Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Race LASIK

I'm attending a lecture tonight on Judaism and Feminism, so I don't really have to time for bona fide blogging. Instead, I'll reprint the article I submitted to the Carleton Observer's (one of our political journals) symposium on race. It's titled "Race Lasik."

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You probably heard it first in elementary school. Race doesn't matter. Don't think about race. Don't judge someone by their race. Don't distribute benefits on account of race.

Be Color-Blind.

I bought into the myth once. That if we were color-blind, then all the troubles of racism would just go away. And today, when you ask conservatives what we should do about racism and racial inequality, that's their answer: be color-blind.

It is a weird metaphor though, isn't it? Color-blind. Normally, we think of color-blindness as something bad, a disorder to be cured or overcome. Few of us actually wish to be literally color-blind. And even if we do, we aren't. We don't have a lever that can switch from our current rainbow state of affairs into monochromatic bliss. The metaphor of color-blindness doesn't represent an actual state of being but a supposed ideal. Yet the vast majority of white Americans profess to have moved "beyond race," in a word, they claim to be "color-blind." The question is whether or not that ideal is possible or even makes sense. If it isn't or doesn't, the color-blindness as a racial strategy is likely to be as damaging as color-blindness as an optical condition, and should be treated accordingly.

To some extent, the theory of color-blindness is based off a lie. As Neil Gotanda notes, when making a race interaction, a "color-blind" person would first see the person's race, then pretend not to. We can't actually not see race (except, of course, those of us who actually are medically color-blind), so what is being done is a type of cognitive shift by which we fiat race to be an irrelevant characteristic. Because we say it's irrelevant, it is. But with all due respect to our individual agency, saying something has been stripped of meaning doesn't make it so.

Since color-blindness doesn't eliminate the presence of race but only pushes it from the conscious mind, any sub-conscious meanings, tropes, or valences triggered by race will remain untouched. These beliefs-beneath-the-surface operate subtly, but still have tremendous impacts on our social interactions. Color-blindness prevents us from overtly using race as a factor, but it does nothing to prevent race being used sub-consciously under the outward facade of other justifications. A study by Samuel L. Gaertner and John F. Dovidio illustrates this point nicely. White test subject shown persons in distress aided both white and black victims the vast majority of the time (81% for white victims, 94% for black victims) if there was no ostensible justification for them not help. However, when led to believe that other rescuers were available, the rate of aid to black victims plummeted to 38% even as the rate of aid to white victims remained mostly constant (75%). Race-based cues that skirt the surface of consciousness become extremely important when there are a variety of justifiable decisions within a value-laden scenario. In most complex cases, it is almost always possible to "substitute" a non-racial warrant for a racial one. But the fact that these ostensibly neutral explanations nearly universally result in wide-spread racial disparities should be a clue that the explanations aren't neutral at all, or at the very least, there is something more lurking beneath the surface.

Conservatives love to respond that the majority of inequities are a result of class and not race. The argument runs as follows: black people were discriminated against in the past, which accounts for their disproportionate presence amongst the poor and impoverished. Now that we've made racial discrimination against the law and have moved to race-neutral thinking, these barriers will be removed and blacks will be able to compete on a fair playing field. Today we're in a transition period, but once giving a fair shot, the racial disparities will disappear and merit will win the day.

This argument is very comforting. It is also very wrong. What the argument misses is that even today, black social disadvantage transcends class. University of Pittsburgh Professor Richard Delgado notes that whereas white poverty tends to be temporary, lasting only a generation or two, black poverty tends to perpetual. Black middle-class children are at a far higher risk than whites to be downwardly mobile--one drug conviction and the fall from grace can be quite swift. Empirically, a white child from a family making $20,000 a year has better life prospects than a black child from a family making $50,000 a year. Studies have shown that black defendants are punished more harshly than white ones, that crimes with white victims are punished more harshly than those with black victims, and that crimes popularly associated with young black men are tagged with harsher sentences than those for virtually any other group (the wild disparity between how crack and powder cocaine are treated in the criminal justice system can almost definitely be attributed to the fact that crack is far more likely to be used by blacks than is powder cocaine). Black defendants are also apt to be charged at far higher rates than white defendants--even though 2/3 of crack users are white or Hispanic, 84% of those criminally prosecuted for simple possession are black (simple possession of crack cocaine carries a 5 year mandatory minimum sentence for first use. Powder cocaine carries a maximum sentence of 1 year, but is more likely to be met with probation for a first time convict). Finally, Marianne Bertrand and Sendhill Mullainathan conducted a study showing that a "black-sounding" name (e.g., "Jamal" or "Lakisha") negatively affected the chances of job applicants vis a vis those with "white-sounding" names (e.g., "Paul" or "Emily")--even when both the "white-sounding" and "black-sounding" applicants have equal qualifications. In the face of such overwhelming evidence, to insist that it is class to blame for racial disparities is a case of willful, well, blindness. Something more is at work here. And that something is unquestionably race.

