Monday, March 31, 2008

Racism: It's Not All In Your Head


Here's part of an interesting piece in the New York Times describing research on the relationship between racial/ethnic diversity and public policy:

"The Harvard economists Alberto Alesina and Edward Glaeser correlated public spending in Western Europe and the United States with diversity and concluded that half the social-spending gap was due to the United States’ more varied racial and ethnic mix. The other half was mostly due to the existence of stronger left-wing parties in Europe.

Americans are not less generous than Europeans. When private charities are included, they probably spend more money for social purposes than Europeans do. But philanthropy allows them to target spending on those they personally believe are deserving, instead of allowing the government to choose.

Mr. Glaeser’s and Mr. Alesina’s work suggests that white Europeans support a big welfare state because they believe the money will probably go to other white Europeans. In America, the Harvard economist Erzo F. P. Luttmer found that support for social spending among respondents to General Social Survey polls increased in tandem with the share of welfare recipients in the area who were in their own racial group. A study of charity by Daniel Hungerman, a Notre Dame economist, found that all-white congregations become less charitably active as the share of black residents in the local community grows.

This breakdown of solidarity should be unacceptable in a country that is, after all, mainly a nation of immigrants, glued together by a common project and many shared values. The United States has showed an unparalleled capacity to pull together in challenging times. Americans have invested blood and treasure to serve a broad national purpose and to rescue and protect their allies across the Atlantic.

Still, racial and ethnic antagonism all too frequently limit generosity at home. In one study, Mr. Alesina, with Reza Baqir of the International Monetary Fund and William Easterly of New York University, found that the share of municipal spending in the United States devoted to social good — roads, sewage, education and trash clearance — was smaller in more racially diverse cities." Read the whole piece here.

I've been thinking for awhile about a troubling tendency in post-civil rights movement America regarding the way that many people talk about race. I mentioned it in my last post (before the one about my wife and I expecting a child) when I talked about how the measure of racism is not based on intentions but on the outcomes. This piece is really nice because it acknowledges the psychology that can underlie racial/ethnic inequality without psychologizing racism. When I refer to psychologizing racism, I mean the effort by individuals, groups, and institutions in our society to portray contemporary racism as primarly a problem of individual minds rather than a social problem. In brief, racism reflects the faulty thinking or bad feelings of individuals and not fundamental flaws in the social order itself. Thus for some people who psychologize racism, because large numbers of white Americans do not think or feel in racist ways then racism itself is no longer a problem. For others, white Americans (but others as well) do think and feel in racist ways and if you change their thinking and feeling, then racism will go away. People with this view spend tremendous time and resources attempting to educate (i.e., diversity training) or socialize (i.e., multi-cultural events) people out of their racism. Not surprisingly, neither of these forms of psychologizing racism have much impact on actual racial/ethnic inequality in our society. This is because psychologizing racism represents a misunderstanding, a misdiagnosis of the problem. The problem is not simply how people think or feel, the problem is the distribution of power as reflected in the social order. While our thoughts and feelings influence this distribution of power, the distribution of power often determines the contexts in which our thoughts and feelings are formed and how they can and cannot be expressed in behavior. Ultimately whether or not someone believes intellectually that I'm actually a human being or feels warm and fuzzy when I'm around is of little use if I have less power to determine my quality of life and that of people I love than they do. Until power is distributed in a more equitable and just way in our society, racism will continue to exist and the business of creating a truly United States will remain unfinished.

"Please God, the peoples of the world may be led, as the result of the high endeavors exerted by their rulers and the wise and learned amongst men, to recognize their best interests. How long will humanity persist in its waywardness? How long will injustice continue? How long is chaos and confusion to reign amongst men? How long will discord agitate the face of society?... The winds of despair are, alas, blowing from every direction, and the strife that divideth and afflicteth the human race is daily increasing. The signs of impending convulsions and chaos can now be discerned, inasmuch as the prevailing order appeareth to be lamentably defective. I beseech God, exalted be His glory, that He may graciously awaken the peoples of the earth, may grant that the end of their conduct may be profitable unto them, and aid them to accomplish that which beseemeth their station."
(Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 216)