Racism & Culturism: Beliefs in Western Superiority

Racism & Culturism: Beliefs in Western Superiority

I have spent a decent amount of time thinking about the racial disparities we see in American society. I think there is pretty clear evidence that we generally underrate the historical importance of blatant racism and discrimination in the outcomes of people’s lives today, and that has created substantial racial challenges that many people fail to acknowledge. Red-lining had a serious impact of people’s ability to build wealth through home ownership. Andre Perry at Brookings has argued that black business to this day are still undervalued due to segregation, difficulties in accessing the best locations, and continuing implicit racism. Issues which seem like they belong in or only took place in the past still have influences that linger today.
 
 
Many people discount these historical factors and turn their argument toward the nebulous construction of “culture” when explaining racial disparities in the United States. This feels uncomfortably close to blatant racism to me, but is hard to argue against, especially with people who are smart and wise enough to avoid explicitly racist and discriminatory language. It is not hard to hide arguments that may be racist in nature behind a veil of cultural critiques. Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens suggest that this has been an important aspect in the ideology of many Western societies. He writes,
 
 
“Racist theories enjoyed prominence and respectability for many generations, justifying the Western conquest of the world. Eventually, in the late twentieth century, just as the Western empires crumbled, racism became anathema among scientists and politicians alike. But the belief in Western superiority did not vanish. Instead, it took on new forms. Racism was replaced by culturism. Today’s elites usually justify superiority in terms of historical differences between cultures rather than biological differences between races. We no longer say it’s in their blood. We say it’s in their culture.”
 
 
I think that what is key to recognize is that both racism and culturism is used to explain and demonstrate the superiority of one group over another. That means both become a justification for discrimination and disparities. Racial discrimination and disparities are dismissed through a lens of culturism. After-all, we are accepting that black, brown, or other people could be just as good as white people (or whoever is in the majority) but they simply choose not to be as good for peculiar cultural reasons. Culturalism in this way seems to be a form of supercharged racism with a shield.
 
 
However, the result is the same. One group is celebrated over another with discrimination and disparities justified and even praised. Culture is a broad term, and it is hard to argue against. It is hard to see where modern cultures have roots in historical inequalities and discrimination. It is hard to understand why cultural practices that deviate from – or deliberately eschew – the dominant culture persist when you yourself are part of the dominant culture and have found success through such practices. It is easy to use culture as a shield for arguing that you and your group is better than another, even when your argument is essentially a lightly cloaked racist argument.
Circular Arguments in Racism, Sexism, and Other Forms of Discrimination

Circular Arguments in Racism, Sexism, and Other Forms of Discrimination

The myths which supported slavery were hard to eliminate in part because they created environments for circular arguments and vicious circles. The myths created situations where black people were discriminated against, and the outcome of that discrimination became a justification for the discrimination. Yuval Noah Harari describes the lasting impact of such circular arguments generations after the civil war in his book Sapiens by writing, “trapped in this vicious circle, blacks were not hired for white-collar jobs because they were deemed unintelligent, and the proof of their inferiority was the paucity of blacks in white-collar jobs.”

This type of circular thinking is common in many arenas of discrimination. We see an outcome that likely has a long history of cultural norms, discrimination, and bias yet fail to recognize the context. We see the end result and assume that it is not a cultural biproduct of discriminatory views and practices, but somehow reflective of the true nature of the universe. Examples go beyond the lack of black business owners and CEOs in the United States. Women historically have been shut out of math, computer science, and engineering fields on discriminatory grounds. However, the same circular argument around their inability to do the work as evidenced by their low representation in such fields is used to justify their absences from STEM and computer industries. The biased and discriminatory explanation is that women are not good at math and science, and that is why women are not represented in such fields, but this argument fails to recognize the cultural factors at play.

