The world is more than two categories

A post from Kevin Drum, Once Again, a New Book Debunks Some History I Never Knew In the First Place,* made me wonder a few things. First, Kevin’s confusion:

Am I befuddled by history? Or by historiography? Or do I need a different word altogether?

Until five minutes ago, before I read this book review, it never would have occurred to me that white women were anything less than full partners with men in the white supremacy of the antebellum South. I have never read anything that even remotely suggests such a thing. And yet, apparently this has been a widely held belief—and not just by the masses, but by practicing historians as well.

Additionally, today I listened to the Extremeley Offline podcast where Zaid Jilani moderated a conversation between Liz Bruenig and Jon Chait, and Jilani talks about some of his confusion and discomfort with the racial dichotomies that have recently emerged in the United States (though our politics are very different it seems we have had the same experiences and reactions in relation to this). For example, all nonwhites are now “people of color,” set against whites. The three present a thesis that a dominant form of conceptualization of the world on the modern Left is between the marginalized and those who are not, and so you have dichotomies. People of color vs. whites. Women vs. men. The queer vs. straight. And, of course, the poor vs. the rich.

Which brings me back to Drum’s observation: as an older white male of a certain generation I don’t think he’s internalized the dichotomous framework intuitively. Within that framework, the idea that white women were oppressed, just like black people, in the South by white men, may lead to the idea that there should be and is natural solidarity among the marginalized. Presumably in a “progressive stack” white males would be on top and black females at the bottom. But white females and black males would be in the middle.

Reality is of course not line with the simplicity of this framework. Men, women, blacks, and whites, do not exist in a simple individualized world where their interactions are all dyadic and governed by heuristics of power. White women are part of families and communities, and during the antebellum South, those families and communities were invested in the institution of slavery. White women reflected, reinforced, and even shaped, some of their subculture’s values. They were subordinates. But they were invested in the system, not simply humans from whom production could be extracted before their expiration.

To illustrate this complexity, consider differences in attitudes toward laws regarding interracial marriage in the United States. The chart above shows responses from the GSS for whites only by year. What you notice is that there is almost no difference between men and women. Doing a logit regression sex does not predict different attitudes at all. Men and women show the same support/opposition to these laws over the years.

But, this does not mean that men and women are the same in their attitudes on a conventional liberal/progressive spectrum. I did a second analysis of attitudes toward gay marriage. Women are consistently less opposed to gay marriage (again I limited the sample to whites). When I did a logit regression sex remained a very significant predictive variable (though less so than education and political ideology).

Basically, when it comes to racial issues men and women do not seem to differ much in their attitude. In some revealed attitudes, such as dating, women seem somewhat more racially conservative than men. But, when it comes to attitudes toward gays and rights for gays, women have generally been somewhat more liberal than men. By your identity some things can be probabilistically inferred, but the direction of the inference may surprise you more often than not.

The moral of the story is than Manichaean ideological frameworks are great for tactical mobilization of coalitions. But they don’t easily reflect a simple calculus of moral attitudes, affinities, and sympathies.

* It’s very rare that one of my posts mentions another blog post on another blog nowadays. Very nostalgic.


3 thoughts on “The world is more than two categories

  1. Sometimes they will even discover that, not only there was slave-owner women (or, if not formal owner, in practice the masters of the plantation), but even slave-owner women with Irish ancestry (who, according to conventional wisdom, were supposed to be considered black), and that is even an obscure movie of the 1930s about that.

  2. RE: The dichotomous framework

    Had you wanted to see some exploding heads, (always a favorite of mine), you might have mentioned that there was even the occasional slave owner who not only had some sub-Sahara African ancestry, but was also identified as Black:




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