Race: January 2004 Archives

Normally I really appreciate almost every posting at Language Log, an excellent multi-author blog by linguists. An entry by Christopher Potts appeared today that seems to me to have disturbing implications.

He refers back to a post by Geoff Nunberg criticizing a September court decision that allowed the Washington Redskins to keep their name. The reason given was that on some uses of the term 'redskin' it's not intended to be offensive, and the team uses it in a respectful way. I'm not sure I disagree with anything in Nunberg's original post. I think I even agree with the spirit of Potts's first post, where he argues that you can't just make up a new definition of a word that has expressive content (i.e. roughly what you might call emotional content) and then think that it's no longer disparaging because you're using it to mean something new. The word still carries that expressive content in the mind of the hearer. I do have some hesitations about his thoughts on the 'niggardly' incident that his fellow linguist John McWhorter has examined with more sophistication and balance.

This new post is what really worries me, though. Potts suggests that the court's reasoning rests on the following principle:

(A) A word W is inappropriate as a name for a product or corporation in a speech community C just in case every speech community within C regards W as offensive on every meaning that W can have in C.

He's right that (A) is too weak. You could name a team any offensive term you wanted, even the n-word, as long as you said you were using the word in a positive sense and treated every black person with respect in all your offical outlets. That seems wrong. It still carries the offensive expressive content of the word, even if people didn't intend to convey that. Since (A) won't do, Potts suggests the next principle as the one they should have used:

(S) A word W is inappropriate as a name for a product or corporation in a speech community C just in case some speech community within C regards W as offensive on at least one of the meanings that W can have in C.

I understand what he's getting at. He's saying that the existence of one usage that some speech community finds acceptable doesn't mean it isn't still going have all the negative effects on the relevant community, the ones who take great offense. That seems right. However, (S) is not just describing what in fact causes offense. The 'niggardly' example and the other points he makes demonstrate only what turns out to offend people. (S) is supposed to be a basis for legal prohibitions on speech, and that leaves the realm of descriptive linguistics and starts specifying what's appropriate. (S) seems to me to be far too restrictive as a guide to what's appropriate.

It's true that 'niggardly' doesn't have any meaning that disparages black people, not in any community. So that isn't a good counterexample. The people in that case just didn't know what the word meant, and they made all sorts of ignorant and very foolish-sounding comments as a result. However, it doesn't take much to have a speech community that uses a word with a slang meaning, particularly when it comes to derogatory usages with expressive content. People make up these sorts of terms all the time, and they don't easily catch on at the larger scale of popular English usage, but it's quite easy for a small language community to have such special usages (e.g. the gangs in a particular section of a city).

So if a couple gangs start using the term 'Burger King' as a derogatory term to denote a member of another gang the Flesheaters, then there's a speech community within that part of the city that regards 'Burger King' as offensive on at least one of the meanings the term can have in the larger speech community of the whole city. What follows from (S) is that 'Burger King' is now inappropriate as a name for a product or corporation in that city. Then you can extend it. The smaller community of the gangs is also within the country. You can run the same argument and say that it's inappropriate for anyone in the country to use that name that way. Then you can do it for the whole English-speaking world. Something has gone wrong here. I'm not sure what principle to replace (S) with, but it clearly won't do.

Update: As is typical of analytic metaphysicians, I came up with a fictional example that does in fact do the job of illustrating that this principle is false. All it takes is a possible example. However, it's much better to have an actual example to show that a term in current use is inappropriate according to (S). I found one. There's a band (or is it just one person?) called Tool. That's a derogatory term for someone who isn't very smart. At least one speech community in the United States recognizes that term as disparaging on at least one of its usages in that community. That community, part of the general community of English speakers, satisfies the conditions of (S) so that it's inappropriate for Tool to use that name. Examples from the music world (or what passes for it, in some cases) abound. Now I think some of these, e.g. NWA, WASP, The Dead Milkmen, The Dead Kennedys, and many other groups do in fact have inappropriate names, not that I'm advocating the government to step in and force a name removal, but I do think it's morally wrong to use those names. However, the name 'Tool' is certainly not one of these.

