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Racism is always stupid, but stupidity isn't always racism

Simple but forgotten truths.

By Will Offensicht  |  November 8, 2007

There've been debates about affirmative action since before it started.  The stated goal of affirmative action was to overcome years of racial prejudice against Black people. defines "racism" as "a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one's own race is superior and has the right to rule others."  "Racism" is a belief, not an action, but in common use, "racism" appears to mean treating other people badly just because they're of a different race.

Many black Americans claim that, having been victims of racism, black people cannot possibly be racist no matter how much they favor black people over whites in hiring, promotion, or anything else.  There've been news articles, Supreme Court cases, marches, TV shows all saying different things about how to treat black people - it gets confusing.

In all this sound and fury, I wondered what racism or racial prejudice, or racial discrimination or whatever you call it feels like on the ground where people live.  My Japanese-American friends assured me that they face racial discrimination every day but would never talk about it.

Then my family and I spent some months in a large southern city where I was doing some work.  Early in our stay, I met a black man I'll call Brother B.  Brother B was vice president of a multinational consumer products firm I'll call Amalgamated.

Having grown up in Japan where there were essentially no black people and lived in a state where there were even fewer, I knew nothing of black thoughts, needs, or concerns.  It took me a while to convince Brother B that I was ignorant and not hostile, but he finally told me stories of racial discrimination against him and his friends.  Most of his racially-motivated incidents involved money - being denied credit, having to post more collateral or more bail than white people, and so on.

Stupidity isn't always racism

I thought about what he'd told me until the next time I saw him.  "What you told me sounds like you've been treated badly," I told Brother B, "but it might not be racial prejudice."  He was skeptical, so I told him about my experience with American Express.

"I got Amex in 1970," I told him, "because it was the only card I could use all over the world.  In a high-travel year, I'd charge $30,000 or more, plus their annual fee.  I think I was a decent customer.  Then during the downturn of 1990, I read that Amex lost money because so many people couldn't pay.  The article speculated that they'd cut people off based on their zip code."

He remembered the 1990 recession, so I went on.

"I lived in a low-income zip code, I might get cut off.  When I got a letter offering Visa at 'no annual fee for life,' I signed up.  A couple weeks later, Amex refused my charge at an airline counter.  I used my new Visa, got the ticket, and life went on.  When I got home, I cut my Amex in half, mailed it back, and told them never to darken my mailbox again.  They let me down when I needed them.  Doesn't that sound like what happened to you and your friends?  Being dumped for no reason?"

I got a reluctant nod; he knew where I was going.

"Amex didn't dump me because I was black," I said, "They shut me off because they were stupid.  They forgot my cashing a check for $650 worth of rupees in Lahore.  They forgot my trips to Tokyo, and London, and distant, expensive places, all charged on their card.  They forgot 20 years of annual fees.  They dumped me, so I dumped them."

"There's a saying, 'Never ascribe to hostility what can be explained by stupidity.'  You're an Amalgamated VP.  You've got a bunch of people working for you.  Don't they do stupid things from time to time?

He nodded.

"When you find your people doing something stupid, you try to stop them, right?"

Another nod.

"Here's the hard part," I said.  "Couldn't some of the stupid things you've found your own people doing seem like racism to black people, based on what you told me?"

That was a tough one, but I got another nod.

"Amalgamated's boss wants to make his numbers, right?  He doesn't want black enemies, he wants black customers.  If he sells enough toilet paper, his stock options will be in the money.  If Amalgamated makes black people mad, it's not Amalgamated policy, right?  It's people doing something stupid, like someone at Amex did something stupid and canceled my card.  You want to help your boss make his numbers, that makes you look good to him.  When your people do stupid things, you try to make them stop, but it's real hard to stop your people being stupid, right?"

Politics isn't always racism

That was enough for one talk, but he had questions later.  "You're right," he said, "my boss is a greedy b--, well, let's say he wants to make his numbers.  He would rather sell toilet paper to black people than make them mad.  And some of the dumb things my people do could look like racism from outside.  You asked me about affirmative action a while back.  I got the idea you thought you knew about affirmative action.  I don't see how you could possibly have a clue, but tell me about affirmative action."

