For years, Dr. Alvin Poussaint, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, has been faced with the thankless, if well-rewarded, task of explaining to "enlightened" white script writers -- including those for The Cosby Show -- that their heads are stuffed with offensive racist stereotypes.
"It’s a problem," Poussaint said in a speech several years ago at Stanford. "What you get in the scripts is their perception of blackness."
One of the major reasons for the persistent problem is that millions of white adult Americans define "racism" as its most pathological manifestations: wearing white gowns and hoods, burning crosses, tarring and feathering blacks, hunting them down with dogs. Because those same millions of white Americans would not dream of committing such atrocities; because they vote for political representatives who pass civil-rights bills; because they applauded Martin Luther King and Thurgood Marshall; because they respect the changing nomenclature by which certain blacks wish to be addressed, they imagine themselves to be free of racism.
What they have never learned is that racism is an idea, a very old and intransigent idea. That idea exists on an unbroken continuum -- all the way from a form that is fully conscious to a form that is unconscious. Its manifestations can range from the most grossly offensive and scornful invective to a compulsive noblesse oblige that cannot permit itself to make any criticisms at all. But whatever the degree or kind of racism, it invariably contains a double standard: The racist simply does not treat black individuals the same way he treats whites.
The effect of stereotypes on blacks is a sense of being unseen, as in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. The effect on whites is the corollary: They do not perceive blacks as real or make the same fine discriminations among blacks that they habitually make among whites. In the last analysis, they do not perceive black individuals; they perceive black skins. And this remains true at every step of the continuum.
It should not, therefore, come as an insuperable shock that the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court were a racist phenomenon. The "nice" kind; no Simon Legrees or fiery crosses here. But racist nonetheless. Setting aside old segregationist Strom Thurmond, who conscientiously counterfeited a dead man and may, for all I know, actually have been dead, the other senators participated, singly and collectively -- and unwittingly -- in a process that ceaselessly generated negative stereotypes about Thomas.
So unaware were these men of their own racist stereotyping that when, at the 11th hour, they were forced consciously to deal with a negative stereotype, they didn’t recognize it and had no principles with which to assess it or with which to differentiate between the black individuals involved. The press commentators generally revealed the same incapacities. All eventually ended up mired in an unspeakable crudity that would never have occurred had the protagonists been white.
The original hearings generated at least five negative racist stereotypes, all in one way or another springing from acts of omission, defaults of thinking, rather than conscious racism. The senators blinded themselves profoundly to what they were doing, and that self-blinding led to the ultimate explosion, the meaning of which they and the agitated white press do not understand to this day. I present those initial stereotypes roughly in order of ascending gravity:
1. The Nomination. Much has been made of the fact that President Bush lied when he said, in nominating Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, that Thomas was the "best" candidate and that Thomas had not been chosen because he is black. Of course that was a lie, and so happy were Bush’s critics to have caught him in a lie that they gave no thought to the implications of that particular lie for Thomas, and neither, of course, did Bush.
To omit the serious intellectual reasons for wanting a black nominee, and for wanting this particular black nominee, was to leave a vacuum. And the vacuum was implicitly filled by a negative stereotype. What Bush’s lie implied, without his knowing or intending it, was: "I’m naming an empty suit with a black body inside it and with nothing worthy of presidential note in that black body’s head." From Day One, thanks to the president, Clarence Thomas was an empty-headed black in an empty suit. That’s Stereotype 1. Start counting.
2. The Strategy of Evasion. The second, and reinforcing, stereotype emerged as a byproduct -- again unintended -- of the Republican strategy of evasion, the tactic that had worked with David Souter in contrast with the opinion-laden Robert Bork and with which Thomas had agreed to cooperate. Whatever objections can be raised to that tactic -- and there are dozens -- the one that was not raised was the effect on Clarence Thomas. Thomas was not, as some historical revisionists are now claiming, an incompetent candidate. His legal writings and his opinions on one of the most prestigious appellate courts of the land had been carefully read by 1,000 members of and consultants to the American Bar Association, including "reading committees" from some of the most distinguished law schools in the country. Thomas’ work was found to be well researched and economically and lucidly written; he was adjudged competent to sit on the Supreme Court.
The Republican strategy of evasion had the cumulative effect of destroying most of the evidence of Thomas’ competence. As he gradually realized, he could only smuggle in a few of his own ideas and correct a few misinterpretations of his writings. And while Souter had been able to dance theoretical pirouettes around constitutional issues while landing nicely on his feet, having said absolutely nothing, Thomas lacked such balletic skills. He had crammed for months just to learn what he might be required to say -- and then he had crammed all over again to learn how not to say it. When the time came to evade, he could perform no theoretical arabesques; he just plain, lumberingly, evaded -- monotonously, over and over again. He wasn’t used to it. To his credit, he was an abysmally bad evader.
The result was yet another offensive stereotype. The empty-headed black in an empty suit became, in addition, a dumb, shifty, and evasive black.
3. Senatorial Etiquette. An ostensibly simpler piece of advice from Thomas’ "handlers" pertained to the etiquette deemed obligatory when addressing senators. And again, this boomeranged against Clarence Thomas. For various reasons, our senators engage in incessant mutual flattery and proclamations of collegial devotion. The more they despise each other, the more they do it. When they are at the point of mutually induced nausea, the air around them resonates with "My distinguished colleague from Dubuque," "My good old friend from Peoria, whom I hold in the highest esteem." The participants understand that such fawning formulations are riddled with dark jokes, cynicism, and arrant hypocrisy and are not to be believed for an instant.