18 July, 2021

My Thoughts on Race

Here's a pic of Jasper
so that this discussion on race
doesn't bring you down too much.
(I was going to put a pic of
Race Bannon, who my
adopted grandfather voiced,
but that seemed too flippant.

I'd like to say a few things about race here. But, before I do, I want to make clear where I'm coming from. This means that the first several paragraphs of this blog entry will consist of my personal experiences. These probably won't be relevant to most readers, so if you want to skip ahead, feel free to scroll down to the Black Lives Matter fist logo.

I live in the United States, where the dialogue around race has been ramping up for a while now. Every time a black person in very publicly killed by cops, most of my coworkers become too upset to focus on work, so we effectively take the day off. The seemingly weekly occurrences under Trump of abuses in various forms paralyzed my colleagues and eventually drove them to a state where we are all agreed and dedicated toward ensuring that we create a better world for all. I am vaguely in favor of this, although I have strong concerns about the toleration of alternative political views. I'm not in the Republican Party, but I'd like to keep open dialogue with people who are, and I'd like to work together with them to help create a better world, even if they vote for Trump. But things have progressed so far at this point that I don't reasonably believe that this kind of relationship would be easy to maintain with friends, with colleagues, or even with family. This scares me.

See full results.

The dominant expression of minority experience around me is the black experience. I care for and wish to help magnify that expression, but it is not one that I personally share. I am racially mixed, with the preponderence of my ancestry coming from indigenous americans, specifically the Quechuan Andean natives in South America. (Unfortunately, this family history is lost. I know no one from this community at all, similar to how many American black families are unable to trace their connections back to the African continent.) The second largest ancestral group is Italian; my maternal grandfather is ~100% Italian. The third largest is hispanic, with Basque Country Spanish roots that traveled to the area now known as Bolivia in South America; these ancestors first came via successive conquistador waves in the 1500s where the name Herboso is listed on the manifest. The fourth largest is English; I can trace my maternal grandmother's side all the way back to a knight under the 1st Earl of Leicester in the mid 1500s. On census forms, I indicate that I am of mixed heritage, of both native and white race, with hispanic origin. Although 1% of my DNA does come from the African continent, I don't self-identify as black nor do I live the black experience, even though my skin color is decidedly not pure white. If anything, I am mostly taken to be vaguely middle eastern when people glance at me in an airport.

I have experienced personal racism myself, but a combination of luck and rhetorical skill has kept that racism from negatively affecting my life. The closest is probably when my mother callously called the cops on me in the Deep South of Alabama; they subsequently suspected me of having a weapon that I might shoot them with, so they pulled a weapon on me and instructed me to slowly move away from an obstructed view. Thankfully, the officer was cautious enough that a shot was not fired.

On several other occasions, I've had households call the cops on me for walking through the neighborhood at 3 a.m.; this was a habit of mine in many of the neighborhoods I live in. But on each of those times I was found with a book in my hand and I was friendly enough with the officers that they grew to know me and expect these very late night calls. I remember one officer pulling up to me one night and immediately calling out my name. He had a smile on his face, and our conversations were always short and civil, so it was never anything more than a slight inconvenience. (I've never had someone call the cops on me in my neighborhood here in Germantown, Maryland, even though I do almost all of my neighborhood walking between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m.; I'd like to think this is because I live in a more progressive area now than I ever used to.)

I've been called a "vicinity friend" before. I'm not sure how to take the allegation. The idea is that some people maintain relationships across space and time, valuing the friendship beyond mere acquaintance. But others are friends only so long as they are forced together through other means: neighbors who are close while they live next to each other, but who never contact each other again once one of them moves. Coworkers who are friendly but who never keep contact once someone moves to a new job. Well, for me, I have no problem whatsoever with not contacting people that previously were close to me. After that incident with my mother, I basically didn't speak to her ever again. This is not because I don't appreciate what she did for me in my early life; she was key to helping me grow into the person that I am today. Certainly, the books she read with me when I was young did much to help me learn and influenced my personality. But, at the same time, it doesn't grate on me nor bother in any way to not contact her, nor to have not contacted the other people on that side of my family for decades on end. Does this make me bad at relationships? Does it make me a bad friend? Does this have something to do with my aphantasia?

