generalized statement made in her presence. If one of us says that pay tends to be the largest factor in employee motivation, she'll say, "in the United States." If we say that investing in research and development tends to be associated with increased profitability, she'll say "in the United States." If we claim that reciprocity is a universal human behavior, she'll say "in the United States."

Her point is two-fold. First, she doesn't believe in universal human behavior. Second, she's reminding even those of us who are positivists -- who believe that there can be generalizable rules of human behavior and thought -- that our conclusions can't outrun our data, and in management almost all data is from the United States. (In the social sciences generally, almost all data is Euro-American. In psychology, most data is from college students. Next time the media tries to tell you about some universal truth derived from psychology experiments -- usually some left wing truth -- remember that all they're really telling you about is how college students behave.)

I'm reminded of this warning by the recent proliferation of supposed "racial code-words" identified by the racialist left and defenders of President Obama. Various observers have suggested that calling Obama "socialist," or "un-American," or "Professor" is subtle racism. As James Taranto notes, "un-American" is not particularly subtle, but it seems odd to object to it as racist. Professor, on the other hand, is a very subtle insult, and not just as racial code.

Why are these insults and honorifics both being described at racist? Partly, I'm sure, simply to deflect criticism of President Obama. But partly for a peculiarity of thought in the United States. For a certain portion of our population, blacks are not only "other," but the only other.

It's fair enough to note that, if asked to imagine the prototypical American, most of us (and not just in the United States) would imagine a white male. "Aha," shout the racialists, "we knew it. Blacks aren't really American." I have a more benign explanation, of course, that allows for the Americanism of women and minorities (who are called minorities for a reason). Our prototypical American is probably also Christian, though probably goes to Church only on Christmas, Easter, to be married and buried. Nonetheless, Jews can be Americans, too. But if you can only imagine one American, you go with the majority.

For the racialists on the left and right, though, our little thought experiment has proved, conclusively, that blacks are the other in the United States. For certain racialists on the left, however, blacks are the only other. They'd admit, if pressed, that women, atheists, Asians, gays, etc., also seem to be other, but only to the extent that their experience is like that of American blacks. When they say that "gay is the new black," they don't mean to imply that black isn't still black.

So, in the United States, the racialists can't admit that calling someone "socialist" or "un-American" or "professor" is really about whatever those words literally signify. Rather, it's a way of pointing out that the object of those words is other than prototypically American, which is to say, black.

1 comment:

Harry Eagar said...

I think you are making too much of a very small segment of political hysteria.

The number of people who aver that calling a black man 'professor' is antiblack racism is probably 4 orders of magnitude less than the numbers of people who are frankly dissing Obama because he is black.

Your professor was making a version of the old observation in newsrooms that there is no average man.

If the average person is a man, white, brown hair, right-handed, drinks beer etc. etc., the more average traits you pile on him, the less likely you are to find any individual who has all of them, until finally, the most average of average men turns out not to exist.