A few weeks ago I met Chris Mooney for some drinks & snacks, and we talked about his new book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science–and Reality. It was an interesting conversation. We have a long history, so it wasn’t as if we were strangers. I recall Chris from the late 1990s when we were both involved in the college “freethought” movement, and later when I followed his political journalism at The American Prospect. On the whole we’re on different political “teams,” though neither of us seems particularly enthusiastic “players,” so to speak (I think at this point I can disclose that when I emailed Chris a few times when he worked at TAP to object to items in a particular piece, I often found that he concurred with my specific objections). I assume that to push copies Chris had to make sure that the emphasis was on Republican and not conservative in the title for his new book (and also, it exhibits nice parallel to The Republican War on Science). For me this is unfortunate because I have a lot more sympathy for conservatism, than I do for Republicans. Of course that’s a trite thing to say. And bemoaning the state of party politics in the United States is as old as the origination of political coalitions over 200 years ago (remember, many of the Founders, including George Washington, opposed a party system, which they believed would produce unnecessary faction). But I am of the opinion that due to its sheer scale and diversity the United States of America may be poised for an age of sectional discord. A throwback to the first half of the 19th century in the first decades of the 21st. Sometimes “this time” is different.
But back to Chris’ book. I have not read Jon Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, but my impression is that it taps into the same vein of social science literature, though with a slightly different spin. The big from-the-eye-in-the-sky picture is straightforward: different social segments exhibit varied cognitive styles in the proximate sense. Additionally, some of this psychological difference, on average, is likely due to heritable variation (e.g., political ideology is ~40 percent heritable). Finally, Haidt in particular emphasizes the possible evolutionary roots of these differences. The first two are relatively non-controversial issues, because they’re descriptive, at least in the most general sense. The details of how the generalizations play out may be subject to disputation, but that such differences exist seems less controversial (there are many details where I don’t buy what Chris or what Jon Haidt are selling,but I don’t think their enterprise is without merit).
Which brings this back to me. Chris half-seriously asserted that I’m basically a liberal no matter what I assert about not being a liberal in the course of our discussion. By this, he didn’t mean my specific ideology, but my cognitive style. This is not ridiculous on the face of it (though it is probably more precise to say I’m a libertarian in Haidt’s “moral foundations,” ultimately libertarianism of this sort is really liberalism). When I spoke at the Moving Secularism Forward conference last March I encountered a lot of skepticism that I was a conservative at all. When I explicitly rejected the label of social liberal/fiscal conservative, several people continued to push the thesis that that’s exactly what I was after the talk. They just couldn’t comprehend how someone like me, as nice as I was, and an atheist to boot, could think that some aspects of social conservatism are worth defending. Over long discussions with some of the younger attendees I encountered a repeated expression of shock that I could identify as conservative, and seem so coherent and unobjectionable. Strangely, Ron Bailey of Reason was on the receiving end of a lot more knee-jerk hostility than I was from the audience. I’m pretty sure that part of the issue was that my own articulation had less to do with contemporary politics, than deeper philosophical objections to the liberal project, broadly construed. Most people don’t care about philosophy, they care about your position on the public option (mind you, they don’t know the policy details of the public option, but they know what they should believe).
The ultimate root of my conservatism is a fact, not a value. That fact is that human cognitive and behavioral variation is real and important. We are not uniform. Nor is this variation always simply a chance contingency of personal history. Some people are more naturally prone or disposed to some outlooks, preferences, and values. The bigger implication is that human difference is profoundly baked into the cake on many dimensions. The inference is that even if a system of pure blind meritocracy was operative inequality would persist, because we have different endowments and strengths. Deeply individualist liberalism misses something precisely because it extrapolates from the mores and values of people like me, overly analytic and atomized personas who obtain little concrete benefits from social embeddedness in relation to the norm.
A personal aspect of this description of the world which explains the disjunction between my cognitive style and individual ethos (“liberal”) and that which I espouse in the interests of Eudaimonia (“conservative”) is that I don’t project from my own preferences to the rest of the human race. The reason is the fact of human difference. I’m conscious of the fact that my own values, which derive in part from introspection and intuition, are grounded in my own psychology. Not only that, but I’m also willing to admit that I’m not cognitively typical in many ways (i.e., I’m an outlier). What allows me to flourish may not be what allows others of the human race to flourish. And more critically, my own cognitive orientation is very much in the minority. In the post below where I was taken aback by how much many of my liberal readers insist on treating me like a moron when we disagree on issues, this comment jumped out at me:
This says more about your own willingness to identify with a set of cultural assumptions than it says about anything else. You’re just writing a post-hoc rationale.