Can the color-blind framework solve these forms of (mostly unconscious) racism? I submit that it cannot. There are two reasons for this. First, the state of being "color-blind" requires one to assume race doesn't matter. Since the way unconscious racism works in an egalitarian society is to "latch" onto facially neutral policies and decisions, persons who proclaim to be color-blind will always be able to deny they have a problem by pointing to the "neutral" explanations for their acts. Second, the methodologies by which we might "find" sub-conscious bias are themselves indicted by the color-blind principle. Color-blindness is inextricably tied up within the rhetoric of individualism and anti-identity politics. However, it is impossible to find patterns of sub-conscious bias without looking at groups as groups. Recall the aid-to-victims study I cited earlier. The decision of any one person not to aid an individual black victim when others are available to do it proves nothing; it shows neither that the individual himself is racist, much less that society at large is. What makes a seemingly benign moral decision become racially loaded is how it plays out over the group at large. Though any one person may be able to justify her decision on non-racial grounds, it is impossible to explain the statistical disparity without seeing race as a contributing factor. But of course, color-blindness mandates that we not see race and, in doing so, can only explain such situations as a statistical anomaly, results of non-racial forces, or (worst of all) by dark mutterings that it's their fault.

The fact of pervasive race-based inequities even in the face of a color-blind world is a very real problem for opponents of race-conscious thinking. Were the problem confined to one aspect of life, then perhaps it could be dismissed as a fluke or quirk. But gaping racial disparities manifest themselves in nearly every facet of society (even controlling for economic class). From crime and punishment, to housing, to social interactions, to education, racial disparities have stubbornly persisted even in the face of our firm protestations of race neutrality. Something more is going on here besides the inexorable mandate of capitalism (an aside: Am I the only one amused by conservatives--always quick to defend the justice of the free market--being the first to assure us that economic deprivation is responsible for what liberals claim to be racism? But if capitalism is to blame for race-based inequities, then isn't that reason to regulate the market so that it no longer causes these problems? No, we're told, the free market is the way to go, and to interfere is unfair and immoral. It's a beautiful, if self-affirming, circle of logical inerrancy and moral bankruptcy). Color-blindness is not fixing these problems. And squeezing our eyes yet tighter will make them worse, not better. What America needs is not a purer form of color-blindness. Racism still exists even when our eyes are shut. What America needs some race LASIK surgery, to eliminate color-blindness and let us see the very real problems in front of us. After all, to quote James Baldwin: "Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced."

5 comments:

Isaac said...

You quote the study about white person from family with income of 20,000 and black person with income of 50,000 having equal life chances. What this fails to control for is wealth: wealth is far more unequally distributed than income, and especially so with race. A black and white person with identical incomes will have very different amounts of family wealth.

Not that this is some refutation, just that the difference between income and wealth (and the differing amounts of income and wealth inequality) is an underappreciated point about society.

David Schraub said...

If I'm not mistaken, even amongst blacks and whites with equal income, wealth is skewed in favor of whites. This is due at least in part to far greater levels of white home-ownership, which in itself can be traced to persistent credit and housing discrimination (among other factors).

Mark said...

David,
In a lot of cases the problems are social and I'm not sure how your going to fix that with legislation. The black community has a high rate of single parent families and expects uncle sam to educate their kids. See La Shawn's recent post for example.

Redistribution policies, color blind or not aren't the answer ... and if we knew what the answer was we'd all do it. It's just that them rich evil conservatives don't think the big expensive solutions in practice so far aren't working and the reason is structural not lack of spending.

Isaac said...

even amongst blacks and whites with equal income, wealth is skewed in favor of whites.Exactly, a point I also made. This would make the case for class as the explanatory variable stronger.

You make an interesting point about home values: if you have white flight, then wherever blacks live will have lower property values...This may well warrant a post...

Bon Jown said...

The city where I live, Rockford, IL, went through a federally mandated desegregation due to a lawsuit that claimed that "tracking" unfairly separated minorities. I agree with this ruling and I think that serious segregation went on.

However, in rectifying the problem, they reverse discriminated and when I applied for admission to the academically high track, minorities with much lower scores were allowed before me simnply because the desegregation forced equal representation of the population in the classroom. Here is where I took issue.

I think that people need to realized that race does matter and it cannot be ignored. Intentional discrimination is the problem and as long as that is not happening, so be it. Change in institutions will take much time, and change in the overall picture of society in which all races are equal will take even longer