Three Roads to Racism

Are you a racist?

Anyone can feel free to answer this question any way it/she/he wishes; they wish. And that’s the problem. In this short essay, I aim first to do a little vocabulary house-keeping. Second, I try to trace three distinct origins of racism. I operate from thin authority. My main sources are sundry un-methodical readings, especially on slavery, spread over fifty years, and my amazingly clear recollection of lectures by my late teacher at Stanford, St. Clair Drake, in the sixties. (He was the author of Black Metropolis among other major contributions.) I also rely on equally vivid memories of casual conversations with that master storyteller. Here you have it. I am trying to plagiarize the pioneer St. Clair Drake. I believe the attempt would please him though possibly not the results.

Feel free to reject everything I say below. If nothing else, it might make you feel good. If you are one of the few liberals still reading me, be my guest and get exercised. Besides, I am an old white man! Why grant me any credence?

That’s on the one hand. On the other hand, in these days (2020) obsessed with racism, I never see or hear the basic ideas about racism set down below expressed in the media, in reviews or on-line although they are substantially more productive than what’s actually around. I mean that they help arrive at a clearer and richer understanding of racism.

If you find this brief essay even a little useful, think of sharing it. Thank you.

Racism

“Racism” is a poor word because today, it refers at once to thoughts, attitudes, feeling, and also to actions and policies. Among the latter, it concerns both individual actions and collective actions, and even policies. Some of the policies may be considered to be included in so-called “systemic racism” about which I wrote in my essay “Systemic Racism: a Rationalist Take.”

The mishmash between what’s in the heads of people and what they actually do is regrettable on two grounds. First, the path from individual belief, individual thoughts, individual attitudes, on the one hand, to individual action, on the other is not straightforward. My beliefs are not always a great predictor of my actions because reality tends to interfere with pure intent.

Second, collective action and, a fortiori policies, rarely looks like the simple addition of individual actions. People act differently in the presence of others than they do alone. Groups (loosely defined) are capable of greater invention than are individuals. Individuals in a group both inspire and censor one another; they even complete one another’s thoughts; the ones often give the others courage to proceed further.

This piece is about racism, the understanding, the attitudes, the collection of beliefs which predispose individuals and groups to thinking of others as inferior and/or unlikable on the basis of some physical characteristics. As I said, racism so defined can be held individually or collectively. Thus, this essay is deliberately not about actions, program, failures to act inspired by racism, the attitude. That’s another topic others can write about.

Fear and loathing of the unknown

Many people seem to assume that racial prejudice is a natural condition that can be fought in simple ways. Others, on the contrary, see it as ineradicable. Perhaps it all depends on the source of racism. The word mean prejudgment about a person’s character and abilities based on persistent physical traits that are genetically transmitted. Thus, dislike of that other guy wearing a ridiculous blue hat does not count; neither does hostility toward one sex or the other (or the other?). I think both assumptions above – racism as natural and as ineradicable – are partly but only partly true. My teacher St. Clair Drake explained to me once, standing in the aisle of a Palo Alto bookstore, that there are three separate kinds of racial prejudice, of racism, with distinct sources.

The first kind of racism is rooted in fear of the unknown or of the unfamiliar. This is probably hard-wired; it’s human nature. It would be a good asset to have for the naked, fairly slow apes that we were for a long time. Unfamiliar creature? Move away; grab a rock. After all, those who look like you are usually not dangerous enemies; those who don’t, you don’t know and why take a risk?

Anecdote: A long time ago, I was acting the discreet tourist in a big Senegalese fishing village. I met a local guy about my age (then). We had tea together, talked about fishing. He asked me if I wanted to see his nearby house. We walked for about five minute to a round adobe construction covered in thatch. He motioned me inside where it was quite dark. A small child was taking a nap on a stack of blankets in the back. Sensing a presence, the toddler woke up, opened his eyes, and began screaming at the top of his lungs. The man picked him up and said very embarrassed. “I am sorry, my son has never seen a toubab before.” (“Toubab” is the local not unfriendly word for light skin people from elsewhere.)

Similarly, Jared Diamond recounts (and show corresponding pictures in his book, The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies. Viking: New York.) of how central New Guinea natives became disfigured by fear at their first sight of a white person. Some explained later that they thought they might be seeing ghosts.

Night terrors

The second distinctive form of racism simply comes from fear of the dark, rooted itself in dread of the night. It’s common to all people, including dark skinned people, of course. It’s easy to understand once you remember that beings who were clearly our direct ancestors, people whose genes are in our cells, lived in fear of the darkness night after night for several hundreds of thousands of years. Most of their fears were justified because the darkness concealed lions, leopards, hyenas, bears, tigers, saber-toothed cats, wolves, wild dogs, and other predators, themselves with no fear of humans. The fact that the darkness of night also encouraged speculation about other hostile beings -varied spirits – that did not really exist does not diminish the impact of this incomplete zoological list.

As is easy to observe, the association dark= bad is practically universal. Many languages have an expression equivalent to: “the forces of darkness.” I doubt that any (but I can’t prove it, right now) says, “the forces of lightness” to designate something sinister. Same observation with “black magic,” and disappearing into a “black hole.” Similarly, nearly everywhere, uneducated people, and some of their educated betters, express some degree of hostility – mixed with contempt, for those, in their midst or nearby, who are darker than themselves. This is common among African Americans, for example. (Yes, I know, it may have other sources among them, specifically.)

This negative attitude is especially evident in the Indian subcontinent. On a lazy day, thirty years ago in Mumbai, I read several pages of conjugal want ads in a major newspaper. I noticed that 90% of the ads for would-be brides mentioned skin color in parallel with education and mastery of the domestic arts. (The men’s didn’t.) A common description was “wheatish,” which, I was told by Indian relatives, means not quite white but pretty close. (You can’t lie too shamelessly about skin tone because, if all goes well, your daughter will meet the other side in person; you need wiggle room.) In fact, the association between skin color and likability runs so deep in India that the same Sanskrit word, “varna,” designates both caste and color (meaning skin complexion). And, of course, there is a reason why children everywhere turn off the light to tell scary stories.

In a similar vein, the ancient Chinese seem to have believed that aristocrats were made from yellow soil while commoners were made from ordinary brown mud. (Cited by Harari, Yuval N. – 2015 – in: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Harper: New York.)

Some would argue that these examples represent ancestral fears mostly left behind by civilized, urban (same thing) people. My own limited examples, both personal and from observation is that it’s not so. It seems to me that fear of the dark is the first or second page of the book of which our daily street-lit, TV illuminated bravado is the cover. Allow a couple of total power stoppages (as Californians experienced recently) and it’s right there, drilling into our vulnerable minds.

Both of these two first kinds of negative feelings about that which is dark can be minimized, the first through experience and education: No, that pale man will not hurt you. He might even give you candy, or a metal ax. The second source of distaste of darkness has simply been moved to a kind of secondary relevance by the fact that today, most people live most of the time in places where some form of artificial lightning is commonplace. It persists nevertheless where it is shored up by a vast and sturdy institutional scaffolding as with the caste system of largely Hindu India. And it may be always present somewhere in the back of our minds but mostly, we don’t have a chance to find out.

The third source of hostility toward and contempt for a dark appearance is both more difficult to understand and harder to eliminate or even to tamp down. Explaining it requires a significant detour. Bear with me, please.

The origins of useful racism

Suppose you believe in a God who demands unambiguously that you love your “neighbor,” that is, every human being, including those who are not of your tribe, even those you don’t know at all. Suppose further that you are strongly inclined toward a political philosophy that considers all human beings, or at least some large subcategory of them, as fundamentally equal, or at least equal in rights. Or imagine rather that you are indifferent to one or both ideas but that you live among neighbors 90% of whom profess one, and 80% both beliefs. They manifest and celebrate these beliefs in numerous and frequent public exercises, such as church services, elections, and civic meetings where important decisions are launched.

Now a second effort of imagination is required. Suppose also that you or your ancestors came to America from the British Isles, perhaps in the 1600s, perhaps later. You have somehow acquired a nice piece of fertile land, directly from the Crown or from a landed proprietor, or by small incremental purchases. You grow tobacco, or indigo, or rice, or (later) cotton. Fortune does not yet smile on you because you confront a seemingly intractable labor problem. Almost everyone else around you owns land and thus is not eager to work for anyone else. Just about your only recourse is temporarily un-free young men who arrive periodically from old Britain, indentured servants (sometimes also called “apprentices”). Many of them are somewhat alien because they are Irish , although most of them speak English, or some English. Moreover, a good many are sickly when they land. Even the comparatively healthy young men do not adjust well to the hot climate. They have little resistance to local tropical diseases such as malaria and yellow fever. Most don’t last in the fields. You often think they are not worth the trouble. In addition, by contract or by custom, you have to set them free after seven years. With land being so attainable, few wish to stick around and earn a wage from you .

One day you hear that somewhere, not too far, new, different kinds of workers are available that are able to work long days in the heat and under the sun and who don’t succumb easily to disease. You take a trip to find out. The newcomers are chained together. They are a strange dark color, darker than any man you have seen, English, Irish, or Indian. Aside from this, they look really good as field hands go. They are muscular, youngish men in the flower of health. (They are all survivors of the terrible Atlantic passage and, before that, of some sort of long walk on the continent of Africa to the embarkation point at Goree, Senegal, or such. Only the strong and healthy survived such ordeals, as a rule.) There are a few women of the same hue with them, mostly also young.

Those people are from Africa, you are told. They are for outright sale. You gamble on buying two of them to find out more. You carry them to your farmstead and soon put them to work. After some confusion because they don’t understand any English, you and your other servants show them what to do. You are soon dazzled by their physical prowess. You calculate that one of them easily accomplishes the tasks of two of your indentured Irish apprentices. As soon as you can afford it, you go and buy three more Africans.

Soon, your neighbors are imitating you. All the dark skinned servants are snapped up as fast as they are landed. Prices rise. Those people are costly but still well worth the investment because of their superior productivity. Farmers plant new crops, labor intensive, high yield crops – -such as cotton – that they would not have dared investing in with the old kind of labor. To make the new labor even more attractive, you and your neighbors quickly figure that it’s also capital because it can be made to be self-reproducing. The black female servants can both work part of the time and make children who are themselves servants that belong to you by right. (This actually took some time to work out legally.)

Instrumental severity and cruelty

You are now becoming rich, amassing both tools and utensils and more land. All is still not completely rosy on your plantation though. One problem is that not all of your new African servants are docile. Some are warriors who were captured on the battlefield in Africa and they are not resigned to their subjection. A few rebel or try to run away. Mostly, they fail but their doomed attempts become the stuff of legend among other black servants thus feeding a chronic spirit of rebelliousness. Even in the second and third generation away from Africa, some black servants are born restive or sullen. And insubordination is contagious. At any rate, there are enough free white workers in your vicinity for some astute observers among your African servants to realize that they and their companions are treated comparatively badly, that a better fate is possible. Soon, there are even free black people around to whom they unavoidably compare themselves. (This fact deserves a full essay in its own right.)

To make a complex issue simple: Severity is necessary to keep your workforce at work. Such severity sometimes involves brutal public punishment for repeat offenders, such as whippings. There is a belief about that mere severity undermines the usefulness of the workforce without snuffing out its rebelliousness. Downright cruelty is sometimes necessary, the more public, the better. Public punishment is useful to encourage more timid souls to keep towing the line.

And then, there is the issue of escape. After the second generation, black slaves are relatively at home where they work. Your physical environment is also their home where some think they can fend for themselves. The wilderness is not very far. The slaves also know somehow that relatively close by are areas where slavery is prohibited or not actively enforced by authorities. It’s almost a mathematical certainty that at any time, some slaves, a few slaves, will attempt escape. Each escape is a serious economic matter because, aside from providing labor, each slave constitutes live capital. Most owners have only a few slaves. A single escape constitutes for them a significant form of impoverishment. Slaves have to be terrorized into not even wanting to escape.

Soon, it’s well understood that slaves are best kept in a state of more or less constant terror. It’s so well understood that local government will hang your expensive slave for rebellion whether you like it or not.

