Race: June 2009 Archives

One of the problems with Facebook's latest version is that it's no longer possible to import blog posts and keep them comment-free while directing comments to the actual blog. So I've got Facebook friends who comment in Facebook on my blog posts, and those comment threads never appear on my actual blog. One recent comment thread on the Facebook import of this post led to my observing something that hadn't occurred to me before about some of the strange new dynamics of developments in how affirmative action is practiced.

There's an interesting phenomenon now of colleges having higher standards for Asian applicants than they do for white applicants in order to keep the numbers closer to where they want them to be. The diversity argument for affirmative action is now being used to justify discrimination against Asians. Since the diversity argument is the only one the Supreme Court has been willing to recognize as constitutional, none of the other arguments for affirmative action can be used to make this unconstitutional (e.g. remedying past discrimination, counterbalancing current discrimination at other levels of society, reparations for past mistreatment). That makes this perfectly constitutional in its justification, as far as the Supreme Court is concerned.

But I'm wondering if it's against the spirit of the Supreme Court's official stance. The diversity justification is supposed to support the favoring of sufficient diversity in the academic environment, not to ensure exact representation of each group according to any prejudged percentages. Unless the number of Asian students at the higher levels of higher education is so high that it's hindering diversity, I suspect the architects of current case law (Justices O'Connor and Breyer) would frown on admitting Asians at lower rates. It might look a lot more like the quota system that the Supreme Court has declared unconstitutional rather than giving underrepresented groups a leg up to make sure they have a seat at the table. They're already doing that with non-Asian non-white groups, and it's not as if whites need a leg up to have a seat at the table.

I'm thinking the same thing is true about the schools that are lowering standards to admit more male students, given that women are becoming a noticeable majority in higher education. It's not as if men are in danger of losing a seat at the table or as if diversity is really threatened at this point by some lower numbers of men in higher education. This seems to be motivated by a desire to have the number of each sex be closer to their representation in society at large. Doesn't that seem to be the spirit of quotas that the Supreme Court has consistently affirmed as unconstitutional? I'm pretty sure at least six of the current members of the Supreme Court would take that view, given what I've seen from them on previous opinions. But I've never heard of anyone even suggesting that someone initiate a lawsuit to challenge these practices on these grounds.

I came across a pretty good discussion of several of the bad arguments for and against Judge Sotomayor's nomination by Jonathan Turley. I recommend the whole thing, but one statement by him got my attention.

He says something that led me to compare an interesting phenomenon that arises with both Justice Thomas and Judge Sotomayor involving race. There are those who are happy that Judge Sotomayor is a Latina and will support her nomination for that reason alone, ignoring anything else. Then there are those on the left like Turley who would have preferred someone with more intellectual heft. On the right, there are those like me who are happy enough that Obama has nominated someone who by most reports will do little to move the Court to the left from where it currently is (and on some issues may well move it somewhat to the right, although on some issues we don't have any clue, and she could be far left for all we know). Then there are those on the right who have also pointed out that she's gotten some negative reviews in terms of her intellect, claiming that she's an affirmative action pick who is being chosen not because she's qualified but because she's Latina, sometimes even with the suggestion that she's unqualified.

So on both sides of the political spectrum we get objections that she's not an intellectual heavyweight. Turley is right to point out that this is not the same as saying she's stupid, as some have claimed these critics to be saying. Maybe some of them are, but Turley thinks she's quite smart but just not an intellectual heavyweight whose depth of understanding of the law and the historical background of the legal questions would shift legal opinion in significant ways, e.g. as Justice Scalia has done on the right and as Justice Brennan did on the left in the latter half of the 20th century. Such a statement is consistent with recognizing her intelligence as pretty high.

Then there's a third category. There are those who claim the statements about her intelligence are due to racism. She's Latina, so they must be assuming she's dumb. You find this on the right too, particularly when people criticize Justice Thomas. Senator Harry Reid, for instance, despite admitting to never having read an opinion by Jusice Thomas, was happy to spout off the general wisdom of the left that his opinions aren't very well-written, and I regularly see and hear comments about how he's not all that smart and just looks to Justice Scalia for guidance about what to do. Anyone who has spent much time looking at his opinions and anyone who has heard him speak would never hesitate to consider him to be a pretty intelligent person.

