Friday, May 28, 2010


Jamelle Bouie points out that Americans have developed a tendency to rule out anything as racist that doesn't explicitly mention race. He describes ways in which laws can appear "colorblind" but in practice have very racist consequences.
Arizona’s immigration law is obviously not the same as Jim Crow, but it’s animated by the same basic idea of “colorblindness” — if something doesn’t explicitly mention race, then it can’t be racist. And the converse is also true, anything that mentions race is de facto racist, even if it’s designed to ameliorate racial prejudice.
He's right to say that the AZ law isn't quite Jim Crow, and I don't think Arizonans (and a majority of white Americans, btw) are looking for ways to discriminate against latinos, while Jim Crow was specifically designed to discriminate against blacks. His main point is that the effect of the law will indeed impact latinos disproportionately - and by effect, we should be clear we're talking about major civil rights violations.

The fact that white people are so willing to go along with this "sacrifice of rights" would be evidence of implicit racial bias.  This is exactly the sort of thing that is impossible to prove, yet falls into a larger pattern of not being as tolerant of latinos as other racial/ethnic groups: they need to assimilate, they don't learn the language, they have too many kids, they are lazy, they are criminals, they are a burden on the system, etc.

And that's not even illegal immigrants, who are spoken of in outright hateful terms and accused of things that are extremely unrepresentative.  Race theory predicts that the assumed proportionality of crimes increases the more a marginalized a group is.  So even if the same number of illegal immigrants steal cars as the rest of the population, when an illegal immigrant does it the crime is assumed to be more representative than it really is.  Psychologists refer to this form of cognitive bias as illusory correlation.

You know what really gets me about this whole debate though, is that I’ve yet heard an example of how this law might be prosecuted. For instance, what exactly would constitute “probable cause to believe that the person has committed any public offense that makes that person removable from the United States”, and arrestable without warrant?

I mean, unless you overhear someone say “I am here illegally”, what is probable cause? Can someone be ratted on? Can I call in an anonymous tip on my neighbors? Does that mean anyone can do that to me? And when the cops show up without a warrant they can arrest me unless I show them documentation?


  1. I can say I'm a culturalist. e.g. As a thought experiment; I have no idea of the genetic merits or foibles of some guy from Saudi Arabia walking in front of me but I can reasonably guess that after his living for 40 years in a Muslim country he's probably a misogynist. Would that assumption make me a racist? I think most people are discriminating against foreign cultural biases and are getting called racist for their troubles.

  2. If by culturalist, you mean that you think some culture is superior to others, I'm not sure anyone would disagree with that. If you said that one entire culture is superior to another, I would be much more skeptical, as the statement is deliberately broad and almost bigoted by definition.

    As for being called a racist, I think that term is misleading. Very few people are technically "racists" anymore; few people consciously believe certain races are superior. Yet we all have biases, even racial ones, and different levels of awareness of our biases.

    I think a lot of people have a lot of racial bias but they aren't aware of it. Others may have a lot of bias, but they try and acknowledge it when they notice it. It will be different for everyone. But the important thing is paying attention and being critical.

    So, back to your assumption about middle eastern men. There's certainly truth to traditional culture in that part of the world tending to be oppressive to women. But there's also a whole bunch of other biases that are going to go into that sentiment that are really complicated. If you are white, there's a historical assumption of superiority implicit in our culture. But how much of that, if any is going into your equation?

    Bias is difficult because it is in many ways an unconscious process that is influenced by countless factors. So I think you just try and do your best to look at larger patterns. Just going from what you've said I don't think it would be appropriate for anyone to jump to any conclusions.

  3. Well responded. I should note my target of Saudi Arabia was as random as I could make it... Somebody was going to have to take a hit in that example! Interestingly for me, I haven't met a racist yet who does claim their entire culture is superior to another. To paraphrase a common bar-heard opine; "Yeah sure, Kenya's totally fcked... but man those guys can run.." It seems almost that confessing some grudging appreciation for another country/race/civilisation's aspect gives the appearance of being a balanced adjudicator and therefore increases the legitimacy of the racist argument as a whole. I suspect your right that the issue is observance of bias more that existence of bias. I'd say everyone is biased to some degree. e.g. As thought experiment 2; Ghandi is walking down the road. He looks up and sees a white person approaching. Some thought pops into his head. Doesn't matter what it is for this analogy. Now rewind the clock and start the scene again. Ghandi looks up and sees an Indian person and again, a thought occurs to him. Doesn't matter if it's better or worse than the other thought. The point is, it's guaranteed to be different from the one upon his sighting of the white man. Ergo: bias!
    Also we should acknowledge we've evolved to make snap judgments about things we see. That's how we know to run away from tigers. When a white cop sees a black guy on the streets at 3am and thinks poorly of the scenario, is he just allowing himself to tap into the primitive instinct of patterning and not check himself? Or do we acknowledge some of his (probably racially induced) claim that his attitude is based on his experience? As you suggest, it's not about "race" anymore but has become a muddy pool of variables that add up to a similar attitude...

    P.S. I AM white and have been living in Japan for 15 years. None of my musings are attempts to justify racial discrimination - it's just discourse. I'm see enough prejudice here to say it stinks.