Racism (30): What Should We Call Non-White People, and How Do Names Affect Us?

Obviously, “nigger” is out. Initially a neutral term – from the Latin “niger” which means black – it was often used without racist connotation during much of the 19th century, but it became increasingly pejorative and derogatory. Even though it’s still used today by some, shall we say “African Americans”, to describe each other, often even endearingly, it’s done with.

“Negro” also means “black”, notably in Spanish and Portuguese. This term took over from “nigger” and then also from “colored” as the more polite appellation (“colored” was common usage during a few decades at the beginning of the 19th century).

“Negro” was long considered to be the proper English-language term for people of sub-Saharan African origin. This lasted until the late 1960s. Martin Luther King could still call himself a Negro. However, the term was already criticized in the 1950s en 1960s, notably by Malcolm X who successfully tried to redeem the word “black” which was seen as offensive during much of the first half of the 20th century. And indeed, “black was beautiful” during the “black power” era in the 1970s.

“African American” then took over from “black” which went from repudiated to acceptable to repudiated again. (Initially, the term was “Afro-American” derived from “Anglo-American”). “African American” has been the standard term since the 1980s, and it still is today.  “Negro” is now considered to be acceptable only in a historical context, and you should avoid talking about “black people”. African American – a term which for the first time doesn’t reference skin color – was initially hyphenated: “African-American”, like “Irish-American” or “Cuban-American”. This has become problematic very recently in reaction to the belittling phrase “hyphenated Americans“. Hence the recent omission of the hyphen.

Many will see this movement of the language of race as political correctness “gone wild”, but language does evolve and words carry meaning and historical references. Meanings and historical references can influence ideas and behavior. People who insist on using the word “nigger” are likely to have certain very specific ideas about those whom they call “nigger”. And these ideas can circulate when the word circulates. Even those who are tempted to see PC at work here will surely agree that “nigger” is an unacceptable and damaging use of language. But if “nigger” is, then why not also certain other words?

“Negro” was quite often used during the Civil War era and during the Civil Rights struggle, understandably, and was the standard expression in the period between. “Blacks” took over in the 70s, and “African American” in the 90s. “Nigger” has always been taboo in published works.

More posts in this series are here.

Racism (29): A Natural or An Acquired Vice?

We now have strong evidence that human evolution has produced natural tendencies to favor members of the same group and to distrust and disadvantage outsiders. Insider-outsiders distinctions seem to be innate. This is the consequence of the substantial benefits of group solidarity in early human evolution, and we still live with it today.

Psychologist Catherine Cottrell at the University of Florida and her colleague Steven Neuberg at Arizona State University, argue that human prejudice evolved as a function of group living. Joining together in groups allowed humans to gain access to resources necessary for survival including food, water, and shelter. Groups also offered numerous advantages, such as making it easier to find a mate, care for children, and receive protection from others. However, group living also made us more wary of outsiders who could potentially harm the group by spreading disease, killing or hurting individuals, or stealing precious resources. To protect ourselves, we developed ways of identifying who belongs to our group and who doesn’t. Over time, this process of quickly evaluating others might have become so streamlined that it became unconscious. (source)

So, to some extent, our brains are wired for bias. Even the most liberal among us show some level of implicit bias when tested for it. All we can do is try to be aware of our prejudices as much as possible, and then correct for them.

Some want to extrapolate from these relatively uncontroversial findings and argue that racism as well is innate, even though racism is a relatively recent phenomenon unknown to early humans who almost never met members of other races.

Those who argue that racism is a natural tendency can appeal to certain findings to back up their claims. Studies have found that when whites see black faces there is increased activity in the amygdala, a brain structure associated with emotion and, specifically, with the detection of threats (source).

The problem with this sort of argument is that a biological fact doesn’t have to be innate. In fact, in this case, it has been shown that the detected brain reaction – a biological fact – does not occur in young people:

In a paper that will be published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Eva Telzer of UCLA and three other researchers report that they’ve performed these amygdala studies–which had previously been done on adults–on children. And they found something interesting: the racial sensitivity of the amygdala doesn’t kick in until around age 14. What’s more: once it kicks in, it doesn’t kick in equally for everybody. The more racially diverse your peer group, the less strong the amygdala effect. At really high levels of diversity, the effect disappeared entirely. The authors of the study write that ”these findings suggest that neural biases to race are not innate and that race is a social construction, learned over time.” (source)

In a sense, this is good news, because it means that people can be taught not to be racist, even if we can’t be taught to be completely unprejudiced.

