“The Epistemology of Race Talk”

The title of this post comes from a column in the latest Nation.  The material relates to a recent discussion we have had.  It does not form some argument for one side over another.  At most it illustrates that a worry some of us have had is a shared worry.  Since the worry is important, it is worth illustrating how it can arise in another context.

The columnist is  Melissa Harris-Perry , a professor at Tulane and an MSNBC contribution, in addition to a writer for the Nation.  I’m quoting about a third of her column:

I logged onto Twitter on Sunday night and discovered that my recent article for The Nation was causing a bit of a stir. Some members of the white liberal political community are appalled and angry that I suggested racial bias maybe responsible for the President’s declining support among white Americans. … if I defended every piece I wrote against critics I would find little time to sleep. But the responses to this recent article have been revealing in ways that I find typical of our contemporary epistemology of race. Often, those of us who attempt to talk about historical and continuing racial bias in America encounter a few common discursive strategies that are meant to discredit our perspectives. Some of them are in play here.

1. Prove it!

The first is a common strategy of asking any person of color who identifies a racist practice or pattern to “prove” that racism is indeed the causal factor. This is typically demanded by those who are certain of their own purity of racial motivation. The implication is if one cannot produce irrefutable evidence of clear, blatant and intentional bias, then racism must be banned as a possibility. But this is both silly as an intellectual claim and dangerous as a policy standard. 

In a nation with the racial history of the United States I am baffled by the idea that non-racism would be the presumption and that it is racial bias which must be proved beyond reasonable doubt. More than 100 years of philosophical, psychological and sociological research that begins, at least, with the work of W.E.B. Du Bois has mapped the deeply entrenched realities of racial bias on the American consciousness. If anything, racial bias, not racial innocence is the better presumption when approaching American political decision-making. Just fifty years ago, nearly all white Democrats in the US South shifted parties rather than continuing to affiliate with the party of civil rights. No one can prove that this decision was made on the basis of racial bias, but the historical trend is so clear as to require mental gymnastics to imagine this was a choice not motivated by race.

She goes on to argue that we should focus not on intentions, but on effects.

22 thoughts on ““The Epistemology of Race Talk”

  1. That Harris-Perry exploits this shared worry in defense of the basest shilling for just another corporatist war criminal in the White House – in order to silence his critics on the left, no less – should be considered at the very least troubling.

  2. I’m sympathetic to the point Anon@1:32 makes. But the merits of Harris-Perry’s “epistemology of race talk” in no way require accepting transparently tendentious and implausible charges of racism or racial bias.

  3. lk, exactly right, I think. She is not claiming that charges of racism are always right. Her claims are more like claims about the burden of proof.

  4. You know, my problem with the last conversation, and the implication of this one, is NOT that I think myself bias free. Of course I harbor all of the implicit biases I harbor, much to my own dismay. The problem is that I thought that one of the key features of our comments on this board was to withhold the attribution of mental states to others. That it is presumotious and dangerous to think you know how others think without asking them or talking to them.

    But here, and on the other thread about the bus, we do just that. We are now being encouraged, at least on matters of race, to attribute intentions to others purely on the basis of statistical truths about bias. How can we encourage that especially in the face of other well known cognitive biases like the belief-bias (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belief_bias), availability bias (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Availability_heuristic) and negativity biases of all stripes (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Negativity_bias) and worst of all the bias blind spot (wherein we think that others are subject to cognitive biases but not ourselves: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bias_blind_spot)

    The problem isn’t that we ‘explain away’ racism. The problem is that we not only violate our own board rules by generalizing in these cases but that we ignore or give less evidential weight to contrary cases (where non-minorities are left sitting alone on buses or are picked out for airport screening etc etc). It’s an unfair strawman/woman to suggest that the opposition is saying racism doesn’t exist.