New low for racist left

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'Racism' can be defined in two ways. The more common understanding of the term among white people is that a racist is someone who has a demeaning or hateful attitude toward someone of another race. This is called personal racism. The problem with this definition is that it doesn't capture attitudes, policies, or practices that don't stem from personal racism but do have a negative impact on a racial group, particularly one that's been historically demeaned, hated, or harmed. So 'racism' is then used more broadly to include what's called institutional racism, which is any attitude, policy, or practice that does in fact have such negative effects, even if not intended. Now I don't agree with Howard Dean that this kind of racism is the only kind of racism worth talking about (in fact, I think it's less important for racial issues today than some other issues that don't get their fair share of time). However, I do think these are an issue, and I think we need to spend more time thinking outside the Democratic box about which attitudes, policies, and practices do this. Here's a good example of what I'm talking about (from Matthew Stinson):

Yes Virginia, there is left-wing racism.

Apparently the idea is the Condoleeza Rice is an Uncle Tom. Maybe there's more going on here than just that, but that's at least part of the idea. It strikes me as odd that anyone could even think this, given two facts: A. She is incredibly smart. Her thoughts on many issues of foreign policy have been widely cited as innovative, unusual, and not just towing a conservative party line. In fact, her arrival at conservative views was a later-in-life move. She was convinced of it by arguments. B. She has voiced her disagreement with President Bush or other Republicans on a number of issues. One is on affirmative action. I think she takes the wrong view on the issue, though I'm not sure Bush has the right reasons for the right view, but the fact that she voiced her disagreement signals something about her thought that is independent of the Bush Administration (even if it's dependent on so-called black leaders' rhetoric). Additionally, she was one of the key figures to chime in calling for Trent Lott's resignation. She's certainly not a "defend the Republicans in spite of my own convictions" type. Now why all the introductory comments on racism? This ad is racist. It's not racist in having a negative attitude toward black people per se. The negative attitude is toward one black person who serves in a Republican administration. What seems racist about this is that it's in a long line of such actions. I've had students tell me in a philosophy class that Colin Powell isn't black. Clarence Thomas, J.C. Watts, Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, John McWhorter, and other prominent black thinkers who have sided with conservatives on key race issues all face this sort of name-calling. Why is this racist? I have numerous reasons for this. 1. Steele and McWhorter, among others, have given some very good reasons for thinking affirmative action is very harmful to black people. The Supreme Court conservatives on this issue say that it's unconstitutional because it's unfair to white and Asian students. These guys have more sophisticated (and I think better) reasons to oppose it, and those reasons come right out of the desire to see black students do well in school. If affirmative action holds black students back, then of course it's not being an Uncle Tom to suggest that it should be gotten rid of. Thomas Sowell has also argued for more general points about cultural issues behind the disparity between blacks and whites in the U.S. and directs people to focus on those to move toward progress. The attitude that these people are Uncle Toms prevents looking at whether these arguments are good and therefore will continue to harm black people if it turns out that their conclusions are correct (as I think they are). 2. The assumption behind this ad is that black people can be Democrats if they care about black people. If they side with the Republicans, then they're Uncle Toms. This assumes that black people can't think for themselves and decide whether the Democrats' policies are helping black people or holding them back. Saying that someone is only truly black or only truly seeking black concerns if they toe some party line is more like an encouragement to Uncle Tommish behavior, except it's Uncle Tomming the Democrats and not the Republicans. 3. One assumption of this sort of labeling is that there's some "white culture" that black people need to be separate from. The idea is that anything true of mainstream culture is non-black. This fails to recognize the significant impact black people's achievements have had on mainstream culture. It is not therefore a white culture but a culture that's been influenced by many cultural backgrounds, including those of black people (and I do mean the plural here). This robs black people of the credit for the hand they've played in American culture. 