I like the fact that this bolsters a my hypothesis, though. Seems conservatives are far more prone to tribal thinking — you’re certainly a smart guy, but the weird need to lash out against a strawman marks you as a conservative, and I suggest that that’s mainly what drives you to adopt conservative political positions.
Because I have kept the “public” separate from the “personal” readers can make their own inferences in a vacuum of information. Many of you are socially dull, so the inferences are often kind of funny, as you see information-poor logical engines producing amusing conjectures. But this can irritate me sometimes, when readers presume a whole “offline” life which is at some variance with the reality that I live (e.g., a long-time internet acquaintance presuming I must always have lived in a cosmopolitan part of the USA, not realizing that my whole adolescence was spent in “Red America”). The idea that I identify with a set of “cultural assumptions” and am prone to “tribal thinking” is actually a reasonable inference if the only prior I’m giving you is that I identify as a “conservative.” From the social science I’ve seen conservatives do operate with a set of heuristics which give priority to culturally mediated wisdom. And to some extent that’s close to a textbook definition of a Burkean conservative. But by using that sort of method you should also infer that I’m a white Protestant Christian. So let’s update that inference with more information. If I consider the people who I spend time with in “real life” none of them are conservative. By none, I mean literally none. The only time I really meet people who would identify as conservative is when the Secular Right crew meets up for dinner or lunch when I’m swinging through New York, which alas has been less frequent the last year or so. My parents are Democrats, my in-laws are liberals, my personal trainer is a Democrat! (he likes to crack Republican jokes). I know a fair smattering of libertarians through the Singularity Institute, but they’re definitely not conservatives (Peter Thiel would be an exception, but I’ve never met him, only his assorted lackeys!).
Let’s move to another dimension. I’m an atheist. I’ve basically been an atheist my whole conscious life, in that religion has never been “alive” for me as it is for most people. When I was eight years old I explicitly and consciously realized that I never believed in God in the first place. My parents are moderately religious Muslims, and my childhood upbringing was around nominal Protestants and Catholics. I didn’t even know the term “atheist” until my father once mentioned that his Ph.D. adviser did not believe in God, and so was an atheist. I don’t take particular credit for this as a matter of deep reflection and rationality. I just don’t grok God. Though today most people I encounter are irreligious, this was not always the case. I lived in eastern Oregon for my adolescence, and was one of the few atheists in my high school. Well, at least open and acknowledged atheists. I don’t recall that it resulted in any social consequences, so please don’t cry for me. People just took my casual assertion of lack of belief in God as another strange quirk. So I grew up in a mostly Republican town, which was 95 percent white, as a brown atheist. By the end of high school I was already identifying as right-wing libertarian. Take that however you want in terms of my tribalism.
One thing to understand about me is that when I was in high school I frankly had little use for the kids I saw who were Sunday Christians, and proud Republicans, who nevertheless smoked weed, got drunk, and hooked up. Not that there was anything wrong with those things as such, but the disjunction between values and action made my skin crawl. Hypocrisy tends to make me vomit in my mouth just a little bit. I was psychologically more naive then, and was not totally aware that my own overly analytic and somewhat bloodless orientation was very atypical. Today I am much more willing to cut people slack on their weaknesses; we’re all sinners, or something like that. Human conscious coherency and unity is to a great extent an illusion in any case.
Today my eye of skepticism is aimed toward the Left when it comes to hypocrisy, presumably enlightened rational atheist liberals who nevertheless live in a world sharply constrained and delimited by their own superstitions. Some long-time readers who are of the liberal persuasion stridently insist that my political heresy is in large part a function of my personal animus toward the garden-variety Left stupidity which I’m confronted with on a day to day basis. There is almost certainly some truth in this. I don’t react well when long-time readers take to turning me into a moron for purposes of appropriate disputation with the benighted. I also have to deal with this in my personal life if I happen to disagree with the consensus; I must disagree because I’m ignorant/uninformed/let others do my thinking for them/or have bad motive (yes, people who agree with a social consensus who I disagree with have floated the proposition that my own dissent is a function of the fact that I don’t “think for myself”!). It kind of gets old (I particularly hate the weird “enlightened” tick to label people who have heterodox/dissenting opinions ignorant, as if they don’t know the Truth).
