The New Racism: How activism and pseudo-science have corrupted sociology

This post originally appeared on the Psychology Today blog in May 2018, but has been deleted for reasons unknown.
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Roseanne’s crack that “they’re just like us!” [is] an allusion to the bland family sitcoms of the nineteen-eighties, when syrupy, anti-racist “very special episodes” dominated prime-time comedy … treating color blindness as a virtue.
From the New Yorker, April 4, 2018, before the defenestration of Roseanne Barr. [my emphasis]

Martin Luther King wanted his children to be “…judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character…”. That’s color blindness: treating people as individuals not as representatives of a race.  How is color blindness not a virtue?  Is it racist now? Where on earth does such an idea come from?

The answer is ‘race and ethnic studies’ which pops up in several traditional disciplines, such as cultural anthropology, political science, social psychology and sociology.  The problems I will describe infest all, but I will focus on sociology, where MLK’s idea of color blindness has been turned on its head.

Sociology began as a science. Max Weber, Émile Durkheim and other founders of the field insisted on objectivity: empirical measurement and logical argument. Remnants of that tradition remain, but a non-scientific movement now threatens to take over.  

Sociology is complex because it necessarily intersects with psychology, economics, politics, anthropology and even evolutionary biology. Sociologists are no smarter than other social scientists.  No one could possibly master all these disciplines. It is no surprise then, that this mélange has evolved in directions that often have little connection with one another.  As we will see, the activist branch that studies race and ethnicity has explicitly abandoned any allegiance to science.

Contra Karl Marx, science is about knowledge, not action. But politics is part of sociology, which means that straying from the scientific straight and narrow is all-too-easy: from scholarship to social justice is but a single step.  For Marxists the point is not understanding the world, but changing it — by politics and, if necessary, by force. Scholarship and science have become tools for activism in the branch of sociology I will call CBR (“color-blind racism”, from the subtitle of a book by Bonilla-Silva, discussed below).

Color-blind racism

The study of race and ethnicity is possibly the dominant, certainly the most visible, part of contemporary sociology (‘gender studies’ is a close second). Most Americans believe that color-blindness is the civil-rights ideal.  The new CBR movement in sociology, on the contrary, believes that color blindness is itself racist..

How can color blindness be racist? The claim makes sense only if one accepts the CBR conceptual framework, which is tough because while claims and allegations are many, facts are few. Indeed, the elements of this kind of sociology are not facts of the usual social-science sort: surveys based on random samples, verifiable measures of achievement, interests or ability, family size, income or other demographic information.  Instead, interviews, stories, anecdotes, non-random samples are the norm. There is even something called “snowball sampling” which finds people by going from one interviewee to a friend to friends of friends, and so on; about as non-random a process as you can get. It is obviously impossible to generalize from a snowball sample to the population at large, Yet, a typical study generalizes from a snowball sample of black professionals to black professionals as a whole.

CBR arguments don’t proceed from factual premises to logical implications. They are usually more like claims or assertions than logical inferences. They are comprehensible only by those who have taken the time to learn the vocabulary of “frames”, “discursive analysis”, “story lines”, “narrative” and the like. They are qualitative not quantitative, closer to postmodern philosophy, to (biased) journalism and to literature, than to empirical science.

Here is a typical claim (from a 2015 New York Times Opinionator piece entitled  “American Racism in the ‘White Frame’”):

“To understand well the realities of American racism, one must adopt an analytical perspective focused on the what, why and who of the systemic white racism that is central and foundational to this society.”

Here is another:

“color-blind racism is theorized as covert and highly institutionalized. As such, analyses of contemporary racial reproduction often emphasize the structure of colorblindness, particularly the habitual routines and discursive patterns of everyday white actors … this work may conceal whites’ innovation in reproducing, revising, and at times resisting white supremacy and corresponding logics.”

“White frame”? “White supremacy?” “White logics?”  The systemic racism of color blindness is simply assumed; no proof seems to be needed.

