Ambiguity, Silence and Complicity

How Good People Make It Impossible To Discuss Race, Gender and Religion

Listening to the Klein-Harris discussion about the Charles Murray controversy affected me pretty intensely. I was struck by how charitable, compassionate and reasonable Klein was in his interaction with Harris. Klein honestly didn’t think Harris was a bad guy or anything just someone who was incorrect on a factual issue and, because of the same kind of everyday biases we all have, insufficiently responsive to the broader context. Indeed, it seemed that Klein even saw Murray himself as merely misguided and perhaps inappropriately fixated not fundamentally evil. How then to square this with the fact that Klein’s articles (both the ones he wrote and served as editor for) unquestionably played a huge role in many people concluding that Harris was beyond the pale and the kind of racist scum that right thinking people shouldn’t even listen to?

Unlike Harris I don’t think Klein was being two-faced or deliberately malicious in what he wrote about Harris. Indeed, what Klein did is unfortunately all too common among well-intentioned individuals on the left and academics in particular (and something I myself have been guilty of). Klein spoke up to voice his view about a view he felt was wrong or mistaken about race but then simply choose to keep silent rather than explicitly standing up to disclaim the views of those who would moralize the discussion. This can seem harmless because in other contexts one can simply demure from voicing an opinion about controversial points which might get one in trouble but key ambiguities in how we understand notions like racist/sexist/etc and accusations of bias or insufficient awareness of/concern for the plight of underprivileged groups has the effect of turning silence into complicity.

The danger is that someone in Klein’s position faces strong pressure from certain factions on the left not to defend Murray’s views and those of his supporters as being within the realm of appropriate discussion and debate. Indeed, as Klein thinks that not only is Murray wrong but wrong in a dangerous and potentially harmful way it’s understandable that he would see no reason to throw himself in front of the extremists who don’t merely want to say Harris is mistaken but believe he should be subject to the same ostracism that we apply to members of the KKK. So Klein simply presents his criticisms of Harris and Murray and calls attention to the ways in which he thinks their views are not only wrong but actively harmful in a way that resonates with past racial injustices but doesn’t feel the need to step forward and affirmatively state his belief that Harris is probably just making a mistake for understandable human reasons not engaging in some kind of thought crime.

In other contexts one could probably just stand aside and not engage this issue but when it comes to race and racism there is a strong underlying ambiguity as to whether one is saying a claim is racist in the sense of being harmful to racial minorities or in the sense that believing it deserves moral condemnation. Similarly, there is a strong ambiguity between claiming that someone is biased in the sense of having the universal human failing of being more sympathetic to situations they can relate to or is biased in the sense of disliking minorities. These tend to run together since once everyone agrees something is racist, e.g., our punitive drug laws, then only those who don’t mind being labeled racists tend to support them even though there are plenty of well-intentioned reasons to have those beliefs, e.g., many black pastors were initially supportive of the harsh drug laws.

Unfortunately, the resulting effect is that failing to stand up and actively deny that one is calling for moral condemnation for having the wrong views on questions of race (or gender or…) one ends up implicitly encouraging such condemnation.

Harris and Klein

Double Charity Failure

I’m generally a defender of Harris and I believe Vox (under Klein) was uncharitable to Murray and Harris. Even in this interview I think he (probably unintentionally) suggests that we should take Murray’s arguments less seriously because of his political aims and implied motivations.

However, Klein is dead on the nose when he accuses Harris of not being willing to extend the same charity to others he wants extended to him. Disagreements are hard and understanding other people is very difficult and Harris (like all of us) does have trouble extending charity when it feels near something that’s a personal attack on him or understanding how other people’s errors may be motivated by similar emotional response to prior unfairness.

My sense is the Klein’s real position is a reasonable view that Murray is very wrong on the science in a way that is harmful and that Harris gets it wrong because of the issue above. However, I think Harris is absolutely right in criticizing Klein for speaking in ways he should know are likely to lead to extreme moral condemnation.

Klein should know that the way his articles (and the articles in Vox while he was editor) will be interpreted by the public as going far beyond a mild criticism that Harris makes the same kind of unremarkable mistake we all do talking about tough political issues. I don’t think Klein is being malicious here and Harris is uncharitable in assuming this but I think he should be faulted for not being much more clear to his readers that he isn’t suggesting Harris is beyond the realm of reasonable disagreement…merely that he thinks he is well-intentioned, but wrong, in a way that happens to be harmful.

In short Harris and Klein both fall short of the ideal of charity and they both could do a great deal more to communicate that well-intentioned good people can disagree intensely and even think another person’s views are harmful without having to think they are a bad person.

Waking Up Podcast #123 – Identity & Honesty | Sam Harris

In this episode of the Waking Up podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Ezra Klein, Editor-at-Large for Vox Media, about racism, identity politics, intellectual honesty, and the controversy over his podcast with Charles Murray (Waking Up #73).

A Norm Against Partisan Smearing?

Reading Reich’s book (Who We Are And How We Got Here) really drives home to me just how tempting it is to collapse into tribal based cheering (e.g. cheering on your genes/genetic history/etc as the best) and how important our norms against racism are in limiting this.

It makes me wonder if we couldn’t develop similarly strong norms about not cheering on your political/social tribe in the same manner. It’s a more delicate situation since we need to preserve the ability to disagree and offer useful criticism. However, it still seems to me that we might be able to cultivate a norm which strongly disapproved of trying to make the other side look bad or implying they are improperly motivated/biased.

I mean, of course, we won’t actually get rid of hypocrisy or self-serving beliefs but if it required the same kind of extreme caution to allege bad faith to the other ideologies that we require to make claims about racial differences it might make a big difference.

