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This example illustrates my point that important political results follow from the ways citizens process social information and the causal mechanisms they are prepared to credit.

Will we, in the face of the astronomically high rates of black incarceration, consider modifying our institutional practices or not? Here is another thought experiment: Consider two alternative anti-drug law enforcement regimes, broadly put. Regime 1 looks mainly to the selling side of the transactions, finding as many of those bad drug dealers as possible and locking them up for as long as possible. Regime 2 looks to the buying side of the transaction, but with the same intensity, leading to the same rate of incarceration of people caught in retail drug buys.

Suppose that just as many prisons are to be built and just as severe a sentencing regime is to be installed under Regime 2. We are intent on locking up the buyers for just as long. It is probable that we will perceive an anomaly here. Not only will our interests be more directly engaged.

Lectures in History Preview: The Philosophy of W.E.B. Du Bois

Our reading of the facts will be materially affected. We may thus be led to reconsider whether it is proper to impose such high costs on those relative few of our fellow citizens, so as to pursue a puritanical, hypocritical anti-drug law enforcement policy. They are receiving their just deserts. They did the crime and so they are doing the time. It is not merely a reading of the evidence. It entails seeing facts through a particular interpretative lens.

Social analysts should ask why this way of understanding reality seems compelling, despite the fact that we are loading tremendous costs onto some very vulnerable and disadvantaged people. Racial stigma is, I believe, a part of the answer.

Section: Critical Race Theory

This, I am arguing here, is how deeply structured racial inequality in a society arises and persists over a long time. Consider the debate about race and intelligence that has raged in recent years thanks in large part to the bestselling book The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life Herrnstein and Murray What does the typical well-educated American know about IQ differences among people from Tennessee, Texas, and Massachusetts? I venture that most Americans know next to nothing about such disparities, if any exist.

What is more, I assert that it would be illegitimate to make a factual claim about such differences in a public argument over policy—to object to the interregional redistribution of resources, for example, on the grounds that people in the less advantaged regions are merely receiving their IQ-adjusted deserts.

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Or I can put the point somewhat differently. The American population is aging, and it is known that intelligence declines as a person ages, after some point in the life cycle. It is a demographic certainty that there will be relatively more older people in the American population in the years to come, and it is a legal fact that laws against age discrimination have abrogated mandatory retirement.

Where can one read about the dire consequences of this development for the productivity of the American economy? Why not? The reason, I suggest, is that those older, soon-to-be-less-intelligent workers are our mothers and fathers.

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We are not about to set them to one side and engage in an elaborate discourse about their fitness. Like those living in different regions, we who belong to different generations will not permit ourselves to be sundered by any civic boundary. We will sink or swim together. The point here, once again, is that some social disparities are salient and others not. The salience of social facts is not determined in an entirely rational, deductively confirmed manner.

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It involves a mode of cognition that depends on some prior patterning or orientation that is not, itself, the product of conscious reflection. Permit me one further illustration. American Enterprise magazine is the public policy journal of the American Enterprise Institute, an influential right-of-center think tank in Washington, D. Of course, the comment goes on, decent people care about the plight of the underclass.

But there are no external solutions to be had for their problems. If only some identifiable outside force were creating the siege conditions, nearly any American would gladly swing a battle-axe against such an enemy. But the harder, more tragic reality is that inner-city Americans are being brutalized by their own neighbors, their own reproductive partners, their own teenagers, their own mothers even. And ultimately, by themselves. Who is forcing the crack pipe between those many lips? Here, then, we have a mainstream conservative policy institution directing its attention to inner-city poverty.

And what do we see? The stark revelation of an US-THEM racial dichotomy embraced so instinctually and casually that the writer seems oblivious to it! Here we can clearly see racial stigma at work in America today. It is important to attend to racial stigma in American political culture because, in general, people do not freely give the presumption of equal humanity. Only philosophers do that, and may God love them! But the rest of us tend to ration the extent to which we will presume an equal humanity of our fellows.

One cannot necessarily count on getting the benefit of that presumption. So in an industrial society of nearly three hundred million people with a history going back centuries, what happens when tens of millions of those people cannot in every situation of moral reflection and significant public deliberation rely upon being extended the presumption of an equal humanity?

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Exactly what is the nature of racism? What is its mechanism? I want to suggest with the stigma idea that a withholding of the presumption of equal humanity is the ultimate mechanism of racism in American public life.


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It will be hard to nail that one down by searching through government statistics for evidence of racial discrimination. The effects of stigma are surely more subtle than that. Thus we are often said to be a nation of immigrants. Thirty million newcomers have arrived on our shores since the liberalization of immigration laws in the s.

They have advanced up the escalator of opportunity, by and large. Now, what will the story be?

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It is regrettable that we need to lock up one million of them on any given day. And it is too bad that some two out of five of these black children depend on a public welfare system that has just been reformed in such a manner that, absent a boom economy, they may suffer a great deal. True, we have of late engaged in a discourse about the intellectual inadequacies of these blacks—a discourse that leaves it an open question whether or not, or the extent to which, those inadequacies are rooted in the inherent incapacities of their 89 RACIAL STIGMA genetic endowments.

True, some blacks are falling behind, but most of the recent immigrants are not of European origins either, and they are doing pretty well by and large. So as far as racial justice is concerned, America is okay.

Yes and no, I would say. Yes, it is racism, but by no means is it simply racism. How, the question becomes, will it be contested? What will the argument be? Frankly, my view is that analysts ought to be wary of such comparisons, but I do not see how they can be avoided. I seriously doubt that anyone is going to put the genie back in the bottle on that one either. But how about this: Adopt as an axiom from the outset a belief in the equal humanity of these sons and daughters of slaves.

Make this an a priori commitment that is not contingent on any empirical determination. The view would be that they are equal humanly with us, and that we swim or sink together.