Negrophobia: A First Look

David Schraub and I have exchanged some book titles to read. The second book suggested was Negrophobia and Reasonable Racism by Jody Armour. Below the fold find my initial thoughts on this book, I’ve skimmed a little more than a third.

One of the things Mr Armour does in starting out this book is to establish three stereotypical strategies of racism still prevalent. These are:

  1. Reasonable Racist — the argument made by the reasonable racist is that the opinion being held, is customary and typical in their society. That is that the opinion being ventured, typically framed by our author in legal settings, is customary … then it is not unreasonable that the court allow it.
  2. Bayesian Racists “intelligent Bayesian” racism sounds suspiciously in Mr Armour’s hands like the profiling arguments and discussions I had with Mr Schraub somewhat earlier. Oddly enough the argument used against the use of this is exactly the one I had used. That is, this method is flawed because normally the statistical foundations are flawed. Fix the statistics and the argument against it fails. If the statistics are right, then one is using “intelligent” Bayesian methods. If the statistics are wrong, this is defense or argument devolves to the one above (reasonable racism), as the reasoning is based on custom and hearsay prettied up (lies, damned lies, and statistics as it were).
  3. Involuntary Racists — involuntary racists are those who become racist based on past harm. Being beaten or raped by a black man/men in the past might make one prejudicial against blacks (or men) in the future. But, Mr Armour is not specifically interested in your prejudicial feelings more instead on courts and juries being influenced by the prior history of a person so affected. This last argument is likely last for a reason, and it is on this one I will now consider.

Oddly enough on the last point, I’d like to (against my better judgement) dredge some faint epistemology from my own feeble past. Mr Schraub, who I very much hope has commented, has been quite dismissive of any attempt of mine to enter my own, in his view highly privileged, life into this sort of discussion. But here goes my little story anyhow. When I was growing up, in the late 60s, my mother became very much involved in inner-city (Trenton) tutoring and volunteer assistant teaching in schools. As well, there was a local summer program which brought inner city, primarily black kids, out for educational activities and summer schooling in our township. These kids in the afternoons would be picked up by host families for, well, whatever and some of those kids came over and played and got to know us and our family. That was all well and good. Twice however, my mother brought my brother and I swimming with the larger community of kids. So, what was occurring is we had (on the first occasion) was an Olympic sized indoor swimming pool with a hundred or more kids romping about. Two of those kids, my brother and I aged about 7 and 9, were the only white children in the pool area. At some point, my memory now is hazy, one of those kids decided that seeing me swimming around in deeper water to try to drown me. Fortunately someone noticed and I was not successfully drowned. In the next year, with a smaller group at the organizers house in their pool, a similar occurance happened. As a result, I have had instinctive, a somewhat Pavlovian reaction of strong fear in similar situation. What situation is the trigger? Is it Race? … My answer is no. Unlike the “involuntary racist” of Mr Armour’s I am not prejudiced due to those in any way that I can determine by self-inspection based on color or race. However, if I am grabbed and surprised underwater … that is the trigger. And that would be my suggestion or my point. That is, that in cases where a defense of “involuntary racism” is used, that race might not be the prevalent trigger of fear. A women raped, is more likely fearful of men not specifically only those men who are in appearance are reminscient of her original assailant.

He tells a case of a women who in the lobby of a bank in dim light sees the approach of a Black man. She interprets his approach (incorrectly) as menacing. She says something fearful, he reaches in his coat for identification. She interprests this as threat and pulls out a ladies gun and shoots him fatally. Mr Armour treats this case as a legal one and considers the three points above for the validity of use as defense.

What if the race was reversed? If the lady had been Black and the murdered bank client, say, White how would the “involuntary racist” claim play. She had been assulted in the past by a White man.¬† The man approaching frightened her, she was alone in a dim place and this person dredged up memory of past harm done. In response to her fear he moved to pull a gun, she supposed so she shot him.

What if the race was the same? If the lady had been Black and the client Black? Or both White? Can one claim that memory of past harm based on similarities to the appearance of a past crime triggered fear and caused her to overreact?