AI Bias and Subtle Discrimination

Don't Incentivize Discrimination To Feel Better

This is an important point not just about AI software but discussions about race and gender more generally. Accurately reporting (or predicting) facts that, all too often, are the unfortunate result of a long history of oppression or simple random variation isn’t bias.

Personally, I feel that the social norm which regards accurate observation of facts such as (as mentioned in the article) racial differences in loan repayment rate conditional on wealth to be a reflection of bias is just a way of pretending society’s social warts don’t exist. Only by accurately reporting such effects can we hope to identify and rectify the causes, e.g., perhaps differences in treatment make employment less stable for certain racial groups or whether or not the bank officer looks like you affects likelihood of repayment. Our unwillingness to confront these issues places our personal interest in avoiding the risk of seeming racist/sexist over the social good of working out and addressing the causes of these differences.

Ultimately, the society I want isn’t the wink and a nod cultural in which people all mouth platitudes but we implicitly reward people for denying underrepresented groups loans or spots in colleges or whatever. I think we end up with a better society (not the best, see below) when the bank’s loan evaluation software spits out a number which bakes in all available correlations (even the racial ones) and rewards the loan officer for making good judgements of character independent of race rather than the system where the software can’t consider that factor and we reward the loan officers who evaluate the character of applications of color more negatively to compensate or the bank executives who choose not to place branches in communities of color and so on. Not only does this encourage a kind of wink and nod racism but when banks optimize profits via subtle discrimination rather than explicit consideration of the numbers one ends up creating a far higher barrier to minorities getting loans than a slight tick up in predicted default rate. If we don’t want to use features like the applicant race in decisions like loan offers, college acceptance etc.. we need to affirmatively acknowledge these correlations exist and ensure we don’t implement incentives to be subtly racist, e.g., evaluate loan officer’s performance relative to the (all factors included) default rate so we don’t implicitly reward loan officers and bank managers with biases against people of color (which itself imposes a barrier to minority loan officers).

In short, don’t let the shareholders and executives get away with passing the moral buck by saying ‘Ohh no, we don’t want to consider factors like race when offering loans’ but then turning around and using total profits as the incentive to ensure their employees do the discrimination for them. It may feel uncomfortable openly acknowledging such correlates but not only is it necessary to trace out the social causes of these ills but the other option is continued incentives for covert racism especially the use of subtle social cues of being the ‘right sort’ to identify likely success and that is what perpetuates the cycle.

 

A.I. ‘Bias’ Doesn’t Mean What Journalists Say it Means

In Florida, a criminal sentencing algorithm called COMPAS looks at many pieces of data about a criminal and computes the probability that they will commit new crimes. Judges use these risk scores in criminal sentencing and parole hearings to determine whether the offender should be kept in jail or released.

We’re Damn Lucky The HBD Folks Aren’t Right About Race

Some Relieving News About Third World IQs

Here is a bit of hard data to respond to the claims that observed performance on IQ tests by those in third world countries reflect genetic deficits. Its a good thing too (even if this was hardly the first piece of evidence on the point) since its easy to imagine that the world could have turned out in a way in which (despite race not being a scientifically useful category) third world populations also suffered from genetic intelligence disadvantages. There is a decent case to be made that the Ashkenazi Jews have genetic differences given them higher average IQs. Notably that case doesn’t merely depend on differences in performance on some tests but, likely all compelling scientific arguments, weaves together an explanation of a number of different phenomena with an appealing theoretical account1. Whether or not this ultimately turns out to be true it could have been true and other undisputed cases of recent evolutionary pressure like adult tolerance for lactose make it abundantly clear that we got very lucky that there aren’t major differences in genetic predisposition to IQ across people of different descent and seeing studies like this reassures me that we really did get lucky and its not just that we are laboring under a desirable fiction.

Even though our racial categories don’t correspond to any principled scientific division at the genetic level it is a classification that correlates with ones ancestry. Given that people still tend to choose mates relatively close to themselves genetically (whether or not race is salient to them or merely geographic proximity) that means it could easily have been the case that, even supposing all developmental and social effects are controlled for, that some races would average much, much worse on IQ tests and other measures of intelligence than others. It wouldn’t really matter that race wasn’t the best scientific category to explain the effect if it turned out that 80% of people we classified as black had genes which cost them 20 IQ points while only 20% of Caucasians and 30% of Semites had this genetic combination. Such a fact would have amplified existing prejudices and resentments making it much more difficult to roll back racist attitudes and laws. In such a world I doubt one of the 20% of blacks without those genes would have had much luck explaining to the white racists around them that no, no, black isn’t the appropriate scientific concept with which to analyze this effect its really this other grouping they should be using, e.g., one which is purely defined via heredity and doesn’t exactly track our racial divisions but just happens to correlate with them.

One might try and argue that there is too much human genetic mixing for substantial genetic differences in IQ to have arisen. While it is true that for the most part humans haven’t partitioned themselves into non-interbreeding (or at least rarely) sub-populations that only holds for the most part and is itself purely a lucky accident. Australian aborigines appear to have been genetically isolated for almost 50,000 years with that isolation only ending quite recently2. There is evidence that the San people in Africa may split off from the rest of the human lineage at around the time modern homo sapiens first arrived on the scene and were then genetically isolated for nearly 100,000 years until only 40,000 years ago. There is no scientific law that ensured there weren’t major genetically isolated branches of the human species with substantially different intellectual abilities which remained separated until the end of the middle ages. It didn’t have to be the case that America was populated by genetically modern humans3 and for less extreme cases one doesn’t even need genetic isolation at all. One can imagine a scenario in which the black death is even worse and attacks the neural system creating strong selective pressure in Europe for a mutation which protects against it despite its detrimental effects on IQ. I suppose one could argue that people are just too rapacious and generally willing to fuck each other for differences to have persisted during the historical era but that is only true if all populations were subject to the same selective pressures and one could certainly imagine a scenario in which only farmers and not hunter gatherers (or vice versa) experience selection for the kind of mixed blessing genes postulated to be more prevalent in the Ashkenazi.