I ask these questions because they are relevant: I don't personally empathize with strangers well. On a naive, personal basis, the death of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor feels the same as any other tragedy to me. It is horrible; an utter travesty. But the same as when someone dies of a car accident when we could so easily spend the requisite money to have self-driving cars that would dramatically reduce the extreme fatality rate of car accidents. I have a difficult time understanding the way that others are able to get so personally distraught over these killings. Maybe this has to do with my work in effective animal advocacy. To my eyes, a literal holocaust occurs every day in the form of factory farming. But I can't let that affect my life to the degree that I can't effectively live, or else I would constantly be in a state of trauma. So instead I am able to enjoy video games in my offtime even while knowing that animals are constantly being tortured and prematurely killed for the smallest of profits and that some of my fellow citizens are callously killed by police when the police had no real reason to kill them. (Some might call this white privilege (and human privilege); but I think it may have more to do with the fact that I just don't empathize well with any group. If people named Eric who looked vaguely middle eastern but were actually mixed native, white, and hispanic were being killed and showcased on news reports constantly, I think I'd feel exactly the same way that I do now. It seems to me to be less white privilege and more of a privilege that I get from being a 'vicinity friend'; it's almost as though my general lack of automatic empathy with others is the culprit here, as it means that I don't self-identify as being in the same group with others of any kind, regardless of their species or race.)

If you've read this far, then you must certainly empathize with others better than I. So far, I've merely talked about who I am and where I'm coming from when it comes to race issues. I have no idea why anyone other than myself would ever be interested in the above; I wrote it mostly for myself; writing helps me to organize my thoughts on hazy issues and more clearly examine the reasons behind what I think. I expect that the person reading this paragraph is probably just myself, later on in life.

Above are my thoughts on where I'm personally coming from. What follows are my thoughts on a few selected race issues. This section is more important because it shows what ideas and ideologies I'm committed to in the organizations that I have a leadership position in. Note that just because I believe X does not mean that an organization I run or that I serve on the board of also believes X. Organizations, by necessity, follow different rules and have different agendas than those who are in a leadership capacity, partly because there are multiple perspectives among the leadership teams of every organization I work with, and partly because the stance of an organization should not just be the stance of the individual at the top of it.

First, the obvious: minorities tend to be discriminated against in society. I can't believe I have to write this out, but after seeing one too many people argue that meritocratic success implies that some races just are naturally more inferior than others, I can't not be explicit about this. I recognize that racial differences exist; the best marathon runners tend to come from a particular Kenyan tribe, the people who live in the Arctic are able to hold their body heat much more efficiently, &c. In principle, I am open to the scientific possibility that one such difference might be that one racial population might be demonstratably less fit for specific outcomes than another racial population. But I am disgusted by the allegation from (for example) a subset of the Astral Codex Ten crowd that blacks are less intelligent than whites. (I should mention that I am an ACX reader here, mostly because I value reading highly competent takes even from people I disagree with ideologically.) The data might be consistent with this theory, but it by no means shows it to be true; there are too many other factors that need to be corrected for. And, even if some future scientific meta study did show such a link, that would not change anything about how we should act toward any groups. Differences in education clearly account for much more of a range than race ever would, and so it would still be inappropriate to prejudge a member of a disadvantaged group because they could easily be an outlier for their group. But this is all moot anyway, as the science isn't even capable of discerning such possibilities in the near future; there are too many confounding factors. And, in the absence of a reason to believe otherwise, we should assume equality on the types of things that society values most.

Second, on a just world: oppression of any kind is not okay. Just as the concept of divine right should feel dated and wrong to all readers here, so, too, should the idea that there is justification to artificially hold back some subgroup. We all should be allowed to participate equally in all aspects of our shared culture. This means that I am staunchly against racial oppression, but also any other form of oppression.

The difference between the rich and the poor stand out to me as being especially important here; this should not be happening. While I recognize that capitalism has lifted a significant proportion of the world community out of devastating utter poverty, the point to which they have been lifted is still dramatically lower than the point at which the ordinary American lives. I don't feel confident about a solution here; I'm sympathetic to the idea that capitalism and competition within a developing country is helpful, though maybe alongside high tariffs, but to the extent that it exacerbates the divide between the haves and the have-nots, I am very unhappy. Unfortunately, I'm not aware of a system that has successfully shown itself capable of using a planned economy to lift its poorest citizens out of poverty, so despite being very unhappy with capitalism, I feel it might be useful in developing countries.

