*This post is part of our series analyzing the discourse on diversity in the election and election coverage.
By Lauren Horn Griffin
The frequency of the “I have black/Latino friends” argument and its continued use by politicians and pundits reveal a need to engage in a more sophisticated discussion of diversity, discrimination, and difference.
Since the Iowa caucuses on Monday conservatives have been playing the “friend” card: because 60% of the Republican vote in Iowa went to “two Cubans and a black man,” voters must not be racist, or so the argument goes. This election equivalent of “but I have black/Latino friends” has been touted in mainstream media from the New York Times to CNN. Furthermore, the implication of this argument is that progressives are racist because their candidates are white, while those 60% of mostly white Republicans are “colorblind.” This understanding of racism and prejudice is harmful—implicit in the argument is that systemic discrimination no longer exists because white people are willing to vote for a non-white candidate. This is followed by the implication that if you are a white candidate, you are automatically not as appealing to minorities as a minority candidate.
Research on racial perception shows that a diverse group of friends doesn’t make one immune to prejudice. Cornell professor Noliwe Rooks sums it up best: “Friendship with black people — and even being a black person — does nothing to change racial bias. Indeed, almost one-third of black people hold similarly negative views.” This means that the way white voters characterize Cruz, Rubio, or Carson does not necessarily extend to the unknown black and Latino citizens in this country. In other words, having these black and Latino “friends” does not preclude stereotypical views of minorities. Their supporters are not automatically excused from bias and prejudice simply because they voted for a non-white candidate. Furthermore, just because Cruz, Rubio, and Carson belong to racial minorities doesn’t make them immune to prejudice and discrimination. When Ted Cruz proposes banning all Muslim refugees, that’s exclusion. When Marco Rubio opposes paycheck fairness, that’s sexism. And when Ben Carson equates homosexuality with pedophilia, that’s homophobia. Acting like their current, relatively successful candidacies are some sort of victory for diversity only halts conversations and helps people ignore their own possible biases.
Racism involves ideas and actions, not who you know. Racism is power based—prejudice flowing from someone in power to someone with a lack of power. Racism, as Ta Nehisi Coates put it, exhibits “broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.” I can’t imagine these definitions would be very controversial these days. Yet our political discourse ignores these more nuanced understandings and continues to promote the idea that “racism” is dead/dying because we have a black President and Cuban candidates, despite all of the disparaging comments made about racial and religious minorities in recent months. Despite the popularity of racist policies. Despite the pervasive discourse of exclusion and discrimination. Ending prejudice, then, takes more than having a black friend. It takes more than the willingness to vote for a Latino candidate.
This understanding of racism, and of prejudice and discrimination, is especially insidious— people are encouraged to believe that these problems are solved, which makes them that much harder to address. Patting ourselves on the back for voting for racial minorities, women, LGBTQ individuals, or people with disabilities obscures the systemic discrimination these groups still face. The “friend” discourse masks deeper problems that scream for better understandings of diverse experiences.