David Crisp: Racism, subtle and not so, still abounds


Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

Rhonda Whiteman spoke last week during a Native American Race Relations and Healing Symposium at the Billings Public Library.

So how big a racist are you?

Even just asking the question sort of rankles, doesn’t it? Nobody wants to be called a racist. Even when he was grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, David Duke denied that he was “anti-black.”


David Crisp

Yet traces of the racism that once permeated American society still abound, in ways that many of us never think about. When I drive past Miles and Terry avenues in Billings, I think, if at all, of a couple of old Army generals.

Others think of Gen. Alfred Terry, who negotiated the infamous Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868 and who sent off reinforcements to fight Chief Joseph. Or of Gen. Nelson Miles, who forced the Lakota onto reservations after Custer’s defeat and who was sent to pursue the Sioux after the Ghost Dance revival in 1890.

“I compare it to going to Germany and staying at the Himmler Hotel,” author Russell Rowland said here last week at the Native American Race Relations and Healing Symposium.

At the same symposium, Rhonda Whiteman said her attitude toward accepting foreign refugees is shaped by the Crow Tribe’s experience of being pushed farther and farther west by larger tribes.

“We should be as inclusive as we can possibly be,” she said.

Another speaker said, “Just the word ‘tribe’ hurts my heart.”

Similar insights surfaced at the Access to Justice Forum here last week. After hearing an outpouring of complaints about how difficult justice is to obtain for the poor, elderly and disabled, Georgette Boggio of the Elk River Law Office rose to testify that all of those problems are compounded among Indians, who also face subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle racial barriers.

At the same forum, District Judge Michael Moses said he was shocked to learn that after 35 years of representing Indians, he showed up in an online test as moderately biased against Indians. He encouraged everyone to take the test, which shows up on Google if you enter “Harvard bias test.” So I did.

The test actually is a series of tests developed by Project Implicit, a nonprofit organization founded by scientists from Harvard, the University of Washington and the University of Virginia. The Implicit Association Test, as the series is called, attempts to uncover biases people may not openly express or even acknowledge to themselves.

I took two of the tests, on attitudes toward Native Americans and toward black people. Without giving too much away about how the tests work—you may want to try them yourself—they essentially juxtapose images of Indians and white Americans with American and foreign place names. You are asked to quickly sort the images, apparently on the theory that the more accurately and rapidly you sort the names, the more the test reveals about your attitude about what it means to be an American.

The test on attitudes toward blacks was similar but instead used words classified as “good” or “bad” juxtaposed with images of black and white Americans. So if you are more apt to think of “horrify” than “glorious” when you think of black people, you presumably show more bias.

I showed up as slightly more likely to associate Indians with America than white people. I don’t know why; perhaps it’s because I wavered a bit on whether Indian names like “Seattle” and “Miami” should show up on the American or Indian side of the ledger. To me, those words fit with equal comfort in both places. And when I think of “Moscow,” I don’t think of the Kremlin but of a picnic lunch we once had in Moscow, Texas.

I showed up with no automatic biases against black people. For that I suppose I can credit my parents, bless their hearts, who drummed into their boys’ heads even in segregated South Texas in the 1950s that racism was just plain wrong.

That may also explain why Donald Trump’s candidacy for president has failed to kindle my enthusiasm. You see, the American National Election Studies 2016 Pilot Study has been measuring racial animus since 1996. Its latest survey, conducted in January, found that Trump supporters showed more animus than, say, Marco Rubio supporters when they responded to statements such as blacks would be more successful if they worked harder and blacks in recent years have gotten less than they deserved.

The more closely those surveyed gave answers that matched negative racial stereotypes, the more likely they were to support Trump. That doesn’t mean that if you like Trump you are a racist, but it may suggest that if you are a racist, you probably like Trump—just as David Duke does.

And you may not even know it. Think about that the next time you are driving down Miles Avenue.

Leave a Reply