Of course, if we learn enough about genetics and perform sufficiently high powered studies we will probably come across some minor statistical difference in IQ between racial groups. If we assumed that humans were all otherwise genetically identical the small IQ advantage observed in Ashkenazi Jews would be enough to ensure that sufficiently powerful studies would find some average difference. Of course we aren’t all otherwise genetically identical and surely the beneficial and detrimental mutations won’t perfectly cancel out on average. But the fact that we haven’t already found substantial differences and don’t even know who will come out on top if average differences are ever found already means that we got incredibly lucky. It didn’t have to be that the HBD people were wrong, it didn’t even half to be that our racial categories didn’t track scientifically important genetic fault lines. Even though many of the HBD proponents seem so desperately motivated to believe their theories (and not all for racist reasons…some just want to be contrarian) their views certainly describe a way the world could have been and we got quite lucky that human capacities ended up sufficiently close together and interbreeding smeared us out enough that we can’t obviously pick out the more and less capable major ethnic groups.

The Wonder of International Adoption: Adult IQ in Sweden | EconLog | Library of Economics and Liberty

In Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, I showed that nurture effects are small within the First World. But I also freely conceded that the nurture effects of growing up outside the First World are probably large:The most important weakness…


  1. In this case the theoretical account suggests that certain mutations which both increase intelligence but also increase susceptibility to certain congenital disorders were selected for in Jews living in medieval Europe and laboring under systematic discrimination which kept them out of most occupations while concentrating them in a few occupations for which IQ was particularly important. 
  2. Though one could, I suppose, argue that had the aboriginal Australians, contrary to fact, been intellectually impaired relative to other humans then relatively nearby populations would have noticed and used their superior intelligence to supplant them. 
  3. For a truly extreme scenario, one could imagine an “out of America” theory of human evolution in which 200,000 years ago proto-humans leave America over the land bridge which subsequently closes (and weather/sea conditions prevent coast hopping) it is only in 1492, after modern humans evolve in the rest of the world, that we rediscover the lost American branch of the human tree. 

Legally Requiring Cross-Racial Adoptions And Sperm Donations

Is Dented Cultural Pride And Growing Pains Too High A Price To Fix Racism?

Based on their statements and revealed preferences it seems that many members of the public, and virtually all liberals, would judge some relatively minor restrictions on personal liberty (and a smidge of dented cultural pride and discomfort) to be a small price to pay to make serious inroads against the current level of racism in the United States. There is broad support for the non-trivial infringement on freedoms (despite the substantial economic costs of compliance, lawsuits and enforcement) imposed by anti-discrimination laws in hiring and public accommodations. Furthermore, the public rhetoric of most liberals and a decent chunk of conservatives suggests they would regard a mandatory two year term of military service (even if only in humanitarian/non-combat units) for American youth an acceptable price to pay in exchange for serious progress against racism in the US1. Provided we aren’t mistaken by multiple orders of magnitude about how bad the current level of US racism is it seems like we should be willing to consider relatively modest legal restrictions requiring all non-familial infant adoptions by white Americans to be of black children (and vice versa2) as well as requiring that sperm/egg banks only offer black individual’s sperm/eggs to whites and vice versa. Let me be clear I’m not at all sure I think this is even close to a good ideas but I think asking whether it is or isn’t and why raises some interesting questions.

Based on some quick googling it looks like something like 2% of all children in the US are adopted and about half of those are non-familial. Determining the rate of donor conceived children is harder given the lack of reporting but my eyeballing of the numbers from wikipedia (remembering that both total US population and use of donors is rising) page suggests that we are looking at another 2% or more donor conceived children. Putting these together it seems like such laws could ensure that something like 3% of children were raised by parents of a different skin color.

Of course, not everyone is either white or black but, according to the 2010 census about 73% of Americans are white and another 13% are black with relatively small percentages of other races. Given that whites are pretty strongly overrepresented among adopting parents as well as consumers of donor eggs/sperm and that black children are quite strongly overrepresented among children put up for adoption it seems plausible that such laws would ensure that something on the order of 1% of US children would be black children raised by whites provided we overcome the limiting factor of insufficiently many black children to be adopted by importing infants from abroad3 (and perhaps also incentivize black women to do more egg donation).

I suspect that such a policy would reduce black/white racism to a small fraction of what it once was within at most 25 years and within 40 teens will start doubting it was ever really a thing. Not only does the integration of a non-trivial percentage of blacks into white society undermine stereotypes but the close bonds of parental affection, childhood friendship and, inevitably , romantic relationships between the races ensures that both sides get an all-but first person perspective on the other, come to common understandings and leverage those relationships (as well as money and power and understanding of the system) to stamp out police bias and other kinds of institutional racism thousands of times more effectively than any social justice movement could.

Ultimately, I’m not really sure whether I see this as more of an argument that we are crazily overestimating the harmfulness of racism, hugely underestimate the harm from regulatory impositions on freedom or if its really something we should pursue.

I’m sure most people will think this is ridiculous to think about even as a thought experiment. Maybe its stupid and a bad idea. However, the space of social interventions to change attitudes is huge and people who care more about fixing the problems of racism than signalling how strong an ally they are should spend more time considering them.

