Melvyn L. Fein: ‘Benign neglect’ may hold key on race relations
January 09, 2012 12:07 AM | 1420 views | 2 2 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Once Barack Obama got elected, we were supposed to enter a post-racial world. As our first black president, he would bring us all together irrespective of race. Unfortunately things have not worked out that way. Today, those who criticize Obama are likely to be told they are only exposing their racist inclinations.

Worse still, the president’s Attorney-General Eric Holder is fond of censuring whites for their alleged lack of courage with respect to racial issues. Just how disposed Holder is to see things through a racial prism was revealed in an anecdote told by J. Christian Adams in his book “Injustice.”

It seems that for many years Holder carried a newspaper clipping in his wallet that quoted a black preacher as saying, “No matter how affluent, educated and mobile [a black person] becomes, his race defines him more than anything else.” Given his actions, Holder apparently continues to think of himself that way.

I am happy to report, however, that on a local level we seem to have made more progress on racial integration than they have in Washington. The South continues to have a terrible reputation when it comes to race relations, but this is belied by what is occurring on the ground at Kennesaw State University.

When I first began teaching at KSU more than two decades ago, barely 3 percent of our student population was black. Today we are moving to upwards of 23 percent. Back then black students left us to go to Georgia State because they found the atmosphere there more congenial. Today the reverse is true.

More than this, I daily witness my students interacting with one another in terms of friendship. There are no ghettoes in my classrooms. To the contrary, members of different racial groups socialize with one another unselfconsciously based on their personal aspirations.

Added to this is the fact that I can never be sure of who will be my best or worst students based solely on skin color. Sometimes the best student is white; sometimes black. As it happens, the same is also true with respect to who gets the lowest grade.

What is the reason for this state of affairs? How has a circumstance that would have been regarded as miraculous a scant half century ago come to be? The answer, I am sorry to say, is not to be found in a particular policy that has been initiated by my university.

It is not that KSU does not have such policies. Like almost every college it sponsors programs to teach about race. It also encourages both courses and student activities that focus on racial matters. Nonetheless, these are not what have made the difference.

It turns out that programs such as “sensitivity training” have almost no impact on racial attitudes. As Harvard sociologist Frank Dobbin’s research has revealed, these leave their participants unchanged. Why this is so is easy to understand.

Imagine a racist in such a program. He knows what he is expected to say when told that all whites are privileged compared with blacks. Assuming he is not a fool, rather than harm his prospects, he mouths the correct responses; whereas his underlying feelings remain what they were. As to non-racists, they assume that the program has nothing to do with them; hence their attitudes also remain the same.

What then makes the difference? The answer lies in a phrase for which Richard Nixon was roundly castigated. He suggested that the best approach to resolving racial difficulties was “benign neglect.” The government should just step back and allow events to unfold naturally.

This essentially is what has happened at KSU. Way back in the 1940s another sociologist named Morton Deutsch suggested that if members of different races were allowed to interact with one another, they would soon learn that members of the other group were as human as themselves. Consequent to this, the barriers between them would come tumbling down.

What Deutsch did not understand was that for this policy to work the meeting between the two groups must be voluntary. If they are forced to interact, both sides will resist. Fortunately, what has occurred at KSU was completely voluntary. Blacks and whites have learned to get along because no one has twisted their arms to make them more gracious. They have simply done so on their own.

To which I say — Amen!

Melvyn L. Fein Ph.D. is a professor of Sociology at Kennesaw State University
Comments-icon Post a Comment
January 09, 2012
We would not have gotten to this point if there had not first been forced integration of our schools and laws that made discrimination in the work place illegal. Maybe we are past that point, but we would not be where we are now if we had just waited for "natural interaction" to bring us to respect for each other.

One other thought on this idea. After gays are legislated as acceptable in the military and in our society as married couples and parents to children, a little "benign neglect" to the issue would go a long way to showing that LBGT folks are just as human as straights. As you said: "...the barriers between them would come tumbling down."

Informed Agnostic
January 09, 2012
Post racial??? Tell that to Limbaugh who refers to President Obama as "boy" or "uppity." Then there are all the "dog whistle" words used by the GOP presidential candidates that normal people don't hear, but racists receive loud and clear.

As usual, Dr. Fein, your naivete and/or ignorance is breathtaking.

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