4. Perhaps even worse is the effect that this has on black people's attitude toward that society that they are very much a part of. There's a tendency that I have observed first-hand to blame this fictional white culture on any slight or harm, since after all it is not a mainstream culture that black people are part of. It's then seen as white people against black people. This turns into a negative attitude toward the fictional white culture and therefore toward the average white person. When the average white person then has to interact with someone who is antagonistic and separatist for what seems like no good reason, it often leads to negative consequences. When people then make hiring decisions based on how well they got along with those they interviewed, this antagonism is often noticed, and it's often blamed on white racist hiring policies or attitudes, when it's just as easily explained by an illegitimate bad attitude on the part of the job candidate. 5. The idea that anything true of mainstream culture is non-black has led to a separatism has in turn led to the desire not to achieve in school, since that is a "white" thing. Therefore it has led to anti-intellectualism among black people, as much an Uncle Tom feature as anything else. The peer pressure that results continues the low achievement in school among black people, and it even leads to silliness among those who do reach graduate school and can't bring themselves to do serious work that might be viewed as mainstream out of the perception that it would be doing white Uncle Tom work. This holds back black intellectuals from doing good work and having their hands in elements of society important to us all simply because they don't see how it will help black culture in terms of its relation to what they think of as white culture. 6. The particular wording of the ad is worth noting. "I'm fighting for Whitey! He trusts me to take charge on the front lines!" Aside from the racist assumptions of white culture I noted above, this seems completely counter-productive. President Bush has the most diverse cabinet in history. What's especially interesting about this cabinet is not just its ethnic diversity but that some of the people who aren't ethnically like Bush are also not necessarily like him in their views. It's true that Elaine Chao and Spencer Abraham, both minorities, are more traditional conservatives, at least on the issues their departments deal with. Rod Paige is more complicated than that, though he does tend to be more Bushlike. His differences with traditional conservatives are one of the main differences between old-style Republican policies and the new compassionate conservatism. I've already noted Rice's differences, and Powell's aren't that different on race issues, though both emphasize personal responsibility and drive to achieve on the part of blacks, which most Democrats won't bother to include as legitimate issues. Powell also has been the odd man out when his realist foreign policies have lost out to Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld's more neoconservative ideas (though the extent to which this has happened has, I believe, been overstated). Mel Martinez is apparently worrisome to many conservatives, who seem to prefer Katherine Harris as a senate candidate. Then we get to Norm Mineta, who of course is a Democrat and served as Secretary of Commerce under President Clinton. Given the diversity of this cabinet, both ethnically and in some important ways ideologically, I think President Bush should be commended for doing exactly what Howard Dean says is the only thing we need to do. Dean thinks the main problems with race in this country have to do with insitutional racism, which in his mind includes the serious problems black people have in getting into positions of power and influence. President Bush has made far more efforts in that area than any of his predecessors, including President Clinton. The tactic of belittling Condoleeza Rice for being part of a Republican administration is putting Republicans in a catch-22. If they don't appoint minorities to these positions, then they're contributing to institutional racism. If they pick thoughtful, intelligent minorities who are somewhat like-minded but even have significantly independent views, then these people get labeled as Uncle Toms. The fact that President Bush picked these people shows that he does in fact trust them, and isn't that a sign that racial problems are diminishing? To reframe this in the opposite direction is moving race relations backward. For these reasons and probably a number of others that aren't immediately coming to mind, I see the attitudes behind this poster as a serious harm to black people in the United States today. Therefore, according to the definition of 'racist' that liberal intellectuals like to use so frequently, the ad is quite racist.

The Reveler vs. Mad How


Another Democratic presidential debate is on now. Howard Dean just got reamed by Al Sharpton. I have really mixed feelings about this, because it was so fun seeing Dean look so uncomfortable by the things Sharpton was saying about him, but it was such a bad argument. Sharpton's earlier criticism of Dean was that he had no place talking about race because he comes from a state with such a low percentage of minorities. Apparently the issue is that he can't understand problems of black people if he doesn't know them, and he can't know them since there aren't very many. It turns out he did have a few black people on his staff (which wasn't a large number of people to begin with).

