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Tim Scott's wise words
The message conservatives don't want to hear about anti-Black racism
Tim Scott’s presidential campaign hasn’t exactly set the world on fire, so the market for Scott-related takes isn’t particularly strong. Which is too bad, because I think he’s kind of an interesting guy, or at least he used to be. In recent years he’s become a somewhat tedious figure whose role is to go around the country saying “America is not a racist country” to generate applause from the cheap seats.
His prior persona on issues related to race was interesting, though, because he was a Black Republican who was also definitively a conservative Republican (unlike, say, Colin Powell) who argued that anti-Black racism was a big deal in American society and something that his fellow conservatives should think harder about. This is a very neglected corner of conceptual space in the United States, but zooming out globally, it’s a totally coherent worldview. Jamaica, the Bahamas, and other places where Black people are in the majority all have large and powerful conservative political movements. The idea of a coalition between business interests and traditional religious values has an extremely powerful logic to it that pops up in all kinds of places. You wouldn’t do Hindu nationalist politics in Spain nor Catholic integralist politics in India, but the appeal of right-wing politics to religious traditionalists transcends the particulars of the local situation.
But a contingent fact of American history is that this right-wing political logic has traditionally encompassed anti-Black racism in a way that excludes most Black people from participating, even many of those who adhere to traditionalist religious values or sympathize with business-friendly policy ideas. The inverse of that exclusion is that even though Black Americans are more liberal on average than white ones, Black Democrats are less liberal than white Democrats because essentially all moderate Black people and many conservative ones are inside the Democratic Party tent.
Part of Scott’s pre-Floyd political project was to try to change this dynamic by urging Republicans to take the problem of anti-Black racism more seriously without otherwise compromising on public policy questions.
Contemporary Republicans like to appropriate Martin Luther King Jr.’s line about judging people based on the content of their character rather than the color of their skin, wielding it as a cudgel against anti-racism programming. One standard progressive response is to argue that this “colorblindness” reflects an impoverished understanding of King’s message. I’ve written on this theme in posts like “Martin Luther King Jr.'s push for material redistribution,” “Martin Luther King, Jr.'s final unfinished struggle,” and “Martin Luther King called for radical redistribution of material resources.” These posts all make the point that King was not a conservative — he was a radical egalitarian — and that plucking one line of his out of that context dramatically misstates his vision of social justice.
But Scott really is a conservative. He really is making the argument that conservatives attribute to King: that we should try to simply have a colorblind society in which we treat everyone the same regardless of their skin color, without any radical plan to equalize material circumstances.
And what I think is important is that Scott argues (or at least he used to) that contrary to what white conservatives think, this is not what they are currently doing. Specifically, Scott argues that Black Americans are frequently subject to unflattering stereotypes and treatment based on those stereotypes and that this is morally wrong, even if the stereotype is in some sense “accurate.” That he, Tim Scott, deserves to be judged as an individual human being based on his specific actions rather than as a member of a statistical aggregate. And that living up to the ideal of colorblindness requires meaningful change in many of our social institutions.
Tim Scott’s landmark speech on racial profiling
Scott’s July 2016 Senate floor speech on racial profiling was important, I think, not so much because it provides unique insights, but because I hope Scott’s sterling conservative credentials can help right-of-center people understand the force of what he’s saying.
I’m going to quote him at some length, but his basic point is that he believes he has been stopped by police officers much more frequently than a white man engaged in the exact same activities would have been and that virtually all of his peers have the same experience:
I want to go to a time in my life when I was an elected official and share just a couple of stories as an elected official. But please remember that, in the course of one year, I’ve been stopped seven times by law enforcement officers. Not four, not five, not six, but seven times in one year as an elected official. Was I speeding sometimes? Sure. But the vast majority of the time, I was pulled over for nothing more than driving a new car in the wrong neighborhood or some other reason just as trivial.
One of the times, I remember I was leaving the mall. I took a left out of the mall and as soon as I took a left, a police officer pulled in right behind me. That was my first left. I got to another traffic light, I took another left into a neighborhood. Police followed behind me. I took a third left onto the street that at the time led to my apartment complex. Finally, I took a fourth left coming into my apartment complex and then the blue lights went on. The officer approached the car and said that I did not use my turn signal on the fourth turn. Keep in mind, as you might imagine, I was paying very close attention to the law enforcement officer who followed me on four turns. Do you really think that somehow I forget to use my turn signal on that fourth turn? Well, according to him, I did. Another time, I was following a friend of mine. We had just left working out and we were heading out to grab a bite to eat about 4:00 in the afternoon. He pulls out and I pull out behind him. We’re driving down the road and blue lights come on. An officer pulls me into the median and starts telling me that he thinks perhaps the car is stolen. Well, I started to ask myself because I was smart enough not to ask him, asking myself, is the license plate coming in as stolen? Does the license plate match the car? I was looking for some rational reason that may have prompted him to stopping me on the side of the road.
