Social Justice is at a Dead End (UPDATED)

Related Post Roulette

105 Responses

  1. Jaybird says:

    Dude, awesome essay.

    All of the solutions that come to mind involve integration, integration, and more integration. But I don’t know how to deal with such things as the lunch table problem or white flight problems (and how they create positive feedback loops).

    And there are surely assumptions about class and culture (sub-cultures, anyway) that I’m handwaving away in saying that.Report

    • Damon in reply to Jaybird says:

      That’s because, fundamentally, people don’t WANT to associate with folks that are different from them, be that race, class, religion etc. They don’t like “the other” and fear it. Talk to me when we’ve evolved away from that…if humanity survives that long…Report

      • In a sense, this is tautologically true, if we define that which we don’t want to associate with as “the other.”

        On the other hand, the borders of what constitutes the borders between “my tribe” and “the other” are pretty malleable. In my lifetime gays have gone from some weird sex freaks to part of the clan. By this point it’s been beaten to death that the Irish used to be considered not white, and now they are. Protestant denominations at each others’ throats a few scant centuries ago now basically consider themselves the same tribe, subject to whether they identify as “mainline” or “evangelical.”

        So if you want it in your language, I want African Americans to become not “the other.” Whatever framework we use we’re talking about the same thing.Report

        • LeeEsq in reply to James Vonder Haar says:

          I am calling foul on the entire notion that the Irish were at one point considered. The Irish were looked down upon for a variety of reasons in Anglophone countries during the 19th century. There was prejudice against them for reasons of culture, religion, and nationality but when it came to the issues of race, the Irish were always placed in the white camp. In the United States, the Irish were a key part of the Democratic Party which was more or less a white person’s party from the Civil War until FDR was elected even if it was not formally racist. In Australia and New Zealand, Irish were considered acceptable White immigrants as opposed to unacceptable Asian ones. Irish soldiers formed the rank and file of the British Army during the 19th century. In colonies they were treated as white and not of color.Report

          • I’ll defer to your greater judgment on the Irish situation. Perhaps the ways in which Hispanics and Latinos gradually come to be considered white would have been a better example, though I admit I know even less about that than I do about the Irish. In any case, I think the broader point about the malleability of the borders of the in-group stands. The outcast we will always have with us, but there is nothing biologically ordained about that distinction being based on skin color.Report

            • LeeEsq in reply to James Vonder Haar says:

              Hispanics are an interesting case because the American government considered them white, even if they were clearly not, for statistical purposes for decades even though there was a lot of prejudice against them. The only way a Hispanic would be classified as non-white is if they were clearly black. It was somewhere between that experience by the African-Americans and that experienced by Ethnic Whites.Report

            • “I’ll defer to your greater judgment on the Irish situation.”

              That would be a mistake. You’re right, it’s Leeesq who’s mistaken.Report

              • Patrick in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                This feels very much like breaking out the clubs for the dead horse, but I agree with Tod, here.

                The waves of immigration and the othering and implicit and explicit racism in this country are their own problem, which should not be glossed over. I will not pretend that racism against black America isn’t a bigger problem, for a lot of the reasons James points out in the OP.

                But “just because we treat immigrants better than black folks” is not a good reason to not admit, up front and fully, that we treat immigrants like shit, too.

                All throughout our long and storied history… well, since 1865.Report

        • Notme in reply to James Vonder Haar says:


          Not burning and looting might help the change in perception.

          • TrexPushups in reply to Notme says:

            I know I just can’t trust white kids anymore. They riot at pumpkin festivals, they riot and set cars on fire when their sports team loses, when their sports team wins, and when Joe Paterno is punished for covering up child rape.

            Personally I blame the white father as the CDC has shown they just aren’t as involved as the black father.

            Us white dads really need to step up and make our community better.Report

          • Richard Hershberger in reply to Notme says:

            It is not obvious to me that this is true. After all, there is no burning or looting going on the vast majority of the time, and yet perceptions remain unchanged by this.

            Beyond this, the violence is itself a reaction to violence. It is very easy to use the reaction as an excuse to dismiss the cause. Those people, after all, clearly are violent, so the prior violence was justified, right? feh.Report

          • j r in reply to Notme says:

            You are all right in pushing back against @notme’s spurious claim.

            However, more important than white people’s perceptions of blacks, not rioting and looting has the advantage of no rioting and looting, which tends to be an unequivocally good thing for a neighborhood.Report

            • TrexPushups in reply to j r says:

              That probably explains why several rival gangs including the bloods and the crips worked together to try to keep the riots from happening and protect businesses Before, during, and after the riots.Report

            • Notme in reply to j r says:


              Did you even read what i wrote? If so, please tell me how it is “spurious.” It seems more like a simple truth that liberals refuse to acknowledge.Report

            • Notme in reply to j r says:


              Still waiting.Report

              • If I were to attempt a defense of the above, I would probably again reiterate that “a riot is the language of the unheard,” and note that if they weren’t rioting, the people who were currently casting aspersions on their black neighbors would not be thinking of them at all.Report

              • Notme in reply to James Vonder Haar says:


                So you are saying that mlk would defend the looting and or burning the stores /shopes of innocent third parties? That seems a bit of a stretch. I dont remember ever hearing of anything like this happening at a protest that mlk was involved in leading. I am all for peacefully protest but just cant condone, excuse or understand the wanton criminal conduct.Report

              • I am no scholar of the doctor, and in any case, presuming to speak for him, as for anybody, simply from his writings would be foolish. That said, I did look up the context for his quote “a riot is the language of the unheard.”

                It’s from a great political interview that kind of punctures his hagiography, from both the left and right.

                “I would say that every summer we’re going to have this kind of vigorous protest. My hope is that it will be non-violent. I would hope that we can avoid riots because riots are self-defeating and socially destructive. I would hope that we can avoid riots, but that we would be as militant and as determined next summer and through the winter as we have been this summer”


                You can almost feel his cognitive dissonance. This confirms my belief, by no means entirely justified by the literature, which would require a decade of study to confirm, that the good doctor was perfectly aware of the anvil to his hammer, the stick to his carrot, and welcomed it. Viewed as a savvy political operator rather than a saintly idealist, King was well aware that he was only one part of the machine; it was his job to prevail upon the consciences of whites, Malcolm’s to scare the bejeezus out of them.