Interracial Adoption Considered Harmful

Now there are any number of criticisms of interracial adoption so I expect a certain amount of resistance to the idea that it would be good to have so many black kids raised by whites.

However, these criticisms seem to break down into a few basic kinds of concerns.

  1. White parents aren’t culturally/socially prepared to deal with the discrimination, stereotypes and other bad treatment that their adopted black children face and won’t know how to effectively advocate for their child, understand what they are going through or teach them how to live through police stops.
  2. There are differences in hair care and other vaguely specified physical attributes and stuff that white parents will somehow have difficulty managing. Yes, I really found pieces suggesting this but it’s sufficiently absurd in the age of google not to be worth mentioning again.
  3. The supposedly endemic microaggressions, racist language and assumptions and other supposedly racially hurtful things white people are doing all the time will make things uncomfortable.
  4. Blacks adopted by whites are culturally and socially isolated from other blacks but aren’t really accepted by whites leaving them out in the cold.
  5. Suggestions that the practice undermines Black cultural identity or of some kind of intrinsic badness when black children don’t know ‘their’ culture and only white culture.

Point 1 is certainly serious, but it is no longer so much of a big deal when blacks being raised by whites are 1% of the population. Not only will the frequent presence of kids with black skin who are otherwise WASPs in schools, sports teams and camps reduce the barriers and stereotypes these kids face but there will be a large network of other white parents of black kids to network, exchange tips and fight for their children. White parents may struggle when they are on their own but coming together in groups with likeminded mothers to drink wine and strategize about making the lives of recalcitrant officials/teachers/etc difficult is preciscely what Caucasian moms are culturally prepared to do.

As far as point 3 goes, I think these worries take insufficient account of the fact that children don’t enter this world with any conception of what things are racial subtext and it usually takes until well into adulthood to look back on one’s parents as real people with the usual package of strengths and weaknesses. Rather than seeing the normal behavior of their parents as microaggressions and glimpses of racism infants raised by whites from birth won’t even see (when they are there) these supposed microaggressions until they learn to do so as young adults and even then it will be that embarrassing, backwards, way mom talks not threatening racial animus.

Point 4 becomes largely a non-issue. As they would no longer be a rare sight white raised black kids would be more welcome in white circles and the large cohort of other white raised black kids provides a readily available set of people who share the same experience. Finally, point 5 is nothing but the type of attitude we should be eliminating. Having a certain skin color doesn’t make one heritage yours and another not yours. The whole point of the game is to build a world in which no one even distinguishes between BASPS and WASPS and we all assign cultural heritage based on your culture not skin color.

I’m not claiming there won’t be any difficulties. It will be hard and uncomfortable for many people. Even if I’m wrong on virtually every count here as parents matter far less to children’s future welfare than peer groups I’d be shocked if the effect of neighborhood these kids grow up in and school they attend doesn’t swamp any effect based on the color of their parents skin.


  1. That is I think a majority of US voters would be willing to support the candidate pushing the mandatory military service, even knowing congress would give him the votes to pass it, if they believed that the candidates personal characteristics or policies meant having him in the whitehouse would result in real social progress regarding race. 
  2. One could implement such a policy by making it illegal for any white family to adopt a non-black infant provided any healthy black infants are still unadopted and vice-versa. This ensures that no babies go unadopted if there are willing parents just because of numerical mismatch. 
  3. International adoption my be hard now but if the US government made facilitating it a diplomatic and bureaucratic priority and imported those babies themselves it wouldn’t be. 

The Troubling Issue Of Masterpiece Cakes

Masterpiece Cakeshop Is In The Wrong But Anti-Discrimination Laws Based On Orientation May Be The Long Run Danger

Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission is the Supreme Court case about the religious baker who refused to sell any wedding cake for a gay wedding and is now challenging the Colorado anti-discrimination laws that bar him from doing this on both free speech grounds and religious liberty grounds.

Legal Considerations

The religious liberty challenge is pretty weak (both as a moral and legal matter). Essentially, the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop is arguing that he shouldn’t have to comply with the same laws that everyone else does just because his religion disagrees. It used to be the case that in some situations the Supreme Court recognized a first amendment right to an exception to generally applicable laws when they conflicted with religious belief. However, in Employment Division v. Smith Scalia got rid of this nonsense. As long as a law is generally applicable and isn’t motivated by religious animus the fact that it requires you violate your religious beliefs is immaterial1. As a result Masterpiece Cakeshop really doesn’t have a leg to stand on as far as the free exercise claim goes.

The free speech arguments are a bit more hefty. There is a long ling of cases that hold the first amendment bars the government from compelling you to express views you disagree with. For instance, in Hurley v. Irish-American Gay, Lesbian, & Bisexual Group of Boston the Supreme Court held that the first amendment protected the right of march organizers to exclude groups from their demonstration (despite contrary anti-discrimination law) when it would compromise their message, e.g., you can’t force a march against homosexuality to allow gay groups to join or a white supremacist march to include blacks. In other cases the court has held that the government can’t force students to pledge allegiance, newspapers to carry political responses for balance or PG&E to include environmental fliers in its bills.

As such, if Masterpiece Cakeshop was about the baker refusing to decorate the cake with a message they disagreed with I’m inclined to think there is a plausible argument to be made. If Masterpiece Cakeshop was willing to sell blank or generic wedding cakes to gay couples getting married there would be a strong case that requiring them to distribute messages on the cakes that they find objectionable is analogous to requiring PG&E to distribute environmental fliers it disagrees with. However, that’s not the fact patter in this case. Masterpiece Cakeshop is refusing to sell any wedding cake for a homosexual wedding.