Well, now Sharpton's criticism is that Dean didn't have any minorities in his cabinet! Dean's cabinet had six people. As Sharpton well knows (because he used it in his first criticism), the low percentage of minorities in Vermont is part of the reason Dean doesn't have as significant experience and interaction with minorities. That's part of why it would have been a lot more difficult for him to have gotten a more racially diverse cabinet than it would be for a governor of a more racially diverse state. Will Democrats in Iowa buy this argument? The black ones may well, unfortunately for them, because this is how people like Sharpton have taught them not to think. It might be nice to see Dean this uncomforable for a bit, though. He doesn't wear it well.

Wow! As I was writing this up, Carol Mosely Braun laid into Al Sharpton for criticizing Dean on race without himself having anything positive to say about how to bring people together racially. She's right. He has absolutely nothing to say on that. Unfortunately, she doesn't either, so I'm not sure what she thinks she's doing.

Update: Closing statements usually have some of the best examples of unsupported falsehoods, but I was only able to catch a few this time around:

Dick Gephardt: George Bush has declared war on the middle class, and good men and women are losing ground. [Declaration of war sounds awfully explicit for something that he's supposed to have been doing deceptively.]
Joe Lieberman: Too many people have seen Dr. King's dream slipping away from them. [So had they achieved it or almost achieved it and yet have lost it and all opportunity to gain it back? When did this happen, and who are these people?]
Carol Mosely Braun: When the Constitution was written, I was not included. Poor people weren't in it, women weren't in it, blacks were considered 3/5 of a person... [This sounds familiar. Didn't she try to tell us she was poor in last Sunday's debate? I don't need to repeat myself, so see my comments there.]

Update 2: Lester Holt just asked Howard Dean after the debate about what black people have gotten for their loyalty to the Democratic party. His two answers: The Civil Rights Act (1964) and The Voting Rights Act (1965). Then he changed the subject and said racism is still alive and needs to be addressed. [Nice way to dodge the question! I think it's fair to conclude that Howard Dean doesn't think Democrats have done anything since 1965 to earn the black vote. I never thought I'd agree with him so strongly on something related to race, but he's right, even if he had to change to subject to signal that he thinks this.]

Then Holt said something about the middle class tax cut, and Dean repeated his charge that there was no middle class tax cut. Holt said some middle class people perceive there to have been one. Dean: "I don't think so." [How out of touch can he be? We paid negative taxes last year, getting a refund out of something we never paid to begin with! His continued attempts to make it sound as if the tax cuts were only for Bush's rich friends is just insane. He did make an interesting argument that Bush's policies have required higher taxes at the local level. I'll have to look more at that, but I know whatever we pay at the local level is easily paid for by the money the IRS just plain gave to us.]

Update 3: A friend pointed out to me today that what I said above isn't quite right. Sharpton's argument is a bad one, but I think he scored a hit against Dean. The reason is that by Dean's standards of what must be done against racism it isn't clear at all that Dean has done a thing in the direction he says we need to go. Sharpton, of course, hasn't either, as Mosely Braun pointed out, but of course neither has she. All those two have done is make it worse. Still, what he said about Dean was correct, and what she said about Sharpton is also correct. They just have no right to say it and not mention that it's also true of them. Now I suppose they would point out what they have done, but I would ask how those things they've done are supposed to have gotten rid of the institutional racism that they think is the only or primary race problem in the U.S. today. I don't see how it does, and I'm not sure they want to admit that things have gotten better, or they'd have to soften their victimology rantings.

I haven't seen this [Update: the original article has been removed, but here is the content of that article] described so nicely before. It's been common knowledge among most philosophers of race that our American concept of race has no scientific basis. That doesn't mean there's no reality to race, but it's a social phenomenon, not a scientifically discoverable division within the species. The work on the human genome project has not only confirmed this but given hard numbers to back it up.

Two little bits as a sample:

"Gray wolves split into subspecies, scoring 0.7 on Wright's scale. Even Ozark mountain lizards living on ridges less than a mile apart differ from each other by an Fst score of 0.4. But human groups score only about 0.15 on the statistical scale. That's a worldwide total measuring all human variation. When scientists try to measure differences between only two groups of people, they usually find a lower score, on average about 0.08 -- only 8 percent of the genes examined have more than one allele. The most disparate human groups barely make the 0.25 mark, far below the diversity seen in lizards."

