Yes, We Should Shame and Punish Racists

By Kindred Winecoff

Contra Graham below, I do not think Donald Sterling should’ve been treated lightly. My disagreement with him stems from his assertion that “the goal” is to convince racists to not be racists. I do not think that is the appropriate aspiration in all cases, including this one.

It clearly is not the NBA’s goal. The NBA’s goal is to disassociate from racists. This is not only wise in an immediate instrumental sense — the players were going to strike if Sterling was not suspended, putting the playoffs in jeopardy — but in broader relational sense. It is not sensible for me to join the Westboro Baptist Church in order to patiently sit with them and try to persuade them to change their minds. It is nonsensical for at least two reasons. First is that voluntary association is a legitimating act. Second is that it is extremely unlikely to be successful.

Reams of research suggest that political views seldom change. When they do it is usually as the result of new exposure: having to directly view someone else’s plight for the first time. Donald Sterling’s problem is not his under-exposure to African-American athletes and their supporters. “Raising awareness” of the problem with his behavior is not likely to help him change his mind. In such circumstances patient explanation and “debunking” frequently exacerbate the problem.

Moreover, Sterling has shown no interest at all in having an open discussion. To my knowledge he has not publicly acknowledged this situation, nor has he apologized. His wife — co-owner of the team and also a racist — is suing Sterling’s former mistress for leaking the tape. These people are trying to use their enormous fortune to materially harm the lives of those who object to their execrable behavior. I’m sorry but there’s no way to reason with people in an environment such as this.

So persuasion is usually wasted effort and may worsen the problem. There is another goal: punishment. Clearly the NBA wishes to punish Sterling materially as well as disassociating from him and shaming him, and this is appropriate. I do not think it matters that this was a private conversation as the purpose of the conversation was for Sterling to instruct someone over whom he had a great deal of influence to actively discriminate against others. Sterling’s talk was not idle, in other words, and he had many, many priors. Punishment for its own sake is appropriate in cases where people have harmed others.

While I admire Graham’s eagerness to raise the status of deliberation, and I share his skepticism of the motivations behind society’s tendency to veer from one Two Minutes Hate to another, I think in this case (and cases like it) his patience is unwise. If nothing else it legitimizes beliefs that ought not be legitimized by treating them as worth consideration.

12 thoughts on “Yes, We Should Shame and Punish Racists”

  1. Impatience with persuasion leads ultimately to violence, and as much as there are bigger issues here regarding the broader cultural residues of crypto-racism left in society, there are too bigger issues of the cultural support for patience and dialog over impatient retribution and coercion.

    I don’t want to live in a world in which racists are punished, ostracized, harassed, and ultimately jailed and beaten in the same way religious and racial minorities have been in the past, and that is precisely where the left’s orgy over their recent critical mass and cascade of support for hobby social issues is going to lead.

    The content of beliefs are meaningless is the means by which we arrive at them are bankrupt. I’m trying to register a warning about how to and not to conduct a social movement, not endorsing Sterling or recommend the NBA not respond to the demands of its workers and consumers.

    Bloodthirsty anti-racism turns on exactly the same unthinking mobbing and out-group denigrating that racism did in the first place, and is just as ethically bankrupt in that form. In fact potentially even more so – because original racists never seem to have been so throughly convinced of a self-delusion about the acceptance and empathy underneath their beliefs.

    I’d rather deal with people who transparently and unashamedly hate others than a bunch of people with dilated pupils and a five penny nail through their hands and feet who think their hate is the epitome of scientifically, politically, emotionally, and spiritually legitimate hate.


  2. “I don’t want to live in a world in which racists are punished, ostracized, harassed, and ultimately jailed and beaten in the same way religious and racial minorities have been in the past,”

    I agree. But we’re not in that world. I don’t want to live in a world where private associations are expected to continue to associate with a septuagenarian millionaire who is a racist and (probably) a sexist just because of a highly speculative slippery slope argument. And anyway: the racists were ones DOING THE JAILING AND BEATING OF MINORITIES IN THE PAST.

    “and that is precisely where the left’s orgy over their recent critical mass and cascade of support for hobby social issues is going to lead.”

    As you provide no evidence for this claim I’ll just dismiss it, while noting that historically the opposite has been true.


