President Obama’s support for marriage equality came just one day after North Carolina voters banned same-sex marriage. Twitter storms followed each development, in which tweeters first declared that black people were homophobic as a group, then just as sweepingly that they were not. Somehow, the North Carolina defeat for marriage equality was seen as proof that all blacks hate all gays, whereas President Obama’s support was proof of the opposite.
This overgeneralization is somewhat similar to some of the commentary in the wake of the Trayvon Martin tragedy. We heard that “black violence” was somehow worse and more endemic than violence committed by non-black perpetrators. This idea was also the organizing principle behind the blog-post that got John Derbyshire fired from the National Review for advising his children to avoid contact with black people who are, Derbyshire argued, statistically more likely to be arbitrarily violent, especially toward whites.
It is not hard to see the racist undertones of all of these arguments, down to the very notion that everyone of a certain “race” has personal character traits that are inescapably and intrinsically linked to their skin color. It is also not hard to find information to disprove them: many blacks in North Carolina opposed the constitutional same-sex marriage ban. And Justice Department statistics show that most violence is carried out within racial homogeneous communities, so that, for example, black-on-white homicides are a rare exception rather than the rule.
There are, of course, good reasons to pool and parse statistical information about any population using group criteria that may illustrate unequal policy outcomes for individuals associated with those groups. In fact, we expect governments to collect and separate statistics with a view to analysing policy effectiveness and equal access to benefits, rights, and care. Generalizations about groups can also be helpful in visualizing the underlying reasons for inequality and devising strategies to overcome it.
However, problems arise when our only understanding and interactions with specific people result in our treating them as part of a group and not as individuals. Whatever else may be true about George Zimmerman’s interaction with Trayvon Martin, it is clear from his phone comments to the police dispatcher that he had preconceived notions about Martin’s “dangerousness” even before he got out of the car — preconceptions that therefore only could be based on Martin’s appearance, including his sex, age, color, and apparel, and most likely the combination of all of them.
The corollary of this notion is that one way to overcome racism and homophobia and other “group-isms” is for people to relate to each other as individuals. While it is true that some people are able to reconcile a generalized negative feeling about certain groups (“all blacks are violent”) while nurturing positive sentiments about individuals from that group (“some of my best friends are black”), it is also true that most people start seeing a group differently when they know and love someone who belongs to it. A generally homophobic parent with a gay child may not feel compelled to campaign for marriage equality any more than they did before their child was “out.” However, most will at least start questioning negative portrayals of “all gays” in the media. This is why Derbyshire’s advice to his children to actively avoid contact with blacks is so insidious: it pushes a false notion of otherness that is purposefully static.
Even more serious problems arise when policies that should be informed by data and statistics instead are influenced by such Derbyshire-style perceptions of static and false otherness. The racial profiling of stop-and-frisk practices is one blatant example. Along those lines, Michelle Alexander has amassed examples of situations where police departments target predominantly black communities for aggressive interventions and arrests for drug-related crimes, even where data shows that in that specific state or city, the main users or sellers of drugs are not black. Many of the arguments voiced against marriage equality are equally based on false ideas that all gay people are promiscuous, sexually predatory, or bad parents.
And perhaps this is where the real issue lies. It is almost instinctual for us to organize information about the world around us based on visual cues and personal experiences. And it is equally human to use these cues and experiences to generate assumptions about what might happen and what we should do about it. It is when we confuse trends or, worse, preconceptions with reality that abuse, inequality, and discrimination can take hold.
More disturbingly, negative generalizations about what everyone in a given group wants, thinks, and does help to justify those who actually do. When we portray all black people as homophobic we exonerate individuals of color who feel prejudiced against gays. They are not responsible for their beliefs—their skin color made them do it.
I would not wish to be called homophobic just because quite of lot of individuals who happen to be white make anti-gay remarks. Even less would I want these individuals to be able to brush off their anti-gay sentiments as a natural part of their “whiteness.” Prejudice is prejudice, wherever it comes from and whatever form it takes. Respect dictates we treat it as such.