If racism is an assumption of verdict in only the first case that makes no sense.

Mr Armour interprets citing “race” as reason as continuation of racism. My guess is that he would not do so in the second. My personal take on either is that one would have to establish that psychological cues tying the latter event to the former were in play in causing her to shoot. Race is not an issue. Trigger and cue is. A “color blind” court which Mr Armour thinks is inappropriate … is actually appropriate here. Race is not necessarily an issue. It is the requirement of expert witness (psychologists) to establish that race in a particular case¬† is for that individual an actual cue for an involuntary flush of fear. In the case of mine, cited above, using that defense would be a lie. It seems likely I’m not exceptional.

On the other hand as an aside, I have little feel, being not a lawyer for the effect and workings of common law vs regulation and legislation. Mr Armour quotes case and judgement and points to influence. However this influence, I think, is one more felt within the legal community than by those without. This opinion is however to be taken with a grain of salt. I’m not enough of a student of British and American history to take a good reading on the efficacy of common law vs the other forms of government to effect social change and to change the things Mr Armour wants changed. My guess is that it has less effect than Mr Armour might think (he being a lawyer) and more than I think (me being not a lawyer).

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  1. That was a very interesting post (and story), and contrary to what you drew from my last post, I have no objections to you utilizing your own personal narrative in explicating your ideals (indeed, I’d encourage it). My argument was you can’t transpose your narrative on top of those of other people, especially differently situated people. So, I conceded that your badging/covering story was true for you, and might also be true for people similarly situated to you (White middle-class heterosexual Christian males), but can’t be used as refutation to an alternative narrative provided by someone differentially situated from you (in Yoshino’s case, gay Asian male professionals).

    Also, in terms of the “what would happen if the races were reversed” question, I think the answer Armour and I would give is that the jury would throw the book at him. The Chai Vang case in Wisconsin a few years back is case in point (compared to the outcome of the “Subway Vigilante” case in NYC prior to that).

    And yes, the Baynesian style arguments you were making were what drew Armour to my mind–though, if I recall correctly, Armour also will argue that even if there is some truth to the Baynesian claim, it’s possible for it to be outweighed by the harms done to innocent people caught in the net.

  2. Mark says:

    You’re misreading the intention of my prior example then. I wasn’t refuting Mr Yoshino’s example. I was demonstrating an example of badging in my life, and to point out a form which was more extreme and sometimes “uncomfortable”, i.e., when in swim wear or shorts displaying a four-limbed truckers tan and shaved legs in a country with few cyclists. More on that in my reply to your reply.

    Your misunderstanding my question about “when the cases are reversed.” I’m not asking about how the courts would react, but instead of whether that would be perceived as an example of “involuntary racism” if used as defense. For Mr Armour does make that case for white victim/black assailant.

    If I read it right, the primary argument against Bayesian claims is that the statistics are wrong, i.e., for example citing statistics that black male youths are not more violent than white, but the reverse.

  3. Okay, but then we’re in no disagreement: In your life, the benefits of badging outweigh the harms of covering. In Yoshino’s life, it’s the reverse. Most of the literature indicates that for many, if not most, women and people of color, Yoshino’s narrative is more descriptive. Since my point has always been that the covering regime tends to hurt marginalized people most, there’s nothing in your story that really addresses that, except to say that you (and perhaps by extension, other people who live relatively privileged existences) don’t experience the harm in your own life (for which I’m glad).

    I think Armour would say that a Black woman could make an “involuntary racism” claim if the roles were reversed . I don’t see anything in his argument that would indicate otherwise.

    I think the anti-Baynesian argument makes both claims (stats are wrong, and even if they’re right, they can be outweighed), though my memory may be fuzzy. When you finish the book, let me know.

  4. Mark says:

    But Yoshino (and it seems you) don’t put covering in the context of a universal badging scenario and deny or at least disregard positive aspects to badging.

    If, as I think it does, badging has positive aspects, then removing or weakening it when a small minority find requirements difficult … then the removal makes it a trade off not just just the obvious “think to do” as you suggest.