07 November 2017

Racial politics -- an observation

Most of this article is good news, detailing the shrinkage of Trump's support among his core voters.  I couldn't help noticing, however, this section toward the end:

Watching the whole runup to the election, "every time that Hillary would mention diversity and difference I would say to myself: 'there go another 100 white voters," Major says. "By emphasizing differences and diversity, what research in social psychology shows is that at an implicit, unconscious level whites, not just prejudiced whites, associate diversity with 'not me.'"

In a study published in late October 2016, Major and her colleagues found that just by reminding white voters — be they Republican or Democrat — of changing demographics that show the U.S. won't have a single racial or ethnic majority by 2055 was enough to tilt them toward voting Trump.

"People's identity had to have been threatened for them to then become more pro-Trump," Major says. "Research in social psychology shows that the more you emphasise intergroup distinctions, you can heighten inner-group identity," she added.

It's astonishing to see this presented as some sort of surprising new insight that everyone needs to be made aware of.  How on Earth is it possible that anyone knowledgeable about politics doesn't already know this?  How on Earth is it possible that anyone who lives in the United States doesn't already know this?

We need to stop emphasizing and legitimizing category-think and group identity, the mentality that the population consists of discrete, immutable, sharply-bounded categories (mostly racial ones) and that individuals should be seen primarily not as individuals but as members of whichever category they are classified into.  That mentality is, unfortunately, already very entrenched, and it plays right into the hands of people like Trump.  People who have been taught to see the population as a group of distinct racial blocs will inevitably start thinking in terms of what bloc they themselves belong to.

Racism definitely exists, and it's a bigger problem than most of us used to think -- the eruptions of racism during the Obama administration made that clear.  But it is nevertheless a minority tendency, as the popular revulsion towards clear manifestations of racism (such as Charlottesville) make clear.  Using racism as a catch-all explanation for everything we don't like, when in fact the reality is more complex, has become a lazy habit on the left, and a hugely self-destructive one.  From the same article:

From a social psychological point of view, however, "the issues and the concerns and the threat that white Americans are feeling are a bigger issue than just prejudice," Major says. "It can't just be boiled down to 'oh, it's racists.'"

Real racism is a deadly evil and must be denounced and fought wherever it appears.  But for that very reason, we need to stop using accusations of racism where the evidence doesn't justify them.  Name-calling is not persuasive, ever.  It may silence people, but resentments silenced in public are all the more likely to be expressed in the voting booth.

A good example of what I'm talking about is the claim that the US will no longer be majority-white by 2050 (or 2055 or whenever).  Anybody who doesn't realize that this claim stampedes swing voters toward Trump-like politics must be willfully ignorant of human psychology.  Besides, the claim isn't true.  The concept of "white" has steadily shifted throughout American history and is continuing to do so.  Most of the growth of "non-white" population in the US is growth in the Hispanic population, but "Hispanic" is a cultural and ethnic category, not a racial one -- and as Americans of Latin American ancestry become more culturally assimilated, ever-greater numbers of them are self-identifying as "white" and being recognized as "white" by others.  By the definition of "white" that was commonly accepted in 1850, the US stopped being a majority-white country a long time ago -- but nobody noticed, because the definition of "white" kept expanding to include people of Irish, Italian, and other ancestries previously excluded.  By the time 2050 or whatever gets here, the US will still be a solidly majority-white country by the definitions in use at the time.  Unless, of course, we've wised up enough to stop attaching so much importance to such categories altogether.

The poison of racism is strengthened, not expunged, by thinking in racial terms.  If we let the salad bowl replace the melting pot as the governing metaphor for America, we'll lose the country to the Trumpanzees forever.

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