Tag Archives: racism

Book Review: The Camp Of The Saints

The Camp of the Saints, by Jean Raspail (full text PDF)

Yes, it’s racist. But we’ll get to that later.

I read this book a while ago but withheld review until I got through Michel Houllebecq’s Submission. I figured they would be topical reads, given the refugee and immigration crisis in Europe (and, more recently, the terror attacks). Now an even more notable coincidence inspired me to finally post the review: a Greek boat allegedly attempted to sink a boat of Syrian refugees, eerily similar to a Greek boat plowing through survivors of a sunk boat in The Camp of the Saints.

The plot of the novel is not a secret, so I’m not spoiling anything by summarizing it here. During a famine in India, the Belgian government suspends its policy of adoption of local children, prompting a riot that ultimately leads a million or so of India’s most backward citizens to seize a hundred ships and set sail toward, ultimately Europe. On the way, they’re redirected by the guns of Egypt and South Africa (who want no part of the Last Chance Fleet) around the Horn or Africa. During the two-month voyage, Europe shakes. The self-proclaimed liberalism of its elites – media, government, church – has left them without a way to say “we don’t want you here” even though no country wants to receive the undifferentiated mass from India. Those opposed are quickly denounced as racists, while the most idealistic on the left actively wish for the arrival of the comers. The non-white underclasses of Europe begin to rise in anticipation of the change, rebelling in France, the US, and the UK against the perceived domination by the white natives. The military, castrated by soft leadership, bails. It’s no secret that the ship arrives, its masses spill onto southern France, and slowly European civilization is destroyed. (No character is worth singling out. They’re all types.)

In many ways, Raspail has correctly predicted many aspects of the current refugee crisis. There is a certain subset of social-justice-warriors that finds Europe guilty and thus responsible for accepting hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of refugees. There is a media elite that is quick to denounce as racist anyone who mentions that refugees are Muslim and that ISIS has announced plans to use them to infiltrate the West. There is an imbalance of judgment and moral agency assigned to different groups (“Now, it’s a known fact that racism comes in two forms: that practiced by whites — heinous and inexcusable, whatever its motives—and that practiced by [non-whites]—quite justified, whatever its excesses, since it’s merely the expression of a righteous revenge, and it’s up to the whites to be patient and understanding.”). There is the assumption in public discourse that Western wealth is stolen, not earned or created. There is a softer, nicer Catholic church asking for accommodation.

There’s also a barely-mentioned subplot involving Chinese mass migration into Russia (that didn’t age well) and the story of the white state of South Africa (ditto). Asia, in general, doesn’t get nearly enough attention in this story, and even Africa, which presents the most demographic pressure onto Europe, is an aside.

Most importantly, Raspail has underestimated the European response, as we are seeing the closing of borders, the rise of isolationist parties, and general resistance to increased immigration flows. Those messages filter to potential migrants (not refugees, necessarily, but fellow travelers) and present a bulwark against the unlimited migration that could overwhelm European institution. (Say what you want, but post-Enlightenment European institutions work really well.)

Raspail, however, seems to care much more about the white race than European institutions, which is why I started this post the way I did. His portrayal of the Indians is in parts disgusting, delving into the details of the “monsters” on board the ships, smelly and engaged in a giant orgy with semen flowing freely. It’s an ugly image, and one that undercuts the message of the book. (It’s much easier to resist such a group than a nicer, friendlier group of immigrants that later votes to curtail women’s rights and free speech.)

In a particularly ugly instance, a woman raped by the mob is impressed into sexual slavery with other girls. Raspail hauntingly notes “A guard fed them and opened the door to all comers,” a phrase that I still think about, but Raspail’s main concern is that only a white woman can make a white baby, and once white women lost their racial pride, they’d lose all resistance.

There are important issues raised here – can an open society defend itself to remain open? – and the language is great in parts. If this were a movie, it could use a remake. Then again, we might be watching the remake in Europe right now.

Highly recommended, obviously without endorsement.

TNC On Reparations

It’s been a few weeks since Ta-Nehisi Coates made his case for reparations. Since this is at the intersection of race and law, which I’ve written about in this space before, I read the piece a few times to offer some comment. I came up with nothing.

This is not to diminish the article: the history and case studies are excellent, if horrifying. The individual stories are particularly interesting, illuminating the long-term effects of discrimination. The later, more speculative parts are less robust and also less interesting, but in any case, the article mostly deserved the attention it received. The commentary has also been pretty good, at least in the places I read where there is little ideological screaming.