Inner contradiction

In brief, whatever their natural inclination, whatever their personal preference, slave owners have to be systematically cruel. And, it’s helpful for them to also possess a reputation for cruelty. This reputation has to be maintained and re-inforced periodically by sensationally brutal action. One big problem arises from such a policy of obligatory and vigilant viciousness: It’s in stark contradiction with both your religious and your political ideas that proclaim that one must love others and that all humans are at least potentially equal (before God, if nowhere else). And if you don’t hold deeply such beliefs yourself, you live among people who do, or who profess to. And, by a strange twist of fate, the richest, best educated, probably the most influential strata of your society are also those most committed to those ideals. (They are the class that would eventually produce George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.)

The personal psychological tension between the actual and highly visible brutal treatment of black slaves and prevailing moral values is technically a form of dissonance.” It’s also a social tension; it expresses itself collectively. Those actively involved in mistreating slaves are numerous. In vast regions of the English colonies, and later, of the United States, the contrast between action and beliefs is thus highly visible to everyone, obvious to many who are not themselves actively involved. It becomes increasingly difficult over time to dismiss slavery as a private economic affair because, more and more, political entities make laws actively supporting slavery. There are soon laws about sheltering fugitives, laws regulating the punishment of rebellious slaves, laws about slave marriage and, laws restricting the freeing of slaves, (“manumission”). Slavery thus soon enters the public arena. There are even laws to control the behavior of free blacks, those who merely used to be slaves.

Race as legal status

Special rules governing free blacks constitute an important step because, for the first time it replaces legal status (“slave,” chattel”), with race (dark skin, certain facial features, African ancestry). So, with the advent of legislation supporting slavery, an important symbolic boundary is crossed. The laws don’t concern only those defined by their legal condition of chattel property but also others, defined mostly or largely by their physical appearance and by their putative ancestry in Africa. At this point, every white subject, then every white citizen has become a participant in a struggle that depends on frankly racial categories by virtue of his belonging to the polity. Soon the social racial category “white” comes to stand for the legal status “free person,” “non-slave.”

Then, at this juncture, potentially every white adult becomes a party to the enforcement of slavery. For almost all of them, this participation, however passive, is in stark contradiction with both religious and political values. But ordinary human beings can only live with so much personal duplicity. Some whites will reject black slavery, in part or in whole. Accordingly, it’s notable that abolitionists always existed and were vocal in their opposition to slavery in the English colonies, and then in the United States, even in the deepest South. Their numbers and visibility never flagged until the Civil War.

How to reduce tension between beliefs and deeds

There are three main paths out of this personal moral predicament. They offer different degrees of resistance. The first path is to renounce one’s beliefs, those that are in contradiction to the treatment of one’s slaves. A slave owner could adjust by becoming indifferent to the Christian message, or skeptical of democratic aspiration, or both. No belief in the fraternity of Man or in any sort of equality between persons? Problem solved. This may be relatively feasible for an individual alone. In this case, though the individuals concerned, the slave owners, and their slave drivers, exist within a social matrix that re-inforces frequently, possibly daily the dual religious command to treat others decently and the political view that all men are more or less equal. Churches, political organizations, charity concerns, and gentlemen’s club stand in the way. To renounce both sets of beliefs – however attractive this might be from an individual standpoint – would turn one into a social pariah. Aside from the personal unpleasantness of such condition, it would surely have adverse economic repercussions.

The second way to free oneself from the tension associated with the contrast between humane beliefs, on the one hand, and harsh behavior, on the other hand, is simply to desist from the latter. Southern American chronicles show that a surprisingly large numbers of slave owners chose that path at any one time. Some tried more compassionate slave driving, with varying degrees of economic success. Others – who left major traces, for documentary reasons – took the more radical step of simply freeing some of their slaves when they could, or when it was convenient. Sometimes, they freed all of their slaves, usually at their death, through their wills, for example. The freeing of slaves – manumission – was so common that the rising number of free blacks was perceived as a social problem in much of the South. Several states actually tried to eliminate the problem by passing legislation forbidding the practice.

Of course, the fact that so many engaged in such an uneconomic practice demonstrates in itself the validity of the idea that the incompatibility between moral convictions and slave driving behavior generated strong tensions. One should not take this evidence too far however because there may have been several reasons to free slaves, not all rooted in this tension. (I address this issue briefly in “Systemic Racism….”)

The easy way out

The third way to reduce the same tension, the most extreme and possibly the least costly took two steps. Step one consisted in recognizing consciously this incompatibility; step two was to begin mentally to separate the black slaves from humanity. This would work because all your bothersome beliefs – religious and political – applied explicitly to other human beings. The less human the objects of your bad treatment the less the treatment contravened your beliefs. After all, while it may be good business to treat farm animals well, there is not much moral judgment involved there. In fact, not immediately but not long after the first Africans landed in the English colonies of North America, there began a collective endeavor aiming at their conceptual de-humanization. It was strongly a collective project addressing ordinary people including many who had no contacts with black slaves or with free blacks. It involved the universities and intellectual milieus in general with a vengeance (more on this latter).

Some churches also lent a hand by placing the sanction of the Bible in the service of the general idea that God himself wanted slaves to submit absolutely to the authority of their masters. To begin with, there was always to story of Noah’s three sons. The disrespectful one, Ham, cursed by Noah, was said to be the father of the black race, on the thin ground that his name means something like “burnt.” However, it’s notable that the tension never disappeared because other churches, even in the Deep South, continued their opposition to slavery on religious grounds. The Quakers, for example, seldom relented.

Their unusual appearance and the fact that the white colonists could not initially understand their non-European languages (plural) was instrumental in the collective denial of full humanity to black slaves. In fact, the arriving slaves themselves often did not understand one another. This is but one step from believing that they did not actually possess the power of speech. Later, as the proportion of America-born slaves increased, they developed what is known technically as a creole language to communicate with one another. That was recognizably a form of English but probably not understood by whites unless they tried hard. Most had few reasons to try at all. Language was not the only factor contributing to the ease with which whites, troubled by their ethical beliefs, denied full humanity to black slaves. Paradoxically, the degrading conditions in which the slaves were held must also have contributed to the impression of their sub-humanity.

Science enlisted

The effort to deny full humanity to people of African descent continued for two centuries. As the Enlightenment reached American shores, the focus shifted from Scriptures to Science (pseudo science, sometimes but not always). Explorers’ first reports from sub-tropical Africa seemed to confirmed the soundness of the view that black Africans were not completely human: There were no real cities there, little by way of written literature, no search for knowledge recognizable as science, seemingly no schools. What art conscious visitors reported on did not seem sufficiently realistic to count as art by 18th and 19th century standards. I think that no one really paid attention to the plentiful African artistic creativity– this unmixed expression of humanity if there ever was one – until the early 1900s. Instead, African art was dismissed as crude stammering in the service of inarticulate superstitions.

The effort to harness science in service of the proposition of African un-humanity easily outlasted the Civil War and even the emancipation of slaves in North America. After he published the Origins of the Species in 1859, Darwin spent much of the balance of his life – curiously allied with Christians – in combating the widespread idea that there had been more than one creation of humanoids, possibly, one for each race. The point most strongly argued by those holding to this view was that Africans could not possibly be the brothers, or other close relatives, of the triumphant Anglo-Saxons. The viewpoint was not limited to the semi-educated by any means. The great naturalist Louis Agassiz himself believed that the races of men were pretty much species. In support, he presented the imaginary fact that the mating of different races – like mating between horses and donkeys – seldom produced fertile offspring. (All recounted in: Desmonds, Adrian, and James Moore. 2009. Darwin’s Sacred Cause: How A Hatred of Slavery Shaped Darwin’s Views on Human Evolution. Hougton: NY.)

Differential persistence

Those three main roads to racism are unequal in their persistence. Dislike for strangers tends to disappear of its own accord. Either the frightening contact ceases or it is repeated. In the first case, dislike turns irrelevant and accordingly becomes blurred. In the second case, repeated experience will often demonstrate that the strangers are not dangerous and the negative feelings subside of their own accord. If the strangers turn out to be dangerous overall, it seems to me that negative feelings toward them does not constitute racism. This, in spite of the fact that the negativity may occasionally be unfair to specific, individual strangers.

Racial prejudice anchored in atavistic fear of the night may persist in the depth of one’s mind but it too, does not survive experience well. Exposed to the fact that dark people are not especially threatening, many will let the link between darkness and fear or distaste subside in their minds. For this reason, it seems to me that the great American experiment in racial integration of the past sixty years was largely successful. Many more white Americans today personally know African Americans than was the case in 1960, for example. The black man whose desk is next to yours, the black woman who attends the same gym as you week after week, the black restaurant goers at you favored eating place, all lose their aura of dangerousness through habituation. Habituation works both ways though. The continued over-representation of black men in violent crimes must necessarily perpetuates in the minds of all (including African Americans) the association between danger and a dark complexion.

The road to racism based on the reduction of the tension between behavior and beliefs via conceptual de-humanization of the victims has proved especially tenacious. Views of people of African descent, but also of other people of color, as less than fully human persist or re-merge frequently because they have proved useful. This approach may have saved the important part of the American economy based on slavery until war freed the slaves without removing the de-humanizing. As many leftists claim (usually without evidence) this was important to the latter fast development of the American economy because cotton production in the South was at its highest in the years right preceding the Civil War. In the next phase the view of black Americans as less than human served well to justify segregation for the next hundred years. It was thus instrumental in protecting poor whites from wage competition with even poorer African Americans.

In the second half of the 19th century and well into the 20th, the opinion that Africans – and other people of color – were not quite human also strengthened the European colonial enterprise in many places. (The de-humanization of colonial people was not inevitable though. The French justification of colonialism – “France’s civilizing mission” – is incompatible with this view. It treated the annexed people instead as immature, as infantile, rather than as subhuman.)

This third road to racism tends to last because it’s a collective response to a difficult situation that soon builds its own supporting institutions. For a long time, in America and in the West, in general, it received some assistance from the new, post-religious ideology, science. Above all, it’s of continuing usefulness in a variety of situations. This explanation reverses the naive, unexamined explanation of much racism: That people act in cruel ways toward others who are unlike them because they are racist. It claims, rather that they become racist in order to continue acting in cruel ways toward others, contrary to their own pre-existing beliefs that enjoin them to treat others with respect. If this perspective is correct, we should find that racism is the more widespread and the more tenacious the more egalitarian and the more charitable the dominant culture where it emerges.

The Revolt of the Baristas

For several weeks, nearly every night, I have a déjà vu experience.

First, I watch Fox News where I see crowds of younger people in dark clothing breaking things, setting buildings on fire, and assaulting police. (I infer they are younger people because of the suppleness of their movements.)

Then, I switch to French news on “Vingt-trois heures.” There, I see young people in large French cities, breaking shop windows, damaging and burning cars, and assaulting police.

The supposed reason for the continuing rioting in several major American cities is police brutality toward Blacks and racial injustice in general.

The rioting on wealthy business arteries of French cities was, as of recently, occasioned by the victory of a favorite soccer club in an important tournament. A week later, the defeat of the same soccer club occasioned the same kind of behavior except worse, by what I am sure were the same people.

No common cause to these similar conducts, you might think. That seems true but the behaviors are so strikingly similar, I am not satisfied with this observation. I have to ask, what do the rioters have in common on the two sides of the Atlantic. Your answer may be as good as mine – probably better – but here is my take:

Two things.

First, both youngish Americans and youngish French people are counting on a high degree of impunity. Both American society and French society have gone wobbly on punishment in the past thirty years (the years of the “participation prize” for school children). Used to be, in France (where I grew up) that you did not set cars afire because there was the off-chance it would earn you several years of your beautiful youth in prison. No more. The police makes little effort to catch the perpetrators anyway. The charging authorities let them go with an admonition, maybe even a severe warning. In the US, the civil authorities often order the police to do nothing, to “stand down” in the face of looting and arson. And they refuse legitimate help. Here, the elected authorities are part- time rioters in their hearts – for whatever reason. The local DAs in Demo strongholds routinely release rioters on their own recognizance. It’s almost a custom.

It seems to me that in any group, from pre-kindergarten on, there are some who will not regulate themselves unless they feel threatened by powerful and likely punishment. Perhaps, it’s a constant proportion of any society. Remove the fear of punishment, it’s 100% certain someone will do something extreme, destructive, or violent. I don’t like this comment but I am pretty sure it’s right.

