June 22, 2010

Stereotypical thinking causes racist results

A new book makes a valuable point about connection between thought and action. From a press release:

Like a Loaded Weapon
The Rehnquist Court, Indian Rights, and the Legal History of Racism in America

Robert A. Williams, Jr.
Robert A. Williams, Jr. boldly exposes the ongoing legal force of the racist language directed at Indians in American society. Fueled by well-known negative racial stereotypes of Indian savagery and cultural inferiority, this language, Williams contends, has functioned “like a loaded weapon” in the Supreme Court’s Indian law decisions.

Beginning with Chief Justice John Marshall’s foundational opinions in the early nineteenth century and continuing today in the judgments of the Rehnquist Court, Williams shows how undeniably racist language and precedent are still used in Indian law to justify the denial of important rights of property, self-government, and cultural survival to Indians. Building on the insights of Malcolm X, Thurgood Marshall, and Frantz Fanon, Williams argues that racist language has been employed by the courts to legalize a uniquely American form of racial dictatorship over Indian tribes by the U.S. government.
Comment:  Let's reiterate the key phrase: "the ongoing legal force of the racist language directed at Indians." In other words, American lawmakers conceived of Indians as subhuman savages. They acted on their racist and stereotypical beliefs. The result was laws and court decisions that demolished Indian freedom and self-sufficiency. Beliefs led directly to vast and measurable harm.

This argument devastates the counterargument we hear frequently: that stereotypical beliefs are some harmless, commonplace way of looking at the world. In this view, words such as chief, warrior, brave, savage, redskin, princess, squaw, teepee, bow and arrow, tomahawk, feather, bead, drum, etc. are just a superficial means of categorizing Indians. They're benign abstractions, like labeling the sky "blue" though it may have a range of colors.

Sure, these Native terms may be outdated or archaic, but they serve as a starting point for understanding. When people have to move beyond these terms, they do. New information quickly and easily replaces old information.

In particular, goes the counterargument, these terms have no adverse consequences or effects. Someone can think of Indians as chiefs and warriors yet have no bias against modern-day Indians in suits or dresses. Wherever racist impulses come from, they're unconnected to stereotypical beliefs.

This view is rubbish, of course. We can tell by the cognitive dissonance that arises whenever you challenge stereotypical beliefs about Indians. People don't readily accept the new information and adjust their mental map accordingly. Rather, they excuse, justify, and defend their stereotypical beliefs. These beliefs are so intrinsic to their thought processes that they refuse to give them up.

Language creates thought

I haven't read Like a Loaded Weapon, so I don't know how deeply it goes into the psychological connection between language and thought. But a substantial school of linguistics suggests how language influences how we think. According to this model, it's difficult if not impossible to form thoughts independent of the language we use.

Some background on the subject:

Linguistic relativityThe linguistic relativity principle, or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the idea that differences in the way languages encode cultural and cognitive categories affect the way people think, so that speakers of different languages think and behave differently because of it.How Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think?

By Lera BoroditskyHumans communicate with one another using a dazzling array of languages, each differing from the next in innumerable ways. Do the languages we speak shape the way we see the world, the way we think, and the way we live our lives? Do people who speak different languages think differently simply because they speak different languages? Does learning new languages change the way you think?The answer:We have collected data around the world: from China, Greece, Chile, Indonesia, Russia, and Aboriginal Australia. What we have learned is that people who speak different languages do indeed think differently and that even flukes of grammar can profoundly affect how we see the world. Language is a uniquely human gift, central to our experience of being human. Appreciating its role in constructing our mental lives brings us one step closer to understanding the very nature of humanity.I'm not sure anyone has applied this theory to race. If not, let me be the first. When we use derogatory terms for people--women, blacks, gays, Muslims, et al.--we create derogatory thoughts and feelings in our minds. We quickly come to believe what we're saying. I suspect the constant repetition of language literally rewires the brain. Subjective stereotypes replace objective facts and memories in our neural networks.

A good example of this happened during World War II. Before the war, I don't think Americans had a strong bias against Germans. Heck, something like a quarter of Americans were of German descent. But anti-German propaganda--referring to them as cartoon-style Krauts, Huns, and so forth--turned them into a race of evildoers. A generation of Americans came to believe Germans were monsters who would kill their mothers and eat their babies.

The same thing happened to Indians. Beginning with Columbus, Europeans realized that Indians stood in the way of world dominance. Therefore, "we" immediately began demonizing "them" as children, creatures of the forest, predators, etc. We convinced ourselves they were subhuman savages who didn't deserve human rights or respect. All our subsequent actions--Manifest Destiny, broken treaties, genocide--flowed from these stereotypical beliefs.

Ergo, stereotypical thinking causes racist results. Eliminate the stereotypical thinking and you eliminate the racist results. Instead of laws and court decisions based on the "savage Indian" paradigm, you get laws and court decisions based on reality.

For more on the subject, see Stereotypes Beget Stereotypes and The Harm of Native Stereotyping:  Facts and Evidence.

Below:  Belief...


And result.


Anonymous said...

--A new book makes a valuable point about connection between thought and action. From a press release--

HA HA HA, way to be ahead of the curve! This "new book" was published in 2005. Probably back when liberal white people (and about 3 Indians who like you liberal white people) still cared about mascots!

Anti Anonymous said...


Before 2005, there was and remained a strong push against racism that can be argued all the way back to the 1960s.

This sounds like NEW news for you because the mascot issue has been going on for decades, not just in 2005.

It was not liberal whites that paved the way for Indian gaming and land return. Those two policies came from CONSERVATIVE Presidents Nixon and Reagan.

Do your homework before you start calling whites "liberal", it makes for all whites being "stupid" and "primitive thinking savages".

dmarks said...

Indian gaming had started before Reagan's involvement.


It looks like the Indians paved the way for it themselves.