"For instance, the Pygmy people living in Zaire and the Central African Republic, and people from Melanesia, such as people from the island of Fiji, are among the darkest-skinned populations in the world. A racial classification based on skin color would likely group them as members of the same race quite distinct from fair-skinned Europeans. But genetic analysis reveals that both African Pygmies and people from Fiji are more closely related to Europeans than to each other."

Update: I should explain what's going on with the comments on this one. I was involved with a discussion on Kwanzaa at World Magazine's blog. Someone there co-opted the discussion toward some pet issues, basically arguing for a thesis something along the lines of what The Bell Curve is usually used to demonstrate -- that standardized test differences between racial groups are explainable only through genetic predispositions for certain levels of intelligence. (See the Thomas Sowell discussion I linked in the comments for a more balanced view of that book.)

Independently of that discussion, I found this article and thought it relevant to some of my own thoughts on race that I've been posting here, so I posted it on my blog. Then I decided that it would also be relevant to that discussion and posted it there. Instead of continuing the conversation there, the person who had been trolling there rudely decided to continue the discussion here, thus giving readers of my blog absolutely no sense of where this is coming from unless they'd already been following that discussion.

My policy on trolling is that I will address any real arguments that I think are worth discussing, even if the general tone of the message is trolling, as long as I haven't already addressed them. Any posts that are pure trolling will be deleted.


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I looked over the last entry on Schwarzenegger, and I think my use of the term 'bigoted' needs some explanation. I don't think Trent Lott is a bigot. I may be wrong. I don't think he would have said we'd be better off if Strom Thurmond had been elected president if he'd realized the implications people later drew out of that statement. It would have been political suicide to say such a thing while aware of how people would hear it. He only later realized this, and then he had to apologize to avoid looking like he intended something no one in his position would have dared to try to say. I do think he doesn't consider race issues to be all that important, or he wouldn't have said what he said. If he'd been thinking of race as a key issue on the agenda, he would have thought about his words more carefully, and he would have remembered that many black people see Strom Thurmond as the epitome of white racism. While this was all going on, John McWhorter argued quite cogently for exactly what I'm saying here.

I also don't think Hillary Clinton is a bigot. She recently made a racist joke. She apologized even more quickly than Lott did. She realized the inconsistency of her holding others to standards she herself doesn't meet and had to take it back. Lots of people make racist jokes without really thinking ill of the people who are the brunt of their jokes, and I have no doubt that she has respect for people from India, including Gandhi. I don't think she has Indian concerns at the top of her agenda, but that's perfectly ok for someone who probably doesn't interact with Indians on a daily basis. It's less ok for the senator "from" New York to have racial issues low on her agenda, but Indian concerns aren't even at the top of racial concerns in the U.S., given where the majority of racial problems in this country and in this state tend to lie. What she did was a mistake, and it reveals some level of hypocrisy, but she apologized. Only future comments will reveal if she has repented.

Gray Davis, however, is another story. He deliberately said something demeaning about an immigrant, and it isn't even true. His comment was insensitive toward those who learn English to a degree far better even than the average native-born American yet still have accents that they wish they could overcome. Linguists have shown that the sounds distinctions we are able to hear and reproduce are determined fairly early in our language learning. My 17-month-old right now is babbling in sounds that occur in all sorts of languages but never occur in English. It won't be long before he settles down with English sounds and will have a very difficult time with German, Russian, Japanese, Hebrew, or Hindi sounds that aren't in English. Schwarzenegger learned English as a foreign language and did an incredibly good job of it. Davis' comment reveals that one of two things is true. Either he has a low view of immigrants who haven't developed a perfect American accent, or he was trying to appeal to voters who have such a low view. So he's either a bigot himself or he was pandering to the bigoted vote. I don't mind identifying him with those he wants to act like, so I don't mind attaching the name to him.

