- Rousseau and the republicanization of money Oliver Weber, JHIBlog
- Model minorities and the Japanese-American experience Nathaniel Sumimoto, Current Affairs
- The uneasy afterlife of “A Confederacy of Dunces” Tom Bissell, New Yorker
- 10 deadliest riots in American history RealClearHistory
I have to report that I think my advancing age is not preventing me from gathering facts and exercising criticality. (Sorry, Joe; I don’t mean to put you down. – Joe Biden and I are the same age. But, I know what I am talking about.)
The year 2020 was rough, of course, not so much for me or for my wife Krishna, as for our children and others we love. For the two of us, sheltering in place did not really change our habits all that much except that our shopping for ourselves became progressively more limited. We didn’t party much before; we did not party in 2020. We had not partied that much in 2019. (That’s unless you count staying up until eleven pm with a small glass of Marsala as partying.) We might start partying in 2021 but it’s not all that likely!
The COVID affair did two things for me. First it reminded me of what a thin veneer rationality really is in Western society. We saw many lose their cool and accept the unacceptable. I was reminded also of something I knew in my bones, from thirty years of teaching: Even otherwise educated people don’t know how to deal with simple numbers. So, 320,000 excess deaths from the C-virus for a population of 320 million correspond to an excess death rate of 0.001. That’s one per thousand; it’s a very small figure. (I am deliberately leaving aside the idea that the number of deaths from COVID is almost certainly overestimated in this country. One problem at a time works best.) If people understood how small the number is, they would respond accordingly that is, with calm, perhaps. The evidence of innumeracy is all over our media, and all over Facebook, on all political sides. I don’t know why we keep doing such a piss-poor job teaching basic math. (It’s been like this as far back as I can remember.) Perhaps, it’s because people who can’t count don’t know that they can’t count.
Speaking of innumeracy, another topic rises to my mind irrepressibly. Above, I was referring to the task of interpreting simple fractions for example. There is something else missing among those, specifically, who are tasked with explaining what causes what, and who take the task seriously. People so engaged have always had to deal with two problems. First, there are multiple real causes to the thing they wish to understand, multiple causes of different strengths. So, weight gain is influenced both by calorie intake and by amount and intensity of exercise; fact. Calorie intake counts more than exercise. Second, there are possible causes that may not be causes at all. So, in addition to the two causes above, one may believe that weight gain is influenced by the ambient temperature. (It’s not.) Well it turns out that there is a series of tools that help understand better both kinds of problem. I mean much better.
There exists a toolbox called “econometrics” that does exactly that. It’s far from new. I learned econometrics in the seventies, and I was not a pioneer. Media explainers have evidently no acquaintance with it and probably don’t even know the tools exists. Now, I don’t want to give the wrong impression, learning econometrics is not light intellectual lifting but it’s within the reach of any smart person with a little time. I am baffled by the fact that something so obviously useful to figure out with real data whether X causes Y, in addition to Z, has failed to leach into ordinary educated society in fifty years and more. It’s discouraging about the pace of, or even the reality of progress.
The second important thing that happened in 2020 is that government at all levels gave us striking examples of its incompetence, and further, of its tendency immediately to turn tyrannical when frustrated. In the US and in France (whose case I am following pretty closely in the French media), government decisions have ruined a good part of the economy without real explanation being forthcoming. I mean closing by force thousands of small businesses that have little or no chance of recovering. I mean closing schools which prevents some, or many parents from going to work. The explanations for such actions are too light-weight to be taken seriously and they are frequently reversed like this: X causes Y; Ooops! X does not cause Y, Ooops! X does cause Y, sort of… Sometimes, often, good government consists in doing less rather than more: “We don’t know; do what you think is right,” at the most local level possible.
And, speaking of everyday government incompetence: The state of California wants to eliminate all internal combustion engines cars (and my own little pick-up truck) within fifteen years, to replace them with all-electric vehicles. That’s in a state where the local (PG&E, in central California) power monopoly has chronic trouble merely keeping the lights on. So, the question arises: Does the State of California really not know or does it know and not care (because it’s all about saving the planet)? I am not even sure which answer I prefer.
In the US, in addition to the COVID pandemic, we had a half a year of riots and burning of businesses, all in large cities held by Democrats for a long time. The inability, or the unwillingness, to stop the civil strife was striking. It expressed either a stunning degree of incompetence, or of complicity with the rioters. One explanation does not exclude the other, of course: Personal cowardice can easily hide under ideological fellowship. And ideology can generate cowardice.
