Racism, Partyism, and the Outgroup

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This is one of the best posts I’ve ever read on the topic of social psychology, in-group / out-group bias, and political polarization: I Can Tolerate Anything Except the Outgroup. It is long, but well worth the read. The central thesis is that the out-group doesn’t often look like what we think it does, starting with the central example of racist Nazis who were more willing to collaborate with extremely foreign cultures like Chinese and Japanese than with much more similar cultures like German Jews. As the author writes:

So what makes an outgroup? Proximity plus small differences. If you want to know who someone in former Yugoslavia hates, don’t look at the Indonesians or the Zulus or the Tibetans or anyone else distant and exotic. Find the Yugoslavian ethnicity that lives closely intermingled with them and is most conspicuously similar to them, and chances are you’ll find the one who they have eight hundred years of seething hatred toward.

That’s pretty interesting, but what really blew my mind were the following observations / revelations:

1. Tribalism > Racism

You’ve probably heard of the Implicit Association Test, which is a way to experimentally detect racist attitudes. The IAT is famous for demonstrating racism even in people who think they have no racist attitudes. What I had never heard before, however, was that a tweaked version of the IAT was used to compare racist attitudes to “partyist” attitudes:

Anyway, three months ago, someone finally had the bright idea of doing an Implicit Association Test with political parties, and they found that people’s unconscious partisan biases were half again as strong as their unconscious racial biases (h/t Bloomberg. For example, if you are a white Democrat, your unconscious bias against blacks (as measured by something called a d-score) is 0.16, but your unconscious bias against Republicans will be 0.23. The Cohen’s d for racial bias was 0.61, by the book a “moderate” effect size; for party it was 0.95, a “large” effect size.

Subsequent research confirmed that “partyism” is stronger than racism and that it exists “in the wild” and not just in laboratory experiments. I had no idea.1 I changed the name from “partyism” to “tribalism” for reasons that will be explained in the next section…

2. “White” and “American” are code for “Red Tribe”

Building on that observation, the author argues that the real divide in this country is not along racial or cultural lines. It’s between a Red Tribe (conservative) and a Blue Tribe (liberal):

Every election cycle like clockwork, conservatives accuse liberals of not being sufficiently pro-America. And every election cycle like clockwork, liberals give extremely unconvincing denials of this… My hunch [is that] both the Red Tribe and the Blue Tribe, for whatever reason, identify “America” with the Red Tribe. Ask people for typically “American” things, and you end up with a very Red list of characteristics – guns, religion, barbecues, American football, NASCAR, cowboys, SUVs, unrestrained capitalism. That means the Red Tribe feels intensely patriotic about “their” country, and the Blue Tribe feels like they’re living in fortified enclaves deep in hostile territory.

He then points to the litany of anti-white articles that came out during the Ferguson controversy and observes that these anti-white articles were almost universally authored by… white males:

White People Are Ruining America? White. White People Are Still A Disgrace? White. White Guys: We Suck And We’re Sorry? White. Bye Bye, Whiny White Dudes? White. Dear Entitled Straight White Dudes, I’m Evicting You From My Life? White. White Dudes Need To Stop Whitesplaining? White. Reasons Why Americans Suck #1: White People? White.

He argues that actually criticizing your own in-group is very, very difficult to do. Whenever someone appears to be castigating their own in-group with glee and relish, chances are very good that they aren’t actually attacking their own in-group after all. Given the fact that we already know that partyism (Red Tribe vs. Blue Tribe) is stronger than racism (black vs. white) and the reasonable evidence that “America” often means “Red Tribe,” it’s not much of a stretch at all to assume that these uses of the term “white” also mean “Red Tribe.”

Taken together, these two observations amount to a subtle but profound shift in how we look at political polarization and racial and cultural division in the United States. And, although I’ve hit the highlights, I really do think you should read the whole thing.