The second thing the rioting in France and in the US have in common is that they seem to involve people who don’t feel they have a stake in the current social arrangements. In the French case, it’s easy to guess who they are (a strong guess, actually). Bear with me. In the sixties and seventies, various French governments built massive, decent housing projects outside Paris and other big cities (again: “decent”). I was there myself, working as a minor government city planner. The above-board objective was to move people out of slums. It’s too easy to forget that the plan worked fine in this respect. With rising prosperity, inevitably, the new towns and cities became largely occupied by new immigrants.

Those who burn private cars on the Champs Elysees in Paris recently are their children and grandchildren. The immigrants themselves, like immigrants everywhere, tend to work hard to save, and to retain the strict mores of their mostly rural origins. Their children go haywire because the same mores can’t be applied in an urban, developed society. (“Daughter: You may go to the cinema once a month accompanied by your two cousins; no boys.” “Dad: You are kidding right?”) Misery is rarely or never an issue. In the French welfare state, it’s difficult to go hungry or cold. I have often observed that the French rioters are amazingly well dressed by American college standards, for example. Incidentally, the same children of immigrants frequently have several college degrees, sometimes advanced degrees. But, fact is, ordinary French universities are pretty bad. Further fact is that in a slow growing or immobile economy like France’s, few college degrees matter to the chance of employment anyway. The rioters feel that they don’t have a stake in French society, perhaps because they don’t.

Seen from TV and given their agility and sturdiness, American rioters seem to be in their twenties to early thirties; they are “millenials.” I don’t know what really animates them because I don’t believe their slogans. It’s not only that they are badly under-informed. (For example they seem to believe that policemen killing African Americans is common practice. It’s not. See my recent article on “Systemic Racism” for figures.) It’s also that they have not specified what remedies they want to the ills they denounce. An “end to capitalism” does not sound to me like a genuine demand. Neither does the eradication of a kind of racism that, I think, hardly exists in America any more. The impression is made stronger by the fact that they don’t have a replacement program for what they seem bent on destroying. (“Socialization of the means of production” anyone?) Their destructiveness inspires fear and it may be its only objective.

I don’t know well where the American rioters come from, sociologically and intellectually. They are the cohort that marries late or not at all. It is said that many never hope to become home owners, that they see themselves as renters for life. Few buy cars (possibly a healthy choice in every way eliminating a normal American drain on one’s finances). I think that they firmly believe that the Social Security programs to which they contribute through their paychecks will be long gone by their retirement age. (I hear this all the time, in progressive Santa Cruz, California.) I hypothesize that many of those young people have had the worst higher education experience possible. Let me say right away that I don’t blame much so-called “indoctrination” by leftist teachers; leftists are just not very good at what they do. Most students don’t pay attention, in general anyway. Why would they pay attention to Leftie propaganda? Rather it seems to me that many spend years in college studying next to nothing and in vain.

Roughly, there are two main kinds of courses study in American higher education. The first, covering engineers and accountants, and indirectly, medical doctors and vets, for example have a fairly straightforward payoff: Get your degree, win a fairly well paying job quickly. Graduates of these fields seldom have a sense of futility about their schooling though they may be scantily educated (by my exalted standards). The second kind of course of studies was first modeled in the 19th century to serve the children of the moneyed elites. I mean “Liberal Arts” in the broadest sense. Its purpose was first to help young people form judgment and second, to impart to them a language common to the elites of several Western countries. For obvious reasons, degrees in such areas were not linked to jobs (although they may have been a pre-requisite to political careers). Many, most of the majors following this pattern are pretty worthless to most of their graduates. A social critic – whose name escapes me unfortunately – once stated that American universities and colleges graduate each year 10,000 times more journalism majors that there are journalism openings.

As a rule, the Liberal Arts only lead to jobs through much flexibility of both graduates and employers. Thus, in good times, big banks readily hire History and Political Science majors into their lower management ranks on the assumption that they are reasonably articulate and also trainable. Then there are the graduates in Women’s Studies and Environmental Studies who may end up less educated than they were on graduating from high school. It’s not that one could not, in principle acquire habits of intellectual rigor though endeavors focusing on women or on the environments. The problem is that the spirit of inquiry in such fields (and many more) was strangled from the start by an ideological hold. (One women’s studies program, at UC Santa Cruz , is even called “Feminist Studies,” touching candidness!) It seems to me that more and more Liberal Arts disciplines are falling into the same pit, beginning with Modern Languages. There, majors who are Anglos regularly graduate totally unable to read a newspaper in Spanish but well versed in the injustices perpetrated on Hispanic immigrants since the mid 19th century.

Those LA graduates who have trouble finding good employment probably don’t know that they are pretty useless. After all, most never got bad grades. They received at least Bs all along. And why should instructors, especially the growing proportion on fragile, renewable contracts look for trouble by producing non-conforming grade curves? The grading standard is pretty much the same almost (almost) everywhere: You do the work more or less: A; you don’t do the work: B. But nothing will induce disaffection more surely than going unrewarded when one has the sentiment of having done what’s required by the situation. That’s the situation on ten of thousands of new graduates produced each year. And many of those come out burdened by lifetime debts. (Another rich topic, obviously.)

Incidentally, I am in no way opining that higher education studies should always lead to gainful employment. I am arguing instead that many, most, possible almost all LA students shouldn’t be in colleges or universities at all, at least in the manner of the conventional four-year degree (now five or six years).

The college graduates I have in mind, people in their twenties, tend to make work choices that correspond to their life experience devoid of effort. In my town, one hundred will compete for a job as a barista in one of the of several thriving coffee shops while five miles away, jobs picking vegetables that pay 50% or twice more go begging. I suspect the preference is partly because you can’t dress well in the fields and because they, the fields, don’t provide much by way of casual human warmth the way Starbucks routinely does.

Go ahead, feel free to like this analysis. I don’t like it much myself. It’s too anecdotal; it’s too ad hoc. It’s lacking in structural depth. It barely nicks the surface. It’s sociologically poor. At best, it’s unfinished. Why don’t you give it a try?

A last comment: a part of my old brain is temped by the paradoxical thought that the determinedly democratic revolt in Belorussia belongs on the same page as the mindless destructiveness in France and the neo-Bolshevik rioting in large American cities.

Pourquoi Kamala Harris?

La nomination de Kamal Harris comme candidate du Parti Democrate (“D” majuscule) à la vice-presidence avec Joe Biden a donne lieu à beaucoup de sornettes dans les media francais, et francophones, comme on pouvait s’y attendre. Bien sur tout ceci importe car il y a de bonnes chance que Kamala se retrouve présidente, peut-être même très vite.

Etant donnés l’âge de Biden et son état de sénilité, il n’est pas impossible qu’elle devienne tôt Président des EU par remplacement constitutionel. Ceci, à moins que ceux-la mêmes qui ont choisi Kamala comme V.P. à rideaux tirés changent de cheval et inventent aussi un stratagème constitutionel pour mettre en oeuvre le remplacement du vieux Biden. Il y a même certains (dont je ne suis pas) qui parient que Biden ne sera jamais le candidat Democrate venu le temps des élections, qu’il sera remplacé par Kamala avant les élections.

D’abord, des clarifications sur l’ascendance familiale de Kamlal Harris qui ne sont pas superflues vu que le Parti Democrate est enfoncé jusqu’au cou dans la politique communautariste. Elle est la fille de deux immigrants. Sa mère était une Indienne de haute caste du sud de l’Inde. Son père vient de la Jamaique. Selon lui-même, il descend à la fois d’esclaves et de propriétaires d’esclaves. (Il s’agit d’une situation commune, aux EU, comme dans les Antilles anglaises. On saurait qu’elle est commune aussi dans les Antille françaises si on se donnait la peine de chercher un peu.)

Les EU sont un des ces pays possèdant une bourgeoisie issue directement de l’immigration. (J’en fait moi-même partie, sur un plan assez mineur, à vrai dire.) On n’est pas obligé d’entrer dans la société américaine par le bas. Aujourd’hui même, des milliers de citoyens de l’Inde arrivent nantis de bons diplômes. Ils acquièrent un enseignement supplémentaire sur place. Ceux qui s’arrangent pour rester se retrouvent quelquefois millionaires en dix ans. Il se marient le plus souvent entre eux, ce qui accélère encore l’ascenceur économique de leur mobilité sociale. En tous cas, le père de Kamala était professeur d’économie a Stanford et sa mère, chercheuse à l’université de Californie/ Berkeley, possèdait aussi un doctorat. La petite Kamala n’a donc pas été élevéee dans le dénuement. Grandissant dans la très éclairée région immédiate de San Francisco , dans les années 70/80, elle n’a surement pas beaucoup d’expérience personelle du racisme non plus .

Le fait qu’elle se présente comme un candidate Noire pose problème à beaucoup de francophones. C’est que la classification raciale aux EU est avant tout une question sociologique plutot que génétique. Depuis longtemps, elle dépent en partie des choix identitaires que font les personnes elles-mêmes. Personne ne châtie ceux qui se presentent comme blancs même s’ils ont 50% de sang africain sub-saharien. De même, il faudrait un état de fraude charactérisée pour que des porte-paroles Noirs dénoncent la négritude de n’importe qui possèdant un grand-père ou un arrière-grand-père Noir, ou même un seul arrière-arrière-grand-père. Il vaut quand meme mieux, cependant, posséder des traits visibles d’origine africaine sub-saharienne, sur la tête ou les lèvres, si la teinte de peau fait défaut.

Le père de Kamala, né à la Jamaique, possède sans aucun doute des ancêtres Africains . Et il semble que très tôt, Kamala ait fait le choix de devenir membre de l’élite politique Noire de la région de San Francisco. Elle aura delibérément opté pour l’afroamericanité. Elle a donc fait ses premières études universitaires à Howard University à des milliers de kilomètres de chez elle. Howard est difficile a expliquer. C’est une université fondée et financée directement par le gouvernement fédéral apres la Guerre Civile pour donner un débouché universitaire spécifiquement aux Noirs, dont les esclaves affranchis de l’époque. Incidemment, cette origine ne signifie nullement que Howard pratique la ségrégation raciale. Les blancs y sont facilement admis; ils l’ont toujours été.

En faisant ce choix, Kamal a expressément endossé une identité publique d’Africaine-Americaine et elle s’est plongée dans une culture ethnique qu’elle connaissait peut-être mal, ou même, pas du tout. Plus tard, Kamala a fait son droit a l’Universite de Californie/Berkeley, une école bien estimée régionalement, et aussi connue sur le plan national, et surtout, surtout, la pépinière presque’obligatoire du personnel politique de la Californie-Nord (qui comporte entre autres, San Francisco, et Silicone Valley). Comme on le sait, la grande majorité des politiciens américains possède une formation juridique.

Apres avoir echoué une première fois a l’examen qui ouvre l’inscription au Barreau, elle a réussi et elle est immédiatement entrée en politique, de manière tout ce qu’il ya de plus conventionnelle. Elle s’est arrangée pour être recrutée comme assistant-procureur de base; puis elle a été élue procureur en chef dans la circonscription de San Francisco en 2004.

Les mauvaises langues prétendent que le fait qu’elle ait été la maîtresse de Willie Brown, de 37 ans son ainé, n’aura pas nuit à sa capacité d’obtenir le support des notables Démocrates de la région. Willie Brown est l’ancien président de l’assemblée legislative de l’Etat de Californie et aussi, ancien maire de San Francisco. C’est un politicien professionel habile, un Démocrate un peut filou (mais pas trop), bien aimé de tous dans ces deux rôles (y compris de moi-même qui l’ai rencontré une fois). Mr Brown est Noir. A propos, à mon avis, les mauvaises langues ont bien raison.

Kamala est devenue procureur général du grand état de Californie en 2014 dans une élection peu disputée puisque le Parti Républicain, (mon propre parti) y est moribond depuis plusieurs années. Ce nouveau poste lui a procuré instantanément et automatiquement une notoriété qui lui manquait au niveau de l’ensemble de l’état de Californie (pop. 39 millions). En 2016, elle était élue la seconde des deux Senateurs de Californie au parlement fédéral donc, l’une de cent Senateurs nationaux. Elle avait triomphé contre un fauteuil vide car, aussi incroyable que cela paraisse, aucun Républicain ne s’était présenté contre elle! Après trois ans et demi au Senat, Kamal ne s’est illustrée par…rien. Elle y a bien fait son petit boulot au jour-le-jour mais n’est à l’origine, meme partielle, d’aucune législation importante.

