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Yes, Race Can Be Discussed Constructively and Civilly

26 Jul

colors1Note: I sometimes issue posts that are deliberately a bit provocative, hoping to stimulate thinking or to spark a debate. “Mr. President: I Am Not a Racist and Neither Is Anyone I Know” was one of those posts. For my small blog, the post had wide distribution (several hundred at last count), and I’m happy to say that, except for one flippant comment, all responses have been constructive. One notable response, sent by Mr. Keith Fong, was an exemplary example of civil debate. I am responding to Mr. Fong’s comments in this post, to help demonstrate how engineering thinking principles can be productively applied to controversial topics.

Dear Mr. Fong:

Thank you for your constructive and even-tempered comments in response to my post.

You said:

You argue that you, personally, have never met a racist. Really? How have you been searching for them? What is the analytical approach that you’ve taken? Perhaps you don’t see racism and haven’t seen racism simply because you’re not looking for it. “The Invisible Gorilla” is a fine book on the science of not seeing what you’re not looking for.

You are questioning my veracity or my self-knowledge, which is a fair question; I address those issues further down the page. Regarding improper observation, self-delusions, faulty memories, etc., I agree that learning about our limitations is essential for proper science. A listing of books on “bad science” that I think are worthwhile can be found here: DACI Resources.

Regarding some references on racial research, I suggest Race and Culture by Thomas Sowell, who makes a convincing case that culture is really the important factor.

You said:

Perhaps there is an issue of definition here. What is racism to you? Do you have to burn a cross in the yard of someone of another race to be a racist? If a waiter in a restaurant doesn’t offer the same level of service to a person of a particular race as to people of other races because the waiter “knows” people of that race aren’t good tippers, is that racism?

Good question. How about this for a definition:

“A racist (or sexist, or other “ist”) is someone who, when they interact with an individual and notice a certain group characteristic, will reflexively have a strong overriding emotional reaction. They are not really seeing the person, they are seeing an image in their head that has nothing to do with the person. Their subsequent interactions are guided by this mental fantasy, and not by objective evaluation of the individual.”

There is however a subtle but important difference when one is asked about a hypothetical person; someone that you are not interacting with, face-to-face. In such cases mental profiling occurs: one will review what is known about the person’s group’s characteristics, and assess the odds of interfacing productively with a random member of that group. This is not evil, it is simply a natural matter of playing the odds, based on a knowledge of the characteristics that are typical for the group. As a recent example of this point, please see “10 Black child geniuses you should know” by Amir Shaw, 28 June 2013, Bayview.

Excerpts:

“If you only watched the evening news or depended on pop culture to paint a picture of young Blacks, you would probably think that the majority of Black youngsters were only ambitious about sports and music – or caught up in crime and debauchery.

However, the face of Black success isn’t limited to the fields that are occupied by Jay-Z, Beyonce and LeBron James. There are a multitude of young Blacks who are achieving at a high level in science, math, classical music, chess and other knowledge-based areas and preparing to change society.”

You said:

If you are going to make a sincere evaluation of whether racism still exists, you would have to use more than your limited experience. You would also have to establish and challenge your assumptions (the first of which is that your personal experience is meaningful and significant to whether or not racism exists).

Where would you search for evidence of racism? I think the criminal justice system is a fine place to start. There is plenty of data available that is broken out by race: The rates of drug use, the rates of incarceration for drug crimes, the rates of murder and the rates of death sentences.

Another place to look would be voting rights. Why are the laws to access to voting becoming more restrictive? Who are the people most affected? The justifications I’ve seen are to prevent fraud, but where is the evidence of fraud?

Interesting points. However, I did not claim to make an evaluation of whether or not racism still exists; in fact, I said the opposite (“Yes, there are some racists out there, around the fringes; we’ve all read about them.”). I suppose you may be taking issue with my characterization of racism being a much smaller issue than portrayed by the general media, and your points would be a way to help quantify the extent of racism. But the primary thrust of my post was about the logical fallacy of implying someone to be a racist because of their group membership.