                He goes on to say:

                “I think the answer about how long it will take will depend on the federal government, on the city halls of our various cities, and on White America to a large extent.”

                Or in other words, “I don’t condone violence – but if you continue as you are, you can expect more of it. So start joining me. Without the Civil Rights Act we’re gonna start breaking shit- and neither of us wants that.”Report

              • Notme in reply to James Vonder Haar says:


                All i can say is that if you try to protest an injustice by burning and looting from innocent third parties you should be prepared for the negative perceptions that accompany such actions.Report

              • Chris in reply to Notme says:

                I am all for peacefully protest but just cant condone, excuse or understand the wanton criminal conduct.

                You can’t even understand it? That explains a great deal.Report

              • Notme in reply to Chris says:


                Then by all means tell us how the burning and looting of innocent third parties property is justifed or understood. What would you say to the business owner that spent their life building that business or the now unemployed person?Report

              • Chris in reply to Notme says:

                That you are incapable of separating “justified” and “understood” says even more.Report

              • In a strictly logical sense you are, of course, correct @chris . In a political sort of sense… it feels like the extent to which white America views the rioting as understandable reactions to oppression (as opposed to senseless violence) is the extent to which they go “oh shit we fucked up we have to fix this” as opposed to “let’s break out the billy clubs”Report

              • Notme in reply to Chris says:


                Every time i ask that you clarify or support your argument you respond with indignation that i just dont or cant understand such obvious concepts. It seems to me that your lack of ability to support your own arguments says more about you than it does me.Report

              • j r in reply to Notme says:


                I’m not answering you, because I don’t see much value in interacting with you. I prefer to interact with people with whom I disagree, but have the potential to help me see something that I haven’t seen before. Nothing that I’ve seen from you shows me that you are one of those people. I could educate you on the historical facts that suggest that maybe white folks
                bigoted views on blacks pre-date any sort of rioting or crime or whatever else you want to bring up, but what’s the payoff for me?

                I will use you to make my larger point, though. This is what @james-vonder-haar says below:

                it feels like the extent to which white America views the rioting as understandable reactions to oppression (as opposed to senseless violence) is the extent to which they go “oh shit we fucked up we have to fix this” as opposed to “let’s break out the billy clubs”

                And this is the view that I have come to question. At a certain point, the whole conversation about why riots are understandable, or even justified (which they aren’t), is completely beside the point. I don’t accept that the future of black in America has to come down whether or not whites get it. Black folks in America ought not be the battle ground for some fight between progressives and conservatives for white salvation.Report

              • Chris in reply to j r says:

                Black folks in America ought not be the battle ground for some fight between progressives and conservatives for white salvation.

                This is absolutely true, and that it has to be said is a sign of deep dysfunction in our political discourse.

                @notme you want me to clarify a position I haven’t actually stated? I’m simply pointing out that your equation of understanding with justification is telling, which it is. It is similar to the criticisms of attempts to understand the motivations of terrorists in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. “Understanding” was equated with “justifying,” which left bombing people into oblivion as the only real possible response.Report

              • James Vonder Haar in reply to j r says:

                @j-r “Black folks in America ought not be the battle ground for some fight between progressives and conservatives for white salvation.” Indeed it oughtn’t, but an “ought” isn’t an “is.” White America hasn’t lost its power (yet), and so any struggle for liberation will rely, primarily, on an ability to convince them. It rankles, I know. As a queer I have to pinch my nose every time some photogenic 20-something white middle class lesbian couple is thrust forward as paradigmatic, so as not to frighten the straights too much. But that’s politics for you; I’m playing to win and if that means obeisance at straight America’s altar, so be it.Report

              • j r in reply to James Vonder Haar says:

                But that’s politics for you…

                That’s just it. I don’t think that it is.

                There are two stages in any civil rights movement. There’s the movement to get out of official, legally enforced oppression. And then there’s the struggle to turn legal rights into material and social prosperity. The first is a political battle. The second is largely about economic development. I just don’t think that top-down, social justice movements are all that good at economic development.Report

            • Kim in reply to j r says:

              You’d think arson would be uniequivocally bad too, wouldn’t you?Report

        • inkadu in reply to James Vonder Haar says:

          From what I know, I think you are right about the Irish not being “white” when they arrived; it’s also true that there were enough of them in Boston, that they could take over the power structure on their way to respectability. They also had the ability to blend in better; once they lost the accents, they could “pass for white,” en masse.

          Protestants became cozy with each other because they became less significant as primary players in society, and so had to band together as the larger society considered them all the same. There were no Native Americans until Europe murdered (and, of course, sickened) its way through hundreds of tribes; I don’t think they felt the same kinship between each other as they do today.

          But what about African-Americans? Do they have much influence in the power structure? Or they internally organized the way the Irish were? Even jews had a mafia. Can they develop their own economy the way European immigrants can? There were no connections in Africa for them to start a quarry business. An Irish person travelling was unlikely to be arrested for nothing and spend 10 years in jail the way black people could. Can they shed their skin color as easily as Italians shed their accents? Was there a period in history where they could take advantage of economic growth to establish themselves? I doubt they benefited as much from *any* of our major periods of national growth, from the land grabs of the West, to the boom of the fifties (locked out of Levittown).