Dans ses plusieurs carrières de procureur, Kamela Harris avait plus brillé par ses discours, et par ses vannes, et par ses initiative politiques que par ses chiffres de rendement conventionnels. Dans ses divers postes de procureur, elle a produit un faible taux de condamnations, l’aune de performance normale de ce métier. Elle a pourtan la réputation de s’attaquer a des proies faciles. Ainsi, par exemple, elle a mis a l’ombre des centaines de personnes coupables d’avoir …fumé de la cannabis (pas traffiqué de la cannabis). Ceci, à une époque où tout le monde savait très bien que la Californie était sur le point de légaliser cette pratique fort commune. Et puis, en fin de compte, qui donc est assez vulnérable pour se faire prendre et se retrouver sans défense devant ce chef d’accusation mineur, légalement valide mais pratiquement et moralement bidon? Les jeunes Noirs de sexe masculin, bien sur. Kamal a été entendue plaisantant sur la possibilité de jetter en prison les parents d’enfants récidivistes d’école buissonière. (Je ne sais pas si elle l’a fait.) Kamala Harris a aussi plusieurs fois demontré en public sa mechanceté hors du commun. Elle l’a fait, en particulier, à l’égard de Joe Biden à l’occasion de la primaire présidentielle Démocrate auquelle elle avait brièvement participé (et dont elle s’était retirée rapidement faute d’avoir suscité assez d’enthousiasme).

Q’apporte donc Kamala à la campaigne de Biden? Le plus important est ce qu’elle n’apporte pas. Elle n’apporte surtout pas le vote Noir, acquis depuis longtemps à Biden. D’ailleurs, les électeurs Noirs qui apprécient Kamala sont relativement peu nombreux selon un sondage récent. Elle n’apporte pas non plus le grand état de Californie (ou je vis), perdu d’avance par Trump et par les Républicains en général. On peut donc se demander: pourquoi Kamala?

Kamala Harris est-elle une femme d’extrême-gauche?

Cela dépend.

Kamala Harris est-elle un femme de gauche?

Cela dépend.

Kamal Harris est-elle une centriste?

Cela dépend.

Possède t’elle du talent pour la collecte de fonds?

Oui, oui, absolument.

Kamal Harris est une femme vigoureuse, d’apparence agréeable, toujours bien attifée, coiffée et maquillée (important pour l’électorat féminin), une femme qui s’exprime bien sur tout, et aussi sur rien, un femme politiquement correcte (doublement correcte) sur le plan ethnique, enfin, a peu près, (comme Barak Obama, d’ailleurs). En même temps, c’est une femme capable de mordre férocement

Kamala est un vase à la fois très présentable et vide qu’on remplira du contenu idoine le moment venu, un bon choix sur le plan de la flexibilité, idéologique et autre. Elle sera bien utile a ses capi quoiqu’il arrive dans les mois qui viennent à un Parti Démocrate aujourd’hui en pleine dérive. En effet, personne ne sait trop comment se recomposera le coctèle de son électorat centriste traditionnel (y compris, le gros de l’électorat Noir), de sa forte minorité Sanderista, style- ancien PSU , et de sa frange d’émeutiers enragés dont personne ne connait vraiment ni le nombre ni l’influence, même approximativement.

Women in my life

So, my granddaughter – 12 – says I am “sexist.” She is not completely sure what it means but she knows it’s pretty bad. So, I drop the two boogey boards I am carrying across the beach for her. I think she gets it.

I don’t know how many of you noticed but the more rights women conquer, and the more recognition of women in all areas of life receive, the more angry the average woman seems to be. I know, I know, that correlation is not causation but it’s a good reason to wonder about causation. And how about the surging number of bad and aggressive female drivers? Is it just me making things up in my mind?

My wife Krishna says women are vaguely unhappy because, even if unconsciously, they miss the animals, the catcalls and the wolf-whistles, and a broad variety of bird sounds.

Systemic Racism: a Rationalist Take (Part 9 of 9)

Conclusions

Systemic racism is hard to find. Its most obvious and most widespread instance seems to me to be affirmative action in all its forms. It’s a device that discriminates against many to the benefit of others, based on ascribed, unchangeable characteristics such as sex and race. It was originally designed to favor African Americans and it still does, in a proximate fashion. It may be “systemic’ in the sense that it’s largely on automatic except for the details of its application in a particular place and at a particular time. Indeed, much of affirmative action is mandated by law. As I write, the California Assembly just passed a bill re-instating racial preferences that had been eliminated 16 years earlier regarding state employment and admissions to the state’s vast university system. (“A Vote for Discrimination” WSJ, editorial page, 6/26/20). This set of restorative policies has consequences for black lives that are not well understood, I think. It’s not obvious that they do more good than harm to the beneficiaries themselves. It serves to give some white citizens a clear conscience. It stimulates racial resentment in others.

Differential and financially unequal treatment of black children is built into our national system of elementary and secondary education which favors local schools. Perhaps, that is an example of systemic racism. I noted with interest that many years of the wildly unpopular busing children in an attempt to equalize educational resources seem to have accomplished little in this respect.

I pointed out that another force that could be classified as systemic racism impeding the progress of African American children in education. I mean the teachers’ unions unrelenting opposition to charter schools which seem to benefit black students disproportionately.

Briefly and superficially, I looked at possible systemic racism in housing and in employment. Although affirmative action in favor of African Americans is quite common in employment, I allowed how small entities not worth suing might still practice racial discrimination discreetly. The legal barriers to racial discrimination in all phases of housing seem to me to be formidable. My impression may just be naive and fed by ignorance. Also, small entities, towns, banks and real estate companies little worth noticing may still be engaging in redlining under the radar. It would be worth looking for real studies on the subject that, I am fairly sure, must exist.

I looked briefly at access to government. At the federal level, the most visible, I have trouble imagining large scale discrimination against African Americans. I imagine that all kinds of idiosyncratic but relevant behaviors could be observed at the local level starring what elected official think are their crucial voter bases. These behaviors would probably include favoring African Americans as well as treating them shabbily, depending on the place and time. It wouldn’t be surprising if these behaviors included old fashioned racial discrimination in smaller entities also far from the limelight. I stay away from commenting on the practice of racial gerrymandering because I am convinced that Democrats – who represent black voters in most of this country – are as enthusiastic about it as Republicans, whenever they get a chance.

I realize that the American justice system(s) might treat black citizens in ways that differ systematically from the ways they treat white citizens. They might charge, convict, and sentence differently blacks and whites. I chose not to wade in what I suspect is a large empirical literature on the topics. I hope someone else will, looking for systemic racism specifically. I pointed out that justice systems might treat black citizens more leniently than they do white citizens. If they do, and as paradoxical as it seems, this might be a case of systemic racism against blacks because African Americans are the main victims of African American lawlessness. Minimizing the damage done to blacks is racism if it’s done as a matter of course, naturally. It may be even be called “systemic.”

I spent significant time and energy examining the possibility that there exists systemic racism around the issue that triggered both protests and riots in May-June 2020: the killing of black citizens by police. To this effect, I examined what empirical evidence was readily available at the time. I pointed out that if racism is systemic, evidence of its existence should be easy to find. I marveled at my inability to locate serious studies supporting the widespread narrative that police wantonly kill African Americans on a large scale.

I concluded that police probably stop blacks more often than they stop whites and probably treat them more brutally. Police nevertheless do not kill black suspects more readily than they kill white suspects. Also, I noted that black officers kill African Americans as readily as do their white colleagues. I speculated that the differential treatment of black and white citizens may be a rational and competent police response to the fact that blacks are viewed – with reason – as less law abiding or more dangerous overall than whites. Such customs are undoubtedly unfair to the many black citizens who are neither dangerous nor inclined to break the law. Others will see in this unfairness evidence of systemic racism.

I speculated further about a possible cause for the contrast between widely expressed popular beliefs on black deaths at the hands of police and the facts available to all on the topic. I expressed the idea that diffuse and well founded white guilt about the evils of slavery and those of segregation encourages many to confuse the present with the past. I offered a reparative solution to this problem of confusion based on rational analysis and on conservative principles. Briefly, I discounted or mostly discounted the relevance of personal experience.

I offer no solution here to the very real issue of police disproportionate killing of African Americans. We have to remember, perhaps heartlessly, that it’s quite small in the bigger picture. Conservative commentator Heather McDonald pointed out that in 2019 that unarmed black victims of police represented one in one thousand of all African American meeting a violent death. (“The Myth of Systemic Police Racism” WSJ 6/3/20).

Though I offer no solution here, I am astonished by those currently offered on the left, consisting in various degrees of incapacitating of police departments nation-wide. The nefarious results of such measures would be absurdly predictable. Relieved from police pressure, black street gangs would increase their activities and kill even more of one another and of their close neighbors, most of them African Americans. Second, with police response less certain, more citizens, white and black, would arm themselves for self-defense. Many would do so with or without the blessing of local governments eager to undermine the Second Amendment and side-step arms training. As the possession of weapons became more common its combination with lack of preparedness and skill would grow. Criminals and suspected criminals would die in large numbers at the hands of civilians. Many would be black. In short, the remedies being proposed are worse than the ills they are supposed to cure. They are as if designed to raise then number of African Americans dying violently.

As I conclude this essay, I think that systemic racism is largely a deliberate myth constructed to bypass rational inquiry. Many white citizens have accepted the myth because of unresolved collective guilt about America’s offensive racial past. I pointed out myself areas where systemic racism might nevertheless be found by a more thorough inquiry than mine. As I said several times in this essay, a single good study or even a simple reading of existing studies I am not aware of, on social topics I treated superficially, could prove wrong my skeptical perception of systemic racism.

[Editor’s note: you can find Part 8 here, or you can read the whole essay here.]

Systemic Racism: a Rationalist Take (Part 8 of 9)

Reparations

To my mind, the inheritance of slavery, segregation, and other forms of discrimination against African-Americans means that something is owed to the descendants of slaves irrespective of the current reality or existence of “systemic racism.” All emotions carefully kept aside, refusing to subscribe to present-day irrationality, I am persuaded that if I looked into the matter, I would find a material debt. I mean that once you have accounted for the real costs of maintaining slaves and deducting that amount from what free labor would have cost to perform the same tasks at the same level, I would find a certain quantity of unpaid wages. As a conservative, I believe that unpaid wages should be paid, and paid with interest. A very good book published in the seventies pretty much did the work I describe in commendable detail: Robert Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman: Time on the Cross.

Specialized economists and actuarians – whose job it is – could arrive at a rough but good approximation of the amount owed to descendants of slaves because of unpaid wages. The approximation would, of course, take into account some reasonable rate of growth for the debt and the likelihood that some of the slaves and some of their descendants would have simply lost or wasted early some of their unpaid wages had they been paid in good time. Computing the amount due would be a complex task and subject to disputation but doable and healthy on the whole as a collective memory aid. It would be about a reasonably objective reality. Again, I think that not paying one’s debt will trouble one’s conscience, and in the end, cloud one’s judgment.

Such a limited program of reparations would be more easily accepted by conservatives if it were seen as an overall and final settlement of this well defined debt – the debt concerning unpaid wages only – and as the beginning of the phasing out of government imposed affirmative action programs. The form this compensation should take could be open for discussion. Obvious collective forms such as massive subsidies to African American education come to mind. Yet, the possibility of individual grants to all who could prove slave ancestry should not be summarily eliminated from consideration. (I intuit that collective reparations would not make many individual descendants of slaves feel whole.) There have actually been recent conversations among conservatives about the topic of compensation. Walter Russel Mead’s “The Work of Atonement,” a critique of book From Here to Equality by William A. Darity and A. Kristen Mullen, in WSJ 6/18/20, is a good place to start thinking about the issue that is free of hysteria.

