Thursday, November 5, 2015

If culture matters, then race matters

It does no good to endorse a colorblind life on the grounds that culture, rather than race, is to be the key factor in evaluating an individual. For better or for worse, culture and race overlap in ways which make race a prime indicator of culture. It may not be a failure-proof method of determining culture, but then skin color isn't a failure proof indicator for determining race.

9 comments:

Syllabus said...

It does no good to endorse a colorblind life on the grounds that culture, rather than race, is to be the key factor in evaluating an individual.

If that was directed at me (which just is a guess; feel free to correct me if I'm mistaken), then I would agree. Mainly because I think making a deliberative judgment about individuals on the basis of traits which are statistically common amongst the group that the individual in question belongs to is, all else being equal, a moral error. So no, I don't think culture is the key factor in evaluating an individual.

Now, there are prudential, quick-and-dirty, and largely object-level reasons for making those sorts of judgments. For example, I live in Baltimore; if I'm walking down by Penn Station in the evening, and I see a bunch of black guys in hoodies walking down the street towards me, then I'm going to cross the street. But that's not a definite or considered judgment of character; it's a decision made, on what you know is not exhaustive evidence, but is the best evidence I have available. And -- and this is an interesting case -- I will do the same (and have done the same in other contexts) should I see white guys, east Asian guys, what have you, in that get-up. It's not determinative of "yeah, you're going to try and jump me", but it does ratchet it up.

Try the following thought experiment: there's a black guy in a mechanic's jumpsuit on one side of the street -- or in clothing that marks him clearly as a homeless man, if you want -- and a bunch of non-black (their particular race is irrelevant) guys in hoodies and baggy running pants on the other. Which side of the street would you walk on?

That's obviously not an exhaustive counterargument, or even a counterargument at all. It's just nicely illustrative of the fact that, when we're talking about these sorts of object-level decisions, the race of the people in question is not as susceptible of an explanatory role as are socio-cultural markers like clothing. This is of course on the individual or small group level, which is what I took the OP to be about; consequently, the question of "where do those socio-cultural markers find their origin" is an interesting but not presently relevant one. I would contend that, on an individual level, if you're going to make those sorts of judgments deliberatively, culture or race is not your friend. Prudentially, that's a different story.

I'll admit that I don't have a good systematic reason for thinking that those sorts of judgments aren't as morally consequential as the deliberative ones. But I do have the sense -- and if experience is any guide, others do too -- that there's a difference-making quality in them. That's a topic for another day, though.

Crude said...

If that was directed at me (which just is a guess; feel free to correct me if I'm mistaken), then I would agree

Nope. John C Wright, at most. I didn't really see what you had to say about it.

Try the following thought experiment: there's a black guy in a mechanic's jumpsuit on one side of the street -- or in clothing that marks him clearly as a homeless man, if you want -- and a bunch of non-black (their particular race is irrelevant) guys in hoodies and baggy running pants on the other. Which side of the street would you walk on?

'One' versus 'a bunch' is a slanted situation in general.

Let's try another experiment: you overhear someone talking about the 400-level computer science class they're taking at a university. This gives partial, but of course radically incomplete, cultural information about those attending.

On the basis of this (cultural) information alone, do you think you can make a decently accurate guess about the general racial makeup of the classroom?

It's just nicely illustrative of the fact that, when we're talking about these sorts of object-level decisions, the race of the people in question is not as susceptible of an explanatory role as are socio-cultural markers like clothing.

Sure, but it's going to play and informative role, and if you do any kind of research at all, you're going to find Venn diagram overlaps of race and culture in substantial ways.

Keep in mind that part of the reason I'm making the argument here that I am is because people like Wright - a great guy, by the way - make the mistake of hanging the fruit low, and I'm a sucker for low-hanging fruit. He's contending that he is utterly colorblind, that race is a non-factor - an invention of long-dead racists which lives on only by virtue of ignorance. It's not like he's making the case that race just isn't a perfectly reliable factor, or that race, while reliable, isn't the best metric in such and such situation.

When he starts talking about the uselessness of race even as a bit of reference about an individual or a neighborhood, I can't help but feel a strong pull to point out how this doesn't seem to work.

To give another example: if I encounter a black woman, or just a black person in general, do you think I'll be able to make a decent guess about which political party they support?

Syllabus said...

'One' versus 'a bunch' is a slanted situation in general.

Then make the single mechanic a gaggle, and the gang-banger a monad. Then what?

Let's try another experiment: you overhear someone talking about the 400-level computer science class they're taking at a university. This gives partial, but of course radically incomplete, cultural information about those attending.

On the basis of this (cultural) information alone, do you think you can make a decently accurate guess about the general racial makeup of the classroom?


I actually think that the judgments of the guy/girl ratio is going to be more accurate (more guys). But yes, I would think that I could make a decent guess about the racial makeup -- though not so much for the reasons you probably think. It would be based on the % of black people I know go to a good university, whereas I think you mean it more to make reference to of the difficulty of the class.