          It’s good to have the optimism that African-Americans can join us as honorary whites, but its just as important to ask why they haven’t yet.*

          * I’m assuming that “us” here is white. I came to edit it out, but, since this article is about implicit racism, I’ll leave it there as an example.Report

      • zic in reply to Damon says:

        That’s because, fundamentally, people don’t WANT to associate with folks that are different from them, be that race, class, religion etc. They don’t like “the other” and fear it. Talk to me when we’ve evolved away from that…if humanity survives that long…

        Ignorance of others. Being taught to hate or disrespect or despise others. Being taught your particular tribes’ way is the one true way. Those are what causes people to ‘don’t like the other.’ We humans have always loved to travel and meet new people and explore and create new markets.Report

        • Damon in reply to zic says:

          It’s not a question of hate or disrespect or despising. And travelling has nothing to do with it. Travelling is something that you do to be exposed to different ideas. A self selected group. No, I’m talking about LIVING with different folks-next door, in a community, etc. You see it all the time: the cliques in school, the make up of communities, etc. “Certain” people congregate. And yes, I’ve seen some weakening of the barrier in some areas, race for example. But you still see a lot of self selection either along race or class. Additionally, this is, in a lot of ways, a facade. Because when a crisis hit, and people’s lives or health or family is at risk, they tend to get even MORE tribal.

          Lee, I don’t see it as a political thing. I see it as an innate characteristic of the species that developed to help keep us from harm.Report

          • LeeEsq in reply to Damon says:

            It might be an innate characteristic but it lived out its evolutionary purpose and is causing active harm in the present. Tribalism and xenophobia are not useful traits in a globalized world.Report

            • Damon in reply to LeeEsq says:


              Actually it IS quite usefull in certain circumstances, but agree it’s mostly outlived it’s usefulness. But I wasn’t arguing it was right or correct or useful, just that it is….

              I was not arguing anything different.Report

          • Again, you’re privileging race and other such supposedly “elemental” divisions over more quotidian dimensions that could just as easily have taken their place. For every Latino vs. white tables there are in high school lunchroom, there’s an equal number of jocks vs. goths.

            The human brain is programmed to hate The Other, and it will always do so. But it’s also pretty malleable wetware, and that which it defines as The Other will change with circumstance.Report

      • LeeEsq in reply to Damon says:

        This is all well and good. You might see it as part of the libertarian notion of free association. An issue tends to be is that you always have one group that not only does not want to associate with other groups but actively tries to make life miserable for them even when that group has no place to go.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to LeeEsq says:

          An issue tends to be is that you always have one group that not only does not want to associate with other groups but actively tries to make life miserable for them even when that group has no place to go.

          When we talk about “other groups”, are we talking about “the police”?

          If so, I agree 100%.

          If we’re talking about “you and me (but mostly you)”, I’m not sure what the solutions would look like.Report

    • DavidTC in reply to Jaybird says:

      All of the solutions that come to mind involve integration, integration, and more integration.

      The solution I had come to mind, in addition to that, is actually working damn hard to present positive imagery of black people and other minorities in the media. Positive ones that, and this is important, people can identify with.

      And, while we’re at it, present non-stereotypical imagery of women.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to DavidTC says:

        So we just have to get Hollywood on board?Report

        • DavidTC in reply to Jaybird says:

          So we just have to get Hollywood on board?

          Easier said than done.

          Hollywood is utterly full of delusional idiots, who take completely ‘random’ and usually somewhat bigoted lessons from every movie they make.

          They have somehow decided that white men are fragile flowers that can’t identify with someone of a different race or gender. Thus when any of movie staring those people fail, it proves the point, and means they now have a ‘business reason’ not to make any more movies.

          Meanwhile, when movies staring Whitey McWhiteman fail, it’s because of…something else.

          This is despite the fact that the movie watching public actually slightly skews female…but women, apparently, are perfectly fine with watching movies with male protagonists. It’s just the men that can’t handle it. (Hey, guys. I wonder if the reason that little boys aren’t playing with toys as Black Widow is you *didn’t make a toy of her*?)

          And this is despite the fact that, you know, no one has a problem identifying with Will Smith in all his roles.

          Now, part of this might be *actual* societal sexism and racism. I don’t know. Perhaps there is some sort of very small truth in there, that two identical movies with a different race or gender protagonist actually do slightly differently at the box office…but the fact is that studios are *completely stupid* in dozens of other ways and almost completely dysfunctional, so I’m not actually willing to give them the benefit of the doubt here.

          We’ve had enough counter-examples that if there is a real ‘bias’, it is probably only that people flock to things with established leading stars, and the studio’s behavior has resulted in us having much fewer non-white-male established leading stars than we should have, because they don’t let them in movies to start with.Report

  2. Creon Critic says:

    So the findings on ongoing discrimination, inequities, and oppression outlined in this essay are challenging, to say the least. And yet I think, who am I to despair? Prior generations of social justice advocates faced billy clubs, fire hoses, lynching, and outright murder with impunity for perpetrators. And they still persisted, and insisted on trying for some measure more social justice than they saw around them. And they met some significant successes. That’s certainly heartening, and means we shouldn’t cower in the face of implicit bias.

    Offhand I can think of simple policy responses like ending the war on drugs, or non-governmental responses like exerting social pressure on institutions that we find aren’t living up to social justice ideals. I much rather government imposed mandates, but there is also the route of asking institutions to audit themselves and assess whether they are treating people of color and women by the standards they espouse. There’s room to grow yet in that moral suasion direction. That’s probably a route that can get quite a few people of goodwill on board.

    And also, for better or worse, jurisprudence in the US is a rather malleable thing. No Supreme Court has the final word, on anything. We’re just a swing justice or two from one side or another’s vision of constitutional nirvana or constitutional apocalypse. Personally, I’m rooting for some Thurgood Marshall-esque justices, but that’d have to be a more long term strategy than here-and-now solution.

    The idea that the problem is just too big for us – I don’t see that as a viable way forward. If anything, I’d label despair (and rioting) as the dead end.Report

    • You’re correct, of course. Ending the war on drugs really will move the needle – because at least fewer black kids will be sucked into a system with biased cops and judges and all the rest. It’s not quite formal racism, but it’s close enough that the WoD is something we can actually hit.

