Monday, September 16, 2019

The Non-Mismatch of Rich Kids

Paul Tough has a bracing article in the New York Times about how collegiate admissions practices systematically favor underperforming wealthy kids who can afford to pay full tuition, framed around efforts to reverse that trend at Connecticut's Trinity College (via).

The short version is that, outside an incredibly tiny slice of hyper-elite schools like Harvard, most universities need tuition dollars in order to make their budgets work (this would include very good schools like Trinity, ranked in the top 50 of U.S. liberal arts colleges). Poorer students, who need scholarship support, represent a loss of tuition dollars -- in effect, schools need to balance our the low-income students they admit with high-income tuition-payers, even in cases where the poorer student is on merit alone a better candidate.

The way this plays out in practice is usually match-ups between high-GPA/low-SAT poorer students versus low-GPA/high-SAT wealthier students, which are repeatedly resolved in favor of the latter. The high standardized test scores are viewed as at least balancing out the low GPA, so it isn't really a case of taking a less-qualified wealthier kid over a scrappier, smarter, but poorer candidate. But often, it turns out, these test scores are themselves an artifact of wealth -- they reflect nothing more than that the student can afford SAT tutors and knows how to "play the game". Once they get to college, they revert back to high school form -- relative underperformers, unmotivated, and not on the level of their peers.
When Angel Pérez arrived at Trinity and took a close look at the way the admissions office had been making its decisions, what he found left him deeply concerned. “We were taking some students who probably should not have been admitted, but we were taking them because they could pay,” he told me. “They went to good high schools, but they were maybe at the bottom of their class. The motivation wasn’t there. So the academic quality of our student body was dropping.” 
At Trinity, Pérez’s predecessors had been able to capitalize on a pattern that admissions officers say they often see: At expensive prep schools, even students close to the bottom of the class usually have above-average SAT scores, mostly because they have access to high-octane test-prep classes and tutors. 
“O.K., you’re not motivated, you’re doing the minimum at your high school,” Pérez explained, describing the students Trinity used to admit in droves. “You have not worked as hard as your peers. But you did the test prep, and you learned how to play the SAT game.” 
If you work in admissions at a place like Trinity was before Pérez arrived, SAT scores can provide a convenient justification for admitting the kind of students you might feel compelled to accept because they can pay full tuition. It’s hard to feel good about choosing an academically undeserving rich kid over a striving and ambitious poor kid with better high school grades. But if the rich student you’re admitting has a higher SAT score than the poor student you’re rejecting, you can tell yourself that your decision was based on “college readiness” rather than ability to pay. 
The problem is, rich kids who aren’t motivated to work hard and get good grades in high school often aren’t college-ready, however inflated their SAT scores may be. At Trinity, this meant there was a growing number of affluent students on campus who couldn’t keep up in class and weren’t interested in trying. “It had a morale effect on our faculty,” Pérez told me. “They were teaching a very divided campus. The majority of students were really smart and engaged and curious, and then you’ve got these other students” — the affluent group with pumped-up SAT scores and lower G.P.A.s — “who were wondering, How did I get into this school?
The whole article is great, but I highlight this section because it at least gestures at an issue I've been  flagging for years: the potential (but largely unremarked upon) "mismatch" of wealthy students being admitted to universities that they are insufficiently prepared for. The "mismatch" hypothesis was pioneered by Richard Sander as an objection to race-based affirmative action programs which, he contended, systematically place minority students at schools above their intellectual level and thus harm their putative beneficiary. The talented student who would be a great fit for and excel at the University of Maryland instead is admitted to Cornell, where he struggles mightily -- ultimately losing more than he gains.

It was an interesting argument, but I argued then and maintain now that it is one whose logic would apply across many other cases where students are admitted to colleges that are -- at least based purely on academics -- "reach" schools. Athletes are one obvious example, but wealthy students whose case-for-admission relies primarily on (a) their ability to pay and (b) goosed standardized test scores that are also primarily a function of ability to pay would be another. Yet parents, guidance counselors, advisers, employers -- nobody acts as if these students will be hurt if they are admitted to Cornell instead of Maryland. Indeed, the entire structure of the collegiate application system is premised on the opposite -- a mad rush to ensure they do get into the "best" school possible.