  5. I’m with 1:32 on this one. I think if the American Left was guilty of racism, it was in that we bought into the idea that since this was a Black man, there was no way he could turn out to be a corporatist war criminal. Turns out that like all racist ideas, this one was wrong too. As for burden of proof: of course the standard of proof is too high. But asking for a reasonable inference to the best explanation is not. The best explanation for the President’s declining support among white Americans is a)the economy, for which the president always takes the blame, rightly or wrongly, and b)that he has sorely disappointed his strongest original supports, with corporatist war criminality. In any case, how would racism ever explain _declining_ support–unless you think the relevant racism is on the upswing. And while I agree that a presumption on non-racism in 2011 America is baffling, I dont see why a presumption of steady state is not perfectly reasonable.

  6. Anon, it is really important that we are NOT being asked to attribute intentions to anyone. No one is saying that racism has to be conscious or its expressions have to be intentional. Quite the contrary, I think most people who have worked on the issue realize that even people who sincerely profess no racism can act in very racist ways.

    It’s because of implicit bias. Jender’s post on the “wonderful article” gives you a link to one of the leader’s in this kind of account.

  7. 4:04: Maybe, had you read or thought about the epistemology argument (and the post here highlights a focus “not on intentions, but on effects”), you would realize that your complaint about the “strawman/woman” is itself a strawperson. The respectable-type “opposition” is not being charged with “saying racism doesn’t exist” but, rather, with always insisting on an extraordinarily high burden of proof before being willing to take seriously racism as an explanation for phenomena involving blacks. (Maybe also you would realize the particular absurdity of insisting on prima facie racial equivalency in the case of seating in public transportation in the U.S.)

  8. Let me suggest that there can be a big difference between racist thinking and racial thinking. Mirriam-Webster.com gives as the first definition of “racism” the following:
    “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”

    It seems to me a bit silly to think that because someone is a black candidate for office, he or she won’t be a war-monger, but such a thought doesn’t really meet the above definition unless it goes along with a more general belief in the superiority of black people.

    An even more stark example: thinking that black people generally in the US get less good health care than comparable white people is not racist thinking; it’s just sadly true.

  9. As an initial observation, this is a truly difficult issue. We know a lot more than we used to about the persistence of invidious discriminatory structures, which may militate in favour of effects-based rather than intent-based analysis – though on the other hand, an increasing number of jurists are arguing cogently and forcefully that effects-based analyses suffer from constitutional infirmities.

    Is Harris-Perry blurring the distinction between judicial burdens/standards of proof and philosophical burdens/standards of proof (the latter perhaps in a rather informal sense)? At any rate, I’m not sure she gets either one right. She refers to a “beyond a reasonable doubt” evidentiary standard – generally understood to be the highest possible standard for establishing matters of contingent fact. First of all, does it seem plausible that many people actually demand this of their interlocutors in ordinary discourse, upon pain of “banning racism as a possibility”? Second, reasonable doubt isn’t even a standard that applies in US judicial contexts except in criminal matters. In almost all civil matters (which includes the vast majority of legal matters in which allegations of racial discrimination are pertinent), the standard is a “preponderance of the evidence” – essentially a 51%, slightly-more-objectively-probable-than-not standard. That’s probably closer to what most people hew to in regular discourse, at least in terms of what it takes to induce them *not* to categorically exclude the possibility that something is true.

    Emphasizing that no personal attribution of conscious racial animosity need be made is not going to remove all the objections. After all, there are plenty of legal wrongs that don’t include conscious intention or improper motives as a necessary element – but we still require that they be proved (to whatever standard is applicable), and that they be proved by the alleger.

  10. Rats – apologies to all and sundry for the double post I just committed. Maybe a moderator can delete one of them.

    However, I’d like to add, while we’re on the topic of, ahem, burden of proof … “War criminal?”

  11. Nemo, do look at the rest of her article. She is particularly unhappy with the jurists’ changes. Since the supreme court is leading the way, I wouldn’t count the view you cite as a neutral opinion.