      You’re also right that the tone (and certainly the title) ought to have been moderated. We’re not at a dead end, we just keep firing at symptoms rather than the source. It’s really frustrating to be able to see the disease so clearly, as the IAT allows us to do, and have no clue how to combat it. This was written in one of the dark nights of the soul for my activism, and your post has helped lift my spirits. So thank you, for that.Report

      • TrexPushups in reply to James Vonder Haar says:

        I have a couple of ideas that would move the needle in the right direction in a few areas

        1) End the war on drugs (obvious but also high priority)
        2) make it so that government is no longer financed via fines. Fines are for punishment not the creation of budgets. So send all of the fine funds to the federal reserve who can simply create X dollars to keep the money from being destoryed.
        3) social movement where black volunteers invite white people over for church style dinners regularly to build relationships across the segregated divide we currently live in. We need white people to start seeing black people as people instead of the scary other.
        4) we need significantly less police officers and significantly more social workers.
        5) we need to react to urban poverty as if our hair is on fire because we are looking at the future of the people stuck in areas of 50% unemployment and watching it burn.Report

        • All good ideas. I wasn’t aware that the unemployment rates in some parts of the country had reached as high as 50% – do you have any resources I can look at about that?

          Viz. fines, I think it’s an issue closely related to civil forfeiture – the practice of the police seizing the property of arrested individuals, often but not always a result of the war on drugs. The good news is that we’re winning on this issue, by a lot – New Mexico recently voted to abolish the practice, unanimously.

          I wouldn’t bring it into something only tangentially related if I didn’t feel it was so important, and such low hanging fruit – this is something your state representative almost certainly doesn’t know about, and regardless of his party affiliation, almost certainly opposes. This is the sort of thing where direct citizen action can move the needle faster than you’d think – calling your state congressman might actually do some good this time.Report

  3. Maribou says:

    Maybe you have to fight yourself. If you’re the white dude making the hiring decisions – stop making them and let some of the (hopefully you have some) non-white-dudes in your office make those decisions, assuming they’re down with that.

    And I realize you didn’t mean this quite that literally? I think? But that’s my metaphorical answer, too. Don’t just try to make the best decisions, the fairest decisions, the least prejudiced decisions, etc., that you can make – actively try to avoid making decisions if there’s an alternative where someone who isn’t a white dude can make them.

    Maybe you’re doing that already.

    Also I have my doubts about the meaningfulness of implicit association tests for both individuals and statistically, and am hoping Chris will weigh in on the topic. (FWIW, I always score biased toward African-Americans, so I don’t think my doubts are a means of making myself feel better.) From a relatively ignorant viewpoint, I’ve always wondered about whether what implicit association tests measure is “level of strong reaction interfering with cognitive function, when dealing with these images” – which would make the race results just as collectively meaningful, but would tend to devaluate say, the ones institutions give to people who they don’t want to turn out to be child abusers – since people who were abused are as or more likely to react strongly than people who are abusive.Report

    • Chris in reply to Maribou says:

      I’m stuck using a phone tonight (computer died 🙁 ), so I’ll be brief. The IAT is deeply and irredeemably methodologically flawed, and likely doesn’t nature prejudice.

      It was, however, in a King of the Hill episode, which makes up for all of that.

      And the failings of the IAT do not mean that implicit attitudes don’t exist, just that the IAT isn’t measuring what people want it to measure.Report

      • This is fair enough. I have my own doubts about the IAT, and hesitated to lean on it so heavily for this piece. The one thing that I can say for it is that it neatly squares the circle that I’ve had trouble reconciling, to wit:

        1.) racism is endemic (see social justice statistics in the original piece)
        and yet
        2.) I am not consciously racist nor do I see many indications that my peers are.

        Put that way, a subconscious explanation is almost tautologically the only answer, and so even if we think the IAT isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on, something like what the IAT is trying to measure must be at play.

        That said, if you have any anti-IAT sources to consult, I’d very much like to read them.Report

      • zic in reply to Chris says:

        @chris thank you for that; because I thought it measured eye-to-hand coordination based on verbal/visual cues. I scored like @maribou, and didn’t think it really showed anything about my perceptions of race; but it indicated that I’ve probably spent a lot of time working on finely-timed eye-to-hand stuff where I can process a lot of visual information very quickly and respond appropriately with my hands. Photography and typing and video games and foraging type skills.Report

      • trizzlor in reply to Chris says:

        Yeah, I think the IAT is going to (rightly) come under a lot of criticism, but it’s important to keep in mind that implicit bias against African-Americans has been well established by a host of different methods. In particular: identical resumes with white names receive 50% more calls than those with stereotypical African names[1]; police are likely to view black boys of the same age as older and more guilty than their white peers, and this perception (measured by an IAT-like comparison to apes) is predictive of actual violence against minors[2]; the IAT scores of pediatricians are correlated with how likely they are to provide a black patient pain medication relative to a white patient[3]. I wouldn’t take the IAT score as an objective indicator, but the fact that it’s predictive of racially-biased behavior suggests it is interrogating something real.

        [1] Bertrand et al. “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination”
        [2] Goff et al. “The Essence of Innocence: Consequences of Dehumanizing Black Children”
        [3] Sabin et al. “The Influence of Implicit Bias on Treatment Recommendations for 4 Common Pediatric Conditions: Pain, Urinary Tract Infection, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, and Asthma”Report

        • [3] Seems to be the most important study here, inasmuch as it links IAT scores to actual behavior out in the world, as opposed to under laboratory conditions. Do you know of any more like it?Report

          • morat20 in reply to James Vonder Haar says:

            Not on racism, but I’ve seen (referenced here recently, I think) studies on gender that show a similar problem of implicit bias. Pack a room full of mixed genders, then ask everyone as they leave what the ratio was — women tend to get it roughly in the ballpark, but men start claiming 50/50 as soon as women hit 15 to 20% and claim women are the majority once they hit 30%.

            You see the same split (at the same ratios) if you run a mixed gender panel and ask which gender spoke the most. (50/50 at 20% women, whether by word count or time, and “women dominate’ once they cross 30%. Again, this is men’s self-reporting. Women are roughly ballpark).

