Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Sat, 4 Jul 2020, 1:33 PM


Racism as emergence

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Instinctively, I have solidarity with those taking a knee to protest at racism. But I have a problem here. We cannot eliminate racism merely by being nice to each other, any more than we can prevent recessions by wanting to be richer.

I say this because racial disparities aren't just the product of racist attitudes - important though these are. They can also arise from human action but not human design: they are also an emergent process.

Such a possibility shouldn't surprise anybody. When Adam Smith said that "it is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest" he expressed an important point. Aggregate outcomes are not merely individual intentions writ large. Sometimes, selfish people do nice things. Conversely, good people can do bad ones, as Marx saw:

Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society...But looking at things as a whole, all this does not, indeed, depend on the good or ill will of the individual capitalist. Free competition brings out the inherent laws of capitalist production, in the shape of external coercive laws having power over every individual capitalist.

Smith and Marx both saw the importance of emergent processes. Some racial inequalities are just these. I'm not thinking here so much of blacks being killed by the police as economic inequalities. In the UK, as in the US, blacks earn less than whites even where they have the same qualifications; are more likely to live in poverty; and much less likely to be in top jobs. Takeknee

One way in which these emerge without much overt racism was pointed out by Thomas Schelling back in 1971. He showed (pdf) how blacks and whites could come to live in entirely separate areas even even if people were no more racist than wanting to avoid being in a minority.

When they are segregated in housing, however, other inequalities follow. Black people will suffer worse job opportunities if only to the extent that they'll not benefit so much from hearing of vacancies from the word-of-mouth of neighbours. Their children will go to worse schools and so have worse qualifications and hence be more likely to become unemployed. And that - via the incentives beloved of Econ101 - will tip some into crime. That in turn will give younger people worse role models and peer pressures, and expose "black areas" to harsher policing. In this way, racial inequalities will reinforce and amplify each other, as Barbara Reskin says:

Even if discrimination's only direct effect were on where people lived, it would indirectly contribute to black-white disparities in schooling, health care, the cost of insurance, the opportunity to accrue wealth, etc. In sum, direct discrimination within subsystems exacerbates disparities in other subsystems in part by creating emergent (├╝ber) discrimination.

There's more. Historic racism has lasting effects. One mechanism here is simply that we are all creatures of history. As Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell and Maya Sen have shown:

Whites who currently live in Southern counties that had high shares of slaves in 1860 are more likely to identify as a Republican, oppose affirmative action, and express racial resentment and colder feelings toward blacks.

What's more, if an inequality has persisted for a long time, we become accustomed to it: as Kris=Stella Trump has shown our ideas of what inequalities are fair are strongly influenced by existing inequalities. Similarly, if it's normal for white people to be in better jobs, hirers will be predisposed to continue to employ them, on the principle that nobody got fired for buying IBM: Gary Becker had a point when he said that competition could eliminate racism but the problem is, in practice, it doesn't grind so finely as to do so.

And because we've become accustomed to police brutality, we tolerate it as being the work of a few bad apples - oblivious to Chris Rock's
point that in other professions such as airline pilots we have zero tolerance for bad apples.

This habituation effect explains why people who have been silent for years about racial inequality are now taking a knee, and why universities who have tolerated racism for years now side with Black Lives Matter. They've taken such inequalities for granted, but a grotesque murders shocks them.

None of this is to deny a self-evident fact, that outright racism exists.My point is that this is only part of the story. Racial inequality isn't merely the product of overt racism. Some of it is instead an emergent product of mild or even no bias (the same is true for sexism, but that's another story).

This fits with a Big Fact - that racial inequalities have persisted for decades despite legal changes, a decline in overt racial hostility and rise of "wokeness". Emergent systems can be resilient - which is why we need radical action and not just gestures to change them.

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