Standing in the shadows

More on Eric Kaufmann’s recent research into ‘racial self-interest’.

The concept of ‘racial self-interest’ runs through EK’s research report. In fact, it runs through the research like a barium meal: it goes in at one end and comes out unchanged at the other, after being visible all the way through. A few quotations to give you the idea:

Shadi Hamid … argues that it is important to distinguish racism and racial self-interest, and that Trump supporters, who voted in a racially self-interested way to limit immigration, should not be accused of racism. (Executive Summary)

is it the case that immigration skeptics are majority ethnic partisans who are acting in what Shadi Hamid terms their ‘racial self-interest’: seeking to maximise the demographic advantage of their group (Introduction)

Consider the question: ‘A white American who identifies with her group and its history supports a proposal to reduce immigration. Her motivation is to maintain her group’s share of America’s population. Is this person: 1) just acting in her racial self-interest, which is not racist; 2) being racist; 3) don’t know.’ … First, the words Asian, Black or Latino are swapped for White to see how responses change. Second, ‘decrease’ [sic] is changed to ‘increase’ immigration, and ‘maintain’ to ‘increase’ group share. Thus: ‘An Asian American who identifies with her group and its history supports a proposal to increase immigration from Asia. Her motivation is to increase her group’s share of America’s population.’  (Immigration and Racism: A Conjoint Analysis)

The questions were very explicit about specifying that the subject in each question wants particular policies in order to preserve or enhance her group’s demographic share. In this sense, the ‘correct’ answer is that people are ‘acting in their racial self-interest, which is not racist.’ It is possible – and consistent – for someone to consider all racially self-interested behaviour racist. But the variation in white liberal responses based on whether the question pertains to whites or minorities, belies this rational explanation.  (Immigration and Racism in Britain and America)

On the question of whether group-oriented immigration preferences are racist, white liberals are more biased than white conservatives … imputing white racist motivations to those trying to advance their racial self-interest. … it is important to draw a distinction between irrational racism and rational group self-interest. Wanting fewer people from other ethnic groups or higher numbers of co-ethnics to bolster one’s group share is not racist (Conclusion)

“Racial self-interest? How is that not racist by itself?” (Justify Your Answer: Examining qualitative evidence)

The last one is from a survey participant, not EK; I just thought we needed some fresh air.

The research starts from the assumption that ‘racial self-interest’ is distinct from racism, and that recognising this fact explains – and helps condone – some racially discriminatory behaviour. The survey then prompts participants with the information that ‘racial self-interest’ is in fact distinct from racism, and invites them to apply it to a hypothetical situation which is designed to exemplify racial self-interest. Finally, EK reads the data and concludes that ‘racial self-interest’ is distinct from racism, and that only irrational bias can account for left-wingers’ failure to acknowledge the fact.

This isn’t all that’s going on here, though. A clue is supplied by a passing reference to Kahneman and Thinking, fast and slow. The sucker-punch structure of EK’s question is very reminiscent of the question with which Tversky and Kahneman identified the ‘conjunction problem’:

Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. Which is more probable?

a) Linda is a bank teller.

b) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.

The great majority of people consistently get this wrong. The correct answer is – logically has to be – a); “A and also B” cannot be more probable than “A with or without B”, whatever A and B are. But we’re not hard-wired to be good at probability; we seem to read the question as an invitation to fill in the blank in the way that gives the most satisfying story, in this case option b). EK’s question is different, but it has a definite family resemblance; it’s as if we were asked

As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also joined the local Labour Party. Which is more probable?

a) Linda is a Labour Party member, which is not the same as being a socialist.

b) Linda is a socialist.

In EK’s research, in other words, respondents were primed with the ‘right’ answer and duly repeated it back, in the same way that Tversky and Kahneman’s subjects were effectively primed with the ‘wrong’ answer. But this isn’t the point of the research; the point is that a minority of respondents gave the ‘wrong’ answer despite the priming – and it’s these subjects that EK is really interested in. His interest isn’t unmotivated – he clearly believes that the ‘racial self-interest’ model is in fact the right answer, as well as being the ‘right’ answer to the question as he formulated it. This, though, is something that the research as designed can’t confirm or deny; it’s assumed at the outset and assumed in the conclusion.

As, perhaps, it has to be: as the previous post demonstrate, it’s very difficult to separate ‘racial self-interest’ from racism other than by definitional fiat – and even that is liable to collapse if we look at ‘racial self-interest’ from the outside, in terms of its effects on those who are disadvantaged by it. (If I stop my daughter playing with your daughter because of the colour of your skin, do you think that (a) I’m motivated by racial hate; (b) my motives are unknowable and may be nothing more than racial self-interest, which would be perfectly fine; or (c) whatever my motives, my actions themselves are hateful?)

Nor is it clear what the advantage of adopting this concept would be, other than that some people with racist views would no longer be challenged on them. For EK, this in itself would be beneficial:

In one focus group run as part of my ESRC-Demos research, a lady complained of the Croydon (UK) tramlink that ‘I might have been the only English person on that tram… I didn’t like it… I could have been in a foreign country’ was challenged by another participant who asked, ‘Why should that affect you that there’s minorities on the [tram]?’ The woman swiftly changed her narrative to a more acceptable, economic, form of opposition to immigration: ‘It doesn’t affect me. It, um… I’ve got grandchildren and children… I don’t think things are going to get any better or easier for them, to get work.’ In other words, economic but not ethnocultural concerns about immigration are considered legitimate subjects for public debate. This produces dishonest debate rather than a frank and rational exchange between people of all backgrounds – realising they share similar ethnic motivations and must reach an accommodation that is fair to all.