I just have nothing to contribute to the discussion. All the questions that occurred to me while reading are either pointlessly speculative or better addressed elsewhere. What would the exact mechanics of reparations be? Who would pay, how much, to whom? (I’m a recent white immigrant, doubtlessly benefiting from pro-white sentiment, but hardly at fault for any discrimination actually committed. What’s my role?) These are the pointlessly speculative ones. Comparisons to reparations to the native tribes or to German reparations? Questions about due process and collective guilt? Best done elsewhere.

It’s an important article. I just have nothing to add.

Slate on Colorblindness, Part 2

Slate runs down Eric Holder’s recent speech about race and inequality, and I dissect it because it’s a long commute.

First came slavery:

I’ll bravely come out against it.

Then “overtly discriminatory statutes like the ‘separate but equal’ laws of 60 years ago,”

Even more bravely, I’m opposed.

Then policies that were officially neutral but affected whites and minorities differently, such as strict voter identification laws.

Ah, now we might run into trouble. Let’s take it case by case.

The first group, represented by the voter ID laws, includes policies that are objective in form but tainted by biased intent. The ID restrictions are “justified as attempts to curb an epidemic of voter fraud that in reality has never been shown to exist,” said Holder.

Politically motivated (since the Democratic base is more likely to be affected), so worth dismissing on those grounds alone. That said, I wonder if it wouldn’t be cheaper for Democrats to just make sure everyone has an ID instead of trying to get rid of these laws. Of course, that would cost them an important talking point come election time.

Another class of disparate-impact practices consists of subjective applications of law, which allow race to directly, if unconsciously, influence differences in outcome. In Holder’s speech, the clearest case was criminal sentencing. He cited a study by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, which found that black men “have received sentences that are nearly 20 percent longer than those imposed on white males convicted of similar crimes.”

Always a tough one, because “similar crime” is tough to define. That said, hard to argue that implicit bias isn’t at play here, and just as hard to remove it. Even if you try to classify crimes, for example, bias will just creep in at that stage: a black and a white man might get the same sentence for aggravated assault, but black men will be more likely to have their offense classified as “aggravated.” Hard to see how this one gets better, considering the massive subjectivity necessarily built into the law. This is where psychologists could make a worthwhile contribution – there’s probably a way to structure these analyses to minimize implicit bias.

Then there’s a third class of disparate-impact policies: those that exacerbate racial gaps even when they’re objectively designed and applied. In this category, Holder cited “zero-tolerance school discipline practices that, while well-intentioned and aimed at promoting school safety, affect black males at a rate three times higher than their white peers.”

Well, now we’re in real trouble. Conceding the assumption that these rules are “objectively designed and applied,” I’m not sure what the proposal here would be: have different standards for different races until their rates of offense have equalized? Probably not the wisest idea , especially when it comes to public safety. (Would we have to do it for murder, too?) I suppose the reasoning is that the black offenders aren’t responsible for their circumstances which lead them to violate school rules at higher rates, so a fair rule in school will exacerbate pre-existing societal problems of racial inequality. If so, the solution isn’t to relax rules on safety, but to work on the infinitely more difficult pre-existing problems.

I think this gets us to the major division to which I alluded yesterday: given a history of unequal and unfair treatment, even fair rules starting today are going to affect groups differently.* The difficult question is whether the right thing to do is enforce the fair rules, hoping that the groups reach equilibrium in the long run, or to change to rules to engineer the equilibrium sooner, even at the cost of unequal treatment in the present. I know which I’d choose, but also biased in favor of myself.

*I strongly object to the members of my race being disproportionately represented among those convicted of insider trading.

Slate On Colorblindness, Part 1

I have been writing way more about race on this blog than I would have guessed or wanted. I dont’ find it a particularly interesting topic, mostly because the ratio of signal to noise in any discussion is very, very low. The best I can do, I suppose, is try to filter some of the noise out and let others work with the signal.

Alas, the noise often returns.

Why Do Millennials Not Understand Racism?
They think if we ignore skin color, racism will somehow disappear.

Classic Slate.

[L]ike most Americans — millennials see racism as a matter of different treatment, justified by race, that you solve by removing race from the equation. If we ignore skin color in our decisions, then there can’t be racism.