In the instances above, with specific attention called out to the circular thinking, the role of unjust bias and discrimination can be obvious and infuriating. But it is often harder to see and recognize circular arguments in the real world. Asians are viewed as being good at math and the evidence is the high proportion of Asians in math and science fields in American Universities. White people are not viewed as being as good at sports as black people, with representation in major American sports being used as evidence for the argument – although quarterbacks in college football and the NFL are more white than the rest of the teams, often supported by the circular argument that black athletes are not smart enough to play the position as evidenced by the fact that so few quarterbacks are black. Quite often some sort of bias, discrimination, or other cultural factor is at play, but American’s have an easier time attributing outcomes to individual factors and hazy notions of biology than to cultural biases, discrimination, and other factors. Circular arguments may ultimately be vacuous, but they are hard to always recognize and denounce – especially when the results of discrimination and bias are in our individual self-interest.

Reactive Racism

Reactive Racism

An unfortunate reality in the United States is that there is a great deal of racial segregation across our states, cities, and communities. There are not a lot of spaces that manage to mix the different races, different socioeconomic status individuals, and different cultures that exist within our country. Many white people have almost exclusively white friends and social groups. Many wealthy people only engage with and interact with other similarly wealthy people. We don’t have a lot of voluntary institutions where different races come together willingly or where people of different socioeconomic status mix. I admit that this is the reality of my own life, as much as I wish it were not the case.
One consequence of this segregation is a misunderstanding of the power dynamics and direction of racism in our country. When we do not interact with people who are not like us in any deep or meaningful way, we can fail to understand the power dynamics of racism. We can fail to understand the structural and systemic factors of modern racism. In the end, this means that we misunderstand power dynamics, animosity, and the hatred that can flow between people of different races or social classes. I see this in my own life when people I know argue that black racism against whites is just as bad as any white racism against blacks. Black people who hold racist views against white people are sometimes used to excuse racist white people and in some cases they are used to turn the table and suggest that white people now face more discrimination than black people and other minorities.
What this argument seems to miss, however, is the role of power dynamics and the nature of reactionary racism. In 1993 when spending time trying to understand and write about homeless women for his book Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow noted this phenomenon. In the book he writes, “It is tempting to see white racism and black racism as mirror images of one another, made of the same kind of stuff. But white hatred of blacks appeared to be a purer, self-sustaining emotion that fed on itself. Black hatred of whites appeared to be more reactive, more dependent, feeding not on itself but on white hatred.”
Liebow’s argument is ultimately I think about power. White racism against black people seemed to stem from systemic and structural factors that enabled, and possibly even promoted, the disenfranchisement of black people for the gain of white people. The racism and hatred for white people that blacks held, on the other hand, seemed to be more reactionary. That is not to say that both forms of racism are terrible and can drive people toward atrocities, but it is important to note that Liebow could detect a leading force and a reactionary force. It is important to recognize the idea of reactive racism and the inherent power structures and dynamics it represents so that we don’t fall into the false equivalence argument that racism toward white people is just as bad in this country as white racism toward others.
Why America's History of Racism Still Matters

Why America’s History of Racism Still Matters

At a time where we can say that a black person has been President of the United States and at a time when the Vice President of the United States is currently a woman of black and Asian descent, it can feel as though race, skin color, and racism are no longer problems. It can feel as though we have overcome the shackles of the darkest truth of our collective history and as though there is no longer a ceiling for anyone willing to work hard and strive toward big goals. However, the truth is that our history of racism is still with us and still impacts the lives of many people across the country.
In the book Evicted Matthew Desmond shows how this is the case within the world of housing policy and low income renters. He writes, “over three centuries of systematic dispossession from the land created a semipermanent black rental class and an artificially high demand for inner-city apartments.” For almost all of American history, property ownership for black people was deliberately limited and threatened, beginning with the ownership of one’s own body. Slavery took ownership of one’s body away from black slaves and the end of slavery perpetuated this loss of ownership of ones body through Jim Crow laws, forced prison labor, share cropping, and other forms of disenfranchisement for people of color. Without being able to own property, whether in the form of their body, the form of common goods, or the form of reliable housing, black people were kept from the institutions which allowed white people to establish long lasting families and inter-generational wealth.
Black people were forced into ghettos over time, and even when explicit segregation was overturned, implicit segregation remained. Black people were exploited, their properties, businesses, and neighborhoods undervalued and disinvested. The legacy of this history cannot be erased simply by one man becoming president and one woman attaining the office of vice president. The long term community disinvestment that black people have experienced will take years – and likely targeted policy – to overcome. It won’t happen on its own, and it won’t happen overnight.
Cheap Houses, High Rents

Cheap Houses, High Rents

Throughout the book Evicted, Matthew Desmond shows how the market for low-income renters is stacked against them in many ways that are unfair and often exploitative. Without a strong system to ensure that everyone who needs housing is able to access basic and reasonable housing, the bottom of the market for renters becomes a scramble for a small number of dilapidated and overpriced units. Low-income renters cannot walk away from properties that they find unacceptable, because the alternative is reliance on overcrowded and stressed homeless shelters. In the end, this allows landlords to disinvest in their rental properties while maintaining high rental rates.
Desmond writes, “the same thing that made homeownership a bad investment in poor, black neighborhoods – depressed property values – made landlording there a potentially lucrative one. Property values for similar homes were double or triple in white, middle-class sections of the city; but rents in those neighborhoods were not.”
Unfortunately, our nation’s history of redlining and lingering structural racism has created dense minority ghettos in our country. Black people are limited in where they can look for housing, with landlords in white and middle-class parts of cities tacitly refusing to rent to minorities. Desmond shares a story of two black roommates who were showed a rental unit, only to have the landlords suddenly receive a phone call from a tenant accepting a rental agreement, removing the property from the market. In the only instance of the book where Desmond deliberately interfered with the subjects he was studying, he contacted the landlord after he told the black roommates the property was no longer available posing potential renter and was told the property was available [Author note: Desmond is a white male]. Black people are still to this day stuck in areas where local governments and businesses have disinvested, depressing the property values.
As Desmond shows, this creates a situation where landlords can purchase properties cheaply and rent to residents who can’t find housing outside of these disinvested areas. Since black and brown people can’t go elsewhere to find housing, where the rent is equivalent but the properties are nicer, they have to accept high rents for dilapidated units. Poor minority renters are taken advantage of by landlords who purchase cheap houses and charge high rents. This system reinforces structural racism and inequality for the lowest income minority renters in our nation.
Evidence of Structural Racism

Evidence of Structural Racism

What is and what is not racism in America today is a difficult question. We easily denounce racial slurs and instances of racism where someone openly states they dislike people due to race, but we have trouble identifying racism that is not so explicit. We have trouble identifying structural and systemic racism, but we know that it exists and that it has real world consequences for black people in our country. A couple of weeks ago, in a post on his blog Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen noted that racial segregation is increasing in many parts of America. White people choosing not to live near black people can be explained in many innocuous ways, but ultimately we must accept, the statistics of racial segregation reveal a system of structural racism in our country.
In the book Evicted, author Matthew Desmond confronts structural racism directly. He writes, “In Milwaukee’s poorest black neighborhoods, eviction had become commonplace – especially for women. In those neighborhoods, 1 female renter in 17 was evicted through the court system each year, which was twice as often as men from those neighborhoods and nine times as often as women from the city’s poorest white areas. Women from black neighborhoods made up 9 percent of Milwaukee’s population and 30 percent of its evicted tenants.” Eviction is a downstream consequence of structural racism. Structural racism can appear rational and equitable on the surface, but it often is built upon decades of deeply racist policies. When a population has been consistently held back due to racist policies, then racially neutral policies will still produce racist outcomes years after the deliberately racist policies have been removed. I think that Desmond would agree that this is what is at the heart of the racial disparities in evictions in Milwaukee and across the country.
Desmond continues, “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.” Black men have been arrested at rates that don’t match their likelihood to use drugs or commit crime relative to white men and this has often meant that black mothers had less support for raising children and providing housing, food, and basic needs for families. This is part of why black women in Milwaukee are evicted at rates beyond their proportion of city residents. While we cannot look at any single incident and determine that racism is the cause of why a man was arrested or a woman evicted, we can look at the overwhelming evidence of segregation and disparate policing and evictions to see that structural racism is defining the lives of poor black men and women. We can see the evidence of structural racism and know that it is shaping lives and worlds that white and black people in our country experience. We cannot always say that a single instance is the outcome of racism, but we still know it is shaping what is happening.
After I wrote this piece Cowen also wrote about attractiveness, citing a David Brooks column. The column itself cites a study showing that the attractiveness bias in the United States is especially punishing to black women, demonstrating additional barriers that black women can face due to structural racism that creates beauty standards that outcasts poor black women. More evicdence of structural racism.
The History of Redlining