I’m really not super interested in convincing anyone of any particular proposition. Rather, I do like to face orthodoxies full on, and see if they can survive the blast of skepticism. All views should be examined, no matter how distasteful from a normative perspective, because even the process of analytic decomposition of the profane can yield fertile insight. Not everyone agrees with this proposition. Long in the past (on the scale of my life) I have had religious friends for whom Cartesian doubt in the existence of God would have been mentally traumatic. But this sort of psychology does not exist just among the believers in God. A friend once recounted to me how his ex would tell him that if evolutionary psychology was true she didn’t know how she could even face the world. I honestly have no idea where that response came from, but it was a sincere sentiment. I’ve encountered plenty of flavors of that. The world is as it is. Your own model of it doesn’t perturb anything at the end of the day. Don’t confuse your own illusions for reality. But this conflation seems rather typical.
My long digression into intellectual semi-biography is to situate my own assertion that I am fundamentally an incorrigible heretic. As I’ve aged I’ve mellowed out and am not so transgressive in social situations. But I’ve spent my whole life in contexts where I’m the one who has to dissent from the proposition that “well, we all agree….” I really don’t care too much how others may view me for dissenting. Most peoples’ opinions on most things are worthless from what I have seen, so I don’t see the point in not adding a little value to discussion which is prone to devolving into a mental circle-jerk. The esteem of those with worthless opinions is not something I put a high priority on in any case. The prophet Muhammad reportedly exhorted his followers to “Go in quest of knowledge even unto China.” A lot of the sayings of the prohpet strike me as rather stupid or trivial (if the prophet Muhammad is the perfect human, Muslims have a really low bar for perfection), but this is certainly gold.
As a self-identified heretic (whether I am a heretic or not is a different matter) I like to think I “see” trends and dynamics which others may not be as conscious of because they’re part of them. It also helps that I know a lot of diverse things. I recall in the summer of 2006 at his old Right Reason weblog I had an argument with Steve Burton about the nature of Christianity. He suggested that there was no comparison to the ethical teachings of Christ in the New Testament in other cultures. I asked him if he had explored other cultures, particular those of China, and he admitted that such exploration was cursory at best. Whereof one does not know, one must be silent. Similarly, Ross Douthat has gone around making assertions about the nature of Christianity in contrast to other religions such as its embrace of paradox in his most recent book Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. This is, in short, an example of ignorance. If Douthat had any familiarity with the obsucrantist paradoxical tripe that passes for philosophical reflection in Vedanta he would reconsider the singular flight of Christianity to paradox (this flight to paradox is part of the Christian inheritance from Greek classical philosophy, whose fascination with paradox is actually somewhat reflected in some Indian philosophical traditions). I ask intellectuals: why not step outside yourself a little? Burton and Douthat are Westerners, and Douthat is a Catholic, so it stands to reason that they’d explore their own cultural heritage first and foremost, but if they are going to engage in the project of comparison they should actually bother to do more than cursory survey of the corpus of other traditions. Too often people compare by comparing what they know to the image or preconception of what they know. Shame!
Before you can reason, you need to know. This is obviously true on the face of it when it comes to descriptive or positive questions, but what about normative ones? To the left is a chart which tracks the decline in the proportion of whites born before 1961 who support banning interracial marriage. Though some of this almost certainly due to the oldest dying off, some if it is the genuine change of opinions (you can play around with regressions and confirm this in the GSS). How did people change their opinions? The reality is that interracial marriage rates for whites are still low in relation to expectation, and residential segregation is a major social issue. But norms have shifted. People follow the views of their social milieu, no matter their actions. Sometimes this can occur unpredictably. American conservative Protestants were not particularly exercised about abortion until the late 1970s. There are various historical and social reasons why they did not become focused on the issue as early as Roman Catholics, but the fact is that the focus today is so strong and necessary people forget that this may not have been inevitable. It seems “reasonable” to everyone that social conservatives would have abortion as one of their top priorities.
