Here's an example: professional basketball players are disproportionately black by an enormous margin. Why? It would seem odd if this were a result of racial prejudice. Being a professional basketball player is not a menial job. It's a challenging, well-respected and well-compensated profession. Professional basketball players are role models. The stakes are high: if a team could gain a competitive advantage by hiring more white players they would surely do so. So it seems more likely that there is actually some kind of causal influence that results in black skin being correlated with basketball skill.
The obvious candidate for this kind of causal influence is that black people are taller than white people. Being tall presents an obvious advantage if you're a basketball player. I was convinced that this had to be the answer, but it's not. It turns out that, on average, black people are actually shorter than white people. (The source data is here.) So there goes that theory.
There could be some other physical trait that is linked to black skin that provides a competitive advantage in basketball. Black people also dominate in other sports, like running. Maybe there's some biological factor that makes blacks faster than whites, or able to jump higher, and that produces a competitive advantage in basketball.
But there is another, much more insidious possibility: maybe black dominance in basketball is not a physical advantage, but a cultural one. Maybe blacks make better basketball players simply because as a group they happen to spend more time playing basketball. And maybe the reason they spend more time playing basketball is that other avenues of economic advancement are closed to them for one reason or another, and so basketball is seen as the only way out of the hood. So they play basketball.
Notice that it is not necessary for it to actually be true that non-basketball careers are closed to blacks to set this vicious cycle into motion. The mere perception that it is true is enough. If a black kid growing up in the hood believes that he's never going to be hired as an engineer then he could reach the perfectly rational (albeit possibly mistaken) conclusion that he should not spend his time studying math but should practice basketball instead. The result is a lot more black kids playing basketball, and doing it with much more seriousness and dedication, than white kids. And the result of that is that the best basketball players are overwhelmingly black simply because they've been working at it harder than whites. And so the NBA team managers make the perfectly rational decision to hire black players because they are in point of actual fact better than whites. And then the next generation of black kids grows up seeing a lot of basketball-playing role models and very few engineering role models, and reach the perfectly rational conclusion that maybe they ought not to study engineering.
The mere belief that black people make better basketball players can actually cause them to be better basketball players in point of actual fact. It is, quite literally, a self-fulfilling prophecy. And the thing about self-fulfilling prophecies is that they are actually true!
Notice that all this can happen even if everyone is behaving rationally on good evidence and without any ill will on anyone's part. Less damaging forms of the same underlying dynamic are very common. Taxi cab drivers in Glendale, California are overwhelmingly Armenian. Restaurant owners in San Carlos are overwhelmingly Turkish. Cruise ship crew members are overwhelmingly Filipino (except for the senior officers). It's not because there is anything in the genes of Armenians that makes them better cab drivers, or the genes of Turks that makes them better resaurateurs, or the genes of Filipinos that makes them better sailors. It's purely a cultural dynamic of expectations playing against rational decision making to produce self-fulfilling prophecies.
But now, instead of basketball player or cab driver or sailor, consider a drug dealer.
Think about the mental image that popped into your brain when you read those words. I'll wager it was not a white guy in a suit and tie in the board room of a pharmacology company, though such a person is very much a drug dealer. The image that popped into your head was very likely a black man in a hoodie shuffling furtively on a street corner. And yet John Kapoor is every bit as much a drug dealer as El Chapo Guzman, and vastly more of a drug dealer than, say, Aron Tuff.
You have likely never heard of Aron Tuff. I hadn't until I started researching this post. Tuff was sentenced to life in prison without parole because police found a third of a gram of cocaine in his yard. It was his third strike. Compare that to Kapoor's five-year sentence for peddling massive quantities of opioids that caused tens of thousands of deaths. Part of the rationale for Kapoor's reduced sentence was his "philanthropy", notwithstanding that the money he used to engage in philanthropy came from dealing drugs. Vast quantities of drugs which killed tens of thousands of people.
There is no end to the ways in which the disparities between Kapoor's sentence and Tuff's can be rationalized. The drugs Kapoor sold were legal. The drugs that Tuff (allegedly) possessed (but did not sell) were illegal. Kapoor was a respected captain of industry, a job creator. Tuff was an addict with priors. All of these things are true. None of them have anything to do with race, at least not overtly. And yet, somehow the net result is that blacks get sent to prison for drug offenses a lot more than whites do.
This is the problem with racism: it's never just about the color of someone's skin. Skin color is always just a proxy for some other quality which actually justifies the racism. This goes all the way back to chattel slavery in the American South: blacks were not enslaved because they were black per se, they were enslaved because they were inferior. Skin color was just an indicator of the inferiority. Many slave owners believed in good faith at the time that they were actually doing blacks a favor by enslaving them. If you don't believe me, all you have to do is read this excerpt from the articles of secession of the state of Texas:
...all white men are and of right ought to be entitled to equal civil and political rights; that the servitude of the African race, as existing in these States, is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator, as recognized by all Christian nations...That sounds shocking today, but it wasn't shocking then. Millions of people passionately believed in the sentiment expressed in these words. Tens of thousands literally fought and died for them. They sincerely believed they were the good guys.
