Saturday, January 3, 2015

Racism: Conscious, unconscious, and structural

The idea behind structural or institutional racism, as I have understood it, is that society is stacked against African-Americans because of the persistent effects of historical bias– legal and extra-legal discrimination of the past, the legacy of Jim Crow– even though blatant bigotry or personal bias has gradually withered away among a majority of whites. Thus we have segregated cities begetting concentrated poverty, with attendant pernicious feedback effects, and sentencing laws that, although "color-blind," result in the mass incarceration of black men.

The theory is compelling to a degree, but it has always struck me as too convenient. Could the decks really be so consistently and persistently stacked against African-Americans, even if most whites wished it were not so, or were merely racially indifferent? Have we white folks just failed to notice all those black faces in the prison photos, or when we have, have we really been convinced by the "unfortunate truth" of lingering social pathologies that, yes, we should really do something about one of these days? Or is it rather the case that the cops, prosecutors, witnesses, and juries see things in color?

Sendhil Mullainathan provides the foundation of a more convincing story here. Evidence of conscious and unconscious racial bias is overwhelming. And structural racism persists– even thrives– when individual psychology encourages us to look the other way, or jump to a biased conclusion. Social equilibria exist because of feedback dynamics, and with feedback, as Thomas Schelling argued, micro causes can compound into macro patterns.

Professor Mullainathan closes his column with the following: "Rather than point fingers outward, we should look inward — and examine how, despite best intentions, we discriminate in ways big and small." Content of their characters, and all that. A pleasant utopian thought, indeed.

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