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Long Read: The Racism Treadmill by Coleman Hughes @ Quillette

One of the more sensible, clear-headed mediations and reports on “racism in America” is The Racism Treadmill by Coleman Hughes. Some excerpts….


The prevailing view among progressives today is that America hasn’t made much progress on racism. While no one would argue that abolishing slavery and dissolving Jim Crow weren’t good first steps, the progressive attitude toward such reforms is nicely summarized by Malcolm X’s famous quip, “You don’t stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you’re making progress.” Aside from outlawing formalized bigotry, many progressives believe that things haven’t improved all that much. Racist attitudes towards blacks, if only in the form of implicit bias, are thought to be widespread; black men are still liable to be arrested in a Starbucks for no good reason; plus we have a president who has found it difficult to denounce neo-Nazis. If racism still looms large in our social and political lives, then, as one left-wing commentator put it, “progress is debatable.”

But the data take a clear side in that debate. In his controversial bestseller Enlightenment Now, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker notes a steep decline in racism. At the turn of the 20th century, lynchings occurred at a rate of three per week. Now, racially-motivated killings of blacks occur at a rate of zero to one per year.1 What’s more, racist attitudes that were once commonplace have now become fringe. A Gallup poll found that only 4 percent of Americans approved of marriages between blacks and whites in 1958. By 2013, that number had climbed to 87 percent, prompting pollsters to call it “one of the largest shifts of public opinion in Gallup history.” 

Why can’t progressives admit that we’ve made progress? Pinker’s answer for what he dubs “progressophobia” is two-fold. First, our intuitions about whether trends have increased or decreased are shaped by what we can easily recall—news items, shocking events, personal experience, etc. Second, we are more sensitive to negative stimuli than we are to positive ones. These two bugs of human psychology—called the availability bias and the negativity bias, respectively—make us prone to doomsaying, inclined to mistake freak news events for trends, and blind to the slow march of progress.

One such belief is the notion that disparities between blacks and whites—in income, housing, employment, etc.—are caused by systemic racism. The award-winning writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, for instance, summed up the state of racial progress like so: “I could see that some fifty years after the civil rights movement black people could still be found at the bottom of virtually every socioeconomic metric of note.”2 Ibram X. Kendi, another celebrated race writer, put it bluntly: “As an anti-racist, when I see racial disparities, I see racism.”

But the premise built into the thinking of Coates and Kendi is false. I call it the disparity fallacy. The disparity fallacy holds that unequal outcomes between two groups must be caused primarily by discrimination, whether overt or systemic. What’s puzzling about believers in the disparity fallacy is not that they apply the belief too broadly, but that they apply it too narrowly. Any instance of whites outperforming blacks is adduced as evidence of discrimination. But when a disparity runs the other way—that is, blacks outperforming whites—discrimination is never invoked as a causal factor.

Here’s a clear example of the disparity fallacy: a recent study by researchers at Stanford, Harvard, and the Census Bureau found that, “[a]mong those who grow up in families with comparable incomes, black men grow up to earn substantially less than the white men.” A New York Times article attributed this disparity to “the punishing reach of racism for black boys.” But the study also found that black women have higher college attendance rates than white men, and higher incomes than white women, conditional on parental income. The fact that black women outperformed their white counterparts on these measures, however, was not attributed to the punishing reach of racism against whites.

Economic disparities that favor blacks have been reported for decades, yet they have rarely if ever been attributed to anti-white systemic bias. A 1994 New York Times article reported that, among college graduates, black women earned slightly more money than white women did. In addition, the economist Thomas Sowell has pointed out that, as early as 1980, U.S. census data show black college-educated couples out-earning their white counterparts.3

The black/white unemployment gap provides an even older illustration of the disparity fallacy. Many commentators have reflexively attributed the modern unemployment gap to systemic racism. But in historical eras with far more racism, the gap was reversed. According to Sowell, “[b]lack unemployment rates were lower than that of whites in 1890 and, for the last time, in 1930.”4 Facts like these, however, are never explained in terms of discrimination in favor of blacks. Indeed, why progressives only commit the disparity fallacy in one direction is never explained. What the writer Shelby Steele has said about progressives and racist events is equally true of statistical disparities that disadvantage blacks: When they learn of one, “they rent a jet plane and fly to it!”

It’s a sign of the poverty of our discourse on racial progress and inequality that the rarest findings are thought to be normal, and the most common findings are thought to require special explanation.