Now there have been some heroic attempts to argue that merely providing any wedding cake at all conveys a celebratory message. However, this argument just isn’t very plausible. Certainly, wedding cakes are used as part of an event which, as a whole, sends a celebratory message but so too are the plates, silverware and chairs used at such functions. Surely no one thinks that a vendor who rents chairs for events is somehow being compelled to speak (in the way the Supreme Court has deemed unacceptable) when the law requires they deliver chairs to both gay and straight weddings. Indeed, if we accept the argument that merely because a good sold by a business will be used for an expressive purpose the sale of that good is itself expressive and thus protected from compulsion we would have to conclude that a white supremacist who owned an art supply shop had a first amendment right to refuse to sell pens to blacks as they will be used in an expressive manner (and quite likely to disapprove of white supremacy).

More broadly, there is an expressive component to all business transactions. In some sense serving black customers at a dinner expresses approval of their presence in the same dinner as whites. However, this isn’t the kind of incidental compelled expression the supreme court has identified as deserving of special protection nor should it be. When the government mandates that newspapers carry articles they disagree with the newspaper’s ability to express its desired message is seriously burdened. In contrast, when the government requires business owners to serve customers at a dinner regardless of race or sexual orientation there isn’t the same burden place on the ability of the diner owner to clearly convey his bigotry (modulo certain issues about signs2). If these brief remarks haven’t convinced you on this point I urge you to read this piece.

Policy Considerations

Alright, so Masterpiece Cakeshop deserves to lose (and almost surely will lose) at the Supreme Court. Indeed, if SCOTUS found for Masterpiece Cakeshop it would raise serious issues about the continued practical applicability of anti-discrimination laws more broadly. Many of which still address compelling needs.

However, I’m far less convinced there is any similarly compelling need for protecting homosexuals access to public accomodations like bakeries. Don’t get me wrong, I firmly believe that individuals like the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop are deeply misguided and probably bigots3. However, such individuals are being overwhelmed by the remarkably rapid march towards greater acceptance of homosexuality.

Certainly, there are still pockets of homophobia in the country but by the time laws barring anti-homosexual discrimination in public accommodations can be enacted and have an effect in less progressive states than Colorado there will be more homosexuals than people who support discrimination against homosexuals. I don’t mean to in any way diminish just how hurtful it can be to be discriminated against but we need to balance that hurt against the burden such laws place on our freedoms. The judgement we’ve made in almost all cases is that just because something is hurtful or offensive isn’t a good enough reason to abridge people’s rights to choose whom to sell to. After all, its also quite hurtful to refuse to sell to someone because they are dumb, support abortion, or because their hipster beard looks stupid (though that may be more understandable). Those may not be quite at the same level but refusing to serve any ex-cons is closer as is any number of personal reasons for discrimination one sees in small towns.

The argument that there is a special need for public accommodation laws (as opposed to other instances of hurtful but appropriately legal behavior) stems, in the case of racial discrimination, from the claim that such discrimination is systematic, pervasive and makes it particularly difficult to dissolve bigoted attitudes. These all were, and perhaps would be again absent such laws, in the case of racial discrimination. It wasn’t just that blacks were excluded from a few venues run by marginalized bigots but systematically barred from whole classes of establishments — particularly high status establishments were power and influence get traded. The systematic exclusion of blacks from these establishments created a particularly formidable barrier to racial understanding and acceptance.

In contrast, homosexuals are only rarely discriminated against in public accommodations (I’m not suggesting that many people don’t remain closeted because of likely bigoted responses from friends and family but this is beyond governmental intervention) and usually have ample alternative venues. Those public accommodations which do discriminate against homosexuals tend to be low status enterprises run by socially marginalized assholes. The penetration of chain stores into virtually all parts of America provides high quality cheap products in a non-discriminatory fashion even in some of the most backwards regions. The opinion poll trend lines prove that even without such laws the cultural shift towards homosexual acceptance is both rapid and unstoppable. In short, virtually all the reasons for thinking that anti-discrimination laws serve a special need whose exceptional importance warrants prioritizing it over the individual freedoms of the business owner don’t seem to apply. Certainly, its awful and morally unacceptable but it doesn’t seem to be different in kind from the other awful morally unacceptable behaviors we don’t outlaw.

I certainly recognize that reasonable people can disagree on the relative value of the freedoms given to business owners as well as the substantial compliance costs, unintended harms and regulatory burdens imposed by anti-discrimination laws. However, the lack of any serious attempt to weigh the costs and benefits of such anti-discrimination laws makes me suspect that people support laws barring discrimination against homosexuals merely to signal their moral disapproval of such discrimination not based on any policy analysis.

Currently, many states as well as the federal government lack laws barring discrimination based on sexual orientation in public accommodation (hiring is a harder question IMO) so given the fact that once an anti-discrimination law is passed it is virtually impossible to ever repeal (for fear of sending the message that discrimination is acceptable) now is the time to sit down and ask whether we really want the kind of laws that lead to Masterpiece Cakeshop. If I could choose to enact such laws for a ten year period I’d probably support them but when I balance 50 or 100 years of reduced freedoms, compliance costs and unintended harms against the rapidly fading benefits I find leaning against such laws.

In short, while Masterpiece Cakeshop is clearly in the wrong from both a moral and legal perspective in the long run I fear that the well-intentioned laws that lead to this case are what we should really fear. If only there was a good way to signal our moral disapproval with sufficient strength without actually creating expensive and invasive new torts and enforcement agencies.