Maybe they're all deluded; though it's just as likely that they will instead benefit exactly as they anticipate -- optimistically, from being pushed and forced to find a new gear in themselves, cynically from the value of letterhead. This is the only article I've ever seen even gesture at the possibility that the wealthy admits are themselves being ill-served -- finding themselves in an academic environment they're ill-prepared for, regressing back to their high school mean, and wondering whether they really belong at all (elsewhere in the article, we're told that Pell Grant recipients -- a good proxy for low-income students -- have significantly higher graduation rates than the student body writ large, suggesting that they're on the whole a stronger cadre of students).

But really, the fleeting consideration of this possibility is the exception that tests the rule. Is anybody truly concerned that the wealthy kid who got into Trinity primarily because they could afford to pay full-freight will be damaged for life? We might (and probably do) have sympathy for the meritocracy-based arguments that say he shouldn't have been admitted, but are we really also going to act like the objection to this system is for his own good too? No, obviously. The circumstances where smart, qualified, but poorer students are denied admission to good schools in favor of less-talented, less-qualified, but wealthier candidates is wrong -- but not because it's actually to the disadvantage of the latter group.

If You Can't Blame Omar ... Well, Buckle Up and Try Again

The other day, a thread by a right-wing commentator named Robby Starbuck made its way onto my Twitter feed, whipping up hysteria about "Somalis" beating up and robbing White people in Ilhan Omar's district.

There are several problems with this, starting with the fact that none of the local coverage I've read says that the perpetrators are entirely or even primarily Somali, and moving onward and outward to the incredible allegation local street crime is generally national news and only isn't when the perpetrators are Black (hey, have you heard about the gang of White students who beat up a Black classmate in Florida? No? Somehow it missed out on its entitlement to being the lead story on the Washington Post!).

As it happens, I used to live a few blocks away from the area where these crimes occurred. Crime wasn't rampant, but it wasn't entirely unheard of -- especially crime of the "robbing drunk pedestrians leaving the baseball stadium and/or surrounding bars" variety, which by all accounts appears to be what happened here. It's not a race war, and the neighborhood isn't under siege. It's crime.

In any event, I noted that -- at least at the time of Starbuck's tweet -- most non-Minnesotans probably hadn't yet heard about the arson targeting a synagogue in Duluth,* probably because it occurred in Rep. Pete Stauber's (R) district and thus couldn't be pinned on Ilhan Omar.

Of course, I'm giving people too much credit, because of course now I am seeing folks doing the whole "what about the synagogue fire!" at Rep. Omar -- and yet not, strangely-or-not-strangely enough, Rep. Stauber. For the record, Rep. Omar tweeted about the Duluth arson -- which occurred 150 miles away from her district -- on September 10th, while Rep. Stauber (who, to reiterate, actually represents Duluth) did so on September 12th.

Believe it or not, I don't bring that up as a "gotcha" at Rep. Stauber -- politicians move at different paces and one can always play the "why didn't you speak up on this faster" game. I raise it because it should, by all rights, conclusively falsify the notion that Omar was anything but way out in front on this tragedy, and deserves nothing but credit on it.

But it doesn't matter. Too many people, including too many people in my community, have been driven utterly, completely, unjustifiably bonkers by Ilhan Omar. It's fine to disagree with her on policy -- I disagree with her on (some) policies, most notably her backing of BDS. It's not fine to drop in on her any time something bad happens to a Jew within a 4,000 miles radius and go "Well? Well!?!" You want to talk about "tropes", or "implicit bias", or "double-standards" -- start right there and take a nice long drink from the fountain. It is a constant, ever-present feature of the discourse around Ilhan Omar, and it should sicken us.

* Following an arrest of the suspect, a local homeless man, police say they do not believe it was a hate crime. Of course, it still was a devastating loss for the Duluth Jewish community -- which had ample reason to fear that it was a hate crime, and certainly is following the ongoing investigation with interest.

Israel's Future in an Illiberal World

This essay by Robert Kagan on the current illiberal trajectory of the Israeli state is absolutely outstanding. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Most columns which talk about Israel in conjunction with the rise of global illiberal nationalism basically are exercises in what Marx would've called "bourgeois moralism" -- calling for Israel to resist it (or to stop actively participating in it) because it's wrong. Now, unlike Marx I think there is a perfectly valid place for moralistic appeals. But it certainly opens itself up to a response from a certain sort of fellow, who deems him or herself a hard-headed realist, who knows that such high-minded ethical appeals have no actual purchase in the dog-eat-dog, every-nation-for-itself world of realpolitik. Israel has to do what's best for Israel -- same as every other country. If that means shedding democracy, or liberalism, or egalitarianism, well, boo-hoo for them.