No I'm not talking about the lottery. This would be more a outright tax for the poor. The Democratic debate is on right now, and the idiocy is going at full pace. Howard Dean just said "There was no tax cut for the middle class."

I make somewhere in the $20,000-$30,000 range. Since my wife has graciously been handling finances in the last few years, I don't have any idea what the actual amount is. There's no question that we made enough income for the recent tax refund, and there's no way I qualify as one of George Bush's rich friends, who Dean claimed were the only ones to get the tax cut. In fact, we didn't even pay any federal taxes last year, and we still got a ridiculously high refund from other people's taxes! When Democrats insisted on doing it that way, the Republicans were incredulous that they wanted to refund money that had never been paid, but the Dems won the argument by proclaiming hysterically that it would have been a tax cut for the rich otherwise. Dean says it was a tax cut for the rich even with the free handouts to non-taxpayers. The man looks like his nose is growing by the minute. He wants to tax the poor and then call it a repeal of a tax for the rich.

Updates along the way: Dean: "I am going to balance the budget, and I'm going to do it in about the sixth or seventh year of my administration." Is he planning to wait until then so he doesn't have to do it if he only gets one term? Is it so people won't get mad at him for cutting programs and not re-elect him? This may not be a lie, but it's certainly suspicious-sounding.

Dick Gephardt: "They [the Bush Administration] tried to put more arsenic in the water. We stopped them." That must have been an interesting sight. Did the Democrats discover this plan and run out there to intercept them before they could pour the arsenic in the water supply?

Carol Mosely Braun was asked what she would do to close the racial gap for SATs. Her only way to do this would be to beef up funding for schools in poor areas. How is this going to solve a problem to which income has been proved to be irrelevant? The SAT gap is about as wide for rich and middle class blacks as it is for poor blacks, and it's also independent of parents' education level. Whenever this is pointed out, people who take her view change the subject. She didn't come out and say that blacks' SAT scores are low because all black people are poor and poor people can't do well on SATs, but that's the implication.

Joe Lieberman called the Bush Administration the most secretive administration in the history of our country and said Bush has been the worst environmental president in our history. Lieberman must not know his history. Whatever you think of Bush's policies, I don't know how any honest evaluator could think the secrecy of this national-security-centered administration holds a candle to Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon's. As for the environmental question, I think the senator needs to revisit the turn of the previous century.

Dennis Kucinich: "I'm electable if people will vote for me." That was funny. I suppose that's vacuously true and therefore not a lie, but I had to include it.

Carol Mosely Braun wants us to think she's poor: "When the Constitution was written, I wasn't included. Black people couldn't vote. Women couldn't vote. Poor people couldn't vote." I think the implicature would be that she's in all three categories. Does she want to continue the stereotype that all black people are poor badly enough to expect us to think a former senator and ambassador is poor?

Mickey Kaus has some interesting comparisons between Bill Clinton and Howard Dean on the issue of race. Apparently Dean is using the tired old line that race problems are merely a matter of educating white people about unconscious racism. The far left will hate this classic liberal attitude (that had been drilled into me during freshman orientation at Brown) because it ignores institutional racism that isn't a consequence of unconscious attitudes. Anyone who is at least as far right as Bill Clinton will hate it even more for ignoring problems from within the black community.

A couple of Dean's comments about white practices and attitudes were surprisingly insightful for someone from Vermont, I have to admit. Kaus, unfortunately and probably deliberately, avoids talking about that. Even so, I can't for the life of me figure out why anyone who has really spent any time with black people could think the American black culture is innocent of perpetuating race problems. It's not always conscious, but it's certainly there.

I never knew it about Clinton, but the quote from him rightly directs some harsh criticism toward both whites and blacks. Maybe I'll have to rethink my impression that Clinton never really cared about black people and only said things about race to continue getting Democrats the black vote without a desire to do anything to earn it. (I don't think he really did much, and I'm not sure he would have done the right things, but maybe he had some desire to do so after all.) I don't think this will change my general impression that Democrats as a whole are like that, but maybe Clinton moves closer along the scale toward a balanced outlook on race issues.



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