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What you will find here is: a centrist's view of current events;
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Friday, February 21, 2014

Race 7 A discussion on Race

The following appeared in the Paducah Sun in March of 2014.

President Obama and others have called for a conversation on race in America.  Here is a thought.

If you are an American, the place to begin a discussion about race is to clearly acknowledge how bad the American version of racism was and why.  The short answer is slavery and the fact that it was based almost entirely on race.  It took almost a century and a civil war for the new nation to eliminate slavery itself.  Then another century of apartheid before we even began the job of removing that very strong American racism.  To succeed in that endeavor would also take very strong measures. 

How strong would the measures have to be?  Well, our rights and privileges as Americans are among the things that we hold most dear. We guard them jealously.  However, by the sixties we were so committed to eliminating racism that we gave up some of those rights by separating the battle against racism from the criminal justice system when we created the EEOC. Consequently, although an accusation of racism within an institution is at least as serious as many crimes, the accused does not have many of those basic rights that are part of the criminal procedures specified in the constitution. This is so that a victim of racism can be heard even against an entire institution.  A formal complaint which brings the entire process into motion can be made by a single individual. That is one edge of that sword. There is no preliminary review by an expert (a parallel of an indictment by a grand jury) to determine if the evidence meets even a modicum of credibility.  The process is conducted in secret by someone who chooses whom to call to testify and whom to leave out.  The invitation to testify may go to far more adversaries than friends of the accused.  Negative evidence may be presented against the accused by someone who had a disagreement with him at any time in the past. The accused will receive a copy of and be allowed to respond to the original complaint.  However, there is no right to confront witnesses (or even the accuser), there is no right to cross examine witnesses (or even the accuser), and there is no right to call witnesses in his defense.  The structure also forbids any retaliation against someone who makes a claim. Because our racism has been so powerful, I think the inclusion of each of these provisions is at least arguably justified.  Why do I list them here?  Because they are part of the evidence of how committed our country became fifty years ago to ridding ourselves of the scourge of racism. A measure of the success of this program is the fact that being labeled a racist is now one of the worst things that can happen to a person in this society.

I believe that in the overwhelming majority of racism cases, the accuser has some basis for his belief.  In what follows I am not talking about that person, even if his claim was rejected because there was not quite sufficient evidence for his belief.  I am talking about the person who, with no evidence at all, exploits the structure that was built to protect him from racism and turns that structure into a political weapon.

The process is there for a lofty purpose, but it can be abused.  The other edge of that sword is that a formal complaint - charging racism - which brings the entire process into motion can be made on the whim of a single individual.  A malicious person can use the structure to attack someone he considers to be an enemy. A paranoid person could use the structure to go after someone he thought looked at him wrong one day. But the possibility of abuse doesn’t require an assumption of malice or paranoia on the part of the accuser.  Perhaps X and Y had a disagreement and Y is mad at X and Y can’t tell the difference between someone who disagrees with him and someone who is a racist.  Y can take a few hours and throw together a complaint that can cause his target substantial amounts of agony, lost work time and expense.  Suppose the Equal Opportunity Officer determines that, in each and every one of accuser’s claims, there is no basis for a charge of racism?  What happens then?  Nothing.  No matter how frivolous the claims, no matter how mean the motives, one can file the complaint and do it in full confidence that when the process is over, no one will call him to account. The structure does not include consequences for filing false charges.  The filer has a license to smear. 

Surely there is a modification of this system that would maintain the basic protections needed for minorities and give the EEOC Officer the authority to deal with inappropriate attacks.  Perhaps his options should include a ‘summary dismissal’ analogous to a judge’s dismissal of a frivolous lawsuit.  That option could be of great value to the country itself because it is not just the target that suffers.  Frivolous complaints weaken the public’s confidence in the EEOC and its procedures and undermine our nation’s vital struggle to put racism behind us.      

