Sunday, June 28, 2015

Cause and context

In the postwar period, the Democratic candidate for President has received a majority of votes cast in precisely four elections: Johnson 1964 (53.4%), Carter 1976 (50.1%), Obama 2008 (52.9%), Obama 2012 (51.1%). Which makes the first African-American President the only Democratic candidate to get a majority of the votes cast twice in the postwar period. (It is entirely possible to win US Presidential elections without getting a majority of votes cast, as was managed by Truman in 1948, Kennedy in 1960, Nixon in 1968, Clinton in 1992 and 1996, and Bush II in 2000--in the last case, the Electoral College winner infamously did not even get a plurality of votes cast.)

Obama's election results were in line with economist Douglas Hibbs's "peace and bread" (pdf) model of US elections: bang on in the case of 2008, a bit above in 2012. (Indeed, Obama's 2012 performance in bettering the line of best fit is roughly equal to Nixon's 1972 win and only clearly beaten by Clinton's 1996 win.) An even simpler model based on growth in per capita national income also puts his 2008 vote as bang on what was predicted, a bit above in 2012.

So, the evidence suggests that Obama has been electorally a strong candidate for the Democratic Party. Yet, it has been argued, using regression analysis on survey evidence (pdf), that race denied Obama the landslide he would otherwise have had in 2008: reducing his vote by 5 % points. A study using Google searches as an indicator of racism (pdf), and comparing to 2004 results by county, suggested that race reduced Obama's votes by a net 4% points in 2008 and 2012.

Now, in tight races, a 4 or 5% point disadvantage is a big deal. I am a little sceptical, simply because it would have moved Obama into being even more of a standout electoral success for the Democratic Party than he already was--given that he already achieved half the winning-a-majority Presidential elections that the Democrats have managed in the postwar era. Indeed, adding 5% points to Obama's 2008 total would have made him the most successful non-incumbent Presidential candidate in the postwar period--beating ideologically moderate war hero Eisenhower's 57.1% result in 1952 after 20 years of Democratic Presidents. It would even have beaten FDR's 57.4% in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression. I am particularly sceptical of the Google-search paper, because it suggests that the experience of 4 years of Obama as President had no effect, when continuing knowledge of a particular person tends to increase their salience as an individual and reduce their salience as a member of a category.

The stunning retreat of US racism
But let us accept that 5% points (since the Google study found that Obama received a 1% point advantage from being African-American and a 5% point disadvantage, giving a net 4% point effect) was the "won't vote for him because he is black" effect. That means 95% of the US electorate did not vote (negatively) on the basis of his race--at least in the sense that other considerations were more important to them. Even if we just assume that 5% were all whites, an overwhelming majority of white voters judged other considerations as more important. That is, in the context of the US's long and vicious history of racism, remarkable. (Clearly, what was by far most important to US voters was which Party he belonged to, followed by the state of the economy.)

Obama's electoral success is hardly the only indicator of massive change on this front. In 1958, 4% of Americans polled approved of interracial marriage. By 2013, 86% of Americans polled approved of interracial marriage. That includes 84% of white Americans (96% of black Americans).

It is notable that interracial marriage only achieved majority support in polling in the mid 1990s. So, about 20 years ago: around 30 years after the US Supreme Court ruled bans on interracial marriage unconstitutional in Loving v Virginia (1967). But polling support has continued to climb to the extent that approval of interracial marriage is way into the social consensus area. Support is lower among older Americans, but reaches 96% among 18-29 year olds, 93% among 30-49 year olds. Even in the South, overall support reaches 83% support, while in the West 93%. Inter-marriage rates are also rising.

None of this means that anti-black racism has vanished: it does mean that it is a pale shadow of its former self. One suspects largely confined to the malice of low status whites: for whom the effortless status of racism is a compensation for lack of social significance. Malice that is mostly petty but sometimes very much not. (The perpetrator of the Charleston massacre seems to fall into the category of being homicidally frustrated not to be a member of a master race.)

By contrast, antipathy to queer folk is still much more widespread (particularly among African-Americans): in significant part because there are mainstream institutions (in the form of many Churches, synagogues and mosques) still pushing denial of equal protection of the law: something that is absent in the case of racism. Indeed, one of the most respected institutions in US life, the US military, is particularly strongly committed to racial integration and has been for decades.

All of which means the long campaign against racism has been a stunning success: not an absolute success, but a stunning success nevertheless.

So, the question is, why?

Losing functionality
A major reason I would suggest is: racism lost a lot of its functionality--particularly its institutional functionality. Once the civil rights campaigns had led to the abolition of Jim Crow, anti-black racism lost a lot of its point. Moral exclusion such as racism is often about creating social cartels, denying out-groups access to social goods: and Jim Crow set up a series of massive social cartels that were very much about denying blacks access to social goods. Without legal enforcement, the racial social cartels broke down and so racism lost a lot of its point.