But I think there's a relevant difference. Judgment of criminality and violence is a judgment of traits more directly related to character than is ability to do compsci. (Now, certainly lack of motivation might be an equally good explanation of that (or some complicated mix), but I see no warranted way to pick between the two given your scenario.) Ascription of moral deficiency is a different matter(again, I don't have a good systematic explanation of why this is). Intellectual capacities can be developed more or less, but the boundaries are really heavily programmed in. Moral capacities are, I suspect, more flexible. It follows that a judgment of the latter assumes more about the person than the former, and therefore is (usually) less justified and more morally consequential.

Sure, but it's going to play and informative role, and if you do any kind of research at all, you're going to find Venn diagram overlaps of race and culture in substantial ways.

Yup. We draw different conclusions from this fact. You think that that makes race a good or at least decent way of distinguishing these sorts of traits, and on a pragmatic level that's true. But I'm unsure of the causal implications of using race as a proxy that way, or of the causal assumption, so I'm less inclined to use it. Yeah, I think culture is probably the primary causal factor, but I try to be very careful about using it in a causal or explanatory role (ie, not a prudential one like the above).

When he starts talking about the uselessness of race even as a bit of reference about an individual or a neighborhood, I can't help but feel a strong pull to point out how this doesn't seem to work.

Well, with the concurrent assumption of facts like, say, the contextual background is the US, then yes.

To give another example: if I encounter a black woman, or just a black person in general, do you think I'll be able to make a decent guess about which political party they support?

Sure -- but for the reason why I think that's still a different case, see above.

Crude said...

Then make the single mechanic a gaggle, and the gang-banger a monad. Then what?

Probably the gang-banger. 'A pack of mechanics' isn't exactly the go-to example of a peaceful bunch, and a solitary gang-banger walking in plain sight doesn't seem like a problem.

It would be based on the % of black people I know go to a good university, whereas I think you mean it more to make reference to of the difficulty of the class.

The reason is irrelevant. All that matters here is that race can go fairly far in indicating culture.

Judgment of criminality and violence is a judgment of traits more directly related to character than is ability to do compsci.

Who mentioned ability? There's a lot of reasons, potentially, for the racial difference in that setup. The specific reason there doesn't matter, just that there is in fact a racial distinction, and I can go some way in pulling it out based on some very limited cultural data.

Well, with the concurrent assumption of facts like, say, the contextual background is the US, then yes.

This seems to imply that race is a good indicator of culture only recently and in a certain context, and not historically. If so, I reject that.

Again, I'm pointing out - my argument isn't that race is some major total factor that determines everything of note about a person. (Say THAT and it's just going to introduce low hanging fruit of a different variety I'll grab at.) It's Wright's apparently /total/ view of the supposed uselessness of race as a meaningful factor that I'm not going to accept.

Syllabus said...

'a pack of mechanics' isn't exactly the go-to example of a peaceful bunch,

Sure. Notice what marker played the "explanation of action" role there.

The specific reason there doesn't matter

See, I think that's more or less where our disagreements are at. You see a proxy that has decent predictive accuracy and you run with it. I'm somewhat more suspicious about using something I don't understand properly, which accounts for my trepidation.

(This isn't to say "Haha, I'm smarter than you dumb object-level thinkers". Rather, it's to put my finger on the reason for different reactions from very similar starting points.)

This seems to imply that race is a good indicator of culture only recently and in a certain context, and not historically. If so, I reject that.

Oh, no, just that making judgments about, say, the safety of the neighbourhood due to its racial makeup only makes sense against some background of how people of the predominant racial group usually behave. I'm not claiming that it's of no use historically, just that it's only justifiable given some determinate record what has in the past happened against which to compare the aggregate judgment.

Though I will point out that if you tell me that a neighbourhood is predominantly white, that might seem like it tells me something about its safety. But whites are hardly that homogeneous either. If it's a bunch of Italians or Russians (or Irish in NYC at the turn of the 20th century), well...

Now obviously using that as a counterargument to the claim that aggregates are useful at all is a fallacious line of reasoning. I'm trying to motivate the view that it's helpful in some contexts, unhelpful in others, and (maybe) indeterminate in still others.

my argument isn't that race is some major total factor that determines everything of note about a person. (Say THAT and it's just going to introduce low hanging fruit of a different variety I'll grab at.) It's Wright's apparently /total/ view of the supposed uselessness of race as a meaningful factor that I'm not going to accept.

Well, it's meaningful in a lot of contexts (particularly aggregate ones) and not too meaningful in others. To to that extent, I agree.

Crude said...

Sure. Notice what marker played the "explanation of action" role there.

Yep, but where have I denied non-racial factors are useful? You can even argue they're preferable in many situations. But all I have to do is show some accuracy or utility, and my point's made.

