The Politics and Philosophy of Racism

Alex Tabarrok and John Sides (via the Economist) on Chris Hayes’ claim that “It is undeniably the case that racist Americans are almost entirely in one political coalition and not the other”:

…identification with the Democratic Party tends to decline, and identification with the Republican party tends to increase, as attitudes toward black become less favorable—at least when attitudes are measured with two different racial stereotypes. However, the relationship is far from deterministic: substantial minorities of those with unfavorable attitudes toward blacks identify as Democrats.

Reihan Salam (also via the Economist) comments on this study:

[F]or many of the people “in my world”—that is, professionals who attended selective colleges and universities in the English-speaking world—the notion that racist Americans are almost entirely in one coalition (the center-right coalition) is an article of faith that is really central to center-left political identity. Those of us who do not share this view thus find ourselves arguing from a position that is seen as intrinsically morally suspect.

But perhaps most interesting is the Economists author’s take on his libertarian view of racism/sexism:

Racism and sexism have come to matter more to me in that I have come to see them in terms of the political value that matters most to me: liberty. And so I have become much more sympathetic to policies that would limit individual liberty in order to suppress patterns or norms of behaviour that might pose an even greater threat to freedom. So I’ve become fairly friendly toward federal anti-discrimination law, affirmative action, Title 9, the works. I have found that this sympathy, together with my belief in the theoretical possibility and historical reality of structural coercion, releases me almost entirely from the liberal suspicion that I’m soft on racism (even if I do wish to voucherise Medicare). Phew!

I’ve been trying to articulate this for a long time. Two parts to this:

1) The problem is that people refuse to weigh issues; any violation of any belief is unacceptable.  If I hate racism and I hate government legislation, but only government legislation can get rid of racism, I have to make a choice of which I hate more. 1 (racism, in case you’re wondering) I may have to violate my political beliefs, but isn’t it worth it?

2) But if the opposite is true (legislation to decrease racism actually makes it worse), I would be considered morally suspect to come out against something that is perceived to solve for racism. No one would ever admit to it, but some people consider the perception of solving an issue just as good as solving the issue. Oddly enough, there may be an argument for that.

All of us have biases that prevent us from seeing the larger picture. Sometimes these biases are good; most of the time, they’re bad. You may end up exactly where you started, but before giving a knee jerk reaction to something, consider why you think that way and why someone else thinks otherwise. You may find yourself staying quiet or– gulp–on the other side of the road more often than you think.

  1. I know there’s a point where this isn’t true, but anything can be taken to extremes. If carrots are getting stolen from the grocery store, one way to prevent that is for the grocery store to stop carrying carrots.