THE BRAZEN CAREERIST- Are you racist?: Reconsider comments at work

One of the most dangerous ideas in the workplace today is that racism is gone. It's not.

Princeton econ prof Jesse Rothstein acknowledges racist thinking, even today. "Some people think racial discrimination ended in 1972," he says, "and that segregation persists because minorities cannot afford nicer neighborhoods."

In fact, Rothstein found that there's a threshold for the percentage of minorities living in a city, and once a city crosses that threshold, white people start leaving. In terms of white flight, Rothstein says, "There's a real difference between a school with 5 percent minorities and a school with 6 percent."

These are the people you work with: white people who leave a school district if it isn't white enough. No one wears a percentage sign on their shirt to let you know where they fall on the continuum of racist thinking, but we all fall somewhere.

I've written before about subtle discrimination. There's cultural agreement that it's not okay to be racist in an overt way, which means that the racism goes to places that are hard to pinpoint. It persists in under-the-radar ways. Here are some other examples.

A University of Chicago study found we judge people who might be African American more harshly than others.

A Vanderbilt study found that immigrants who had lighter skin make more money than those with darker skin.  

The advertising industry is so suspect in its hiring practices that the New York City Commission on Human Rights recently issued subpoenas in an investigation of systemic discrimination against African Americans.

What can a white person do to improve the situation? Start with herself, of course. The more you understand your racial prejudices, the less they'll show up at work. In the meantime, here are a some annoying things that white people say that African Americans wish they wouldn't.

1. Don't praise someone as articulate, as if you're surprised. There's been a lot of dicusssion about U.S. Senator Joe Biden calling his colleague Barak Obama articulate. My friend says he has experienced this problem many times in his life, but would never come out an say anything because he'd be labeled "too sensitive." He quotes Penn professor Michael Dyson: "Historically, articulate was meant to signal the exceptional Negro. The implication is that most black people do not have the capacity to engage in articulate speech, when white people are automatically assumed to be articulate."

2. Don't discuss politics. It's a minefield of offensive and inappropriate comments. The number of political subjects that have underlying race issues makes politics too risky to contend with at work. Talking about politics is healthy for society, sure, but it doesn't mean it's the right thing to do at work.

3. Don't make racial jokes or comments against any race. Often whites think it's okay to joke with a black coworker about  Asian, Latinos, etc. This makes most people of color uncomfortable and also think "If whites joke with me about Asians and Latinos, what are they doing when they're with them?" 

4. Don't say "you people" when referring to people of another ethnicity. It creates a division between you and the other person.

And finally, here's a story that illustrates how careless white people are at the office: "I recently changed positions within the same organization and willingly took a job in an office in a predominately black neighborhood.  Whenever we have joint office meetings or are in the main office, only my white counterparts ask, 'How are things going over there (code for 'I wouldn't be caught dead over there, do you feel safe, has your car been stolen?')?'  This question comes from people who never spoke to me before, and it was an every-meeting type question. In one meeting I responded with, 'I don't have a problem working around or with black people.'" No one has asked since. 



Funny how these racism articles always seems to flow one way.

My husband and I moved to Charlottesville from out of state. We rented a house with a couple of friends while we were getting back on our feet after two years from hell including several job layoffs and nearly losing our house. A couple of nice young high school girls came to our door selling magazine subscriptions. Finances were still tight and I politely declined. One of the girls asked if my parents had helped me get where I was today, looking around at the house and yard that weren't mine, her body language implying a life of ease and privilege. I smiled and shook my head. "No," I told her. "I had to get where I am now on my own." I thanked them for my time and closed the door.

The high school girls were black. I'm white. Just because I'm white doesn't mean my parents gave me a car or paid for my education (or that I was even able to pursue further education) and that I led an otherwise charmed life.

Racism goes both ways.

What exactly, did you lose in that "racist" exchange, Sara? Someone made a rude and nosy comment. You responded appropriately, but I don't see racism here.

Can't agree with the ban on political discussion (at least for race reasons)

Discussing politics at work, the dinner table, or family reunions may be a bad idea in general. That being said, I don't like the implication that we can't do it because of race. People should be able to express their views without fear that because someone gets their feelings hurt they can cry "racist."

The problem isn't just racism. It's also the threat of being labeled racist (and of these threats not generally being criticized). No one has the conception that racism is gone. Instead, we celebrate our increasingly accute awareness of it, as some sort of progress. Scared, and reasonably so, that we will be labeled racist, we avoid talking about certain subjects altogether around certain people. Maybe this means that we don't have as good of friendhips with them, or maybe it means that we don't want to include them when we talk about certain things. Furthermore, we often resent the situation. None of this is a good thing.

Really this article isn't about being or not racist (at least the career part) It's about trying not to sound racist, which is a pretty superficial harmony.