As I’ve explained before, that’s how we usually define racism.

The problem is that racism isn’t reducible to “different treatment.” Since if it is, measures to ameliorate racial inequality—like the Voting Rights Act—would be as “racist” as the policies that necessitated them. No, racism is better understood as white supremacy—anything that furthers a broad hierarchy of racist inequity, where whites possess the greatest share of power, respect, and resources, and blacks the least.

Well, now we’re onto something. America-centric, to be sure, but at least it actually reflects what people in US tend to think about when they talk about racism.

And the magic of white supremacy is that its presence is obscured by the focus on race. When a black teenager is unfairly profiled by police, we say it’s “because of the color of his skin,” which — as a construction — avoids the racism at play, from the segregated neighborhood the officer patrols to the pervasive belief in black criminality that shapes our approach to crime. Likewise, it obscures the extent to which this isn’t just different treatment— it’s unequal treatment rooted in unequal conditions.

Except that, if the black teenager isn’t profiled because of his skin, then how does this relate to white supremacy at all? How does the pervasive belief in black criminality factor in if “black” is stricken from the decision calculus?

Millennials have grown up in a world where we talk about race without racism — or don’t talk about it at all — and where “skin color” is the explanation for racial inequality, as if ghettos are ghettos because they are black, and not because they were created.

Except that skin color is what race has been reduced to in any polite conversation. (Try mentioning the difference between East and West Africans in your next racial conversation and see how that goes.) Ghettos were created, sure, but based on what category? Race, which we now translate to skin color. So yes, to a millennial, there’s a ghetto created by explicit racism, but it’s not like they can undo the past (or find a job). So their instinctive response is to stop using race as a factor. Obviously that disadvantages those stuck in those positions as a result of prior circumstances outside their control, and I sympathize with them: basically, the game has been rigged for a long time against them, and even if today it stopped being rigged, they’d be far behind. That said, politically feasible alternatives are probably non-existent.

As such, their views on racism — where you fight bias by denying it matters to outcomes — are muddled and confused.

Someone who seems to argue that ignoring race perpetuates racism has a lot of nerve calling others “muddled and confused.” In any case, no one’s denying it matters to outcomes –

Which gets to the irony of this survey: A generation that hates racism but chooses colorblindness is a generation that, through its neglect, comes to perpetuate it.

Fortunately, Jamelle Bouie is here to give us a better alternative, although he doesn’t get around to that in this article.

Grammar Is Not Racist, But People Are

A few legal blogs have been discussing the results of an experiment that indicates racial bias among law firm partners:

In Written in Black and White, selected law firm partners were asked to evaluate a single research memo into which 22 different errors were deliberately inserted – 7 spelling/grammar errors, 6 substantive writing errors, 5 errors in fact, and 4 analytic errors. Half of the partner evaluators were told that the hypothetical associate author was African American and half were told that the author was Caucasian…

On a five point scale, reviews for the exact same memo averaged a 3.2 for the “African American” author and 4.1 for the “Caucasian” author. More surprising were the findings of “objective” criteria such as spelling. The partner evaluators found an average of 2.9 spelling and grammar errors for the “Caucasian” authors and 5.8 such errors for the “African American” authors. Overall the memo presumed to have been written by a “Caucasian” was “evaluated to be better in regards to the analysis of facts and had substantively fewer critical comments.”

There are a few things to dislike about the methodology and interpretation of the experiment (more on that tomorrow), but the findings are plausible. The biggest surprise is probably how bad partners are at catching basic spelling errors. Otherwise, assuming these findings can be replicated and are a true representation of what happens in real life (again, more tomorrow on why that not might be the case), we just have an inconvenient fact. I’m not really sure what other inferences to draw from this.

Are partners racially biased? Probably. Most people are, subconsciously. Some people are consciously. This experiment doesn’t really add much to that debate.

Are whites privileged in certain ways in American society? Sure, and the experiment reflects that nicely. Considering the indignities of stop-and-frisk and the horrors of the drug war, disparate treatment of professionals is hardly a major civil rights cause of our times, but it still matters.

Do spelling and grammar matter? Yes, they most certainly do.

Anyway, just another inconvenient fact worth noting. I certainly don’t see a solution implied here.

