the tradeoffs in social justice advocacy

This is a fascinating paper by sociologist Chris Martin, of Emory University, about the tradeoffs between mutually incompatible social justice goals. He focuses his analysis on intergroup race relations and gender parity in academic fields.

On race relations, Martin discusses the tradeoff between unity (color-blindness) vs proportionality (color-consciousness) based approaches to antiracism. He examines how many academics and activists do not recognize a tradeoff exists, and often consider unity based approaches to be “color-blind” racism. He points out that not acknowledging the tradeoff results in biased research, which will lead to problems down the road. I want to point out before I move forward that Chris Martin is not white (I believe he is Indian).

Chris, on the other hand, recognizes that a tradeoff exists. What this means is that as our society moves away from color-blind policies, intended to increase intergroup harmony and feelings of mutual respect, and towards color-conscious based policies, intended to reduce perceived structural injustice via interventions such as affirmative action, there will be more tension and less harmony between racial groups. But tradeoffs can exist in the opposite direction as well. For example, a society that is structurally unjust, but only focuses on unity, will be unable to remedy such corruption and unfairness.

It seems to me that Chris’ recommendations are the only really sensible ones. Basically, he compels academics and social justice advocates to recognize the reality of such tradeoffs, and to embrace once again unity based approaches to intergroup relations as antiracist. I agree.

racism doesn’t cause police shootings

There is no longer any question as to whether racism is the primary cause of police shootings. Enough data has at this point been amassed to know for certain: It’s not. Furthermore, there is no longer any question as to whether racism is the best explanation for why African Americans are killed more often than whites by police. Enough data has at this point been amassed to know for certain: It’s not.

Police shootings are caused by a lot of things: armed suspects, incompetent cops, unarmed suspects who appear armed, trigger happy cops, suspects in the commission of a violent crime, suicide by cop, poor lighting, inadequate training, etc. Similarly, the demographic gaps in who gets shot by police are caused by a lot of things, but the best explanation is that group differences in violent crime rate results in group differences in exposer to police, as well as group differences in how often officers are exposed to individuals more likely to be armed or aggressive towards cops. These are what the facts say. They are empirical observations supported by loads of data.

Many who read this who believe racism explains why cops shoot black people more often than white people will retort that officers often fail to deescalate. Sure, but a failure to deescalate is not racism. Then they will reply by showing videos of white people, in similar situations to infamous videos of blacks getting killed, being subdued rather than shot. Fair enough. I’ll reply by showing other videos of white people in similar situations actually getting shot. Or maybe I’ll reply by showing black people in similar situations being apprehended.

Then, someone will point out that officers are often biased. Understandable. But the evidence for officer bias is hardly conclusive. Not to mention, bias is actually a weak predictor of human behavior in the real world. In fact, the implicit association test (IAT), the gold standard for bias measurement, has come under fire as being an unreliable instrument that doesn’t actually do what its biggest proponents say it does. Folks will still claim bias, and that’s fine. But there is far more evidence for the explanations I’ve provided above than there is for bias.

Finally, someone will jump in and say that “systemic racism” and “white supremacy” explain the gaps. But notice the progression here, from empirically testable to unfalsifiable. Of course, systemic racism might in some way be a factor, but at some point we have to prove it. Otherwise, we are just “believing” it’s so. But just believing doesn’t actually make it so, and since it’s hard to know for sure how systemic racism exactly effects officer behavior, we can only make general claims. Such as, for example, that changing certain laws or relaxing our enforcement of specific statutes might reduce some types of law enforcement interactions that are at risk of turning deadly. All that’s possible. But we can’t say for certain anything beyond mere conjecture.

For the time being though, the best explanation we have for why officers shoot blacks more often than whites, at least at the time of the incident, does not include racism. Our country would do well to move beyond thinking otherwise.

white people getting shot by police with their hands up

I have engaged in countless debates and write ups, on Facebook and elsewhere, with people who are convinced that the *cause* for why police shoot African Americans at a higher rate than they shoot other groups is a result of racism and bias.

Most folks are well intentioned and are genuinely concerned about the plight of our African American communities, as they and all of us should be. They see racism and historical injustice as an explanation for why those communities, in so many areas of this country, are in such turmoil today. And I would agree with them.

But on this topic, and after thoroughly enmeshing myself in the data and the stories for at least the greater part of three years now, I am convinced that a better explanation for the gap in how often blacks are shot by police versus other groups is violent crime rate, not racism, not unconscious bias.

Some of the disagreements come down to technicalities and confusion about what causation means, because I am referring to statistical causation of the gap in shooting rates, while others see single incidents as proof of a larger trend. I have tried to explain that such an intense focus on single perspectives from isolated incidents scews our perception and says nothing about the bigger picture, but to no avail.

Regardless though, single incidents can draw attention to a cause that people need to pay more attention to. And when statistics back up the concern, those single incidents can be a powerful catalyst for change.

Which is why I am drawing everyone’s attention to this video, which I was only made aware of this morning. The video shows an unarmed white man being shot by the police, who confused his wallet for a gun. The officer was acquitted earlier this year by a Federal Appeals Court, who ruled that “After careful consideration and review of a video recording of the shooting, viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Davidson, we conclude that a reasonable officer in Hancock’s position would have feared for his life.”