This dynamic is common. You follow the positions and views of your social and cultural milieu because it is a cognitively cheap and convenient way to go. Logical thought is energetically taxing. The changes of the milieu’s opinions though can occur very rapidly (at least on the cultural time-scale). As those changes result in a flip, your own rational faculties simply re-write the past accordingly. Inter-temporal cognitive dissonance is minimized, because people have a bias in attributing their views and opinions to their own conscious and rational faculties.The social science strongly indicates that the heuristic “believe what your peers believe” is the primary factor driving most opinion. So you always need to be careful about taking the self-serving rationales of the individuals at the heart of the phenomenon at face value. Cognition is both implicit and explicit.
One of the recent cultural phenomena which is of some interest is the shift among the Western elites from a position of unabashed white supremacism toward one of araciality, verging toward exceeding consciousness of “white privilege” in our own era. The first stance is probably best encapsulated in Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tides of Color Against White-Supremacy. The second position began to ripen with the 1950 UNESCO state on The Race Question. By 1967 Susan Sontag was achieving some acclaim, and could plainly state that “the white race is the cancer of human history.” In the next few years some 1960s radicals, such as the Weather Underground, took it further, justifying the murder of all white babies. At this point I do have to point out that two of the most famous Weathermen, Bernadine Dorhn and Bill Ayers, brought two more white children in the world themselves in subsequent years (recall that Dorhn seemed to exult in the murder of Roman Polanksi’s white baby). You always need to contrast what people say, and what they do.
So here is my proposition: white Westerners have continued to maintain the schema of the racial order of Lothrop Stoddard’s day, but simply altered the moral valence. The term “white Westerners” itself presupposes that non-whites can be Western, which would surprise many before 1950. I suspect that this attitude maintains itself in the assertion that “people of color” are Other by their nature (though this is bemoaned in by the high priests of the New Class, alienation and marginalization of the colored is taken as a fact of life).
One of Stoddard’s main intellectual projects was to heal some of the divisions sown by Nordicist thinkers such as Madison Grant, of whom he was a protege, by forging a common white identity. I am not here saying that Stoddard rejected Grant’s factual characterization of divisions between European peoples (i.e., Nordic vs. Alpine vs. Mediterranean). Rather, as a matter of political and social pragmatism the primary concern was for the white race to unite so as to maintain the regime of racial supremacy. To make the model punchy. not only did Stoddard de-emphasize intra-European distinctions, but he separated the world into white and non-white. Note, Stoddard’s book was about the rising tides of color, black, brown, yellow, etc. Contemporary black nationalists of his day such as Marcus Garvey quickly took to Stodddard’s dichotomy, seeing the possibility for an interracial alliance of color against white supremacy (a thread which remains visible today in the Nation of Islam).
This dichotomy between white and non-white was useful and reasonable in Stoddard’s time. It was the age of white supremacy in reality, not just ideology. In contrast, as late as the 1790s the Chinese were rebuffing British delegations, while in the 16th and 17th centuries European “colonial” enterprises in Asia consisted mostly of establishing “factories” on the margins of land-based gunpowder empires. Tokugawa rejection of contact with Europeans, and the Omani defeat of the Portuguese across the western Indian ocean, illustrates how the world before 1800 was multipolar in civilizational terms. Not so after 1800. That civilizational division, and the rise of the West, was racialized by 1900 due to the influence of scientific taxonomy, and the collapse of non-European polities on all fronts.
It ain’t 1920 anymore. But some things don’t change. One of the main themes of Clash of Civilizations is that the West now (“now” being nearly a generation ago) has to start thinking about how to deal with a multipolar world, not in nation-state terms, but in civilizational sections. The biggest point is that the West can not simply interpret all actions of non-Western actors through their own set of values. To give an example, the diplomatic culture which grew out of the Westphalian System, and crystallized in the Congress of Vienna, is profoundly alien to the tradition of Chinese cultural history. Rather than a balance of powers, China has traditionally had tributary or hegemonic relationships with nearby states such as Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. One tension at the heart of the relations between China and its neighbors is the explicit Westphalian garb which they have had to don in the modern world, and, the congeniality of this system for the traditional inferior states within the East Asian sphere, because it presumes equality or parity between all actors fundamentally. The Chinese tendency to “act out” in areas like the South China Sea probably issues in part from the dichotomy between explicit de jure nation-state Westphalian ideology, and the customary Chinese modality whereby superior to inferior relationships of graded hierarchy are established between China and its “near abroad.”