Note that I am not proposing anything resembling compensation for pain and suffering, or punitive damages – another discussion, a problematic one, one posing vastly different issues on which honest people can differ – but just the settlement of a tangible conventional business debt, something again, fairly objective and naturally limited.

Ethical Issues about Limited Compensation

Any reparation proposal will raise what looks like other ethical issues. Why should I, for example, be taxed to compensate victims of old American racist policies since my ancestors where digging potatoes in eastern France when all the abuse took place? Why should the vast majority of northerners, of descendants of northerners and of post Civil War immigrants be held accountable for the failure of others to pay wages? The answer is that by living in the US (especially, by choice, in my case and that of other immigrants, and of their children, etc.), we benefit from the existence of the same polity that did quite a bit to shore up and support the first abuse – slavery – before it finally acted decisively to end it. It’s the same polity that later contemplated with equanimity and passively supported the unequal treatment of the freed slaves and of their descendants on some of its territory. I refer to the United States of America, the federal entity of course.

All this being said, the passive economic heritage of slavery does not logically exclude current racial discrimination, with its own disastrous consequences, separate from the economic inheritance of slavery and segregation. On the contrary, it would make sense to argue, negative discrimination tends to be a bad habit if it’s not forcefully interrupted: We discriminate against Peter today because we did so against his father Paul yesterday. Yet, it’s important to distinguish between the consequences of (possible) current discrimination and the rather certain collective fallout of past ill treatment.

Two reasons to try to keep this distinction: First, if we don’t, we risk assuming that the ill treatment continues even if it ceased long ago. This places us, collectively in an impossible situation: How to stop something that does not exist? It will cause its own bitterness. It will lead to twisted pseudo-remedies. It will prompt those who think themselves as victims of the putative current ill-treatment to fight against the wrong forces and to commit trespasses of their own in the process. Second, the remedies for the results of past bad treatment – including the slave trade, American slavery, racial segregation, official racial discrimination – those remedies are different from the kinds of redress that would apply to currently oppressive behavior: “Fix it” and “Stop it” imply different strategies.

Of course, reparations will not stop police from thinking of African American citizens as prone to breaking the law or as especially dangerous. Reparations would thus not restrain the police from stopping blacks and thus killing them, disproportionately. Reparations for lost wages would, I think, help the white majority to think more clearly about racial issues in general. Indirectly, this would help devise more rational policies regarding perceived racial injustice. Reparations would go a long way toward undermining the dogma of systemic racism. It would boost the influence of those African American leaders who prefer accommodation to intransigence.

How about Personal Experience?

While I try to rely on numbers, no part of this essay is meant to disparage the relevance of all personal experience nor even of all subjectivity. As we know from novels, subjectivity both acts as a blinder and it opens eyes. Yet, much of it is useless and worse.

An old friend of mine is on record on Facebook asserting that the Floyd killing was obviously racially motivated because the killer was white and the victim black. A logical implication of this view is that if a white policeman killed a black criminal about to behead a black child, the shooting would be a racial crime. My friend earned his doctorate from the same program, in the same university as I did, also in sociology, at about the same time. He has a respectable academic career behind him. He is African American.

When the still respected and still-staid WSJ decides to do its bit and contributes personal experience stories form black executives, it does it in the soft part of its weekend edition, of course. It turns into a maudlin fiasco, I think. (“Black executives Break Their Silence” by Khadeeja Safdar and Keach Hagey, Weekend edition, 6/27-28/2020.) Two executives interviewed by WSJ have to wander off to China and to apartheid South Africa to come up with something worth re-telling. One goes straight to fiction, I believe, and he recycles an urban story about being stopped and terrified by a mean racist cop as a young teenager. Several fall back to the common narratives of being followed and humiliated by store personnel who suspect them of trying to shoplift. Everyone, including the interviewers, is too polite to ask why black customers may be singled out in that specific manner. No one thinks either of wondering what other category – not based on race – store personnel single out for special attention on similar grounds. (I am thinking of little old white ladies carrying large purses.)

The habitual silly brandishing of numbers underscores the absence of ordinary criticality presiding over the WSJ subjectivist story. “Only 3.2% of senior executive positions are held by black people.” How in the world is this calculated? If it’s true, what does it mean? What is it proof of? Repeating myself: About 60% of players in the NBA, that millionaires factory, are African American, which demonstrates what? And I would bet that African Americans are over-represented in federal government employment, which also would show what (except the effectiveness of government affirmative action programs)?

Personal experience wrapped in story telling talent may be important nevertheless, some of the time. I am fairly sure reading Richard Wright, James Baldwin a long time ago, and Toni Morrison more recently, opened my mind without persuading me of anything. Perhaps, reading good fiction by black authors taught me to look. That’s not nothing. On 6/20/20 I heard the talented young writer Aezi Dungee speak of her experience as a black actress playing a slave at Mount Vernon during the summers. (“Moth Radio Hour” on PBS). It caused me to feel her pain and her rage infinitely more than any objective figures ever would, it’s true. Yet, her rage is her rage. I am not ethically bound to espouse it. The best I can do is act according to principles that we share. Many of those are clearly established in the founding documents of this great nation. Other relevant principles I derive directly from a classical conservative stance. Ms Dungee is entitled to justice for now and to reparation for harm done long ago and that still trammels her life today. I cannot do more without betraying justice itself and undermining the foundations of both of our lives, of my present liberty and of hers.

[Editor’s note: you can find Part 7 here, or read the whole thing here.]

Systemic Racism: a Rationalist Take (Part 7 of 9)

Do blacks have more police encounters than whites?

In 2015, the percentages of whites and blacks who experiences police initiated encounters with the police were equal, a little over 10% each. (Bureau of Justice Statistics.) These rates seem to debunk a popular alternative narrative appearing in the Boston Globe, among other liberal sources, that claims that blacks get killed more often by police than they should (see below) because they have more police encounters, including some prompted by racial profiling. There is also evidence from the Stanford Open Policing Project that police in various places stop black drivers at a higher rate than they do white or Hispanic drivers. The Prison Policy Initiative (a liberal organization) also asserts that African Americans share on average more contacts with police than whites and are stopped proportionately more often than whites, both on foot and in automobile traffic.

This disagreement is important for the following reason: Suppose that the probability of being killed by police depends completely and impartially on the probability of being stopped by police, say, in traffic. Think of a sort of deadly lottery: If you are stopped by police, there is a constant and equal probability of ending up dead. In this case, if police are more likely to stop black citizens than white citizens then, they are automatically more likely to kill black citizens, even for frivolous reasons or, in some other way, unfairly. Imagine further that black citizens are mostly stopped in traffic for having a missing taillight on their car and such, while white citizens are only stopped for such egregious conduct as going through a stoplight at 65 miles an hour. In that hypothetical situation, the killing of black drivers could easily be a result of police animus against them. Remember that this would be true although police would be just as likely to kill the whites as the blacks they stopped.

In the same situation, the killings of whites citizens by police would be more likely to be justified. In the hypothetical situation I describe, some black victims of police would be indirect victims of racism though black and whites would be stopped the ones as often as the others. In this scenario, the possibility of police hostility against African Americans could even remain in a situation where more whites than blacks are killed by police after a traffic stop. An extreme formulation of this perspective would go like this: Police kill whites they encounter as frequently as they kill blacks that they encounter, but all the blacks they kill are completely innocent while all the whites they kill are all guilty of some serious or violent legal trespass.

So, I ask, are there reasons other than racial animus, legitimate reasons, why police would stop black citizens more frequently than they do white citizens? This is a hard thing to figure out but it’s worth trying because the answer contains a potential explanation beyond the simple findings that police kill the whites they stop as much as the blacks they stop.

Is there any reason other than racial prejudice or animus why police would stop African Americans more than they do whites?

Ideally, a detailed study of police stops at every level of seriousness of suspected offense would answer this question. I think such a study does not exist. (I hope it will, soon.) So, I will use a trustworthy proxy for all forms of lawbreaking: murder convictions.

The assumption I make here is that there exists a continuity between such offenses as homicide, armed robbery, DUI, running stoplights, and driving with a broken taillight. Underlying this continuity would be a propensity to break the law. If no such continuity, no such propensity exist, my conclusions at the end of this section are correspondingly in doubt. I already know that my choice of indicator is imperfect in one respect: There is probably no continuity between crimes of passion and other transgressions. However, those are a small number of the total. This scheme also leaves aside whole categories of serious crimes that are almost certainly preponderantly white crimes, such as financial transgressions – because they seldom give rise to impromptu encounters with police.

I choose homicide as a substitute for all lacking measures of lesser categories of law breaking for several reasons. First, homicide is almost always an unambiguous act – as opposed to jumping stop signs, for example. Second homicides are more likely to be scrutinized than other forms of law breaking. Third, the race of homicide perpetrators is more likely to be known than the race of other crime perpetrators. Fourth, homicide is not as likely to be charged frivolously, without reason, as lesser offenses such as jumping stop signs may be.

Tech note: Below, I am dealing in broad orders of magnitude rather than is specific quantities. I mean that if I cut any figure I proffer by one third, the associated reasoning would remain intact.

African Americans regularly account at least for 40% and up of all homicides (“Race, Ethnicity and Sex ….” 2016 Crime in the United States, Table 3, already cited above.). The real situation is worse than this. It turns our that females in general commit ten times fewer homicides than males. So, it would be closer to the truth to state that something like the 6 to 8% of Americans, who are black and male, commit around 70% or more of the homicides in the United States. It matters to my reasoning that this is a long-standing situation. In 1976, a black male was 12 times more likely than a white male to commit homicide; in 2005 however, he was only 9 times more likely ( James Alan Fox, Northeastern University and Marianne W. Zawitz, BJS Statistician; BJS: Bureau of Justice Statistics Homicide Trends in the U.S. 2010.)

Why then would police stop African Americans preferentially? The seemingly ingrained current, as well as traditional answer is “racism.” One major objection to this view is that, as we have seen, the same supposedly racist police then and against expectations, are no more likely to kill the blacks they stop than the whites when given the opportunity.

The inference I make above may explain this paradox. Police, being well aware of a higher black propensity to break the law, stop African Americans more frequently that they stop whites. They would do so, perhaps, because stopping black offers a better yield than stopping whites. For the same reason (a speculation), they treat them more brutally, irrespective of degree of compliance (Fryer, Roland G. Jr: “What the Data Say About Police.” WSJ, 6/23/20, already cited). If racism guided their actions rather than a harsh but but basically rational realism, they would also kill the African Americans they stop more often than whites. The fact is that they do not.

Are black police officers as likely to kill black suspects as are white officers? If white officers preferentially killed blacks and black officers did not, or any attenuated version of this divergence would contribute to establish the thesis of systemic racism. So, what are the known facts on this? A 2018 Rutgers University study by Charles E. Menifield, Geiguen Shin, and Logan Strother, based on 2014- 2015 nation-wide data about all police killings answers a with a clear “Yes.”

If black officers kill black suspects as readily as do white officers, it’s unlikely that white officers’ killings of African Americans are generally expressions of any racism while the equal propensity of black officers to do the same is not. It’s more reasonable to suppose that the equal probability of black and white officers to kill blacks is the expression of, or is associated with something other than racism.

While I wish that we had a bigger study covering more years than the study cited above, it is the only systematic treatment of the data we have. For the moment, I would rather go with it rather than with a dozen well documented, dramatic, lamentable episodes spread over five or six years. A principled new study covering more years showing that white officers are more likely than black to kill African Americans could undermine my provisional conclusion below any time. Incidentally, and here again, I am surprised that the many supporters of the thesis of systemic racism in academia have not yet produced such as study. Or, have they?

I am well aware of the adage that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence” but it’s only partially correct. If you said that a presumptive wolf got into your house every other night and stole one of your children, and if you did not proceed to study wolves, I would quickly suspect that something was amiss. I would believe in a short time that your narrative is all askew. Or, I would even judge that your lack of due diligence conceals something important

Disposing of a slightly risky inference If the inference I make above about a kind of continuity of lawlessness from homicide to other, milder forms of law breaking is not credible, it can be replaced with the following more basic formulation: Police officers are likely to be aware of the high black homicide rate. As a consequence, they consider black people in general more dangerous than white people. This knowledge is the basis for their stopping black citizens more frequently than white and also for their rougher treatment of black citizens than of white.