CBR conclusions frequently violate longstanding legal doctrine such as mens rea, the idea that intent is necessary to prove guilt. Color-blind racism is unconscious, but whites are guilty anyway. Some claims are simply political and not scientific at all, urging action by government, companies or institutions. These ideas are the topic of academic books in multiple editions; they are promoted not just through writing and teaching, but by educational as well as non-educational methods: by curriculum design (down to the K-12 level), by policy diktat from sympathetic administrators (‘implicit bias’, ‘hate and bias’ inquiries, ‘Diversity and Inclusion’ training and the like), by ‘no-platforming’ intimidation and exclusion of contrary views by agitators, and sometimes by ‘Antifa’ and violent demonstrations.  Just where this activism leads, I will get to in a moment.

Definition of ‘color-blind racism’

According to CBR doctrine, color blindness is any attempt to explain racial disparities by means other than racist discrimination. “This ideology [color blindness]… explains contemporary racial inequality as the outcome of nonracial dynamics”, writes Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, distinguished professor of sociology at Duke University, and currently president of the American Sociological Association, in the fourth edition of his book Racism without Racists (a title rather belied by his frequent use of the term “color-blind racists”).  In other words, CBR assumes, without proof, that non-racial factors are irrelevant, so that any attempt to draw attention to them is ipso facto racist.

Whiteness

 Color blindness is a racist weapon that works, somehow, through whiteness, which seems to be a whole scheme of thought. Whiteness is part of systemic racism: “Exposing the Whiteness of Color Blindness” is a chapter subhead in Bonilla-Silva’s book.  Whiteness is as real an identity as blackness. Neither whiteness nor systemic racism is measurable in an objective way.

Whiteness, “the practices of the ‘new racism’— the post-civil rights set of arrangements that preserves white supremacy”, is apparently hegemonic: “I contend that ‘color-blind’ ideology plays an important role in the maintenance of white hegemony” writes Ashley “Woody” Doane,  a leading ‘whiteness studies’ advocate. ‘Whiteness’ is employed as a method of maintaining control over other groups by the ‘dominant culture’. “Challenging white hegemony” is a major motif for ‘whiteness studies’.  Only race traitors, “whites who do not dance to the tune of color blindness” can escape from whiteness. Color blindness is part of the whiteness strategy and is therefore racist.

Whiteness is also unconscious. A former student of Bonilla-Silva’s raised the obvious question “How does one test for the unconscious?” but, like Bacon’s Jesting Pilate, Bonilla-Silva stayed not for an answer. Others have tried; there is something called the ‘implicit-bias’ test which pretends to measure unconscious processes. But it has little or no scientific basis, despite the existence of a Harvard University web site.  It has been widely administered for some twenty years nevertheless.

Above all, whiteness is a bearer of privilege. The term itself adds nothing new: white privilege is just the same as black un-privilege; to discriminate against blacks is to privilege non-blacks. But the word is another way to make whites feel bad. Books and articles in this area are sprinkled with tendentious phrases like “the manifold wages of whiteness”, “white privilege”, “historically white colleges”, all to emphasize persistent, unjust advantages possessed by whites as opposed to blacks. Again, the injustice of ‘privilege’ is just assumed not demonstrated empirically. The few demonstrable examples of ‘black privilege’ such as affirmative action and ‘diversity’ policies, are either ignored or dismissed as ‘tokenism’.

Racial power

The CBR aim is to challenge all white supremacy: ‘supremacy’ based on competence or effort is not exempt. Bonilla-Silva continues, with remarkable frankness:

“[L]et me suggest a few of the political conditions necessary to fight color-blind racism… First, blacks and their allies would be the core of a new civil rights movement demanding equality of results… To launch a frontal attack on the “new racism” and its color-blind ideology, the black masses must be as racially conscious as the leaders of the new movement. In ideological terms, the movement must break with the hegemony color blindness has over all Americans” [my emphases]

Bonilla-Silva is a major voice arguing for the essential racism of ‘whiteness’ and the need to combat it through political action. In 2017 he said that

“Adding a few scholars of color to mostly white departments did not involve doing what sociology needed the most: restructuring the discipline and, more significantly, redistributing racial power… it has not lead [sic] to changes in sociology’s curriculum; nor has it involved changing our sociological methods…. Another way of doing sociology is possible because critical, engaged, and, indeed, more ‘political’ sociologists are the majority. We might not be at Harvard, Princeton, Wisconsin, Columbia, Michigan, or Chicago, but we have power in our numbers. Although mainstream sociology rules, there are more sociologists who want to be engaged and do ‘liberation sociology’.” [my emphases].

