Structural Racism and Individual Choice

A story this week in the New York Times about the Minneapolis school district raised some interesting questions about racism, liberalism, and individualism.  The story explains how Minneapolis school officials “assigned families to new school zones, redrawing boundaries to take socioeconomic diversity — and as a consequence, racial diversity — into account.”  This is in response to legitimate concerns that Minneapolis, described in the story as “among the most segregated school districts in the country,” has tangible gaps in academic performance by race.  “Research shows that de facto school segregation is one major reason that America’s education system is so unequal, and that racially and socioeconomically diverse schools can benefit all students.” 

The article elaborates on the problem: “Research has shown that integration can deliver benefits for all children.  For example, Black children exposed to desegregation after Brown v. Board of Education experienced higher educational achievement, higher annual earnings as adults, a lower likelihood of incarceration and better health outcomes, according to longitudinal work by the economist Rucker Johnson of the University of California, Berkeley. The gains came at no cost to the educational achievement of white students.  Other research has documented how racially and economically diverse schools can benefit all students, including white children, by reducing biases and promoting skills like critical thinking.  Racially segregated schools, on the other hand, are associated with larger gaps in student performance, because they tend to concentrate students of color in high poverty environments, according to a recent paper analyzing all public school districts.”

So the plan is to increase integration, not necessarily by bussing black students to predominantly white schools, but by bussing white students to predominantly black schools.  Predictably, not every family is enthusiastic about this.  But what I found interesting about the story is that it highlights the ways in which a structure can have outcomes that are racist even if individual actors within that structure aren’t racists.   Many people bristle at the terms “structural racism” or “institutional racism” because they take them to imply that individual actors are racists.  People who use these terms typically don’t mean to imply this (though some do), but this distinction can get lost in the shuffle.  One specific anecdote in the article is helpful here.

Heather Wulfsberg, of Minnetonka, had her daughter reassigned to North High School.  She appealed this decision, but let’s see why.  Wulfsberg, “who is white, had intended to send her daughter, Isabella, 14, to Southwest High, a racially diverse but majority white public school that is a 10-minute bus ride from their home.  The school offers an international baccalaureate program, as well as Japanese, which Isabella studied in middle school. Isabella’s older brother, 18, is a senior there, and Ms. Wulfsberg envisioned her children attending together, her son helping Isabella navigate freshman year. So Ms. Wulfsberg appealed the reassignment to North, citing her son’s attendance at Southwest, and her daughter’s interest in Japanese. (North offers one language, Spanish.)  She was also concerned about transportation. There was no direct bus, and Isabella’s commute could take up to 55 minutes. She would also have to walk from the bus stop to school through an area where frequent gun shots are a problem.”

If Wulfsberg had said something like “I can’t bear the thought of my daughter going to a majority-black school,” it would be clear these are unsupportable reasons.  But the preceding paragraph gives all perfectly legitimate reasons.  Isabella can’t continue learning her language.  She would spend 2 hours a day on the bus.  Is it reasonable to force Heather to do that to Isabella?  I don’t see that it is.  And Heather didn’t either, so Isabella is going to private school.  On the community Facebook page, Heather was called a racist.  ““They were like, ‘Your cover is, you want academics for your kids, and underneath this all, you really are racist,’” she recalled. “It’s a very scary feeling to do a self-examination of yourself and think, ‘Am I?’”  She paused, reflecting. “But I don’t believe I am. I really don’t.””

I have no idea whether she is or not, but she certainly can’t be called a racist for the reasons given here.  So in this case, the parents in the community Facebook group were in fact using something about structural racism as a personal accusation, precisely what the coining of the term was meant to avoid.

