From Terrorism to White Privilege

I start a lot of posts about discrimination that I don’t finish. I care deeply about the issue, but I also get frustrated because I feel like my take on the issue is sufficiently off the beaten path that it won’t have any impact.

But of course when I write it out like that I feel silly. Do I really think anything I write is going to have a material impact on a national debate? Nope. (That’s actually the topic for another post: why I bother writing at all given the futility of the whole thing). So, having sufficiently lowered the bar for myself, I may as well start with Tim Wise’s comments on the the Boston Marathon bombers and white privilege.

It was clear from very on that both the American Left and American Right were semi-privately hoping that the attacker would come with the “right” pedigree. The American Right was deeply afraid that this would be another Timothy McVeigh, further solidifying the impression of the Right as the violent wing of American politics. Meanwhile, the American Left just as clearly hoped that white guys were to blame:

Yeah, I was hoping for a white guy, because I know the way that American is reactionary, and has proven so in the past. The way that they go after [minorities]. You know, after 9/11 they were killing Sikh Indians in gas stations in Texas, or a Sikh Indian. And it was very difficult, the profiling that happened after that. So, yeah, I think it keeps the flames down.

The quote above (from Current TV host Michael Shure) actually makes sense: if you’re worried about collateral damage from the response to the bombing, then that damage will much likely be greater if the attacker is a minority rather than a white American. Of course, the first hurdle is that we’re worrying about collateral damage from a potential future response before we’ve even laid the first victims to rest. 

2013-04-21 Tim WiseIn any case, Shure’s point is basically the same that Tim Wise made at greater length, who, writing about the Boston Marathon bombing, saw “a lesson about race, about whiteness, and specifically, about white privilege.” The problem with Wise’s analyis in this as in virtually all cases can be summarized by a variant of Hanlon’s Razor. The original Hanlon’s Razor states simply: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. I would change this slightly to something like: Never attribute to racism what can be adequately explained without it.

Wise’s first statement is this:

White privilege is knowing that even if the Boston Marathon bomber turns out to be white, his or her identity will not result in persons like yourself being singled out for suspicion by law enforcement, or the TSA, or the FBI.

Is the statement true? If the bomber is white does that mean that white people won’t be singled out for suspicion? Yeah, I think that’s fairly accurate. But does that mean that there’s “white privilege” at work? No, I don’t think so. The first reason for this is common sense: there are about 300,000,000 Americans and about 78% of them are white. So that would mean using “white” as a screen is highly ineffective: we’ve still got 234,000,000 to look at. I couldn’t find estimates in 10 seconds of Googling for how many Saudis are currently residing in America, but since the number of Saudis residing in Saudi Arabia is less than 30,000,000 (10% of the US population), I think you can rest assured that if we decided to look for Saudis instead of whites we’d be talking about a much, much tinier demographic.

So let’s think about how security works for a moment. The idea is that screening people is the way to either detect or deter attackers, but it’s also expensive. You can’t screen everyone. So what determines whether or not you put a specific screen in place is the cost of the screen vs. the effectiveness of the screen. Let’s assume for a moment that white privilege isn’t the explanation. Let’s say that if a white American blows something up, we suspect white people. But we’d have to screen over 200 million of them. And if a Saudi blows someone up (most of the 9/11 hijckers were Saudis) we suspect Saudis, and we’ve only got a couple million of them. So screening the Saudis would cost  roughly 99% less than screening the whites. Who’s more likely to get screened? Does race enter into that at all?

No, it doesn’t, and the easiest way to see that is to just reverse the races and see if the logic holds. If someone blows something up in Saudi Arabia, we’ve got basically the same situation in reverse. If the bomber is a native Saudi, that’s not really actionable, bu if it turns out that the bomber is a white American, that’s much, much more useful information. I would fully expect that if some Glenn Beck listener flew to Riyadh and blew himself up, that the Saudi security forces would start screening white Americans a little more closely. Don’t you think?

