Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Racism and Disloyalty

Following up on my post about the weird "random" comparison warning that a Deval Patrick administration in Massachusetts would show what a Barack Obama presidency would look like, the author of the article (Jules Crittenden) doubled-down in my comments and claimed my post was itself foreshadowing Obama's White House reign. Specifically, he claimed that it indicates that any criticism of Obama would immediately be met with cries of racism. I want to interrogate that claim for a little bit, because I find it interesting.

Let's start with what should be an uncontroversial assumption: In an Obama administration, there will be some criticisms that will be legitimate and others that will be racist (regardless of what we think the actual proportion of each will be). Furthermore, we can be assured that there will be some errors of misidentification--legitimate criticisms tagged as racist and vice versa. Operating from the null hypothesis that "X criticism of Obama is not racist", there are two types of errors we can commit. A "Type I error" would be rejecting that hypothesis when it is, in fact, true--e.g., falsely claiming racism when there is no racist element. This is the type of mistake Mr. Crittenden is worried about. A "Type II error" is the reverse: accepting the null hypothesis when it is really false--e.g., deciding that a criticism is not racist or motivated by racism when it was.

My first observation is that Mr. Crittenden seems utterly unconcerned with the potential for Type II error. That is, he seems quite confident that all or most accusations of racism are false positives, and that it is highly unlikely that they have any grounding in reality. Yet, this seems to be somewhat of a leap--surely, America's history with racism is not so far removed that we can so sure that racism actually is not playing a role in these critiques? That's wildly optimistic in my view, and not born out by the relevant data on how race and racism continues to play a role in modern society. Second, it mistakes how these accusations tend to play out in the media. With rare exceptions, the original claim of racism does not "stick". What does stick is the claim that a Black politician is "playing the race card." In other words, the general public is overwhelmingly likely to accept the null hypothesis (even when it is explicitly challenged), making it more likely that Type II errors are occurring relative to Type I errors. Obama is particularly vulnerable to this, as his status as a Black politician with "cross-over appeal" to Whites makes any accusation that he's lapsing into old "race-card" politics particularly damaging.

Also, I'd like to make a comparative point with how race is being used here. The comparison I'm going to make is to accusations of disloyalty. That is, the claim that X criticism of a Repubican Presidency is a disloyal act. Certainly, it happens (see, e.g., here for Richard Nixon; here, here and here for Bush). And like with race, when the accusation is leveled without cause, it should give us pause--false claims of disloyalty are serious offenses that undermine the political process and pervert democratic legitimacy. So if we are more likely to make false IDs of "disloyal" criticisms compared to false IDs of "race" criticisms, then we should be more concerned with candidacies that seem likely to exacerbate this pre-existing bias.

Again, of all the criticisms, there is some proportion that are in fact "disloyal" and some proportion that aren't. Of course, an actual case where a disloyal or treasonous criticism is made is quite serious (just like actual racism is quite serious). And likewise, there are undoubtedly cases of false positives where a critique is tagged as "disloyal" but really isn't. With a null hypothesis of "X critique is not disloyal", we can apply the same Type I/Type II error question and see how it stacks up with race.

A quick look at history shows that accusations of disloyalty rarely actually pan out. Across the Red Scare, Japanese Internment and McCarthyism (to name a few), the trend has generally been that we've accused people of being disloyal when there was no grounds for it (Type I errors). There's no reason to think differently of the modern day--for all the talk about Democratic disloyalty, Nancy Pelosi has not been caught spying for al-Qaeda and Baghdad Bob was not Harry Reid in disguise. With race, by contrast, we historically make Type II errors--that is, the historical trend is for America to claim it isn't acting racist when it in fact is. Even in the depths of Jim Crow, you'd be surprise how often die-hard southerners would claim that, no, their laws weren't racist, they were perfectly neutral, constitutional statutes and any disenfranchisement of Black voters is pure coincidence.

Basically, historically we've been more likely to "miss" real acts of racism and less likely to falsely identify legitimate acts as racism. Conversely, we've also historically been more likely to falsely identify "traitors" than we have been to miss real Benedict Arnolds. But despite being more rational, this fear that electing GOP officers raises the likelihood of criticisms being silenced under the guise of "disloyalty" is rarely brought up vis-a-vis the constant fretting over the race card. I'd assert that this, in of itself, is indicative of racial bias--we over-estimate the "threat" of a Black president ("We couldn't challenge him--everything would be called racism!") compared to threats associated with other more mainstream actors.

Special shout-out to my Statistics 115 class for giving me the tools to write this post!

3 comments:

c stanley said...

Where to start...

Let's see, I guess I'll address your points in the order that you wrote them.


My first observation is that Mr. Crittenden seems utterly unconcerned with the potential for Type II error. That is, he seems quite confident that all or most accusations of racism are false positives, and that it is highly unlikely that they have any grounding in reality



Where in the hell in anything Crittenden wrote can you conclude that he is "utterly unconcerned with the potential for Type II error"? Because he didn't write about this concern in this particular article? So, anytime you write about one concern that you have, you automatically are making a statement that you are concerned about nothing else? Or is it that you feel it must be mutually exclusive to be concerned about what you call Type I error and Type II error? There's a false dichotomy for you.

