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David Hill: You might be a racist

Last week’s column delved into the challenges that pollsters face when defining and measuring racism. It’s not easy. So we are staying on task.

The principal problem is that racism lies so deep in some Americans’ psyches that even they don’t know it’s there and most certainly won’t admit it. They may recognize that social mores reject racism and therefore tell inquiring researchers they aren’t racist, even as it lurks below the surface.

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Some say that every single American is racist, depending on how you define it. We certainly aren’t color and race blind. So if your definition of racism implies racial consciousness, it probably afflicts all. Yet a more practical definition of racism, for the political pollster, probably includes some sort of overt negativity or malevolence for people of a different race. But even that is hard to measure.

Retired NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ruminated on this in a column for Time magazine this week. He even offered some practical and novel advice for those who want to identify racists.

Jabbar’s most interesting observation: “If you’ve ever said, ‘I don’t care if you’re white, black, yellow or purple,’ you might be a racist.” I am wholly sympathetic with the direction he’s going, but “might be” is the operative phrase there.

I fear that this well-worn expression, crafted to show that you aren’t racist, may be unwittingly used by some linguistically challenged, non-malevolent racists who repeat it for lack of any other words to communicate their innocence.

But Jabbar’s take on the topic gets more interesting when he suggests that those who deny the existence of racism anywhere today may, in fact, be the racists. Here is where the malice factor comes in. If my racism is hateful, I’m usually going to deny it, and the most effective denial may be rejecting that the attitude or problem exists at all today.

Denial is a critical problem facing a pollster attempting to construct batteries of questions to identify racists, especially when he or she is asking about current times. But poll respondents may let down their guard if we ask about another earlier time and place, their youth. We know that most values and attitudes are learned during childhood. Racism should be no different. So asking respondents about the racial attitudes of their parents and grandparents might be revealing. Yes, I know that you can overcome intergenerational nonsense that your parents taught you, but it’s tough.

If you tell me your parents were racist, and then you also tell me racism doesn’t exist, then my suspicions are raised. I may unleash the Jabbarian challenge: “Have you ever said, ‘I don’t care if you’re white, black, yellow or purple’?” Then I have you dead to rights.

If you think about some of the more egregious examples of overt public racism (think Donald Sterling, Marge Schott, Cliven Bundy, and Don Imus), they often are spewed from the mouths of old-timers. It’s hard to say whether that is due to generational racism or a demented failure of good judgment when speaking. It’s probably some of both. But there’s no doubt that age is a factor.

Perhaps this is why Oprah Winfrey once speculated to the BBC that racism won’t end until there are some funerals on this side of the pond. “There are still generations of people, older people, who were born and bred and marinated in it, in that prejudice and racism, and they just have to die.” That’s brutal, but perhaps accurate.

For post-boomer generations (dare we say “post-racial”?), the researcher might successfully measure racism through questions measuring personal and social interaction with other races. In my experience, very frequent and very infrequent interaction produces the least racism. Obviously, negative reactions to interactions with other races induce more racism, while positive interactions mitigate against the malady.

Hill is a pollster that has worked for Republican candidates and causes since 1984.