Racism is something you can count. In today’s Journal of the American Medical Association, racism in the emergency room is reduced to an “odds ratio” of .66, which means that an African American who reports pain to an emergency room doctor is less likely to be prescribed the kinds of strong pain relief given to white patients.
Does this mean that emergency room doctors are bigots? If a bigot is someone who is aware of, and who acts upon, prejudicial intentions; then no, it does not follow from the evidence that doctors are bigots.
Is the medical profession racist? If by racist we mean a detectable level of unfair treatment, then yes, it is necessarily true that the medical profession is racist, at least as far as the evidence shows.
The puzzle of course is how we can make strong claims about racism while we must discount inferences of bigotry.
The short answer for the puzzle lies in our common heritage of culture and language. For example in “The Great Debaters” we see how the poet Melvin B. Tolson is aware that his use of the word “denigrate” embeds in his own language a racist aversion to African beings. He is no bigot, but he cannot escape a common culture of racism. Even the great Tolson would have to watch himself for signs of an “odds ratio” at work in his habits.
But then it is not enough to say, well, if Tolson uses racist language, then we are all equally at fault. Because Tolson is actively working to boost the odds ratio up to one. And Tolson knows that because there are a thousand ways to do this, he must be busy at it all the time, along multiple dimensions.
Despite the fact that statistics are required skills for most college graduates today, I’m afraid to say that college level education correlates very poorly with awareness of the racism that works in terms of an “odds ratio.”
Last time I looked carefully at the numbers, resistance to affirmative action was highest among people who should know better: middle class, white, male, college educated folk. How can one understand the statistical significance of “odds ratios” in our world and at the same time oppose institutional redress in the form of affirmative action? Is it bigotry again? Denigration without reflection?
Look at Tolson’s example. Does Tolson say, “before we can begin to struggle for intellectual equality, we must first organize economic solidarity with our white brothers”? No, Tolson does not deploy the kind of logic which asserts that we can work only on one institution at a time. He would not say: “put off de-segregation in college until we have achieved equal education in K-12.” No, he’d be busy doing both at the same time.
PS: And should we not ask whether there might be some “odds ratio” at work in the critical language of Hollywood film reviews, when some directors are hailed for their “style” while others are denigrated for “formula”?