Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Motivational Speaking

I like Jonathan Chait. He's smart and he's funny. It is no accident that my last post stemmed from one of his. But in this post, about racism and the "presumption of innocence" is badly misguided.

Chait's basic argument almost completely abstracts racism aways from any concrete, measurable effects it might have on the world. Instead, racism is almost solely a question of personal moral character. Consequently, it is extremely important to ensure that good non-racists are not unfairly lumped in with bad racists. Chait takes particular issue with persons, such as Melissa Harris-Perry, who suggest that there should be a default presumption of White non-racism. "Just how a person so accused could overcome the presumption of racism, Harris-Perry did not explain."

On the topic of trusting White people, I refer back to W.E.B. Du Bois' perspective. Surely Chait does not believe that Du Bois had to presume non-racism in 1920. A Black man in 1920 who assumed that any and all White people he met viewed him as an equal was a Black man who would be lynched sooner rather than later. So really we're talking about when the ledger tilted. 1950? 1970? 2004? When was it that a presumption of White non-racism shifted from being a suicide pact to a moral obligation?

What's particularly bizarre is that Chait proffers no evidence that racism is sufficiently rare amongst White people so as to justify a presumption of non-racism. Perhaps that's the benefit of presuming it -- it negates the obligation to actually offer supporting evidence. This is a problem, given the extensive evidence regarding the prevalence of subconscious racism amongst Americans, including amongst those who have conscious and genuine commitments to racial egalitarianism. And this sort of racism continues to exhibit meaningful, tangible impacts on minority lives. But Chait almost seems to view this more as a question of civility than of sociology. We should be careful about saying people are racist because that's a mean thing to say about another person. There is simply no justification for this approach. At the very least, how we approach the subject of racism in American life should remain connected to the actual presence and impact of racism. If racism remains a serious and widespread problem, then we should treat it as one regardless of whether it hurts people's feelings.

But the deeper problem is the focus on personal motivations at all. As Alan David Freeman observed over three decades ago, this is not largely why minorities care about racism. Racism matters because of the tangible effects it has on the lives of those it victimizes. Were racism solely a matter of "the heart" and never translated into material impacts, it wouldn't be that big a deal.

Chait seems to disagree. Consider his response to Ed Kilgore and the disparate impact many conservative policies have on people of color.
The Washington Monthly’s Ed Kilgore, in a trio of posts, objects that it is perfectly fair to impute racism to conservative policies that have a “disparate impact” on African-Americans, citing Republican opposition to things like health-care reform. “I’m willing to stop 'playing' the 'race card,' accurate as it often is,” he writes, “if conservatives are willing to reflect more on a fundamental inability to accept the equality — not of some abstract quantity called 'opportunity,' but of access to the basic necessities of life in this rich society.” If Republicans want Kilgore not to assume they are racist, all they need to do is agree to the liberal policy agenda, or perhaps something close to it.

And Kilgore is right, of course, that Republican policies tend to enrich a disproportionately white constituency and harm a disproportionately nonwhite one. He thus deems the question of motive irrelevant. But suppose we lived in a world where Democrats wanted to redistribute even more resources from the (disproportionately white) rich to the (disproportionately nonwhite) working-class and poor. At some point, the level of redistribution could be high enough that Kilgore himself would object — say, a federal government consuming one third, or one half, or two thirds, of the economy. Would it be fair to describe his agenda as objectively racist? Would that free Kilgore’s left-wing critics from taking his stated objections at face value?
Frustratingly, Chait does not actually make clear his views on "disparate impact" as a consequence. He knocks down the straw-man that infinitely biasing policy in favor of the less-well-off should not be viewed as racist on "disparate impact" grounds. This is of course true, but not actually contested. Disparate impact matters for two reasons. First, because it offers a hint as to motives that are hidden or (as aforementioned) subconscious. Second, because it focuses on what racial minorities actually receive and whether that receipt is compatible with what they are due as a matter of justice. Not to repeat myself, but racial minorities not receiving what they are justly owed as members of a liberal democratic society is bad regardless of what actually motivates the deficiency. Indeed, historically speaking it is quite rare for any such deprivations to be solely motivated by "racism" as Chait understands the term -- a pure and unmoderated desire to harm racial minorities for its own sake.

But in reality, the distinction between motive and consequence is less relevant than one would think. Chait thinks it is extremely important to distinguish between someone who advocates policy X because it hurts Black people, versus someone who advocates it for some other reason (and simply does not realize -- or care -- that it hurts Black people). But when formulating policy, we all have an obligation to think about whether our preferences are compatible with what is justly owed to our fellows. Failing in that responsibility may not be as bad as conscious antipathy towards racial minorities, but it's still something we can fairly condemn. And -- returning to Du Bois -- would Chait really defend the claim that White people have earned a presumption that they have thought deeply and critically about whether their policy choices are fair to Black people?

This dovetails with one of Chait's stranger arguments:
The most problematic part of Kilgore's argument is his recurrent phrase "objectively racist." It consciously or unconsciously harkens back to a chilling Cold War-era line used by conservatives, who described their domestic opponents as "objectively pro-Communist." Their underlying logic, like the phrase itself, mirrored Kilgore's: if you opposed the conservative foreign policy agenda, the "objective" thrust of your beliefs aided communism. This line of reasoning conveniently enabled conservatives to rhetorically lump together all their domestic opponents under the broad rubric of "pro-communist," insinuating a poisonous motive while freeing themselves from having to demonstrate it.
Chait couples this claim with another one that liberals don't care about a standard of "fairness" in assessing racism. But these positions aren't consistent. One way to "fairly" allocate claims of racism is to tie it to certain objective metrics, like, for example, the standard of living enjoyed by racial minorities vis-a-vis the majority. Viewing racism through this lens -- as a question of concrete and tangible things -- has the advantage of linking racism to the reason we care about racism (not to mention linking it to measurable entities). To be sure, there are still plenty of debates to be had even on that "objective" turf. But it is far easier to assess the trying to peer into someone's soul ala Bush and Putin.

The important thing to stress, and the point Chait keeps sliding past, is that the important question regarding racism is not "are White people bad"? The important question is whether our society is, along racial lines, treating all of its citizens in an equitable and egalitarian manner consistent with principles of justice. If the answer is no, that's a big problem regardless of whether the explanation why not ends up being conscious racial antipathy, subconscious prejudice, apathy, or something else entirely.

No comments: