Thursday, July 30, 2009

Racism is the New Witchcraft

You would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by this. [Later: the video has been removed, but you can get the facts here.]

I wonder if Prof. Gates finds this a teachable moment. He might learn that, just as angrily hurling racial epithets is hurtful, so angrily hurling accusations of racism is hurtful. Among the many consequences of his intemperate response to her 911 call about an apparent break-in his home, he has caused actual suffering on the part of Lucia Whelan, apparently a completely inoffensive person.

In our culture, the charge of racism is like the charge of witchcraft during the Middle Ages. It alleges an offense so terrible that, unlike battery, fraud, homicide and countless other offenses, it cannot possibly be justified. Almost every other offense comes with conditions (eg., self-defense) that can show it was the right thing to do. But not this one. Racism can no more be justified than being in league with Satan can be justified.

The offense itself is so evil that a mere accusation, even before evidence is brought forth, is damaging in itself, as you can see in this video.

Academics in the race industry have been preaching for years about "words that wound." Maybe they should listen to their own sermons.

I hope it goes without saying that I am not taking back my earlier claim that he should not have been arrested. That is a separate issue. Nor do I blame Gates one bit for immediately suspecting he was being profiled. It is in fact the first thing that came into my head when I saw the first news reports about his arrest. That too is a separate issue. This one is about the ethics of speech.


Andrew Schwartz said...

I'm afraid what strikes me most watching this video, is Whalen defending herself by saying, in effect, "I never said they were black."

The implication is that if she had observed they were black, and communicated that on the 911 call, that would make her a racist - which is absurd.

And yet, this belief is clearly widespread in at least certain strains of our culture, and seems to be part of Whalen's psychology -- and I can't help but think that it is partially why the accusations were so devastatingly hurtful to her. If the simple act of perception and honest communication can indicate that you are evil and a racist, then your belief in your own goodness is bound to be fragile.

That's not to dispute any of your points - I agree with them all. Just adding an observation and an additional perspective.

Lester Hunt said...

"The implication is that if she had observed they were black, and communicated that on the 911 call, that would make her a racist - which is absurd."

Yes indeed, but that is the argument she is trying to defend herself against, not the one she is making herself. You can deny a premise in an argument without thereby admitting that the conclusion would follow from it.

Naturally, police descriptions routinely mention race because this helps in identification. Nothing wrong with that.

Ann said...

Profiling presents a bit of a dilemma. I make all sorts of generalizations about people and situations, based on my past experiences with them, and this can include observable traits that are cultural and ethnic. I assume others make such generalizations about me all the time, too. Sometimes one can certainly be surprised and not have the expectations met (in good, bad and simply neutral ways). I guess with respect to law enforcement, though, probabilities for group behavior should not bear on the treatment of an individual - our law is about the protection of individual liberties. I think this is a good thing.

I once worked on a data mining project for the Treasury, trying to identify obscure, but statistically meaningful, patterns in financial databases that could help the 'feds' spot large-scale money laundering operations. One highly significant correlation in the data was between certain high-volume financial 'event trails' and last names ending in 'o' or 'a' of the 'customers' who executed these sets of transactions. Such correlations could not be used by treasury agents in any way to build their cases against various individuals, and I agree with that. It certainly would have been using a type of ethnic profiling (hispanic last names), even though the correlation was identified by various clustering algorithms that I doubt anyone would call racist.

Lester Hunt said...


As usual, you comment is thoughtful and most interesting.

As you say, profiling is a complex issue. I have never worked out exactly what I should think about it. At the moment, I am inclined to take this as a general rule of thumb: Profiling is only wrong when there is some other reason why it is unfair or unjust. The mere fact that it is profiling is not enough.

On the other hand, it often is unfair or unjust. For instance, back in the hippie days, my younger brother was often stopped by traffic cops who then searched his car. Obviously, his age group and appearance put him in the group of those most likely to have drugs in his car. This was wrong, not because they were discriminating against young people who look like hippies (it would have been even more morally evil to do this to everyone), but because they were coercively interfering with someone without good enough reason.

Ann said...

Lester, you got me thinking about another perhaps related issue. When there is something 'helpful' for a group it's not usually called 'profiling', e.g., when a local store of a national grocery chain caters to the food preferences of ethnic groups that shop there frequently. This is viewed as being responsive to the customer, anticipating their desires and perhaps behaviors. But when it comes to possibly meting out punitive measures based on social patterns, it is viewed quite differently. I guess in the first case individual choice is still at the center, a customer is free to choose or not, no one is being coerced by an authority, as in the second case.

Lester Hunt said...

That's right, it's never called profiling if it's something you want done. I had not noticed that before.

One thing that shows, I suspect, is that the sort of thinking going on here is not an application of principles of "distributive justice," which are based on the idea that people should get what they deserve. Those principles govern the distribution of "helpful" things (a grade of A on the exam) as well as "hurtful" things (a grade of F on the exam).

Maybe what's going on here is something more like "procedural justice" -- the sort of principles that are involved, say, in "due process" rights in a criminal trial. If we are deciding whether to punish someone, we have to decide it using the proper methods, using a fair procedure.

Thinking out loud here, obviously.

Andrew Schwartz said...

I'm a little late with this, but...

"You can deny a premise in an argument without thereby admitting that the conclusion would follow from it."

Yes, I know. It just looked to me like she was accepting some of her accusers' logic. Perhaps I misperceived her. Fact is, I lived in Cambridge myself many years ago, and found the racial guilt-promotion there hurtful. So I'm sure that affected how I saw the video, and how I responded.