The History of Redlining

I often find myself thinking about the history of racism in America and asking how that history could still be impacting the lives of Americans today. While it feels like we have made huge steps in addressing racism and in expanding economic and social opportunities for black and minority people in our country, we still have a long way to go, and the effects of our history of racism still plays a role in the world around us.
Homeownership is a great example of the way that historic racism still impacts the racial inequality that we see around us today. Matthew Desmond in his book Evicted does an excellent job showing how racist and segregationist policies influenced the homeownership and economic development of black people in the United States. He writes, “in the 1920s and ’30s, rent for dilapidated housing in the black ghettos of Milwaukee and Philadelphia and other norther cities exceeded that for better housing in white neighborhoods. As late as 1960, rent in major cities was higher for blacks than for whites in similar accommodations. The poor did not crowd into slums because of cheap housing. They were there – and this was especially true of the black poor – simply because they were allowed to be.”
For many Americans, a house is the most expensive thing they own and is their primary vehicle for wealth creation. Being able to purchase a home can set an individual up for a retirement, an inheritance to pass on to children and grandchildren, and can provide numerous other financial and social benefits for the individual and their family. The practice of redlining was a deliberate act of denying housing to black and minority individuals. Both homeownership and renting was limited, as Desmond’s quote shows, to certain neighborhoods and areas within cities for black people. They could not purchase homes in suburban areas, because banks would not lend to them for purchasing a home outside a redlined area. Real estate agents would not show black people homes in white neighborhoods. Landlords in white neighborhoods wouldn’t rent to black people.
From this segregation came the crowding of black and minority populations into city centers that were ignored and underdeveloped. Housing was limited in these areas, driving the price up for those who could not buy or rent in a cheaper white area due to racism. Black people could not build wealth, even if they became successful business people. They were stuck around low socio-economic status people, meaning their children could not connect with more wealthy individuals and network for future opportunities.
For decades after the Civil War, black people were intentionally denied access to the kinds of assets that allowed many American’s to get started on a path toward wealth generation for themselves and their families for generations to come. Not only were black people not able to purchase homes in good neighborhoods that would appreciate in value, they were denied affordable rent in white neighborhoods, paying more for worse quality housing in redlined areas. They were denied the opportunity to begin building wealth and to pass an inheritance along to their children while paying more for worse housing. When we see the wealth gap that exists between black and white people today, we can look back and see that redlining played a direct role in the creation and maintenance of that gap. Racial disparities that exist today often have deep roots that we cannot see if we don’t look closely to understand how the policies impacted the lives of those who could not build wealth and set their families up for future success.
The Long Lasting Legacy of American Racism

