Thursday, February 15, 2007

Barack Obama, "Our Kind of Black," and Evidence on Discrimination

Listening to the radio on my way home, I heard an interesting discussion of Barack Obama centered on the idea that to some blacks he wasn't "our kind of black," not a descendant of sub-saharan Africans brought to the New World as slaves. One caller, a black woman, made the distinction more broadly. Blacks go to Harvard, appear in other high status contexts, but the ones who do, at least by her observation, are mostly of West Indian or post-slavery African descent. She viewed such people, including Obama, as a sort of compromise--black enough to establish the principle that blacks could succeed, could fill such roles, but not black enough to provoke white prejudice that would keep them from doing so.

One point nobody made, at least while I was listening, was the implication of this view of the situation for the conventional picture of racial prejudice. What is usually said or implied is that American blacks do, on average, worse than American whites because of discrimination based on skin color. That might be consistent with a pattern of lighter skinned blacks doing better, but it cannot explain blacks of non-slave origin doing better, especially since many of them, being recent migrants from Africa or the West Indies, are blacker than the average descendant of slaves.

The discussion reminded me of an argument Thomas Sowell offers in Ethnic America. Observing the success of West Indian immigrants to the U.S., he concludes that it provides evidence against both of the popular explanations for the current situation of Afro-Americans. It is evidence against the "official" explanation, which is racial prejudice, since to the eye the immigrants are at least as black as those already here. But it is also evidence against the view, surely widely held if not openly expressed, that the failure of Afro-Americans is due to genetic inferiority, since the West Indians are genetically "blacker," have a higher proportion of sub-saharan African ancestry, as well as visibly blacker. Sowell concludes that the difference is cultural, that the different nature of West African slavery resulted in a culture that produced individuals better able to succeed in our society than those produced by the culture that resulted from plantation slavery in the American south.


Anonymous said...

I haven't got any strong opinions on these matters, but I note a few logical flaws:

What is usually said or implied is that American blacks do, on average, worse than American whites because of discrimination based on skin color. That might be consistent with a pattern of lighter skinned blacks doing better, but it cannot explain blacks of non-slave origin doing better, especially since many of them, being recent migrants from Africa or the West Indies, are blacker than the average descendant of slaves.

Since they (usually) *are* significantly blacker, that makes them a distinctly identifiable population, which may be reacted to differently than the typical Afro-American.

it is also evidence against the view, surely widely held if not openly expressed, that the failure of Afro-Americans is due to genetic inferiority, since the West Indians are genetically "blacker," have a higher proportion of sub-saharan African ancestry, as well as visibly blacker.

Only if one identifies the genetic inferiority specifically and solely with the "blackness". Maybe there is an actual genetic inferiority linked to the practice of slave-holding (or, more precisely, being willing to have sex with slaves). I don't think this is terribly likely, but it might be interesting to test for it.

A less extreme hypothesis could be based on a difference between "My ancestors were unfit enough to be captured as slaves" and "My ancestors managed not to be captured as slaves."

David Friedman said...

Alexx argues:

"Since they (usually) *are* significantly blacker, that makes them a distinctly identifiable population, which may be reacted to differently than the typical Afro-American."

Except that "blacker than the average" doesn't mean "blacker than any substantial fraction." If the conjecture you offer were correct, we would observe similar successes for the very black descendants of slaves. The conventional wisdom, at least, is the other way, that whiter blacks on the whole do better.

Your "captured as slaves" argument might work for the recent migrants from Africa, but it doesn't work for the, I think more numerous, immigrants from the West Indies. Their ancestors were captured as slaves too--that's how they got to the West Indies.

Rick and Gary said...

The West Indies blacks were captured as slaves and then, centuries later, a self-selected sub-group of them emigrated to the United States.

The key difference between "authentic blacks" and folks such as you, me, Barrack Obama, and the West Indies blacks in the U.S. is that the later group chose to emigrate. The former group didn't.

Self-selected emigrants are predisposed to risk-tolerance and differed gratification.

Wirkman Virkkala said...

What interests me about this debate is possibility that racism is dying.

What matters is CULTURALISM -- discrimination on the basis of culture -- as you suggest (but not state in so many words).

Those American blacks who express wariness of Barack Obama in effect discriminate against (or at least do not feel much kinship towards) a man because his mix of white and black lacks a history of American slavery. But they do feel kinship towards those politicians (Jesse Jackson, Sharpton) who share their heritage of slavery.

White Americans who take to Obama identify with him because of his cultural values and achievements (that he speaks better and more persuasively than Sen. Biden, for example).

Could this be evidence that discrimination based on skin color is in decline? It's cultural discrimination that remains strong.

And that kind of discrimination at least makes a modicum of sense, doesn't it? Whereas a large genetic grouping (such as a "race") should exhibit a wide variety of qualities from the physical through psychological to moral, a cultural group is much more narrow, and tends to exhibit statistically identifiable characteristics that are very real-world and not mere matters of bias.