In this scenario, police officers are acting in a rational way although it may be objectionable. Again, African American police officers kill blacks as often as white police officers do.

Perhaps these practices amount to systemic racism. I think the case has to be made explicitly and clearly. It should affirm that police officers should not act differently with those they consider dangerous than with those they do not. The explanation should also include an evocation of how police should act differently based on the information available to them.

Unfairness

Here is a detour, an obviously necessary detour. The analysis above does not seem to me to support the concept of systemic racism but it leaves plenty of room for charges of racial unfairness. The legions of African Americans who think of rolling through a stop sign as significant lawbreaking would be, according to the same analysis, possibly, just possibly, at greater risk of being killed by police than their white fellow-citizens just because of some African physical features. The unfairness resides mostly in the fact that such features could not be erased or masked would they wish to do so. (I don’t suggest they would or should.) Yet, differential treatments based on such or similar ascribed characteristics are common in other phases of real life and normally seen only as regrettable but unavoidable facts.

There is a large category of Americans who are systematically required to pay 20% higher premiums for life insurance than the majority of the population, the category of reference. This category is “Men.” It’s unfair because, in general, as a rule, men cannot stop being men. Insurance companies routinely advance the justification that, at every age, men are more likely to die than women thus creating a higher risk of disbursement for the company. Men are also known generally, on the average, to engage in more risky behavior than women. Yet, the premium surcharge imposed on all men is obviously unfair to some male human beings like me who never touch alcohol or any other drug, don’t smoke, exercise two hours of every day, and eat only tofu and kale. It’s even unfair to the probably many less saintly men who do not lead riskier lives than do women in general. Do you see the parallel?

If the police tendency to stop blacks more than whites based on general numbers and an ascribed characteristic constitutes systemic racism, isn’t it true that the absolute preferential treatment insurance companies afford women is “systemic sexism”?

I must add this: African Americans have allowed themselves to be treated as members of a “community” for at least fifty years or more (perhaps, since the Civil Rights Movement.) This makes it difficult to advance claims based on individual traits, like this: “I don’t smoke and I don’t even roll through stop signs.”

Putting all the numbers together, this higher risk for African Americans to die at the hands of the police is compatible with the idea that they are stopped more frequently than are whites although, once stopped – as we have seen – they suffer no greater risk of being killed. Though these figures indicate that African Americans are more likely to die from police action than others, they don’t demonstrate systemic racism in law enforcement. They may be compatible with that concept through some other path I have not discovered. Perhaps, more research is needed. I have trouble believing this. I think that if it were possible, it would have been done by one of the several organizations dedicated to the welfare of black Americans, or by any one team of American liberal academics.

Confusing Yesterday and Today

One must ask why much of the general public, helped by the largely left-leaning media seems to accept a narrative starkly negated by available figures. It seems to me that the explanation resides in a massive confusion in the mind of that fraction of the general public that is intellectually honest about racism.

The confusion concerns the passive collective inheritance of slavery. Those whose ancestors came here in chains and against their will (instead of being highly self-selected like all other immigrants. See my “Why Immigrants are Superior.”), those descendants of slaves who received a systematically inferior education or none at all, those whose grandparents were limited in their occupational choices by legal segregation, such members of American society will do less well economically and socially than those whose antecedents suffered no such limitations on their talent and character. Throw in thousands of lynchings and the occasional deadly race riot and you have a societal design for the failure of some.

If you could conduct an experiment replicating those conditions with people selected at random, marked with a blue tattoo on their left hand, and made to breed among themselves you would certainly observe in them below average rewards of life on any conceivable indicator. This would happen in the absence of any current (current) mistreatment of their descendants. The now vague factor of “racism” would not have to be investigated. The historical explanations above would suffice.

[Editor’s note: Part 6 can be found here, or you can read the whole thing here.]

Systemic Racism: a Rationalist Take (Part 6 of 9)

The Justice System; Police Brutality

I will mostly bypass now the important issue of possible systemic racism in the in administration of justice itself. I mean charging, convicting and sentencing, which may or may not each involve a systematic (systematic) racial component. Here again, I think the relevant research exists and it has not caught my attention. (But, I have to wonder why.) It’s possible that black suspects are more likely to be charged, more likely to be convicted and sentenced more heavily that whites suspected of similar trespasses.

If I were to look actively into the matter, however, I would explore the possibility that black suspects are less likely to be charged and convicted than whites, and also receive lighter sentences for equivalent crimes. This hunch is based on the recognition that most black crime is probably black on black. In this scenario lies a possible form of systemic discrimination because it treats crimes against black citizens as less severe or less significant than crimes against whites.

Finally, if I were initiating a research project about this today, I would pay special attention to the formal obstacles, including union rules, that may interfere with the prosecution of police officers suspected of lawbreaking, including homicide. If these obstacles were shown to be erected especially to impede action against white officers, I would consider them instances of systemic racism. If they were not, I would still pay attention because black men (specifically) are more likely than whites to die at the hands of police. Over a lifetime, according to a study recently published in the serious Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, black men are about 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than are white men in the course of their lifetime. (Frank Edwards, Hedwig Lee, and Michael Esposito “Risk of Being Killed by Police Use of Force in the United States, by Age, Race, Ethnicity and Sex” 2019.) The denial of justice implicit in the reluctance to prosecute law breaking members of the police could (could) be an important form of systemic racism.

Racism in Policing

First, a reminder: As I stated above, I believe there exists a high degree of police brutality in America. But, it’s not my topic here. The only questions on my mind now are these: What’s the racial component? Is it “systemic”? If there is no racial component, it’s not likely systemic racism is at work. If there is racism and it’s personal, there is no reason to call is “systemic” racism except falsely and presumptuously to sound scientific.

In May-June 2020, protesters echoed the media (or vice-versa) to give the impression that police shootings of black Americans of holocaust dimensions was taking place. The view seemed to have been widely shared based on (the same) media reports, including interviews of protesters. Some quantitative frameworking is in order here.

Frequency of homicide in general, of African Americans, particularly Homicide is in fact a fairly rare cause of death in America contrary to a widespread impression. In 2018, 14,000 Americans died of homicide. (Number of murder victims in the United States in 2018, by race/ethnicity and gender.) Applied to the whole American population, that’s a death rate so small many phone calculators can hardly handle it. Of 1,000 people who did die in the United States in 2018, only about five died of any kind of homicide. Contrary to a widespread impression, being killed by anyone, for any reason is rare today. This probability has been in decline for fifty years. The decline may be owed to demographics – an aging population – or to more effective policing, or to both. This is all to put any classification of homicides in perspective.

Of these rare homicide deaths, a little over half were of African Americans in 2018. But African Americans make up only about 13 to 16% of the population, maximum (“The Black Alone Population of the US: 2019.” – US Bureau of the Census). Like everyone else, black Americans seldom die of homicide but they die of it disproportionately, about three times more than average.

Who is Killing Black Americans?

There were 8836 homicides in 2016 where race of both first victim and perpetrator were known (This is a smaller number than used above because it’s less inclusive. No big drop in homicides is denoted here) About half were killings of blacks by blacks; about 18 % were killings of whites also by blacks. Whites killed about 80% of white victims. Black victims of white killers accounted for 4% of all homicide victims, and less than 10% of all black victims. Of course, the latter number must include all black victims of white police officers, including legally legitimate homicides. (I am assuming that black victims of black police officers are a small enough number to be ignored here for the moment.) This gives us a first outer limit of police killings of African Americans.

A widespread narrative exists nevertheless that claims an unceasing massacre of black citizens by white policemen. A close relative of the victim George Floyd thus declared on PBS radio on 6/17/20, that there is an “open season killing of black people…” It seems that he meant police killing of black people.

The reality is different. However unpopular in some quarters, however contrary to the visual pseudo-reality on our screens, the answer to the question “Who is killing black Americans?” is: “black Americans.” In 2016, about 90% of black homicide victims where race was known were killed by blacks. If there is a wholesale massacre of African American citizens on our streets, it’s akin to a collective self- massacre. It dwarfs all police killings of African Americans, of course. Anecdotal evidence seldom contradicts this assertion. Thus, black columnist Jason Riley reported in the WSJ of 6/10/20 that there were 492 homicides in Chicago last year (of all by all) of which only three involved police. That last figure did not distinguish between unjustified killings and legally otherwise justified killings.

Such small numbers do not detract from the idea that any police killing of civilians is especially disturbing and worrisome. There is a special reason to be concerned when those who carry the legitimate state monopoly of violence kill those they are sworn to protect. But, again, my topic is not police brutality but systemic racism. In this specific connection, the comparative rarity of police killings does not properly address the possibility that police disproportionately, or preferentially kill African Americans. I deal with this issue below. (Figures from the last four paragraphs except if otherwise specified are from: Easy Access to the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Reports: 1980-2016.)

Are blacks more likely to be shot dead during a police encounter than whites?

The evidence, including a systematic survey by a black Harvard economist as well as a one-city Justice Department study is that police are no more likely to shoot black suspects than white suspects. (Both cited by Heather MacDonald in the WSJ of 6/3/20; those are not controversial studies. For a more recent account, see: Fryer, Roland G. Jr: “What the Data Say About Police.” WSJ, 6/23/20 ) This narrative is contrary to current popular wisdom – or un-wisdom – but it’s the best evidence we have. Everything else is fiction or downright bad reasoning. (“Police hate blacks. Those who kill blacks do so because they hate them. Police must kill blacks more than they kill others.”) Note that it would take only one good study to overturn the assertion that police are not more likely to kill blacks than they are to kill whites. The absence of such a study is evidence of sorts given the interest this question raises in much of the population and in academia. Some argue however that this apparent equality of deadly treatment is the result of a sort of numerical visual illusion. I take up this matter below.

[Editor’s note: you can Part 5 here, or the whole essay here.]

Systemic Racism: a Rationalist Take (Part 5 of 9)

Finding Systemic Racism in Employment, Housing, Education, Access to Government.

It seems to me that systemic racism should (almost by definition or lack of it) bear upon all aspects of life, with four having special importance. First, I see employment, which affects often profoundly, the quality of one’s life. Second, I would consider housing, same thing more or less, plus it’s a normal way to accumulate a nest egg for many or most of those who are not born rich in America. The third area where systemic racism should have many and far-reaching negative effects is education. Unequal access to the government might be the fourth large area where systemic racism manifest itself. Finally, the hypothesized systemic racism if the words have any meaning, should be operational the delivery of justice and of police services. These sectors are important because of their direct potential to to take away one’s freedom and even one’s life. I give this last area of concern a separate treatment.

I offer my superficial contribution as an observant citizen to the first four areas. I think that is all that should be expected of me if systemic racism is truly widespread. If it were as common and as general in its applications as is being currently alleged as I write (June-July 2020), I should see it without much effort once it’s been pointed out to me. (It’s being pointed out practically every minute of the day by radio and by television, and even by the moderate WSJ for the past three or four weeks, even by Fox News.) I should even be able to stumble upon it without a conventional study. It seems to me that if I have to move furniture and lift every carpet to find traces of systemic racism, it’s just not that important, or, it does not exist at all.

If systemic racism is both said to be pervasive and it’s impossible to detect, it’s just another fairy tale in reverse, or fetishism. Or it’s a deliberately fallacious concept designed to affirm a social fact while avoiding the empirical burden of demonstrating its existence. This is true although it’s obvious that, as a white person, I cannot be made aware of any kind of racism the easiest way possible, by becoming its target. But this most obvious path to awareness is also the most subject to error, of course. The anger that accompanies being a target of presumed injustice induces a subjectivity inimical to sound judgment. The anger must impair or destroy the capacity to think rationally. These statements, together, imply that a dozen infamous and well documented cases of what might be racially inspired possible police crimes against African Americans spread over five or six years stops short of establishing the case for the existence of systemic racism. “It happens” does not mean the same as “it’s everywhere.” Incidentally, by making these self-evident statements, I feel as if I were ringing a bell to wake my fellow citizens from their stupor.