More On The Definitions Of Racism

“Wait, are you saying that racism and racial discrimination can be okay?” – a fair summary of a few texts and IMs I got after posting yesterday’s piece about the multiple definitions of racism. The answer is that I can’t understand the question because I don’t know what you mean by the words you use. Let me start with a few examples and I’ll show you what I mean. First, repeating yesterday’s dictionary definition:

racism noun \ˈrā-ˌsi-zəm\

: poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race
: the belief that some races of people are better than others

Now, imagine the following. You’re an American immigration agent in 1915. You can only process so many visa and asylum applications per day, and suddenly you’re flooded with a million requests from the Ottoman Empire: the government is persecuting local ethnic minorities, including Greeks, Assyrians, and primarily Armenians. The Armenians are worried about genocide (and rightfully so, it turns out), and they want out. You have pretty good evidence that their claims are true. Are you justified in prioritizing Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian applications ahead of ethnic Turks from Ottoman lands? I submit that you obviously are, since the former face danger while the latter don’t. The same would be true if you prioritized Jews, Roma, and Kurds from Germany in 1935, and Hindus from Pakistan in 1947, and Tutsis in from Rwanda in 1994.

This sort of racial discrimination is not only permissible, but morally mandatory. In fact, it would be immoral not to prioritize people in danger ahead of people who need a visa for a vacation. This doesn’t change if the reason you’re prioritizing them is their race.* It’s a stupid but unavoidable fact that race matters to many people, so when you’re trying to protect, say, overseas Chinese in Indonesia, you’ll have to account for race because the persecutors account for race.

*You might say that they’re preferred because of their persecuted status, not their race. I find that to be a distinction without a difference, but I’ll address it here: if you’re trying to maximize the number of people protected, you, the immigration agent, are going to find a shortcut. In 1915, you can simply let in anyone with an Armenian name; this would save many more people than individually investigating persecution status. In many cases the operative factor would be race.

Returning now to our original question, I ask this: in the scenarios I’ve described, the imaginary agent is engaging in poor treatment of … people because of their race. Specifically, he’s treating poorly the potential immigrants who are not in the favored groups. This conduct, under the dictionary definition, is racism. It clearly meets the listed criteria. And yet, I’ve called that conduct morally mandatory, thus implying that racism is morally mandatory.

Obviously that’s an absurd conclusion, but it just highlights the definitional problem I tried to address. If the dictionary definition of racism is true, then racist conduct isn’t always bad. If racism is always bad, then the dictionary definition of racism does not give the real meaning of the word. It can’t be both.

I’m not proposing a solution here, mind you. Usage in the US is such that in most minds, “racism is always bad,” and the dictionary definition doesn’t give the real meaning of the word. This will probably continue* even though the dictionary definition is the more efficient one. It would make sense for it to be true and modified as needed, but alas, that is not the world we live in. This is why we can’t have productive conversations about, say, affirmative action, or why people can call Lex Alexander racist for wanting to help minority software developers. You can always flee to the technical definition because you’re technically right, and the other side will dismiss you with the intuitive definition. It’s a shame, because dialogue is one of the better ways to resolve problems so you don’t have to deal with a flood of visa applications.

*If you don’t believe me, start saying “racism doesn’t have to be bad” in an in-person conversation, and see if your listeners let you explain.

The Meaning Of Words, Racism, And Dialogue

racism noun \ˈrā-ˌsi-zəm\

: poor treatment of or violence against people because of their race
: the belief that some races of people are better than others

The dictionary definition above probably matches what most Americans would say if you asked them to define racism, myself included. We’re all probably wrong.

I’ve asked a few people recently to imagine a racist and then describe that person to me. It was always a white male, often middle-aged or older. Colonel Sanders would be a good symbol for what everyone imagined. If this doesn’t surprise you, you’re probably American or Americanized, and your mind will always go to white-on-black oppression when racism is involved. It’s natural, given American history and the culture that resulted from it. Yes, the natives and the Japanese-Americans have historical grudges, as do the Jews, and more recently Arabs, but the term racism in America will always conjure slavery and segregation before these other abuses.

I did the above experiment because I often have to translate between languages, and the cultural background to the meaning of words is fascinating. It’s often hard to describe the separation between a word’s denotation and connotation: if you ask anyone whether a Kenyan refusing to serve a white customer is racism, they’d say yes, of course it is. And yet I bet it doesn’t pack quite the same emotional punch if the identities were a white Texan and a Nigerian. I know it doesn’t for me: the latter is much more powerful than the former. I imagine there’s a spectrum here, where some people don’t see a difference, some see an enormous difference (see below), and most people think there is some difference.