More on race as a social construction is here. More posts in this series are here.

Racism (28): Shooter Bias

When called to the scene of an on-going crime, police officers often have to make split-second decisions whether to shoot or not. There’s chaos, darkness, running, shouting, shooting perhaps, and no time to determine who’s who and who’s likely to do what. Training can help, but in most cases officers just rely on instincts. In other words, these are the ideal situations for the revelation of personal biases.

Because of the nature of those situations, officers sometimes make mistakes and shoot innocent persons or unarmed suspects. Now, somewhat unsurprisingly there’s research telling us that it’s more likely for white people to shoot unarmed black suspects than unarmed white suspects. This bias is called the shooter bias, and it’s not the monopoly of police officers (as lab tests with ordinary citizens have confirmed). (More here).

It seems that a lot of people have internalized the stereotype about dangerous black men, even those who would not think of themselves as having done so.

More posts in this series are here.

Racism (27): Black Students Face Harsher Discipline

At least they do in U.S. schools:

Although black students made up only 18 percent of those enrolled in the schools sampled, they accounted for 35 percent of those suspended once, 46 percent of those suspended more than once and 39 percent of all expulsions … Over all, black students were three and a half times as likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers. …

Black and Hispanic students — particularly those with disabilities — are also disproportionately subject to seclusion or restraints. Students with disabilities make up 12 percent of the student body, but 70 percent of those subject to physical restraints. Black students with disabilities constituted 21 percent of the total, but 44 percent of those with disabilities subject to mechanical restraints, like being strapped down. And while Hispanics made up 21 percent of the students without disabilities, they accounted for 42 percent of those without disabilities who were placed in seclusion. (source, source)

What are the reasons for these differences in discipline rates? I guess it can only be one of two things: either black students are particularly unruly, or many teachers are prejudiced. Racists will obviously adopt the former explanation: in their minds, racial discrepancies in discipline are not evidence of racism but rather evidence of the inferiority of the black race. Let’s assume for a moment that teachers do not treat black pupils unjustly and that those pupils deserve their treatment on account of their behavior: we should probably not assume this, but even if we do this would not necessarily be evidence of racial inferiority. There may still be background discrimination. Why do black kids behave the way they do – if they do indeed behave in ways that deserve harsher discipline? Could it not be because of racism elsewhere in society?

More posts in this series are here.

Racism (26): Racism in Criminal Justice

African Americans get, on average, a raw deal from the criminal justice system in the US. They get arrested more often, in part because of racial profiling; when they end up in court, they face racially biased juries; and when it’s time to sentence them, they receive harsher penalties and join an already overrepresented group in the prison system (African Americans are more likely to spend time in jail and when they do they spend more time in jail). Some more evidence:

Biased juries

Here’s a study showing that the racial composition of juries affects trial outcomes and conviction rates:

This article examines the impact of jury racial composition on trial outcomes using a data set of felony trials in Florida between 2000 and 2010. We use a research design that exploits day-to-day variation in the composition of the jury pool to isolate quasi-random variation in the composition of the seated jury, finding evidence that (i) juries formed from all-white jury pools convict black defendants significantly (16 percentage points) more often than white defendants, and (ii) this gap in conviction rates is entirely eliminated when the jury pool includes at least one black member. The impact of jury race is much greater than what a simple correlation of the race of the seated jury and conviction rates would suggest. These findings imply that the application of justice is highly uneven and raise obvious concerns about the fairness of trials in jurisdictions with a small proportion of blacks in the jury pool. (source)

Whether or not someone is convicted has a lot to do with the luck of the draw or with the success of prosecutors or defendants wishing to remove people from juries. This raises obvious concerns about the fairness of criminal justice.

Biased prosecutors

African Americans receive longer sentences because prosecutors are, on average, more likely to charge them with crimes that require minimum sentences:

This study provides robust evidence that black arrestees in the federal system—particularly black men—experience moderately but significantly worse case outcomes than do white defendants arrested for the same crimes and with the same criminal history. Most of that disparity appears to be introduced at the initial charging stage …  [C]ompared to white men, black men face charges that are on average about seven to ten percent more severe on various severity scales, and are more than twice as likely to face charges carrying mandatory minimum sentences.  These disparities persist after charge bargaining and, ultimately, are a major contributor to the large black-white disparities in prison sentence length. (source)

Biased police

An example of racial profiling: a study of New York City’s stop-and-frisk program has revealed that

out of all ethnicities stopped, white people had the highest chance of having committed a crime, despite being proportionally the least searched. (source)

Racism (25): What Do We Know About Race?

