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SHORT TAKES


May 25, 2011

Non-Garbage In, Garbage Out

The New York Times had a fairly long online colloquy over the weekend on a very short study titled “Whites See Racism as a Zero-Sum Game That They Are Now Losing.” Prepared by Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School and Samuel R. Sommers of Tuft University’s Department of Psychology, the study appeared in Perspectives on Psychological Science. It is straightforward enough:  A large national sample of black Americans and white Americans was asked to use a 10-point scale to indicate the extent they felt that blacks and whites were each “the target of discrimination in each decade from the 1950s to the 2000s.&rdquo The Times colloquy on the study included folks from left (Patricia J. Williams, Paul Butler, and Victoria C. Plaut), right (David E. Bernstein and Abigail Thernstrom), and center (Jeffrey Rosen), as well as the study’s authors.

Dr. Thernstrom and Professor Bernstein made good contributions to the colloquy, putting the study in a historical and legal perspective, respectively. My own thoughts can be summarized as: What’s good (or at least plausible) in the study isn’t new, and what’s new isn’t good.

The results are well-summarized in the study’s graph (figure 1).  Basically, it shows (a) that blacks and whites agree that discrimination against blacks has gone dramatically down over the last half century, and that discrimination against whites has gone up; but (b) that blacks believe there is more antiblack discrimination still than whites do; and, finally, (c) that whites believe that there is now actually more antiwhite discrimination than antiblack discrimination, while blacks think that the amount of antiwhite discrimination is still negligible. None of this is particularly new or surprising. Who can deny that there is less discrimination against blacks now than in 1950; or that, with the rise of affirmative action, there is not at least some discrimination against whites now which was nonexistent a half century ago? And who can be surprised that blacks are more sensitive to remaining discrimination against them, and more dismissive than whites of the extent of politically correct discrimination against whites now?

Rather, the only remarkable thing about the study is not the data, but the extremely dubious conclusion the researchers draw from them, namely that they show somehow “that whites see racism in zero-sum terms”:  that if you have less antiblack bias then there is going to be more antiwhite bias, and so progress on civil rights is a threat to white people.  There is nothing in the study to support the notion that whites see the two historical trends as linked in this or in any other particular way, and the obvious reason that whites (and, for that matter, blacks, albeit to a lesser extent) see more discrimination against whites now and less discrimination against blacks is because, well, there is more discrimination against whites now and less discrimination against blacks. 

And, indeed, we unsophisticated white folks (joined by lots of other folks of all colors) don’t see this as a zero-sum game at all, where it is somehow impossible to have a policy of nondiscrimination against anyone on the basis of race.  In fact, we think that colorblind policies are not only possible but desirable.  No, the only people who believe that the solution to discriminating against black people has to be discrimination against white people are … those on the Left.

The Census tells us that America is increasingly a multiracial, multiethnic nation. African Americans, by the way, are no longer the largest minority group -- Hispanics are, and they and Asians are growing more rapidly than blacks and whites (the only two groups recognized in this study). In such a nation, it is simply untenable for our laws and our institutions to sort people according to skin color and what country their ancestors came from, and treat some better and others worse, depending on which silly little box is checked. Members of each group will from time to time be discriminated against, but resisting and remedying such discrimination does not require institutionalized discrimination in the other direction. For America in 2011, there is no other workable system than to treat each person as an individual, with neither politically correct nor politically incorrect discrimination or preference.

Comments (6)

Lorraine:

"There is nothing in the study to support the notion that whites see the two historical trends as linked in this or in any other particular way...."

Then what explains the correlation between the two trends? Why does it exist for whites and not blacks?

"and the obvious reason that whites (and, for that matter, blacks, albeit to a lesser extent) see more discrimination against whites now...."

As far as I can tell, the study provides no evidence that blacks see more discrimination against whites.

"No, the only people who believe that the solution to discriminating against black people has to be discrimination against white people are … those on the Left."

How do you explain the quotation from Senator Sessions at the beginning of the article?

Hieronymus The Troll Braintree:

Instead of having affirmative action based on race, how about basing it on class? It would support America's claim to be the land of opportunity and make it less polarizing. Yay.

TimP:

"As far as I can tell, the study provides no evidence that blacks see more discrimination against whites."

Actually yes it does. If we use their graph it shows that Black ratings of anti-white bias has gone from around 1.3 to 1.9. Since 1 means no racism, if the subjects used a linear rating (2 means a little bias, 3 means twice as much, 4 means three times as much as 2, etc) this means that blacks perceive anti-white bias as still being trivial, but three times as high as it used to be. Probably what's happening here is a small group of blacks believe anti-white bias was significant in the 1950's and an even larger group believes it's significant today, while the majority continues to believe it doesn't exist and never has. Unfortunately without the actual numbers from the report it's impossible to tell.

"Then what explains the correlation between the two trends? Why does it exist for whites and not blacks?"

It does exist for blacks, though it's more mild, but more importantly it only shows that white people believe both things are happening over the same time-period. It does not tell us why they believe the two events are happening, or how they think they are related. Certainly some white-people probably believe it's because it's a zero-sum game, but others probably believe it's purely coincidence, and others probably believe it's an overreaction by wellmeaning individuals to the remaining anti-black bias (see the author o this essay for an example).

"How do you explain the quotation from Senator Sessions at the beginning of the article?"

This was specifically a reference to a court case where the judge in question claimed that their empathy to minority firefighters was why the judge choose to force the fire-department to discriminate against firefighters that didn't belong to that minority citing their empathy as why they had done so. If the law has empathy for one party (say White farmers), but not for another (say black slaves) it's clearly a prejudice against the party that does not receive empathy.

I do think Mr. Clegg is mistaken where he implies that no one on the right believes that discrimination is a zero-sum game, or that everyone on the left does believe it, but when you're playing the odds that's the better way to bet.

Roger Clegg, Ctr for Equal Opportunity:

@Lorraine: Thanks for your questions. As I read the graph, there is an (albeit slight) upward slant in the dark dotted line (and to the extent the slants of the two dotted lines are different it's because of a difference in the way the factual existence of antiwhite discrimination is perceived and characterized, as I say in my post); Sen. Sessions was speaking in the context of litigation (I bet this is from the Sotomayor hearings), which really is a zero-sum game -- that is, where indeed empathy for one side necessarily means prejudice against the other.

#harrison22[DGDGKGDAGKGD]:

Hi - I am certainly happy to discover this. Good job!

Rissa:

I would agree, except that I keep seeing those who say otherwise. Whenever I bring up that there should be NO discrimination whatsoever, (as I believe this would solve quite a few of the racial problems in America) or that "American" (or PC: US citizen) should be our country's official "race," I am systematically screamed at almost exclusively by white Americans. More often than not they will bring up that whites are more discriminated against than blacks today as a complaint, yet they dismiss the idea that equal rights for all would also eliminate that problem. It's honestly confusing and disheartening, and it makes me wonder if actual discrimination is the problem after all.

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