I also think about the experiences of my brother who became a command sergeant major in the United States Army, the highest rank for an enlisted soldier. He was driving from Texas to Charleston, pulled over by a law enforcement officer who wanted to know if he had stolen the car he was driving because it was a Volvo. I do not know many African-American men who do not have a very similar story to tell, no matter the profession, no matter their income, no matter their disposition in life. I also recall the story of one of my former staffers, a great guy, about 30 years old, who drove a Chrysler 300. A nice car, without any question, but not a Ferrari, not a super nice car. He was pulled over so many times here in D.C. for absolutely no reason other than for driving a nice car. He sold that car and bought a more obscure form of transportation. He was tired of being targeted.
That zoom-in to the individual level is important because America has started to have what I find to be a very frustrating conversation about law enforcement and statistical aggregates.
On the one hand, some on the far left have adopted a worldview I’m going to call Disparityism. According to Disparityism, if 50% of the drivers in your city are Black but Black drivers are getting 70% of the traffic tickets, that fact alone establishes a problematic bias. In lazy media accounts, the existence of a statistical disparity is presented as evidence of discrimination without any further proof. In the more intellectually rigorous work of Ibram X. Kendi, the concept of “racism” is defined to mean that there is a disparity, without looking at underlying causes.
I think that this is wrong, and that whether it’s problematic for Black drivers to be getting 70% of the tickets depends on whether they are doing 70% of the speeding. In a city like D.C., we know that the Black and white populations differ dramatically in their age profile, in their educational attainment, in the family structure of the households they are raised in, in their incomes, and in the neighborhoods they live. There are lots of reasons that the base rate of infractions could differ, and that equal enforcement could lead to a disparity. And not only is Disparityism a little naive, but it can also be very harmful. If most of the speeding is happening in Black neighborhoods, then most of the victims of reckless driving are also going to be Black, and the costs of inadequate enforcement will be mostly borne by Black people. Indeed, when it comes to the city’s allocation of police officers, it’s pretty clear that law-abiding residents of Black neighborhoods are getting less than their fair share of support and protection from law enforcement.
Whenever I make a point like this, a chorus pops up on the right to cheer “yay stop and frisk!” or “yay broken windows!”
These are ambiguous phrases, but what I understand them to mean is that not only should Disparityists chill out, but Tim Scott should stop complaining. The logic is something like this:
People carrying illegal guns create a significant public policy problem.
Men are more likely than women to be carrying illegal guns.
Black people are more likely than white people to be carrying illegal guns.
MPD has finite resources.
Therefore, police officers should set a lower bar for stopping Black drivers in order to optimize the use of police officers’ time.
Scott’s point, which I think is correct, is that this is an objectionable way to treat him. The objection doesn’t need to be grounded in Disparityism and the objection also doesn’t need to involve denying the factual premises. It’s irksome to Scott, an individual human being who has not done anything wrong, to be treated as presumptively criminal based on a statistical inference. Conservatives often paint certain styles of contemporary diversity programming as objectionable forms of collective guilt on the part of white Americans. But they do very little to extend empathy to people caught up in negative stereotyping and racial profiling, practices that can be very hurtful whether or not they are malicious.
Cycles of negative stereotyping
I had a conversation several years ago with someone working in the early days of fintech startups about the challenge of complying with non-discrimination laws in a lending context.
A kind of naive viewpoint is that lenders might discriminate against minority applicants due to personal bigotry or ignorance, whereas a computer algorithm — presumably free of such qualities — would make race-blind lending decisions. But suppose the algorithm is itself totally non-racist and simply surveys facts about life in the United States of America. It ascertains that Black job applicants face discrimination in the labor market. And it knows that Black drivers are disproportionately more likely to be pulled over for traffic stops and fined for minor violations. It therefore perceives that it is genuinely true that given two different loan applicants who are otherwise identical, the Black applicant is marginally more likely to default, due to either labor market or law enforcement discrimination. Therefore it is correct underwriting practice to charge the Black borrower a higher interest rate.
