Tuesday, July 20, 2010

More on the NAACP and the Tea Party

In a previous post I was critical of the NAACP's recent resolution to condemn racist elements within the Tea Party movement. I was skeptical of the move on speech/associational grounds and also on political grounds. I remain skeptical particularly upon further reflection (though for a more balanced analysis than mine please see Sherrilyn Ifill's characteristically thoughtful piece on the The Root.com).

Upon further reflection, one of the more troubling aspect of the NAACP's move here is that it feeds into a classical narrative about racism that is not reflective of the modal manifestation of race in the 21st Century.  Most of us quintessentially understand racism as a belief that communicates animus against someone of a different race.  For example, if someone said, "I don't like black people," we would easily classify that person as a racist, not least because the assertion of animus is the classical understanding of racism.  The classical response to classical racism is colorblindness: if everyone would be blind to color (not pay attention to or notice race), we would be rid of racism and racial inequality.

Racial conservatives assert, rightly in my opinion, that classical racism has declined significantly.  By almost all measures, white racial animus against blacks has waned significantly.  Manifestations of racial animus, of the type that the NAACP singles out from the Tea Party, are rare.  It does not mean that they don't exist, but they are not the modal expression of racial inequality.  From this evidence of decline of racial animus, racial conservatives conclude, wrongly in my view, that we no longer have a race problem.  Moreover, they conclude, again wrongly in my view, that the answer to racial animus is colorblindness.

Racial progressives are less concerned with racial animus, we're concerned with racial inequality. When the black unemployment rate is almost twice that the white unemployment rate (8.6% compared to 15.4%) we have a racial inequality and thus a race problem. Racial inequality can be the result of animus, but in the 21st century it does not have to be.  I previously referenced on this blog a paper by Samuel Bowles, Glenn Loury, and Rajiv Sethi entitled Group Inequality.  The arresting part of this paper is the rigorous demonstration by the authors that racial inequality can persist infinitely in the absence of racial animus.  That is, if you got rid of all instances of racial animus right now and you enforced vigilantly anti-discrimination laws, without other intervention, we would experience racial inequality well into the foreseeable future.  Thus for racial progressives a focus on racism, especially as understood as animus, is significantly short-sighted, distracting, and passe.  What we need is to begin talking about and providing solutions to resolve racial inequality.  We need a paradigm shift and the NAACP should be leading this paradigm shift.  (See this column by DeWayne Wickham).

When the NAACP focuses its (and our) limited energies on fleeting instances of classical racism in the Tea Party movement, the NAACP reinforces the classical racism model.  It tells people that what we should really be concerned about are white people who do not like black people (especially the black President) and wish to do us harm.  But racial animus is not the threat to people of color today, racial inequality is the threat.  By focusing on arguable instances of racial animus, the NAACP reinforces the classical racism model and prevents us from shifting the racism paradigm.  Thus, delaying the attainment of true racial equality.

The NAACP's move is short-sighted for another reason.  As I mentioned above, the classical answer to classical racism is colorblindness.  The problem with colorblindness is that colorblind policies are at best of limited utility in combating racial inequality.  However, racial conservatives are winning the colorblindness rhetoric because the debate is being waged on their terms.

Accusing the Tea Party of racism gets the headlines, but solving racial inequality actually helps people of color. If the NAACP is truly serious about the advancement of the colored people, it needs to focus on contemporary racial inequality and lead a paradigm shift.  Otherwise, it's not clear why a bunch of people are paying dues.


  1. Problem is that you don't describe or explain how to solve 'racial inequality.' Probably because there is no way to solve 'inequality.' Inequality is a fact of life and exists everywhere. A Lamborgini is not equal to a Chevrolet - and will never be, though both are automobiles. I desperately wanted to be a professional baseball player in my young teens. I quickly learned that I was not the equal of even my high school pears, much less professional caliber players. However, I had the OPPORTUNITY to be a professional baseball player - but despite training, practice, coaching, et al - I simply was not of that caliber. I had to make my way otherwise in the world. What we all need to insist upon is EQUAL OPPORTUNITY (which was the vision of our American forefathers). When equal opportunity is available, then the individual is responsible to find his or her own way in life through experimentation, effort, desire, notice, and even luck to some extent. Equal opportunity is attainable. Equality of outcome (i.e. racial equality) is not because there is no such thing as equality (even clones are different).

  2. David: Fair response, but here's the problem. There's no reason why inequality of outcomes should be race-based unless you believe that there is something racial that causes inequality of outcomes. For example, if African Americans receive more speeding tickets than white Americans, one can't simply say that there is something natural about that outcome. There must be an explanation: either there is something inherent in black Americans that make them drive faster or that police discriminate against them or that the location in question has more black people etc. My question for you is what do you think explains racially unequal outcomes?

  3. Guy - you said it perfectly, "There must be an explanation..." For example, I'm Acadian. In South Louisiana, more cajuns receive speeding tickets than non-cajuns.

    But, you're throwing a 'red herring' in to the argument. The conversation is about institutional (nee' - governmental) racism. Each of us, as humans, have biases, likes, dislikes, talents, foibles, enlightenment and blindness. As such, these affect our every action. Some actions become so aberrant in some instances they can be call racist. However, if the RULES are drawn up to attempt to approach even handedness - that is to provide the equal opportunity for a favorable outcome (NOT to provide the equal outcome), then it's up to us as individuals to take advantage of that opportunity TO THE BEST OF OUR ABILITY in order to ACHIEVE a favorable outcome. In our government, the rules are supposed to have been drawn up to attempt to provide equal opportunity. However, in some cases the rules have been drawn up favor some people over others. Which do you prefer? Favoritism or equal opportunity?