            We carry around a lot of cultural baggage. And the only way to fix it is to become aware of it, then use some rather blunt tools to hammer away at the problem.Report

            • veronica d in reply to morat20 says:

              @morat20 — Sorry to enter this conversation late, but do you have cites of that research? — particularly the magic 20% number? I’ve seen that quoted from time to time, usually linked to this one thing that Geena Davis said this one time in this interview, but I’ve never seen an actual paper. Do you have a link to an actual paper that shows the “men think women are at parity they reach 20%”?

              (I’ve been looking for this paper for about a year now, since I first saw this referenced, and no one has been able to cite it. I suspect this is a bogus non-fact that got re-quoted and re-quoted without an actual source.)Report

    • Maribou in reply to Maribou says:

      So @james-vonder-haar – I feel like in the discussion of the IAT (which I basically raised as a caveat rather than an argument with the real themes of your post), the meat of my comment, about consciously abdicating power to people with different, “othered” backgrounds as much as possible, got lost. Maybe it just wasn’t response-worthy. But in case it just got lost in the shuffle, I thought I would harp on it again.

      If you can’t let folks who are traditionally othered decide, ask them what they think you should do and then do that insofar as you can.

      And not just about “diversity” issues. Make it a regular practice to wield as little authority as you can get away with.

      And if you find yourself making a lot of decisions anyway, best do some really hard soul-searching to be sure you are doing it because you, you particularly are needed – or expected by a strong group consensus that includes the folks whose voices are less often heard – to be deciding, and not for any less valid reason.

      (I’m not saying never decide anything. I’m not even saying you shouldn’t run for office, or whatever other job that it is always going to be way easier for a white dude to get – but then try to act on the side of the marginalized and/or less powerful members of your community, and don’t trust your instincts if you find yourself wanting to do otherwise “just in this one special case”.)

      Is that how you act already? Maybe it is. Maybe it sounds like a terrible idea. But it’s really so much more useful in creating lasting, long-term change than anything else I’ve tried (speaking both as someone of a dominant group and also someone who belongs to different “othered” groups).Report

      • Maribou in reply to Maribou says:

        Or, I guess what I’m saying, is if you get out of the damn way (and again, let me stress that this is something *I* feel like I need to do frequently), it doesn’t really matter what your implicit associations are – because you’ve gotten out of being the Person Whose Implicit Biases Matter Most Of All business.Report

      • Chris in reply to Maribou says:

        Maybe it just wasn’t response-worthy.

        It might be one of the more radical things ever said here. If anything is response worthy, that is.Report

        • zic in reply to Chris says:

          Seconded. I’m still chewing on how to encourage implementing the notion.Report

          • CK MacLeod in reply to zic says:

            Seconded. I’m still chewing on how to encourage implementing the notion.

            Shouldn’t be difficult once you’ve developed the ability and the means to persuade people it’s not in their interest to pursue their interests.Report

            • Maribou in reply to CK MacLeod says:

              @ck-macleod 1) people do that ALL the time; 2) it is very much in my interests to live in a more balanced, fair, society with more social cohesion, intellectual richness, and interesting culture; 3) it’s actually a lot easier and more interesting to make fewer decisions and spend more of my time supporting other people’s goals than it would be to rise to the top through “straightforward competitive excellence” (air quotes because I have all the eyebrow-raising for that term, not because you said anything about it). i have to wonder how many other people in positions of power, great or small, might feel that way if they tried it.Report

              • CK MacLeod in reply to Maribou says:

                If you’re encouraging people not to make decisions, then how can you encourage them to make that decision, and to continue to make the decision, day after day, to abide by that other decision? I’m sure if we talk about this long enough, someone will come along to explain that the luxury to avoid making decisions is a pure product of privilege, or will be wherever the decision not to decide is available as a meaningful decision. What will make it a meaningful decision in those instances will tend to be – or may by definition be – the very fact that it will be a decision against self-interest, but maybe you know of some occupation or line of work where the refusal to make decisions or the inability to make decisions is rewarded with advancement. Now, I can construct scenarios of various types where the refusal to accept or seek advancement can be made to seem advantageous, or advantageous in some higher sense, but then I’m back to the privilege problem: All those people previously denied the right to make decisions now being burdened with this spiritually lower order of existence, as compared to my luxury to explore and enjoy a more rewarding mode of life, while congratulating myself for my efforts helping to build “a more balanced, fair, society with more social cohesion, intellectual richness, and interesting culture” (setting aside the possibility that some of these values may come into conflict with other, or have been thought to do so).Report

              • Maribou in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                @ck-macleod It’s not a utopian end goal, it’s a temporary patch. And I suspect the reason I find it so worthwhile probably has as much to do with feeling, yes, like I’m helping to patch something profoundly broken, as because it is or isn’t what I should want in some theoretically healthy society that we don’t actually have.Report

          • Maribou in reply to zic says:

            Yeah, it’s really hard (at least for me – much harder than it feels like it should be), and also I sometimes fail spectacularly.

            It can also be hard to figure out the right balance between using one’s figurehead status to enable other people to more easily improve things, and getting out of the way because they don’t need a fishing figurehead. Plus, you know, I am not JUST the dominant group member, I also am a member of several marginalized groups, so how do I know when I am reacting from what position? And also being in charge and making decisions is theoretically 80 percent of my job. (I prefer to think of it “listening to people and then helping them, with a side of sharing stuff around that they want to tell each other,” but, true facts emphasized by various bossen of mine over the years, I do *make* decisions, every dang day. And making yourself useless or failing to take responsibility for anything is not, at all, how this should play out. Nor is the mobius strip of making it not All About You but instead All About How It’s So Not All About You which is what this parenthetical is starting to sound like so I will stop now.)