It seems that power is at least as important to CBR as racial equity — and more important than empirical verification.

And why should the problems and methods of sociology change with the racial composition of scientists? Bonilla-Silva’s frequent references to “white logic” and “white methods” are unpleasantly reminiscent of what was once called “Jewish physics” (Jüdische Physik) in Nazi-era Germany.  Bonilla-Silva is untroubled; he feels that sociology is insufficiently comprehensive because “we made a pact with the devil of ‘objectivity.’”  This is a frontal assault on a basic assumption of all science: that scientific knowledge is universal. There is not, cannot be, a ‘Jewish physics’ — or a ‘white sociology’.

The black identity

Whiteness is “socially constructed”, which “means that notions of racial difference are human creations rather than eternal, essential categories. As such, racial categories have a history and are subject to change”. Are all racial categories “socially constructed” and “subject to change”, as Bonilla-Silva claims? Are all equally valid?  ‘Blackness’ may be different. The early black sociologist W. E. B Du Bois wrote in a dreamy Emersonian style about what he saw as a division — permanent, he thought — in the minds of African Americans:

“The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife… to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa; he does not wish to bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he believes—foolishly, perhaps, but fervently—that Negro blood has yet a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American…”

The idea that there are intrinsic and possibly unbridgeable mental differences between blacks and whites, between white and Negro ‘blood’, was plausible in 1897.  It was on the back burner for several decades. Now the permanence of this division seems to be denied by Bonilla-Silva who calls the racial categories socially constructed and subject to change.  So, a hopeful omen, if there is conflict between “whiteness” and “blackness” it may perhaps be resolved peacefully.

Multiculturalism

Multiculturalism is an alternative to hegemony. Its unstated premise is that different cultures — identities — can live together peacefully. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines it thus:

“[P]roponents of multiculturalism reject the ideal of the “melting pot” in which members of minority groups are expected to assimilate into the dominant culture in favor of an ideal in which members of minority groups can maintain their distinctive collective identities and Practices.”

Multiculturalism is a utopian project, in the sense that it assumes different cultures can co-exist without restricting the freedom or warping the identity of any one.  This may be true for some small set of closely related cultures. But as a general rule it is nonsense. The Jews could not co-exist with the Nazis and cannot reconcile with the Islamists; people who believe in the subjection of women cannot peacefully coexist with Western culture. Gay-marriage advocates cannot live with devout Christians. Anti-colonialists cannot co-exist with anyone who points to positive features of colonialism. Du Bois himself thought that Black and White were “two warring ideals”. In other words, in most cases of cultural admixture the two cultures must either compromise, separate or let one win out.

Is a peaceful multiculturalism compatible with CBR’s racial agenda? If, as Du Bois so passionately claims, the black identity is inbuilt, perhaps it cannot come to terms with “whiteness”? Or perhaps, as Bonilla-Silva contends, identities are socially constructed, hence malleable, so the ‘identities’ of black and white could perhaps fuse in some sort of compromise. But many voices both black and white don’t want it to change even if change is possible. They resist “white hegemony”. This is the CBR view. Multiculturalism for them seems to mean either separation or eternal conflict.

Racism

In CBR social science the existence of racism tends to be just assumed, or proved by numerical disparities, even ridiculous ones such as an admission by a white interviewee that “He is not attracted to black women”. If none of that works, racism is related to a wider ‘systemic’ problem.

In off-the-record Atlantic comments, Ta-Nehisi Coates, perhaps the most visible black writer on these issues, repeatedly affirmed that if, say The New Republic, was at one time 100% white, then it was racist.  Apparently, racial disproportion proves racism. The fact that only one percent of Caltech’s student body is black, is therefore evidence of racism.  It is not just prima facie but proof positive of racism if blacks and whites are not employed/honored/paid in strict proportion to their proportion in the population. The fact that black women are actually paid slightly more than comparable white women goes unremarked.  Facts seem to be just a distraction to CBR.

Bonilla-Silva, a few years ago gave a talk entitled “Why can’t we just get along” at Brown University (where, in an aside, he assured his northeastern audience that Durham, NC, is “One of the most segregated cities in America” which is almost the opposite of the truth). He described two versions of racism. What he called the folk view is: The irrational beliefs some people have about the presumed inferiority of others.