  1. Of course, in some circumstances we do feel that religious groups deserve a special break on a generally applicable law such as when the law is merely a matter of enforcing some uniform standard and the costs of allowing sincere religious objection is small. For instance, the purpose of a law stipulating that city employees are barred from wearing any visible clothing besides their uniform isn’t substantially impeded by allowing Jewish employees to wear a kippah (aka yamaka) and the benefit to religious individuals pretty clearly outweighs the additional hassle of having to make individual determinations of appropriateness. Congress and state legislatures have adopted RFRA laws in a (deeply flawed) attempt to ensure that, in those cases where the societal cost is small and the individual benefit large, we make exceptions. Personally, I would prefer a legal regime that was religiously neutral and simply focused on strongly held views and applied a balancing test but that’s another conversation. 
  2. As Eugene Volokh has pointed out there is a serious tension between free speech rights and anti-discrimination laws which bar vendors from expressing bigoted/sexist messages in their workplace. While being forced to serve blacks doesn’t seriously burden the owner’s freedom of expression being barred from decorating the diner with news clippings praising white supremacy, denigrating blacks and arguing for the racial inferiority of minorities does. However, this is an issue for another time. 
  3. From afar animus is hard to distinguish from compassionate belief someone is making mistaken life choices combined with a desire not to encourage further mistakes. I honestly believe some very devout catholics who truly treat homosexuality as a mistake just like adultery or premarital sex fall into the second category but such people are rare. Animus is far more common. 

Skepticism About Study Linking Trump Support To Racism

Or Dear God More Suspicious Statistical Analysis

So I see people posting this vox article suggesting Trump, but not Clinton, supporters are racist and I want to advise caution and urge people to actually read the original study.

Vox’s takeaway is,

All it takes to reduce support for housing assistance among Donald Trump supporters is exposure to an image of a black man.

Which they back up with the following description:

In a randomized survey experiment, the trio of researchers exposed respondents to images of either a white or black man. They found that when exposed to the image of a black man, white Trump supporters were less likely to back a federal mortgage aid program. Favorability toward Trump was a key measure for how strong this effect was.

If you look at the actual study its chock full of warning signs. They explicitly did not find any statistically significant difference between those Trump voters given the prompts showing black or white aid recipients degree of support for the program or degree of anger they felt or blame they assigned towards those recipients. Given that this is the natural reading of Vox’s initial description its already disappointing (Vox does elaborate to some extent but not in a meaningfully informative way).

What the authors of the study did is asked for a degree of Trump support (along with many other questions such as liberal/conservative identification, vote preference, racial resentment giving researchers a worryingly large range of potentially analysises they could have conducted). Then they regressed the conditional effect of the black/white prompt on the level of blame, support and anger against degree of Trump support controlling for a whole bunch of other crap (though they do claim ‘similar’ results without controls) and are using some dubious claims about this regression to justify their claims. This should already raise red flags about research degree of freedom especially given the pretty unimpressive R^2 values.

But what should really cause one to be skeptical is that the regression of Hillary support with conditional effect of black/white prompt shows a similar upward slope (visually the slope appears on slightly less for Hillary support than it did for Trump) though at the extreme high end of Hillary support the 95% confidence interval just barely includes 0 while for Trump it just barely excludes it. Remember, as Andrew Gelman would remind us the difference between significant and non-significant results isn’t significant and indeed the study didn’t find a significant difference between how Hillary and Trump support interacted with the prompt in terms of degree of support for the program. In other words if we take the study at face value it suggests at only a slightly lower confidence level that increasing support for Hillary makes one more racist.

So what should we make of this strange seeming result? Is it really the case that Hillary support also makes one more racist but just couldn’t be captured by this survey? No, I think there is a more plausible explanation: the primary effect this study is really capturing is how willing one is to pick larger numbers to describe one’s feelings. Yes, there is a real effect of showing a black person rather than a white person on support for the program (though showing up as not significant on its own in this study) but if you are more willing to pick large numbers on the survey this effect looks larger for you and thus correlates with degree of support for both Hillary and Trump.

To put this another way imagine there are two kinds of people who answer the survey. Emoters and non-emoters. Non-emoters keep all their answers away from the extremes and so the effect of the black-white prompt on them is numerically pretty small and they avoid expressing strong support for either candidate (support is only a positive variable) while Emoters will show both a large effect of the black-white prompt (because changes in their opinion result in larger numerical differences) and a greater likelihood of being a strong Trump or Hillary supporter.

This seems to me to be a far more plausible explanation than thinking that increasing Hillary support correlates with increasing racism and I’m sure there are any number of other plausible alternative interpretations like this. Yes, the study did seem to suggest some difference between Trump and Hillary voters on the slopes of the blame and anger regressions (but not support for the program) but this may reflect nothing more pernicious than the unsurprising fact that conservative voters are more willing to express high levels of blame and anger toward recipients of government aid.

However, even if you don’t accept my alternative interpretation the whole thing is sketchy as hell. Not only do the researchers have far too many degrees of freedom (both in terms of the choice of regression to run but also in criteria for inclusion of subjects in the study) for my comfort but the data itself was gathered via a super lossy survey process creating the opportunity for all kinds of bias to enter into the process not to mention. Moreover, the fact that all the results are about regressions is already pretty worrisome as it is often far too easy to make strong seeming statistical claims about regressions, a worry which is amplified by the fact that they don’t actually plot the data. I suspect that there is far more wrong with this analysis than I’m covering here so I’m hoping someone with more serious statistical chops than I have such as Andrew Gelman will analyze these claims.

