Let’s Talk About Race

A Post OpEd by Jonathan Capehart:

That honest conversation about race everyone wants? We can’t handle it. … We say we want the conversation. But we just can’t handle it — especially in public. … [In 2008,] I would have wanted to hear a white Southern Republican such as Barbour give an honest speech on race from his perspective, in an effort to explain and heal. It might have proved uncomfortable, but we would have listened, learned and moved forward with the knowledge gained. But I also understand Barbour’s reticence. To deliver such a speech, with power and nuance, would mean putting one’s livelihood — in politics and business — on the line. It would require a bravery and selflessness few could muster. (more)

Capehart dares us to prove him wrong. So let me try. (At least at a meta-level.)

Today academia has a pecking order. For example, math is high while education studies are low. Academics sometimes argue about this order, mentioning arguments for and against each discipline. Sometimes people invoke misleading stereotypes, and sometimes others correct them. While misconceptions remain common, we probably still have more accurate beliefs on how disciplines differ than we would if these conversations were forbidden.

Long ago when issues of race and gender equality were first raised in TV shows, I remember (as a kid) seeing characters argue about the differing features of various races, genders, etc. Claims were made, rebutted, etc. This helped I think. But today it is never ok, even in private, to describe any negative tendencies of “low” races, nor any positive tendencies of “high” races, at least if that suggests others have those tendencies less. And this basically bans the sort of useful talk that academics now have about their pecking order. A similar ban holds for much of gender talk.

The reason that such talk is useful is that it is generally harder to evaluate behaviors and people outside of the cultures and roles that you know best. In the cultures I know best, such as academic economics or research software, I feel at least modestly competent to evaluate behaviors and people, especially for people who take on the same roles that I have taken.

Yes, even there people vary greatly in personality, smarts, experience, etc., but I have collected many standard tricks for discerning such things. The fact that folks from another race or gender might have somewhat different means or variances doesn’t matter that much, as long as my standard tricks work similarly for them. It hasn’t seemed hard for me to deal fairly with folks from other races and genders, as long they stayed close to roles I knew well, centered within cultures I knew well.

However, the further that people and contexts get from the cultures and roles that I know best, the less reliable are my standard tricks. People from other races and genders often have experienced substantially differing cultures and roles than the ones I’m most familiar with. So to make sense of behavior in such cases, I have to fall back somewhat onto beliefs about which of my usual tricks degrade how fast as various parameters change with cultures and roles. That is, I must rely on stereotypes about what tends to vary by cultures and roles, and it is too easy to be wrong about those. In particular I must rely on my best guesses about how many things differ for the different cultures and roles associated with different races and genders.

Sometimes people say you shouldn’t use stereotypes, but should instead just “judge each person and situation by itself.” But you just can’t do that if you don’t know how to interpret what you see. Since behaviors and features change with cultures, you need some sense of the cultural origins of what you see in order to interpret it. And since we all can’t immerse ourselves in depth in many different cultures, we need to talk to each other to share what we’ve seen.

If academics weren’t allowed to say bad things about the culture of education studies, nor good things about the culture of math, I expect we’d mostly just stop talking how these cultures differ. But we’d be pretty sure that there are differences, and that all cultures have both good and bad aspects. So we’d have stereotypes, and use them when doing so wasn’t overly visible. Similarly, our effective ban on race and gender talk doesn’t stop us from believing that many important things change with the differing cultures and roles that have correlated with races and genders. Nor does it keep us from often acting on such beliefs.

Our choice to ban saying bad things about “low” races and genders, or saying good things about “high” races and genders, was clearly a costly signal, and it did send the message “we care enough about keep good relations with you to pay this cost.” But part of the cost was to make it harder to use talk to reduce the impact of misleading race and gender stereotypes on our actions. We might have been better off to instead pay a different kind of cost, such as cash transfers.

I’m basically invoking the usual argument for the info value of free speech here. It is an argument that is often given lip service, but alas our commitment to it is far weaker than our lip service would suggest.

Added 14May: Maybe when people say they want a “conversation about race”, they don’t mean that old white men should do any talking beyond nodding agreement and sympathy with other speakers.

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