A second more subtle issue is that the model of white supremacy, which has now been repackaged as white privilege, recognizes only dyadic relationships between the West and the rest. Consider that before 9/11 neoconservatives were looking to China as the great rival against which they could expend their rhetorical energies. After 9/11 it was the Islamic world. Or, in relation to Africa the West perceives itself to be a source of uplift via humanitarian aid. What all this misses is that the West is no longer a party to all inter-cultural relations. The West vs. non-West dyad is not always fully informative. The Chinese are now major economic players in Africa. Dubai serves as an entrepôt which ties together much of the western Indian ocean. And so on. This isn’t news to you, but we still talk about the “Global South,” as if the “South” was some amorphous whole of which it is useful to speak of as a conceptual unit.
I’ve addressed the issue of how post-colonialism is an intellectual instantiation of the inversion of white supremacy at length. So let’s address the phenomenon at a more demotic level. More concretely, we span the gamut from constant demands that white college students interrogate their own white privilege on a personal and individual level, and the broader the idea that diversity is good as a social matter. To put my cards on the table: I think this is mostly signalling. People have public scripts which they implement because they are part of their collective norms. Consider this recent article in The New York Times, Whites Account for Under Half of Births in U.S.:
Non-Hispanic whites accounted for 49.6 percent of all births in the 12-month period that ended last July, according to Census Bureau data made public on Thursday, while minorities — including Hispanics, blacks, Asians and those of mixed race — reached 50.4 percent, representing a majority for the first time in the country’s history.
The media and public reaction to this has generally been of moderate enthusiasm. I speak of this from personal experience, as several of my white friends have expressed barely concealed excitement at the prospect of a white minority. And yet public scripts may not always align with private actions. Consider, ‘Why Don’t We Have Any White Kids?’:
In the broad resegregation of the nation’s schools that has transpired over recent decades, New York’s public-school system looms as one of the most segregated. While the city’s public-school population looks diverse — 40.3 percent Hispanic, 32 percent black, 14.9 percent white and 13.7 percent Asian — many of its schools are nothing of the sort.
About 650 of the nearly 1,700 schools in the system have populations that are 70 percent a single race, a New York Times analysis of schools data for the 2009-10 school year found; more than half the city’s schools are at least 90 percent black and Hispanic. Explore Charter is one of them: of the school’s 502 students from kindergarten through eighth grade this school year, 92.7 percent are black, 5.7 percent are Hispanic, and a scattering are of mixed race. None are white or Asian….
Tim Thomas, a fund-raiser who is white and lives in Flatbush, writes a blog called The Q at Parkside, about the neighborhood. He has spoken to white parents trying to comprehend why the local schools aren’t more integrated, even as white people move in. “They say things like they don’t want to be guinea pigs,” he said. “The other day, one said, ‘I don’t want to be the only drop of cream in the coffee.’ ”
Now that’s white privilege! And this isn’t “Red America.” It’s New York City. Speaking of which, here is Leah Dunham of ‘Girls’, commenting on the relative whiteness of her characters’ Brooklyn world:
I wrote the first season primarily by myself, and I co-wrote a few episodes. But I am a half-Jew, half-WASP, and I wrote two Jews and two WASPs. Something I wanted to avoid was tokenism in casting. If I had one of the four girls, if, for example, she was African-American, I feel like — not that the experience of an African-American girl and a white girl are drastically different, but there has to be specificity to that experience [that] I wasn’t able to speak to. I really wrote the show from a gut-level place, and each character was a piece of me or based on someone close to me. And only later did I realize that it was four white girls. As much as I can say it was an accident, it was only later as the criticism came out, I thought, ‘I hear this and I want to respond to it.’ And this is a hard issue to speak to because all I want to do is sound sensitive and not say anything that will horrify anyone or make them feel more isolated, but I did write something that was super-specific to my experience, and I always want to avoid rendering an experience I can’t speak to accurately
What was Leah Dunham’s experience? I think the reality is that her experience probably was mostly white, at least from what I’ve seen in the real Brooklyn. People tend to cluster with their own group. And that’s what gets on my nerves about all the enthusiasm about diversity: it’s a massive demographic token for something which people tend not live out in their own lives even when they have the opportunity. That’s not necessarily a problem. Even if people are totally color or culture blind sometimes different groups have different preferences and mores. For example, if you go to an evolution and ecology seminar at a major research university I’m willing to bet that you’ll run into far fewer people of Asian origin than if you go to a neuroscience seminar at the same university. Why? Is evolution and ecology white normative or something stupid like that? No. For various reasons it seems that Asian kids tend to prefer neuroscience over evolution and ecology. But these sorts of explanations are never considered for white assemblages of political conservatives, to give an example.