And could culturalism be a necessary next step to individualism? After all, a culture can be abandoned by individuals, and another culture emulated. If one dislikes one's history, one's habits, one's traditionally constituted propensities, slough them off. People adopt alien cultural folkways, habits, and values all the time. (My Finnishness is hardly as important as my Americanness.)

Even in matters of race, in America, it's culture that matters most. It constitutes the bulk of the discrimination, and it provides the hope, too. People can change their habits and folkways for ones that pay off to them better, as individuals and in their groups.

But it's much harder to change one's skin color.

Anonymous said...

I was just looking for this but I remember someone replying to Tom Sowell and saying that while the West Indian immigrants who come to America do better than African-Americans they don't do better than European-Americans or other types of Americans after the first generation. The explanation for this I believe is regression to the norm for different racial groups. That is even if you have two very smart Blacks marry each other it is likely that their offspring will go towards the average IQ of their race and likewise with two very dumb Japanese people marrying each other. Genetic inferiority is one way of putting it but I don't think we should regard differences as inferior. I don't regard women, on average being dumber in certain abilities, as inferior. And as towards culturalism, certainly that is not the case. I know I feel more comftorable around people in Toronto or Punjab because they are Punjabi(I am a Punjabi person from New York) than I would around people from Harlem or Williamsburg. That is obviously because there are practically no Punjabis in either of these areas. Some people will say you share a culture. Yes, I may share a little bit of culture, but I am pretty Westernized so its not much. I often do not even speak with them but there is something that culture cannot account for when White-Americans feel very comftorable in Spain or other places in Europe where they may not speak the language as opposed to a Black or a Chinese area where they do speak the language more often than not. And since language is a big part of sharing the culture, I hope this is understandable. Anyway, thanks Mr. Friedman for bringing up topics like these.

Mike Hammock said...

Just to reiterate Rick and Gary's point, the self-selection argument is the one I usually hear in response to the success of West Indies or African immigrant blacks. They do better than domestic blacks because the people who try to get to the U.S., and are persistent and clever enough to succeed, will do better than average in any setting. This doesn't change the fact that racism doesn't seem to be keeping them from being successful, although one could argue that it makes them less successful than they would otherwise be. The problem is that the counterfactual (how successful they would be in the U.S. if not for racism) isn't observed.

Anonymous said...

One intersting natural experiment is to evaluate success of blacks in Canada. Most are recent West Indies immigrants and are fairly successful (more income per capita than Aborigals have, for example). Not sure how they compare against Asian or non-Western European immigrants.

Anecdotal evidence is that the Canadian blacks don't have a sense of entitlement for past wrongs (slavery and Jim Crow) as well as feel less ostracized - hence, can communicate and interact more with the greater society. The "ganster's paradise" ghetto culture is virtually non-existant in Canada.
I wonder how the descendants of the blacks who escaped by the Underground Railroad in 19th century are doing.
Maybe there is some path-dependency on governmental policies (e.g. Jim Crow laws were not helpful).

markm said...

I wouldn't be at all surprised to find a difference in genetic IQ endowment between the descendants of slaves and the original African population. "Smart enough not to get caught" is only a small part of the reason - mainly, slavetraders and owners were likely to view intelligent slaves as a threat and either kill them outright or use harsher treatment to keep them down, so high-IQ genes would have been selected against over many generations.

However, I wouldn't expect West Indies slavery to be drastically different on this score. Island slaveowners may have felt more securely in control than American slaveowners, whose "property" sometimes did manage to run all the way to Canada, and had potential allies in violent revolt in such nothern abolitionists as John Brown. However, while Nat Turner's revolt did get as far as killing a few American slaveowners before it was crushed, I thought the West Indies was the scene of some larger and more successful slave revolts. In Haiti, the slaves even won and established their own nation (possibly for the first time since Moses).

Anonymous said...

The self-selection idea perhaps also underlies some positive stereotypes, e.g. so-and-so are good at math.

Somena Woman said...

Vadim, blacks in Canada were always allowed to vote and did not have things like the Indian Act and regulations with it that controlled their economic freedoms and personal freedsom to any extent that Aboriginals.

Were there Residential Schools for generations of black children in Canada where children would be ripped from their homes, forbidden to speak their native tongue, sent long distances away from their homes, physically and emotionally and sexually abused, systematically starved as experimental subjects, exposed to infection diseases for the same?

You can hardly compare black people in Canada's experience in Canada to Aboriginals, without factoring in the multi-generational damagae that was inflicted upon Aboriginals.

Lester Hunt said...

