George Allen's "macaca" comment: Does he deserve compassion or censure?

There have been a couple of reviews/accounts about The Hidden Brain that mention my thoughts about George Allen’s infamous “macaca” moment — Allen repeatedly referred to a young Indian-American as “macaca”  — comments which contributed to Allen’s losing his Senate race, and the Republicans losing control of the U.S. Senate in 2006. The section of the book where I discuss the Allen case also mentions another incident where the entertainer Michael Richards (who played Kramer on the show Seinfeld) used racist language to silence a black heckler at a comedy club.

In the book, I write, “Most Americans think of Allen’s comments and Richards’s views as abhorrent—and they are. But unpleasant and inaccurate associations lie within all of us, which is why when we see someone slip, our reaction should not be “We finally caught that racist bastard!” but, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” When we focus mountains of newsprint and television time on these incidents, we implicitly set ourselves off as different from the George Allens and the Michael Richardses. We convince ourselves that biased attitudes are the exception, when dozens of research studies have shown that they are really the norm—among blacks and whites. I am not saying everyone associates brown people with “macaca”—I had to run to a dictionary myself to find out what the word meant. What I am saying is that we all have mindless associations in our hidden brain that surface when we are not on guard.”

In his Washington Post review, Peter D Kramer (author of Listening to Prozac and other books) said he was skeptical that Allen’s comments stemmed from his unconscious. He pointed out that I also castigate politicians for deliberately injecting race into campaigns. Isn’t it possible that Allen used the term “macaca” deliberately? Shouldn’t he receive our censure rather than our compassion?

There are multiple issues, and multiple (unexamined) assumptions here. First, as Kramer notes in his review, I hold George Allen entirely responsible for his comments, even if they stemmed from his unconscious mind, because regardless of whether our impulses are conscious or unconscious, we are always responsible for our actions. Second, no one other than George Allen really knows what was happening in his mind and, if you buy my assertions about the hidden brain, it is also possible George Allen didn’t really know what was happening in his mind. Third, as I note in the book, there are certainly plenty of people who have consciously prejudiced views.

But I think there is a strong case to be made that Allen was not thinking consciously when he made his comment. As I say in the book, “Let’s turn the question around. Let us assume that Allen and Richards did not have a hidden brain, that their comments were the product of conscious intent. George Allen’s crack now seems even more peculiar than it already did. (Who calls someone a “macaca,” anyway?) If Allen had been consciously trying to slur the Indian American at his rally, he was engaging in intentional political suicide. The young man Allen addressed was taping him on a video camera—and he was working for Allen’s opponent in the Senate race. Sure enough, Allen denied being suicidal. In his flustered attempt to explain his comments, he said, “It’s contrary to what I believe and who I am.”

There is a deeper issue here that is very important. The conventional way we think about prejudice is to automatically associate it with hatred and animosity. In other words, our conception of prejudice is limited to conscious prejudice. One of the central ideas in my book is that prejudice can also be unconscious. That does not make it acceptable, and that does not allow those who express racist sentiments or act in racist ways off the hook. We are always responsible for our actions, regardless of whether they spring from conscious or unconscious motives.

But it does suggest that our conventional approach to prejudice — which is to castigate the person who said the racist thing or fire the manager who said the racist thing — is not very effective at combating racism. When we tell someone they said something racist, their invariable reaction is that they did not mean to be offensive. And because we generally don’t believe the unconscious really exists, the conversation stops there. In many ways, this limited understanding of our minds is the reason people do not take responsibility for their own actions. George Allen, for example, can ask himself if he has conscious animosity toward Indian-Americans, his conscious mind responds “no,” and he then internally dismisses all criticism. But if he were to accept that his comments sprang from unconscious associations in his hidden brain — and that those unconscious associations still persist and could influence him again in other settings — he would have to have an entirely different conversation with himself, because it would no longer be sufficient to say, “but I didn’t mean it.”

A central message in my book is that it doesn’t really matter whether we mean it. It doesn’t really matter whether we intend to be fair. It doesn’t really matter whether we think of ourselves as good and kind people. Taking personal responsibility does not stop at merely checking the contents of our conscious minds. It must extend to examining our unconscious minds as well.