So what about the racist charge? Is it racist to say that someone is dumb when the person happens to be non-white? Of course not. Your reasons for thinking someone is unintelligent may be despite great reluctance to say such a thing of a non-white person in the public eye. You might genuinely think the evidence supports it, or you may trust the opinion of someone else who reported to you that someone is unintelligent. I think it's pretty immoral to call someone a racist merely because they happen to think someone who is non-white isn't very bright. There are, after all, people who aren't white who aren't that bright. I've tutored for some of the athletic teams at my university. Some of the students on those teams are very good academically, and others should never have made it into college. Some of those who never should have been accepted happen not to be white. They struggle to understand pretty basic philosophical concepts that most freshmen pick up pretty readily. It's racist to assume someone is dumb just because the person is black or Hispanic, but it isn't racist to conclude that someone who happens to be black or Hispanic is of low intelligence after becoming aware of actual evidence that the person is of low intellifence.

Nevertheless, I think there's something that these critics have right. I think there's a very strong presumption in individual cases of not accusing someone of wrongdoing or evil motives when there isn't strong evidence that they are ill-intentioned or doing wrong. Therefore, I think it's wrong to throw around racism charges for everyone who, for all you know, might be operating based on racist assumptions. Racist assumptions would explain how someone might conclude that someone who managed to graduate top of her class at Princeton University might be stupid. Racist assumptions similarly would explain how someone might say the same about the justice who managed to convince Justice Scalia to become more judicially conservative than he already was because of some pretty innovative and out-of-favor reasons that it hadn't even occurred to Scalia to consider. But to assume that racism is at work in any particular case violates the principle of charity that we ought to take in cases where we don't really know if someone is being downright evil in the way we're inclined to accuse them of being.

Such a strong presumption is for individual cases when we're ignorant of the details, perhaps even relevant ones about a person's inner life. That's consistent with recognizing that a claim is too ludicrous to be perpetuated so easily and frequently by people who should know better when we rarely see such claims about men who are nominated or serving on the Supreme Court. That might lead us to wonder if there is some kind of racist stereotype being perpetuated. In this case, I don't think it would be that Judge Sotomayor is being assumed by anyone to be unintelligent because she's Latina, but I wonder if some people among those who say this are more likely to believe such a claim when made about a Latina than they would if it were made about a man, especially a white man.

It's not all that common that I find myself agreeing with Peter Singer on a controversial ethical issue, but I was reading a section of his book on the moral status of animals and came across a passage where he discusses racial differences, and I found his discussion refreshingly honest in a way that would come across as politically incorrect in many circles.

He complains that the primary opposition most people have toward racism seems to come from being able to see that people in different races aren't all that different, and thus discrimination against people of a certain race merely because of their race is arbitrary and morally unfounded. I've just started reading one of his articles directly on that topic, and I may well have something further to blog about it once I'm done, but in the animals discussion Singer registers some worries about this approach that I've long had myself, worries I don't see very many people expressing.

A great number of trees have been killed to try to defend the claim that there are no racial differences that might be remotely connected to anything morally significant. At any suggestion that part of the cause of the IQ gap has to do with something besides current racism, sociologists and psychologists do all sorts of empirical work trying to show that black students score lower when they know their race is being recorded with their score and such things. It's as if everything anti-racist hangs on being able to establish that the only possible cause of racial differences in test scores might be racism itself.

Singer points out that this assumption is actually the problem. If you assume that overcoming racism requires it to be a fact that there are no significant differences in intelligence between two given races, then the racist with some reason to see a difference will seem more excusable. If anti-racism rests on the assumption that there will never be a gap in intelligence between two races, what happens if you discover that, at least with respect to one method of registering differences, there is such a gap? What if part of the intelligence test gap actually comes from some biological differences in brain capacity that might make it harder to do certain tasks? Would that then make it all right to discriminate against people of that race? So basing the argument on empirical facts that might turn out to be false isn't the best idea.