The Long-Lasting Legacy of American Racism

If you are white and don’t make an effort to study the history of racism in the United States it can be hard to imagine just how serious the country’s racist past is. In an age where a black man has been president, where black sports stars have multimillion dollar contracts, and when clear outward displays of racism are (almost) universally condemned, it is easy to believe that racism is a problem of the past. In our country we place a lot of weight on the idea that the individual is responsible for their own success. Whether it is their financial success, their physical shape and weight, or their intelligence, we put the determination and responsibility of the individual at the center of how we understand people, and that doesn’t leave room for racism. We look at successful black people and argue that racism can’t be a problem now, because clearly some black people have become successful. Racism, our current ideology says, can’t be holding people back anymore. The only thing that can be holding them back is a failure to take responsibility for their own actions. Racism is simply an excuse in this view.
However, if you are not white or if you make any effort to study racism in the United States, you see the long lasting legacy of American racism and how it continues to shape the lives of people today. Exclusionary housing policies of the past, policing policies, and education policies are areas where racism deliberately impacted the lived experiences of black people in the United States, clearly limiting opportunity and less clearly limiting the potential to pass on wealth and knowledge to future generations. The results of this discrimination never truly left us.
In his biography of 20th century cartoonist George Herriman, Michael Tisserand explores how the long lasting legacy of American racism can be seen in the life and work of George Herriman. Writing about New Orleans around the Civil War, a time when Herriman’s grandfather and father lived in the city, Tisserand writes, “From 1879 to 1917, there were no city-run public high schools available for blacks. Robert Mills Lusher, the state superintendent of education, infamously declared that the purpose of education was for white students to be properly prepared to maintain the supremacy of the white race.”
Herriman’s family left New Orleans for Los Angeles when he was 10, but throughout his life he hid the fact that he was of black and Creole descent. His light skin color allowed him to pass as white, and opened the door to a career in newspapers and comics. Without having light skin, and without having a family that could move him away from New Orleans, Herriman certainly wouldn’t have had the opportunities he did in California, and racism would have been the limiting factor.
Without studying American racism, it would be easy to look back at a time when there were no city-run public schools for blacks about a hundred years ago and dismiss that fact as irrelevant for the world today. If it had simply been an omission to teach black children, then the situation could have been rectified relatively easy, and black education could have gotten underway to prepare black children for the future. However, the quote shows that benign neglect was not there reason why there were not any schools for black children. It was deliberate racism, in full force from the highest levels of education in the state, that limited the educational opportunities for black people. This malignant attitude created the lack of schools, and it was not simply a matter of establishing schools to facilitate black education.
Opening schools would have been step one, but this would have been done 100 years ago in a climate that was actively hostile toward black students. It is not hard to imagine that high quality materials, resources, and educational opportunities, the things we would all want in our own children’s education, would have been rare among any black schools opened in this type of climate. Once you see the type of animosity that American racism fostered, by influential individuals like Robert Mills Lusher (who there is still a school named after), it is not hard to understand the long lasting legacy of such racism. Deliberate efforts to hold people down and create a system of supremacy for white people is not easily overturned, even 100 years later. The deliberate delays of educating black people has long-term consequences, as it takes time for educational opportunities to come along and for the people who receive good education to grow, accumulate wealth and power, and further invest in their communities. White people had this opportunity starting well over 100 years ago, but black people did not. Black people could not pass on their knowledge, could not connect their children with people to help advance their careers, and could not take on jobs that would help them build wealth that would support their families for generations to come. Instead they were constantly put down, blamed for their own failure, and never give the public support that while people developed for themselves and over time restricted under the premise of conservatism.
The Life and Death Consequences of Epistemic Vices

