Let’s assume, as we always should in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that Mark Cuban, the Dallas Mavericks owner, had good intentions when he confessed to Inc. magazine Wednesday that he was “bigoted.”
Let’s assume that Mr. Cuban was indeed attempting to be an honest participant in the endlessly ached-for, perpetually stalled “national conversation on race” that many believe is needed but neglected, when he said:
“I know I’m bigoted in a lot of different ways. If I see a black kid in a hoodie and it’s late at night, I’m walking to the other side of the street. And if on that side of the street, there’s a guy that has tattoos all over his face — white guy, bald head, tattoos everywhere — I’m walking back to the other side of the street. And the list goes on of stereotypes that we all live up to and are fearful of.”
He continued: “No one has pure thoughts … but it’s about recognizing when you have thoughts that aren’t right.”
Framed like that, the admission would seem admirable on some level but nonetheless in need of a retort. So let’s take it as an opening volley and return in kind. After all, in an honest dialogue, good intention does not mean bad information should be allowed to stand.
First, let’s straighten out a conflation of words.
Mr. Cuban seems, over the course of his comments, to use prejudice and bigotry interchangeably. These words have different meanings that should inform how we discuss our feelings. In The Chicago Tribune, Eric Zorn made the distinction this way:
“I think of racial prejudice as a private thought — a personal response to an individual or situation that is based, fairly or unfairly, on experience and observation. It’s usually but not always a negative response; an invidious prejudgment. I think of bigotry as an act that is motivated by a negative prejudice — those thoughts turned into deeds.”
To complete the lexicon, I would submit that biases — either conscious or subconscious — are what inform prejudices on one end, and that racism is the application of prejudices and bigotry — interpersonally and institutionally — on the other end.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s take the positive portions of what Mr. Cuban was saying. His admissions about himself came in the context of his thoughts about an evolving society in which people are becoming more tolerant and in which he, as a team owner, has tried to identify people with “prejudices and bigotry” and to help those people see their flaws and correct them. That, without question, is a noble position and path of action.
While Mr. Cuban may, taking him at his word, find an equivalence within his own mind between “a black guy with a hoodie” and “a white guy, bald head, tattoos everywhere,” that appears, in the grand scheme of things, to be a false equivalency, both in measure and meaning. It implies a symmetry that history will not allow.
It is important to recognize that not everyone experiences the types of threat responses Mr. Cuban does based on race, attire and tattoos — and as far as we can tell from his comment, without articulated attitudes or demonstrated hostility. This apparently casual ascribing of intention, based solely on appearance, draws on deep-seated suspicions constructed over a lifetime of subtle and sometimes overt racial conditioning. This, too, must be acknowledged and accounted for. It is the same sort of suspicion that set in motion the events that led George Zimmerman to shoot Trayvon Martin.
To his credit, Mr. Cuban apologized to Martin’s family, via Twitter, for the “hoodie” reference: “In hindsight I should have used different examples. I didn’t consider the Trayvon Martin family, and I apologize to them for that.”
And then there’s Mr. Cuban’s claim that “we all have our prejudices and bigotries.” It’s not entirely clear that that statement is true and supportable when it comes to racial bias. Project Implicit, a virtual laboratory founded by researchers at Harvard University, the University of Washington and the University of Virginia, has administered hundreds of thousands of online tests designed to detect hidden racial biases and found that, while most people possess these biases, many do not.
Mr. Cuban says in the interview, “I know that I’m not perfect.”
None of us is, Mr. Cuban, and I applaud your candor even as I correct your assertions. That is how the race discussion must be conducted.
Charles M. Blow is a columnist for The New York Times.