Discrimination and the Nice Guy

21 05 2014

Oops, I Racist’d Again (image via ABC News)

Is discrimination a feeling, or something else? In Slate over the weekend, Jamelle Bouie talked about research out of MTV (just…just keep reading don’t worry about that right now) that either proves something you already knew, or produces a peculiar result: “Millennials” hate racism, aren’t sure racism exists. They want to be colorblind, but in so doing, as Bouie points out, tend to dismiss the very fact that racism is a pervasive (structural) problem.

Bouie makes the point well that this is because “racism” should really be understood as “white supremacy,” not as a species of bad manners or poor attitudes:

The problem is that racism isn’t reducible to “different treatment.” Since if it is, measures to ameliorate racial inequality—like the Voting Rights Act—would be as “racist” as the policies that necessitated them. No, racism is better understood as white supremacy—anything that furthers a broad hierarchy of racist inequity, where whites possess the greatest share of power, respect, and resources, and blacks the least.

What was just as interesting to me however was this exchange on Twitter sparked by Gene Demby, Post-Bourgie founder, lead blogger at NPR’s Code Switch, and fellow bald-with-beard-er, based on an interview Demby conducted. The subject told him that while her father didn’t like people of color, she didn’t consider him racist because she equated racism with being a bad person.

This raised some very vexing questions for me. First, it looks like there’s a contradiction: the idea that somebody could sincerely hold opinions that are racist in content, but not themselves be a racist. How can someone believe something that appears to contradict itself? The contradiction requires some kind of rationale by the person who believes it; there has to be some reason they do not see a contradiction.

It could be that they don’t see a contradiction because they see racism as defined wholly by intent (“disparate treatment”), or disposition. Indeed, Demby’s interviewee seems to think you have to do it out of hatred or malice–you have to be a bad person. It’s a legalistic argument–what the law treats as the “mens rea,” or subjective intent–that without malice, there’s no crime.

We more or less agree on this as a social more. We don’t call someone a jerk if they make a faux pas by bringing up a subject they did not know was uniquely sensitive to someone else. We do call them a jerk if they point at that person and laugh about it. The latter person acted with intent to do harm.

But in law, there are strict liability, crimes, too. Statutory rape is an example of a strict liability crime: it doesn’t matter if you knew what you were doing, so long as you did the thing.

For example, there are two ways you can be guilty of unlawful race discrimination in employment under the Civil Rights Act: you can either act with discriminatory intent (so-called “disparate treatment”), or your actions can have a disparate impact, regardless of your intent to discriminate. The latter is something like strict liability. Nevermind your good intentions; you need to take care that what you do is not having a discriminatory effect.

So our interviewee must not see a contradiction because the necessary intent on the part of her dad is missing: an intent to do harm, or a “depraved heart,” unconcerned with the effect of actions. He doesn’t want to hurt anybody; he just has his opinions and keeps them to himself.

If this is indeed the thought process, discrimination as a social ill wouldn’t seem like a very fruitful subject area. Because even when people hold no personal ill will, there are disparate impacts on specific groups–women, people of colored, transgendered people.

This brings me to the second question. Are the problems we associate with discrimination really the result of aggregating discriminatory attitudes? If tomorrow, everybody’s belief that they were colorblind turned out true, would the problems we associate with discrimination–gaps in life expectancy, incarceration rates, poverty, access to health care, high rates of violence and abuse, etc.–melt away?

History doesn’t seem to support that. Even where things have improved, patriarchy and white supremacy seem to be pretty resilient to improving attitudes. Chattel slavery gives way to a century of Jim Crow gives way to resegregation and world-topping incarceration rates. Domestic servitude gives way to the third shift gives way to the feminization of poverty.

If it’s not aggregate attitudes reinforcing and reproducing these consequences, changing those attitudes alone doesn’t seem like a particularly fruitful approach. At the very least we know that the way power is arranged produces these effects, since presumably if disadvantaged groups had sufficient power to prevent these effects, they would wield it. This isn’t limited to legal rights; successfully forcing the power structure is change legal rights is what ended Jim Crow–but we’re still facing a society where people of color face material disadvantages basically as a function of their existence. Is the goal in other words to enlighten the powerful, change the composition of that elite, or to take away those exercises of power?

Maybe it’s the Animal Farm problem, of pigs replacing men: power, like sadness, accrues, and the results are rarely good.


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