Despite mostly being on the far left politically, there are some leftish takes on oppression that I strongly disagree with, such as cultural appropriation. There are easy examples where cultural appropriation is clearly wrong, like when a culture believes something is sacred and another culture callously desecrates it. This is why it would be rude and uncalled for for me to draw a picture of Muhammad, even though only a minority of Muslims believe it would be inappropriate. There's just no need for me to do this. At the same time, I do not think it should be made illegal; plenty of rude things are not illegal, and this should be one of them. Another example is the choice to scuplt Mount Rushmore on the sacred black hills of the Lakota people. Just...why? It's unnecessarily aggressive to desecrate a specific mountain of another culture like this.

Mariachi Mario, by Lorenzo Mendoza

But, for most cases of cultural appropriation, I disagree with the predominant leftist take. I do not think that just because the appropriated culture is a minority culture means that appropriation is automatically wrong. For example, a white person wearing traditional Mexican dress doesn't qualify as being bad to me just because it involves a majority culture in America using a minority culture's attire. But I do believe that a white person wearing a native american headdress does count as bad, because the culture they took the headdress from considered that headdress as a badge of honor that it would be wrong to wear if it were not earned. This is bad in the same way that it would be bad to wear a military ribbon that you did not earn.

I think the key insight for me is that I think in terms of Earth culture, rather than some individual country's culture. I was not born in Mexico, but I am nevertheless from Earth, and so it is my culture, too. While it would be inappropriate for me to desecrate something that others feel is holy, or to wear a badge of honor that I did not earn, I don't think that ordinary parts of other cultures on this planet should be restricted for me, as I wish to celebrate them as well. (With that said, I should mention that this is mostly an intellectual opinion. I don't celebrate any cultures in my personal life — no xmas trees, no fireworks, no porch pumpkins — so I understandably also never actually dress up in other cultures' attire or celebrate anything in particular. It's just that the reason I don't do cultural appropriation is because I have no reason to bother doing so, not because I think that it is wrong.)

Slide from The Equity Collaborative.

Third, on critical race theory: I believe in incremental progress. There's a lot about critical race theory that I like. I agree that race is a social construct (though I also believe that socially constructed categories are meaningful and can be predictive). I agree that racism doesn't just occur in isolated acts of racist people today, but that systemic institutional racism also exists in the forms of rules and regulations of the state, habits of the population, and background ideas that most people don't consciously think about. (Denying this seems crazy to me, and this in particular is one of the biggest problems that I see with the effective altruism community today: that a significant vocal minority of them treat the idea of institutional racism as less credible than human-caused climate change.)

However, when it comes to critical race theory's stance on incremental change, I take issue. I agree that actions taken expressly to help black people have, at times, ended up helping white people, too (or even: instead). But I do not feel that this means that incremental progress is, in principle, an inappropriate way to solve the problem.

There is a similar debate in animal advocacy. The abolitionists believe that everyone must be vegan now. We have to stop any and all animal abuse immediately because it is wrong, and half-measures are worthless. Meanwhile, the welfarists argue that incremental change helps. If we can help to reduce the amount of suffering undergone by animals in the near term, then it is unethical not to attempt to do so. In the field of effective animal advocacy, almost all EAAs are welfarist. We believe that helping to promote the institution of a new law that increases the amount of space that farmed animals are allocated to live their lives in will at least reduce the suffering of each individual somewhat, and the scale of the problem is so massive that the additive reduction in suffering across all farmed animals as a result is so massive that such a campaign might be worthwhile.

You might then be able to predict how I feel about incremental change when it comes to race relations as well. Of course, I do not believe that small changes are necessarily better than large changes. I want to advocate for equal treatment of races, and I'm willing to advocate for huge changes if and when advocating for them seems likely to make a big difference. But I do not feel that the entire system must be upended in order to help put blacks on the same level as whites. Instead, I am reminded of the situation Machiavelli was in.

Niccolò Machiavelli lived in the early 1500s in what is now Italy. Back then, kings were commonplace. Your neighboring city likely had a different king, and war seemed to be eternally occurring. New princes took over each time a monarch was deposed, at least until the next war had a new prince installed a few years later. The people suffered for this. Constant war meant death, injury, starvation. It was better, Machiavelli thought, for one monarch to stay in power without a future uprising, even if that monarch wasn't an ideal ruler. And so The Prince was written. Modern society calls evil plots machiavellian, but I don't think Machiavelli deserves this. He was trying to reduce suffering (and also trying to save himself, but people can have multiple simultaneous goals when writing a text).