The difference, I think, lies in the fact that certain courses of action are objectionable, and we consider racism to be one of these things. However, historically in America, white racism against outgroups has been easily the most pernicious, and, as a result, the word carries a much stronger judgment when applied to it. It’s impossible to separate this emotional feeling from the technical meaning of the word, so when you’d rather not judge harshly someone engaging in discrimination (like the Kenyan example above), you’re also reluctant to use the word that implies judgment. That’s a problem because the issues are conflated when they shouldn’t be: there is conduct that could be both racially discriminatory (“racist” per the dictionary) and NOT objectionable. Affirmative action is the major policy example, as are preferences given to asylum seekers who claim they would be persecuted for their race if sent home. These aren’t instances of morally reprehensible behavior, but they’re racist under the dictionary definition.

I’m not saying it’s surprising that the clinical definition doesn’t match the actual definition that our collective brains use; it’s obviously why this is the case. What’s interesting to me is that we don’t explicitly acknowledge that this is the case. I’ve complained before that vague definitions and culturally determined meanings make language unnecessarily complex and thus costly, and this is one of the better examples.

Reverse Racism

There’s a simple way to prove that racism as it is commonly used doesn’t actually fit the dictionary definition above: reverse racism. The fact that no one who reads this believes this is a nonsensical term only proves my point. Most people use “reverse racism” when they talk about discrimination against the dominant group – whites, in America. That, however, clearly implies that “racism” is done by whites against others. Technically, discrimination against white people falls under the “poor treatment of people because of their race” definition of racism at the top, but we still have a term for it that is distinct from just “racism” – in fact, it’s considered the opposite of racism. (Reverse racism, in a literal sense, should probably mean favoring a group based on their race.)

See more about reverse racism in the Belly Dancing section below.

Trader Joe’s

If you’re still not on board with my premise, consider this:

The Trader Joe’s grocery-store chain has dropped a plan to open a new store in the heart of the city’s historically African-American neighborhood after activists said the development would price black residents out of the area.

The Portland Development Commission had offered a steep discount to the grocer on a parcel of nearly two acres that was appraised at up to $2.9 million: a purchase price of slightly more than $500,000. The lot is at Northeast Alberta Street and Northeast Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and has been vacant for years.

The Portland African American Leadership Forum said the development commission had in the past made promises about preventing projects from displacing community members but hadn’t fulfilled them. It sent the city a letter saying it would “remain opposed to any development in N/NE Portland that does not primarily benefit the Black community.” It said the grocery-store development would “increase the desirability of the neighborhood,” for “non-oppressed populations.”

Flip the races in that story and see if it’s still the same story. To me, it quote obviously wouldn’t be. I would find the activists’ conduct viscerally repellent, and I think most Americans would, too.

Weirdly, the article doesn’t spend nearly enough time addressing some of the more interesting questions. For example:

1) Portland has black neighborhoods?
2) Why is a lot allegedly worth $2.9 million sitting empty for years?
3) Why is the city selling a $2.9 million lot for $500K?
4) Why is it axiomatic that nicer things in a neighborhood mean the displacement of residents?
5) Why is continued admixture of communities a bad thing?

There are lot of issues here, political, cultural, and economic, but most articles seem to focus on the racial one, and get it wrong. The simple fact is this: there is discriminatory behavior based on race. That’s racism. Whether you, separately, believe it’s objectionable is up to you. I will merely revel in the irony that a community that was damaged by redlining in the past is now, effectively, redlining itself.

Belly Dancing

The above isn’t an isolated instance. Salon’s Randa Jarrar, an otherwise solid writer, wrote a silly article about her hatred of white belly dancers, noting:

Women I have confronted about this have said, “But I have been dancing for 15 years! This is something I have built a huge community on.” These women are more interested in their investment in belly dancing than in questioning and examining how their appropriation of the art causes others harm. To them, I can only say, I’m sure there are people who have been unwittingly racist for 15 years. It’s not too late. Find another form of self-expression. Make sure you’re not appropriating someone else’s.