Indeed, it is rare to find any two ethnic groups achieving identical outcomes, even when they belong to the same race. A cursory glance at the mean incomes of census-tracked ethnic groups shows Americans of Russian descent out-earning those of Swiss descent, who out-earn those of British descent, who out-earn those of Polish descent, who out-earn those of French descent in turn. If the disparity fallacy were true, then we ought to posit an elaborate system that is biased towards ethnic Russians, then the Swiss, followed by the Brits, the Poles and the French. Yet one never hears progressives make such claims. Moreover, one never hears progressives say, “French-Americans make 79 cents for every Russian-American dollar,” although the facts could easily be framed that way. Similar disparities between blacks and whites are regularly presented in such invidious terms. Rather than defaulting to systemic bias to explain disparities, we should understand that, even in the absence of discrimination, groups still differ in innumerable ways that affect their respective outcomes.

Black Culture

One crucial way in which groups differ is culture. Culture matters enormously. The importance of culture is, ironically, a value often expressed by progressives. When presented with arguments that point to genetic influences on human behavior, many on the Left respond by emphasizing the importance of culture over genetics, that is, nurture over nature (see Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate for more.) Moreover, cultures differ from one another. This is true by definition. It’s unclear what the “multi” in “multi-culturalism” could possibly mean if cultures were all the same. Put these two premises together, and you arrive at what should be an equally banal conclusion: if culture matters enormously, and cultures differ from one another, then differences between cultures matter enormously.

But, together with the disparity fallacy, the denial of cultural explanations for disparity has become the received view among progressives. Coates, for instance, has dubbed cultural explanations of disparity “lazy.”5 Others believe such arguments to be intrinsically racist when applied to blacks. The sociologist and award-winning author Michael Eric Dyson has argued that cultural explanations of black/white disparities are seen by whites as “heroic battles against black deficiency.”

But intuitive examples of the importance of culture are all around us. Disparities in athletic achievement, for instance, are inexplicable without reference to culture. Although blacks make up 14 percent of the U.S. population, they account for only 8 percent of MLB baseball players. This relatively small disparity has been enough to prompt articles in US News, NPR, and Vox that blame the decline in black baseball representation on everything from mass incarceration to racial bias to a generic sense among white fans that “baseball culture should stay white,” as the Vox piece summarized it.

Meanwhile, blacks account for a staggering three-fourths of all NBA basketball players, while whites account for a mere 18 percent. Curiously, progressives have not seen the under-representation of whites in basketball as requiring any explanation whatsoever. When whites are under-represented somewhere, it is assumed to be a choice or a cultural preference. But when blacks are under-represented somewhere, progressives descend on the issue like detectives to the scene of an unsolved murder, determined to consider every possible explanation except for the “lazy” one: that in black culture, basketball is more popular than baseball.

Strangely, it is only among thought-leaders that these twin dogmas—the disparity fallacy and the denial of cultural explanations—have become gospel. Black people themselves are, on the whole, open to other ways of thinking.

The Racism Treadmill

The disparity fallacy and the denial of cultural factors conspire to create a dynamic that I call the Racism Treadmill: as long as cultural differences continue to cause disparities between racial groups, and as long as progressives imagine that systemic racism lies behind every disparity, then no amount of progress in reducing systemic racism, however large or concrete, will ever look like progress to progressives.

Indeed, it may be a mistake to think of progressives as engaging in progress-oriented activism to begin with, because that would imply that they are progressing towards some specified endpoint. But if the progressive definition of ‘progress’ ends with a disparity-free world that will never—indeed could never—exist, then progressives are left with a Sisyphean politics; an agitated march to nowhere in particular.

I submit that the Racism Treadmill, and the dogmas that motivate it, account for much of the progressophobia of the activist Left on the topic of race. The Treadmill shows itself in the way progressives appropriate the tragedies of history in order to summon rhetorical gravitas in the present. Carceral policy is not just bad, it’s the “New Jim Crow”; posting reaction GIFs on social media that portray black people is “digital blackface”; and, even though three separate analyses have found no racial bias in police shootings, such shootings are said to be “reminiscent of the past racial terror of lynching,” as a United Nations report put it. It seems as if every reduction in racist behavior is met with a commensurate expansion in our definition of the concept. Thus, racism has become a conserved quantity akin to mass or energy: transformable but irreducible.

There’s no reason to think that the definition of racism will stop expanding any time soon. And there’s no reason to think that progressives will ever stop demanding institutional reforms to fix racism—up to and including attempts to reform our subconscious minds with such things as mandatory implicit bias trainings.

READ THE ENTIRE ESSAY AT  The Racism Treadmill by Coleman Hughes – Quillette

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  • pbird May 15, 2018, 9:53 AM

    I still say Pinker is a derp.

  • ghostsniper May 15, 2018, 12:58 PM

    I don’t associate with trash regardless of it’s color.
    Act like a human being and maybe you’ll be treated as one.
    Children have been running the show for some time now.
    I turned it off.