Race: September 2004 Archives

This is Part 5 of an ongoing series that started here, and you can find links to all the other posts there as well. [Update: I've restated some of this with a more careful presentation of the argument for reparations here, in Part 7 of the series. My conclusion is unaltered, but I've realized the argument for reparations had far more to be said in favor of it.]

I'm in the process of discussing the arguments in favor of affirmative action before moving on the the arguments against it, and we're up to the reparations argument now. As I summarized it in the inaugural post of the series, the argument says affirmative action is a worthy practice on the grounds that it provides compensation or reparation to underrepresented minority groups who have been harmed in the past (and perhaps still in the present) by injustices that favor the well-represented groups.

Most people I've known, upon hearing this argument, immediately object that no one today is responsible for the fact that anyone enslaved anyone else well over a hundred years ago. But the argument doesn't really assume the moral responsibility of any individual today for any actions of long-dead people. It's probably most helpful to think of this via an analogy. Suppose I grow up in a fairly wealthy family who die and leave all their money to me. I've been living a fairly comfortable life, and I haven't had to work hard to keep it that way. Then I discover something. My great-grandfather came into all this money by stealing it from another family, and I start to wonder what became of that other family. I investigate and discover that they've been living in extreme poverty since then, to the point where survival was even difficult. The last remaining member of the family is in dire straits now. I've clearly benefited greatly at the extreme expense of this last remaining family member, and it was because of a wrong that was done. I didn't do it, but isn't it at least worth considering whether I owe this person something?

How do you extend this to slavery? It seems to me that we can get a plausible moral premise for reparations by saying that, to the extent I've benefited from the existence of slavery in the past and to the extent that any have been harmed by it, I owe something to those who were harmed by it. That's the principle behind this, and it seems plausible if my conclusion in the analogy is plausible (which I think it is). What's not so clear is how to develop this specifically.

Native American Offense

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La Shawn posts the results of a new survey on whether Native Americans are offended by the name of the Washington Redskins. I'd like to know the numbers on how many are offended by the term 'Native Americans', since almost every single Native American I have known prefers to be called Indian. Maybe that offends people from India or of Indian descent, but that just shows the complicated waters politically correct sailor must navigate. (I suggest that it can't really be done.)

According to the poll, 90% of Native Americans said the team's name is acceptable, and 9% considered it offensive. What was interesting to me was that the percentage considering it offensive goes up at higher levels of education. Here are more details on the breakdown:

Tokenism in Illinois

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Whatever else may be true of the Republicans' choice of Alan Keyes for the Senate race in Illinois (and his acceptance of it) and whether it's carpetbagging or tokenism, this Thomas Sowell quote about the two parties and how they've treated their candidates in this race seems dead right:

While Democrats are quick to accuse Republicans of tokenism whenever they put someone black in any prominent position, it is hard to imagine that an obscure member of the Illinois legislature would have been featured at a national convention if he were white.

He goes on to argue that Obama's public face in this campaign is at odds with his record and some passionate speeches he's made in the past. When I commented on this in passing a while back, Wink called me on it for not praising him for his moderate message at the convention. I indeed liked about half of what he was saying at the convention, and the next day I put it up on the board for my students to show them that it isn't just black conservatives that say this sort of thing. It's internal criticism within black America, and one liberal black entertainer (Bill Cosby) and one up-and-coming black Democratic politician have been saying it. I do appreciate that. It not only shows that the claims of self-hating racism against those who say such things and are conservative are idiotic unless the people saying them also say them about these guys (which I know some do, at least about Cosby), but these are people who will more easily be listened to. So I do appreciate that he's saying these things. My problem is that I see his whole record as being at odds with the conservative-sounding parts of his message in that convention speech. That's why I have really mixed feelings about him, and as cranky and idiosyncratic as Alan Keyes is I'm sure I'd vote for him over Obama.

His final complaint worries me, though. He fears that people won't see the clear choice on issues in this race and in others, including the presidential election, and just vote according to image and hype. That's the problem with a media-driven election, and this country seems to want those more than an issue-driven election. That's scarier than any of the rest of the issues he raises.

John McWhorter has changed his policy on what words to use to describe his racial group. He has used 'African American' and 'black' almost interchangeably, but now he's decided not to use 'African American' anymore and only to use 'Black'. He gives his reasons in the article why he won't use 'African American' anymore. I wonder what his reason for the change from 'b' to 'B' is. He doesn't say that. I've heard other people's, but he's a linguist, so I really want to hear his reason.

This post is an interlude, so it sort of doesn't fit into the schedule I set up with the six arguments for affirmative action and six against (see the first post in the series, which also has links to parts II and III). I assume I'll pick up with the third argument for affirmative action in part V.

For now I wanted to record a thought I had while hearing an argument for a minimalist kind of racial profiling, in particular with regard to terrorists since 9/11. If airline screening is completely random, it seems as if it will be far less effective than if they take into account characteristics that are more common among terrorists. Racial profiling is stupid if it doesn't involve any reason to single out the people being singled out, as with the case of stopping black people on the New Jersey Turnpike, when it turned out black motorists weren't any more likely in that context to be doing anything illegal. Even those who would resist using race as the basis for finding terrorists (which it may be a good idea to resist, since al Qaeda has been reported to be using European-looking operatives) should acknowledge that it is a factor that seems relevant enough to consider it. The discussion I heard the tail end of on one of the cable news networks a few minutes ago ended with someone arguing that race or ethnicity should at least be considered as a tie-breaker between two people who might be considered for a screening. All of this language sounded remarkably like the language used in affirmative action discussions.

Note: This is Part III, in case you didn't read the title. Read Part I for links to the rest of the series.

The second argument for affirmative action is that it provides role models for people in underrepresented groups. If young black students see a black physics professor, they'll more likely see that physics is "for black people" instead of just thinking of it as white, and the racial disparity among physics professors will decrease. If having black physics professors takes going out of your way to encourage black physics professors by being more willing to hire a professor who is black, if it takes being more willing to accept a black student to a Ph.D. program in physics, if it takes being more willing to accept black undergraduates interested in science, then affirmative action can play a role in providing physics professor role models to young black students.

Additionally, a black professor has some sort of role model effect on white students. If white students see a black professor who is really good at abstract math, it will help overcome a stereotype that black people aren't good at that sort of thing. If white students see a black professor of ancient Greek, they'll come to see that black people are not just isolative separatists who are only interested in a subject because of immediate practical concerns but can be interested in a subject simply because it's interesting. Mostly, though, having a black professor means having a black person in an authority relationship. It's always important when a group is overcoming being viewed as lower on some hierarchy of social relationships to have people in positions that are higher on the social hierarchy. It means having a reversal of the more common relationship many white middle-class Americans have with many black people they have any relation with. It means a different dynamic of affirmation and respect from what some people are used to, and it transforms how they view people. Those are all excellent effects of choices to go out of our way to select underrepresented people for positions they would less likely be chosen for otherwise.



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