Wayne C. Bell, Murray State Univ. Professor Emeritus of Mathematics, 1976-2008 


  1. Very well said, Wayne. You have laid out the racism "rock" and "hard place" very well. It is clear that you have given this a great deal of quality thought. In fact I know you have because I have read your multi-part post on this subject. I would not pretend to know what the "modification of this system that would maintain the basic protections needed for minorities and give the EEOC Officer the authority to deal with inappropriate attacks" would be that would assure that the new system would be any less vulnerable to abuse, or even ineffectiveness.

    A while back there was a discussion on the YA about the perfect being the enemy of the good. There is little doubt that the current system has, over its lifetime, done a world of good. Might an insistence on it being perfect, or closer to perfect, shift the balance of power back to the racist underbelly of our Country...just a little? Just as in certain states that could not wait even one day after the Supreme Court struck down parts of the Civil Rights Act regarding voter protection to change their voter registration rules. Perhaps those state's motivations were pure as the driven snow. But we do know that states can get momentum going to justify racism by not calling it racism because we have seen it in our history...in our lifetimes.

    So while I agree with your assessment that the current system is flawed, and in the way that you say it is flawed, I am a uncomfortable about tinkering with it. For instance when you suggest that the EEOC Officer be given the authority to "deal with" inappropriate attacks, I feel almost certain that however they are "dealt with" there will be persons with legitimate complaints who will then think twice about bringing those complaints for fear that their complaint would be incorrectly or unfairly ruled to be illegitimate, thereby allowing the EEOC officer to "deal with them".

    Racism hides behind legitimacy and logic...and even accusations of unfairness. That is what makes it so dangerous and practically impossible to kill.

    1. Well first off, even if it is determined that the claim is illegitimate, you probably don't want to impose a disciplinary action on the filer. That would undermine access by scaring people off from filing a legitimate claim.

      But I think that you can do something to make it "more perfect". A recent case (extremely unfounded) of which I am aware dragged on for 7 months eventually ending with a judgment of no racism which was clearly the appropriate result based on the complaint. I have heard (but not confirmed) that since then that organization has revised its rules so that in the future the EEOC officer can (if appropriate) determine that there is no racism involved and convert the complaint into an ordinary grievance and pass it on to the the appropriate supervisory personnel. That seems to me to be a major improvement without a downside.

  2. Attaching real consequences to filing a false claim of racism would/could reduce the filing of false claims and would/could, as Bruce suggests, prevent some legitimate complaints from being filed.

    I am going to stubbornly stick to my conviction that all people should recognize, as a basis truth, that all actions have consequences. If an individual files a false police report they can be charged, tried and jailed. I see the rational for punishment of a “wrong” to be the same in the case of an intentional false claim of racism?

    Moving beyond intentionally false claims to claims that are false but not intentional is stickier because we get into the realm of perceptions. Still, a false claim (as Wayne’s example shows) can cause the accused to incur an extraordinary expenditure of time and money regardless of the motives or convictions. For that reason I think the filing of all claims should have potential consequences to the filer. Perhaps something in the same context as having to pay court costs or actual damages if you lose a civil suit.

    I agree with Wayne that the problem with the current system is that there is no accountability for the filer. Giving the EEOC Officer the power of claim dismissal might help, but my guess is that the dismissal rate would be zero because the Office would want to avoid a claim of racism. We could give the Officer some help in making unfettered decisions by giving them immunity from removal as we do some judges.

    Any system that is inflexible (claims cannot be dismissed) is subject to the “silliness factor”. A good example is the “zero tolerance” policy in public schools that results in a child being suspended for chewing a sandwich into the shape of a gun.

    Since I have no better suggestion I will go with Wayne’s suggestion that the EEOC Office be given the power to dismiss claims.

    1. Really? The sandwich gun thing happened?

    2. I stand corrected. It was not a sandwich it was a “pop tart”. See this link http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/boy-suspended-gun-shaped-pop-tart-lifetime-nra-membership-article-1.1359918

    3. Another example of zero tolerance nonsense - http://kwgn.com/2014/03/04/school-suspends-5th-grader-for-making-fingers-into-shape-of-gun/