"I've worked for lots of small companies," I told him, "and the boss usually gives jobs to his relatives.  It's not 'affirmative action,' it's called 'nepotism,' but it's the same to me, it means some relative gets the job and I don't.  I know affirmative action from the other side."

"It took me a while to understand.  Small company bosses have a hard time explaining plans to employees.  They don't have good middle management, so they try to hire people who understand them.  Their kids understand them best; having family around makes it easier to get things done.  Diversity hurts because it's hard to communicate with people who're different."

"Sometimes the boss gives family a job just to make peace.  Suppose there's a brother-in-law who's dumber than a box of rocks.  He makes the brother in law a vice president, and he hires someone else to be the vice president.  The in-law pays golf and not much else.  Everybody but him knows he's not really the VP, and they know who to go to when they need something.  His salary is tax-deductible, it makes the boss' wife happy, and everything's sweet.  Doesn't Amalgamated have some high-placed people who you have no idea how or why they got the job?"

"Yeah," he says, "there're some pretty dumb people here and there in the 'ol org chart."

"You know who the dumb ones are, right?  And you don't waste time with them, you go around them, or talk to their subordinates, or their bosses, or whatever you have to do to get your work done, right?

He began to see where I was going.

"There's lots of reasons you'll find a dumb guy in a job he can't do.  Sometimes it's affirmative action; sometimes it's a bad promotion.  When it happens, people adapt.  People learn to go around an incompetent placeholder to get their jobs done."

"Sometimes, the boss has a family member who's really bright, who can do the job.  That's OK, except the boss usually promotes the kid too fast.  So long as the relative asks for help and doesn't act like he knows it all, people will help him learn.  After all, he's probably going to own it all someday."

"It gets really bad when the relative isn't smart enough to do the job but he wants to be the VP and not just have the title.  He throws his weight around, makes stupid decisions, and causes trouble for everyone."

"I see how affirmative action seems to you," Brother B said, "but what about the flack I got when I came to Amalgamated?  Wasn't that racism?"

"I don't think so," I said.  "You came from outside.  The only thing anybody knew was that you're black.  They didn't know you're way smarter than most VPs, they thought you'd be another quota queen."

"A what?!?"

"Quota queen.  Anybody who gets a job through a quota.  Amalgamated needs some high-level blacks or they get yelled at.  Everybody thought they hired you to fill a black slot.  Your subordinates thought you couldn't do the job; they'd get to act like VPs and get more face time with your boss.  The other VPs thought you couldn't do the job; they'd get more responsibility.  Everybody would be more likely to get promoted.  You told me your subordinates went around you and other VPs tried to take your territory.  But you pinned 'em back and ran 'em off, didn't you?"

"Yeah, I reamed my people out real good for going around me, and I took turf from some of the other VPs."

"The problem was you weren't a quota queen, you were a real, live, fire-breathin' VP.  Everybody was disappointed they couldn't benefit from you not being able to do the job.  Very few VPs make president, so at that level, everybody works hard to look better than everybody else.  You get a new VP, every other VP'll try to take territory, budget, and people from him no matter who he is so they get more responsibility and might make president."

"A new guy in a firehouse, a new kid on a ball team, everybody hazes him to see what he's made of.  That's not racism, that's human; we call it 'politics.'"

"You didn't play fair.  You were supposed to be a quota queen; they expected to climb the ladder at your expense.  But you're not a quota queen; you're a real VP who's smarter than the average bear.  You reamed 'em out, took territory, and made 'em look stupid.  Nothing to do with race, just old-fashioned office politics.  Happen to any new VP, regardless of race, creed, color, or national origin.  They challenged, you won; now everybody can get back to selling toilet paper.  No racism, nothing personal, just politics."

Racism is stupid because you'll eventually underestimate someone and get your clock cleaned like Brother B's subordinates and fellow VPs.  On the other hand, what seems like racism could be stupidity.  It's pretty stupid to have a potential customer offer you money and make him so mad he decides not to give his money to you.