Bonilla-Silva found the folk view to be inadequate in several ways, the first being that it

“Misses the fact that racism is “structural” or “systemic”, that is, racism is part of the social structure of society, hence we all participate in it and we all participate in it whether we like it or not and conscious and unconscious and in passive as well as active ways — and develop interests that fit our racial location. [emphases in original slide]”

So, like ‘whiteness’, systemic racism is unconscious. Whether they know it or not, white people are racist. Racism is the original sin of the white race.  Whites are a people eternally condemned. No proof is offered for an untestable and slanderous, not to say racist, claim.

Causes of racial disparities

The CBR sociology of race says almost nothing about measurable causes. A causal analysis of racial disparities might look like this: There are manifest inequalities between black and white: education, cognitive skills, crime and incarceration rates, income levels, family structure, etc. There are two kinds of cause for these differentials: exogenous, due to outside forces over which individuals have no control. And endogenous, factors under the control of the individual and his or her immediate family. The main exogenous factor is racial discrimination in employment, schooling and housing. The endogenous factors are behavioral group-differences between blacks and whites: individual interests, motivation, and ability, family environment. These endogenous factors are not entirely independent: motivation, interests and ability depend to some extent on family environment and education.

The allegation that looking for non-racial causes for racial disparities is itself racist has led to successful efforts to suppress research on, and even attention to, those non-racial causes. Endogenous factors — black-white behavioral differences in interests, abilities, family structure and motivation — all are “off the table” for CBR. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in the leaked Atlantic transcript, refuses to entertain the idea that blacks and whites differ in endogenous factors: “obviously that’s out of bounds for us”. Editor Jeffrey Goldberg concurs “No, we’re never running s**t like that, obviously”.

This is the liberal consensus. Discussion of these topics is widely acknowledged to be taboo, even by the pre-eminent scientific journal Nature, which rates research on genetics and intelligence “Taboo level: High” and race and genetics: “Taboo level: Very high”.  One researcher said he felt “ambushed” by discussion of his early findings on race differences: “My friends [including one co-author] said nothing” he reported. The vilification of race-and-IQ researcher Charles Murray has gone on since the publication of The Bell Curve in 1994.

Equality of results

The logic of the CBR argument is straightforward. There are no non-racial reasons for racial disparities. Ergo, without racism blacks, whites, Asians, etc. would be equally represented in every profession.  Consequently, “… blacks and their allies would be the core of a new civil rights movement demanding equality of results…To launch a frontal attack on the “new racism” and its color-blind ideology…the movement must break with the hegemony color blindness has over all Americans” says Bonilla-Silva [my emphasis].

This is a solution with which many CBR sociologists seem perfectly happy. Yet it is a proposition that will dumbfound most Americans, who can live with disparities providing they reflect merit, or even (within limits) inherited wealth — but not color or ethnicity. Few consider the NFL racist for favoring blacks, or Caltech for favoring Asians — because more blacks are good football players and more Asians are good techies.

Forcing equality of result is obviously unjust. It also presents a problem that apparently leaves CBR unfazed: achieving equality of outcomes requires coercion.  Under relatively free conditions, individuals will distribute themselves nonrandomly in different occupations.  The more able, energetic and motivated will tend to move higher in the hierarchy than less talented individuals. Energy, talent and motivation will not be the only factors, but they will be one set of factors. So, if there are racial-group-average differences in these attributes, there will probably be racial disproportion in the hierarchy of wealth, earnings and prestige.  Hence, the only way to eliminate disproportion is by force. If ‘equality of outcome’ succeeds, it will be accompanied by totalitarianism.

The new racism

So what is the new racism?  There seem to be at least three definitions: Is it the “color-blindness = white supremacy = racism”, that CBR sociologists attribute to the American people?  Is it the simple “race should not matter” ideal they actually believe? Or is it “equality of outcomes”, the proposal to abolish objective, non-racial measures of ability in favor of totalitarian racial apportionment of jobs, degrees and all other avenues to wealth?  Dear reader, you decide.

John Staddon is James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Professor of Biology, Emeritus, at Duke University. His most recent books are Scientific Method: How science works, fails to work or pretends to work. (2017) Routledge, and The Englishman: Memoirs of a psychobiologist. (2016) University of Buckingham Press.

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