The New Racism?

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Writing for Slate, Shankar Vedantam compares partisanship to racism and sees the two as essentially the same. In some respects, I think he is onto something, but in others, he is way off the mark.

In so far as most people uncritically adopt the philosophical views of those around them, Vedantam is right: Racism and party affiliation are crude stands on philosophical issues pertinent to ethics and politics. Given that racism is always wrong and that no American political party is pro-individual rights, it is even more common than Vedantam observes for people to adopt views that undermine their own self-interest. He is also correct that people can and often do pre-judge others based on party affiliation.

It is at this last point that I start having problems with Vedantam's argument, or at least what I see as the kinds of implications it has. One has exactly zero control over the race(s) to which one's ancestors belong, and (potentially) full control over one's political philosophy. That is, one's racial makeup is irrelevant to anyone who has to gauge one's moral stature or the quality of one's judgment. One's party affiliation (if any) -- or, more correctly, one's political philosophy -- quite likely does, at least to some first approximation, reflect on those very qualities. Some political views (e.g., advocacy of totalitarianism), in fact, reflect so negatively on the person holding them that the best they can possibly imply about a person is an almost incredible degree of confusion or naiveté. It can be -- but isn't necessarily -- true that taking someone's political views into account when forming a judgment about them is done in the same unthinking manner as someone giving a member of another race short shrift.

Before I go further, let me state that I haven't looked into the research Vedantam cites. It may well be that there was some attempt to account for some of the issues I bring up below. But the example reminds me of a type of presumptuousness I have observed many times:

In a recent experiment, researchers assigned Democrats and Republicans to play the role of a college admissions director and asked them to evaluate the applications of two students based on their SAT scores, GPA scores, and recommendation letters. Some applicants were described as enthusiastic members of the Young Democrats or Young Republicans and were said to have been campaign volunteers for Democratic or Republican presidential candidates.

When evaluators were not told about the applicants' partisan affiliations, 79 percent selected the candidate with the strongest scores. When the evaluators were told about the applicants' partisan affiliations -- and the partisan affiliation of the candidate with the strongest score conflicted with the partisan loyalty of the evaluator -- only 44 percent of evaluators chose the candidate with the strongest score.

The bias was evident among both Democratic and Republican evaluators. The study was published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology and authored by Geoffrey D. Munro, Terell P. Lasane, and Scott P. Leary.

Partisanship is also like racism in a third way: Studies have shown that racism is so socially proscribed that people exhibit it nowadays only when they can plausibly deny -- to themselves and to others -- that they are biased. One meta-analysis of studies, for example, found that "discrimination against blacks was more likely to occur when potential helpers had more opportunities to rationalize decisions not to help" by invoking "justifiable explanations having nothing to do with race." [link dropped]
Let's set aside the many difficulties inherent in trying to measure a bigoted, knee-jerk reaction vs. an honest attempt to judge someone based on very limited information (e.g., that individual members of political parties can hold views on certain issues that differ markedly from their party's platform, or that a personal interview might have made a difference in the answers reached). I still see pitfalls here.

If someone strongly believes his political views are right to the point that he questions the judgment of someone who belongs to the opposite party, why shouldn't that factor in to his judgment of the candidate? (This isn't to say that such a person doesn't need to reexamine his political beliefs.) And, given that many blacks in America are affected by a pathological culture, how can we expect knowledge of this fact not to affect such a judgment similarly? (This isn't to say that someone shouldn't check this premise, or at least how he applies it.) Again, these are judgments being made on limited information and in a vacuum. If I had such concerns, I might pick up a phone and call the candidate (or one of his references) or otherwise get more information. I have a funny feeling that many others would also act accordingly in a non-controlled setting.

"Is this candidate acceptable or not?" is a yes-or-no question. It does not follow from the fact that someone answers one way or the other -- and this is the same yes-or-no answer that some kind of bigot would give -- that, therefore, bigotry was involved. I don't think Vedantam is guilty of making this kind of fallacious argument, but I've seen a sort of, "You did X because you're bigoted whether you know it or not," enough times that it bears mention. Purveyors of such nonsense, from petty bullies to advocates of government-mandated racial discrimination (e.g., hiring quotas) use this fallacy all the time, and will latch on to such studies as scientific "proof" that they are right.

-- CAV

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