I logged onto Twitter on Sunday night and discovered that my recent article for The Nation was causing a bit of a stir. Some members of the white liberal political community are appalled and angry that I suggested racial bias maybe responsible for the President’s declining support among white Americans. I found some responses to my piece to be fair and important, others to be silly and nonresponsive, and still others to be offensive personal attacks. But those categories are par for the course.
I make it a practice not to defend my public writings. Because I often write about provocative topics like race, gender, sexual orientation and reproductive rights, if I defended every piece I wrote against critics I would find little time to sleep. But the responses to this recent article have been revealing in ways that I find typical of our contemporary epistemology of race. Often, those of us who attempt to talk about historical and continuing racial bias in America encounter a few common discursive strategies that are meant to discredit our perspectives. Some of them are in play here.
1. Prove it!
The first is a common strategy of asking any person of color who identifies a racist practice or pattern to “prove” that racism is indeed the causal factor. This is typically demanded by those who are certain of their own purity of racial motivation. The implication is if one cannot produce irrefutable evidence of clear, blatant and intentional bias, then racism must be banned as a possibility. But this is both silly as an intellectual claim and dangerous as a policy standard.
In a nation with the racial history of the United States I am baffled by the idea that non-racism would be the presumption and that it is racial bias which must be proved beyond reasonable doubt. More than 100 years of philosophical, psychological and sociological research that begins, at least, with the work of W.E.B. Du Bois has mapped the deeply entrenched realities of racial bias on the American consciousness. If anything, racial bias, not racial innocence is the better presumption when approaching American political decision-making. Just fifty years ago, nearly all white Democrats in the US South shifted parties rather than continuing to affiliate with the party of civil rights. No one can prove that this decision was made on the basis of racial bias, but the historical trend is so clear as to require mental gymnastics to imagine this was a choice not motivated by race.
Progressives and liberals should be particularly careful when they demand proof of intentionality rather than evidence of disparate impact in conversations about racism. Recall that initially the 1964 Civil Rights Act made “disparate impact” a sufficient evidentiary claim for racial bias. In other words, a plaintiff did not need to prove that anyone was harboring racial animus in their hearts, they just needed to show that the effects of a supposedly race neutral policy actually had a discernible, disparate impact on people of color. The doctrine of disparate impact helped to clear many discriminatory housing and employment policies off the books.
Michelle Alexander brilliantly demonstrates in The New Jim Crow, the pernicious effect of the Supreme Court moving away from disparate impact as a standard to forcing plaintiffs to demonstrate racist intention. This new standard has encouraged the explosive growth of incarceration of African-Americans, turning a blind eye to disparate impact while it demands “proof” of racial bias.