But even if we take the study’s claims at face value the most you could infer (and technically not even this) is that there are some more people who are racist among strong Trump supporters than among those who have low support for Trump which is a claim so unimpressive it certainly doesn’t deserve a Vox article much less support the description given. Indeed, I think it boarders on journalistically unethical to show the graphs showing the correlation between increasing support for Trump and prompt effect but not the ones showing similar effects for support of Hillary. However, I’m willing to believe this is the result of the general low standards for science literacy in journalism and the unfortunate impression that statistical significance is some magical threshold.

Study: Trump fans are much angrier about housing assistance when they see an image of a black man

All it takes to reduce support for housing assistance among Trump supporters is exposure to an image of a black man. That’s the takeaway from a new study by researchers Matthew Luttig, Christopher Federico, and Howard Lavine, set to be published in Research & Politics.

Reevaluating Police Shootings

Racial Justice By Universal Justice

Anyone who has been paying attention to US media should be aware of the problem of police shooting unarmed black men. There is no doubt these shootings are unacceptable and reveal deep problems in the way police function in the US but stories like that linked below raise the question of whether the most pressing problem is really racial bias or the way we’ve trained our police to shoot first and ask questions later.

Of course, we want a society in which whites and blacks can expect equal treatment from the police. However, given the deep racial differences in socioeconomic status (exacerbated by the rural/urban divide in where poor whites and blacks live) and the human psychological vulnerability to stereotypes it’s not obvious that there is anything we can do to ensure police don’t develop an unconscious perception of minorities as more threatening. Studies, such as this, suggest that the different treatment that whites and blacks can expect from police aren’t the result of animus as black officers are equally guilty of it. That points to other effects such as stereotypes developed as a result of policing economically disadvantaged minority communities as the cause.

Hopefully, there are strategies we can implement to counteract these stereotypes. Maybe rotating officers into positions where they interact with more high socioeconomic status minorities (or low socioeconomic status whites) would be helpful. I don’t know. This is an area in which more research is desperately needed. However, in the near term, rather than focusing on race and racial bias, we may want to instead focus on the kind of police culture and training that leads to incidents like the one described below. Even if our only concern was racial justice reducing the number of unjust shootings may be the most effective way to reduce the unfair burden of extra risk that minorities bear.

Good Friends And Bullets, A Grimm Tale

What are friends for? Shooting, when the cop brain goes into survival mode. Andy Grimm, who knows Shaw, said he does not want the officer to be fired, the paper reported. “I know Jake,” he said. “I like Jake.” And Deputy Jake Shaw likes Andy Grimm too. “We know the deputy.

Free Speech Slip and Slide

In the past I’ve written at length about my concern that the newly invigorated attitude that we must outlaw, or at least severely socially punish the speakers, racist/sexist/etc.. speech is a mistake. I have doubts about the efficacy of such punishments and believe that pushing racism adjacent views into a hidden underground where they fester and mutate1 creates more hate. However, the primary thrust of my concern was the usual slippery slope argument (importantly serious harms arise as soon as well-intentioned people start to fear that an epistemic mistake could land them in trouble). Unfortunately, evidence for a steep slippery plastic slope with extra soap arrived all too quickly.

Superiority of Western Culture

First we had this really stupid opinion piece that I would have guessed was written by a machine learning algorithm trained on 1980s era conservative values pieces if it had only mentioned crack (still managed a shout out to the pill for destroying our perfect 1950s society). Personally, I thought it was just as stupid this time around as I did in the late 80s and early 90s except these authors should have seen how that went and known better. However, as far as offensiveness goes it rates as a “kids these days…have no … always on their..” but somehow it has become the subject of accusations of racism and the subject of serious controversy (yes, that last article is written by a friend of the original author so take its slant with a grain of salt).

True, there is no credible effort to have the author fired from her position in the law school but it has generated enough outrage for students to get up in time to picket Wax’s class as racist and its not just some hasty people with signs. At least a non-trivial segment of the Penn campus left is willing to call this piece racist, sexist or otherwise suggest it isn’t just dumb and wrong but deserving of open moral scorn.

While one might try and charitably reconstruct some argument based on the text of the oped2 what is going on is what is always going on with accusations of racism/sexism/islamophobia etc.. Rather than parsing the literal content of a piece and asserting those claims amount to racism (or providing evidence that the author was being disingenuous) people decide to call something racist if it feels like the things racists would say. In this case there is no doubt this oped has that feel. Indeed, it hits many of the points that one would expect from a racist dog-whistle: glorification of European/western culture, suggestion that something associated with whites is superior, a nostalgic comparison to the 1950s, reference to some aspect of black culture the author disapproves of (“anti-“acting white” rap culture of inner-city blacks”) and even the obligatory focus on whites that have the traits you are criticizing.

The problem with taking this as grounds for accusations of racism is that it confuses being the sort of person whose strong affinity for traditionalism and reverence for long lived institutions and practices may make needed reform more difficult with actual racism. However, we are generally quite willing to let the earnest man who is such a strong believer in feminism that he frequently gives a piece of his mind to men who he views as pushing an aggressive male-centric approach on women and thereby does more to perpetuate the stereotype of women as unable to handle these situations than anyone he criticizes. This case is only different in that it is harder to imagine genuinely feeling that these old school conservative values are the secret to a better life and wanting to help minorities by sharing. Also in that often people who feel this way about morals and newfangled social innovations also feel this way about minorities but that’s just a stereotype.

