Racism is a big deal
(Which is exactly why highlighting racial disparities can be counterproductive)
Antiracism has become fashionable in certain circles.
This leads to an odd kind of discourse, because while there are many circumstances in which racially-based discrimination occurs (for one example, check out this study on traffic stops), arguments grounded in antiracism are often deployed even in situations where correlations are driven by factors other than race.
For example, if you were making the case to college-educated liberals against closing schools as a Covid precaution, you’d probably emphasize the fact that Black children suffer most from remote school learning loss. But if you wanted to make the case for closing schools as a Covid precaution, you’d likely focus on the fact that Black people were at higher risk of dying from Covid. And while that’s not wrong, in this instance those correlations are mostly driven by educational attainment and occupation.
But the focus on race reflects how contemporary liberals like to talk about things. There’s a lot of emphasis on viewing situations through an equity lens, which really means primarily a racial lens, even when the driving factors are economic or the participants in the debate don’t particularly care about racial justice and are just trying to gain a rhetorical advantage.
I was thinking about this dynamic as I read Liam Kofi Bright’s recent paper “White Psychodrama” in which he characterizes the culture war over race as largely a distraction. I’m broadly sympathetic to his account, but I think Bright’s call for a kind of Non-Aligned Movement in the woke wars underrates the extent to which this kind of psychodrama can be actively harmful.
For example, I think the bulk of the evidence supports the view that all the talk of Covid-19 and racial disparities reduced political support for taking action to halt the spread of the virus.
I know there’s a view that if Marc Novicoff or I make this argument,1 it’s a way for secretly-racist white people to smuggle our hostility to racial justice into the discourse. But I really do implore everyone to look seriously at the evidence, because if you take seriously the idea that racial animosity is a big deal, that counsels for caution. Debating a fundamentally non-racial topic like school closures through a racialized lens may be fun or even profitable for the relatively elite participants in the debate, but it can do real harm to vulnerable people (both Black and white), and that calls for a response beyond abstention.
Repressers and Repenters
Until the relatively recent past, the United States of America had a de jure racial caste system, and there remain, decades after officially ending that system, significant and obvious racial gaps in material resources and other outcomes. This, Bright argues, creates an inevitable tension: there’s a big gap between the country’s official status as a non-racist society and what everyone can see in practice.
He says this creates a battle between two dueling factions of white people, the Repenters and the Repressers.
The Repenters feel very guilty and want to do things to expiate that guilt, “and their form of repentance involves trying to change their interpersonal habits and consumer choices so as to minimize their contribution to the broader social issue, and help the particular black people they interact with. In this way, by doing that sort of self-work, they hope to be able to live in a world that is admittedly unjust while making it that little bit better, and through such efforts be able to honestly maintain a positive self image.”
On the other side are the Repressers, who just want to be told that racism ended when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act or Barack Obama was elected president. They acknowledge the country’s history of racism as well as our huge racial disparities in outcomes, but they maintain that this is just an odd coincidence. These are the folks who lost their shit when Obama said “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon” because it betrayed the idea that Obama’s mere presence in the White House ended the need to ever discuss such matters.
Of course not everyone is white, and Bright has this rather funny take on how non-white people get sucked into and exploit the white psychodrama:
Of course, the rest of us do not simply sit by and watch the whites duke it out amongst themselves. If nothing else they still have ownership of the stuff and a democratic majority, so most of us are dependent on them for making a living. How then have the PoC intelligensia — people of colour sufficiently engaged in politics to be tapped into the white culture war and the historical narrative underpinning it — responded to the opportunities and challenges presented thereby?
With a dextrous entrepreneurial spirit! Which is to say, by cashing in. In institutions like academia more dominated by the Repenter type there has been the opportunity for mediocre of sharp eyed young PoC intelligentsia to present themselves as bearers of black thinkers’ insight (e.g. Bright 2018). It is considerably harder to pull this off from within academia as an advocate for Represser views. But where there is demand there will be supply. And there is a large audience keen for a black thinker to give voice to an intelligent version of the Represser narrative. Sufficiently talented black thinkers have been happy to oblige (e.g. Loury 2009). Various media organisations and political groups likey provide opportunity for similar pseudo-spokespeople PoC intelligentsia catering to both Repressers and Repenters.
The most-correct move, however, according to Bright, is not to hop on either of these bandwagons but instead to be a Non-Aligned person who focuses on directly addressing the underlying material inequalities:
Hence as long as the material inequalities exist they will keep making racial hierarchy salient whatever the Repressers want, and keep generating reasons for guilt whatever the Repenters want. All of the institutions designed to respond to this culture war — which is essentially all of the epistemic institutions controlled by the white bourgeois, which is to say all of them — are thus fundamentally addressing the wrong questions from the point of view of the Non Aligned person. They are concerned with managing the results of a tension they can never resolve, which the nature of the Repenter and Repressor conflict will not allow them to resolve. They are not arranged to produce information, or set an agenda, that will aid in resolving material in- equality, and in fact will forever be supplied with more culture war flashpoints on which to focus and with which to distract.
