On Liberalism & Race

Race has occupied my thoughts for the past few months. I have traditionally been against giving too much thought to race. Progressives, I think, abuse claims of racism to shut down discussions and pass questionable public policies; e.g. “We need state provided health care because the current system is racist against people of color.”. Conservatives likewise use racism (nativism really) to justify restrictive migration policies. My default position has been that liberals should seek to reduce the role of race of society. I am no longer convinced that this is a viable goal.

My earlier position was based on my childhood experience growing up in 1990s Los Angeles. I grew up in the city’s Koreatown district. The corner grocery store was owned by an Indian. We had a mosque in the block that catered to the neighborhood’s Bengali population. This being Los Angeles there was of course a mixture of Hispanics from Mexico, El Salvador, Argentina, and other nations. With so many groups clustered together in a small place you would expect frequent violence – but there wasn’t. Property crimes (petty theft mostly) were common given the general poverty in the area, but inter-group violence wasn’t common. The reason for peace was because the United States’ market oriented institutions discouraged such violence. All the groups were too busy trying to make money to have time to escalate inter-group conflict beyond making fun of one another in private. I grew up hearing plenty of jokes at the expense of Salvadoreans and Asians, but I never saw any actual violence against them. I figured that this was evidence that a liberal society would in the long run be able to make race irrelevant by making it too costly to be racist.

The events of the past few months have made me skeptical of this. Liberal society certainly makes racism costly and reduces inter-group conflict. However liberal society does not eliminate all inter-group conflict or remove the underlying differences across races.

Given that liberalism cannot eliminate racism, what should the liberal position on race be? I have no solid answer. Thoughts?

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11 thoughts on “On Liberalism & Race

  1. I assume we are roughly the same age, and your formative experiences in 1990s Koreatown do not include its 1992 sacking by black rioters. In the aftermath, Koreans vowed they would not become victims again and armed themselves accordingly. It may be instructive to examine your original position not through race broadly, but a specific race – or its absence thereof.

    Race continues to be relevant because it is often a reliable proxy for a whole host of traits and cultural norms that are persistent across cohorts, and which are important in determining attitudes towards outgroups and their members.

    This is partially cultural, but I believe mostly genetic. Differences in socioeconomic status, cultural beliefs and practices, etc. feed into the genetic substratum of a population, such as intelligence or propensity for violence, which often perpetuates group characteristics. Such is the fodder for hierarchy, and thus for conflict.

    As a result, eliminating race from liberal discourse is akin to eliminating the relevance – and implications – of group differences, a clear absurdity considering their persistence and obviousness. You may find it irrelevant, but many clearly do not, and take it into account when making their decisions in the marketplace.

    As an example, self-segregation from undesirable groups for those with the wherewithal to accomplish it is common. The recent handwringing over white families preferring to raise their children in white areas with white schools (link: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/03/170323105810.htm) is of a species with this.

    The solution is the re-institution of the rights of free association and disassociation, much of which have been dismantled legally since the Civil Rights era. This already exists in the marketplace along class lines, such that the city of San Francisco, where I work, has been hemorrhaging poor minorities for years to make way for rich, high-tax-bracket whites and Asians that bring with them desirable characteristics the previous occupants did not.

    • “Progressives, I think, abuse claims of racism to shut down discussions and pass questionable public policies; e.g. “We need state provided health care because the current system is racist against people of color.”. ”
      AFAIK I’m the only progressive that hangs out here so I’ll ask the question….Do you believe that the current system works as well for people of color as everyone else? Do you have any empirical outcomes to buttress your opinion?

      • I am willing to concede that there is institutional discrimination that lowers the outcomes of people of color. I am not convinced it is intentional racism as much as institutions catering to middle class voters. For example: When I compare my K-12 education with whites it becomes clear I and others got fewer resources. I don’t think that is evidence of anyone trying to reduce resources for Hispanics and other people of color, so much as it is whites trying to give more resources to their children. Like I said, I’ve often thought the problem would go away on its own. I’m less convinced now and less sure what liberals should do.

    • “Differences in socioeconomic status, cultural beliefs and practices, etc. feed into the genetic substratum of a population, such as intelligence or propensity for violence, which often perpetuates group characteristics.”

      Interesting. Would you mind specifying which genetic subgroups are smarter and which are stupider? Ditto for violence, which genotypes are thugs and which are pacifists? Anything other than intelligence and propensity that depends on racial genetics? Dancing ability? Being a good banker?

      • If you believe IQ tests to reflect intelligence, and I have not heard a convincing argument why they should not, East Asians and Ashkenazi Jews are about tied for mean intelligence. The IQ curve then trends lower for whites, Hispanics, and blacks in descending order. I don’t know enough about other ethnic groups to know where they exist in the hierarchy.

        As for racial differences in violence, a perusal of the FBI’s statistics on crime in the United Staes will show disproportionate numbers of blacks and Hispanics are involved in violent crime, while most Asians are disproportionatey not involved in it. Whites trend in the middle. I would not use these statistics to assert a genetic propensity for violence, however. They are figures without interpretation. Determining how much of this is due to environmental influence on underlying genes is the next step.

        To that end, I have read some interesting studies that suggest the high number of executions in Europe over the last thousand years or so culled many of the most violent people from the gene pool, resulting in the low levels of social violence seen there today (link: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/147470491501300114)

        Everything depends on genetics – the examples I listed were top of mind. The environment serves to enhance or lessen gene expression, which the field of epigenetics studies, but genes serve as the fundamental determinant of biology. Behavior is thus an epiphenomenon of gene expression.

  2. “If you believe IQ tests to reflect intelligence, and I have not heard a convincing argument why they should not…”

    I’d say that recent cognitive science [including the work one of my colleagues] does not favor a single factor approach to intelligence and the functioning of human brains.

    http://www.cell.com/neuron/abstract/S0896-6273(12)00584-3

    I believe “that about 50% of the variance in mean Black–White group differences in IQ is due to heredity”
    but it’s not a slam dunk.

    “The APA Task Force on intelligence, for example, concluded “[t]here is certainly no support for a genetic interpretation” (Neisser et al., 1996, p. 97). Likewise, Nisbett (1998) reached the conclusion that “the most relevant studies provide no evidence for the genetic superiority of either race” (p. 101).”

  3. Without pretending to any expertise, I have seen it claimed that the racial difference in murder rates (X9 or more in black areas compared with general population average) is entirely obliterated when you control for socioeconomic status.

  4. Race is a cultural construct. Even if we eliminated race there would be other concepts for the Other.

    The key is to have a legal system that is dedicated in the abstract to individual rights. This won’t entirely eliminate obstructions to justice, but in practice it will turn out a pretty damned fair society, all things considered.

  5. A lot of the observations in the comments could be explained with my working theory: regardless of the system, poor people get screwed to some extent.

    To Brandon’s point, a legal system that protects individual rights, encourages gains from trade and prevents the government from treating different groups differently, will certainly help. But at the end of the day, we’re dealing with humans, so we can’t expect perfection.

    I’m still optimistic on race though. It wasn’t that long ago that Italian and Irish immigrants in America weren’t considered white. Now their background is more novelty than anything else. They certainly had an easier time because they look similar enough to the pre-existing elites, but the long run trend is certainly running in the right direction.

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