In the minds of small government conservatives like me, the minimal task of government is to keep order so that individuals and companies can go about their constructive business. Local government largely failed in America in 2020. Extreme libertarians were more right than I thought. I wonder, of course, how much worse it would have been if a liberal had held the presidency instead of Donald Trump.
Government demonstrated to me in 2020 that it tends to be both incompetent and tyrannical. The thought crosses my mind that if it were more competent, it would be less inclined to tyranny.
The riots were adroitly attached to protests against the deaths of black suspects at the hands of police in questionable circumstances. They were staged as anti-racist protests, and especially as protests against “systemic racism.” I have already written why I think the police killings of black citizens in general are not racist acts. (Note: This is a long article. It can be read in nine segments, for convenience.)
I have also argued that in today’s America, systemic racism is too hard to find to lose sleep over it. Black Lives Matter, the organization, did almost all of the staging. It’s an organization of professional Marxist revolutionaries. I believe they are merely using alleged racism as a means to trigger a revolution in the US, or at least, to make their brand of statism gain ground, or at worst, to earn some credibility among the ill-read but well-intentioned.
In spite of the mendacity of the BLM campaign in every way, it may have done some good simply by drawing attention. I have always thought that American society has never really digested the fact of slavery. I mean the fact that it was 250 years of unrelenting atrocities. Some good may come from greater and deeper knowledge of that past. Same reason I am horrified by the brutal removal of statues and by the biased (“woke”) erasure of history going on in the streets and in universities as I write. Not facing the legitimate grievances about yesterday is like asking for insidious and endless blackmail today. That’s what we have now. There is a better way.
Do I think the Democrats, some Dems, stole the presidential election? I am not sure. I am sure of two things however: Many Democrats in several locations tried to steal it as much as they could. Some have argue in their defense that it was just “normal” cheating, that it happens the same every year. I want to know more about that. The second thing is that – to my knowledge (I am educable) there have been few or no complaints of cheating against Republican entities. Electoral cheating is a Democratic specialty.
Stealing a word from conservative commentator, Mark Stein, I fear we are entering a post-constitutional era. I don’t know what to do about it. I wish secession were more practical. It’s happening anyway on a small scale with tens of thousands voting with their feet by leaving California and New York State. It’s a first step. If the federal government would shrink some, I could imagine that this sort of peaceful partial secession would work for all: a Middle America centered on Texas, and an Extreme America based in California and New York State. The two parts linked in a loose confederacy. (Oops, wrong word!) Unfortunately, there is no miracle in sight by which the federal structure will become more skinny, with a shorter reach.
2020 saw the dramatic introduction of censorship and also of guided thought throughout the social media. If capitalism is allowed to function, the giant privately held businesses responsible for these poisons, and first and foremost Facebook, will have to withstand the emergence of rivals that will compete on that basis, precisely. I have tried one such and it did not work for me. There is no reason why there can’t be more, better ones. In the worst scenario with which I come up, the forces of darkness cannot eradicate capitalism fast enough to prevent this from happening. That’s my optimistic prediction for 2021 and beyond.
Other interesting things have happened to me that are kind of hard by their nature to recall. Here is the main one. As anthropogenic global warming became the state religion in many places, including to an extent, in the US, its narrative lost its remaining credibility in my mind. (Ask me why.)
Finally, we saw again that Communist China is too big and too powerful for a country that does not share our values. I refer to mass imprisonment without trial and outside the law, extra-judicial kidnapping by the government, guaranteed non-freedom of the press. This is true even if most rank-and-file Chinese citizens are satisfied with their government. (They may well be.) I am not Chinese myself. Chinese economic power has to be restricted (even if doing so is unfair). The influence of the Chinese Communists in America must be constrained. If Finland, for example were as big as Communist China, I wouldn’t mind so much, or at all.
I wish all of us a better year, more wisdom, more intellectual honesty, the ability peacefully and firmly to resist creeping tyranny.
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” 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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
- NYC public schools Conor Friedersdorf, Atlantic
- The realism of magic John Gray, New Statesman
- How the Black Sea shaped the ancient Mediterranean world Douglas Boin, History Today
- How not to read Bernard Bailyn Asheesh Siddique, Age of Revolutions
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?
Kamala Harris est-elle un femme de gauche?
Kamal Harris est-elle une centriste?
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.
- The Left is hardly enamored with John Roberts Lithwick & Stern, Slate
- Not all the facts fit the anti-colonialist narrative Remi Adekoya, UnHerd
- Facing up to Woodrow Wilson’s true legacy Adekeye Adebajo, TLS
- American racism and India’s caste system Sunil Khilnani, New Yorker
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.