Moreover, the aura of social heroism was captured by the civil rights movement, not its opponents. Opposition to racism was heroic (people literally risked, and lost, their lives); support of racism brutal and reactionary. These factors are far from the full story (why did the civil rights movement win in the first place?), but I would suggest they are a lot of the story. The wider story being part of social psychologist Steven Pinker's identification of shifting moral perspectives: the civilising process as moralising process.

Creating social cartels
A classic example of racism being driven by creation of social cartels were the Iberian "cleanliness of the blood" laws, where Jewish converts to Christianity were excluded from various offices across generations. As far as I am aware, they were the first European laws which blocked legal rights on the basis of descent. A massive step in the direction of being Jewish not being merely a religious category (which could be left by conversion) but becoming an inherent category, regardless of religion.

Slavery was a somewhat similar case. Racism did not cause slavery. Slavery way predates anything that might reasonably be called racism. Slavery was, however, massively involved in the development of racism. Specifically, the enslavement of sub-Saharan Africans. The earliest significant anti-black racism developed in Muslim North Africa, to justify not converting black Africans to Islam, so they could continue to be subject to mass enslaving. In ibn Khaldun's (1332-1406) words:
the Negro nations are, as a rule, submissive to slavery, because [Negroes] have little [that is essentially] human and have attributes that are quite similar to those of dumb animals, as we have stated.
Even now, many Arabic speakers use the word 'abd, "slave", to refer to people of sub-Saharan African descent. Anti-black racism lingers on in the Arab world.

With the development of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the same logic applied in the Christian colonies of the Americas. Since all slaves in the Americas were black (something that had never been true in any other civilisation), why was it OK to have black slaves? Clearly, because they were "inferior" beings, suitable to being treated as mere property.

The Enlightenment made things worse for enslaved Africans in the Americas, particularly the new United States. If the Thirteen Colonies declared independence in the name of:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Then how could they hold slaves? Well, clearly because they did not count because they were ... black. Which the US Supreme Court decided was literally the case in Dredd Scott v Sandford (1857). Short of simple extermination, there is no more pervasive or vicious social cartel than owning other people as property. Doing so along a colour line naturally generates racism: indeed, a particularly virulent form of the same. 

Along comes the US Civil War (which a reading of the Confederate Constitution demonstrates was most emphatically about slavery) and the Thirteenth Amendment. Slavery was abolished, but most Southern whites did not want political or economic competition from the freed former slaves (all blacks). So, using brutality and violence, Jim Crow was established. A new set of social cartels, both political and economic, enforced in part by simple mob homicide (i.e. lynchings). 

Then, decades later, comes the aforementioned civil rights campaigns, and Jim Crow is abolished. The racial social cartels lose their state backing. Such social cartels do not immediately all disappear (and were not all in the South), but begin to be regularly overturned by civil rights suits and prosecutions. Racism loses much of its functionality, so begins to fade.

In large part by simple generational change. As people grew up in a world where the civil rights movements are seen as heroic, and the racial social cartels had lost their state backing and faded away, racism lost its social function and social power. There is still the residual appeal of effortless status--particularly among those otherwise lacking in social status--but that is simply nowhere near enough on its own for racism to be anything more than a pale shadow of its former self. (Though its consequences linger on.)

Complexities and cartels
Yet, American society has become, if anything, ever more hyper-concerned about racism. Partly, that is the fervour of the convert. Partly because, as racism fades, the role of low social capital in the problems of African-American communities becomes ever more salient, and that is a way more difficult and complex issue than being against racism. Thus diagnosing racism--when confronted with negative disproportions by race--is simple and therefore comforting: all the easier a path as the effects of low social capital and the effects of racism present in very similar ways (notably, various negative disproportions) and the former shades into the lingering shadows of racism.

Just to add to the complexity, there is unconscious discrimination: often a matter of familiarity preference (which is likely general among human populations), but it still leads to racial bias in decision-making and so social opportunities. (Though whether one can usefully call it racism is another issue.) That sort of unconscious discrimination is certainly worth identifying and drawing attention to.

But the hypersensitivity about race is also partly because anti-racism has become the basis of a new set of social cartels.

Anti-racism is reaching social consensus levels. In many social milieus, it is de rigueur. In social milieus were anti-racism is de rigueur, there is no moral heroism in being against racism: but anti-racism can wrap itself in a patina of moral heroism lingering on from the civil rights struggles. While a successful accusation of racism can destroy a career. Which makes anti-racism a potential enforcement mechanism.

Moreover, in social milieus were moralised discourse (and anti-racism in particular) is compulsory, there arises the problem of how to signal Virtue, and particularly anti-racist Virtue. The answer is--ever more hyper-sensitivity about racism. Such making a big moral deal about the difference between coloured people and people of colour, or identifying "micro-aggressions". The University of California has provided a revealing set (pdf) of "micro aggressions". The phrases may not be formally banned, but that is a distinction without much difference. Particularly in an age of adjuncts and casual academic employment. There is surely going to be a "chilling effect" on free speech on campus.

