Friday, May 19, 2006

The Last Refuge of the (21st-Century) Scoundrel

What patriotism was to Dr. Samuel Johnson in his famous saying, public opposition to someone else's "racism" is all too frequently to the early 21st century. In opposing an amendment to the Senate immigration bill that would declare English to be the official language of the U.S., Senate minority leader Harry Reid declared it “racist.” In particular, he said that “"This amendment is racist. I think it's directed basically to people who speak Spanish.”

Now this is a statement that cries out for deconstruction. It is frankly probably true that the amendment in some trivial sense is targeted at Spanish speakers, in that Spanish is by far the most widely spoken language in the country other than English. But must one be “racist” to expect those who can speak Spanish (and any other language, since the amendment does not mention any other) to deal with the government in English? All of this is independent of whether the amendment is wise, as it may well not be. But "racist"? This comment is part of the devaluation of the notion of “racism,” and its entanglement with the refusal to support both the general agenda of the multicultural left and government subsidy of particular cultural capital - such as a minority language or cultural heritage - in particular.

Once upon a time “racism” was a meaningful word, one which meant belief in important intrinsic differences among “races,” and often a corresponding dislike of the races thus judged to be inferior. But now it is wielded opportunistically as a sword to combat any dissent against the multicultural pieties. And this is a shame. Actual racism (and religious prejudice) is undeniably a powerful force in the world.

But is it so in the U.S.? As Casey Stengel said, you could look it up. The General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago has been keeping track of Americans’ views on social matters since 1972. One of the things they have been tracking is attitudes toward racial matters. Since 1977 they have been asking respondents whether they think racial “differences are due to inborn disability.” In that year 26.1 percent of Americans said yes and 73.9 percent said no. That divide has changed over time to 21.1%/78.9 percent in 1985, 13.4%/86.6 percent in 1994, and 8.5%/91.5% in 1994. Fewer than one American in ten, in other words, now believes that there are important intrinsic differences in the races, a fraction that is astonishingly low for such a survey. (This may overstate the problem of hostile racism in that includes on-balance "positive" stereotypes, e.g. the belief that Asians are genetically good at math.)

Several papers have been published on the game show "The Weakest Link," which was briefly popular a few years back. In the show, contestants had clear monetary incentives to vote against weak contestants in the early rounds and stronger ones in the later rounds. In a working paper at the National Bureau of Economic Research, Steven Levitt (of Freaknomics fame) found no evidence of discrimination by men and non-blacks against women and blacks respectively, although there was some evidence of information discrimination (based on statistical inferences about the whole group rather than dislike) against Hispanics, and some taste-based discrimination against older players. In a recent paper in the Feb., 2005 issue of the Journal of Human Resources, Kate Antonovics, Peter Arcidiacono and Randall Walsh also found that men did not discriminate on taste grounds against women and non-blacks did not discriminate against blacks, although women did discriminate against men. The cleverness of such tests is that they involve a clear tradeoff of money on the one hand versus indulgence of discrminatory tastes, if they exist, on the other. If such tastes existed, money trumped them.

That the U.S. now gives out citizenship with almost complete indifference to race, a distinction it shares only with Canada and perhaps Britain and France, also suggests how inconsequential race is in this country. So too does the surge in interracial marriage in the last twenty years. Many Americans could now tell of instances in which they placed their lives or careers in the hands of a doctor or supervisor of a different race. And the sort of nationalist/racist politics on the rise in France, Austria and elsewhere in Europe has, like so many European fanaticisms, not played nearly as well here. (Most of the time; a Holocaust denier, David Duke, was nearly elected governor of Louisiana a few years back. But, broadly speaking, there is no candidacy for European-style quasi-racist politics, as the repeated failures of Pat Buchanan’s campaigns bear out.)

So why does the word still get trotted out so much? First, because we are all subject to self-serving bias: when we don’t get a job offer or a promotion, we tend to believe that we deserved it but that there was a flaw in the selection process. But why, in the case of a member of a minority group, would he attribute the obvious error to racism rather than, say class bias or simple-mindedness on the part of the person making the decision? Here the larger culture matters. There is a significant industry that earns more revenues the more the U.S. is seen as a country riven by racism, and so they have an incentive to emphasize this as a key feature of American society. Class-based stories, on the other hand, have never gotten as much traction here as they have in Europe.

And perceptions of unfairness on grounds of “race” can then feed into more political activism on the basis of tribal identity, which further reinforces the subsidy of separate tribal identities, which in turn reinforces the belief that life’s unpleasantness is more often than not due to racism. And this in turn raises the return to the politically active of mobilizing the population on racial as opposed to other grounds, even though history provides ample precedent that this kind of political mobilization is most dangerous.

How then to break this vicious cycle? As I have argued before, there is ample reason to think that one of the most compelling ways to breaks down tribal hostility is free competition. Competition makes discrimination costly, and independently forces people who are truly racist to re-evaluate those beliefs when they must, because the corporation wants to make money rather than accommodate tribal grievances, work together with people of different groups. Athletic teams, military units and multinational corporations are the places where racism runs into the most difficulty. In each case people are working have an obvious common goal, and there is no time to waste worrying about such extraneous considerations as racial hostility. Thus, the more freely market forces play out, the more quickly racism recedes.

Perhaps even quickly enough, an optimist might suppose, to make the U.S. a country where almost no one believes in intrinsic racial differences. A country that, in fact, it already is.


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