We have civil rights laws, and you can’t just put a line in your code that says “if the applicant is Black, charge him a higher interest rate.” But in many cases you can make statistically valid inferences about a person’s racial identity based on other pieces of information, so it’s still true that an optimally trained algorithm may suss out facts about applicants’ race and discriminate on that basis. Not because the algorithm harbors hatred in its heart, but in this case specifically because the algorithm is “woke” and believes that other people will discriminate against Black borrowers in ways that make them bigger credit risks.
I believe this lingo has come under criticism and gone out of style, but when I was in college this was explained as a distinction between “taste-based discrimination” and “statistical discrimination.”
In other words, a cab driver cruising around somewhere he thinks passengers are plentiful might skip over a Black guy trying to hail a taxi because he hates Black people (taste-based discrimination), or he might do it because he believes Black riders are more likely to be headed to peripheral residential neighborhoods where it will be harder to get a new fare (statistical discrimination). Statistical discrimination can be done without malice. It can be done in error or based on exaggerated and ignorant stereotypes. But “Black people and white people live, on average, in different neighborhoods and the Black ones are poorer” is not some kind of wildly ignorant prejudice. Those are real facts about American society.
My sense is that conservatives often think liberals are being naive or fake (“virtue signaling”) when we say this type of discrimination is bad. I think the charge of fakery is mostly unfair. But the charge of naiveté is an important part of the political debate.
It’s a classic political argument — the left thinks the right is being cynical and mean and the right thinks the left is being dippy and unrealistic. But the point is that even leaving King’s socialism aside, the call to build a society in which people are “judged based on the content of their character” rather than on hazy statistical inferences about their ethnicity is a call that has real content — content that I think many conservatives disagree with. They think it’s correct and appropriate to use stereotypes as decision-making heuristics and that efforts to socially stigmatize such behavior or make it illegal lead to dysfunction and social collapse. It’s fine to have a debate about that, but I thought that was why Scott’s prior persona as someone who tried to make the case to conservatives was actually interesting and important, along with being perfectly compatible with criticizing Disparityism as an ideology. But you do need to have the actual debate. And also acknowledge that if you avow a realpolitik argument in favor of racial discrimination — even if it’s “just” statistical discrimination — then of course most moderate and even many conservative Black people are not going to vote for you. That’s realpolitik, as well. Normal, self-respecting human beings are not going to put up with that.
Policing requires consent, engagement, and legitimacy
To bring this back around to policing, I think this all connects to what I wrote about in “Bad Incentives and the Politics of Fear.” I think Republicans think that violent crime being in the news is per se good for Republicans’ electoral fortunes, so while they enjoy positioning themselves as tough on crime, it’s not clear that they spend much time thinking about how, in practice, to reduce crime.
And that’s a key thing here. If the Republican message is that we’re going to address crime with an aggressive law enforcement presence and that presence is going to discriminate against Black people, then a couple of things are going to happen. One is that a large share of Black civilians are going to develop a (statistical, not taste-based!) negative view of police officers with downstream consequences for witness cooperation and the day-to-day quality of life of cops working in the relevant neighborhoods. The other is that an intellectual and political superstructure will develop around the idea that we need some other way of controlling crime beyond putting cops on the beat. This can evolve into a kind of pointless pro- and anti-cop identity politics, in which residents of low-crime areas wave Thin Blue Line flags while victims in actual high-crime areas are denied adequate policing services.
If you just care about winning elections, this may work.
But to the extent that you actually care about reducing crime, not just owning the libs, you need to take seriously what Scott is saying about himself and his brother and his former staffer. You need to reassure people that a robust law enforcement presence doesn’t mean “Tim Scott will get pulled over on spurious grounds.” And you need to reassure people that strict enforcement of the rules doesn’t mean “Tim Scott will get pulled over for real, but pretextual, violations that a white driver would be able to slide on.” You have to be sensitive to the reality that people like Scott, in particular, are going to be hypersensitive to the concern that they are being singled out for poor treatment because they are particularly likely to be living large swathes of their lives in what Elijah Anderson calls white space. To use an old-fashioned term, there’s actually quite a bit of value in the idea of trying to be “politically correct” — sensitive to people’s feelings, careful about your choice of words and framing, and overall trying to persuade rather than troll.
The flip side, though, is that civic leaders in liberal cities — which is to say essentially all cities — need to insist that a disparity per se is not evidence of discrimination, and that while rules should be applied evenhandedly and without recourse to stereotyping, a fair process won’t always deliver exactly proportional results.