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.

Nightcap

  1. The world forager elite Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias
  2. The novel and the middle class Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
  3. The new leftist imagination Alexandra Marraccini, LARB
  4. Slavery and the Asante Empire Lipton Matthews, Mises Wire

The importance of gardening, isonomia, federation, and free banking

I’ve recently taken up gardening, in a very amateurish way. Right now I’ve got two plants growing out of a bucket filled with dirt. I water them every day. I talk to them. I rotate them so that different sides face the sun at different times of the day. I spray them with water, too. I have no idea what they are. I suspected they might be peppers, but I’m not sure now because there are tiny white flowers that bloom and then quickly wilt away.

I plan on building a few garden beds when I finally buy a house.

I have become convinced that if Charlie Citrine had simply taken up gardening he would not have gotten into all that trouble.


As a libertarian I think three topics are going to be huge over the next few decades: 1) inequality, 2) foreign policy/IR, and 3) financial markets. Libertarians have great potential for all three arguments, but they also have some not-so-great alternatives, too.

1) Libertarians are terrible on inequality. We try to ignore it. Jacques’ debt-based approach to reparations for slavery is as good as any for addressing inequality in the US. In addition to reparations for slavery, I think Hayek’s concept of isonomia is a great avenue for thinking through inequality at the international level. (I even thought about renaming this consortium “Isonomia” at one point in time.) Isonomia argues for political equality rather than any of the other equalities out there.

2) I think federation as a foreign policy is a great avenue for libertarians to pursue. It’s much better than non-interventionism or the status quo. It’s more libertarian, too. Federation addresses the questions of entrance and exit. It allows for political equality and market competition and open borders. It also takes into account bad international state actors like Russia and China. Dismantling the American overseas empire is needed, but large minorities want the US to stay in their countries. Leaving billions of people at the mercy of illiberal states like Russia and China is morally repugnant and short-sighted (i.e. stupid). It’d be better to dismantle the American empire via federation.

3) Free banking is a wonderful way forward for libertarians to address financial markets. Finance is a boogieman for the Left and can be used as a scapegoat on the Right. They’re not wrong. Financial markets need to be reexamined, and libertarians easily have the best alternative to the status quo out there.

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 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.]

Nightcap

  1. Don’t wait for the government, DIY Karen Grépin, Duck of Minerva
  2. Actually, we need price gouging Antonis Giannakopoulos, Power & Market
  3. California, slavery, and the Gold Rush Paul Finkelman, LARB
  4. Wakaliwood, the homegrown Ugandan film industry Richard Whittaker, Austin Chronicle

Nightcap

  1. When things fall apart Jessica Moody, Africa is a Country
  2. Giving globalization a bad name Arnold Kling, askblog
  3. American slavery’s best essay in years Wilfred Reilly, Quillette
  4. Zara Steiner, historian, 1928-2020 Paul Kennedy, Financial Times

Nightcap

  1. Slavery and Anglo-American capitalism Gavin Wright, The Long Run
  2. How the law creates both wealth and inequality Adam Tooze, NYRB
  3. On immigration, Democrats should listen to Gorsuch Ian Millhiser, Vox
  4. Separatists arrested for fraud in Indonesia Arya Dipa, Jakarta Post

130 years of Republic in Brazil

Yesterday Brazil celebrated 130 years of Republic. It might be a personal impression but it seems to me that there is growing support for monarchy among conservatives. It’s very funny.

Brazil was initially a monarchy. Dom Pedro I, the prince regent of Portugal, declared Brazil’s independence from his father’s country in 1822. But he had to go back to Portugal less than 10 years later, leaving his son, Dom Pedro II, in Brazil. Dom Pedro II was too young to govern, and the 1830s were a mess in Brazil. When he effectively became emperor, things got much better.

Dom Pedro II ruled Brazil for about 50 years. To my knowledge, he was a wise man, genuinely concerned about Brazil. The 1824 Constitution was fairly liberal, and so were the emperors. Centrally, Dom Pedro II wanted to abolish slavery, but he was going against Brazilian elites on this. It’s not a coincidence that slavery was abolished in 1888 and the monarchy fell in the next year.

To my knowledge, Brazil had two good emperors and the constitution that ruled the country at that time was mostly good. However, Brazil was extremely oligarchal, and there was little that the emperors could do about that. I believe that Dom Pedro II was a wise and patient man, who slowly did the reforms the country needed.

I don’t know if Dom Pedro II’s daughter, Isabel, would have been a good empress. But I know that Dom Pedro II himself didn’t offer resistance when some republicans changed the regime. He peacefully went to exile in Europe. Dom Pedro manifested on some occasions that he was a republican. Maybe he was being ironic. Maybe not. In any case, I believe that he was glad to see the country coming to age, and being able to take care of itself without an emperor.

The first 40 years of Republic were not too bad. They were not perfect either! Slavery didn’t make a comeback. The republican constitution was written after the American one. The economy was mostly free, was it not so from the fact that coffee oligarchies ruled things to benefit their business. Things got really bad when the horrendous dictator Getúlio Vargas came to power in 1930.

I think there is something funny in the way some conservatives miss the monarchy. It wasn’t too bad. But it was also a time when Brazil suffered a lot under slavery and oligarchy. I’m certainly not sure if the monarchy was the best antidote to that.

Nightcap

  1. What if peasants do not want to move to cities? Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
  2. Mass underemployment Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  3. The prospects for Islamic State Patrick Cockburn, London Review of Books
  4. Slavery reparations revisited Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth

Nightcap

  1. Slavery as free trade Blake Smith, Aeon
  2. Yay Democracy Dollars Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias
  3. Edward Snowden’s education Christian Lorentzen, LRB
  4. American hillbillies Jacques Delacroix, NOL

Nightcap

  1. Why Islamic debates over slavery still matter Bruce Clark, Erasmus
  2. Stealing corpses in Gabon Lionel Ikogou-Renamy, Africa is a Country
  3. The last of the Beatniks Kaya Oakes, Commonweal
  4. Subscription capitalism Tim Gooding, American Affairs

Nightcap

  1. A German history of the Balkans Tony Barber, Financial Times
  2. A Brazilian history of the Atlantic slave trade Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, Not Even Past
  3. A conservative history of America at its peak Ross Douthat, New York Times
  4. The emotional lives of others Andrew Beatty, Aeon

Nightcap

  1. Trump’s “Salute to America” is a salute to government employees Ryan McMaken, Power & Market
  2. Oligarchs and oligarchs Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
  3. The deleted clause of the Declaration of Independence Kevin Kallmes, NOL
  4. Class and optimism Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling

Nightcap

  1. A Mexican perspective on NAFTA Roberto Salinas-Leon, Law & Liberty
  2. Prosperity, the periphery, and the future of France Andrew Hussey, Literary Review
  3. The Indian Ocean slave trade Geoffrey Clarfield, Quillette
  4. The meaning of the exoplanet revolution Caleb Scharf, Aeon