How We See Race

Commenter Lee offers the following about unemployment about black professionals:

I really think, when it comes to college educated blacks, the social capital issue is most of the story. I can't speak for everyone, but my experiences in professional environments in the mid-atlantic region have been that employers are DYING to employ college-educated, professional black people. I think the story is almost certainly different for non-professionals, but if a college-educated black person gets fired or can't get a job, I'd be really surprised if racism by employers was the problem. The partners at my former, very conservative corporate law firm were VERY clear that hiring black attorneys was an important goal, and I've never worked for a large company that hasn't fallen all over itself to avoid any hint of racial discrimination.

I don't actually doubt this. Virtually all of my employers have had at least the stated goal of diversity, and a couple of them have actually worked at it. But that said, I think there is an essential perception difference between blacks and whites. 

One reason Lee would be "surprised" by discrimination is that he she almost never encounters it, and should he she encounter it, it likely would not be the norm. Put differently, non-racist white people may meet other racist whites, but the vast, vast majority of whites they meet will not be racist. Thus they logically conclude that racism is pretty rare.

For black people the same is basically true, with one crucial difference--one or two racist experiences will scar you. You will still, in all likelihood believe that the majority of white people aren't racist, but you won't have the luxury of thinking of racism as "rare." The price of being caught off-guard is simply too high.

Think of it this way: the vast majority of men are not rapists. But a rape victim--or someone who has to countenance the possibility of rape--won't be comforted by that fact. Perhaps more appropriately, I don't know any men who refer to women who won't talk to them on the street as bitches. In fact, I've only seen this happen, like, once in my entire life. From my vantage point, this sort of over the top behavior is rare. But I don't think my spouse would see it that way. I could get argumentative with her and insist that she's paranoid. But if I actually believe that the world is bigger than what I see, there isn't much point to that.

One last thing--we tend to confuse "extremely rare" with "not a threat." I've never been called a nigger by a white person in my life. But I gather, from other black people, that you only need for it to happen once, and you'll never forget it. In our life-time, it's unlikely that the Earth will be hit by a meteor. Does that mean we shouldn't be looking?

It's almost--almost--a branding issue. You may run a high-end, squeaky clean restaurant with great service. But I only have to see a rat on the dining floor once to never come back again. Indeed, I may not even come to the restaurant next door, because of what saw at yours. I just can't afford to take a chance.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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