I admit that I am a observer from a very great distance, but my impression is that in the last few decades many of the descendants of American slaves have been developing a culture that is full of beguiling images and sounds -- many white teenagers are ghetto wannabes, imitating their speech, clothing and manners -- but how good is this culture at solving the problems of its possessors (which is the primary purpose of any culture after all)? Apparently, not much. I don't listen to rap music (unfortunately, I find it very boring) but from what I have read, it supposedly valorizes traits that are bad for both their possessors and for society at large (such as theft, murder, the battery and bullying of women, etc.) and ignores, slights, or promotes attitudes that are incompatible with traits that are good (patience, rule-following, study, interest in people different from oneself, the experimental spirit, hard work, the sentiments that bond one to one's fellow human beings, etc.). I hate to sound like the late Allan Bloom and would certainly love to be wrong about this. Am I?

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Forgotten Genius.

State sponsored racism is the real problem. People, OTOH, should be free to discriminate in whatever way they feel is most economically beneficial to them.

Anonymous said...

It's kind of interesing how people get categorized. Obama is genetically mixed and culturally white. But nobody would call him white. Oddly enough, this is a point of agreement between hard-core racists and black civil rights leaders: both want to consider people with some African heritage as 'black'. If Obama overtly rejected his assigned 'black' identity, he would surely be ostracized.

Alvaro Augusto W. de Almeida said...

I suppose that some people are trying to prove that Obama is not black just in order to discredit him. In this way, he would not be black enough to speak for the blacks (i.e., "afroamericans") and not white enough to speak for the whites. In the long run, however, the color of his skin doesn't matter. What does matter are his ideas: how, if elected, he is going to affect the US economy and (particularly to me) how this will affect the rest of the world.

Michael Duff said...

This is why you needed a blog -- to post about issues like this, in a form that can be easily linked and quoted.

Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Just as a side bit of information, my impression is that West Indies slavery was in general much nastier than slavery in the US. Sowell comments on this in several of his books, with the main evidence being that the slaves in the West Indies required a steady stream of replacement slaves, since they were being worked to death faster than they could reproduce.

Anonymous said...

To Gaurav and Wirkman:
I agree with you that it is culture, more than race itself, that divides the races. But it is interesting that you draw from this the conclusion that blacks have not succeeded because their culture is somehow defective. Is it possible that, instead, cultural bigotry plays a role?

I think Lester inadvertently illustrates this. Yes, black music contains many antisocial messages. But have you listened to popular white music lately? Why is it that you see rap's glorification of violence and misogyny as a problem, but not the violence in heavy metal or the misogyny in pop?

Anonymous said...

Interesting, Mark, I always thought that one of the main modern methods of white racism was its glorification of rap.

Heavy Metal is nowhere near as popular as rap/hip hop, which for all intents and purposes IS today's pop.

montestruc said...

Maybe not so minor point. West Indian blacks were *on average* enslaved for much shorter times than black Americans. Slavery in the West Indies was done more like a slave labor camp in the USSR where large fractions of the slaves died every year and new ones imported from Africa replaced them, the owners lived mostly in Europe and sent managers to maximize profits and had little or no concern with the fate of the slaves (people they never met), this was not true in what became the USA. Also the end of slavery in the West Indies was much more peaceful and generally the ex-slaves were a large majority in the West Indies, not so in the US South other than some small areas of some southern states.

My take is that slavery for the surviving West Indian slaves was for a short period, and most had or knew family who had memory of having been free people at the end of slavery in the West Indies.

Slavery in the USA was for economic and cultural reasons less bloodthirsty. They were mostly small time operators set next to the West Indian planters. The US Slave owners mostly lived with their slaves, and had their families living on the same farm/plantation. I do not see reltivly sane people letting their children live in a destructive slave labor camp.

Slavery in the USA was characterized more by paternalism mixed with the threat of violence. Slavery in the West Indies had the balance set much further toward the violence end of the setting. That and the effective difference of length of time of slavery in generations may explain the cultural difference.

Note that slavery still exists legally in one nation, if you read the discription I think you may see the sort of cultural effects of many generations of slavery I mentioned.

"Orange Mike" Lowrey said...

One possibility I don't see anybody mentioning, is that for the first generation, many white Americans treat West Indian and African blacks better than they do the descendants of America's slaves. Somebody who is dark-skinned, but has an accent that speaks of West Africa, Jamaica or Britain may not encounter the same level of hostility and stereotypical thinking that will be encountered by one of my neighbors whose grandparents moved here from Tennessee during WW2 to work at the defense plants.

Anonymous said...

Ok, let's forget all the extra stuff about what people preceive a complextion to be for a black person and history. Technically, genetically and scientifcially Barack Obama is not black. So the fact that people keep calling him an African-American just annoys the beejeezus out of me. It has nothing to do with his degrees of blackness or his politics. It has to do with his genetic make-up. His mother is White American and his father was a Black African. So the correct term is Biracial. Barack Obama is a biracial man who is running for the President of the USA. That's it. I really do sort of have a problem with him endorsing himself as an African-American, but that's his right. I personally think he should break the mold and just refer to himself as biracial.