Is Racism Still Important?

A continued theme on Matthew Yglesias blog is that conservatives in general are more concerned with anti-racism than racism, this is how he explains it:

“…most conservatives, think that the preeminent racial problem in the United States is that white people are too put upon by political correctness. Conservatives are very very very concerned about this alleged problem of anti-racism run amok. And they’re very concerned about the alleged problem of reverse discrimination. But they don’t seem concerned at all about racism or discrimination and certainly not nearly as concerned as they about helping out the poor, put-upon white man.

This is actually true and though Yglesias views it as a flaw, I see it as a virtue. In fact, its one of the reasons why I find the conservative side more appealing than the progressive side. Just to be clear though, Yglesias is not saying that conservatives view racism as historically unimportant, or that racism is completely unimportant, cuz then I would agree with Yglesias that that is a flaw; no, Yglesias is chiding conservatives for not seeing todays racism as a bigger problem than todays “anti-racism”.

Of course racism is important, very important,  to those who are suffering under racism. If I was denied a job solely because of my race, I would be really pissed off and want some justice. However, as a policy issue I think racism is very low on the totem poll of problems (though not zero).

I like the way economist Walter Williams explained it:

Like the March of Dimes’ victory against polio in the U.S., civil rights organizations can claim victory as well. At one time, black Americans did not enjoy the same constitutional guarantees as other Americans. Now we do. Because the civil rights struggle is over and won doesn’t mean that all problems have vanished within the black community. A 70 percent illegitimacy rate, 65 percent of black children raised in female-headed households, high crime rates and fraudulent education are devastating problems, but they’re not civil rights problems. Furthermore, their solutions do not lie in civil rights strategies.

Civil rights organizations’ expenditure of resources and continued focus on racial discrimination is just as intelligent as it would be for the March of Dimes to continue to expend resources fighting polio in the U.S. Like the March of Dimes, civil rights organizations should revise their agenda and take on the big, non-civil rights problems that make socioeconomic progress impossible for a large segment of the black community.

In other words, racism as a source of minority failure is not all that important anymore.  Most real impediments to minority success – issues like illegitimacy rates, crime, failing public schools – are only loosely, very loosely I would argue, tied to race. But because race is such a hot button issue, these issues are difficult to talk about openly – ultimately harming the search for the cure. Bring up your concerns with crime in the ghetto, illegitimacy rates, the widening educational gap, or affirmative action and unless you walk a very tight line, you can be easily accused of racism. This censorship, namely, this “anti-racism”, hampers progress on such important issues (even some progressives agree, see here).

This is much more a problem on the left than it is on the right. The left tends to see the world through the prism of “racism” (and”class warfare”), making honest dialog on race issues extremely difficult – trust me, I’ve tried. The right, on the other hand, has a more balanced view on these issues and because of it you are able to go further in finding a cure.

Not only does overemphasis on racism result in unintended censorship on important topics,  but it also leads to a blinding force when searching for solutions. When dealing with the issues of illegitimacy rates, crime and failing public schools, for example,  the progressive tries hard to find its racist connection – however strained that connection may be. This is a serious stumbling block and is one of the main reasons why real educational reforms, whether it’s charter schools, vouchers, or even NCLB have all come from the right.

So I would argue that as far as real effective policy goes, emphasis on racism has now ran into significant diminishing returns, whereas the overemphasis on racism is a real roadblock to discussing important minority problems.

And it seems like Matthew Yglesias, ultimately, is not too far off. For example, in a separate post, he lists what he considers the real problems of racism today:

At any rate, I’ve made this point a million times, but it’s fascinating to me the kind of double standard conservatives apply to these issues. You never hear Rush Limbaugh decrying everyday racism against non-whites in the United States. You never hear him recounting an anecdote about an African-American man having trouble hailing a cab or being followed by a shopkeeper. He doesn’t do stories about how people with stereotypically “black” names suffer job discrimination. He doesn’t bemoan the fact that the United States has an aircraft carrier named after a fanatical segregationist.

What is interesting about this list is what type of “racism” it is: specifically, statistical racism (more here and here), or what economists call statistical discrimination. This type of “racism” is very different than the invidious racism that comes to mind when we think of racism: issues like being forced to sit in the back of the bus, forced segregation, laws against interracial marriages, poll taxes and so forth. Statistical discrimination, while still offensive, is based on statistics, not bigotry.

That is not to say that it is any less offensive to the person being statistically discriminated against but it makes a huge difference when looked at from a policy perspective. Take the claim “about an African-American man having trouble hailing a cab”, as an example. The reason that Blacks have trouble hailing a cab, specifically in New York City, is because Blacks have a higher crime rate than many other groups. A cab driver, being in an especially vulnerable position, has a strong incentive to ensure his safety but at the same time he also wants to make the most money he can. So every approaching customer gets put through some sort of subconscious statistical analysis: is this person more likely to rob me? Given that the cab driver has a limited amount of information to go on, race plays an important factor. This is not unique to white cab drivers either, cab drivers of every race, including Black cab drivers, show the same tendency of picking up Black passengers less than non-Black ones. While this may be offensive, from a policy perspective there is no practical way to prevent it – as long as the cab driver has an incentive to reduce the likelihood of robbery, and as long as being Black signals a higher probability for robbery, there is always going to be the desire to resist providing a cab when the cab driver deduces the risk is too high. The same general principle applies about stereotypically “black” names, see here.

The real gains in reducing statistical discrimination come not from government fiat but from the inside, as economist Bryan Caplan states,”If you really want to improve your group’s image, telling other groups to stop stereotyping won’t work. The stereotype is based on the underlying distribution of fact. It is far more realistic to turn your complaining inward, and pressure the bad apples in your group to stop pulling down the average.” Which is, btw, more likely when you don’t see racism behind every corner.

Besides, hasn’t Yglesias noticed that we have a Black President? How much of an impediment can racism really be in a country that elected its first Black president? John McWhorter has more here.

2 Responses to “Is Racism Still Important?”


  • “This is actually true and though Yglesias views it as a flaw, I see it as a virtue.”

    I think we deserve an explanation about how you feel an obsession with discovering alleged reverse discrimination can be a “virtue”. It certainly seems like a flaw to me.

  • I dont think “discovering alleged reverse discrimination” is itself a virtue, I think the fact that Republicans dont see racism behind every corner is.

    Though I would agree that seeing “anti-racism” behind every corner is also a vice. My point was that race, whether racism or “anti-racism”, is very low on the list of problems, especially problems afflicting minorities. Republicans understand this better than Democrats. Nothing more.

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