A monologue about “a conversation about race”

I’m hardly the first person to notice that we haven’t yet had a useful “conversation about race”, and are not likely to have one in the future.

There are multiple reasons for this. Many on the right have an unimaginative view of the black community, seeing it as “the other”. Thus problems of unemployment and drug use are assumed to reflect cultural failings in the black community. When the same sorts of problems of unemployment and drug use hit many working class whites in the eastern Rust Belt, those impacted were romanticized by some conservatives as innocent victims of Globalization and Neoliberalism. Republican politicians who opposed providing economic help to inner city blacks suddenly began favoring policies to help unemployed working class whites.

Conservative politicians who took an uncompromisingly hard line on heroin use in the inner city suddenly began to see abuse of opioids in rural American as a medical problem. People disdainful of the idea of prosecutorial abuse directed against blacks changed their tune when the prosecutors came after top Republican officials.

So perhaps the left can lead a conversation on race? Unfortunately, most people on the left discuss race as if they are walking on eggshells, trying so hard not to offend that they say almost nothing of value. At times they seem to deny minorities the dignity of personal agency, which is to dehumanize an entire population.

When the average American hears a leftist tell them “we need to have a conversation about race”, they are about as enthused as a Chinese academic in 1967 being told by the Red Guard that it was time for a conversation about communism. “Please, just tell me what I’m supposed to say, and let’s get this over with.”

A recent essay by Jonathan Chait discusses political correctness. What can we infer from his essay?

1. Political incorrectness is about identity. The left cares a lot about all sorts of issues, not just identity. But identity is a sort or religion, which has much stronger taboos than other issues.

Just to be clear, it’s not that left-leaning people are not required to hold certain views on a wide range of issues in order to get elected, or even be nominated. It’s pretty hard for a Democrat to hold pro-life views or oppose national health care. Rather it’s comments on identity issues that get even non-politicians into hot water.

2. The victims of PCism run amok are often on the left. All three of Chait’s examples are left-leaning individuals who got in trouble for saying or tweeting things about race, or allowing a controversial editorial. To almost everyone on both the left and the right, except a few illiberal radicals who oppose free speech, these three individuals would be viewed as having received “unfair” treatment.

3. The relatively small mob of illiberal leftists is apparently more influential than their numbers would suggest, as the broader progressive movement is clearly intimidated by their criticism. Mainstream liberals often feel they need to sacrifice someone in their own tribe, to placate these radicals.

4. Chait’s essay is not a defense of liberal ideas. He clearly sees the radical left as primarily being a threat to the mainstream left. Thus he does not cite a single example of a conservative who is victimized by PCism run amok, and in places seems to edge close to defending certain forms of left wing illiberalism:

It is easy to understand why somebody — especially one predisposed against Fang — would view this comment with suspicion. Bringing up crime in black communities to deflect away from systemic racism is a conservative trope so familiar and clichéd it is often summarized with the mocking shorthand “what about black-on-black crime?” And the simplistic comparison of deaths at the hands of white police versus minorities fails to acknowledge both the broader patterns of mistreatment by police that falls short of outright murder, and the fear this creates, so that a single police murder can terrorize thousands and shape their view of the state in a way that a local murder cannot.

Fang’s interview subject probably lacks familiarity with the history of this issue being used as an excuse for racism, and almost surely didn’t realize the cruel resonance of the phrase “black-on-black crime.”

When a discussion of “true facts” is taboo, you know that a political movement has gone off the rails.

Chait presumably picked sympathetic left-of-center victims of witch hunts in order to be more persuasive with his readers. He’s not trying to defend liberalism (although he may well privately support the concept); he’s trying to persuade other left leaning readers to cool it, in order to save the left from itself.

And there’s good reason for mainstream liberalism to be terrified of PCism. First, it helps people like Trump at the polls. Second, the victims are likely to be mostly other people on the left. Conservatives are less likely to work in jobs where they are victimized by PCism, and radical leftists view them as the enemy—people completely beyond the pale. The radicals instead focus on trying to “purify” their side of the ideological spectrum, to eliminate dissent from their ever-shifting dogma on identity.

[I’ve seen people argue that just as the purpose of fashion is to exclude people too unfashionable to keep up with changing trends, the purpose of continually shifting acceptable political views on identity is to exclude those who are not cool enough to keep up with the latest shifts in dogma. In both cases, ambitious young people are the villains—just as old people are the villains who push reactionary policies.]

Some argue that PCism is an overrated issue, as the outrages you hear about in the press are relatively rare. There are two problems with that argument. First, the cost of a repressive apparatus is not accurately measured by the number of transgressors who are caught. If only two people were caught last year protesting for democratic rights in Tiananmen Square and sent to concentration camps, that doesn’t mean that Chinese repression was not severe, rather it means most people chose not to do things that would lead them to be sent to concentration camps.

Second, it’s a mistake to view cases of outright dismissal from a job as the biggest cost. Most people on the left don’t want to be attacked by a twitter mob of illiberal radicals calling them “racist”. People who are seen as being on the “right” (even those incorrectly seen as being on the right, like me) don’t mind such attacks nearly as much. The Noah Smiths of the world insinuate that right wingers are just a bunch of racists that are not worth listening to. So what do they have to lose by being called racist?

I don’t go to cocktail parties or participate in Twitter. Unless I’m criticized by someone I respect, I’m not going to lose sleep over it. I have no fear in pointing out that “black on black crime is a problem“. But I also have no problem in annoying conservatives, as you see at the top of my post. Most of all, I don’t feel I have anything very useful to say about racial problems in America, so I don’t tend to blog on the subject very often. At best, I might argue that some of the policy reforms I favor would help black Americans, including drug legalization, kidney markets, zoning reforms, school choice, challenge studies of Covid-19 vaccines, etc. But these reforms would also help whites.

In contrast, progressives have a much more ambitious agenda:

1. Cancel and publicly shame progressive intellectuals who say something a tiny, tiny, tiny, tiny bit politically incorrect.

2. Tear down statues.

3. Defund the police.

I have to admit that my policy proposals are not in that class, at least from a utilitarian perspective. (I’ll let the reader decide whether my ideas would help more or less.)

Is it impossible to have an intelligent conversation on race? If it is possible, it’s likely to meet these criteria:

1. The participants need to have an understanding of the black community and a sympathy for the problems faced by blacks. (Yes, other races matter, but in America “race” is a code word for black issues.)

2. The participants must be able to boldly speak the truth, even if it makes some people feel uncomfortable.

If you look hard enough, you can find an occasional bona fide conversation on race. But they are exceedingly rare.

When pundits go on TV and say “Americans need to have a conversation about race”, they might just as well ask for a conversation about string theory or neutron stars. Such conversations can happen, but the number intelligent conversations about the issue is rather small.