Most importantly, it renders the standard for racism uselessly subjective. If it is no longer necessary to have overt animus or believe in some particular stereotype then it is insanely easy to apply the term to virtually anyone you want. Especially given that as the sphere of things that have been labeled racist expands fewer and fewer non-racists say anything in that sphere so just imagine the same dialog in 20 years about pieces supporting free speech. It would be something mostly racists talk about as a cover, anyone like me writing about it would explain that we believed in it for everyone (while detractors would point out that we kept focusing on the free speech of the racists as they don’t see it from the context in which that is the right place to make one’s stand), one could raise analogies to the contract rights arguments offered in the civil rights movement (yes its bad but the constitution…we just can’t do anything). The only thing this lacks is the subjective feel that comes from hearing lots of racists say something that sounds similar but we can’t cede to racists the power to decide what is and isn’t considered.

Also, as a practical matter this kind of use of the accusation of racism isn’t productive. The reason to use the term at all is to invoke our shared disapprobation of certain behaviors to change people’s behavior. Telling someone ‘suggesting that blacks only eat fried Chicken or look like Gorillas’ is racist usually results in an immediate change and the world is a better place but when you say that some vague thing about the gestalt I get from your article is racist doesn’t. If I were the author and was willing to sell out my views so I wouldn’t be racist how would I even know where to start?

Call these ideas out as stupid or even the kind of progress phobic thinking that perpetuates racism that’s great but its just not racism.

University of Tampa’s Impolitic Twitter Firing

Also, we have the University of Tampa firing a visiting professor for the following poorly considered and bumblinging inappropriate tweet

I dont believe in instant karma but this kinda feels like it for Texas. Hopefully this will help them realize the GOP doesnt care about them.

This is obviously just a case of someone not realizing how what he said would be taken in context. When he did he apologized. That should have been the end of it.

While at first glance one might feel that this isn’t really relevant to the broader picture at the moment. However, while it wasn’t exactly an academic paper this tweet is fundamentally nothing but an expression of a political sentiment. Indeed, suppose the author really believed this was some kind of divine vengeance on Texas for voting GOP. Surely that is core political-religious speech if anything is so its hard to see how this is anything but a direct attack on the idea that Professors get to comment on current events and broader social issues without fear of being fired for controversial views (assuming they don’t bear on their academic qualifications…mathematicians probably shouldn’t say $\omega$ and $2^\omega$ have the same cardinality).

Mistakes

We need room for people to make mistakes! Even mistakes about what to believe on controversial issues because only when people feel they won’t lose their jobs or be shunned if they get it wrong can they allow themselves to explore the issue and reach the right conclusions.

I know its really hard in these discussions to imagine any other perspective than your own but rarely is it the case that someone just wakes up out of the blue filled with hate and the desire to see another race suffer. Sure, sometimes the reasons are just visceral (your gang is white they are black) but in most cases there is some chain of thought and emotion that made every step they took seem reasonable so if you suspect the target of your criticism of simply reasonless hate you should probably reevaluate that view.

However, that is what makes the situation so dangerous as well. Given that even racists think they have good and sound justifications for their beliefs an atmosphere which imposes severe penalties for even minor infractions allows only one safe response: parrot back the official dogma.

But, if we are going to fix the remaining barriers and harms inflicted by problematic stereotypes and structural racism/sexism we need to find them in non-obvious places and that takes open speculation. We’ve picked all the low hanging fruit so more looking for white or male ‘perpetrators’ (if it could have been fixed easily that way we would have) we instead need to look at the less examined reservoirs of stereotypes such as members of the group themselves or the well-intentioned helper3. That means we need to walk on the edge and consider possibly offensive or unpleasant possibilities if we are going to figure out what is really going on so we can do something to fix things.


  1. I’ve seen any number of scenarios in which the perception that certain topics can’t even be discussed doesn’t erase those ideas from people’s minds. Rather, it pushes them to form groups (the ones that go silent when a woman or minority comes by and we work so hard to eliminate) in which they feel they can comfortably express views they are sympathetic to but are too controversial for general consumption. Unfortunately, when people gather together for the purpose of feeling safe sharing controversial views creates a strong social pressure not to call anyone else’s views in that group out for sexism/racism/etc.. even in a polite friendly way. I’m constantly amazed at how quickly both such groups form and how quickly they descend to the lowest common denominator and serve as a breeding ground where hateful ideas can infect good people because there is no opportunity to apply the corrective of a good counterargument and criticism. 
  2. Taking their complaints at face value would seem to suggest the problem is that suggesting WASP culture (not so named) is superior is racist or at least unacceptable and bad. While those of us immersed in liberal sensibilities naturally flinch a bit when the suggestion is made that one culture is superior to another that doesn’t make the claim wrong or racist. Indeed, we all believe that, at least in the modern context, modern western culture is superior to the violent revenge culture in some New Guinean tribes all things considered (of course cultures have so many traits surely we could cherry pick a few improvements but the original piece doesn’t deny this). Hell, the very idea of tolerance and equality that those on the left are fighting for is a rare value for a culture to have and we are right to identify it as something good and important. But I think this “can’t say one culture is better than another” line isn’t a very charitable interpretation. 
  3. Everyone knows that a great deal of slut-shaming and outfit policing is done to women by women and we’ve learned recently that it is other women who do the majority of interrupting women and may very well be the ones preventing more competitive female involvement. This matches both my experience at caltech (women who had few if any female friends their whole lives were way more likely to just blunder in and shot their load on the conversation or dismiss someone else’s contribution as stupid) and what evolutionary psychology would suggest (men have little interest in policing women but each gender needs to police rivals). Of course, men aren’t on the hook they are just on the hook for something else perpetuating harmful male stereotypes which can harm women as much as they do men (say by men not being willing to become primary caregivers).