The Life and Death Consequences of Epistemic Vices

For the last couple of months I have been writing about ideas and thoughts that stood out to me in Quassim Cassam’s book Vices of the Mind. Cassam specifically analyzes epistemic vices, asking why they exist, whether we should be blamed for having them, and what real world consequences arise because of them. To this point, most of my posts have focused on relatively harmless aspects of epistemic vices. I have written about how they limit knowledge and how they can cause us to make suboptimal decisions about investing money, making career choices, or relating to political figures. However, epistemic vices do have life and death consequences, and can be much more vicious than I have written about to this point.
In his book, Cassam uses an example of weapon bias to demonstrate the tragic consequences that can arise from epistemic vices. He describes work from Keith Payne to outline the concept. He writes, “Under the pressure of a split-second decision, the readiness to see a weapon became an actual false claim of seeing a weapon. It was race that shaped people’s mistakes, and Payne found that African American participants were as prone to weapon bias as white participants.” This quote shows that a bias influences the way we perceive the world and directly influences the beliefs we come to hold. It becomes an epistemic vice by inhibiting knowledge and causing us to have inaccurate views of the world. And these biases, these epistemic vices, are endemic to our nation. It is not one group of biased people, but an entire system that promotes and fosters weapon bias based on racism, hindering knowledge for everyone, creating life and death misunderstandings across our country.
Cassam continues. “By causing errors in perception weapon bias gets in the way of perceptual knowledge, and the practical consequences hardly need spelling out. In the US innocent African American men are shot with alarming frequency by policy officers who think they see a gun when no gun is present. If weapon bias is an epistemic vice then here is proof that some epistemic vices are quite literally a matter of life and death.”(It is worth noting that Cassam is at the University of Warwick in the UK).
Failing to see the world clearly can have life and death consequences. In terms of our police, we encourage them to think of themselves as needing to react in a split second when they perceive the threat of a weapon, potentially another vice that should be addressed. Systemic and structural racism biases police toward seeing a harmless item, like a tool or phone, as a gun, forming the base of weapon biases. The end result is a lack of knowledge via false perceptions, and in the United States disproportionate numbers of black men killed in police interactions.
Cassam’s book is a dense and deep dive into epistemic vices, but the life and death consequences of epistemic vices such as weapon bias demonstrate the importance of understanding how our thoughts, actions, and behaviors can obstruct knowledge. It is important that we recognize our own epistemic vices and work to build systems and structures that limit the acquisition of and negative consequences of epistemic vices. Seeing the world more clearly can literally prevent unnecessary death.

What Moves us to Action

Economic decisions drive human decision making more than we like to admit. We are not often driven and motivated by causes that are larger than ourselves, and at the end of the day, we fall back on economic decisions and can’t seem to escape questions about money, about possessions, and about whether we as individuals get more or less from a decision. Michelle Alexander in her book The New Jim Crow looks at how economic decisions are shaping the criminal justice system and finds that concerns about fairness and justice fall short of the impact of economic outcomes when we think about how the system should change. As an American, I want to believe that things such as a concern for individuals and families should drive our considerations of how the criminal justice system operates, but nevertheless, these factors do not seem to be able to influence the system the way that economic arguments are able to. Alexander writes,

“Many of the states that have reconsidered their harsh sentencing schemes have done so not out of concern for the lives and families that have been destroyed by these laws or the racial dimensions of the drug war, but out of concern for bursting state budgets in a time of economic recession. In other words, the racial ideology that gave rise to these laws remains largely undisturbed.”

I think that Alexander’s quote ties in nicely with a lesson from John Biewen’s podcast, Scene on Radio, and his series, Seeing White. Biewen looked at the history of slavery, especially American slavery, and explains the ways in which slavery and racism followed from the desire for economic exploitation. People had the ability and opportunity to subjugate others and to exploit people for economic purposes. From that exploitation followed excuses to rationalize those exploitative behaviors. Racism, in other words, followed from a desire to subjugate other people and to hold them down for economic benefit.

The war on drugs and our system of policing has disproportionately affected communities of color. We have incarcerated black and brown men to a much greater degree than we have arrested white men, but crime and drug use rates between white men and black men are almost identical. Alexander explains that we see changes in the criminal justice system in states where maintaining massive prison populations is becoming economically unsustainable. We are not changing our behavior out of moral principles, but out of economic hardships.

Looking at Alexander’s and Biewen’s work together reveals a common theme. Racial exploitation and subjugation follow economic incentives, and racial parity and justice is only possible in our country today if it is obviously economically beneficial. Our attitudes about others, about fairness, about justice, and about race take a back seat to our attitudes about our personal economic situation, allowing us to maintain mass incarceration systems today, and allowing our nation’s founders to exploit slaves two hundred years ago.