            In any case, it feels like The Right Thing To Do. So I keep working on it. I figure at least even if I don’t encourage anybody else in my position to do it, the people I’m getting out of the way of will get that tiny bit more used to people getting out of their way.Report

            • CK MacLeod in reply to Maribou says:

              Well, @maribou , you certainly seem conscious of the contradictions and complications I was just pointing out. I am less convinced that you have a clear path to the other side of them, or a secure position from which to criticize the blogger for not having offered one. I don’t know Mr. Vonder Haar at all, but he strikes me as an earnestly well-meaning individual now fielding criticism of the type that amounts to a kind of punishment for declaring himself on the side of those criticizing him – a familiar predicament, or kind of a template for the failure of of those on the side of “social justice” to gain the level of influence that in a socially just world they would both already have and not need.Report

              • Maribou in reply to CK MacLeod says:


                Um, first of all I wasn’t claiming a clear path or a secure position. And second of all, I wasn’t fishing CRITICIZING James Vonder Haar. I was responding, and perhaps should’ve made it clearer I was responding, to this particular statement near the conclusion of his essay:

                “Even whites of good will and social conscience can’t figure out how to be even a microscopic part of the solution. At least this white can’t. I can chant “I can’t breathe” and do my tour in the tumblr self-flagellation mines, and I’ve done both, but unless either of those are going to move the needle on either police officers’ IAT scores or my own, there’s no point.”

                To me that reads like a statement of frustration and lack of solutions. So I was offering a fishing (imperfect, flawed, hedged-round-with-caveats, but PRACTICALLY USEFUL IN MY OWN LIFE) solution. That might make him feel more hopeful and less hard on himself. Maybe. If he’s more or less like me, which I think he is.

                If you want to talk about earnestly well-meaning individuals now fielding criticism, well, that’s exactly how I feel in response to your comments on my comments.

                And the reason I was harping on it was, it seemed like maybe the actual useful (or at least seeming so to me) part of my comment got lost in the grumpy “ugh, IAT” part of my comment. So I only brought it up again to make sure the thing that might help hadn’t gotten missed for the fun-to-argue-about part.Report

              • CK MacLeod in reply to Maribou says:

                @maribou Obviously, the only correct thing for me to do is to cease to comment, or to comment only passively and approvingly.Report

              • Maribou in reply to CK MacLeod says:

                @ck-macleod Or you could just keep attacking until the person attacked doesn’t bother to comment next time and goes back to only making non-substantive comments about her weekend and the shows she’s been watching. That could work.Report

      • You’re right, it does deserve a good reply. Some scattered thoughts:

        1.) Reducing the amount of authority you wield over others seems to be a good liberal goal, whether it has a social justice dimension or not.

        2.) Merely consulting the minorities within your department is likely to fall prey to tokenism and favoritism, and is in any case not guaranteed to work, since the implicit biases seem to affect minorities as well, albeit less so than they do the majority.

        and therefore

        3.) The best solution is to get as many minorities into decision making positions as possible, using the most organic solution as possible. Which again, makes affirmative action look pretty attractive.

        4.) @ck-macleod , I know precisely the kind of progressive witch hunts you allude to in this post, the tendency of revolutions to eat their own. Indeed, I am firmly aware that I am one Amanda Marcotte piece away from being the next piece of red meat tossed to the chattering twitter classes for being too pessimistic about progressivism’s prospects (call out culture indeed.). That said, nothing of the sort is going on here. @maribou voices zir (let’s get this gender neutral pronoun thing STARTED here on LoOG. Where doing this man, where making this hapen) complaints respectfully, within the tradition that I come from, and with no threat of social ostracization should I fail to conform to her beliefs. I welcome the criticism.Report

    • James K in reply to Maribou says:


      It occurs to me that one way to “get out of the way” is to rely less on human decision-making. Daniel Kahneman is a big advocate of algorithmic decision-making and it seems to me that relying more on algorithms over human discretion would be one way to combat prejudice.Report

      • Glyph in reply to James K says:

        Sounds like the beginning of a classic piece of technocratic utopian/dystopian fiction, wherein human society has been perfected-yet-homogenized by Emperor Pandora; nobody makes bad decisions anymore, because nobody makes decisions.

        And then one day comes a decision that the emperor machine cannot process…and nobody remembers the imperfect human heuristics by which decisions used to be made…

        (Then Captain Kirk comes in and smashes up the computer. That’s pretty much how they always end.)Report

      • Maribou in reply to James K says:

        @james-k To some degree; I agree with you. But the Kahneman I’ve read (only his non-academic work) was so full of sloppy jumps from “here is this strong case up to this point” to “and therefore here is this compelling claim which is unfortunately completely unjustified by my previous argumentation and also well outside my area of expertise” that I tend to look skeptically on his advice for how we should live. (I mean, I do that all the time. But I’m not a prize-winning expert, nor am I writing a book that will be marketed based on my expertise, so my standards for myself aren’t as high ;).)

        Particularly since all of the purportedly algorithmic decision-making I’ve seen has tended to let in so much subjective bias as to be not especially more objective than the decisions would’ve been otherwise.

        There is something there, though. The theoretical purpose of say, standardized college admissions testing, is to be more fair and balanced and to break down non-merit-based biases. And US colleges ARE a lot more fair and balanced in their admissions than they were 100 years ago. However, 1) I’m not sure there’s any evidence that standardized testing is the reason that changed and 2) even if it was, beyond a certain point, the very human decisions made by those involved in creating the tests make a very BIG difference in biasing them – and perhaps worse if there’s a great deal of implicit bias going on, because the biases remain unacknowledged by said humans and thus not combatted by conscious counters.

        Still, there are arenas where that kind of decision making can make things more fair. I’m sure it can be useful in your job! It just doesn’t really solve the problem of “what do you do when you’re responsible for hiring someone?” because, for example, any rubric you can make will be every bit as biased as some other more obviously subjective, but equally well-intentioned method. And even if you make the rubric less personal (say by generating it by combining many rubrics from different decision-makers), that can generate a stronger bias instead of reducing it (especially with a socially endemic problem). And the more you fool yourself into thinking you’re being impersonal and the algorithm is making the decision, the more power your implicit biases will probably have.