So if the same logic can be applied in different circumstances to get exactly opposite racial impacts, then this proves that the evidence of a racially biased policy is not sufficient to prove that it was racially motivated. You can start with a race-neutral policy and end up with a racially biased policy.

This logic will be very familiar to informed folks on the American Left, because it is addressed directly in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. That section, dealing with employment discrimination, acknowledged a distinction between “disparate treatment” and “disparate impact“. Disparate treatment meant that you had race-based rules for hiring. Disparate impact meant that you had race-neutral rules for hiring, but that they had a systematically biased impact. Here’s how this plays out: if a company has a race-neutral policy that results in an adverse impact for a certain race, then the burden of proof rests on them. They have to prove that the rule resulting in the adverse impact was actually necessary for the business.

This is good law: if your policy is going to impact different races in different ways there is immediately a suspicion of racist intent and, even if there is no racist intent, that kind of racially biased impact is intrinsically bad. But the test implies one very big assumptions. It specifically admits that some  policies that will have racially disparate impacts are legal. You don’t create criteria for evaluation if you already know the answer. Now of course, this is all based on employment law, but I’m appealing to the moral intuition to apply it more broadly. If we just used whatever criteria was statistically valid for security screening, and sometimes this included race, that could be textbook example of adverse impact that is legal and moral.

And yet, ironically, race-based security screening is actually illegal. So Wise’s indignation rings more than a little hollow: he’s not only angry about a policy that is at least plausibly justified and reasonable but which also doesn’t exist.

A lot of Wise’s additional points suffer from the same basic criticism. He points out that we wouldn’t bomb Dublin if the terrorist were from the IRA or the Vatican if the terrorist was an Italian Catholic. The implication is that this because we will kill minorities at the drop of a hat, but treat white Christians as fully human. It’s an ugly, vicious accusation that completely fails basic analysis. We wouldn’t bomb Dublin because it is subject to the rule of law (and so we have other recourse) and because it belongs to a close ally (and so we have very strong commitments not to do so) and because it belongs to a very powerful country (and so the costs would be very high). The same applies to the Vatican. But Afghanistan? Iraq? Could we rely on those governments to police their own citizens on our behalf? Were they close allies? Were they powerful countries? None of this, alone, justifies the attack. But it makes it quite obvious that jumping to the conclusion that race was the motivating factor is a baseless accusation. When the accusation comes from someone who has spent literally their entire career on “race relations”, suspicion should be ranked up a couple of notches. Whenever the sales guy tells you that the problem is the thing for which he is selling the solution…

(Let me just take a moment here to also say that–as long as we’re assigning value to the ethnicity of the actual Boston Marathon bomber–I couldn’t have asked for something better than a Caucasian Muslim. It’s high time something took wind out of the sails of both the Left and Right.)

But Wise’s strongest points aren’t about what we do. They are about what we think. For example:


White privilege is knowing that if the bomber turns out to be white, he or she will be viewed as an exception to an otherwise non-white rule, an aberration, an anomaly, and that he or she will be able to join the ranks of Tim McVeigh and Terry Nichols and Ted Kaczynski and Eric Rudolph and Joe Stack and George Metesky and Byron De La Beckwith and Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas Blanton and Herman Frank Cash and Robert Chambliss and James von Brunn and Robert Mathews and David_Lane and Michael F. Griffin and Paul Hill and John Salvi and James Kopp and Luke Helder and James David Adkisson and Scott Roeder and Shelley Shannon and Wade Michael Page and Byron Williams and Kevin Harpham and William Krar and Judith Bruey and Edward Feltus and Raymond Kirk Dillard and Adam Lynn Cunningham and Bonnell Hughes and Randall Garrett Cole and James Ray McElroy and Michael Gorbey and Daniel Cowart and Paul Schlesselman and Frederick Thomas and Paul Ross Evans and Matt Goldsby and Jimmy Simmons and Kathy Simmons and Kaye Wiggins and Patricia Hughes and Jeremy Dunahoe and David McMenemy and Bobby Joe Rogers and Francis Grady and Demetrius Van Crocker and Floyd Raymond Looker, among the pantheon of white people who engage in politically motivated violence meant to terrorize and kill, but whose actions result in the assumption of absolutely nothing about white people generally, or white Christians in particular.