Especially given that even tenured professors can be targeted for dissenting. The use of civil rights legislation to prosecute a feminist professor, since disagreement is apparently "harassment", is precisely the operation of a new belief-based social cartel, backed up by state power, with its very own Inquisition. (Presumably not if it gets to the US Supreme Court; though the US Department of Education apparently believes it is above such petty details as Supreme Court decisions.)

None of which should be read to say there is no racism in the US or it is not a worthy subject. The history of anti-black racism in the US is a vile one: embarrassing to those who take a positive or heroic view of American history. Denial of the extent and significance of racism can shade uneasily into racism itself or attitudes which are functionally not much different. The low social capital of African-American communities did not just happen. There is also a lot of hypocrisy in conservative complaints about political correctness, as many conservatives were just fine with a sexual-and-gender correctness which was much more vicious and pervasive: progressives did not invent Virtue signalling.

Nevertheless, the contemporary hyper-sensitivity Virtue-signalling is noxious at various levels. Starting with making that much more difficult to have a productive public discourse about the problems of low social capital in African-American communities. Or about police violence: the notion that too many US police are over-ready to use deadly violence because of poor training, discipline and inadequate legal constraints does not fit into either the "Racism! Racism!" progressive discourse or the "Soft on Crime!" conservative discourse; making it apparently impossible to have a productive public debate on the issue of feral law enforcement. Otherwise folk might notice more how police building social capital with local communities can greatly improve policing outcomes.

Progressivist Ascendancy
Then there is the term Social Justice Warrior: the term is clearly meant ironically, particularly on the (lack of) any moral heroism involved in what those labelled as SJW's do. The term is also counter-productive, because it allows folk to completely evade the issue that has driven such things as the Sad Puppies campaign in the SF Hugo Awards. Use of the term provides cover for folk go off and talk about social justice concerns, using one of the basic techniques of Virtuous social cartelisation: "Folk like me are against X; you are disagreeing with folk like me: therefore you are against X".  Which, of course, does not remotely follow.

But such systemic untruth is used again and again and does demonstrate anti-racism (and similar) as enforcement mechanisms. Which is precisely what sparked Sad Puppies in the first place--the notion that writers were not worthy of Hugo Awards because of their opinions or occupations (such as owning a gun shop). That only the Virtuous are entitled to literary awards, grants etc is an idea that has been around for decades now, but is a classic form of social cartel--denying social goods to outgroups. And part of what the term Social Justice Warrior is getting at is precisely the apparently endless ambition of such opinion enforcement--attempting to police people's hobbies, fiction, etc. In other words, being Virtuous Wowsers. With all the you-are-not-listening-to-yourself puritanical earnestness Wowsers have: which includes proving the point when called on the same.

Hyper-sensitivity about racism leads to some remarkable convergences. Both racism and anti-racism can end up endorsing segregation and moral caste systems based on race (I am sorry, "privilege"). A convergence occurring not only because they both obsess with race, though from different moral directions, but because they both seek to set up social cartels--one based on race, the other on belief.

Blogger Scott Alexander also notes a Fearful Symmetry where both the social-justice folk and their critics end up making remarkably similar claims and arguments. Because both groups are worried about exclusions. Though the Virtuous or Progressivist Ascendancy currently seems to have more organs of the state on its side, extending as it does through education systems, the literary and artistic world, much of the mainstream media and into government bureaucracies.

But one of the Progressivist Ascendancy's conceits is that it is "subversive" and not any sort of establishment: which, of course, also means they never having to take responsibility for anything awkward. The Protestant Ascendancy at least knew it was an establishment, though it was not without its own deep fears. 

If, as is clear, racism in the US is in massive and continuing decline, but hyper-sensitivity about racism is used as a social-cartel enforcement device, then public debate about matters racial in the US will get more and more divergent from realities on the ground, encouraging policy to diverge from realities on the ground, making the Seeing Like A State problems even worse. Even wrestling with familiarity preference and unconscious discrimination becomes more difficult, since it conflates very different issues (overtly pushing the inferiority of group X versus having an unreflective preference for folk like oneself). Nor is making racial identity (and so racial difference) even more salient likely to be a helpful way to try and ameliorate such patterns.

The folk who will suffer most from this social cartelisation based on Virtue-markers are the most vulnerable: groups with low social capital. The anti-racism obsessors claim, of course, to be the friends of African-Americans: no, that is precisely what they are not. They are, instead, much more a manifestation of an classic analytical principle: in the race of life, back self-interest, it's the only horse that's trying. Which will, of course, infuriate Virtuous types: because one of their common games is to demand absolute respect for their own moral perspectives while on insisting on contempt for other people's. It is not an unconscious familiarity preference but something much more overt and self-serving.

[Cross-posted at Skepticlawyer.]

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