Kagan's contribution is useful because it is expressly addressed to that sort of fellow, and I endorse it not because I agree with this outlook but because I recognize it is an important one that many people -- rightly or not -- hold.

Kagan's essay explores what Israel's status would be -- not what it ought to be, not what it should be if states were fair and just and nice, but what it would be -- in an illiberal world where America and other major powers were motivated primarily by a sort of insular, anti-cosmopolitan nationalism. In this world, bonds between nations would, where they form at all, be based on material concerns and the conveniences of power -- the world Charles de Gaulle imagined when he said "nations don't have friends, only interests." And the answer is that while in the immediate term Israel might find friends in the budding illiberal powers currently popping up -- from Trump to Orban to Modi to Putin -- in the long-term such a world would almost certainly result in an Israel isolated, alone, and -- at best -- abandoned to its own fate.

Historically, Israel viewed its own security and standing as a new and relatively fragile state as being intricately connected to its status as a democratic state and society that would be a member in good-standing of the liberal political order. In a world where Israel's neighbors had more people, more territory, more wealth, and more oil, the main factor that could bind any major power to the Jewish state is a perception of shared values.

But the decline of the post-Cold War liberal order (liberal America and the EU) and the rise of illiberal alternatives (e.g., China and Russia, but also Trumpism in America and right-wing populism in Europe and globally) has given Israel a choice in didn't have before. Today, Israel doesn't have to be liberal in order to gain the support from other global powers. China doesn't care if Israel is democratic. Russia hardly minds if Israel is repressive. And within the traditional seats of international liberalism, one sees rot from the inside -- from Trump's rise to the chaos over Brexit. A right-wing populist like Netanyahu doesn't lack for ideological allies in the international system.

Yet, Kagan warns, Israel is delusional if it thinks that an "America first!" America, no longer concerned with trifling things like "democracy" or "shared liberal values", will be a reliable ally ever outward into the future. Why would it? Insular nationalism by its very nature doesn't lend itself to establishing these sort of enduring, values-based bonds. It is facile to assume that America will simultaneously retreat from seeking to promote a vision of liberal internationalism yet will remain committed to the security and flourishing of small nations halfway across the globe whose very presence seems to alienate much larger and objectively more important countries. If shared values matter, Israel can argue the fact that it's a pariah among some many states is a case of hypocrisy, illiberalism, or outright hate, and that it'd be just plain wrong for America to give into it. But that refrain -- whether fair or not as an ethical matter -- is simply irrelevant if America's foreign policy is "America first!" Only in a world where international ethics matter can Israel appeal to ethics as basis of a stable diplomatic relationship.

Kagan draws a parallel to right-wing Polish nationalists, who somehow think that a US that chooses to abandon NATO will nonetheless maintain a special security commitment to Poland. Those figures are out of their minds: if America ceases to care about the NATO alliance, it will in turn cease to care about Poland -- if not immediately, then shortly thereafter. More broadly: if America is in the game only for itself, playing real power politics, eventually Israel will find itself cut loose as soon as its in the transient American interest to abandon it.
What makes Israelis think if the United States were to cease supporting the liberal world order and began shedding the alliances it created after World War II, that the only ally it would not shed would be Israel? (Amusingly, many Poles these days also seem to believe that if the United States pulled out of NATO, it would still maintain the security relationship with Poland.) And how would Israel fare in the kind of world that would emerge if the United States stopped trying to uphold the liberal order? Such a world would once again be a multipolar struggle for power and advantage, pitting Russia, China, India, Japan, Iran, the stronger European powers and the United States against one another — all with large populations, significant territories and vast economies. What would be the fate of tiny nations such as Israel in such a world, no matter how well they might be armed and no matter how advanced their economies? In today’s world, Israel is strong and successful. It outshines its weaker and less-developed neighbors. But in the world of self-interested sovereign nation-states, a world with no liberal community, Israel is a mouse surrounded by elephants, all clamoring for a piece of the Middle East. Historically, from the Romans to the Ottomans to the British and French, the peoples of the Middle East have enjoyed only such autonomy as the ruling empires granted them. Otherwise, they were pawns and victims in a much larger game in which they were hopelessly outmatched.  
Could Israel, with its few millions of citizens, surrounded by enemies on all sides, and no longer living under the umbrella of the United States’ global hegemony, rely on the support of European nations ruled by right-wing nationalists? 
The answer is simply: no. It cannot rely on the enduring backing of foreign nation's committed to their own brand of domestic ultranationalism (it is frankly bizarre that anyone with a modicum of knowledge about Jewish history could believe otherwise), and a world where Israel has thrown its lot with that crowd is a world that will rapidly become exceptionally dangerous for Israel. Kagan concludes:
The price Israel paid for being born into the liberal world order was that it would have to suffer liberal criticisms and be held to liberal standards. This may have been difficult and even, from Israelis’ perspective, unfair, but Israeli leaders have borne this burden for 70 years because they knew Israel had no choice, that there was no home for Israel except within the liberal world order. That many Israelis now believe they have a choice is a reflection of our times, but it is a dangerous illusion. Those Netanyahu campaign posters showing him shaking hands with Putin, Modi and Trump carry the tagline, “A Different League.” Indeed, it is. Good luck.
Good luck indeed. The world Netanyahu hopes to help build is a world where Israel one day -- and perhaps not a particularly distant day -- will find itself truly alone, truly cut-off, and if the worst comes without America or anyone else interested in bailing it out.