It’s possible of course that both (a) the evolution of American public schooling has been heavily influenced by racism and yields outcomes that are demonstrably unequal and (b) parents like Heather aren’t motivated by racism at all.  But then we’re stuck with a conundrum: what’s the fix for (a)?  If the answer is “Isabella’s good must be sacrificed for the greater good of helping ameliorate racial inequality in schools,” you’re certainly in for rough time getting Heather to agree.  Another approach might be systemic: since the outcome problems are systemic, it wouldn’t be crazy to think the solution would be systemic as well.  The anarchist response “don’t have public schools at all” is probably correct, but politically unfeasible.  But even if we have public schools, there’s no reason they have to be structured the way they are.  One reason for the disparity in schools is that in most districts, local property taxes pay for the schools, so wealthier suburbs have better schools than poorer areas (this affects poor white areas too of course).  So maybe don’t tie school funding to local property taxes.  Or maybe don’t have school districts be drawn like Checkpoint Charlie.   Any rigidly drawn district would have some families living at its fringes – why prohibit those kids from attending school in the next district?  The classic pro-choice argument is: figure out what the state government spends per pupil, and then give that money to the families to spend on whichever school they think is best, public or private.  This would eliminate geography-based funding discrepancies.   We address the problem of people not being able to afford food not by having state-run farms and grocery stores, but by giving people money for food.  Why not give them money for school?

The World is Not a Therapy Session

Braver Angels does fantastic work helping people improve conversations with those they have significant and stress-inducing disagreements with so that they can gain greater mutual understanding of each other, thereby reducing polarization. It seems to work. As I noted earlier, though, the desire to maintain or improve one’s relationships with others is only one of the two main reasons we engage in discourse. The other is to exchange information, both “teaching” and “learning.” As I noted in that previous post, I worry about the “truth deficit” likely to emerge if we stress mutual understanding (of each other rather than of each other’s views). Here, I’ll discuss this a bit further.

What is encouraged in Braver Angels’ workshops is active listening, where one attends to what the other says, providing non-verbal clues of interest, along with reflecting back to the other what they said. In a therapeutic setting, reflecting back to another what they said can be incredibly useful. “People like having their thoughts and feelings reflected back to them” (Tania Israel, page 51) and so increases their comfort level when in therapy, thereby allowing them to open up. For therapeutic purposes, it seems really quite useful. Nonetheless, I have long been uncomfortable with it in other settings.

I had a date once with a woman who, throughout dinner, reflected back to me what I had said. It so threw me off that I didn’t really know what to make of it. I don’t recall how long it took for me to realize that she might have resorted to the tactic because she found what I was saying antithetical to her own views (I don’t recall what we were discussing). I’ll never know for sure as I found it so distasteful that I never saw her again. If the same thing would’ve happened today, I’d probably ask why she was doing it, but I suspect there are others who would do as I did and walk away. (I don’t deny, of course, that others appreciate it.)

Again, the technique has value—there is good evidence that it helps people feel comfortable which can be useful both in developing relationships and in therapy situations (see Israel footnotes 5 and 6 on page 74). Importantly, though, the world is not a therapy session and sometimes what matters is exchanging information, not (or not merely) developing a relationship. Put another way, while it’s true that we sometimes want to develop a relationship and learn about the person, other times we want to figure out the truth about a topic and are less willing to except the truth deficit. If we are trying to persuade someone to change their views about abortion, capitalism, gun control, immigration, schools, welfare rights, or any number of other contentious topics, we might want to know more about our interlocutor, but we also just want to persuade—or be persuaded. (Part of why we want to know who they are is to determine how we might persuade them!)

To be clear, when we are engaging in a serious discussion with someone about an issue we disagree about, we should be open to the possibility that the view we start the conversation with is mistaken and that we can thus learn from our interlocutor. Of course, when we start, we will believe we are right and hope to teach (persuade) the other, but we have to know we can be wrong. We should also be open to the possibility that neither of us is right and there is some third position (perhaps somewhere between our view and theirs, perhaps not) that is better still. What is important in these cases, though, is figuring out the truth about the issue (or getting closer to it). We shouldn’t give that up lightly.

Getting to the truth may, in some instances, be aided by reflecting to each other what we’ve said. Obviously, if we do not understand what our interlocutor has said we should ask them to explain. Sometimes we simply need some clarification. We need to know, after all, that we are actually talking about the same thing and we need to understand where our views overlap and where they do not. Sometimes, also, we might ask someone to repeat what they say in different words to make sure we understand; we might also do it for them (common in teaching). But if reflecting back to each other is used for other reasons (making the other feel comfortable, for example), I wonder how far it goes. It seems to me that we need to challenge each other. Sometimes, we may even need to be abrasive—or to have others be abrasive toward us. This can help us improve our own views. (For more on that see Emily Chamlee-Wright’s article on the topic here, as well as my response. See also Hrishikesh Joshi’s Why Its OK to Speak Your Mind.)