(This is why “appropriation” replaced “micro-aggression” as my least-favorite word.) Jarrar was called out by many for an, essentially, racist argument. Eugene Volokh wondered whether the same article about Asians playing Beethoven would be published, and Conor Friedersdorf celebrated the beauty of cultural admixture. These are all valid arguments, but they miss the point: Jarrar doesn’t think of racism as something that can be done against white people, consistent with what I’ve written above. She wrote a rebuttal piece “addressing” criticisms leveled against her:

I’ve read the following arguments, all of which ignore the systematic racism by the dominant culture:

“So black women can’t be ballerinas?” If black women were part of a dominant culture that had colonized Europe starting at the Italian renaissance, and later colonized France and Russia, and if, after all that, black ballerinas danced in bikini tops, then yes, this argument would work. But it doesn’t.

“But Korean tacos! Mixing cultures is delicious!” Again, if the person making and serving those tacos is from a dominant culture that, for centuries, colonized Korea and Mexico, and then served those tacos to you in a conical Asian hat and a mariachi outfit, with a bikini top underneath, then, yeah, this argument would work. Again, it doesn’t.

You’re a racist!” Please, save us both time, watch this, and learn how that’s not possible.

“You’re appropriating white culture by using a computer right now!” I can’t even honor this level of idiocy and entitlement with a response.

Underlining added. Throughout, Jarrar believes that racism is only something that a dominant culture can do. The underlined “argument” links to a standup routine that tells us that reverse racism could only happen if we traveled back in time and another race did to whites what they did to others, historically. Jarrar spells it out for us: it’s just not possible for her to be racist. (I assume she means against white people only; I’d bet she believes it’s possible for her to be racist against blacks or Asians.) This sort of thinking only makes sense if racism is definitionally objectionable and judgmental, in which case, the dictionary definition doesn’t make sense. Of course, the dictionary definition isn’t the one we use day-to-day, as I’ve tried to establish.


Why have I been talking about this for 1500 words now? Because words matter. On any controversial issue, especially those that are between racial, ethnic, or religious groups, someone will call for “dialogue.” I agree that it’s far better that this is a far better solution than the alternatives, but it’s a worthless exercise if we’re talking past each other. If someone like Jarrar, who simply doesn’t believe she can be a racist against whites, tries to talk to someone like Volokh or Friedersdorf, who clearly believe she can, they aren’t going to get anywhere. You can’t have a productive conversation when one party is accused of a behavior that she doesn’t believe exists. (For a long time, forced sex with your wife wasn’t rape, and when these laws changed, many men were said to be incredulous that they could have done something that, in their minds, didn’t exist.) Separating the judgment from the word would resolve it: Jarrar could then argue that her behavior was technically racist but not objectionable. I suspect this is her real argument, but the conflation of “racism” with “morally wrong” makes it unclear.

The separation of the judgment from the word would be important in other settings, too. I mentioned affirmative action above. It treats people differently based on their race; in fact, that’s the whole point. Under the dictionary definition, it is clearly racist. I don’t find myself particularly worked up about it, though, because of all the kinds of racist conduct, affirmative action is one of the least objectionable ones. (In intent. In practice, probably not. http://www.creators.com/opinion/walter-williams/academic-mismatch-i.html) To say that it isn’t racist because it means well completely muddles the meaning of the word, and we have to come up with some other terms to fill the gap. Meanwhile, any sort of chance at a productive discussion with opponents of affirmative action goes away when you get bogged down in fighting over what racism means. And repeat this exercise when it comes to “terrorism,” “human rights,” “equality,” “democracy,” and see where you get.

Words matter, and we should use them wisely to make the world a better place. Loading charged words with connotations that aren’t there makes this task more difficult.

The I-Word

Commenter IsItDarkOutYet made some insightful comments on my last post. You can read the whole comment there, but one part of his comment was particularly interesting:

2) Theoretically, only black or minority players will ever be penalized. Argument can (and probably will) be made that this is unfairly punishing minorities. In the NFL, that’s a lot of people.
3) A lot of players come from rough areas where the word is heard as often as their own name. Can you imagine how tough it would be to try and break that habit? Very.

The irony of this had to be pointed out to me by a friend of the blog, but I see it now: the NFL’s anti-racism rule is going to be racist when applied to NFL players! I look forward to the NFL dealing with the backlash when some early games are decided by the penalty and black players complain about having it enforced against them (especially if I am correct and enforcement only catches a tiny percentage of the offenders).