At least the following 5 things:

  1. There are no human races in the sense of biological or genetic divisions within the human species. About 94% of genetic variation between individuals lies within so-called “racial groups” – or rather “groups which are conventionally labeled as races” on spurious grounds (for example on the basis of vague and ambiguous differences in appearances). This means that two Africans may be as genetically different from one another as an African and a European. Continued interbreeding throughout history and the resulting exchange of genetic material has maintained humanity as a single species. There are no clearly divided species of humanity that are biological distinct. Humans aren’t monkeys. The concept of race has no genetic basis and genetics doesn’t provide support for those dividing humanity into different races.
  2. Even divisions based solely on appearances rather than genetic characteristics are flawed since those appearances show a continuum across individuals rather than a clear division between discrete groups of individuals. There are indeed superficial visual differences between people living in different parts of the world, but those differences are individual gradations on a continuum rather than divisions between groups. If you move towards the equator, skin color darkens because darker skin helps to avoid the cancerogenous effect of the sun entering the atmosphere at a right angle. These superficial differences are not only continuous and gradual rather than discrete; they also have no connection to other, supposed differences such as IQ or morality. Even if IQ and morality are determined by genes – and that’s a big “if” – then there is no reason to believe that the genes that determine these qualities “cooperate” with the genes that determine skin color. Hence no reason to assume a causal link between skin color and intellectual or moral faculties.
  3. So, even if you manage to divide humanity roughly into groups according to broad ranges of skin color – and provide a category called “mixed” for descendants of two individuals belonging to different groups (“Creoles” for example) or for people belonging to borderline groups (Arabs for example) – nothing useful can be concluded from such a division. There is nothing – no gene, no trait, no color, no moral or intellectual characteristic – that distinguishes all the members of one so-called race from all the members of another so-called race.
  4. As a result of this, observed inequalities between groups that are wrongfully labeled as racial groups must be the result not of biological inheritance but of differences in education, rights and treatment. Biological or genetic arguments for intellectual or moral differences between races are groundless because the denominator – race – is a fiction.
  5. The word “race” only has meaning in the sense that it is something some people believe in, talk about and act upon. “Race” is something that exists only in the minds of people. In other words, it’s a social construct. However, a social construct can have real life effects given the fact that people treat other people on the basis of their mistaken ideas about “race”. Likewise, race can be meaningful as a form of self-identification, subjective allegiance and group belonging. But also in this sense, the word race refers to nothing in biology or genetics.

More on race here. More posts in this series here.

Racism (24): What’s Wrong With Residential Segregation?

Residential segregation can be the outcome of racial animus or racial prejudice, for example when whites decide that they don’t want to live near blacks for no other reason than race. In that case, segregation is a symptom of racism and is evidently wrong. What to do about it is less clear: forcing people to live somewhere is also wrong.

But residential segregation can also result from less prejudiced motives, sometimes even from rational ones: whites may be relatively wealthy and therefore decide that they prefer to live in a nice suburb. Automatically, they end up together with other whites. (Perhaps the wealth disparity has something to do with racism, but not the segregation itself). Yet, even in that case, segregation has harmful consequences and we will have to do something about it.

Residential segregation is harmful in several ways. When relatively wealthy whites move en masse to the suburbs, the relatively poor blacks who stay in the inner cities find themselves in an increasingly impoverished area. Shops will disappear; house prices will fall and will put pressure on people’s assets, etc. The reduced tax base will make it harder for the local government to fund high quality public goods. As a result, the quality of education and other public services will drop, which will start a vicious circle of poverty.

Physical segregation of races will reduce self-esteem and self-confidence among the members of the group that is worse off after segregation. It may also foster racial animus against those who are better off. And, finally, so-called membership poverty will kick in. People will see a reduction in the number of role models, and the remaining role models will by definition be relatively poor and hence not always the ones providing the most beneficial inspiration. Criminal role models also become more prominent, as the simple arithmetical result of the disappearance of the middle class. Furthermore, when people witness high rates of failure among group members, this will also negatively affect their aspirations and effort, which in turn will make a negative economic logic take root: for example, when few group members start businesses, few other members will have the opportunity to work for them or trade with them.

However, residential segregation is not entirely negative for the poor minorities remaining in the inner cities. As house prices in the cities fall, relatively poor blacks are more likely to become homeowners. However, that’s a small silver lining to an enormous black cloud.

By the way, some numbers are here. More on segregation here.