        It’s a muddle, I guess. But I feel like the important action is to keep admitting it’s fished up and trying to fish it up less, whatever methods we end up using. Things do seem to be getting better, SLOWLY, in many arenas of life, even as others are patently horrible.Report

        • James K in reply to Maribou says:


          Both bias and the extent to which a decision is algorithmic is a matter of degree, not a straight binary. For example, in the Public Service down here, the standard way to hire people is a structured job interview (where each candidate is given the same set of questions by a panel of 3 interviewers, usually in the form of “explain a time where you showed X skill”), often backed up by cognitive testing. This still has subjectivity, as the panel are still making subjective judgements about the candidate, but its less subjective because of the cognitive testing, and that you have answers to the same questions from each and you have 3 opinions instead of 1.Report

          • Maribou in reply to James K says:

            @james-k Well, yes, I was taking what you say in your comment as understood in mine. (I was the one to develop structured job interviews (and structured self-evaluations) for our student workers, in my department. And a skills test of an actual skill they will need on the job, for that matter, now that I think of it.)

            When you said algorithmic decision-making, I was thinking more of the sorts of decisions where that data is pulled together to give a candidate a “score” and then those scores are determined to have decided who got hired (cue shrugged shoulders and “what could we do? we always just hire the most qualified candidate.”), rather than the people doing the hiring taking responsibility for who got hired. In my experience of people using that term outside of the internet, that’s what usually happens. Perhaps (quite probably), that happens differently in The Most Transparent Country in the World.

            Out of curiosity, what sort of cognitive testing would be used for a job such as your own? What are its underpinning assumptions? (Not asking rhetorically, I’m just curious how they handle that, since at my workplace, suggestions of any kind of skill or cognitive test above entry-level jobs are looked at in bafflement as being rude to the candidates. Even me giving a short sorting quiz to our student worker applicants was puzzling to professional folks, although they were willing to let me do it.)Report

            • James K in reply to Maribou says:


              Well, yes, I was taking what you say in your comment as understood in mine.

              Ah, I’m with you now. I do agree that you can use an algorithm as an excuse to pass off blame for doing what you were planning to do anyway but of you are sincerely interested in de-biasing your own decision-making using hard-and-fast rules can sometimes be preferable to using your own judgement. Also, the nice thing about mathematical scores is that their assumptions are more transparent than subjective judgment.

              Out of curiosity, what sort of cognitive testing would be used for a job such as your own? What are its underpinning assumptions?

              The last time I interviewed (which was for promotion rather than a new job, butt he processes are similar) I was given two tests:
              1) A critical reasoning test that basically tests whether you can draw the proper inferences (not too many, not too few) from a set of premises (If you watch Orphan Black, it was very similar to a test they used in a recent episode except my test was written and didn’t have a creepy camera pointed at my eye).
              2) The other test was more directly related to my profession skills – I was given a set of data and told to draw conclusions about what that data means for a given policy.Report

  4. Road Scholar says:

    Really fine essay, James. At least one ray of hope to my mind is the finding that 48% of African-Americans score as prejudiced against blacks. That tells me that a huge portion of this problem is acculturation, i.e., a learned response. And in principle at least, that which is learned can be unlearned and/or we can at least figure out how to stop teaching racism.

    Doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy or straightforward. Like you I have no earthly clue how to approach such a problem, but it’s not as hopeless as trying to undo a few million years of natural selection.Report

  5. LeeEsq says:

    On the IAT, I got no strong preference for whites or blacks as my result.

    After the end of the Civl War, White Americans were basically still very racist and hostile towards African-Americans. Legal equality was granted but steps were taken to ensure that African-Americans would occupy a definite and inferior place in all aspects of life. This went on for decades. Attempts were made to remedy the situation in the mid-20th century but many White Americans resisted and dug their heels down as much as they could.Report

  6. North says:

    I’m skeptical at the despair. Racism is taught and the elimination of formal racism will impede the transmission of racism from one generation to the next. It is reasonable to expect that this will reduce the racism you’re bemoaning as time progresses. As has been noted above the more fruitful policy goals would be to take aim at policy’s, like the execrable war on drugs, that have strongly race biased outcomes.
    I also am skeptical that the current riot problem can be tracked back to subtle inherent racism. Police form social cliques, prosecutors and police form cozy feedback loops, police are under monitored, the distortions of the Bush era War on Terror continue to ripple outward (the militarization of police for instance). These are not things that are primarily inherent racism related, they’re things that law enforcement organizations are doing and those are things we can take aim at with policy.Report

    • TrexPushups in reply to North says:

      Based on some of the things that come out or the comments that get posted to Police One. I think there is plenty of blatant not at all subtle racism in police departments. We could try rooting that out first then worrying about the subtle implicit racism as we go about that.

      Hell just look at this San Francisco cops text messages.

      • North in reply to TrexPushups says:

        Yes, agreed. There is a lot of meat and potatoes work to be done before I think we can sign on to the OP’s assertion that the low hanging fruit is gone.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to North says:

          Reforming the cops is low-hanging fruit?Report

          • North in reply to Jaybird says:

            By the standards of the OP, yes since reforming the cops doesn’t necessarily involve confronting the subtle racism that lurks in the soul of every person.Report

            • Yes, I can certainly agree that getting rid of explicit racism in police departments is, if not low hanging fruit, at least a target we can aim at. My fear in the OP is that we’re starting to run out of stuff we can actually aim at and that to make additional progress we’d need to start challenging subconscious assumptions that are much more difficult to dislodge. One can disagree as to the importance of the explicit racism left to be exterminated vs. the kind we don’t know how to touch yet, as this commend thread shows.Report

        • Kolohe in reply to North says:

          Argh, that metaphor. The easy pickings – formal official segregation, and racist statements in polite society – are indeed gone. What’s left is a lot hard work, digging through racism’s roots. (I don’t know how to fold cows into this).Report

          • TrexPushups in reply to Kolohe says:

            Rudi Guiliani is still in polite society so are various and sundry Fox News commentators.

            Maybe if we just decided to start finding the various obviously racist bullshit beyond the pale. See the instances where black on black crime talking points are the response to obvious police murder. Or how about people freaking out about the phrase black lives matter.