Initially this seems like a much, much stronger argument, but it suffers from some of the same problems. One way to explain it is with what is called Bayesian updating. The idea is that if you only have a little bit of knowledge, then new information can have a huge impact. But if you already have a lot of knowledge, than the same new information has a much smaller impact. In this case, when a person living in a country that is 80% white learns about a white serial killer or terrorist they don’t update their assessment of white people very much because they already know so many white people. But when a person living in a country that is 80% white learns about someone from a strange location and a strange religion and a strange ethnicity, then if that person is a terrorist it will have a much, much bigger impact on their assessment of those kinds of people.

Is this right? No, it absolutely is not right. But it has nothing to do with being white. Let’s look at an example to illustrate that. Imagine being a Norwegian reacting to the deadliest mass shooting in the world (which took place in Norway in 2011) vs. reacting to news about the Sandyhook shooting in the US. Which do you think will have a bigger impact: the Norwegian killer on your image of fellow Norwegians, or the American killer on your image of  those crazy, gun-toting Americans? The less familiar we are, the more new information changes our impressions. That’s a universal law of human nature, not a peculiar proclivity of elite white Americans.

I want to point out that I’m not denying the reality of the world Wise describes. His observations are basically true. What isn’t true is that whiteness is the cause of those observations. If the bomber is white, we won’t change our opinion of white people very much. But that argument is just a consequence of this one: if the bomber is like people we are familiar with, then we won’t change our opinion of those people very much. It would apply to white people in the US or black people in Ghana or Asian people in China. (Although, of course, to Asians the distinctions between Chinese, Korean, Japanese, etc. are a big deal in and of themselves.)

So look, here’s the conclusion: I wish people like Tim Wise would be more honest. I wish they would say something like this:

Being a minority is hard. It doesn’t matter what kind of minority you are, and it doesn’t matter what kind of majority you’re living with. Human nature means that we tend to like people who are similar to us. Human nature means that we tend to treat new information about unfamiliar things as much more important and relevant than it really is. This kind of callous behavior from a majority is not the failing of any particular religion, race, or ethnicity: it’s just human nature. In the battle to treat each other with dignity and respect, the villains is human nature.

This means that people in a majority need to work hard to combat their irrational cognitive shortcuts and evolved tribal tendencies. If we want to live in a better world, people from the majority need to be willing to spend some of their lucky advantage on getting to know people from minorities, and perhaps by making policy sacrifices that trade off some amount of short-run efficiency for long-run harmony.

And this means that people in a minority need to resist the natural tendency towards bitterness and realize that not every bad experience is related to discrimination. Life is weird, chaotic, and not fair. Individual variation is always more important than group variation. Furthermore, people who are often in a minority should realize that the terms minority/majority are context-dependent, and that you will sometimes in your life be in the position of majority and then ought to act then the way you want the majority to act most of the time.

Finally–from both the majority and the minority–patience is key. Fundamentally we are human beings first. Fundamentally we are the same. It will take a long time to convince our animal human natures of this fact, but it’s a journey worth taking and a journey that will be better and faster if we can exercise patience and forgiveness along the way.

That’s what I’d like to hear. Wise makes valid points, but I’m afraid that he is warped by his politics and by his personal interest to explain everything in terms of a racial animus that largely doesn’t exist anymore. This misdiagnosis leads to bitterness, resentment, and suspicion. I don’t want to shout him down or shut him up, but I would like for the dialogue on race relations to actually have more than one side, and for it to recognize that while problems abound we are not living in the 1960s anymore.

1 thought on “From Terrorism to White Privilege”

  1. My wife was shown a lecture by Tim Wise on “white privilege” in one of her sociology classes a couple years ago. He used the classic example of whites being approved for more loans than blacks. I asked her if Asian Americans were ever mentioned. The answer was of course ‘no’ since Asian Americans were approved more than whites.

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