Friday, September 13, 2019

How To Be Honored By Conspiracy Theorists

There's a conspiracy theorist who periodically sends me emails. Today, for example, it was a sustained discussion about "dancing Israelis on 9/11" -- an oldie, but I suppose back at the top of the mind given the recent 10th anniversary.

These emails, though are not sent just to me -- he helpfully doesn't bcc his recipient list, so I can see exactly who else he thinks is worth targeting with messages insisting that the WTC attacks were a Zionist plot!

And what it list it is! It's just 18 people, but they include such eminent figures as Cass Sunstein, Larry Lessig, Mark Tushnet, Adrian Vermeule, Noah Feldman, Stephen Carter, Adam Winkler, Ekow Yankah ... and me! Me! In such august company! To even be included in the same (spit-flecked conspiracy-mongering) sentence as those luminaries -- I can't express what an honor it is. It's right up there with the time I discovered someone had created a troll website just to call me a "disgusting Zionist punk".

Focus on the positive, that's my motto.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

North Carolina Republicans Commemorate 9/11 in the Most NC-Republican Style Imaginable

It is the anniversary of 9/11, a somber occasion where Americans reflect with sadness upon one of the worst terrorist atrocities ever to have impacting our nation -- but perhaps also with a bit of hope, recalling the brief moment of patriotic unity that brought us together as one nation, indivisible.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina:
While many of their Democratic counterparts were attending a 9/11 memorial event, Republicans in the North Carolina House of Representatives took the opportunity Wednesday to override the governor’s veto of the state budget. Rep. Jason Saine (R) made the motion to reconsider the controversial budget, prompting chaos to ensue in the nearly half-empty chamber. House Democratic leader Darren Jackson said he was told by Republicans there would be no recorded votes that morning, leading him to tell his caucus that they did not need to be at the session. Speaker Tim Moore (R) ignored objections from the 12 Democrats—of 55 total—present, and allowed the vote to proceed.
The Democrats in attendance told reporters they did not all have a chance to vote. According to Jackson, their microphones were cut off.
It's no accident that North Carolina was the state where a GOP candidate was literally caught ballot tampering to try and steal a federal election. There probably isn't a state in the union where the Republican Party has grown more openly contemptuous of the democratic process than the Tarheel State (yes, I'd say they even beat Wisconsin).

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Takeaways From the NC-09 Special

Republican Dan Bishop defeated Democrat Dan McCready in a North Carolina special congressional election 51-49, keeping this historically conservative seat red (Trump won it in 2016 by 11 points). The special election occurred because the initial result in 2018, a narrow Republican victory (by a sub-1000 vote margin), was tossed out after massive voter fraud efforts were uncovered in support of the prevailing GOP candidate.

So, what do we make of it?

The highest tide of the "Blue Wave" has receded

2018 was always going to be a high-water mark for the Democratic Party. Just as the 2010 Tea Party backlash didn't presage a GOP victory in 2012, huge Democratic wins in 2018 doesn't necessarily tell us that much about 2020. A narrow Democratic victory in Wisconsin in 2018 translated to a narrow Democratic defeat in 2019, for example, and that bodes extremely ominously for 2020. And so too here: Bishop generally overperformed GOP 2018 numbers all across the district save Mecklenberg County (mostly suburban Charlotte) -- though he still dramatically underperformed Trump's margins. "Losing a Trump +11 district by less than a point" was the Democratic high water mark, and it receded to "losing it by two points."

