Race: January 2007 Archives

I just found this old Freakonomics post, but it raises an interesting enough question that I thought it worth posting. It used to be that blacks and whites had very different TV viewing habits. According to recent data, these different viewing habits have begun to converge. I can't think of any good reasons why that might be. Any thoughts? Is it because the particular shows that are on now have something that appeals to both audiences when nothing before did? If so, what would that be? Or is it because something has changed in one or the other audience? If so, what would that be? The explanations offered in the comments don't seem very convincing to me.

Interesting Comment

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It's very interesting to me that I could leave a comment on a left-of-center blog about race, a comment that's very sympathetic to a Marx-like perspective in critical race theory (here for those who want to see it in context), followed by a comment clarifying something that has virtually no value-laden component, only to have someone respond the following way:

Jeremy, I say what I’m about to say because I care.

The fact that you have a black wife fills me with dread. I wont go further because I don’t, as they say, “know you like that,” but let’s just say there’ll be a new family on my prayer-list tonight.

This is someone who has admitted in the past to be the sort of person who makes accusations about my views without actually reading what I said, which is particularly evil when the view being attributed to me is nothing at all like the view I'm actually defending. I'm not normally one to be upset when people pray for me, but I think I understand a little better now something of how gay people feel when Christians tell them they're praying for them to stop being gay.

So I'll say for the record right here: Those who would like to pray for me and Sam are very welcome to do so. We would genuinely appreciate it. Like all married couples, we do encounter difficulties in our relationship, and it's a real struggle dealing with three very active children five and under, two of them autistic. That doesn't make our life easy. But one things seems obvious to me, and that's that this person's prayers will likely be about nothing that actually goes on in our lives.

Before telling Sam of this comment and its context, I asked her, "if we were to list all of the problems we've had in our relationship and in our family, how far down the list do you think we'd have to go before we got to something related to race?" I was expecting maybe she'd say that it wouldn't be in the top 100 or that it wouldn't be in the top 500. She instead said something like, "I don't think it would be on it at all." Now maybe some ridiculously radical conspiracy theory about race is true, and interracial couples can have all sorts of devastating race-related problems in their relationship without ever knowing about them, but I think that's what it would take for us to be the sort of people whose relationship could justify the dread this commenter (who knows virtually nothing about us) has.

Article on Justice Thomas

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Jan Crawford Greenburg has a fascinating piece in the Wall Street Journal called The Truth About Clarence Thomas [hat tip: SCOTUSblog]. It recounts some of what she learned about his first term or two on the Supreme Court from the records of other justices, especially Justice Harry Blackmun. I think this pretty much destroys the last vestiges of several of the common myths about Justice Thomas, e.g. "Justice Thomas is stupid", "Justice Thomas is simply Justice Scalia's lackey" (some would even call him his slave), "Justice Thomas doesn't have any original thoughts", "Justice Thomas' opinions aren't intelligent or well-written", "Justice Thomas isn't smart enough to ask questions during oral arguments", and so on. I've long wondered how much of this is buried racism that isn't allowed to come out with political liberals but is tolerated when it comes to conservatives, but I'm sure that even if it is it's not the sort of racism the person is aware of. I've blogged about some of these issues before here, here, and a series I started here but regrettably haven't gotten around to finishing yet. [Update: See also here.]

It turns out that, according to Justice Blackmun's notes, the first year with Justice Thomas on the court changed things drastically. He'd vote in conference as a lone dissenter, but then when the other justices saw his opinions several of them would change their vote and sign on to his dissent. This is especially true of Justice Scalia, which means it's more true that he was Justice Thomas' lapdog than the reverse, although neither is really true, and a more accurate description would just be that Thomas had just convinced Scalia with arguments that Scalia's original vote was wrong.

Oh, and as for oral arguments, apparently he's got a philosophical conviction against asking questions during oral arguments. He thinks it's the lawyer's job to present the case without much interruption. He considers it a violation of his oath to do otherwise. I simply thought he was the sort of person who takes a while to digest things over the long term but not quickly on his feet, something true of some of the best philosophers I know. But he's actually deliberately holding back for principled reasons.

People of Color

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Geoffrey Pullum at Language Log has an interesting post about his dislike of the term 'people of color'. I've never been taken with the term myself, but I don't think there are any very strong objections to it that don't also apply to other terms that I readily use. For example, it seems funny to act as if white people have no color, but we do speak that way when we call white people white and non-white people non-white. If it's bad to speak of people of color, then it's bad to speak of people who are non-white. In terms of economy of words, it's awkward to say "people of color" as opposed to "colored people", but the former doesn't have the negative connotations now usually associated with the latter, and if grammatical sleight-of-hand allows for a good result without changing the actual terms much is that so bad? There's no really strong linguistic or moral reason against it. So why not?

Well, Pullum just doesn't like the term. That's it. He doesn't judge anyone as linguistically or morally on the wrong side for using it. He just doesn't like it and doesn't use it himself. I'm not sure I dislike it as strongly as he does, but I've never been especially excited about it, and it has nothing to do with the reasons he gives in his slightly unfair characterization of conservative views on race. (I say slightly unfair, because I think what he's describing does happen, but he doesn't seem to allow for people who have views very similar to his on the moral questions but different views on the political ones, which is exactly where I stand.)

I first encountered the term during orientation in my first year of college, and it struck me as very strange. I can't say I've taken to it more over the years, but I don't have any reason I can think of why I shouldn't like it except ones that rely on bad arguments. I suppose it's better than 'non-white' in one way, because it's not defining people in terms of what they aren't.

On the other hand, I'm not sure I can think of a way that 'people of color' makes any sense to refer exactly to the people it refers to except in the sense that they aren't white. So maybe I just find it deceptive as a way to avoid saying something else that might offend some people. In other words, maybe it avoids overt offense by relying on offensive assumptions that aren't immediately discernible without reflection. But I think this might take more argument than I'm prepared to give at this point.

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