The further thought that I've had is that, whenever you take an average on anything, you're bound to have averages that differ. It's almost overwhelmingly guaranteed that one of the averages will turn out to be closer than the other to the goal in question, even once you adjust for environmental factors. You're simply not going to be able to establish the view that there are no differences that lead to slightly higher averages on some measure with white people than with some non-white group. Such a result isn't just some remote possibility that we hope isn't true. It's almost certainly going to be true statistically speaking. If you manage to get a test that does fairly well at testing for skills of a certain sort, it's overwhelmingly likely that some racial groups will test better at it, because those people who happen to belong to certain races are not likely to have exactly the same average than those of every other race. One will turn out to be better on average, and that result would be a pretty poor excuse if someone wanted to use it to justify racism. If you took any random sampling of humanity and tested them, then took a different random sampling and tested them, it's extremely unlikely that they'd have the same average. If the average for blacks turned out to be lower than the average for whites, what would that tell us? Absolutely nothing of any consequence, since we would expect that the numbers couldn't be the same, and when you're talking large numbers of people with variable scores it might be reason to suspect divine intervention if you got exactly the same result for each group.

So I'm in full agreement with Singer about those who resist tooth and nail any possibility that there might be a lower average among one race when it comes to a particular measure of intelligence. It's a fruitless quest, and the factual discovery such people so strongly want to resist isn't really going to lead to enough of a morally-significant difference to justify the strong resistance.

I have to agree with Ilya Solin about this. I've yet to put together my thoughts on the Sotomayor nomination fully, but this is an important point that I wanted to say something about separately. Regardless of your view of the correctness of Sotomayor's statement that a Latina just should be a better judge than a while male judge, such a view is not racism.

I tire of making this point on the left-leaning race blogs that I sometimes check in on. Racism, in its primary sense, is a negative attitude toward people of another race. Other things that might be called racist are so in a derivative way because those things are connected with racist attitudes. Thus certain acts are racist because they typically stem from such attitudes, and certain institutions are racist because they have a lot of such atittudes and acts woven into their very fabric. Jorge Garcia has an excellent philosophical defense of this approach in "The Heart of Racism".

When you call someone a racist, it doesn't mean they have innocent motives but participate in social practices that inadvertently cause racial harm. It doesn't mean they merely have false views about race or about races other than their own. It doesn't mean you can get away with ignoring race the many white people can much of the time. It doesn't mean you avoid some of the difficulties some others face because of race. The most immediatel thing converyed when someone is accused of being a racist is that the person has a deep-seated racial animosity or opposition to those of another race or that the person has views that those of another race are inferior, and these views have a negative emotional or attitudinal component. There are certainly things that can be called racism that don't fall into that category, but they're derivative of this fundamental meaning, and when you call someone a racist it sends entirely the wrong message if what you mean is something other than the primary meaning, because that's what people hear in such an accusation.

So it irks me when I hear conservatives making exactly the same blunder. It's not reverse racism to have the view that a Latina judge is likely to have experiences that influence her judging in positive ways, experiences that a white male judge wouldn't have. Calling someone a racist for thinking experiences common to the women of one ethnic group might make someone a better judge than people not in that category is as bad as calling someone a racist for opposing affirmative action or for claiming that the Democratic Senators at Clarence Thomas' nomination hearing were racists because they were willing to do anything, even smear his name with accusations that they had plenty of evidence against, if that's what it would take to prevent his confirmation. Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich have violated their own principles on this one. Limbaugh is a regular complainer about how the left issues racism charges in cases when such charges are not warranted. Yet that's exactly what he's doing here. I'm pretty sure Gingich shares that view, and yet he's also apparently called her a racist. Regardless of whether her view is true (and I encourage you to look at Tom Goldstein's analysis of her discrimination rulings, a post I'll try to comment on in more detail as soon as I can, before you come to a final judgment on her ability to be fair on such matters), it's certainly ridiculous to say that she's a racist for holding it.


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