By Graham Peterson
There is a theory that punishment used to be so brutal because detection of crimes was so difficult. The state had a very small monitoring apparatus in the middle ages, and a lot of people got away with a lot of crime. A rational criminal calculates the net benefit of committing a crime: net benefit = benefits – costs. There is a probability that he will pull of the heist, p, and a probability he will get caught, (1-p). Thus net benefit = p(benefits) – (1-p)(costs). Since the probability of getting caught was low, say (1-p) = 0.001, states increased the size of the costs of crime (drawing and quartering, say) as to bring the net benefit of getting caught back down.
Most of us don’t like racists. A lot. Most of us agree, I think, that a lot of racism has been either eliminated or driven underground. This is a good thing (unless you want to persuade the remaining racists to not be racists, but I’ve covered that elsewhere). Some of us also believe that there is a great deal of crypto-racism among white economic and political elites, and that this explains any number of shocking statistical outcomes like America’s appalling mass incarceration, or the educational outcomes of American blacks. This state of affairs would imply that the probability of catching someone being racist is tiny (just like a medieval state and its lack of CCTV cameras).
So when someone like Donald Sterling got caught expressing bigoted views in private, the rational response among believers in rampant crypto-racism, was to get as close to a lynching as possible without violating the man’s constitutional rights. The treatment of Donald Sterling has been justified on the grounds that he has in fact committed a lot of racism in history. Just so: he’s been a housing red liner; he’s been an open bigot while employing blacks. This makes the public reaction to him proportional, so the story goes. But all of these facts about Donald Sterling’s life were realized post hoc, and brought in to justify a mob that had already formed.
That mob formed because of what is a perfectly rational response from people who believe crypto racism is rampant. They caught a crypto-racist, a rare opportunity,* and made an example of him. It would be nice if people would just be transparent about their beliefs and motivations, “we want to make an example out of a rich white guy because we think most/many rich white guys are secretly racists.” Then we could maybe have a more honest discussion about race in America.
Instead, there has been a lot of cavorting and reaching to justify what pretty plainly looks like a shame circus, and a lot of people on the center right, who don’t necessarily believe that there are a ton of crypto-racists among our elites, who also perfectly rationally given their beliefs, think that the reaction to Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy and others has been disproportionate.
I don’t know anyone, especially me, who thinks we should just laugh it off when it surfaces that NBA team owners are behaving like bigots, or when some poor misinformed rancher espouses a view of slavery that hasn’t been updated since 1920. On the other hand, there are many degrees and modes of approbation and social exchange outside: “fuck this guy I hope he burns in hell and nobody ever loves or talks to him again and I hope he goes broke forever if you don’t agree with me you’re either a racist or a complicit in rampant racism.”
*Which I think is rare because crypto-racists really are just empirically rare, not that they’re particularly well hidden. Have you ever been around a racist? It’s not hard to pick up on, unless you’re in the business of hunting for micro-aggressions, in which case it starts to look like everyone’s a racist.