A few years ago I decided to be a dick and point out to a young Washington D.C. liberal pundit that his Flickr was open, and it was obvious that there was only one token black guy at the parties he and his friends had thrown over the past 6 months (D.C. is about half black). I wasn’t accusing him of being a racist, but observing if he was a conservative some might imply that that was ipso facto evidence of race bias. No, the reason that a party of conservative pundits that’s totally white can be accused of being the outcome of racial bias has to do with the history of the conservative movement since the 1960s, not demographics stripped of all context. If so, then instead of taking incessantly about the demographics one should tackle the historical factors which serve as the basis of the accusation. Too often that does not occur, people support their pre-suppositions with demographic data which don’t necessarily support the proposition which they believe it supports unless one already holds to the proposition in the first place. To be concrete about what I’m getting at, if an institution is 90% non-Hispanic white, that is only strong evidence of racial bias if you already presuppose that racial bias is rife and pervasive all through society. If you don’t grant this presupposition then other explanations may be brought to bear.
But the main reason for this post was that I come to bury white privilege, not deconstruct it. While searching for more pigmentation SNPs to check on for my daughter for the purposes of future prediction (here eyes are still blue, even though she’s a heterozygote on HERC2-OCA2, as well as a host of other loci such as SLC45A2) I came upon this paper, Beyond the Shadow of White Privilege? The Socioeconomic Attainments of Second-Generation South Asian Americans (PDF):
There have been numerous studies of second-generation minorities in recent years but South Asian Americans have been completely ignored in this growing literature. We provide the first multivariate statistical analysis that focuses specifically on the socioeconomic attainments of second-generation South Asian Americans. Our results indicate that this group has educational attainments that significantly exceed those of non-Hispanic whites. The wages of South Asian Americans are also on par with those of non-Hispanic whites who have similar educational and other basic demographic characteristics. If anything, 1.5-generation South Asian Americans may be slightly advantaged in terms of wages relative to non-Hispanic whites. These conclusions apply equally to both male and female South Asian Americans. Some theorists of race relations have emphasized the socioeconomic advantages of non-Hispanic whites relative to minorities with darker skin tones, but these theories do not appear to be directly applicable to second-generation South Asian Americans.
The quantitative background for this paper is actually interesting. There’s a body of research in Asian American studies which emphasizes results that indicate that when correcting for region and education Asian Americans tend to make less money than whites. The argument then is that the Asian American status as a “Model Minority” is a myth, only enabled by intensive accruing of human capital (as well as residence in high-wage high-cost of living states like California). When I was an undergrad I had a friend who majored in Asian American Studies (along with biology). It was obvious that in Asian American Studies they really did not like the “Model Minority” narrative. It may be instructive for me to observe that one of his favorite stories to tell was of an incident where white police officers beat up a few Asians, and then subsequently also smacked down a black man who came to their aid. It seems to me that this sort of ethnic-identity politics fundamentally takes the black experience as a model to emulate, and if the data does not fit, you seek it. I also think that because of this model modern Asian American Studies is implicitly strongly shaped by presuppositions which derive from a specific instance in history, the nadir of American race relations between blacks and whites.
These results are interesting because breaking South Asians apart indicates that the refutation of the “Model Minority” myth simply does not work in this case. The authors have some discussion of “over-controlling” in regression models, and why they did not look for patterns of wage difference within jobs (e.g., do native born and 1.5 South Asians make less money in the same field than native born whites?). And one must always be careful of regression analyses, as they are easy to manipulate. But as the authors forthrightly imply these sort of data give the lie to the idea that white supremacy/privilege is such an overwhelming parameter that it prevents success. There is an interesting section on South Asian pigmentation genetics (how I got to this paper), as the authors are trying to establish that South Asians are darker skinned than whites (ergo, a “visible minority”). This is rather funny, because South Asians are the world’s darkest population in complexion except for Sub-Saharan Africans! I’ve certainly been confused for an African American from behind a few times in my life (often when I was wearing a hat, or if my head was shaved). It also does not align well with research from 2008 which reported that skin color even for immigrants is highly predictive of current wages. That particular result is probably a major reason why the authors in this case focused so much on skin color, because South Asians, unlike the traditional Asian American groups (Chinese and Japanese) are very rarely light-skinned.