But why would the detoxifying of ‘ethnocultural concerns’ be a good thing? How would the resulting ‘honest’, ‘frank and rational’ debate go?

– Why should that affect you that there’s minorities on the [tram]?
“Well, I’m White, aren’t I. Don’t like being outnumbered by foreigners – stands to reason. It’s against my racial self-interest.”
– Oh, racial self-interest, right. Don’t feel it so strongly myself, but if you do, well, fair enough.

There isn’t that much to debate, at the end of the day: a woman in Croydon didn’t like being – or feeling – outnumbered by foreign people on a tram, and that feeling is either (a) racist and therefore not legitimate or (b) not racist and therefore legitimate. It doesn’t matter how many people might frankly and honestly admit to racist sentiments, if encouraged to do so; if those sentiments are racist, they shouldn’t be publicly legitimated. Really, this is just “you can’t say that any more” in more sophisticated language.

The notion of racial self-interest also carries the unwelcome implication that there are such things as races which can have self-interest. EK has gestured towards the classic sociologist’s answer to this kind of question – that if people believe things are real and act accordingly, they are real in their consequences – but in this case it won’t really do. To believe in ethnic groups – even to believe in one’s own – is not necessarily to believe in ethnic group interests. If people believe that the Black British identity, the Muslim identity, the Welsh-speaking identity (etc) are real and act accordingly, no harm necessarily follows: everyone is free to maintain, develop and celebrate the identities which they feel to be theirs, and to seek out like-minded people to support them in doing so. No harm necessarily follows, up to the point where they start believing that identities like these have interests and are in competition. It’s this additional belief that leads people to act hatefully to people of the ‘wrong’ group, and it’s this belief that we generally call racism.

The one situation where ethnic group interests can become a reality, ironically, is when the ethnic group is under threat – which may be the end result of racism. Where a particular group is threatened with extinction, or its existence is denied, or its identity is treated with contempt, all members of that group have a genuine common interest in group preservation and self-assertion. But this interest is met by physical and cultural survival; there is no intrinsic interest in group expansion, except so far as necessary to assure bare survival. Moreover, the group interest is secondary; it is derivative of the fundamental individual rights which everyone has, to life and to self-actualization through culture. If those needs are met in ways that don’t perpetuate the group, the group has no independent interest in survival. There may be a thousand nominal Muggletonians in Britain, but if none of them feels that being a Muggletonian is an important part of their identity, the extinction of Muggletonianism is inevitable and is not to be regretted (except by historians).

The group extinction scenario clearly has no relevance to the position of Whites in Britain and the USA. EK invokes it nevertheless, noting that Zoroastrians frown on exogamy for just this reason. A similar logic presumably underlies an otherwise puzzling formulation, when EK argues that if someone objects to their child’s chosen partner on the grounds that the union would “defile their race’s purity”, this is racism, but that if the motive is “to preserve the vitality” of their ethnic group, this is “group-interested behaviour”. (Got that, everyone? Purity bad, vitality good.) EK seems to wish to help himself to the genuine issues faced by groups which are so small as to be in danger of extinction; he manages it by blurring the difference between genuinely preserving an ethnic group from extinction and preserving its “vitality”, or believing one is doing so. But the threat to the survival of Zoroastrianism is a reality, not merely something that becomes real by being acted on. If you act as if being English is ‘a thing’, you’re creating the social reality of being English. If you act as if the English are under threat of extinction, you’re creating social reality based on assumptions which you know to be false – in other words, you’re acting in bad faith.

At the end of the report we still have no clue as to why EK believes that ‘racial self-interest’ is a valid model, to the point that people who fail to believe in it can be labelled as biased and irrational. It’s clearly not because he believes that discrete human ‘races’ actually exist, in the sense that distinguishable noble gases or species of lizard exist. Certainly, many people believe in and identify with ethnic groups (defined in a variety of different ways). And certainly, a lot of people believe that ethnic groups have interests – at least, that their ethnic group does – and that the pursuit of these interests is entirely distinct from racism and should not be given such a pejorative label. But it’s not the role of the social scientist to give scientific credibility to widely-held errors – least of all errors as dangerous as this one is.

Next: but what about multiculturalism, eh?


One Comment

  1. Posted 18 March 2017 at 17:26 | Permalink | Reply

    Great piece, not a lot to add. Some some more lateral thoughts:

    1) It strikes me (and has before in other contexts – e.g. Reinhart & Rogoff on austerity) that we as a society need to think harder about how we treat reports/working papers/etc. from academics. If it isn’t peer-reviewed it really opens us a gap where things get slipped through with “academic credibility” but without the scrutiny we associate with academic work.

    2) Others have said it, but I worry about the Kahneman setup, it seems to me it could equally say “People infer conversational context/meanings even when you put it on paper in a lab setting” more than something about “deficient assessment of probabilities.”

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