I am especially proud of the American experiment. We have a system where our government's leaders undergo a regular peaceful transfer of power. While this is not unprecedented, it is surely an exemplar of what can be done with a strong constitution. There are drawbacks, of course: rich people have too much power and that power rarely is transferred; disagreements on slavery nearly ended the experiment in a civil war; Trump. But these are also successes: Trump came and Trump went, and we did not fall apart in the meantime. Lincoln gave a speech that started "fourscore and seven years ago" referencing 1776 as a the birthdate of the union, even though prior to Gettysburg the birthdate of the union was widely considered to be 1789. This was to reinforce the Declaration of Independence's remarks on equality over the Constitution's 3/5ths clause. (Leo Strauss points out that Lincoln was following Machiavelli here: when you build a castle wall, the bricks at the edge should be crenellated, not leveled off. This is so that if you decide to increase the size of your castle in the future, the bricks will continue to alternate. It will not be obvious that there is a seam where your castle wall used to be. Future generations can then think of your increased castle size as being natural and right and the way it always has been, rather than unnatural and a mere addition to your holdings. If you want to reinforce your rule, doublethink is required. Even though 1776 was never considered America's birthday before the civil war, Lincoln made it so in a famous address that was reprinted across the nation. Today, schoolchildren learn 1776, not 1789, and so the crenellated brick illusion Lincoln used has worked, and the recombined union of the North and South both have kids that primarily learn about the Declaration of Independence.)

An uncrenellated extension.

We, too, should solve problems using methods like this. I and most of the people I know are progressives; we look to the future. But many of our countrymen are conservatives; they look to the past. If we want to meaningfully reach them on issues of race, we cannot just talk about upending the entire system. We have to use rhetorical techniques that place racial change in a positive light for people who look primarily to tradition as something important. We must use the creneallated wall that previous generations left for us. We must embrace incremental change —not small change, but incremental nonetheless. Otherwise we risk revolution, a thing so scary that Machiavelli taught evil to prevent. Revolution is not pretty. When I hear fellow leftists calling for revolution, I am reminded of the anti-vaxxers who say that polio is not that big a deal. The reason we don't have those horrible diseases anymore is because we vaccinate. The reason we don't have violent revolution anymore is because we use incremental change. Please, I implore to you: consider the effects that come from riots, from chaos in the streets, from real revolution. The worst president in the history of the United States (excepting maybe Andrew Jackson) was just voted out last year. Yes, there was an insurrection on January 6. But we survived. The system works. Use the system. Change the system not by overthrowing it, but by using the crenellated edges. We can stamp out racial oppression within the system, if we but work together on this.

Having said my piece arguing against the notion that incremental progress is worthless (part of the critical race theory tenet on interest convergence and the liberal critique), let me also briefly mention CRT's insistence that counter-storytelling is necessary to portray truth. This idea comes from critical theory, the general precursor to CRT. Critical theory teaches that structures in reality are in place to help one group over another, so any time we want to look for truth, we first have to disregard what the existing structures tell us and instead be critical by specifically looking for the underprivileged point of view to get at truth. Now, I want to make clear that I'm not against the idea of counter story telling in general. I adore Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. My favorite historical stories of London come from the papers that survived the 1666 fire, since that caused historians to pay attention to the scraps left by the common people. Part of the reason why I write a public journal is because I want there to be a record of someone in my position for future historians to be able to look back on.

(I imagine a far future where the galaxy is fully populated, and a child is assigned to look back at something written at the dawn of the space age, back when all of humanity still lived on Earth. This child is now writing a book report in elementary school after having insufficiently browsed through these very words. (This sounds crazy until you realize that even if .00001% of children get this assignment in the far future, that means that billions and billions of children will be assigned to read blogs of people that live in this time period, and there are only so many blogs around, so odds are that someone will write a book report on this someday.))

