Racism has been intertwined with the psyche of America from the very beginning. Since the murder of George Floyd in May, racial tension has skyrocketed and the discourse has gotten super-heated. People are on edge. Maybe that’s ok for now, but eventually we all have to figure each other out and learn how to coexist and learn to really talk to each other.
Don’t worry, I’m not here to give you my opinion on racism or anything like that. I’m not the right messenger and I don’t have the requisite experiences or credentials to lecture you on “Race in America”. Even if I did…no thanks. What I want to talk about is discourse. HOW we’re thinking and talking about racism. Some logical fallacies. That’s an area I can contribute productively and maybe even help to turn down the heat a little.
There are two ideas that keep popping up in this perpetually-ongoing national debate: one that generally applies to the left and one that generally applies to the right. The first is that of systemic racism, the second is that of disparate impact.
Systemic racism (also known as structural racism or institutional racism) is the idea that groups of people can be inherently disadvantaged by the systems they’re living in. This could be as overt as laws or as minimal as sorting errors in a database. The important logical point here is that a racist SYSTEM does NOT require anybody in that system to be racist or ill-intentioned. A system doesn’t have feelings but can still be racist. I think if people, generally on the right, learned to correct the wrong assumption that bad people have to be part of a system for it to be bad (and that if you’re good, you can’t perpetuate systemic racism), then the discourse can improve.
Disparate impact is the idea that a given action, procedure, policy or event would have a disproportional effect on one group of people over another. The crucial thing to remember here is that a discriminatory effect DOES NOT require a discriminatory intent. And a disproportionate result does not necessarily make it racist. I think if people, generally on the left, learned to correct all-too-quick jumping to conclusions based on outcomes, then discourse can improve.
My favorite example of these concepts is with voting laws. It has all of the permutations. A logic story:
Senator Goodman of State A is genuinely worried about election security and people voting fraudulently as someone else, so she comes up with a security measure — people need to show a valid, government issued photo ID in order to vote. So simple! Problem solved. On its face, it’s a perfectly reasonable idea — you need to show it to buy cigarettes or beer, what’s the big deal? Voting is a sacred right of citizens, showing ID is simply the bare minimum you need to do to prove you’re eligible. The law passes uncontroversially.
A few years later, Senator Badman from State B looks at the data from the most recent election in State A. He notices that minority voting was down. Hmmm, he thinks. He wonders if the new voter ID laws maybe kept some people from voting because they just didn’t have the right kind of ID. Senator Badman knows that these aren’t the people that would be voting for him, so passes the same law in State B. It keeps enough minorities away so that he wins his election. There were some protests and people were upset about it, but hey he won.
Ten years later, both laws are still in effect and there are new Senators in town. Everybody has grown accustomed to the ID laws and on their face they’re not discriminatory. Some people made sure to get the right ID for elections, but some other people just stopped voting altogether. The poll workers check ID’s and that’s the way of things.
Senator Goodman is not racist, she has a good heart and passed her law that was effective at eliminating something she thought was a problem. But it had a disparate impact — not just on the fraudsters she was keeping away, but on the local minorities too. It kept more minority people from voting than it did majority-race voters. She is not culpable, but the result is still very uncool.
Senator Badman does a racist thing to produce a racist effect. He is culpable.
Ten years later, you have a law that is neutral on its face. People have to show an ID or they don’t vote. It’s not like the law says only certain people have to show ID. The poll workers don’t know anything, they’re just checking ID’s. Voting rates are steady. Nobody in this system is racist, but the system they run still produces the effect of more minorities, usually the economically disadvantaged ones, just not voting. That skews fairness in a racist way. The system is racist.