Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Privilege in Action

The subtitle of my blog lists the power dynamics I find most interesting, and it has been far, far to long since I've talked about the third item on that list: Race.

This isn't because I haven't had a lot to say - watching the rise to prominence of Glenn Beck's paranoia, the subtle tones of the Tea Party protests, and my own involvement in a class on Whiteness in US History have all been fertile ground for ideas. And once upon a time I promised a Whiteness Sermon, because I was upset with FUUNO's anti-racist inauguration sermon. It was an unpleasant mediocrity. So I've been thinking about race, spinning it around in my head for months. But neither my visceral reactions to Glenn Beck nor the abstractions of academia have been able to crystallize my thoughts in any meaningful way. With news and school not valid sources of inspiration, it was more or less inevitable that the internet would jump in and save the day.

Today BoingBoing linked to a very interesting presentation about the behavioral economics of cheating. Behavioral economics are, in my mind, the most valuable field in which research is being done, and almost every new development I hear about it convinces me of the flaws inherent in political science. This is to say that the post is good. The post is very, very good, and I'm going to recommend you watch the whole thing. (Yes, it is 18 minutes long. It's worth it, and what I say next won't make any sense unless you've seen it.)

Towards the end of the presentation, the speaker describes a scenario where it is shown that cheating is okay. However, knowing that cheating is okay doesn't change the subjects action. What does change the students reaction, however, is the idenity of the cheater. If the cheater is a student from the same school, then students feel safer about getting away with cheating, and so cheat more. If, however, the cheater is from a rival school, students ignore him, and cheat at the same or reduced levels. The lesson: ingroup/outgroup status determines behavior identification. Seeing that cheating is okay is not enough on it's own; seeing that cheating within one's ingroup is okay is what matters.

This leads me to the second piece, the one about race. It's a post that comes from "Stuff White People Do", which is the appropriate anti-racist corrolary to blogs that just poke fun at whiteness. In it, it describes the murder of a hispanic man by white teenagers, in a predominantly (96%) white community. There was an altercation, punches were thrown all around, sure. But here's the fun trick - the hispanic man died, and the all-white jury sentenced the youths to, at most, 2 years in jail. For killing a man in a fight they provoked him into. For murder. 2 years.

I am not saying that the all-white jury was overtly racist. I'm not saying that the all-white jury was even knowingly racist. After all, the man killed was an illegal, and being against illegal immigration is not the same as being racist (though the venn diagram begins to resemble a circle at that point). But. The youths on trial, teenage white males, were judged by a jury of their peers. The man killed wasn't. And the jury, identifying with the in-group of race, protected the youths.

And this is what is so incredibly challenging about institutionalized racism - it is very, very hard to come up with a law that accounts for jury compostion. And in a town that's 96% white, how can someone argue for reform? And as much faith as I have in the ability of governments to reform themselves to better serve the public good, this issue seems beyond the scope of legislation.

Still, I'm optimistic. Nate Silver, in a presentation (given at TED, like the first link) examines overt racism in determing voting habits. He takes polling data, comparing the number of people who said that race was the msot important factor in deciding their vote, and overlapping that data with neighborhood dynamics. The greater the racial homogeneity of the neighborhood, the more willing a person was to let race be the determining factor for their vote. A myriad of reasons for this exist, like, say race being seen as a useful heuristic, but they all boil down to ingroup identification. However, in neighborhoods less homogenous, race was important for deciding a persons vote. Nate Silver's proposed solution is more walkable, grid neighborhoods (to emphasize diversity always), and he just assumes that a demographic shift will generally lessen these problems.

That said, the problems still exist, and what happened to Luis Ramirez, while perhaps understandable from a behavioral economist perspective, is wholly unjust and a failing of the system. And thats because privilege is allowed to operate. But privilege doesn't always have to operate or get to operate - a more diverse jury would have probably viewed the case differently, and been just as keen on preventing future murders as it was on minimizing the harm caused to the youths involved. And that is the kind of change that will happen with time; over the age of 65, 75% of Americans are white. Under the age of 10, 25% of Americans are. Privilege itself will weaken with the passage of time. And that, that's pretty dang exciting.

Update: here in one shot is another article showcasing privilege. Describing crimes identical except for their victims, we can see how justice is served for the young white woman, and how little effort is put into doing the same for a 55 year old Hispanic man. The problem is not that they went out of their way to solve the first case faster, the problem is that such a discrepancy itself can exist within the same system, and that there is an ability to make such a conscious choice about the extra effort. If all cases required that diligence, there would be no privilege. If such additional efforts weren't possible/legal ever, there would be no privilege. But when such efforts are possible and optional, privilege allows the white victim to matter more. (And this is in Los Angeles, which is no homogeneous white suburb.) Far as I'm concerned, that difference is a failure of the rule of law

No comments: