Last month Dave Rubin sat down to interview lawyer, author, and radio host: Larry Elder. Elder is a conservative, and the fact that he’s a “black conservative”, really doesn’t matter (that doesn’t mean black lives don’t matter! – phew, that was close). The question is whether or not he’s right – which if you picked up on the pun – the answer is obviously: Yes.
Rubin’s show is doing valuable work in the market place of ideas. And I benefited greatly from their exchange. Some have criticized Rubin for not pressing Elder on certain points, but Rubin is exposing himself, and his audience, to ideas that are unfamiliar and often unwelcome. One problem with that is; it’s harder to come up with counter-points on the spot. I think some of us have spent so long in the echo chamber, that we aren’t used to defending our own views. How do I know what I know? Of course the United States is racist…isn’t it? “Tell me how”, Elder would reply. There are answers to Elder’s questions that Rubin, for whatever reasons, didn’t or couldn’t, articulate at the time. Upon reflection, I would assert that racism does exist, and to the extent it does exist, it’s a problem to be addressed. But the key to Elder’s argument, and why it often stumps his opponents, has to do with how he frames it. “Racism is not a MAJOR problem”, “this isn’t your GRANDFATHERS America”, “black on black crime is a MUCH BIGGER problem” and so on. However, just because something is not the central problem in a country, does not mean it’s not ‘A Problem’. It doesn’t follow that we shouldn’t address it, or that we should try to deflect from it by bringing up other problems, under the guise of gaining perspective. People are free to take up any issue they choose, big or small, major or minor.
Thus, to begin with, Elder claims that liberals pander to the victimhood narrative of African American activists, in order to sell themselves as social justice warriors, to secure black votes for the Democratic party. If not for this Elder argues, there would be more black voters, voting Republican. Although it’s certainly cynical and I wouldn’t couch it in those terms, there does appear to be something to his argument. This article from the Washington Post shows that the increase in blacks who identify as Democrats began in 1948, when Democratic President Harry Truman “made an explicit appeal for new civil rights measures from Congress, including voter protections, a federal ban on lynching and bolstering existing civil rights laws.” The second and largest increase came after the signing of the Civil Rights Act by another Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. Since then the distance between blacks who vote for Democratic and Republican Presidents, has grown exponentially (between 80 to 90 percent in the Democrats favor). Elder argues that however valid the shift towards the Democrats was in the 1960’s; it is no longer valid today – and perhaps hasn’t been valid for the last thirty years – because racism proper no longer exists outside the minds of black people and their liberal enablers, who have been force-fed narratives of victimhood and white guilt by the liberal media – Hollywood in particular – and the liberal intelligentsia.
So Elder’s claim is not that racism doesn’t exist, but rather that it is not a MAJOR problem, as black activists and liberals would have us believe. So is Elder right? Well 49 percent of Americans believe that racism is still a big problem in the United States, but what is the reality?
Professor Steven Pinker’s New York Times Best Seller The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence has declined, shows that racism is not the problem it once was in much of the world, including the United States, writing:
“In 1950, 44 percent of governments had invidious discriminatory policies; by 2003 only 19 percent did, and they were outnumbered by the governments that had remedial [i.e. affirmative action] policies…minority groups are doing particularly well in the America’s and Europe, where little discrimination remains.”
And to show that legislative and institutional racism is not solely a white man’s game, Pinker further notes:
“Minority groups still experience legal discrimination in Asia, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, though in each case there have been improvements since the end of the cold war”.
Lastly Pinker seems to validate Elders contention:
“Not only has official discrimination by governments been in decline, but so has the dehumanizing and demonizing mindset in individual people. This claim may seem incredible to the many intellectuals who insist that the United States is racist to the bone. But as we have seen throughout this book, for every moral advance in human history there have been social commentators who insist that we’ve never had it so bad….the sociologist Lawrence Bobo and his colleagues decided to see for themselves by examining the history of white Americans’ attitudes toward African Americans. They found that far from being indestructible, overt racism [italics mine] has been steadily disintegrating.”
Pinker is a member of the liberal intelligentsia, but his opus on the decline of violence and his preceding work The Blank Slate (2002), have brought charges of racism against him.
It appears that Elder is right and not just because he’s a conservative. The denial and shouting down of those that follow the evidence is a real problem. While we can agree to acknowledge the history of racism against black people in the United States. We can also admit that constantly looking to the past means that the future may just pass us by, and a binary world-view can be unhelpful. For example, if a black person doesn’t get offered a job from a series of white employers, it doesn’t logically follow that those white employers have discriminated against that individual based on the color of his/her skin. In fact, it can disadvantage a person to think in this way. If your failure to obtain employment is never your fault, then you’re never going to improve. Equally, as a black male, if every time a Police Officer stops you, you believe it’s because of the color of your skin and the Police are just out to get you, it increases the chances that things are going to go wrong during your exchange. The longer people deny that real substantive progress has been made, and the more people who promote the narrative that the United States is irredeemably racist, and that black people are destined to be her victims. The stronger the impediments to improving race relations will become. But is there any kind of racism that is a problem?
In his Scientific American article: Why do cops kill? Skeptic and Public Intellectual Michael Shermer argued that the ‘Rage Circuit’ – a neural network in the brain – could be the culprit in disastrous exchanges between black males and Police:
“An answer may be found deep inside the brain, where a neural network stitches together three structures into what neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp calls the rage circuit….In certain conditions that call for strong emotions, such as when you feel threatened with bodily injury or death, it is prudent for the rage circuit to override the cortex….a charitable explanation for why cops kill is that certain actions by suspects (running away, or resisting arrest, or reaching into the squad car to grab a gun) may trigger the rage circuit to fire with such intensity as to override all cortical self-control. This may be especially the case if the officer is modified by training and experience to look for danger or biased by racial profiling leading to negative expectations of certain citizens’ behavior”.
