The Response to Donald Sterling Was Rational But Wrong

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.

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3 thoughts on “The Response to Donald Sterling Was Rational But Wrong”

  1. I’m not really looking to get into this, as I don’t want to do the whole ‘arguing endlessly on the internet about topic X’ thing, and I’m genuinely not exasperated here (or snarky). You’re taking all the pushback in good humour, so Im really writing in that spirit.
    But this:

    “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).”

    Seems confused to me.
    I don’t *dislike* racists. I know people who (by any reasonable definition) are unarguably racist (even if their racism isnt always acknowledged, certainly not coherent, and a lot of the time contradictory) A lot of this was (specifically) built into their reaction to immigration in the 00s (which had never happened in Ireland previously) where they would say the most terrible, abysmal things and hold the most reactionary, nonsensical positions. What your argument is implying is that I cant (for reasons I really dont understand) react to that by telling them to cop on, or treat people with some amount of respect. (I’m not absolving myself of any culpability in this respects either, to be clear) This is obviously anecdotal, but so is your “I think, that a lot of racism has been either eliminated or driven underground.” Perhaps it is in the US, but I doubt it. It certainly isnt in my experience.
    I’m taking an extreme example, and from the perspective of someone who hasnt had to live with racism or isnt aware of the subtle ways it can be expressed. What your collection of posts is saying is that not only in my example cant the person expressing racist opinions be challenged, but in more ambiguous (but more directly felt) cases it cant either.
    Can you see any situation where somebody can be called on their racism/misogyny, or are the social consequences of doing that just too much?

    Your idea that racism only exists among the ‘political and economic elite’ is just the libertarian version of the vulgar Marxist position that all racism is class struggle, that it exists solely as a tactic of elite manipulation. But look at your examples. Racism in the judicial system doesnt just work at the policy level, it works in courts, in choices made in police departments, in the behaviour of individual cops working at the street level. Segregation doesnt just work at the city planner level, it works with white families purposely leaving neighbourhoods that are becoming black (or trying to keep non whites out of white neighbourhoods). In hiring, or education, it isnt *just* the ‘crypto racism’ of the economic and political elite, it’s people making decisions on the ground (who to hire, what school to send their children too/or to fund). So these *are* your ‘micro agressions.’
    But you seem to want an even more intimate analysis of this (which I dont think can be measured in any meaningful way, but I’m open to correction on that by those who might know – and which I think is obfuscation on your part) You seem to want to measure how much prejudice is experienced by people on a day to day, trivial level (ie your earlier example of buying a burritto !! ??) Well, the best way to get an idea of that (I assume) is through personal experience. Your experience is of you being extra helpful to the Latino girl selling you a burrito. Her experience as a generality might be very similar to that. Or it might be having to put up with a whole lot of shit, day in day out. How do we find that out ? By asking people and actually listening to their answers. Your position not only completly leaves that out but actually removes it as as a solution. You want to measure prejudice in society from your perspective. Do you know see why this would get us nowhere?
    So sure, ‘check your privilege’ might at times be used to shut down debate (but lets be serious, how often(rhetorically) outside of twitter or intenet comments secions does it ever work like that?) But the actual concept of recognising that you are privileged on account of x, y and z is useful. And people have the right to let you know that. (imo)

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  2. “I don’t *dislike* racists. I know people who (by any reasonable definition) are unarguably racist”

    By all means, have a conscientious chat with such people about their uncontroversial racism. This is a very different case from the sort of subtle, hidden, allegedly systemic racism that I’ve been discussing. I’m sorry I wasn’t clearer. I have, ultimately, been arguing that when it is clear as day that someone is racist “don’t bring your black friends to my basketball games,” that we ought to persuade them to reconsider their views. Privilege checking et al. does not, in my view, fall into this category. I’ve been lumping a range of reactionary behaviors by the anti-racist left into a few short posts, and this confusion is my fault.

    “Can you see any situation where somebody can be called on their racism/misogyny, or are the social consequences of doing that just too much?”

    Yes, when locating racism and misogyny take a very minimal amount of interpretation, like the people you know who are clearly racist. I wouldn’t expect the consequences of every conversation about race to be uniformly positive, but when there is something of substance to argue over: “you just said you don’t like Mexicans; I’d like to talk to you about that,” then I think conversation is certainly called for. As against screaming, ostracizing, etc.

    “Your idea that racism only exists among the ‘political and economic elite’”

    I believe the opposite. My claim was that a lot of people concerned about the persistence of racism seem to believe that much of it (or at least the most important bits) are buried in the backs of the minds of economically and politically elite whites, upper middle class whites, etc. I think, to the contrary, that racism likely diminishes with one’s level of education and socioeconomic status — meaning that the poorest, least educated people in America and globally are likely the most racist and sexist. I think Donald Sterling is an outlier.

    “Her experience as a generality might be very similar to that. Or it might be having to put up with a whole lot of shit, day in day out. How do we find that out ? By asking people and actually listening to their answers. Your position not only completly leaves that out but actually removes it as as a solution. ”

    Not at all. I’m all for asking people what their experience of prejudice is, as against imputing stories about people’s alleged hidden prejudices or conversely their victimhood, upon them.

    Cheers.

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    1. So, on the one hand you think ” that a lot of racism has been either eliminated or driven underground” and then on the other ” I think, to the contrary, that racism likely diminishes with one’s level of education and socioeconomic status — meaning that the poorest, least educated people in America and globally are likely the most racist and sexist.” So racism and sexism no longer really exist, but also they’re widespread among the poor and uneducated ?
      Your problem is basically rich white men getting singled out, right ?

      You said – “Not at all. I’m all for asking people what their experience of prejudice is, as against imputing stories about people’s alleged hidden prejudices or conversely their victimhood, upon them. ”

      No you’re not. See here:

      You said – “Yes, when locating racism and misogyny take a very minimal amount of interpretation, like the people you know who are clearly racist.”

      You want the clear cut, unambiguous (by your definition) version of racism (which Sterling exhibited, btw) Not the more subtle, and probably more widespread, type. So you dont really care what someones “experience of prejudice” is unless it conforms to your caricature.

      ” like the people you know who are clearly racist.”

      But they’re not *clearly* racist. They can say racist things and have meaningful friendships with people from different races. Or hold specific positions about immigration (primarily along racial lines) while also being thoughtful and complex human beings on a whole number of other levels. The point is that their positions and personalities arent the caricatured vitriolic, lunatics that you imagine signifies ‘true racists.’ At times it might be expressed explicitly, or at other times implicitly. What you’re saying is that the explicit version of this can be pushed against, but the more subtle version not. (And again, Sterling was venting the explicit type)

      Like

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