  3. Well let’s see. The steady expansion of the definition of civil rights has become a pretense to abandon forms of due process in the prosecution of suspected rapists. It is now acceptable to fire or not hire someone who is suspected of objecting to other people’s private lives, religious association – exactly the kind of discrimination civil rights legislation was desiged to stop. There are videos piling up of leftist protestors assaulting anti-abortion advocates, critics of feminism, and so forth. And it’s broadly now considered good sport and indeed an ethical requirement that one not just tolerate but join in piblic jeering and shaming of people who make discrimnatory remarks in passing.

    All of these developments are predicated on people’s vitriol hatred of racists and sexists. And these people don’t even have the stones to admit they hate these people and are publicly encouraging others to join into the hate orgy. This movement has all of the earmarks of religious, ethnic, or nationalistic score settling — except it’s wrapped in new, shiny looking justifications of “restoring social justice.”

    People who are genuinely interested in restoring social justice will think harder about what fundamentally constituted the emotional and institutional structure of racism, sexism, and so forth — and not unselfconsciously reproduce precisely the same thing under a new banner as their beliefs become dominant.

    Someone who is confident she is right does not need to intimidate, abuse, and “punish” people into adopting her position.


    1. Even if I accepted ever single thing that you said, and I disagree about where the balance of oppression really lies at minimum, it’s still missing the point. The question is this: is the NBA justified in expelling from its organization someone who has done material damage to the business by encouraging the discrimination of African-Americans? The answer is that they are obviously justified in doing so, and suggesting that they are not — that they must associate with and countenance racists — is where the true risk of coercion lies. None of Donald Sterling’s civil liberties are being infringed upon.

      Proclaiming that people should be coerced to associate with racists because otherwise there is a risk of coercion is a really weird (i.e. nonsensical) argument. Pointing to other contexts where other forms of discrimination have occurred is a non sequitur.

      And besides: since when do you think that private employers should be prevented from refusing to hire racists if they don’t want to?


  4. No, to claim that my initial argument was all about the NBA’s rights as a firm, and about Donald Sterling in particular, is to completely miss the point I made in the first place, and have stuck with: screaming, protest, mocking, firing, ostracizing, and public humiliation are a low form of persuasion, and about as close as you can get to outright coercion without actually hitting or threatening anyone. Moreover, I never suggested anyone coerce anyone else: exactly the opposite.

    I tried to persuade people to stop acting like hateful dogs when issues of race and gender come up. Just because the impetus for raced and gendered complaints come down from on high in the academy doesn’t mean that they don’t have the potential to, and indeed haven’t in actuality become a new shiny reason for people to hate one another. It’s immature, unreasoned, and frankly unnecessary considering anti-racists and anti-sexists hold the now-dominant view. The fact that they don’t recognize that they are now enforcing an already-dominant belief with harassment precisely like the harassers they initially set out to persuade is frightening, especially considering everyone feels like participating in this hate orgy is how you show the world you’re a nice person.

    “I hate people who hate people, and that makes my hate superior, so I’m going to go show everyone how much I hate people who hate people.”


    1. “No, to claim that my initial argument was all about the NBA’s rights as a firm, and about Donald Sterling in particular, is to completely miss the point I made in the first place…”

      Here’s how that post begins:

      “Donald Sterling is a racist. The question we have to ask ourselves is: how are we going to deal with racists?”

      That is absolutely the context in which you were writing. If you want to talk about a general phenomenon that’s fine, and in some ways I might agree (as I noted in this post), but when I discuss your argument in the context of the specific case that motivated your post it’s hardly appropriate for you to complain.

      …”screaming, protest, mocking, firing, ostracizing, and public humiliation are a low form of persuasion”

      But as I said, that doesn’t matter if persuasion isn’t the goal. In this case (and, I would guess, most others of the sort you’re describing) it definitely is not.

      “Moreover, I never suggested anyone coerce anyone else: exactly the opposite.”

      Yes you say that, but if social relations actually operated as you prefer them to that would involve people having to associate with others they find extremely distasteful on the dubious grounds that “persuasion” might be better facilitated that way. This is at least as coercive as firing someone who damages your firms’ reputation by being a racist.

      Anyway, you repeatedly make the claim that persuasion is more likely when racists are not shamed or punished but there is NO EVIDENCE AT ALL that it is true. In my post I link to a number of studies that find the opposite effect. I could have linked to another body of work that shows that “naming and shaming” *does* work in a variety of contexts.

      So I remain unconvinced on all points.