This is basically what I think, which is why I’m always trying to remind people that Martin Luther King Jr. was very focused on kitchen-table economic issues and, perhaps even more importantly, that he saw the path forward as forging a political alliance with self-interested low-income white people, not cultivating a class of guilt-ridden high-status Repenters.
But I want to emphasize the practical aspects of this and the dilemmas it entails.
Increasing the salience of race is bad
In a new paper from Jesper Akesson, Robert Hahn, Robert Metcalfe, and Itzhak Rasooly, the authors share the results of their randomized experiments on race and welfare:
First, 86% of respondents greatly overestimate the share of welfare recipients who are Black, with the average respondent overestimating this by almost a factor of two.
Second, White support for welfare is inversely related to the proportion of welfare recipients who are Black — a causal claim that we establish using treatment assignment as an instrument for beliefs about the racial composition of welfare recipients.
Third, just making White participants think about the racial composition of welfare recipients reduces their support for welfare.
Fourth, providing White respondents with accurate information about the racial composition of welfare recipients (relative to not receiving any information) does not significantly influence their support for welfare
This is new research in the sense that the experiment is novel, but the broad conclusions are recognizable across multiple economic literatures. Alberto Alesina, Edward Glaeser, and Bruce Sacerdote find, using international comparative data, that “racial animosity in the US makes redistribution to the poor, who are disproportionately black, unappealing to many voters.” And in their excellent book “Us Against Them: Ethnocentric Foundations of American Opinion,” Donald Kinder and Cindy Kam find that among white people, possession of ethnocentric views correlates with hostility to means-tested public assistance programs.
A deep body of scholarship across history, political science, and economics all broadly point toward the conclusion that increasing the salience of race can have harmful results.
One particularly frustrating example I came across years ago at Vox is that Rebecca Hetey and Jennifer Eberhardt found in experimental settings that telling people about racial disparities in the criminal justice system made people less supportive of reform.
And you could react to that by thinking “wow, that sucks, people shouldn’t be so terrible,” but I think most people believe there are tradeoffs between harshness in the criminal justice system and public safety. And while more progressive-minded people would say that’s overstated, there are clearly some margins on which it’s true. So if you tell people a penalty will be applied in a racist way, for many of them, that’s appealing — the system can crack down on dealers and addicts while they personally can rest assured that if their kid happens to be caught doing drugs, he’ll be okay. By the same token, a friend who’s running for office told me that many of the people she speaks to who are most agitated about crime also hate traffic cameras. My guess is that’s precisely because traffic cameras don’t engage in racial discrimination, and nice middle-class white people don’t like the idea of an enforcement system that doesn’t exempt them.
In the specific case of the cameras, I think we should have more of them and that the aim of our criminal justice system more broadly should be to catch a larger share of offenders in a non-discriminatory way and then punish them less harshly. Ideally, everyone who speeds would get caught and fined and the fines wouldn’t necessarily be very high, but people would stop doing speeding because the odds of detection are overwhelming.
And in the general case, I think it’s clear that the goal should be to reduce the salience of race in public debate and focus on the direct objects of reducing poverty, making policing more accountable, improving schools, reducing air pollution, expanding health insurance coverage, and otherwise solving the big problems of American society. All of this would, mechanically, close racial gaps. But highlighting that is genuinely counterproductive.
The ethic of responsibility
I’m not sure if this is contradictory to Bright’s view or complementary, but I think the pursuit of justice requires a bit more than Non-Alignment with regard to culture war chum.
People in positions of power and influence — that includes funders and media figures and professors and nonprofit leaders and elected officials — need to deploy an ethic of responsibility with regard to these matters. There are situations in which explicit consideration of race is essential because you have genuine, specific evidence of discrimination. I don’t know whether Nathan Connolly’s claims of discrimination in home appraisal will ultimately stand up to scrutiny, but the evidence he’s presented is persuasive, and importantly for our purposes, he’s trying to demonstrate specific race-based discrimination, not a situation that disproportionately impacts Black Americans because they are on average poorer.
But we should be cognizant that it is potentially counterproductive to deliberately increase the salience of race when it’s not necessary. I think that most of the people who do this are responding to an objective incentive structure, and I think that structure was set up mostly with good intentions, but it’s actually deleterious to the interests of the people it’s supposed to be helping.
It’s fun and easy to mock the most egregious hypocrites within Bright’s Repenter circle — the people who read DiAngelo and post a Black Lives Matter yard sign while bragging about how diverse their kids’ private school is — but real damage is done by people who are less cringy than this. When the way to get a grant application funded or get donations to your political campaign or get your article on the front page is to engage in some shallow disparity-spotting, that’s actually making it harder to reduce disparities. And you would possibly need to incur some personal cost to push back against that way of doing business. But relative to the hardships people have endured in the past for the sake of progress, that’s pretty minor.
I was doing takes about the large role of racial sentiments in American politics back 10-15 years ago when it was unfashionable.