  12. Nemo, are you actually serious? Let me ask you this: Do you not think George W. Bush was a war criminal? If so, what crimes did he commit that Obama has not continued to commit or recommitted? Do you doubt that his failure to prosecute known torturers is a violation of the Geneva Convention? Do you doubt the evidence of Wikileaks that, both before and after Jan, 2009, US special forces have engaged in targeted killings in Afganistan? Do you doubt that is a war crime? Do you disagree with Chomsky, Nader, and Kucinich, all of whom have called him a war criminal? Do you agree with Obama that the United States has the right to carry out targeted killings (including using unmanned drones) of untried individuals in countries with whom we are not even at war?

  13. Anne, I saw that. I wouldn’t say that the US Supreme Court was exactly leading the way, since the ruling I think Harris-Perry is principally alluding to (Ricci v. DeStefano, 2009) was handed down in a context in which a growing number of legal scholars and practitioners were raising serious questions about whether and how the “disparate impact” provisions of Title VII could be reconciled with the Constitution’s equal protection guarantee. (That’s a matter the Supreme Court has not addressed directly yet, but it will probably have to do so at some point.) Such questions date back a long time, but by the time that 2009 case was decided, they represented a significant current in the scholarship. Even more so now, I would say.

    I’m not sure how one would define a “neutral opinion” in such matters. Neutral with respect to what?

    anon@10:37, I offer no opinion on whether George W. Bush or Barack Obama are war criminals. I do, however, think it is incumbent on someone alleging the commission of a crime to adduce a very strong degree of proof. Now, this is obviously not a courtroom, so perhaps we can dispense with a reasonable doubt standard and indulge a somewhat lower basis for warrant – but again, a criminal allegation being involved, it should nonetheless be a high standard. In matters of law, of course, factual evidence needs to be paired to legal argument – many a prosecutor or plaintiff has gone to court with rock-solid evidence of all their facts, only to learn that those facts, for one reason or another, did not actually amount to a legal offense. Finally, if you are asking anyone to assent to the proposition that someone else is a war criminal on the strength of an argument from authority (Chomsky, Nader and Kucinich), then reasonable people will respond as they ought to any argument from authority: by querying (i) whether the authority invoked is a legitimate expert on the subject and (ii) whether there exists, among legitimate experts in the field, widespread agreement on the matter under discussion.

  14. I agree with those who are frustrated, to say the least, to see critics of Obama — including those criticizing him on explicitly anti-racist terms, e.g. for his failure to do a damn thing for Troy Davis, for Black homeowners with sub-prime loans, etc. — called racists. It’s a way to avoid engaging with what Obama is actually doing, and perhaps more to the point, with what an anti-racist movement would need to start doing to make some real progress.

    I agree with Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor on this one:
    http://socialistworker.org/2011/09/29/no-he-wont-for-black-america

  15. In fairness to Obama, I don’t think there’s anything he could have done for Troy Davis that could have changed the outcome. Indeed, Troy Davis possibly stood a better chance without him. Sometimes it seems as though every time Obama personally intervenes in a matter not directly within his control in order to throw his weight and personal reputation behind one side, it backfires. Look at what happened with his personal intervention to support Chicago’s Olympic bid, or to support the candidates who ran against Bob McDonnell, Chris Christie and Scott Brown.

  16. nemo, this is silly. one of the oldest privileges accorded the executive is the privilege of the pardon, which would have certainly changed the outcome. but i think i understand the import of what you’re saying: he’s a politician as well as a president, and so has to act carefully with a view to how each act will either create or foreclose action in the future.

    on the other hand, it would certainly help some critics of the president to not be called racists if some of them wouldn’t say things that sounds pretty racist – such as bill maher and michael moore saying that they voted for the black man and got the white one instead. i think this is the kind of racial absolution that harris-perry is on about. that’s not to say that every critique of the president falls under this charge. but it is worth pausing to think about it in any case.

  17. Maybe I’m engaging in wishful thinking here, but I do believe that if it had been a federal case, Obama would have commuted Davis’ sentence to something less. I can’t see him granting a full pardon in a doubtful case to somebody convicted of a capital crime, but Davis would still be alive.

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