I was checking the Dilbert blog (sorry! I was just curious what was up after the events of a few weeks ago) and saw this:
I [Scott Adams] wonder if any old-time racists still exist. I knew a few racists when I was a kid, back in upstate New York. In my adult life, I don’t think I’ve met one. . . . I certainly understand if you’ve witnessed it, or suffered from it. I’m just saying I haven’t seen it where I live. Clearly that sort of activity is distributed unevenly around the country. Just to be clear: I’m only saying I haven’t personally witnessed overt racism in my adult life. I accept that you have seen it firsthand, if you say so. Classic racism of the old-timey variety is probably only possible in people who don’t own television sets and haven’t gone through grade school. I’ll grant you that racist prison gangs and neo-Nazis exist. But obviously something else is going on with those guys. Let’s call them the exceptions. . . . I assume discrimination must be going on someplace. I’m just saying I’ve never seen it firsthand, which probably has a lot to do with where I live in the San Francisco Bay area. . . . Racism is certainly happening with prison gangs and Neo-Nazis. Everyone else might be guilty of something closer to profiling or insensitivity. . . .
My experiences have been similar to Adams. Last year I encountered the first bit of racism I’d seen in I don’t know how long, and, that was the point: it was completely unexpected.
On the other hand, according to this poll, “46% of [usual Mississippi Republican primary election] voters believe interracial marriage should be illegal, while 40% think it should be legal.” Wanting interracial marriage to be illegal . . . I think that’s racist under any definition.
So Adams is right and he is wrong. He’s right that racism is distributed unevenly around the country. But he’s wrong if he thinks it’s possible that no old-time racists still exist. (I assume that most of these Mississippi Republicans are neither in prison gangs nor are neo-Nazis.)
Why am I blogging this? Not to criticize Scott Adams–as noted above, I’ve had the same experiences he has. And, like Adams, I’m sure there’s lots of racism that I don’t see because it’s not directed at me and it does not come up when I’m around. And, as many of Adams’s commenters note, the definition of racism is not clear. Like many universities, Columbia has had policies that favor members of underrepresented minority groups. People disagree about whether this is racism, and I see no point in arguing the point here, one way or another.
So let’s restrict ourselves to unambiguous racism such as saying interracial marriage should be illegal. Mississippi Republicans are unusual–they’re an extremely conservative bunch of white people. Razib Kahn looked into the numbers and pointed out that the last time the question was asked in the General Social Survey, in 2002, only 10% of Americans wanted interracial marriage to be illegal. 10% is still a lot–it’s not just prison gangs and neo-Nazis–but it’s a lot less than 46%.
And I think it’s reasonable to suppose that the currently overwhelming (at the national level) opposition to banning interracial marriage represents a real trend. I doubt people are lying to pollsters on this one–I don’t think the 90% of Americans who said that interracial marriage should be legal were just being politically correct, it seems much more plausible to me that they really have no problem with its legality. It’s a big shift in values compared to the early 1970s (when the General Social Survey began) when a third of respondents wanted interracial marriage to be illegal.
So here’s the issue. Everybody knows you can’t change human nature, but sometimes public opinion can shift a lot! (A more recent example is gay marriage, but that seems a bit different to me: twenty years ago, gay marriage wasn’t really an option at all, whereas interracial marriage has been around forever.) It’s hard for me to imagine anyone in today’s U.S. opposing interracial marriage–and I assume Adams feels the same way–but perhaps opposition can be explained as some sort of expression of political attitudes of the “I don’t want any damn Yankees telling me how to run my life” variety.
Racism is still around (for example, Lynn Vavreck and Simon Jackman estimate that a third of Americans think blacks are lazier than whites) but maybe this is the sort of thing they won’t say openly (except among Republicans primary election voters in Mississippi).
As Adams notes, his experiences (and mine) are consistent with geographic variation in racism. Where he went wrong is through the familiar availability heuristic: since he hasn’t seen racism personally, it’s hard for him to internalize the fact that it exists at all, and he’s tempted to sideline it to “prison gangs and neo-Nazis.” I don’t mean this to be criticism of Adams; as Kahneman, Slovic, Tversky, etc., have shown, statistical thinking does not come naturally to humans.
That’s one reason that surveys are a good thing: they make us aware of variation in the general community that we don’t perceive in our social networks.