In short, it seems to me that in normal discourse with someone with whom we disagree, we ought to be at least as concerned with determining the best view as we are with making each other comfortable. Making each other comfortable is important, but perhaps primarily as a precursor to honest conversation. If I say, for example, that “I believe we should have completely open economic borders, perhaps just keeping out known criminals” and you reply “let me be sure I understand; you think we should not stop anyone from coming into the country (perhaps unless they are criminals in their own country) even if it means they take our jobs, push for an end to Judeo-Christianity, and bring in drugs,” I am likely to skip over the first part—which strikes me as unnecessary and vaguely insulting—and move on to the latter claims, which I think are all mistakes. I might think “OK, so they wanted to be clear” or “OK, they wanted time to gather their thoughts,” but if it becomes a regular part of the conversation, I am less likely to continue engaging (and, frankly, less likely to trust the other). I may even wonder why why people approach all of life as if it’s a therapy session.

Three News Items to Rally Around

Since I spend a good bit of my time thinking about polarization and ways to combat it, I thought I would bring attention to three recent news items that should help reduce polarization but seem to mostly go unnoticed.

First, there is this from WaPo 10/24/2021, about a police chief in a town in Georgia, seeking to have police officers shoot to incapacitate rather than to kill (so, shooting in the legs or abdomen, for example, instead of the chest).  Of course, it would be best if no one had to be shot at all, but those that (rightly) complain about police violence should be embracing this as an improvement as it would presumably mean fewer killings by police.  And those who worry endlessly about “law and order” would seem to have to choose between that and saying “yeah, we don’t mind it if the police kill people.”  Since the latter would likely be seen as including some nefarious beliefs, it’s hard to imagine why they, too, wouldn’t embrace it.

Second, from NYT 11/3/2021, is a short about a Swiss company literally taking CO2 out of the air and making soda with it. Why everyone isn’t talking about this ecstatically is beyond me. I know folks on the (pretty far) left who worry endlessly about global warming and claim we have to stop this and stop that to at least slow it down before we all die. I know folks on the (pretty far) right who claim, more or less, that global warming is fake news. Either way, this should be good news. If global warming is fake, then this sort of technological advancement may be uninteresting in the long run—but those on the right should be happy to say “OK, we know you’re worried, why don’t you invest in this to help?” If its not fake news (fwiw, it’s not), this may be the way to save us and the planet. Those on the left (assuming they don’t want simply to be victims and keep fighting about “green new deal” sort of regulations) should be embracing the possibilities, declaring “yes, we need more of this as a good way forward without killing the economy and making everyone worse off.”

Finally, from Axios 11/5/2021, is a story on the jobs report.  In a nutshell, “America has now recovered 80% of the jobs lost at the depth of the recession in 2020. … Wages are still rising: Average hourly earnings rose another 11 cents an hour in October, to $30.96. That’s enough to keep up with inflation.”  I know that some question the specific numbers.  That’s no surprise.  What is surprising (even given how bad Dems usually are on messaging) is that Biden and the Dems haven’t been touting this at every chance.  It should please Reps a well except that it may make some swing voters less likely to go to their side.  

The above three stories are pretty clearly good news for everyone.   The third is perhaps better for Dems than Reps, but somehow they haven’t decided to hype it up or use it as a way to convince moderate legislators or voters to help them.  The first and second are good for everyone.  Yet it doesn’t seem like many are talking about any of the three.  It’s almost as if both sides of our political divide want to remain divided.  And to alienate those of us who refuse to take either side.  Or perhaps they want to clearly demonstrate that neither side should be taken seriously and it’s high time for a party to emerge in the middle. 

The “middle” here might be interesting.  What party consistently opposes state coercion and force against civilians?  What party consistently opposes the state looking the other way when negative externalities become worse and worse?  What party consistently favors policies that grow the economy so that all will do better?  There is such a party, even if it has its own problems.