At the moment, I am writing an empirical study into racism in Queensland, which I will report on at a later date. It made me reflect on the basic question of what racism actually is. Let me give you seven possible scenarios to help us reflect on what we think racism is, whilst I also tell you what the mainstream economic response to those scenarios is.
You might of course try to sidestep the whole issue of racism by saying there is no such thing as race. I am going to hide behind our constitutions on that one: our constitutions condemn discrimination on the basis of race, implicitly presuming there is such a thing as ‘race’. If you need something concrete, simply think of it in terms of skin colour (Black versus White) or Caucasian versus African, but I do acknowledge that ‘race’ is not easy to define, if at all. So dont pester me in the comment boxes with the usual throw-away line that ‘genetic variation is larger within groups than between them’.
The seven scenarios:
- People of different races have unequal outcomes, with some groups living longer and wealthier and happier than others. Is this racism? In mainstream economics, the answer is ‘no’ for the outcomes may be due to own effort, due to the fact that people live in different places, etc. Within mainstream economics there is no ‘duty’ amongst the fortunate to make sure the unfortunate have the same outcome as they have. So differential outcomes are not racism.
- People of different races are treated differently by public servants and the general population within a country, as particular groups are employed at different wage rates, receive differential amounts of education and health care, are treated differently by the police, etc. Is this racism? In mainstream economics, the answer is again ‘not necessarily’ for it matters in economics what the underlying reasons are. If particular groups live in more remote locations and are themselves averse to receiving particular public services, it is not deemed racism that they get different amounts of it. Similarly, if different treatment by the police reflects higher criminality by some groups, this again is seen as ok. Employers paying people differently because of differences in productivity are again not being racist in mainstream economics.
- Individuals of different races are tainted by whatever average behaviour is associated with their group, leading individual members to have to accept lower wages if their group on average is less productive, leading individuals to be treated with less respect and more caution because their group as a whole displays more violent and disruptive behaviour. Is this racism? Again, the answer within economics is ‘no’. This is merely ‘statistical discrimination’ and is seen as the logical consequence of the costs of gathering information about an individual. There is no sense in which it is deemed imperative that employers, civil servants, and the general population makes more effort to find out what the actual characteristics of the individual are: the costs of information gathering are deemed sufficient excuse to treat people as if they are typical proponents of their whole groups or at least to ask them to compensate for the negative signal of their group affiliations even if they cannot choose those signals (such as skin colour).
- Individuals of different races are treated less favourably by individuals in the majority group even if they are known to be just as productive and safe simply because the individuals in the majority group find it easier to make friends with someone from their own culture. As a result, the other races have to accept lower wages, fewer clients, less favourable treatment in public services, etc., simply as compensation for the fact that the majority group finds it more tiresome to interact socially with them. Is this racism? Mainstream economics finds this one difficult because it essentially ties two exchanges into one: the market exchanges of labour and consumption goods then get bundled with social exchanges of friendliness and bonding experiences. The discrimination on the social side would be seen by economists as ‘ok’ because it is essentially interpreted as lower social productivity on the side of the other races. But to have that social productivity spillover to all other market transactions is seen with unease as there is a sense to which they ‘should be’ separate. Nevertheless I think that for most economists this type of discrimination would not be seen as racism, but rather a peculiar form of lower productivity of the other races leading again to justifiable discrimination.
- In streightforward cases of charity wherein there is no social interaction between individuals, particular races get less favourable treatment than ingroup members, such as anonymous donations being actively withheld from ‘outgroups’. Is this racism? Within economics, it certainly would be seen as a form of ‘ingroup preference’ and thus also a ‘taste against other races’. But would it be enough to qualify as racism?
- Individuals of the majority ingroup go out of their way to harm and belittle people of other races, such as when they commit pogroms or cruise around neighbourhoods to beat up people from particular races. Is this racism? Though the vast majority of economists and others would undoubtedly give an immediate ‘yes, of course’, the issue is still not a given. If these activities are due to some kind of revenge motive when, say, the official institutions have not enforced the laws, then I think you will find some economists who dont think this is racism.
- Individuals treat individuals of another race deliberately badly simply out of own enjoyment of seeing the discomfort of other races, with no other reason for this enjoyment than a domination motive. Is this racism? Yes, this one would count for there is a displayed ‘taste for discrimination’ without any sense in which mere material motivations or some productivity-related characteristic of the other race justifies the actions taken.
Now, if I reflect on these cases more carefully, I get very uneasy. You see, where actually is the line between someone who wishes to dominate another race out of some personal fantasy (case 7) and someone who does not take up the burden of ensuring equal outcomes for people in other countries (case 1)? Both are actually more similar than they seem at first glance: in both cases are the feelings of the others irrelevant and are we ‘merely’ seeing the outcome of preferences that favour the own ingroup over the outgroup. All that really changes between case 1 and 7 is the proximity of the outgroup and the number of steps between choices and ultimate outcomes. If you like, all that changes is the visibility of cause and result.
Does racism then truly boil down to just that: how visible it is that we care more about ourselves and our ingroup than that we care about others? Are the dividing lines mere sophistry? Or are in fact all such emotive labels as ‘racism’ mere lines on a continuum and arbitrarily drawn depending on the circumstances in a society? What do you think?