Human nature can’t be changed (except when it can)

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.)

Who cares?

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.

16 thoughts on “Human nature can’t be changed (except when it can)

  1. This is ironic. Scott Adams has shown himself to be a bigot himself (against atheists) in addition to being anti-science (i.e. calling evolution "bullshit").

  2. I live "North of the Border" and racism exists here as everywhere in the world. I actually come from a very racist society in Central America. But in any case… my comment is about the interracial marriage issue: I wonder how many African-American, Chicano, people of Hispanic Origin, Asian American, or any other group may be opposed to the interracial marriage as well (maybe not to the point of wanting it to be illegal). But if a relative wants to marry outside their group… I have tried to get people to use the Vancouver Index of Acculturation because it asks these types of questions.
    Anyway, my two cents (which these days is like 2.05 US cents).

  3. A couple of comments:

    1. I think racism is much more prevalent than either you, Gelman, or Adams believe. Consider the case of the border fences and the prominence (relative to its actual impact) of immigration in political debate. This is politicians' using constituents anti-Latino feelings for their political gain.

    2. The ""I don't want any damn Yankees telling me how to run my life"" excuse doesn't fit, because it's not Yankees telling them how to live their life, it's Yankees telling them they can't tell others how to live their lives.

  4. Clayton:

    I believe there's lots of racism, I just haven't experienced much. I think where Adams has gone astray is in believing the evidence from his personal experience rather than believing the statistics. As a statistician, I'll believe the statistics every time!

  5. "…twenty years ago, gay marriage wasn't really an option at all, whereas interracial marriage has been around forever."

    It seems like in either case some degree of opportunity to cohabit and privately live as married has always existed in both cases, but the state and society has denied legal benefits of marriage. Admittedly Loving v. Virginia is more like 40 years ago than 20, but you say interracial marriage been around forever. What is the difference you see here, Andrew?

  6. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said "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". Surely a white American is not in the best position to judge the prevalence of racism, just as men are not good judges of how much sexism still exists, and heterosexuals may underestimate anti-gay sentiment. Your perception may be affected by lack of exposure as much as true regional differences in attitudes.

  7. Andrew [not Gelman], I'm not sure you can call Scott Adams a bigot for being against atheism and evolution. He's clearly against the ideas. He's in all probability wrong. But I'm not sure he ever said anything that ascribes characteristics to atheists outside of the fact that they believe something he doesn't, and he doesn't like it… and probably thinks their stupid for their belief… but can we call that bigoted?

  8. David:

    What I meant was the following: Twenty years ago gay marriage was not on any serious political agenda and gay marriage was not legal in any state. But interracial marriage has been legal in lots of states for a long time. I'm referring here to the legal status, not merely the opportunity to cohabit.


    I agree completely, hence my invocation of the availability heuristic.

  9. John, if you don't want to call him a bigot for that, how about calling him a bigot for his opinions on women?

  10. Those numbers understate the issue by quite a bit.

    Is someone who wouldn't want his/her daughter to marry a XXXXX (e.g. black, asian, white, jewish, etc.) person but wouldn't go so far as to say it should be illegal racist? What if that person would disown his/her daugher? What about a person who would say that interracial marriage is morally wrong, but should not be illegal?

    The numbers above merely reflect those people who are willing to admit that they think that racism should be enshrined in our laws.

    I suppose that this might come down to the definition of an "old-time" racist. But I think that it actually comes down to how the old feelings assume different expressions.

    So, these questions are measuring multiple dimensions. What about the libertian who thinks that interacial marriage is wrong, but that our government should stay out of relationships between consenting adults.

    I feel quite comfortable that numbers above represent something signfificantly lower than the lower bound on the share of racists in our society, even if we set the bar for racism pretty high.

  11. Ceolaf:

    Indeed. To me (and, I suspect, to Adams), it's amazing that anyone in 2011 would want interracial marriage to be illegal!

  12. "Racism is still around (for example, Lynn Vavreck and Simon Jackman estimate that a third of Americans think blacks are lazier than whites)"

    Why would it be racist to believe in something like that if it's true? Quite a few people, both white and black, also believe that whites tend to be more intelligent than blacks, but is that racist?

    The way racism is defined is arbitrary. Another example of this is that Adams says that he has never experienced racism in his adult life, yet he has previously written that he has been denied promotion because he is a white male.

  13. I lived in Mississippi for a number of years and there is certainly no shortage of old-time racists there. I eventually just stopped interacting with the other white people in my town because so many (old and young alike) said and did jaw-droppingly horrible things. If you told me 46% (or 96%) of Mississippi Republicans *disapproved* of interracial marriage, I would not be surprised. Nevertheless, I find that poll number to be implausible, if only because the Mississippians I knew were sensitive about the appearance of racism in their laws. Admittedly, I don't have an alternate explanation for the numbers except that Mississippi Republicans were somehow particularly confused by the question.

  14. "A third of Americans think blacks are lazier than whites."

    Let's be clear: not providing equal rights to different racial grousp is racist, not giving individuals the opportunity to prove themselves because of race is racist, but believing (possibly true) statements about a group as a whole is not, necessarily.

    The statement "blacks are lazier than whites" may be factual or not. I don't think it is racist unless it is used as a justification for discrimination. If employment, for instance, is synonymous with industriousness, then it is a factual statement. If someone applied to a job, and the response was: "We're not interested, because black people are lazy," it is racist. If someone has a set of employees, some of whom routinely show up late and do less work, and that group is largely black, it's fair for him to say that his black employees are lazy. Is it reasonable to generalize the statement? Probably so. Is it racist? Maybe.

  15. Certain types of racist actions are greatly reduced since the 1960s. Cross burnings and lynchings are pretty rare these days. Those that openly use the N word to describe blacks are a dying breed. Even among the "racially tolerant" whites of the 1960's jokes about a black man stealing more chain than he could swim with were considered amusing.

    This is what I think of when I think of "old time" racism. And I think that type of racism is in sharp decline. (At least I hope it is.)

    Modern racism exists, but it is qualitatively different than old time racism. Objecting to interracial marriage is a world apart from hanging a black man for dating a white woman.

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