Employment

Racial discrimination in employment used to be pervasive. So many laws have been passed to eliminate it that one is tempted to believe that it hardly exists anymore. At least, gross racial discrimination in employment is a risky legal game for large companies, those with deep pockets. The nature of the anti- discrimination suits showing up in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) nearly every day makes it difficult for me to believe that much of a problem remains in this area. The suits sound almost all frivolous, capricious, and arbitrary. This is not a judgment on the sincerity of those filing the suit. They may truly believe they are the victims of discrimination. Yet, belief is not evidence of anything. It’s possible nevertheless that real racial discrimination in employment persist in companies too small to be worth suing.

What I know personally about work and race corresponds well with most of the news I obtain from the media in general (including National Public Radio to which I listen – less than religiously – every weekend). Affirmative action, or positive discrimination in favor of African Americans, or negative discrimination against Asians and whites, seems to be the rule in every employment locale of which I am aware. I am especially aware of academia, of course. The last time I was involved in hiring in my university, for example, the new 30-year old hire came in at a salary equal to mine after 24 years and a respectable academic career. The recruit was a woman, and perhaps, just probably, a person of color of some kind. (My chairman, a man with a Spanish surname, asked me confidentially my opinion about whether she was black or Hispanic. I couldn’t make this story up up!) I hasten to say that the recruit in question was more than qualified enough for my department (like me, in fact). This is merely an anecdote, of course. I think though that it’s just as valid as anyone’s anecdote. Still in academia, it would be possible but difficult to find a French person (from France) hired by a Department of French in an American university in the past twenty years. The new hires are overwhelmingly “people of color,” or almost, from former French colonies or from Zaire (a former Belgian colony). Such uniformity in hiring obviously does not happen by chance. I would almost call it “systemic.” (Incidentally, as a native French speaker, I have nothing against the different varieties of French used outside of France.)

So, at this point, as a keen observer but as someone who has not conducted a real study of the topic, I am not persuaded that there exists any discrimination against African Americans in employment in the US that is not an isolated, willful act and thus, not systemic racism. It’s self-evident however that there exists in many economic areas discrimination in hiring against whites and Asians and that this discrimination is systemic. That is, it’s not the result of any specific individual or corporate action directed against whites or Asians but baked in. Note that I did not say anything about the possible historical, ethical justification of this kind of discrimination.

Some will object that, in fact, in spite of affirmative action programs, African Americans have on the average, worse jobs than white Americans. Here is a good point to re-iterate a principle that should not even have to be mentioned: The widespread (and unfortunately judicially validated) practice of establishing proof by outcome is deeply illogical: If I go hunting with my friend and he bags five rabbits to my one, it may be because my rabbits were faster than his or better at zig-zaging, or that my gun barrel is curved (as I may claim), or it may be because he is a good shot and I am not. Similarly, the vast numerical preponderance of African Americans in those powerful millionaire-making machines that are professional football and basketball does not establish the existence of systemic racism against whites and others in those sports.

Housing

The practice of redlining included informal and sometimes formal discrimination against members of racial minorities. It used to be widespread everywhere in the US, including in the northern states. One of the practical consequences was to deny African Americans the ability to purchase housing in certain areas and even in whole towns. This was hostile treatment in its own right. Redlining also had negative implications for education because in most of the US the public schools are district schools. Children attend the schools tied to their residential neighborhood. Poor neighborhoods are thus often associated with inferior schools The very detailed Fair Housing Act of 1968 tried to put an end to the most egregious redlining practices. Violations of the Act carry heavy penalties.

I don’t know to what extent the prohibited practices have been extinguished nor if they have been replaced by other nefarious practices with similar consequences. I would not be surprised if redlining did subsist but on a small scale, between small local banks, for example, and small, equally local real estate firms, both situated far from the limelight. I suspect the research exists to answer these questions. Remaining or renewed redlining would be fair candidates for systemic racism. I regret that I cannot look for the relevant material. I hope others will.

Education

Affirmative action to the benefit of African Americans is the rule in admission to American universities. Even in universities where racial preferences were formally eliminated, as was the case at the vast University of California about fifteen years ago, the prevalent political forces are working to re-establish them. That is, of course, systemic racism. Affirmative action for black unavoidably works to the detriment of white and Asian students. That’s absent any racial animus against the latter. No surprise there, it’s expected to do so. (There was a famous lawsuit against Harvard University by a coalition of Asian-American groups in 2016-2019 for discriminating in admission against applicants of Asian extraction. The suit was eventually dismissed in spite of what looked like strong evidence of discrimination, based on SAT scores among others.)

As far a K-12 is concerned, unequal education for African American children used to be the rule and it was supported by law – that is, by the armed power of the State- in much of the country. This fact mattered in its own right but also because of its consequences on employment. Education is a precursor to employment and a partial predictor of its quality; it determines the width of employment choices available. Formal obstacles to a good education for African Americans have been eliminated by multiple court actions and the painful remedy of busing, practiced for many years with and then, without federal subsidies. Yet, it’s likely that African American children still attend schools that are, on the average, less well funded than the schools of average white children because of the largely local funding of American schools in general. (This may be a fact of “institutional racism,” a close cousin to “systemic racism.”) Notably though, where African American students happen to attend schools that are richer than the average school in America, as is the case in Washington D.C., good educational results don’t measurably ensue.

One thing that has been shown to improve strongly black children’s educational performance, controlling for income and living address, is charter schools. The opposition of teachers unions is the only significant obstacle to enrolling more children and, by logical implication, more black children in charter schools. No one believes that this opposition is dues to the racial motivations of either individual teachers or of their unions. It looks like a good example of pure systemic racism against African Americans. It seems to me that there is no other such example in the area of education. For a measured approach to this form of systemic racism by a respected African American conservative, see Thomas Sowell’s “Charter Schools’Enemies Block Black Success” (WSJ 6/19/20).

Access to government

I have little to say about systemic racism as it may affect access to government, for two reasons. First, it seems obvious that African Americans have met with great success in achieving elective office, going from about zero in 1960 to tens of thousands in 2020. (During the Floyd crisis, black elected officials intervened everywhere in the media, including on conservative Fox News.) I think also that the Congressional Black Caucus exerts power much beyond its numbers. This is true when the Democratic Party dominates. I suspect I think it’s almost as true with a Republican Congress. Its influence corresponds to the same seniority rules that gave any white elected southern Congress people disproportionate power for many years. Black congresspersons keep getting re-elected, acquiring both experience and seniority which multiplies their effectiveness.

Separately, I often wonder why black voters do not more often provide the swing vote in nation-wide primary elections as they apparently did in the 2019 Democratic primaries. It seems to me that they could if they would and thus, exert an influence out of proportion to their numbers. But they would have to be seen looking outside the Democratic Party to become credible. (On a personal level, I have little sympathy toward opportunities not seized.)

Secondly, I am persuaded that the power-wielding jobs in the federal bureaucracy are afforded to black applicants at least fairly, and probably preferentially, given equal (and often mysterious) formal qualifications. I have no hard evidence to present in support of this impression. The relevant research may exist and I don’t know about it. I am less sure about local bureaucracies’ openness, but I never read anything about unfairness in connection with black employment in local government. It’s true that I may not be well positioned to perceive it if it exists. I may be in the wrong part of the wrong region of the country.

A shortage of African Americans in the bureaucratic apparatus of local and state government could itself be a source of systemic racism. It could be enough to account for government neglect of what happens to be issues affecting African Americans preferentially. I am open to learning on this point.

[Editor’s note: you can find Part 4 here, or read the whole essay here.]

Systemic Racism: a Rationalist Take (Part 4 of 9)

A Public Torture-Killing

What directly prompted this essay (actually, several years in gestation) is a barbarous act that took place on May 25th 2020 in Minneapolis, that was thoroughly filmed by bystanders, and that triggered several weeks of peaceful protest nation-wide, but also of arson, of looting, and of other acts of rioting. Here is a brief account of the event.

A white police officer, wantonly and unnecessarily smothers with his knee over eight minutes a black suspect who is already handcuffed. Three other officers – including two members of racial minorities – stand by or lend a hand. The victim is a man with one conviction elsewhere for a violent crime. He has illegal drugs in his system when he is stopped by the police. (The family-ordered autopsy did not negate this information.)

The officer has accumulated seventeen or eighteen misconduct investigations, one of which gave rise to a notice of suspension. (I don’t know whether he was actually suspended.) One non-police source well situated to know describes him as habitually using questionable force (choke-holds) He has been married to an Asian woman. (“George Floyd’s Life and His Killer’s” by Jennifer Levitz, Erin Allworth, and Tawnell d. Hobbs – WSJ 6/22/20.)

The murdering officer’s supervisor is the black chief of police of the city. The chief’s own supervisor is the mayor of the city, a white leftist Democrat. The state governor is a Democrat.

Although, the employer denies they did, it’s difficult to believe that the police officer and the victim did not know each other because they both worked security part-time for the same nightclub for several years. (What often takes place in and outside nightclubs unavoidably rises to my mind, of course.) I am asserting here that it’s not obvious to me that the crime is racially motivated, just because the perpetrator is white and the victim black. It may well be but the fact has to be established separately.

Within days, the officer who did the killing is arrested and charged with second degree murder. The other three officers are also arrested shortly and charged as something like being accessories to the alleged crime. The state prosecutor is a black deputy state attorney general. The federal Justice Department is conducting its own investigation that may result in separate charges and in separate convictions.

Federally mandated rules are such a that in both state juries and in an eventual federal jury, racial representation will reflect the relevant city’s racial composition. For my overseas readers who are addicted to 1960s American movies about racism in America, it means that there is zero chance that the officers will be tried by all-white juries, either state or federal, zero.

Two weeks later, a white Atlanta police officer shoots in the back a black suspect originally stopped for drunkenness who is both fleeing and pointing a weapon at him. This event adds fuel to the nation-wide fire of popular indignation, of course.

There were immediately protest demonstration against the first killing in Minneapolis that quickly spread to the whole country. A leading rallying cry in all was a demand for “justice.” This can be interpreted in different ways. Since the police officers involved were quickly charged and arrested, it must not be justice for George Floyd, the Minneapolis victim, specifically, that was demanded because everything our justice system allows was done promptly. What else can anyone want, Chinese Communist justice? (Charged in the morning, tried in the afternoon, executed the same evening.)

A partial but solid answer to the question, “justice for whom?” is that many claim that Mr Floyd’s death is a symbol, also a sample, of widespread societal violence against African Americans in general. The underlying implication is that in many cases – unlike in the killing of Mr Floyd – this violence is inflicted by parties unknown and probably unknowable (hence, the “systemic” qualifier) but specifically on the basis of race. This is like treating this horrible incident as the tip of an iceberg. Such treatment of course calls for an answer to the question: How big is the rest of the iceberg?

I need to detour here to remind the reader of what this essay is not about. It’s not about police brutality but about the possible victimization of African Americans by all, including the police. The USA has a serious problem of police brutality. I don’t mean the federal government, I mean states, counties and cities. So, in this country and proportionately, about ten times more people are killed by police every year than in France, for example. And, the French police is not especially pacific (as compared to the exemplary English police, for instance), and it frequently faces well armed gangsters, as well as terrorists. (An in-depth investigation of unpunished French police brutality aired by Envoyé Spécial on TV5 5/25/20 indicates that a parlous situation exists in France in that respect.)

Incidentally, most of the police practice reforms proposed by Pres. Trump in June 2020 make sense to me although I don’t understand how any of this is constitutionally any of the federal government’s business. I would wish in addition for an experimental temporary moratorium on the police use of choke-holds and a partial elimination of the qualified immunity police enjoy in most places in the US. In brief, I think that even when police brutality is self-evident -as I think is the case with the Floyd killing – a racial dimension must be demonstrated separately. I will show below with figures how necessary this injunction is.

[Editor’s note: you read Part 3 here, or the whole essay here.]

Systemic Racism: a Rationalist Take (Part 3 of 9)

Historical Guilt

What could induce enough guilt in numerous enough Americans to lead to an acceptance of the belief of racism without racists? I have in mind here, specifically, white Americans. For this relative outsider (again, I am an immigrant), the answer is obvious: white America has never really digested, assimilated the true story of the two and half centuries of unrelenting atrocities that was slavery. (Many conservatives demonstrate daily on talk radio that they have not.)

