Racism Without Race?

Racism Without Race? June 13, 2008

Previous in Series: Race and Hatred

In his book The Logic of Life, Tim Harford describes a recent sociological experiment which, he claims, has profound implications for the way we think about race and racism. Participants in the study (a group of students from the University of Virginia) were divided into two groups: employers, and potential employees. Employees were then further subdivided (randomly) into “greens” and “purples.” The experiment contained 20 distinct rounds of play, and the student employees were rewarded with a small cash bonus for each round in which they were able to secure employment. In each round, the employees first had to choose whether or not to “get an education.” Opting for an education cost the students a small fee, but it also increased the chances that they would do well on a series of “tests” (actually random dice rolls, on which educated students “passed” with a 4, 5, or 6, while uneducated students passed only on a 6).

Once the employees had made their educational decisions and perform the test rolls, “resumes” for each of them would be sent to the employer students, on which were listed only two pieces of information about each employee: 1) whether they were a green or purple, and 2) whether they had passed their tests. The employer students then had to decide whether or not to hire the potential employees, and received cash bonuses in each round for the employees they hired who had gotten an education (all of this was done via computer, btw, in order to avoid collusion and/or side bargaining). After each round, the students were presented with the results indicating the average test scores and hiring rates for greens and for purples during that round. And then the whole process was repeated.

Harford describes the results of the experiment as follows:

In the first round, employers looked only at test results when deciding whether to hire. Their hiring decision was colorblind. How could it not have been? The game started with a blank slate. “Green” or “purple” conveys no information at all in the first round of the game.

But from the second round on, employers had a history to work with. As it happens, more green than purple workers had gambled on getting an education in the first round, and so the green test scores tended to be better. The colors had initially been assigned at random, so this was pure chance. This didn’t stop employers from figuring that greens appeared to be more disposed than purples to invest in an education. They became more willing to take a chance on green workers with a low test score and less willing to hire purple workers even with a high score.

With the Web interface also revealing the average hiring rates for greens and purples in the previous rounds, the workers quickly responded: Green workers kept investing in an education, and purple workers did not. Why bother to pay for an education if employers are less likely to hire you because you’re purple? And so a vicious circle took hold….

Although the initial disparity was purely a matter of chance, and although there was no fundamental difference between the greens and the purples, the students playing the role of employers were absolutely correct in their view that green workers were more likely to be educated…. The employers’ view became self-fulfilling as purple workers rationally abandoned hope of getting hired and stopped paying for education. And once the downward spiral set in, a determinedly color-blind employer would actually have lost money compared with one who took note of the color of the applicants.

Now I have a number of things to say about this experiment and its implications, which I will get to next time. But for now, I would like to propose the following question for discussion: were the students involved in this experiment racist? That is, in choosing to take into consideration whether a given applicant was “green” or “purple,” were they doing something racist?

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  • were the students involved in this experiment racist? That is, in choosing to take into consideration whether a given applicant was “green” or “purple,” were they doing something racist?

    Yes, assuming green and purple are to be considered racial categories.

  • JB

    What MZ said

  • Blackadder

    Why would being randomly assigned to a “green” or “purple” group constitute a racial category?

  • Many would argue that racial categorication is a subset of tribal categorication. Green and purple in this case study are tribal affiliations. There are arguments to whether tibalism like say nepotism can be tolerated and to what to degree even on the racial side, but this question appears to limit itself to whether racial/tribal category exists.

  • The term “racist” is an epithet, designed to convey shame and encourage social reprisal upon the racist. In my view, the term is thus defined solely in terms of the harm that the speaker wishes to prevent, discourage or punish by applying the label.

    Suppose that, in a given society, purples had historically been oppressed by greens on the basis of their race (or vice versa), and the prevailing social attitude was now one of sympathy for purples. In such a situation the social judgment might be that the long-term value of helping purples (as a group) was great enough that a preference for greens over purples should be socially discouraged even where such a preference is rational (rather than malicious) from the decision maker’s point of view. In order to overcome everyone’s natural self-interest, then, social punishment and shame might be applied to decision makers in order to disincentivize decisions which would otherwise be rational for the decision maker. The decisions which society wishes to discourage would be called “racist” and the content of the term “racism” would be controlled by the list of actions the society wished to discourage.

    Thus described, racism begins to look almost like a collective action problem. It is, on this view, the result of rational individuals taking rational (but not malicious) actions which are in their best interests but which harm the goals of the community as a whole.

    To answer your question, then, requires a knowledge of the speaker’s goals. If the speaker (you) wishes to protect purples (or greens), then he or she should call someone who expresses a preference for one color or the other a “racist.” On the other hand, if the speaker is not unusually anxious to promote the advancement of a particular color’s interest, then hearing a decision maker express a rational (and not malicious) preference for one color or the other will not naturally feel like “racism.”

  • As an aside, as with most “soft” social controls (shame, peer pressure, etc.) most of the participants in the game (those who label others as racist and those who resist the label) would not have any idea of the underlying logic behind the words they use. Instead, they would have a random mish-mash of emotional associations behind the word which had been handed down to them through personal experience, absorbtion of group mores, transmission from their parents, self-interest, etc. They would react to opposing beliefs not by thinking through the issue but by appeal to quasi-tribalistic group identity and emotion. Which would muddle everything considerably, and make the sincere, civil, and ongoing discussion of the subject on an internet message board particularly remarkable.

  • Gerald Augustinus

    This reminds me of the curious phenomenon that there are Jew-haters in places where no Jews live.

  • That doesn’t seem particularly curious to me. There are different strains of racist belief, but whatever it’s source prejudce gets passed down through, among other things, some of the mechanisms I mentioned (from your parents, absorption of group mores, etc.). It is transmitted like a virus (more precisely, a meme) and once established it can be retained because it serves the purpose of promoting group solidarity (i.e., establishing group identity through opposition to the “other.”) This process is much more convenient when the “other” isn’t even around, as experience then cannot contradict the group’s prejudiced belief system. (And since the “other” isn’t, in this scenario, being harmed by the prejudiced beliefs of people they will likely never meet, there isn’t even very much enlightened opposition to the prejudice from within the group).

    But this is obviously a different sort of racism then the “greens vs. blues” racism which blackadder mentions in this post. We might therefore distinguish between “rational” (or self-interested) racism and “irrational” (or malicious) racism. Rational racism is this “greens vs. blues” self-fulfilling prophecy. Malicious racism is the establishment or reinforcement of group identification through oppression of the “other.” They’re really different phenomena, and they only go by the same label (i.e., “racism”) because they are both activities which disadvantage a particular social group and which society wishes to discourage.

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