Taking Offense

(I’m mostly busy writing on my overdue project. I wrote this paragraph as part of it, and am fond enough of it that I’ve decided to share it here.)

When confronted with evidence of racial disparities in treatment, one reaction is to blame the measurement. It is not uncommon for agencies or officials to refuse to collect data on race or ethnicity, or to refuse to analyze the data they do have, claiming that the data cannot possibly be meaningful, because race is not real and the classifications are arbitrary. Or they say that they “don’t see race” and treat everyone equally, and argue that collecting or reporting data by race is, itself, racist. Or – and I’ve heard this said quite a few times by criminal justice officials – “the data would be used in the wrong way.” If you ask what that means, it appears the answer is that the data might be used to suggest that there has been racial discrimination by the agency. (I responded to one police chief who said this by saying, “Well, the data could show that you don’t discriminate.” He said, “I never thought of it that way.”) It is sort of like blaming the thermometer for a fever. Or – and this is probably closer to the problem – like blaming the auditor for finding that money is missing from the cash box. The implication is that somebody is a thief. Even asking for the books to be audited can be taken as an insult.

Certain kinds of racial discrimination are illegal and overt racial discrimination on the part of public officials is generally censured. Beyond that, discriminatory behavior is generally seen as stemming from the personal flaw of racial prejudice. Many people believe that prejudice is a moral failing and that unprejudiced people are incapable of discriminating. Evidence of possible racial discrimination is thus seen as evidence of moral turpitude. Just as people are offended at being called thieves, people take offense at any implication that they may have discriminated on the basis of race. I have heard and read quite a few White people assert that calling someone racist is “just as bad as the n-word.” Many people face these issues without the help of even weak understandings of the social science ideas of unconscious discrimination, systematic or institutional racism or discrimination, indirect consequences of actions taken for other reasons, or pernicious interactions and feedbacks among different social forces. They focus solely on whether there is evidence that an actor intended to behave in a racially discriminatory fashion; if there is any ambiguity about intentions then, ipso facto, there must have been no discrimination.

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Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog http://www.ssc.wisc.edu/soc/racepoliticsjustice/ --Pam Oliver

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