One social science paper does not refute a consensus. But, consensus in social science is often flawed and ideological. People of Asian immigrant background do not neatly fall into the mainstream model of American race relations, which derives from the nadir of race relations, and the paradigm of white supremacy. This is why the model minority framework is relentlessly attacked. It is also how Asians become white, or at least de-minoritized. The American system seems unable to handle the “three body problem,” where some groups of non-whites operate through a dynamic of inferiority on many social metrics, while others operate on a dynamic of superiority. This is always the major problem that I had with some members of the Sepia Mutiny weblog. Focused on South Asian Americans, the weblog seemed to highlight the marginalization of Muslims, or poor immigrants working in dead-end service sector jobs. These are all real experiences, but they are not the only experiences, and they are not the modal experiences of South Asian Americans. It reminded me all too well of my Asian American activist friends who seemed far keener on highlighting the difficulties of Southeast Asian refugees in assimilating to the American way than the fact that the majority of Asian Americans seem to be doing just fine.
The ideology of victimization is alluring, responsibility is no longer yours as the power of society approaches omnipotence. Asian American males often complain of the emasculation of their identity in the public domain, and fume about high outmarriage rates of women in the community. But the data tell a more subtle story. It turns out that when you correct for immigration status (at least -for the 2000 Census) a great deal of the sex ratio imbalance disappears. And some of the sex ratio imbalances may be explained by a variable as simple as height differences between populations. But the easiest “off-the-shelf” model for most people is white racism and white supremacy and prejudice. People who would otherwise consider themselves subtle or nuanced thinkers go straight for the sociological sledgehammer. And why not? There’s no social penalty!
Recently there’s been really strange talk about racism and the Bachelor series. The issue is pretty statistically straightforward: the casts are overwhelmingly (often exclusively so) white, and the few non-whites seem to be tokens who are quickly dismissed. The problem is that some potential contestants are suing for discrimination. This seems manifestly wrong-headed to me. The reality is that people discriminate constantly in their personal lives, and the target audience of The Bachelor series in particular is looking back to an older America where interracial marriage, “hooking up,” etc., did not exist (it also has a Southern white bias from what I can tell). And in any case many of the people sagely observing how racist the people on The Bachelor are seem quite statistically political incorrect in their own life. To find the link for the Bachelor race controversy I just used Google, and came up with the above piece in Salon. The writer of the Salon piece has a Facebook profile where you can see her friends’ list. Check it out, and notice how unrepresentative of Chicago and New York City it is. A quick search on Intelius indicates that this person has lived in the Bronx, Chicago, and New York. Very diverse cities. And yet in their personal life their social demographic is very particularly “curated.” It goes to my point that a lot of the public discourse is following a relatively mindless script which is motivated by signalling (by analogy, back when I socialized with evangelical Christians there was often random talk about “glorifying God” within conversation. A lot of this was meaningless, but it was an important signal within that social group that you were in the “in” crowd).
All of these phenomenon above are explicable as natural elaborations of “bottom-up” human dynamics. There doesn’t need to be a hegemonic ideology at work here, only the laissez faire bubbling of cultural evolution. Here is a Wikipedia discussion of Critical Race Theory: CRT recognizes that racism is engrained [sic] in the fabric and system of the American society. The individual racist need not exist to note that institutional racism is pervasive in the dominant culture. This is the analytical lens that CRT uses in examining existing power structures. CRT identifies that these power structures are based on white privilege and white supremacy, which perpetuates the marginalization of people of color. In a descriptive sense the racial thinkers of yore, Lothorop Stoddard and company, would not disagree much with the above. Rather, they would only assert that what is up and good is down and evil. Their goal as social engineers would to be preserve, rather than compensate for, white supremacy. Where the proponents of CRT lose the big picture is that the concerns of a fantastical white supremacist superstructure is very 20th century. We live in an era where China is now regaining its status as the preeminent economic engine of the human species. I need not elaborate in detail why this entails complications in the narrative of white supremacy. But even within the United States Asian Americans present problems for the narrative. Because of their academic success Asian Americans are targets of positive discrimination, not beneficiaries.