I am still not disputing that the NFL has good intentions – they most likely do. (A cynic might say they’re trying to clean up the NFL’s “thug” image because ticket and merchandise prices are so high, only the upper-middle and upper class can afford tickets, and such folks are turned off by markers of thuggishness. Crazy, right?) Let’s see how they handle the short-term effects.

Mandela Redux: Racism And Intent

My post about Nelson Mandela got me a few texts and tweets regarding the racism surrounding American policy regarding Africa, with many suggesting that the relatively friendly American policy toward the apartheid regime was less because they were anti-Communist and more because they were anti-black. Most whites are less troubled by the abuse of blacks, they say, because it’s easier to ignore the problems of people who are not like you.

This is almost certainly true, as our tribal instincts have an ugly tendency to drive us apart for superficial reasons. I don’t doubt that some of the people who voted against the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act did so not just because they opposed the African National Congress’s socialist leanings but because they harbored anti-black prejudice. My guess is that the former predominated, but I have nothing to back this up.

This line of reasoning made me think of an intriguing but also annoying (the article implies that not being outraged by the Zimmerman verdict was racism) article from a few months ago, provocatively linked to as “Why Some People Don’t Know They’re Racist,” which was sure to rile me. The article itself is actually titled The Racist Mind. In relevant parts:

Implicit bias is the way that social psychologists refer to the phenomenon by which we are unaware of our prejudices. Our judgments about people don’t qualify as prejudices because our brains are happy enough to have a coherent story about “those people.” They’re happy to linger in System 1. Social psychologists at Harvard University, University of Virginia and University of Washington created the implicit bias test online to enable people to see their biases at work in a series of rapid-fire judgments driven by images of white and black people.

Our inadequate civil rights laws make no provision for unconscious bias. The Civil Rights Act blocks practices and policies that have a racist impact, even if intention can’t be proven. But in truth, it is nearly impossible to win a civil rights case in which racist intention isn’t fairly obvious. Saru Jayaraman, a researcher and organizer who deals with employment discrimination in the restaurant industry, told me once that she can always get a lawyer to file wage theft lawsuits, but finds it much more difficult when the issue involves segregating workers of color in back of the house jobs.

The fact of implicit bias has been shown in plenty of experiments, and it jives with what we know about our tribal instincts, so I accept that it’s pervasive. However, this sort of implicit bias can’t be fairly classified as racism in the way the term is now defined, and calling it racism is actually counterproductive.

In our society, an accusation of racism is a powerful one. Blog favorite comedian Bill Burr illustrates the effects of such a charge on the life of the accused:

It’s bad enough that an accusation can have such an effect without a whole lot of evidence to support it. What Sen is essentially proposing is removing the requirement of intent as well. It would be a regime in which admittedly unintentional conduct would be grouped under the “racism” umbrella with outright and intentional discriminatory conduct. It seems unfair to hold people accountable for actions we admit they haven’t done deliberately.* Because the word “racism” now carries with it the highest of stigmas, adding unintentional conduct to the category is obviously going to be met with resistance. Those unaware of their implicit biases (meaning everyone) will bristle at being grouped in the “racist” category with KKK members, and any chances of productive conversations break down.

*Yes, it’s also unfair that some people are discriminated against. I’m not trying weigh injustices against one another. I’d prefer to reduce and remove them.

Sen’s suggestion on how to deal with this problem is a sensible one: make people with implicit biases think past them. This is certainly possible – we suppress our instincts all the time. If you’ve ever cleaned up something disgusting, you’ve suppressed a natural instinct with rational thought. This sort of instinct should be suppressed, but for that to happen, it must also be discussed. If we deem inadvertent discriminatory actions to the “racism,” we foreclose any discussion. If pointing out someone’s action as implicitly biased means accusing them of racism, not only would reasonable people be less likely to point out such actions, the accused would become a lot more defensive. By pointing out such actions as, basically, correctable mistakes (which implicit biases basically are), you’re much more likely to get a positive response. Lumping these mistakes in with something so emotionally charged as racism makes it impossible to call them mistakes. Admitting that intent matters and that a sort of graduated scale of culpability is appropriate doesn’t mean you’re okay with racism. That’s the tyranny of the dichotomous mind at work again. It’s not an either/or situation.