The big question, then, is not whether Democratic gains would ebb after 2018, but by how much.

There are no moral victories, but there are data points

Commenting on a similar special election race in early 2018, I wrote that while there are no "moral victories" in politics, there are data points, and Democrats overperforming their 2016 margins by approximately 10 points is such a data point even when that still results in a narrow defeat. Some people scuffed because "a loss is a loss", but history vindicated the trend lines.

Since 2018, Democrats in special elections have outperformed Hillary Clinton's performance by approximately 5.5 points. That's not "crushing Blue Wave" territory, but it's certainly good news. It'd be enough to flip North Carolina blue, for example (and a 9 point swing, like we saw in this election, would do so decisively).

Sub/urban vs. rural continues to be the division of note

We sometimes speak lazily of "rural" as a synonym for "White conservative", but places like North Carolina ought remind us that there are plenty of southern locales with significant rural Black populations. McCready won Scotland County (population 36,000, 51% White) and Anson County (population 25,000, 49% White) by double-digit margins. But that's not surprising: Hillary Clinton won both those counties by double-digit margins too. Bishop's best county by far was not rural but exurban Union County, which he took by 20 points.

Nonetheless, when one looks at trend lines the sub/urban vs. rural divide certainly seems to be alive and well. Those blue-ish rural counties? McCready might have won them, but he barely improved on Clinton's numbers and was way behind his 2018 performance. By contrast, Mecklenberg County, which comprises parts of Charlotte and its suburbs, was the one place McCready overperformed: his 13 point margin beat his benchmark indicator by 4 points and obliterated Clinton's 47/50 defeat in 2016.

Meanwhile, a 20 point Republican victory in the exurbs of Union County sounds good until you compare it to Trump's 31 point margin in 2016. It was in rural areas, including those blue-ish leaning ones, that Bishop made up serious ground. Holding McCready to the same margins in Anson County that Hillary Clinton got is a big deal when Clinton lost the district by 11 and McCready lost by just 2.

From a strategic standpoint, there's different conclusions one could draw from this. One conclusion is that well-educated suburban areas are the wave of the Democratic future and liberal organizations should try to consolidate gains there -- if places like Mecklenberg go from light-red swing districts to double-digit Democratic strongholds, that's a disaster for Republicans in North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, and many other states besides. A different conclusion is that these areas aren't enough to win and McCready's failure to mobilize turnout in heavily African-American regions of his district shows that Democrats cannot take these voters for granted anymore. It does no good to run up the score in the suburbs if you lose the entire margin when reliably Democratic Black voters stay home.

Voter fraud works?

In the Atlantic, David Graham makes the provocative point that -- while we don't know if Dan McCready would have won the 2018 election had his Republican opponent not engaged in ballot tampering -- there's no question that it helped GOP chances even though he got caught. Republicans were always going to be better positioned to win here in a 2019 special versus in the 2018 blue wave (see "highest tide has receded", above). And so in that sense, the voter fraud move paid off. Hopefully that lesson isn't internalized.

Monday, September 09, 2019

The One Thing The Sanford Primary Is Good For

Former South Carolina Governor and Representative Mark Sanford (R) has announced a primary challenge against President Trump. This could have been valuable, except that instead of challenging Trump on the basis of his rank bigotry -- which Sanford is actually decently positioned to tackle -- he's focusing his campaign on the national debt. Seriously.

The one benefit of a Sanford challenge (and his inevitably mauling) is that it does give a clean resolution to the "it's not that I like Trump's rank bigotry, I just think Democrats are profligate spenders and I couldn't bring myself to vote for them" narrative:

"So then you'll vote for a Republican alternative who focuses on fiscal responsibility and doesn't carry Trump's bigoted baggage?"

"Hell no. #MAGA2020!"

(Of course, this perhaps assumes that Republicans will even allow a primary challenge to Trump which -- well, let's just say not all states are onboard with that).

