The personal is the racist

Conservatives sometimes like to recycle this picture from the 2012 Obama headquarters as the victory results were coming in. What one can see is the surfeit of pallor, not that there’s anything wrong with that as such. Except that many Left-liberals make the Right’s lack of diversity ipso facto evidence of racial animus. But many liberal/progressive individuals also live in a rather white world. Not that this hasn’t been noted on occasion. But you still have the background assumption which motivated this notorious Chris Hayes quote:

It is undeniably the case that racist Americans are almost entirely in one political coalition and not the other.

I think the underlying model is simple. Since white conservatives are racist, broadly construed, the whiteness of their milieu adds to the confidence of the hypothesis of their racism. In contrast, since white liberals are not racist, the whiteness of their milieu is irrelevant. More precisely, the lack of diversity in some progressive segments of society is not highlighted to the same extent that it would be in conservative segments of society.

The reality is that both liberals and conservatives among whites engage in self-segregation (as do people of all races, religions, etc., more or less!). This despite a Left-Right convergence on issues such as “diversity” and anti-racism. To make this more quantitative I decided to look at the RACHOME variable in the General Social Survey. Asked between 1974 and 2006 it is as follows: “During the last few years, has anyone in your family brought a friend who was a (negro/black/African-American) home for dinner?” This is a very broad question. Here are the results plotted from ’74 to ’06:


The blue is for white liberals, and the red line for white conservatives. You can see that over the past 30 years more and more white people of all ideologies can say that they’d have a black friend over for dinner in the past few years. But it still remains the fact that ~50% of white liberals and conservatives haven’t had a black friend over for dinner in a span of years. Some of this clearly just due to broader historical segregation. It wouldn’t be surprising if whites in North Dakota didn’t know many black people. On the other hand…there aren’t many people in North Dakota, of any race.

Part of this comes to mind because ProPublica has an article on resegregation in public schools in the South that’s getting a great deal of media attention. My question though is simple: why the focus on the South when the highest indices of segregation of this sort is in the North? The ProPublica piece states that:

In recent years, a new term, apartheid schools—meaning schools whose white population is 1 percent or less, schools like Central—has entered the scholarly lexicon. While most of these schools are in the Northeast and Midwest, some 12 percent of black students in the South and nearly a quarter in Alabama now attend such schools….

The South has a particular history with race, and that is an important history. But the continuous focus on this region of the country is I think driven in part by the reality that the cultural elites, often white progressives, are not keen on shining a light on the segregation which they themselves have passively accepted in their own lives.

seg2000krigeIn fact the worst segregation of blacks and whites is in major urban areas of the Great Lakes. According to the Census the most segregated cities are Detroit, Milwaukee, New York, Newark, and Chicago. But for some reason there are fewer exposes on how upper middle class, usually white, couples in major “Blue America” urban areas flee racially diverse public schools for the suburbs or private schools. The reasons for these actions are defensible in my opinion, but one should probably admit that these are likely the major causes of resegregation in the South as well. The ProPublica piece itself highlights the importance of class as a driving dynamic, as the black underclass in particular is packed into apartheid schools. History is important, and it shadows us down into the present, but a fixation on racial nature of Southern society with roots in the 19th century misleads in terms of the dynamics driving the 21st century.

This leads me to conclude with my friend Reihan Salam’s piece in Slate, Is It Racist to Date Only People of Your Own Race? Yes. I disagree with Reihan with using the “r-word,” but some of his points are very cogent:

…“Would you strongly prefer to go out with someone of your own skin color/racial background?” I was struck by the not inconsiderable number of people who answered “yes”—including some people I know “in real life,” many of whom are hilariously self-righteous about their enlightened political views.

…Nancy DiTomaso argues that persistent racial inequality in the United States is not solely or even primarily a reflection of racism and discrimination. Rather, it reflects the fact that whites tend to help other whites without ever discriminating against or behaving cruelly toward blacks and other nonwhites. As long as whites tend to dominate prestigious occupations, and as long as they control access to valuable social resources like access to good schools, the fact that whites, like all people, will do more to help family, friends, and acquaintances than strangers will tend to entrench racial inequality, provided that white people choose to associate primarily with other whites. DiTomaso observes that while Americans place very high value on the idea of equal opportunity, virtually all of us seek “unequal opportunity” in our own lives by leveraging our intimate relationships to achieve our goals, including our professional goals. Yet most of us don’t see the help of family and friends as an unfair leg up. This kind of “opportunity hoarding” is accepted as par for the course….

Though the piece begins by talking about dating, it seems to me that the second paragraph quoted above gets to the serious heart of the matter. In our modern day discussion both liberals and conservatives talk about racial justice as if it is a matter of passing effective laws. From the liberal perspective it would be something like affirmative action. From a conservative perspective it might be color-blind laws. But the key assumption in both cases is that modulating the explicit framework of institutions will be effective. But what if they’re not? What if in fact most racial inequality is a function of social-cultural racism, rather than institutional racism? This is not a crazy idea, and goes to why there has been pressure to open up exclusive male-only clubs to women.

But this is not a can of worms most people are open to discussing. Since I’m conservative, and am much more sanguine about racial inequality and the long term prospect of an egalitarian society generally, I’ve been on the receiving end of nice and not-so-nice critiques from my liberal friends (i.e., almost all my friends). And yet since these are my friends I know something of their lives, and the sting of their self-righteousness tends to diminish strongly when I point out to them that despite the diversity of their demographic locale it is quite clear that they exhibit strong tendencies to assort with other white people in their personal life (as friends, or more than friends). I’m not particularly judgmental of this sort of thing, I have mostly white friends as well, but it does suggest to me that talk is talk, and much of the political debate around justice and inequality is more about posturing and signalling than something fundamental to one’s being.

The comments on Reihan’s Slate piece are quite interesting. Presumably this is a mostly liberal magazine with a liberal readership, but it is amusing how defensive many of the respondents are about dating their own kind. E.g., “Is it homophobic to only date people of a different sex?” is a common response. This implies perhaps that it is natural to prefer one’s own race. There is actually some evidence for this position.

Right now we’re having the same old tired arguments about affirmative action. They’ve been rehearsed for a generation, so there’s no real need to even think before speaking. Liberals will talk about the need for a frank discussion about race, which mostly involves agreeing with liberals about all the major points. Conservatives will attempt to co-opt Martin Luther King Jr. and promote the possibility of an outcome of color blindness which is totally at variance with reality. We don’t even know what the end goal is. Is it a society where different races and cultures flourish independently? One where individuals mix freely in a cosmopolitan melting point? Real engagement with the issues is going to be complicated, and entail honest admission of how people are living their lives, not empty gestures toward symbolic rhetoric that has long since gone stale.

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