  5. You can call it “balance of oppression,” or you can call it “the feudal grievance that one group has with the other group just like every other feudal grievance in history,” it still doesn’t justify participating in an unthinking mob.


  6. Also, I think the replies to me that unabashedly proclaim that the goal is not to persuade racists but to enact some kind of vigilante punishment for an “imbalance of oppression,” both evidence my claims pretty nicely and are extremely frightening to boot.

    It’s not at all clear why anyone would write essays trying to persuade me with logic and evidence that I am wrong, if the argument is that the whole goal here is to shame and shut people up on the other side of the debate, and if there is “reams of evidence” to show that persuasion doesn’t exist, people never change their minds, and the Western scholastic and political enterprise of the last 2,000 years is essentially a dead end.


    1. 1. If you were my only intended audience I would’ve just sent you an e-mail.

      2. This is not vigilante punishment. It’s self-policing by the NBA, in accordance with the rules in their own privately-agreed constitution, and therefore it is completely legitimate under any ethical principle I can imagine. For someone as concerned with due process as you it’s conspicuous that you keep ignoring this point.

      3. I don’t care if Sterling (or anyone else) wishes to spout racist language using whatever media are at his disposal. I don’t care if you have enough free time to listen to him, reason with him, try to persuade him. I only care about preserving the right of others to disassociate from him, with cause, without having to listen to people accuse them of participating in an “hate orgy” that is “ethically bankrupt”. The right of association or non-association is as sacred to me as the right of speech.

      4. The fact that you have no principled evidentiary standard — that is, that you are willing to make strong claims without supporting evidence and are willing to cast off (without justification or even acknowledgement) evidence that contradicts your argument — indicates that your ideal of reasoned discourse is doomed: you are not persuadable… why should I accept your argument that everyone else is (if I were only nice to them)? Honestly.

      5. You seem more concerned with opposing whatever the academic left Borg is doing than dealing with the actual question on its own merits. This wouldn’t be the first time. As I say, I’m sympathetic to some of your views on this topic, but veering from Specific Circumstance A to General Social Phenomenon Z can lead to tortured reasoning. I think it has in this case.


  7. “When they do it is usually as the result of new exposure: having to directly view someone else’s plight for the first time.”

    The article you linked does not support this view. While scenarios like that in American History X and after school specials we grew up watching in health class might actually play out sometimes, it seems to me that the most fervent anti-racists (educated middle and upper middle class people) arrived at their positions because of education and discussion.

    One of the great bastions of expressed racism is that between prison gangs, who clearly have plenty of “exposure” to one another. The colorful redneck I met in Gary Indiana once, where blacks and white have plenty of exposure to one another, told me, “the niggers don’t come over here because they know we got shot guns.”

    So again, you and others can defend this new form of reverse bigotry with casual references to history of women and minorities, and a few behavioral papers on statistical fallacies and tribalism in American politics. But you are transparently promoting precisely that tribalism by telling people to ignore statistics, abandon persuasion, and just hate people who don’t agree with them.


  8. “This is not vigilante punishment.”

    Yes it is. The actions of Twitter, basketball fans, and the Outraged Internet Masses, both academic and casual, are precisely motivated by vigilantism.

    “It’s self-policing by the NBA”

    You can call vigilantism “self-policing,” and make recourse to freedom of association, but I challenged neither the NBA’s or anyone else’s constitutional right to hire and fire who they want, nor serve and not serve who they want, nor hang out or not with who they want. I challenged the ridiculous view on the populist left that their values of toleration, acceptance, understanding, and empathy, are best taught by averring their disgust with cattle ranchers and property/team owners whose views are already minority opinions on any standard of measurement.

    This is about settling scores with old liver spotted white guys. It is only slightly more dignified than a lynch mob.

    . . . . You seem more concerned with opposing whatever the academic left Borg is doing than dealing with the actual question on its own merits.”

    This is exactly our point of departure, and that’s exactly right, but the actual question and its own merits is the *motivation* of the NBA’s actions, which of course come from the symbolic lynch mob and their consumer demands.

    The issue here, as I see it, is precisely what the left academic, artistic, political, journalistic, and public conversational Borg unselfconsciously promotes — hate, division, institutional power, a lack of trust, and an anti-social ethics that’s based primarily in envy and retribution. I believe these efforts are corrosive to reasoned discourse and actual tolerance in the street, and moreover are having their strongest impact in the one place that is supposed to be setting an example for the tenor of discourse in the street — the University.


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