Tuesday, April 08, 2008

My "Racism" Problem and Ours

Post-modernism comes in for its share of ridicule on the Internet. And some of it is deserved: one should only read Jacques Lacan, for example, firmly understanding that most of the time he is pulling your leg. And while I am second to no one in demanding that the world recognize Mao as morally equivalent to Stalin and Hitler, when undergraduates respond to every normative or positive statement with "That's just their culture, man", I sympathize with the idea of having them spend some time doing farm labour.

But there was an important point underlying all of the bafflegab and French pseudo-profundity. While there is nothing inherently difficult about distinguishing a true proposition from a false one, propositions are made from concepts. And concepts are neither true nor false. As the pragmatists know, they are either useful or not useful. And as the pragmatists tended not to emphasize, something isn't just useful in general, it is useful for somebody who wants to do something. In other words, the process by which concepts arise and die is a political process. You don't refute a concept - you persuade people to abandon it.

Now, this persuasion can be more or less rational. For example, you could try to argue that the concept is useless and dangerous (taking for granted, of course, that your interlocutor shares some sense of what consequences are good and what are bad). Or you could get your interlocutor in a small room and start a chant, "Positivist conceptions of law are vacuous! Positivist conceptions of law are vacuous!" Other than the fact that no such persuasion exercise is one of pure logic, we can't necessarily say ahead of time what will and will not work.

All of which is prologue to the task I am going to undertake. I want to persuade you that the concept of "racism" is basically useless. That is distinct from persuading you that no one (or everyone) is or is not racist. I'm just saying that this language game no longer accomplishes what it once did, and we need to have a sounder sense of how to accomplish a civilized ethnic politics.

The trouble with "racism" as a concept is that it is an obstacle to clear thought on these matters. I also suspect that, as a concept, it will primarily be employed against the uneducated in general and disadvantaged minorities in particular. Once upon a time, racism may have been the tool of the man, but today "racism" is the tool of the man, man.

1. The first move is to point that racial/ethnic differences are profoundly important, politically and socially. This may be the most obvious thing anyone ever said, but the obvious is a good starting point when you are trying to bust the paradigm. Everywhere you go, ethnic groups entere into coalitions and struggles with each other to change the rules to their benefit.

2. And everywhere you go, ethnic groups do differently in the market (or under any set of neutral rules). That's because human capital is always built ethnically. Some may say that some ethnic groups have genetic advantages or disadvantages in building particular forms of human capital. That is unproven. What is indisputable is that different ethnic groups in fact have very different levels of human capital. Expropriate the Ismailis of Eastern Africa, force them into refugee camps, let them find a place with a halfway market economy and a generation later they will be richer than the locals. Do the same (but in a much milder way) to Australian Aborigines, and you have a perpetual nightmare. These differences may be entirely cultural, but they are nonetheless enduring and resistant to straightforward policy fixes.

3. Given #2, it follows that different ethnic groups do not have the same political interests. It also follows that there are potential economic gains from trade when they interact (it's called comparative advantage, man). But however nice it is to think that people could interact economically for mutual gain, people are not going to stop using politics to promote rules that work in their favour.

4. If it were possible to have a completely ethnically homogenous polity, it might resolve the problem of ethnic politics. However, it would give rise to all sorts of other self-interested coalitions whose power would be hard to overcome, and it would be culturally sterile (here is where I lose the paleos who will start complaining about ethnic food). Those of us who do not hail from Iceland unavoidably live in a multi-ethnic polity. Human nature being what it is, that means we are going to have conflict. However, it is not beyond the realm of possibility to manage this conflict in a way that means we still gain from the possibility of ethnic competition and economic co-operation.

5. The problems faced by ethnic groups whose human capital does not get a big price on the market are not primarily caused by discrimination -- at least not in contemporary Canada and the United States. That's not to say that discrimination is non-existent or morally OK or anything. It's just to say that the big problem is the lack of human capital -- the lack of bourgeois habits, the lack of skills, etc. Since the days of the Moynihan report, it has become more or less possible to say this in the United States. Obama says it. It is still very diffilcult to say in Canada, at least if you care about your reputation.

6. But Canada has a serious problem arising in the next generation. Depending on the extent of white flight, aboriginals will be a majority or a very large minority in the Prairies very shortly. Public services for aboriginals are terrible. I live near an urban reserve. You can tell where the reserve is, because there are no sidewalks, even though the reserve borders on two arterial roads. The Building Code's writ does not run, and the addresses on the reserve's main road are not sequential. There are two schools in the area. One is diverse with kids from everywhere in the world. The other has Indian kids, and it would be considered child abuse by parents of any other ethnic group to allow your children to go there. Every day, I see sixteen year olds pushing strollers along the shoulder of the busy road, and just have to hope no one gets killed. And this is in a liberal city and undoubtedly one of the better run reserves.

7. There are no obvious answers to these problems, but if our public discourse can't get to the point the Moynihan report got to over thirty years ago, there aren't going to be any.

8. Political correctness on the subject of race is difficult to learn. You aren't going to pick it up at a reserve school where you'd be lucky to get basic arithmetic. I have no brief for David Ahenakew, but I see the Tories reaction as a harbinger of a future of right-wing political correctness (also on display in the whole Jeremiah Wright business). It will be highly insensitive and hurtful of any racial minority to advance its own interests in the political sphere. But we also won't point out how the political dynamics on the reserves are impoverishing the majority and enriching the elite.

9. It comes down to the problem with "racism" as a frame. It worked in the post-war world because it tied continuing de jure segregation to the defeated Nazis. But it ignored the reality that ethnocentrism is univeral and, in its mild forms, harmless. As long as Anglo hegemony could be taken as unthreatened, we could just say that all other groups are permitted their ethnocentrism and the burden should be given to the Anglos, since they run anything anyway. That was reasonable then, but it isn't going to continue to work.

10. To the extent the "racism" frame is taken seriously internationally, it makes sensible ethnic accommodation impossible. Malaysia worked out a decent compromise between the Malays and the Chinese by being "racist." Maybe it is time for that compromise to be rethought, but it was itself a good thing because it let a lot of people live and prosper who wouldn't otherwise have done so. The "racism" frame is completley useless in the Middle East, and has been one cause of recent Western stupidity there.

11. The better way to look at things is to accept the inevitability of ethnic politics, and then distinguish between bad negative-sum ethnic politics and good positive-sum ethnic politics.

To the extent I support Obama, it is because I think he is closer to realizing all this than most. That is the key political message of visiting Kenya in Dreams.

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