Racism, Sexism, and Homophobia: A Response to Steven Pinker
“You don’t stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you’re making progress.” Malcom X
Those words have been ringing in my head ever since I read Steven Pinker’s book, Enlightenment Now: The case for reason, science, humanism, and progress. In this book he argues that society has made great progress when it comes to equality. He notes that “… even in the most regressive political movement in recent American history there were no calls for reinstating Jim Crow laws, ending women’s suffrage, or recriminalizing homosexuality.” These ideas, as he puts it, have “fallen by the wayside.” It is true that, on balance, our society has made significant progress against institutional racism, sexism, and homophobia. That said, our society is a far cry from eradicating these destructive views. According to Steven Pinker, I have this in common with Progressives.
“An axiom of progressive opinion, especially in universities, is that we continue to live in a deeply racist, sexist, and homophobic society — which would imply that progressivism is a waste of time, having accomplished nothing after decades of struggle.” (Pinker, Enlightenment Now)
I can hardly believe someone as brilliant as Pinker could make such a statement. The observation that we live in a deeply racist, sexist and homophobic society does not imply that we have made no progress. Nor could it be inferred from such a position that progressivism is a waste of time. Logical fallacies aside, it seems to me that racism, sexism, and homophobia are still the norm. That is to say, each occur frequently in our society; enough so that Pinker’s causal congratulating of societal equality strikes me as pre-mature.
Racism — In his book, Steven Pinker lists a few statistics that demonstrate society’s progress concerning race. For example, he cites a Pew report stating that those who think it is wrong for blacks and whites to date fell from 45% in 1985 to 10% in 2012. While this is progress of a kind, it is odd that Pinker decided to use this Pew question as a barometer. More recently, The Pew Research Center found that “Roughly six-in-ten (61%) Americans say the country needs to continue making changes for blacks to have equal rights with whites… Roughly nine-in-ten (88%) black Americans, including solid majorities across all demographic groups, say more needs to be done to achieve racial equality.”
It is true, as Steven Pinker highlights, that slavery was abolished, Jim Crow laws have been repealed, and the civil rights movement happened. Regardless, we live in a society that is 76% white and 13% black and yet we incarcerate more blacks than whites. Furthermore, we have a vast racial wealth gap that continues to grow. Mehrsa Baradaran in her book The Color of Money put it this way; “yesterday’s injustice becomes today’s inequality.” Clearly it is the case that some progress has been made and also that we still live in a deeply racist society.
Sexism — Steven Pinker argues in his book that “Media coverage… has suggested to many that we are undergoing a surge of violence against women.” He proposes that the data does not support this narrative. Surge or no surge, the data does suggest that we still have a significant problem. Beginning in the 1970's this problem has been labeled rape culture.
“Rape Culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence against women is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language, the objectification of women’s bodies, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.” Marshall University Women’s Center
To validate the notion that we live in a society infected with a rape culture, we need only look at the recent #MeToo movement. Many victims shared their stories and were met with doubt. As Louise O’Neill put it “They are all innocent until proven guilty. But not me. I am a liar until I am proven honest.” We have a culture that accepts “the myth that false accusations are common, the myth that rapists are just confused about consent, and the myth that victims share the blame for drinking too much or otherwise making themselves vulnerable.”
Pew reports “About six-in-ten women say they have received unwanted sexual advances or experienced sexual harassment.” Furthermore, according to a recent Bureau of Justice Statistics study, one in five female undergraduates have experienced some kind of sexual assault while in college.
Through Feminism, women have secured the vote, the fair pay act, and reproductive rights. Regardless of this progress, women are still society’s favorite scapegoat and victims of violence. Has society made progress? Certainly. Do we still live in a deeply sexist society? Absolutely we do.
Homophobia — Steven Pinker again cites pew. In 1985, 30% of respondents agreed with the statement that “School boards ought to have the right to fire teachers who are know homosexuals.” In 2015 that number dropped to 20%. I am dumbfounded that one in five still believe that being gay somehow disqualifies individuals from teaching. It is clear that many still hold ignorant and repugnant views about the gay community.
To his credit, Pinker acknowledges in his book that “… one of the most heinous crimes in American history took place in 2016 when Omar Mateen opened fire at a gay nightclub in Orlando, killing forty-nine people and wounding another fifty-thee.” He goes on to question if this was a hate crime targeting the gay community or just another terrorist attack. Whatever the motive, the victims’ demographic is clear.
It was only three short years ago that the United States legalized same-sex marriage. This was a great leap toward equality. However, this legal victory has not been accompanied with tolerance or acceptance. While we may be on the road to equality, there is more ground to cover.
Perhaps like Steven Pinker, we should be encouraged by looking back at the progress that has been made. After all, we have made progress. As for me, I am struck by the totality of inequality we still have to address. Either way, it is clear we still live in a racist, sexist, and homophobic society.