Saturday, September 07, 2019

Federal Court: "Jewish" Isn't a Race Under Title VII

Last year, I wrote about a federal court opinion in Bonadona v. Louisiana College, addressing whether Jewishness is a "race" for purposes of Title VII litigation. The question rarely comes up, because Title VII also protects against religious discrimination, and so Jews suing on basis of antisemitism typically just use that as their statutory hook. But Bonadona involved a Jewish-born convert to Christianity, who was nonetheless allegedly denied a position at a Christian university on the basis of his "Jewish blood" (yes, that phrase exactly). So he couldn't claim religious discrimination -- he was Christian, just like his would-be employers -- but the reference to "Jewish blood" certainly smacks of an employer who viewed (and disparaged) Jewishness as a race.

The decision last year concluded that Jewishness is, or at least could be, a race for Title VII purposes. But it was actually only a magistrate's recommendation, and a few days ago the district court judge apparently overruled that recommendation (via) and decided that Title VII categorically does not provide protections to Jews as a "race" because Jewishness was not understood to be a race in 1964 (I say apparently only because the court's opinion does not mention or discuss the magistrate's recommendation in any way).

This lack of discussion is disappointing, since the magistrate's opinion raised some issues that I think are worthy of discussion but get no attention in the relatively sparse treatment offered by the district court. The latter's analysis begins and ends with (for what it's worth, uncited) declaration that Jewishness wasn't viewed as a race in 1964, and so consequently the statute could not have been intended to encompass Jews (at least, as a race). This distinguishes the Bonadona case from other precedents which found Jewishness was a race for the purpose of Section 1981 litigation -- Jewishness was seen as a race in the 1860s, but wasn't by the 1960s.

To me, though, this analysis isn't persuasive, and smacks of a sort of vulgar textualism (what in the constitutional context is sometimes called "original expected applications originalism) that is just wrong as a matter of fundamental legal interpretation. The right question -- even from an originalist/textualist vantage -- isn't whether Jews were (by everyone? the majority? themselves?) viewed as a race in 1964 (or 1866). It's whether, under the prevailing understanding of "race" that would have dictated meaning in 1964, Jews are being viewed as a race now (either generally, or in the particular fact pattern at issue).

For example, suppose that in the mid-1970s, a race of human mole people emerged from beneath the earth and sought to integrate into above-ground human society. Though they're biologically human, they have their own distinct customs and practices, and are physiologically distinguished by their dark blue skin. In the United States, they are quickly assimilated into normative American race politics (e.g., White supremacists hate them, some people are nervous about allowing them into their children's public schools, a network of stereotypes about them quickly entrenches itself, and so on). Are they a "race" for Title VII purposes? It'd be weird to answer "no" because in 1964, "moleman" (not yet having been discovered) wasn't recognized as a race. Rather, the question is, given what "race" was understood to have meant in 1964, whether the manner in which the mole people are being treated corresponds to a racial category. If the answer is "yes", then they're a race for purposes of the statute. If not, then they're not.

The reason we have to stretch to a hypothetical about "mole people" is that it's quite hard, under prevailing contemporary understandings of race, to imagine a clear cut example of a new race being "discovered". In reality, while race is not a static concept, social groupings don't move into or out of the category all at once. In the case of Jews, for example, sometimes we've been viewed as a race and other times not, and even within a discrete time period some people have viewed us as a distinct race and others not. White supremacists today still discriminate against Jews on racial, not (just) religious, grounds, even though many other people do not view Jews as racially distinct. That was probably equally true in 1964. It seems very odd to say that discrimination that is both expressly described by the perpetrators and acutely experienced by the victims as occurring on racial grounds is nonetheless not on basis of "race" because ... what, exactly? Jews aren't "really" a race? There isn't a metaphysical  or biological reality to race, other than how it's performed -- the act of treating a group as racially distinct is all there is to race-ing a group.

Consequently, I'd suggest that, at minimum Jews are a race for Title VII purposes in cases where the discriminatory treatment they experience is racialized. The markers of racialized treatment -- which I think had purchase in 1964 -- are things like viewing ones personal character or human value as dictated by one's biological ancestry, assuming sweeping similarities across a wide range of character traits based on perceived physiological or genetic similarity, viewing the group as one which has the potential to degrade or "pollute" the gene pool, perceiving membership in the group as per se (or at least highly suggestive) evidence for all individual members that they are congenitally incapable of integrating with others not-like-it, and so on. Admittedly this may not be amenable to being nailed down  with precision-- but that fuzziness is probably why Title VII doesn't attempt a definition of "race" (if it were as simple as "the groups that were generally classified as races in 1964", then the statute could have easily just given that list). To a large extent, when it comes to whether a particular group is being viewed as a race, "we know it when we see it".