            Racism is all over. We just decided that nobody is racist anymore and that “reverse racism” is a real thing. No more going along when people start talking about the race card or talking about Race Hustlers would go along.Report

  7. j r says:

    This is a very good essay. My one point of contention lies here:

    We’ve got the brute force option. Affirmative action is as subtle as a sledgehammer, but at least we can be sure it works.

    Do we know it works? And what do we mean by works? You can enact affirmative action on an elite college campus and that will work in the sense that it will give you a more diverse college, but how much do we know about what effect that has in the larger world.

    Your definitions of progress all seem to involve a top-down imposition of your version of social justice. There is a possibility that either the method or the vision is flawed in some inherent way. Maybe it’s not, but it’s at least worth considering.Report

  8. DensityDuck says:

    “I thought the IAT so persuasive because it neatly squared the circle of a problem I couldn’t figure out on my own: 1.) Racism is endemic, and 2.) Neither I nor most of my friends exhibit anything like conscious racism. ”

    Ahem. What’s endemic is an unequal distribution(*) of wealth and the various measures of happiness between black and white Americans. When you say “racism is endemic” you’re begging the question; you’re jumping over a big damn argument about how that unequal distribution happened.

    If you want to say “historic racism resulted in present unequal distributions” that’s more supportable. But it’s also the case that “we’re all racist right now, maybe so secretly we don’t even know it” has a different (and, to a certain type of person, much more satisfying) solution than “you’re in a hole, let’s get you out”.

    (*) I’m not comfortable using the word “distribution”, because it carries connotations of active selection; the idea that there’s some controlling force making choices about who gets what stuff. Here it’s used in the purely adjectival sense, but the verb form of the word adds a certain color to the statement that I’d rather not bring in. Unfortunately I don’t have a better word, so all I can do is put in this footnote and hope for the best.Report

    • Chris in reply to DensityDuck says:

      “Distribution” “carries connotations of active selection?” Man are statisticians gonna be angry when they hear this.Report

    • By “racism is endemic” I did not merely mean that current distributions of wealth are unequal, as you suggest. I meant something more like this, in the original post:

      “Let me explain what I mean. One study laboriously paired black and white students on all sorts of metrics, qualifications and extracurriculars and the like. They sent them out into the world to look for jobs. 47% of whites and 40% of blacks received an interview, a small and in fact non-significant difference. However 47% of interviewed whites were offered jobs, compared to 11% of interviewed blacks. This is massive, to put it mildly.

      Another article sent off identical resumes with their only difference being a stereotypically white or black name. Employers respond to the white names 50% more.”

      And again, there are myriad other examples, which can be found in the Social Justice for the Highly Demanding of Rigor post linked in the original post. The observation isn’t just that black people are poor and white people are rich. The fact that racism, currently practiced now, has a negative effect on minorities is well established by the social science research.Report

        • This is a good post. A very good one. Goddamn, but social science research is hard. But to nitpick: I can only slam my head against the desk when he says that black peoples’ names signal low status, and therefore that’s a confounder. That’s not a confounder! That’s exactly what we’re trying to measure!Report

        • trizzlor in reply to Iron Tum says:

          From a sociological standpoint it’s definitely important to distinguish between classism and racism as the underlying cause of discrimination. But from a practical standpoint I think this starts to miss the forest for the trees. If Jamals are getting passed over for interviews over Gregs because the interviewer thinks Jamal = poor; that still means overwhelmingly black Jamals are getting passed over. The fact that Jim-Bobs are also getting passed over adds context, but it doesn’t rectify the situation. I think the same applies to criticisms of the IAT. It may not be the best instrument to identify causal racial attitudes, but if a doctor’s score on the IAT correlates with how likely they are to prescribe pain medication to an African American child, that still means children are getting a different standard of care based on their race, even if there’s some other underlying variable that’s a better instrument.Report

          • DensityDuck in reply to trizzlor says:

            “If Jamals are getting passed over for interviews over Gregs because the interviewer thinks Jamal = poor; that still means overwhelmingly black Jamals are getting passed over. The fact that Jim-Bobs are also getting passed over adds context, but it doesn’t rectify the situation.”

            But “passed over because poor” is a different social problem than “passed over because black”.Report

            • Kim in reply to DensityDuck says:

              When blacks on average have a tenth of the wealth of white folks, I think you’re just quibbling.Report

            • Glyph in reply to DensityDuck says:

              Eh, slightly, but I am inclined to agree with @trizzlor that it starts to become a distinction without a difference.

              “Jamals” are passed over, because they are perceived to be poor.

              Why are “Jamals” perceived to be poor?

              Because “Jamals” are (likely) black.

              Why are black people perceived to be poor?

              Because they are, when compared to white Americans as a group.

              And also, because “Jamals” keep getting passed over.Report

  9. Iron Tum says:

    I have never lived in the southeast. I have lived in the West, the Great Plains, Texas, and New York. The most racially integrated society I have been a part of was when I was living and working in Austin. The most overtly racist place I’ve worked in was upstate NY. Having said all that, not all the racially integrated places are integrated equally, but African Americans have always been under-represented in my workplaces, and Native Americans have been completely absent (except for those years when I was working in Oklahoma.) Even here, African Americans are far and away the smallest group, outnumbered by Africans at least 5:1. (I work in a microchip plant with an almost entirely non-local workforce; demographics are weird here, with US-born whites being almost exactly as numerous as Chinese and Indian (European whites are a smaller group) in a region that is so lily-white that the local high school mascots are named after various white ethnicities. Seriously. “Danes Defeat Dutchmen 5-3” that sort of thing.)

    All of that is prelude to this: There is no way you can actually formulate a policy to achieve social justice, because this country is really really big, and really really inhomogenous. Well, you can formulate a policy, but the policy has zero (for any arbitrarily precise definition of zero) chance of being successful. There isn’t a consistent set of starting conditions, no agreement on an optimum outcome, and thinking about “black v. white” is so reductive as to make the entire thinking meaningless.Report