In fact, I'd say that your insistence that it must be one or the other is the problem. You see, if people are truly concerned about racism and its harmful effects, one must be concerned about both types of error. But those who make the claim, as you do, that Type II errors are all important, that we must accept overwhelming false positives, are the ones who are guilty of not having concerns about the real effects of both types of errors. When medical diagnostic tests are designed, it is extremely important to limit both types of error; otherwise grave treatment errors will result. Treating a disease that doesn't actually exist in the patient can do as much harm as not treating a disease that does exist. In fact, sometimes more harm, because the body often has the ability to heal itself and as physicians acknowledge when they take the oath to "do no harm", the cure can be worse than the disease. The parallel with racism is that to some degree, our society must heal itself, not have a cure forced on it by the thought police. Racial wounds will take time to heal, but constantly picking the scab will only slow that process.

Now, are some liberals sincere and well-intentioned in their belief that pointing out all possible instances of racism is helpful (thus promoting the idea that it's better to accept a high degree of false positives)? I'm sure that many are. But is there also a more sinister motive in the modern Democratic party? I believe so, and it is this: that keeping the specter of racism among the GOP alive is an easy scapegoat to keep blacks beholden to their party. It's no secret that many blacks are becoming increasingly disenchanted with the Democratic party and feeling that they've been taken for granted, and as that occurs, I think we can expect more and more instances of the race card being played by the left.

Now, on to your comparison of racial accusations and disloyalty accusations.


And like with race, when the accusation is leveled without cause, it should give us pause--false claims of disloyalty are serious offenses that undermine the political process and pervert democratic legitimacy. So if we are more likely to make false IDSs of "disloyal" criticisms compared to false IDs of "race" criticisms, then we should be more concerned with candidacies that seem likely to exacerbate this pre-existing bias.



OK, IF we are more likely to make the false ID's of disloyalty criticisms. That's a big IF, and not an easy one to prove.
Not that you haven't tried:


A quick look at history shows that accusations of disloyalty rarely actually pan out. Across the Red Scare, Japanese Internment and McCarthyism (to name a few), the trend has generally been that we've accused people of being disloyal when there was no grounds for it (Type I errors). There's no reason to think differently of the modern day--for all the talk about Democratic disloyalty, Nancy Pelosi has not been caught spying for al-Qaeda and Baghdad Bob was not Harry Reid in disguise.



To get back to your comparison, this would be like me saying that the GOP isn't sponsoring lynchings of black people, so therefore we can assume that all accusations of racist intent by the GOP are false. That you don't see the double standard you are using is a clear indication that you were biased to prove your predetermined conclusion. If you would like to consider real acts of disloyalty, how about Ted Kennedy cozying up to the KGB during the early '80s in order to make political hay against presidents from both parties, how about Chinagate, how about the fact that Kerry's explanation that what he meant to do was call the POTUS an idiot is now considered completely acceptable as a form of responsible dissent?
[comment cross posted at TMV]

David Schraub said...

Calling a President stupid is not "disloyal" under any metric I can think of (though labeling it as such is game, set, and match for my claim that we're very likely to make Type I errors with regard to disloyalty). As for the other cases you cite--I'm not familar with the details (I haven't heard anything that makes them sound worse than Rumsfeld snuggling up to Saddam, for example), but I still think they're qualitatively different, because they've never even come close to putting the US under the heel or at serious risk from a foreign power, while the racism we've sanctioned has quite obviously been devastatingly effective at maintaining an oppressive racial hierarchy.

Moreover, you miss the point of how Type I and Type II errors interrelate. Obviously, its good to reduce both. But as a general rule, when you put more effort into reducing one, the other goes up. This is axiomatic--by making it harder to disprove the null, you reduce the likelihood of Type I errors but simultanously raise the likelihood of Type II errors. If you make it easier to disprove the null, the reverse happens. I'm saying that empirically, we tend to err on the side of Type I errors with regard to disloyalty, and err on the Type II errors with regard to race. If we want to balance that out, we should be more concerned with the prospect of uncaught racism than we should over racism "false positives." And again, given the overwhelming data showing continued Black disadvantage in American society (economically, politically, and socially), I think it's facile to say that racism only remains as an issue to demonize the GOP (though that again assumes that the error is Type II rather than Type I, biting into my critique even harder).

c stanley said...

Moreover, you miss the point of how Type I and Type II errors interrelate.

No, I'm quite aware of the relationship between them. What I reject is the premise that we must accept wide variance in either one, or that people who express concern about one type of error are necessarily unconcerned with the other.

To again use my analogy of medical diagnostic tests: frequently such testing is done with a two tier approach. Screening tests are designed to accept greater Type I error or false positives. But then a second test (which is more inclined to give Type II error and thus would have missed some true positives) is used to limit the error by either confirming the positive or giving data that may lead to rejection of the positive result. However, in the case of evaluating claims of racism, there is no second test, and accepting the high rate of false positives as you propose (and as many liberals currently do) has the effect of levelling false charges which cannot be disproved. And, my argument is that this should be avoided because it actually exacerbates racial division in our society instead of helping to eliminate it.

You are correct in the argument that the relative importance we place on each source of error should relate to the actual, true prevalance of the problem that we are trying to predict. But the relative importance we place on these errors should also be dependent on the actual outcome which results from accepting either false positive or false negative results. Which of these situations is more harmful? If you aren't asking that question, then you are working the wrong problem.