Does the above rule -- where one is a race when one's discriminatory treatment is racialized -- cover all cases of antisemitism? Not necessarily. Someone who refuses to hire a Jew because "they don't worship the same God I do" is engaging in religious discrimination, but that sort of statement does not on its own evince a view of Jews as a distinct racial group. One can imagine a range of cases that get grayer and grayer as you approach the middle, but refusing to hire someone because of their "Jewish blood" seems to sit pretty comfortable on the far side of the spectrum.

And this, I think, represents a more faithful application of the original understanding of the word "race" in Title VII than the casual inquiry given by the District Court. It is unlikely that the drafters of the Civil Rights Act thought of themselves as protecting certain ahistorical and immutable categories of "races" that existed from the depths of antiquity and would persevere endlessly into the future. By 1964, when we had started abandoning the view of race as a biological reality and instead treated as a sociological category, a "race" for Title VII purposes is a group that is treated as a race in cases covered by the statute.

Thursday, September 05, 2019

The Chaos Principle

The "best paper" in APSA's political psychology section this year was an exploration of the role of "chaos incitement" in contemporary politics, with particular reference to the rise of Trumpism (H/T).
The authors describe “chaos incitement” as a “strategy of last resort by marginalized status-seekers,” willing to adopt disruptive tactics. Trump, in turn, has consistently sought to strengthen the perception that America is in chaos, a perception that has enhanced his support while seeming to reinforce his claim that his predecessors, especially President Barack Obama, were failures.
Petersen, Osmundsen and Arceneaux find that those who meet their definition of having a “need for chaos” express that need by willingly spreading disinformation. Their goal is not to advance their own ideology but to undermine political elites, left and right, and to “mobilize others against politicians in general.” These disrupters do not “share rumors because they believe them to be true. For the core group, hostile political rumors are simply a tool to create havoc.”
This isn't purely a right-wing phenomena -- Bernie Sanders also carries some appeal to this cadre, and surely it describes much of what draws people to Corbynism in the UK -- but it does tend to benefit the right more. And that's actually a really important observation when considering how to appraise this sort of rhetoric when it does appear on the left. Generalized fulminations whereby "all politicians" -- left or right, Democrat or Republican -- are bought, corrupt, in the pocket of big businesses, indistinguishably in thrall to the interests of a narrow elite, help Sanders-types internally in intra-progressive debates, but help conservatives generally across a wider partisan system.

This generates a serious problem, because a quite viable and attractive strategy for left insurgents to win within the Democratic Party -- focusing on allegations that the DNC is corrupt, primaries are rigged, most Democratic pols are basically indistinguishable from Trump anyway -- is likely to prove cataclysmic for progressive chances in general elections. The reason isn't, as it's sometimes portrayed, that the party will have moved "too far to the left". Rather, it's because the political stylings and psychological orientation of this mode of argument, which more-or-less indiscriminately targets established institutions (including everything from party leadership to academic communities to scientific consensus), is one that structurally favors conservatives over progressives.

What It Means for Jews To Vote Tory

Daniel Sugarman has an interesting column on the prospect of UK Jews voting for the Conservative Party, simply because Jeremy Corbyn is unacceptable. What's interesting about it is that it pretty forthrightly acknowledges that Boris Johnson's Conservatives are unacceptable too -- to name just one issue, their Islamophobia is on par with Labour's antisemitism.

Sugarman frames his discussion around a Muslim colleague of his who loathes Corbyn, fully acknowledges his role in fomenting Labour's antisemitism crisis, yet indicates he might have to hold his nose and vote Labour anyway because the prospect of empowering Johnson's hatred towards his community is too awful to stomach. The premise of the column is that this logic is wholly reasonable and permissible -- it is legitimate for a Muslim voter in the UK, fully aware of (and repelled by) Labour's antisemitism, to nonetheless prioritize his or her own safety and vote against the Conservatives; and by the same token it is legitimate for a Jewish voter in the UK, fully aware of (and repelled by) the Tories's Islamophobia, to nonetheless prioritize his or her own safety and vote against Labour.

