An exploration of three possible definitions of “racism”.
As usual, the answer is that “racism” is a confusing word that serves as a mishmash of unlike concepts. Here are some of the definitions people use for racism:
1. Definition By Motives: An irrational feeling of hatred toward some race that causes someone to want to hurt or discriminate against them.
2. Definition By Belief: A belief that some race has negative qualities or is inferior, especially if this is innate/genetic.
3. Definition By Consequences: Anything whose consequence is harm to minorities or promotion of white supremacy, regardless of whether or not this is intentional.
Part of the problem we have in society is that we can only directly observe the third, and we’re not always very careful about correlation and causation.
Consider some business, let’s say a daycare center, that we know discriminates against black job-seekers. If we ask them why, they say “Because black people are criminal”. This sounds like just about the most typical and obvious example of racism possible.
But there’s actually a lot of really good scholarship on this exact situation, and it helps provide a different perspective. It starts like this – a while ago, criminal justice reformers realized that mass incarceration was hurting minorities’ ability to get jobs. 4% of white men will spend time in prison, compared to more like 16% of Hispanic men and 28% of black men. Many employers demanded to know whether a potential applicant had a criminal history, then refused to consider them if they did. So (thought the reformers) it should be possible to help minorities have equal opportunities by banning employers from asking about past criminal history.
The actual effect was the opposite – the ban “decreased probability of being employed by 5.1% for young, low-skilled black men, and 2.9% for young, low-skilled Hispanic men.”
In retrospect, this makes sense. Daycare companies really want to avoid hiring formerly-imprisoned criminals to take care of the kids. If they can ask whether a certain employee is criminal, this solves their problem. If not, they’re left to guess. And if they’ve got two otherwise equally qualified employees, and one is black and the other’s white, and they know that 28% of black men have been in prison compared to 4% of white men, they’ll shrug and choose the white guy.
Is this racist? Is this “statistical discrimination”? Describe it with whatever word you want. The point is that they have understandable motives (don’t hire criminals to take care of the kids), accurate beliefs, and in their shoes you might do the same. More important, once you give them the tools they need to solve their problems without racial discrimination – you let them see applicants’ criminal histories – they have no further desire to discriminate and your problem is solved.
If you tried to solve this by sending these people to sensitivity training, you would fail. IF you tried to solve this by firing these people, then the people who replaced them would have the same incentives, and you would fail again. If you try to solve it by realizing that racial animus has no role at all in this scenario, and daycare owners just want to do what’s best for their kids, then you can provide them with the tools they need to do that, and solve the racial discrimination at the same time.
One problem with attributing consequential and incentive-driven behavior to racist motives is that it’s a very good way to alienate people who might otherwise be sympathetic to your cause. If I have to choose between being called a racist or incurring serious harm because I wanted to demonstrate my virtue, I may well choose being called a name. And once I’m being called a racist, I have no real incentive not to adopt the whole package.
For example, and this is important, I’m seeing the term “alt-right” used the way people use “fascist” — a label meaning “someone I disagree with”. But the people I’ve seen stepping up as spokescritters for the alt-right actually are racist. If people are being saddled with the label because of a failure to toe the leftist party line, there’s a chance they will decide they might as well adopt the alt-right platform, racism and all.
To be clear – I am not saying that racism doesn’t exist, I’m not saying that we should ignore racism, I’m not saying that minorities should never be able to complain about racism. I’m saying that it’s very dangerous to treat “racism” as a causal explanation, that it might not tell you anything useful about the world, and that’s a crappy lever to use if you want to change behavior.
And I’m not saying that it’s not useful to think of some of these things as places where there’s an opportunity for racial change. If a daycare owner is really interested in redressing racial inequality, they can hire minorities even if it’s against their incentives and self-interest (although it’s unclear why the owner should prefer that opportunity to other opportunities, like donating some of their profits to the NAACP.)
And I’m not saying that there will never be a case that’s impossible to break down into non-racist motives. Heck, I’m not even saying there aren’t some honest-to-goodness murderists out there. But I am saying we should at least try. Not because it’s necessarily costless. Not because there isn’t a risk of false negatives.
We should try because it’s the only alternative to having another civil war.