You see a proxy that has decent predictive accuracy and you run with it. I'm somewhat more suspicious about using something I don't understand properly, which accounts for my trepidation.

You can bracket off the whole question of whether or not we should use race as a factor even if it has 'decent predictive accuracy'. Noting that it does, in fact, have decent predictive accuracy is going to be enough to show that 'race is irrelevant' doesn't fly.

Though I will point out that if you tell me that a neighbourhood is predominantly white, that might seem like it tells me something about its safety. But whites are hardly that homogeneous either. If it's a bunch of Italians or Russians (or Irish in NYC at the turn of the 20th century), well...

See, this kind of reply just seems to fall apart on inspection. Sure, let's look at the Russians, and the Italians, and the Irish. We'll also, presumably, be looking at the Ethiopians, the Kenyans and others too. Is the claim that once we pull back and examine things at the broadest level, that all the statistics are going to converge and it turns out that there's no meaningful difference in terms of culture-race association, whatever the reason for that may be?

Take a hypothetical village and reveal no other detail than the race alone. What guesses can you make about the culture? Will your confidence in their literacy rates (to give one big example) be affected?

I'm trying to motivate the view that it's helpful in some contexts, unhelpful in others, and (maybe) indeterminate in still others.

Alright. Let me ask you this: why are you motivating that view? Where was it denied?

Syllabus said...

Let me take the last point first:

Alright. Let me ask you this: why are you motivating that view?

Because I'm a contrarian and a pedantic asshole. But that's long been evident, so it likely hasn't have escaped your notice and thus couldn't have prompted your question.

It's mostly because you said something in the OP regarding using race/culture to judge people on an individual basis that I found somewhat questionable. And in my (admittedly long-winded and somewhat recondite) way, was attempting to articulate why I found it questionable.

Where was it denied?

In the part about "It does no good to endorse a colorblind life on the grounds that culture, rather than race, is to be the key factor in evaluating an individual." Mostly in the "individual" part.

Or at least, I took that as one plausible reading of that, and so provided a bit of a pushback.

Noting that it does, in fact, have decent predictive accuracy is going to be enough to show that 'race is irrelevant' doesn't fly.

Irrelevant per se, sure. The trick is to find the areas of relevancy. That's what I'm a little more hesitant about.

Is the claim that once we pull back and examine things at the broadest level, that all the statistics are going to converge and it turns out that there's no meaningful difference in terms of culture-race association, whatever the reason for that may be?

Nope. The claim, or to be more accurate, the point, is that when I find what looks like a causal link, I've read sufficiently many shitty soc-sci studies to say "OK, let me examine this a little more closely and in finer grain to see if the view holds up".

For instance: yeah, I can infer with a decent amount of accuracy things about our hypothetical neighbourhood from its racial makeup. I wouldn't disagree. But my immediate next thought is to want to check whether I'm correct, which leads me to want to ask more detail-oriented questions. Because it could turn out, depending on what precisely my reasoning is, that I'm wrong for this or that reason. And if I am, I want to know. If it's a prudential judgment ("should I walk through this neighbourhood at night?") a once-off is fine. If not, less so.

Take a hypothetical village and reveal no other detail than the race alone. What guesses can you make about the culture?

Roughly the ones you will, I expect, based on the stats that I already know.

Will your confidence in their literacy rates (to give one big example) be affected?

By knowing the racial makeup? Sure. Again, on the aggregate, and for preliminary judgments, I agree with you.

But I'm likely going to have follow-up questions.

Crude said...

Irrelevant per se, sure. The trick is to find the areas of relevancy. That's what I'm a little more hesitant about.

It's one thing to want to try and be as right, or as fair, as possible. But I think we've culturally hit a point where some very easily defensible, common sense actions and reactions are held out as irrational or suspect. Against this, I think push back is warranted.

Nope. The claim, or to be more accurate, the point, is that when I find what looks like a causal link, I've read sufficiently many shitty soc-sci studies to say "OK, let me examine this a little more closely and in finer grain to see if the view holds up".

Causal links aren't even factoring in here. It's just data alone; the data differs, and it is what it is. Argue why the data is that way if you like, but when someone tells me, in effect, that the data doesn't even exist - that it makes no sense to talk about the black crime rate (or the white spree shooting rate) because races are a construct and don't REALLY exist - well. You know, even that wouldn't be a problem, except these people are numerous and/or loud now, and they have an impact.

I do not think that the best way to reply to them is to double the labor of making sure all i's are dotted and t's are crossed and that if we make a judgment, God help us all if we're wrong.

malcolmthecynic said...

My take here:

I live in the real world, where I see real things and know real people. Of course you need to judge people as individuals, and morality is morality.

But skin color is a useful heuristic. I don't care why, to be honest with you, nor do I think we can really do anything about "why" anyway. If you don't want to call "skin color" race, okay. Have fun. But don't expect me not to trust my lyin' eyes.