It's worth underscoring just what this logic actually implies, though. Many have thought that any British voter who votes Labour for any reason is, ipso facto, selling Jews out -- signaling that the appalling antisemitism that has followed in Corbyn's wake is unimportant or even acceptable. But Sugarman's argument means we can't accept this, anymore than we can accept that Jews voting against Corbyn and for Johnson are thereby signaling toleration for Islamophobia. People have all sorts of reasons for voting the way they do. Moreover, while Sugarman's logic sanctions Jews voting for Tories, it gives no such rationale for why anyone else should do so. After all, there is no a priori reason why a young non-Jewish, non-Muslim progressive voter should prioritize rejecting Corbyn's antisemitism over Johnson's Islamophobia. If both of those weigh equally on their conscience, then they cancel out, and then the question is whether Corbyn's Labour Party is better generally than Johnson's Conservatives -- presumably, most progressives would quite reasonably find the former to be more amenable to their interests.

True, under normal circumstances, it is fair to demand that people sacrifice certain private interests in deference to important moral considerations -- this is why the Trump voter who doesn't approve of "Build the Wall" and "Keep Muslims Out", but really, really wants a tax cut, can fairly be deemed to be racist (the failure to properly prioritize in the face of overwhelming moral necessity represents a dereliction of one's duty of care towards racialized others). But the point of Sugarman's analogy is that here there are huge moral catastrophes looming on both sides (and we haven't even mentioned Brexit yet). UK politics right now is a tragedy -- between Labour and Tory, there are no good options, or even acceptable options. It's just a choice between competing abominations. So long as one recognizes the sort of play that they're in, I don't really begrudge how they decide to act out their role.

Of course, for me this entire discussion immediately raises the question: why not LibDems? They aren't perfect, but they're unabashedly anti-Brexit and lack the institutionalized bigotry that afflicts their larger compatriots.  But while, unlike the US, the LibDems give British voters a valid third party option, Britain's first-past-the-post system nonetheless can see wild results in constituencies where more than two parties are seriously contesting. It's not out of the question that a reasonable voter might have to vote strategically, which brings us right back to where we started.

I've remarked before that the chaos in UK Labour is perhaps the only thing that's ever given me sympathy for "Never Trump" Republicans. On the one hand, the health and future of a viable, non-hateful British progressive community depends on Corbyn getting spanked. Only that can break the fever. This was one of the (many) tragedies of 2016: had Trump lost, it is at least possible -- possible -- that Republicans would have concluded that the path they were traveling was unsustainable and had a moment of reckoning. But now that Trump won, certain seals that should've never been broken have been shattered -- I'm skeptical that we will see a GOP that's even a tolerably ethical choice for decades. If Corbyn loses, maybe the spell breaks. But if he wins -- if, in spite of everything, it turns out that this brand of feverish populism and conspiracy-mongering is capable of carrying an election -- the damage could be felt for generations.

And yet: these are not normal times. It's one thing to suffer through a cycle of conservative governance -- nations survive those, as terrible as they are, and the damage they inflict -- while often extensive, is rarely permanent. But thanks to Brexit, the UK is in a singular political moment -- poised to self-sabotage in an unprecedented way that could not be fixed or even seriously ameliorated next cycle. The prospect of handing over government to the Tories and allowing Boris Johnson to lead a Brexit as he sees fit is horrifying to contemplate -- it is a sacrifice that goes way beyond a few years time in the opposition.

Complicating it all is the fact that -- as much as Brexit represents the defining issue of this generation of British politics -- Jeremy Corbyn doesn't oppose Brexit. It'd be one thing to demand that voters hold their nose and vote Labour anyway to stop Brexit -- but it's far from clear that Corbyn's Labour party would actually do that. In a real sense, the two main party choices are between an Islamophobic conservative party desiring a Hard Brexit at any cost, and an antisemitic progressive party pushing for a "Soft Brexit" (or Lexit) that doesn't actually exist. Some choice.

I don't envy anyone who has to make it. Were it me, here would be my chain of voting of priority:

  1. Vote LibDem, in any race where it's feasible they'll win;
  2. In races where the LibDem candidate can't feasibly win but the Labour candidate can, vote Labour if the candidate is both (a) seriously pro-Remain and (b) not antisemitic or an apologist for antisemitism in Labour (and there are -- yes, really -- plenty of Labour MPs who are not. There is a huge difference between Ruth Smeeth and Chris Williamson);
  3. If the Labour candidate fails these tests, vote Conservative if the candidate is (a) seriously pro-Remain and (b) not Islamophobic or otherwise hateful;
  4. If both the Labour and Conservative candidates fail their litmus tests, then vote for the best remaining candidate (even if they stand no chance at winning).