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Sandefur on Lindsay on Identity Politics

Copyright © 2024 by Ari Armstrong
November 22, 2023, ported here on January 6, 2024

Recently I claimed "that 'classical liberalism' really is becoming more religious, . . . largely in reaction to the outright nihilism of much of today's 'secular' left." I got a bit of push-back for that.

In his review of Ronald Lindsay's Against the New Politics of Identity, Timothy Sandefur summarizes some of what I have in mind:

[Lindsay divides] identity politics . . . into three philosophical categories. The first is its epistemological element, known as "standpoint theory," which holds that one's knowledge—even personal identity—is a product of one's race or sex.

Here is an example that Sandefur offers: "In 2020, the Smithsonian Institution published a document asserting that "objective, rational linear thinking" is a manifestation of 'white supremacy.'" (See also Jerry Coyne's notes about this.) I would call that sort of thing epistemic nihilism.

Sandefur continues, "Standpoint theory's premise that the content of one's character is generated by the color of one's skin also dictates that white people are inherently and unavoidably racist."

Of course, we can and should appreciate that sometimes white people have used the rhetoric of rationalism to mask ugly racism, and that people can and very often do have deep-seated prejudices that they may not acknowledge or fully realize that they have. Perhaps there's some wheat to separate from the chaff.

Sandefur's next point is not as convincing:

The second of Lindsay's categories is metaphysical: specifically, the claim that the United States is a "structurally racist" society. This does not mean that America is home to some racist people, whose bigoted choices have political and economic consequences, but rather that America's legal, economic, and educational institutions are designed in such a way as to benefit whites and oppress disfavored minorities. This is a remarkably audacious thesis—and, as Lindsay shows, there's no evidence to support it. For one thing, racial discrimination is illegal under federal law and the laws of all states; is considered grounds for termination by almost all employers in the country; is treated as socially unacceptable by all the country's significant cultural institutions; and is the focus of nearly universal condemnation in films, television shows, novels, and other artistic expressions.

It is true that much of American culture is self-consciously and effectively anti-racist. And I do think that those on the left who constantly berate America while ignoring those important cultural trends manifest a form of nihilism.

But the evidence that Sandefur reviews does not prove that the U.S. is not substantially "structurally racist" in various ways. I think there's very good evidence of remaining structural racism. For example, the drug war has especially harmed minority communities. Arguably, so have badly designed welfare programs that discourage marriage. An example that I've recently discussed is that Black and Hispanic students in Colorado, on average, perform radically worse in school than do white and Asian students. If you're not going to explain such dramatically racially disparate outcomes largely (or at least partly) via structural or systemic racism, how are you going to explain them?

Sandefur sort of agrees:

Public choice is a school of political analysis that focuses on the ways incentives help generate and perpetuate government policies, and it helps explain why government sometimes imposes unjust burdens that apply differently along racial lines in a manner that might plausibly be called "systemically racist." Public choice, in fact, provides a far more rigorous and rational explanation for such disparities than does the dogma of identity politics.

Sandefur offers the example of protectionist laws in the hair-care industry that worked especially to keep out Black hair braiders. But Sandefur continues:

[T]his example hardly proves that America is systemically racist. On the contrary, [JoAnne] Cornwell prevailed in her lawsuit [against the protectionist laws], and many states have revamped their regulations of hair braiding in the years since to eliminate these disparities—again, not an outcome one would expect in a systemically racist society.

I would say that Sandefur has identified a way in which America, until very recently, remained "systemically racist," and thankfully has become substantially less so. Is it not then plausible that there are other ways that America remains systemically racist? You say public choice, I say systemic racism. Is there really a difference? We can appreciate Sandefur's broader point, that the U.S. also is substantially anti-racist in many important ways.

Sandefur continues his discussion of identity politcs (to back up a bit):

Finally, there's the ethical dimension of identity politics, which hangs primarily on the notion of "equity." Starting from the proposition that any difference in outcomes between groups constitutes an injustice, equity's proponents conclude that these inequalities must be eradicated by purposeful exclusion of "privilege"—which in practice means granting unmerited benefits to some and imposing undeserved penalties on others.

I'd have put the term "sometimes" before the "means." Isn't tossing the unjust protectionist laws in the hair-care industry an example of working toward greater "equity"? The hard-core libertarian approach would be to root out all those laws and policies that harm people, which also include things like local anti-housing policies.

Most people, certainly Progressives, would say that addressing inequity can be a matter of, say, spending some general taxes on programs that try to help people who are doing poorly. I guess Sandefur would call the resulting tax burden a sort of "underserved penalty."

Some people on the left actively promote racist ideas and policies and consistently trash the United States. That's nihilism. But many people on the left genuinely strive to overcome racism and the harms that have resulted from racist policies and practices.

Thankfully, we do not have to choose between the nihilism within the left and the reactionism within the right (not that I think Sandefur is doing that). The answer is neither to tear down our existing society nor to double down on failed institutions of the past. Rather, the answer is to continue to work toward a society that consistently treats each individual fairly.

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