We don’t need to look just to the present for problems with the model. In the early 20th century Jews literally broke down all the barriers presented before them in the face of gentile discrimination. This resulted in social controls such as the Jewish quota at American universities, and cycles of systematic anti-Semitism in Europe which culminated in the Nazi abomination. As long as Jews were constrained to ghettos, and not part & parcel of the gentile world, attacks against them did not reach industrial levels (and converts were assimilated). But once aspiring Jewish meritocrats began to impinge upon the circumstances of the gentile high bourgeois a more thoroughgoing anti-Semitism crystallized. Too often we remember the European Jew as the victim, but that tragic victimization was a consequence not of Jewish passivity, but the shocking and surprising efflorescence of activity in the wake of emancipation and the Haskalah.
The Jewish example, and the example of Asian Americans, and the assimilation of many Latinos into the same catchall as white European ethnics a century ago, suggest the possibility that the whole paradigm of white racial privilege/supremacy is an illusion, or at least is ephemeral. This is not to say that racism or discrimination are not real, just that they do not play out in the almost omnipotent yet subliminal fashion that is often assumed to be the case by many. The priors you bring into your framework of evaluating facts impacts your inference. If you think that racism is pervasive, and systematically generating injustice and enabling discrimination, then it clearly effects your life outcomes, especially those negative ones. On the other hand, if you do not think that that is the case, you look for other clues or hints as to where you may fall short, or how you may not “fit the bill.”
Of course I am not saying that most Americans hold to this false model. Rather, it is an influential minority. To the left you see attitudes of non-Hispanic whites after the year 2000 in the GSS to the question: On the average African-Americans have worse jobs, income, and housing than white people. Do you think these differences are mainly due to discrimination? Only a bare majority of very liberal whites accept that white supremacy is so powerful as to be the primary determinate of the absolute outcome of non-whites in their conditions in the United States. You wouldn’t know that from the academy, and to some extent even from the policies enacted from on high. In the domain of personal behavior the breach between the elite orthodoxy and the reality is also stark. According to the General Social Survey only 47 percent of liberal non-Hispanic white and 39 percent of conservative non-Hispanic whites had a friend over for dinner who was black in the last few years! (the survey dates to the year 2000 and later for this case)
In evolutionary biology about a generation ago there was a debate about the rate of evolution, whether it was punctuated or gradual. I believe that in the domain of cultural evolution it is generally punctuated. The “distance” between 1963 and 1969 is far greater than the distance between 1969 and 1975. 1910 to 1890 is not symmetrical with 1910 to 1930. We live under the delusion that “it always gets better”, but it doesn’t always. England had a prime minister who was born a Jew, Benjamin Disraeli, in the 1870s. It seems likely that this feat would have been more difficult a generation later, as essentialist ideas of nationality become more fixed in the Edwardian imagination. In the text above I argue that the framework of white supremacy which is normative in elite Western discourse, and serves as a background assumption in many a conceptualization of “how the world works,” is fundamentally flawed. One can move under false premises for a very long time, but not indefinitely. I also suggest that the real lives of the average American is strongly “sorted,” not just politically or socially, but racially, in a manner which is tinged less with discrimination than with the consequences of genuine real life diversity. I believe that in the next few decades nations like the United States will genuinely become multicultural, diverse, and move into a post-20th century future. But I suspect that its outlines may be very surprising to those of us alive today, who live in the shadow of the Civil Rights era. I think that the chances are non-trivial that a sort of identity politics will reemerge among many white Americans which has only been submerged superficially among Southern whites, and exists implicitly even among non-Southern whites. The key is that all that that will entail is an alignment of the public and the personal, because many whites already sequester themselves in a world which is highly unrepresentative, just as many Asians, blacks, and Mexicans, etc., do. History does not repeat itself in quite the same manner, so I am not projecting here a world where interracial marriage is banned and Jim Crow reemerges. Rather, I think that its broad outlines will simply be more accountable to the facts and flexibility of 21st century existence. This is not necessarily a world I wish to see emerge, but it is a world that I might be willing to bet money on emerging as a point of fact.
Note: If it is obvious you didn’t read the whole post in a comment I will probably delete it.