Unintentional Racism

Anyone who stops to think about it should notice that racism is everywhere in The United States.  Strangely, many people don’t seem to notice it.  This is something I’ve known for quite a long time, but I’ve never understood it.  The evidence is everywhere from our schools to our prisons to our military to our businesses and even in our friendships and romantic relationships.  I’ve considered that people are myopic, that they are full of cognitive biases, that they live in bubbles and that they are stupid, but these don’t seem to explain people missing the evidence.  Lately, though, I’ve been thinking about racism and intentions.  I still don’t understand how people miss the racism, but I feel like I might be on to something.

The thing that got me thinking about racism and intentions is this story from the Hartford Courant.  Basically, the Republicans in Connecticut’s state legislature got upset because they think Governor Malloy called them racists.  He was talking about the laws that require stronger penalties for drug crimes committed in a “school zone”.  This is what he said, “To treat those folks differently because they live in those communities is patently unfair and, if not racist in intent, is racist in its outcome.”  It’s pretty clear that he was not accusing the Republicans of racism.  He was simply identifying a problem in our society and proposing a way to fix it.  The fact that the Republicans took offense is disgusting on many levels, but it isn’t what I want to talk about now.

The thing that I want to talk about is the, “if not racist in intent, is racist in its outcome,” part of Malloy’s statement.  I can only speculate about the intent of the law.  It was implemented when I was a kid and I was not following politics at that time.  And besides, there isn’t a politician in Connecticut in my lifetime that would admit to racism.  But, it is plausible that race had nothing to do with the intent of creating drug free school zones.  It could have been as simple as some legislator saying, “We need a way to keep drug dealers from targeting children.  What if we make tougher penalties for selling drugs in and around schools?”  When looked at from that perspective, I can see how the law got passed.  I’ll bet everyone was pretty happy about it at the time.

I can also see how that particular framing can make it harder to recognize the problems with the law.  We all know the saying, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions,” but we don’t live by it.  We use the intentions to judge something’s effectiveness.  Since the intent was to punish drug dealers who target children, the law looks pretty effective because of all those scummy druggies rotting in prisons.  The thing is, legislation has to be viewed from a consequentialist perspective*.  And it is rare that anything has only one consequence.  Even granting that the intent of the law was to keep drugs away from schools and that it worked, that is only one of the consequences.  Another consequence is that people who happen to live in densely populated areas (minorities and poor people) are sentenced more harshly when they commit the exact same crime as people who live in lightly populated areas (white people and the wealthy).  The is simply wrong.  Equality under the law is supposed to be one of our most cherished principles.  The intent behind the law doesn’t matter and shouldn’t factor into our judgment of the law.  It is unjust.

Perhaps if we look at non-legal things that are similar it would become clear.  The intent of prescribing thalidomide to pregnant women was to prevent morning sickness.  Judged only by that standard, it was quite effective.  Should we conclude that thalidomide was good?  No, because it also had a secondary consequence.  It caused severe birth defects.  DDT was intended to be an insecticide.  It was supposed to help fight malaria and increase crop yields.  Judge by that standard it is pretty effective.  So, should we conclude that DDT was good?  No, because it also had a secondary consequence.  It killed bald eagles.  And just one more, lead was added to gasoline to prevent knocking and pinging.  Judged by that standard, it was quite effective.  Should we conclude that leaded gasoline was good?  No, because lead is highly toxic and every time we drove we were adding it to our environment.

My point is simply that we have to stop looking at intent and start looking at consequences.  I don’t care what the intent of drug free school zones was, the consequences are racist and unjust.  I don’t care what the intent of making crack penalties stricter than coke penalties, but the consequences of that are racist and unjust.  I don’t care what the intent of educational deferments from the draft was.  The consequences of that were racist and unjust.   What we need is more people like Governor Malloy, people with the power to change things who will call out racism when they see it.  It’s the only way for people to start noticing the obvious.


* On an unrelated note, conservatives are always saying that even if there is climate change, it is not caused by people.  I always think, “Who cares?”  The consequences will be the same whether it’s caused by people, horses or aliens.  Should we look at Californians in desperate need of water and say, “Well, we didn’t cause this drought, so we don’t have to do anything about it?”  Should we look at Texans devastated by floods and shrug and say, “Whatever, it’s not our fault?”

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