Today the proxy quality that launches the vicious cycle is no longer genetic inferiority, it's something else. It's "making poor decisions" or whatever the fuck it is, it doesn't matter. What matters is that the structure of the argument and the resulting social dynamic is exactly the same as it was in 1861: black skin is taken to be a reliable proxy for some other quality --the ability to play basketball, a propensity to criminality-- and that belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and hence actually true. Everyone believes in good faith (indeed, correctly!) that they are acting rationally and on good evidence! And yet the result is catastrophic.
So what do we do about it? After all, rationality got us in to this mess, so how can it possibly get us out? Well, first we have to agree that it's a mess. Not everyone does. There is a school of thought that says that everything is basically hunky-dory, at least on a systemic level. Slavery is gone. Jim Crow is gone. Any remaining disparities must therefore be a result of individual choices because the playing field has now been leveled. If there are problems they should be dealt with on an individual level. If someone breaks the law, they go to jail. Eventually the transgressors will figure out that it is better for them to hew to the social order, so all we need to do is send enough troops to quell the riots and sooner or later this will all sort itself out. Now, excuse me while I mix myself a martini and get my kids ready to go to their private school.
There are actually people who think that we've already gone overboard in our attempts to address racial issues in the U.S. There is a small but significant contingent who believes that legally enforced segregation, a return to separate-but-equal, is actually the Right Answer. If you think these people can simply be ignored you have not been paying attention. The Trump administration is actively courting these people. If you are one of those people who believes that Donald Trump doesn't have a racist bone in his body, well, I have a bridge you might be interested in buying.
Personally, it seems to me that we tried segregation for about 100 years and as far as I'm concerned it was not a good outcome, and I'm white. Like I said in my earlier post on this topic, I am the beneficiary of the current system. The expectations that turn into self-fulfilling prophecies have worked very much in my favor. I'm a white male, and so everyone expected me to grow up to be successful, and lo and behold I grew up to be successful. I was there for this entire process and so I can tell you that this was not because of any extraordinary effort on my part. I totally coasted to my success. I figured out how to game the system in middle school, and I've been doing it ever since. I have a very impressive-looking resume, but if you look carefully none of it actually reflects any extraordinary accomplishment on my part. Yes, I worked for NASA for fifteen years. Yes, that sounds impressive. But the reason I worked for NASA for 15 years is because I happened to be in graduate school when my advisor got a job offer, and he took me with him. The reason I was in grad school is because I was too lazy to get a real job. The reason I was able to go to grad school in the first place is because the government gave me a fellowship, and before that the university I attended gave me a scholarship, and all that happened because I got good grades. And the reason I was able to get good grades is that I grew up in a quiet house within walking distance of the country club (the neighborhood I grew up in was literally called Country Club Estates!) where there was not a basketball court to be found. Tennis. Golf. A swimming pool where waiters would bring me club sandwiches that I didn't have to pay for. It was fucking awesome. And it was only possible because I was white. There were no black people in the Country Club Estates. Not in the 1970s. Not in Tennessee.
Things are certainly better today. My parents still live in the house I grew up in, and today their next-door neighbors are black, so maybe this will all sort itself out in the fullness of time. But at the same time the Supreme Court casually disenfranchises a million ex-felons in Florida, who are, of course, disproportionately black. The President of the United States calls white supremacists "fine people" and sends secret police to arrest people carrying Black Lives Matter banners. An American Senator defends chattel slavery as a "necessary evil". Black people are killed by police at a much higher rate than white people. I don't have to worry about any of this because I'm white. And this gnaws at my soul.
No human being should grow up believing that they will be judged by the color of their skin, and they certainly should not grow up being correct in that belief, but that is today's reality. The first step to fixing this is to persuade people that it needs fixing, and it needs fixing now. We've been fucking around for 400 years. Enough. The recently deceased John Lewis said it better than I can:
“To those who have said, ‘Be patient and wait,’ we have long said that we cannot be patient. We do not want our freedom gradually, but we want to be free now! We are tired. We are tired of being beaten by policemen. We are tired of seeing our people locked up in jail over and over again.”I want my black brothers and sisters to be free now. That is, of course, impossible. The scars of 400 years of oppression will not be erased in my lifetime. Getting to the point where everyone is truly judged not on the color of their skin but the content of their character will be a multi-generational project even under ideal circumstances, and today's circumstances are far from ideal. But there are three requirements for solving this problem. The first, as I've already said, is acknowledging that there is a problem. The second is a sense of urgency. We tried patience. It doesn't work. And the third is a recognition by those with power that racism is subtle and insidious. It cloaks itself in rationality and good evidence and good intentions and a million and one reasons why this isn't your responsibility. Simply by accepting those arguments, you advance, however unwittingly, the self-fulfilling prophecies they sustain and thus become part of the problem.