But when it comes to determining truth, I just don't agree with the basic assumptions that critical theory makes. Not all structures are in place to advantage certain groups. Even when it is the case that a structure does advantage one group, that doesn't mean that it was placed there with the intention of doing so. So while counter storytelling can be useful, it should not be used as the primary way of getting at truth. Traditional methods of evidence, liberal enlightenment methods of open discussion of free ideas, and philosophical methods like the principle of charity are all still valid and good ways at getting at the truth. I am not okay with the idea that only a black person can talk meaningfully about black things for the same reason that I am comfortable with listening to researchers when they tell me that aquarium fish prefer dark wallpaper on the back of the aquarium, or that chickens are not happy unless they can peck at the ground. Just because someone is human does not mean that they cannot come to true conclusions about nonhuman animals, and just because someone is white does not mean that they cannot come to true conclusions about issues that affect black people. The idea in the anti-racism community that we must defer to black voices on anything that affects blacks is well-meaning, but can be terribly counterproductive. Minorities already have to bear the burden of explaining and thinking about these things in their everyday life; it is appropriate to allow non-minorities to take up these responsibilities when they can, and that requires allowing non-minorities to reason about issues that affect minorities. This aspect of critical race theory just seems plain wrong to me. Counter storytelling is not the final arbiter of truth, but just a useful additional tool that should have a place alongside other tools for getting at truth.

Reading of Voltaire..., by Lemonnier

I am especially concerned here about the extent to which critical race theory stands committed against the free open discussion of ideas. This is a liberal idea from the Enlightenment that says that when you allow a forum for people to discuss ideas openly, then the result is that the better ideas rise to the top. If the goal is to find truth, then open discussion does a good job of getting us closer to truth, but at the cost of allowing ideas that we disagree with to be in the open forum.

Not all CRT adherents are against free open discussion, but some of the main originators of CRT are. Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, authors of Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, write: "Unlike traditional approaches to civil rights, which favor incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory calls into question the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and the neutral principles of constitutional law." I'm aware that some crazy Fox news-style people have taken this quote out of context. If you see crazy right wing people quoting this, please don't take the things they say about it seriously. But there is a very real critique here that is serious: that CRT specifically goes against the Enlightenment tradition of using free open discussion to get at truth. Instead, some anti-racists advocate for counter-storytelling alone, some going so far as to say that racist voices (meaning voices which aren't specifically antiracist) should be silenced or otherwise deplatformed.

Not all antiracists believe this, of course. But enough believe it to the point that it does concern me. I believe strongly in Hall's expression of Voltaire's sentiment: "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." When Westboro Baptists hold up those despicable homophobic signs at their demonstrations, I may be sad to know that they feel that way, but I'm also proud to live in a civilization that nevertheless allows them to congregate and express themselves in this manner. I am deeply concerned that the ACLU has had uprisings that have resulted in some of its members advocating for specific outcomes rather than the free speech that it has always traditionally fought for. In 2017, far-right groups applied for a permit to rally in front of a statue of Robert E. Lee. The government forced them to rally instead outside of the core of the city. The ACLU of Virginia stepped in and successfully defended the rights of the far-right group. When word of this got to ACLU headquarters, "[r]evulsion swelled within the A.C.L.U..... The A.C.L.U. unfurled new guidelines that suggested lawyers should balance taking a free speech case representing right-wing groups whose 'values are contrary to our values' against the potential such a case might give 'offense to marginalized groups.'" I don't like the direction that this is heading in.

C'mon, Puerto Rico designers. /c:

I believe strongly that prejudice is bad, and that prejudice is pervasive. I think we need to do a lot to correct the problem, as it is embedded everywhere in our lives. I see it in the disproportionate funding of schools that comes from our system of locally funding schools. I see it in the fiction that I watch and read when clueless authors think that a 'normal' background character should be white, cis, and of average size. I see it also when the supposed 'woke' author unnecessarily makes all of the characters 'diverse', breaking my suspension of disbelief when 95% of the people who randomly survive a plane crash are LGBTQ and 40% are trans. I see it in myself as a polyamorous person, when I look back to what types of people I've dated over the years. I see it in the board games I play, when Istanbul has no depictions of women, or when Puerto Rico literally uses brown cubes to represent slaves that you can purchase to succeed in the game. We clearly need to fix our culture. This is why I'm in favor of spending a lot of time and effort on figuring out what we can do in the organizations that I lead to help support the disadvantaged. But, at the same time, I want to ensure that we don't throw out the baby with the bathwater. I don't agree with all of the tenets of critical race theory. I don't agree with all of the things that the antiracist movement seems to be pushing for. To the extent that we can create good, I agree that we should. But let's be careful about how we do so.

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