Evidence in support lies in areas where interest should exist but does not. So, for example, outside of professional historians’ circles, there is no discussion of the interesting fact that most black Americans are considerably lighter skinned than the African populations whence they originate. There is no discussion either of the related fact that the freeing of slaves on the owner’s death was so common in the antebellum South that several southern states made laws seeking to restrict and contain the practice as a public danger. One major reason that manumission was common was that it was how white owners could protect their slave children from beyond the grave. Stop and ask yourself what simple behavior might explain both facts. (Incidentally, some fiction readings have led me to believe that there exists some consciousness of the same facts in small southern towns. There, white people kind of know who are their distant black cousins.) I am referring to a long history of rape, of course. (I assume that property cannot give sexual consent.) Many white Americans know of slavery without really knowing much about it. I only spent one year in an American high school, long ago, but I remember that the one American history class I took had little to say about slavery. It was like painted over.

American public opinion of the left has largely adopted the systemic racism narrative since about the nineteen-seventies. It has been taught in nearly all universities since that time. Much progress in racial integration has also meant that many more whites now than then actually know some African Americans personally. This may prevent them from treating blacks in general with the indifference reserved for abstractions. Be it as it may this adoption of the systemic racism idea by whites on the current left is surprising because the adopters mostly vote Democrat and, historically, the Democratic Party is the party of both slavery and legal segregation. (Even more surprising, of course is the fact that African Americans themselves overwhelmingly vote for the same party with a charged racial past.)

Finally, and subjectively, the word “systemic” has a nice ring to it. It sounds sort of technical, or even scientific. Its very use is vaguely status-enhancing (I suspect some liberals are proud that they don’t confuse it with the more common, low-brow “systematic” but, that’s just me.) In the end, the word is intended to convey the abstract concept that racist actions take place even if no one is explicitly acting racist. That’s a valuable idea politically because it spares those who use it the exacting burden of demonstrating the existence of a guilty party and also the burden of convicting him or it.

[Editor’s note: you can find Part 2 here, or read the whole thing here.]

Systemic Racism: a Rationalist Take (Part 2 of 9)

The Vanishing of Personalized Racism

Not long ago, in my lifetime, racism in America consisted of tangible actions against members of a given physically recognizable group motivated by their belonging to that group. The actions could be individual, such as slurs proffered by a stranger in the street, or variously collective like a company’s deliberate refusal to hire members of a race, or the informal exclusion of members of a race by labor unions, or democratically produced legislation barring members of a race from specified public places, or even from some occupations. One major expression of racism was the separation of children in different and unequal schools according to race.

All these situations have one thing in common: someone, or an identifiable corporate entity is doing the racist act they describe. (I am leaving out racist feelings and racist attitudes and ideas on purpose both because I believe they matter little in the end and because I can deal with only one controversy at a time. Yes, there are attitudinal racists in the USA.) This fact, the identifiable presence of racially motivated actors as consequences for remediation of racism: Any doer of a racist action may possibly be caused to desist, through punishment, intimidation, or even education. The doers of racism in all these cases constitute clear targets for attempted social change.

The USA spent much of the second half of the 20th century eradicating the familiar forms of racism I exemplify above. Then, and in the absence of the traditional and familiar causal evidence, ideologists devised the concept of “systemic” racism. I think it means racism without racists. The absence of a defined evildoer and the replacement of conventionally defined racism by “systemic racism” was bound to produce a bifurcated response. On the one hand, some would shrug and think that if there is no evildoer, there is probably no evil. On the other hand, others will equally say, evil is pervasive; it can’t be pinned down precisely because it’s everywhere. It seems to me that the second position requires a suspension of critical judgment. This suspension in turn is well served by poorly defined emotions, such as diffuse collective guilt, and by wholesale ignorance of facts. I mean deliberate, strategic ignorance as well as honest ignorance.

[Editor’s note, you can read Part 1 here, or read the entire essay here.]

Systemic Racism: a Rationalist Take (Part 1 of 9)

Foreword

This is a freewheeling and personal essay on the term “systemic racism.” It’s not an empirical study but it’s mindful of facts. It blends my observations as a rationalist with my frankly conservative leanings. I am a religiously indifferent conservative of the constitutionalist, small government breed. I judge representative government the very best we can do right now. As a conservative, I believe that only individuals matter and that they all have equal rights. The most important phrase for me in the American founding documents is “…and the pursuit of happiness.” It means that everyone can do whatever he damn well please, including things that I dislike. I distrust all systems.

I am a white immigrant from Europe. I have lived in the US for fifty- seven years, longer than most of the native-born. Thus, I saw – briefly – the last vestiges of legal racial segregation. I was in this country during most of the Civil Rights movement but too new to become involved. Later, I was an active opponent to American participation in the Vietnam War. My immediate family is composed of people of color for some purposes but not for most, including with respect to federal minority protection. I live in a part of California where there are few African Americans. I am pretty sure there is no local tradition of oppression of African Americans, no heritage of either slavery or of black racial segregation. This fact may induce a degree of blindness. In my area, something like 30 to 40% of the population is of Mexican origin. I would guess that most of those are recognizable as such. The rarity of demeaning jokes about Hispanics tells me there is next to nothing locally by way of ethnic tensions between Anglos and Hispanic.

I am a sociologist by trade, with a doctorate from a good university. I have a decent scholarly track record, as a sociologist, precisely. (See vita. The vita linked there is unusually thorough.) In spite of such credentials, I find the concept of systemic racism difficult to comprehend. Or perhaps, it’s because of those good credentials. Yet, as I have said, this little essay is not a work of sociology. It’s a rational but personal attempt to frame an issue – systemic racism – that is both salient and recurrent. Sorry: I had to introduce myself at some length for the benefit of those who believe there is no such thing as objective truth.

[Editor’s note: this is the first post in a 9-part series. You can read the essay in its entirety here.]

A Rare Civilized Exchange with the Other Side

I had an unusual experience yesterday and today, a civilized exchange with a liberal. It was on Facebook. I think it’s worth sharing, maybe only as curiosity.


Jacques Delacroix to S.R.S.: I am reading you and your accomplices between the lines. Is it true that you have trouble imagining any Trump supporter as reasonably intelligent, reasonably well informed, and well aware of Mr Trump’s rather obvious shortfalls? Just asking.

S.R.S. to Jacques Delacroix: Speaking only for myself: I don’t have trouble imagining that at all. It helps that I have maintained FB friendships with a number of them, obviously including you, but also others, some of whom I know (or once knew) in real life and not just on FB. I certainly understand that there are those out there who like tax cuts for corporations and individuals (even when slanted toward the already wealthy), who generally want to repeal government regulations on business, and who want highly conservative judges and Justices–all standard Republican fare and key accomplishments of the Trump administration.

I assume many of these conservatives are well aware that Trump has a “room temperature IQ” (quoting you, I believe, but I’m not positive of that), that Trump talks before he thinks (let alone consults with actual experts), and that his rhetoric borders on xenophobic and authoritarian. The mantra is: “don’t worry; he’s not DOING those things, and his talk won’t hurt anything; or at least it will hurt less than if a Democrat were in the White House.”

I’m deeply opposed on the policy positions, and I’m sometimes baffled by some typical conservative positions (e.g., deficits are anathema except when it is a Republican President), but I know there are intelligent people on both sides.

As I said (earlier in this post or somewhere similar), I’m more concerned than those conservatives about the long-term damage being done by the authoritarian and arguably xenophobic rhetoric coming straight from the highest office in the land.

And in general, I’m very concerned about the demonization of political opponents (“Cheatin’ Obama” is one case in point, or calling his political opponents and the reporters in the press “evil” people). Trump didn’t invent it, and the Democrats do some of it too. But I believe the rhetoric has grown exponentially under Trump (after all, a constant refrain of his campaign was that he would imprison his opponent), and I think it is highly corrosive to the possibility of genuine democracy. I am saddened, and scared, by the fact that most conservatives in power and their supporters on the ground either don’t see this as a problem, or see it as less concerning than the possibility of a moderate Democrat in the White House.

Jacques Delacroix to S.R.S. Thanks for taking the trouble. I recognize most of what you are saying and I even agree with some. Certainly, this includes the deficit spending pre-dating the epidemic. Mr Trump is certainly not my idea of a good conservative. (More on this below.) I am baffled by your description of him as authoritarian. He has used executive orders much less than his predecessor. (“I have a pen and a phone.” Obama) He has not bragged about doing so. He has not tried to circumvent the constitutional order. (Whatever he has said, including recently, he has not tried.) I am open to instruction on authoritarianism. It really matters to me. There is nothing I detest more. But, please, limit yourself to deeds; I already know about the logorrhea. As for his being “xenophobic,” it’s one of those political correctness inspired statements I suspect is devoid of meaning. I am obviously a foreigner. “Yes but you are white.” My wife is a woman of color. She voted for him; she will again, without compunction. I feel (feel, don’t know to corroborate it) that your distaste and that of your tribe, and shared by some Republicans, is something else, something like caste rejection. I stated that Mr Trump is not my idea of a good conservative. In this connection, I, but also you, are faced with the following two quandaries about the functioning of our political institutions.

First, how could Mr Trump -with his obvious personal shortcomings – have so easily triumphed in a field of 18 other Rep. candidates, most of whom looked viable? In this connection, I think his ascendancy among blue-collar workers needs to be explained. The Dem Party should do the explaining.

Second, how could the Dem end up producing the enormously damaged good that is Mrs Clinton in 2016. (I know you don’t appreciate name calling, but she is obviously a major crook, in my book.) How could the higher ranks of the Dem Party openly scheme against Sen. Sander? (He is a man I know well because I used to be him, when we were both 25.) I think he is a little dumb but no doubt honest. Plus, his program was clear. He would have given Mr Trump a run for his money, including among people like me who are used to choosing between the lesser of two or more evils. Furthermore, how can the Dem Party, only three years later, come up for a candidate with the mental shipwreck that is Mr Biden? This is downright strange. Conventional explanations just won’t do. As I explained recently [hereBC] , I smell a rat, here again.

PS I don’t think I said that Mr Trump had a room temperature IQ because I don’t believe it for a second. Rather, I must have attributed this belief to liberals. PS2. There are different kinds of name calling. Mr Trump’s schoolyard variety is entertaining and rather innocent as compared to everything else. If it makes his adversaries lose their cool, that’s fine with me. In the 19th century, there was an inspired politician who claimed that his opponent’s sister was a “Thespian.” I like that. Thank for your attention.


S.R.S. declined to pursue this further. He mentioned two books.

The Biden Rat

I don’t like the crucifixion of poor old Joe Biden (who denied everything today – finally). This, for two unrelated reasons.

First, during the Kavanaugh hearings, I answered firmly the question, “Do women lie?” Yes, some women lie some of the time (as absolutely anyone, male or female, over six well knows.) Do some women lie about sexual harassment? My answer, based on intuition but fed by some experience is also, “Yes.”

I am not changing my mind because it would be convenient to do so. Mr Biden’s accuser deserves to be heard; Mr Biden deserves the civilized presumption of innocence.

Second, and much more importantly, I smell a big rat. I doubt that Republicans would under their own power, resuscitate the charge against Mr Biden because those who live in glass houses…. Rather, I suspect (without proof so far) that there is a concerted effort from the higher ranks of the Dem party to disqualify Mr Biden.

I imagine they have finally understood what a miserable, pathetic candidate Mr Biden is. (For one thing, it’s unthinkable that he could debate Mr Trump on TV.) I think they are engineering a coup, a way to get rid of him, and to replace him at the last minute with someone nobody selected in a primary process. A few names come to mind beginning with Mrs Clinton who is still owed a presidency, somehow.

Or, it was the plan all along and the Dem elite never meant for Mr Biden to be President. Does this sound paranoid? For sure but, do you remember what happened to the Sander candidacy in 2016. Anyone who would have predicted this sort of machination in 2015 would have been called paranoid. I would have joined in.

I am disturbed both by the sheer evilness of what I think is going on, and by the likely noxious consequence for the election. I don’t especially wish for Mr Trump, preoccupied by persecutions with an illegal and an immoral basis (we now know) throughout his administration to be forced to pivot at the last minute and have to face a more vigorous opponent for whom he is not prepared.

Those Republicans who gleefully join in the prosecution/persecution of Mr Biden are not thinking clearly.