It’s the latter part of this statement that’s interesting to me; how certain biases can lead others to perceive even innocuous behavior as threatening, thereby triggering the rage circuit unnecessarily. It seems uncontroversial to suggest that biases, implicit or explicit – and in both directions – is putting both parties on the wrong footing before the interaction even begins. Indeed, Pinker seems to have been talking about the decline of overt racism, a conscious kind of racism. Professor of Psychology Paul Bloom suggests that the branch of Cognitive Psychology that deals with how humans view the world can offer some insight into racism. Bloom posits that humans naturally make categories and generalize about the objects in those categories, and that it’s very important for human survival. But when we categorize people – even on very minimal indicators such as sports jerseys – it can lead to an ‘Us vs. Them’ mentality, whereby we denigrate the ‘Other’. Negative stereotypes form and are perpetuated in the public sphere, and we end up treating individuals of the assigned category based on negative stereotypes. Professor Bloom further submits that, try as we might to be “consciously egalitarian”, people are unconsciously bias in one form or another. Elder of course rejects unconscious racism, but the simple fact is that humans have a tendency toward tribalism. Racism need not be legislated into existence to be a problem worth addressing, no more than it can be legislated out of existence and cease to be one. Unconscious biases exist in the human brain as social psychological ‘Implicit Association Tests’ (IATs) consistently bear out. Incidentally, I’m not nearly as sexist as I am racist – take the IAT here. Luckily for me though in his book Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, Professor Bloom writes that humans have a “natural propensity to favor our own group over others” and he also writes that media depictions of IAT results are misleading:
““I’m not a racist,” he [a firefighter that did poorly on an IAT] later protests. His interrogator snaps back: “You don’t think you are.” This is the sort of media depiction that makes social psychologists wince. Even if the firefighters were tested on the actual IAT, it wouldn’t help ferret out the racist. These methods were developed to gather aggregate data about people’s unconscious biases. They are not racist-detectors.”
However, if an unconscious racial bias is present in the minds of enough individuals, or even a handful of individuals that hold positions of power, then racist-like-outcomes can indeed be systemic – that is to say widespread without being a matter of law, protocol or policy. It’s in this way that I think most “racism” occurs today. So if our white employers consistently fail to hire black people – despite a wealth of black applicants – then there could well be an unconscious bias in operation; just as our Police Officer may not be consciously aware he/she is engaging in racial, age or gender profiling – or a combination of all three – when he/she stops you in the street. Criminologists have long mused whether it would be beneficial to pre-emptively imprison males between ages 15 and 25 as a crime prevention method. Therefore, although it is undeniably true that racism has declined, to say racism – as a by-product of categorization and/or unconscious bias – is no longer a problem worth addressing in the United States, may not hold up to scrutiny, especially by its victims.
The legacy of Racism
Lastly, one could argue that centuries of slavery, widespread racist attitudes, and legislative and institutional racism, have caused long lasting disadvantages psychologically, educationally, economically, politically and sociologically. Take poverty for instance. Poverty can ruin families for generations. Living under impoverished conditions can adversely affect brain development, which can create disadvantages in education, which creates economic disadvantage, which effects social mobility, which can feedback into further poverty and lack of opportunities for subsequent generations. Pour into this mix biological propensities for violence, vices such as alcohol and drugs, and outside violence from hostile groups; things can get very bad very quickly, and can be extremely difficult to reverse. Can the feedback loop be broken? Of course. Humans love nothing better than a good rags to riches story, but we should realize that we love them precisely because they are so exceptional.
Furthermore, Psychologist and Criminologist, Professor Adrian Raine’s book The Anatomy of Violence: The Biological Roots of Crime, posits that trauma, either witnessed or experienced, can have disastrous results on the human brain, and therefore the behavior of individuals. Citing the case of Serial Killer Henry Lee Lucas, Professor Raine takes readers through a horror show of experiences in Lucas’ childhood. Upon reading Professor Raines book, I would defy anyone not to feel a level of sincere empathy, if not for the man Lucas became, then for the boy he was. A boy with an alcoholic, absentee father, and a merciless prostitute for a mother, and her pimp as a male role model. A boy who was subjected to serious poverty, neglect, humiliation, and physical and psychological abuse. Professor Raine writes:
“On the biological side there are three very important risk factors for violence that have been highlighted in previous chapters––head injury, poor nutrition, and genetic heritage from his [Lucas’] antisocial parents. These are abetted by a host of social risks, including abuse, neglect, humiliation, maternal rejection, abject poverty, overcrowding, being in a bad neighborhood, alcohol and drugs, and complete absence of care and sense of belonging”.
I asked Professor Raine whether such conditions in black communities can be linked to the legacy of slavery and/or legislative and institutional racism due to inter-generational transmission. In his succinct reply, he did not go into how this may relate to black communities but he did agree that:
“In response, there is no question that the environment affects biology and brain – and even gene expression that can be passed down from one generation. So yes, in the case of Henry Lee Lucas, there can well be inter-generational transmission of antisocial behavior at environmental and biological levels.”
If this is correct, it seems to me fair to infer that the legacy of slavery and institutional racism may be echoing into the present day. There has been much progress along the way, which with the exception of slavery, has been largely led by the Democrats. Whether or not Lyndon B. Johnson really did remark “we have lost the South for a generation”, after signing the Civil Rights Act in 1964, it is certainly true that the Democrats have secured the black vote since then, and whether you view that cynically or not is up to you, but given the Republican alternatives today, it may be a good thing either way, a very good thing.