Sen also thinks it useful to judge actions and policies by their impact, rather than their intent, so that the effects of implicit bias can be ameliorated. That’s a fine idea in theory though difficult in practice. I readily admit that drug laws are nominally fair but have a much worse impact on African Americans than on whites – readers will know I oppose the drug war as a whole. I am also fairly certain that the declining percentage of black baseball players is not the result of rising discrimination against black ballplayers. There are many issues between these two extremes where it’s much more difficult to know whether a particular impact is racially motivated, explicitly or implicitly. More importantly, those purporting to analyze the impact bring their own implicit biases with them, so any judgment must be considered suspect. (It’s not a coincidence that my two clear-cut examples lend themselves to objective statistical analysis).

This is a complicated problem, made worse by the existence of implicit bias and unintentional discrimination. There might not even be a clean solution that is worth sort of thought-policing it would require, though that’s easy for me to say since I’m not in the group that suffers the most. Step one, though, we’ll have to break through the sort of “racism or not racism” thinking that pushes us toward extremes and makes a productive conversation impossible.

Nelson Mandela And The Tyranny Of The Dichotomous Mind

I hadn’t planned on writing about Nelson Mandela’s death because I’m not particularly well-informed about him and his life. I’ve read his Wikipedia entry before, probably more than once, and a few years ago I reviewed the movie “Goodbye Bafana” for a magazine (I remember finding it pedestrian), but my knowledge of the politics and economics of late 20th-century South Africa doesn’t lend itself to a proper piece on Mandela.

I should note that from what I do know, Mandela was certainly one of the greater statesmen of our times. The perhaps most impressive feature of his politics was his relatively forgiving approach to his former oppressors. It’s in line with Steven Pinker’s argument from The Better Angels of Our Nature: reconciliation requires incomplete justice and thus forgiveness. The relative success (considering the preceding regime) of modern South Africa is partially due to Mandela’s dearth of desire for revenge – a desire I give in far more easily than he seemed to. Mandela was an important figure of our time, and I hope South Africa survives his passing without difficulty. (Post-Tito Yugoslavia was not a fun place.) The true legacy of the man will be a stable and free state.

Media Coverage And The Double Backlash

More interesting to me has been the coverage of Mandela’s death and the discussion about him on Twitter and Facebook. The mainstream media, of course, have praised Mandela exclusively, which has led to a small online backlash at the omission of less savory aspects of Mandela’s history, and this backlash has generated another backlash at the gall of people to question the greatness of Nelson Mandela. It’s usually a pretty sad spectacle, lacking any inkling of intellectual curiosity.

It reminded me of great pieces, one by Richard Dawkins called The Tyranny Of The Discontinuous Mind and one by Megan McArdle called Egotistical Bias. Dawkins discusses the difficulties of explaining evolution to the human mind which is used of dealing with things in clearly distinct categories: child OR adult, wolf OR dog, etc. In reality, of course, a child doesn’t become an adult at age 18 in any way except legally, and wolves evolved into dogs by way of many wolf-dog intermediaries. McArdle, meanwhile, reminds us that people don’t necessarily think about issues using the same criteria that we do. If you believe that the minimum wage helps the poor, someone who opposes it doesn’t necessarily want to hurt the poor; they could just disagree on the effectiveness or morality of the policy.

What I’m seeing in the Mandela coverage is a related problem of seeing only two sides to an issue, a thesis and its exact opposite. “Mandela was a great fighter against racism and oppression,” says one side, so if you point out that he headed an armed resistance that also killed women and children, you must be in favor of racism and oppression and calling Mandela a monster. “Mandela’s Umkhonto we Sizwe killed women and children; he was a terrorist,” says the other side, so if you point out what he was fighting against or that he eventually renounced violence just when he was in a position to use it most, you must be in favor of terrorism. You can point out that poor Afrikaaner whites installed the apartheid regime to exploit the black population AND the white English elites, and you’ll be accused of defending racism, like oppressing more people is somehow less bad.

This toxic “discourse” is part discontinuous mind, part egotistical bias. It’s hardly the first or only topic to be so “discussed,” but it seems that the words that trigger this sort of mind-killing – terrorist, communist, racist – are particularly densely grouped together in Mandela’s life. It even played a huge role in South Africa’s history, as America was okay with apartheid in the mistaken belief that anti-Communist is good by default. It’s sad to see this play out after the death of a great, if not perfect, man who came to understand the destructive power of the dichotomous mind.