However I can see that a lack of clarity on my part may have caused you a bit of confusion. I should have defined the related engineering thinking principle — fallacy of composition – where it is illogical to conclude that what is true of some parts of a population is true of all parts of the population.

You said:

Do you know that you are not racist? Have you evaluated yourself? Have you ever taken an “Implicit Association Test?” I have and, I have to say, I learned some things that contradicted my self image that I’m an exemplar of unbiased thought and action.

I agree that it’s always possible to learn more about oneself. However, based on the definition of “racist” provided above, I can state that I do not reflexively have strong overriding emotional reactions when meeting other people, based on their group characteristics. Furthermore, it is not scientifically appropriate for me to be expected to prove that I am not a racist, because I have made a testable and verifiable assertion. To invalidate my assertion would require knowledge of me as an individual. None of those I mentioned in the earlier post know me as an individual, therefore it is scientifically invalid for any of them to suggest that I am a racist. (For them to assume that I am without knowing me, because they may know some racists in my group, is a fallacy of composition.)

You said:

To roll this up, yours is an opinion post. You make an assertion without evidence and proceed to take personal offense. That is *not* engineering thinking. Where’s the data? Where’s the dispassionate analysis? Where’s the assumption that you’re wrong and you’ve shown that the data indicates you’re right?

Your comments about not providing supporting evidence are quite correct. From a practical standpoint, providing a thorough evidence- and/or analysis-based paper on any controversial topic would require much more time than available to me, so I have to shorthand my arguments with references and/or brief analysis. This is consistent with what I state in my Home page (par. 5), “…the purpose of this blog is not to convince you of a particular view. The purpose is to present some important principles and show how to use them to arrive at useful — even vital — conclusions. You are encouraged to question everything I say, and to do your own research and fact-checking to see if you agree or disagree. Such independent verification is itself an essential component of engineering thinking.”

You seem to be implying that I made a claim that there are no racists. But my key assertion was the one in the title: I am not a racist, and neither is anyone I know. This is a happy fact that you can disbelieve if you think I am a liar or deluded, but if you knew me personally I think you would believe the assertion’s sincerity and accuracy. Because I am not a racist I take offense at those who imply that I am, simply because I am a member of a group. For example, in responding to the President’s comments on the tragic Trayvon Martin case, Senator John McCain said, “Events like this highlight and emphasize that we have a long way to go.” We? Who is “we”? As for myself and for the folks that I know, we don’t have a long way to go; we’re already there, and have been for a long time. Perhaps the senator’s comment would have been more accurate if he had said, “There are still a few in this country, a small percentage of the populace, that have a long way to go.”

burglarSometimes it helps to illustrate a point by removing emotionally-laden words and replacing them with ones that are non-controversial. For example: There are burglars. However I am not a burglar, and I don’t know anyone who is. Therefore I would be offended if someone were to suggest that I was one, or that I had latent burgling tendencies unknown to myself, and that I should take sensitivity training to detect such innate tendencies. Ridiculous? Yes, but it’s equivalent to suggesting that someone is a racist simply because of group affiliation.

In my view, the ill-willed racist society that is strangely and illogically portrayed by much of the media appears to be a sad and troubling hallucination of their own invention, easily discounted by observation. Although some racists and other “ists” of all types surely exist (as do burglars), in the main it is a bright and tolerant America that I see and experience.  Just take a look at gatherings in offices and restaurants and malls and sporting events and parks and parties, and you will find folks of all races, ethnicities, religions, etc., mixing together productively and harmoniously. If you know of some place where this is not the case, perhaps we can invite President Obama, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Candy Crowley, Chris Mathews, and Senator McCain to visit those poor souls and provide some counseling.

Again, Mr. Fong, thank you for your comments. Since I’ve always thought it unfair for editors to have the last word, if you like, I will publish any follow-up comments you may provide without editorial intervention.

-Ed Walker

 

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