Because the suspect was white, the explanation for why the officer shot him could not have been racism or unconscious bias against white people (the officer was also white). Therefore, the next best explanation for the shooting was that the officer genuinely feared for his life and made a tragic mistake. I would argue that this video presents a compelling case example of the phenomenon of why police may shoot unarmed men, whether they be black or white.

As such, if we want to understand the gaps in how often African Americans get shot in this manner, we must look elsewhere beyond racism and unconscious bias for the explanation, and statistics actually back this up. In that endeavor, the best place to start will be with the differences in violent crime between groups. Otherwise, no matter how many tears are shed over such tragedy’s, our solutions to the problem, so often focused on reducing racism and bias, will be about as effective as a cat chasing its tail.

coming to terms with our nature so we don’t kill each other

This form of anti-Muslim bigotry is truly horrifying. I condemn it in the loudest possible terms, and yes, bigotry of this sort is terrorism of the worst kind.

Which gets me to thinking about this and other types of attacks we are seeing across the West: there is a shared human nature that spans race and religion, and a secular understanding of that nature is crucial to developing the kinds of policies that will help to prevent our societies from devolving into a state that could have been far better, had we done a few things differently.

The ways in which Western elites have grown to fetishize difference without understanding how difference can cause the fringe of society, so weak and unable to cope with the rights of others, to act out against their fellow countrymen in this way is, in my mind, one of the most overlooked and under-discussed challenges in all of these debates about mass migration.

Yes, people of different backgrounds can live together peacefully. But I join with Jonathon Haidt and others in their call for Western governments to wake up and to begin to prioritize a discussion on these issues that takes far more seriously some of what the best science has to say about human nature. As such, those fields that derive their theories from the rejection of truth and objective human knowledge should be excluded, because they are part of the problem not the solution.

First and foremost, we must centralize our understanding of human behavior in the context of our evolved instincts, instilled in us through generations upon generations of natural selection. If anyone were to ask me upon which foundational texts such discussions would be based, I recommend two books as a starting point: The first book is On Human Nature by EO Wilson, and the second book is Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. A few others like Pinker’s The Blank Slate and Better Angels Of Our Our Nature would also be crucial.

But we can’t live in the clouds any longer. If our desire is to maintain any semblance of social trust and harmony, then it is upon all of us to educate ourselves on what the best science says about these issues and take part in the great debate in as productive as manner as possible. Otherwise, we leave the future of our societies in the hands of the directionless and untalented blowhards currently leading us all towards the brink.

coming to terms with my ignorance, not embracing it

On any given day, on any given topic, I think it’s safe to assume that I know less than 1% of what can possibly be known about most issues in the news.

So let’s say you have a news worthy topic where there are two individuals involved, that means you have two perspectives. Only knowing one perspective means you know only 50% of what can possibly be known about a particular event involving those two folks. Obviously, when I say “known”, I mean having a firm enough grasp of something to be able to develop educated opinions about it. I don’t mean some extreme version of knowing like the ability to know all the positions of atoms in the universe during time x.

Ok. So if you have an issue involving 4 people but only know the perspective of one, then you only know a quarter of what can be known. With 8 people, if you only know the perspective of a single individual, then you now only really know 1/8 of what can be known. All of this and so on all the way down.

Once you appreciate how little you really know about most things, it’s fun to watch people who are so confident in their positions that are basically developed from ignorance. I would say that most political debate is people screaming at one another from positions of ignorance about topics they can’t possibly know much about, because those topics are incredibly complex.

Because it takes time to develop knowledge about most important issues, one can generally develop a pretty decent estimate about any given person’s ability to know much at all about it based on certain data points about their life. Key variables would include whether they have a demanding job that sucks up most of their time during the day, and perhaps if they have kids that take up lots of their time at night.

Assuming that most of the average busy person’s day is taken up by these types of important activities, and assuming that the average issue takes at least a couple hours of dedicated reading to even know 5% of what can be known, then the vast majority of the population has no time to know much about much, including me.


I actually have nothing against abstinence. I think it’s perfectly fine to teach children that abstinence is the most effective way to avoid STDs and unwanted babies.

The problem is, humans come in all shapes, sizes and…. life history strategies. Per Wikipedia, “A life history strategy is the ‘age- and stage-specific patterns’ and timing of events that make up an organism’s life, such as birth, weaning, maturation, death, etc”

Generally, people whose life history strategies are more future focused, such as those who place a heavy emphasis on savings and education, also tend to delay sex until later in life and have lower numbers of sexual partners. Meanwhile, people whose life history strategies are more short term oriented, with a heavy emphasis on immediate rewards, tend to have more frequent sexual encounters with a greater number of partners starting from an earlier age.

While certain life history characteristics tend to correlate together, there are also folks who display a mix of the above traits. For example, someone might place a heavy emphasis on the future but a low emphasis on commitment, so they have more sexual encounters.

Furthermore, it is theorized these traits also have a genetic and environmental component, which means that individuals don’t really get to choose their life history strategy. Like so many things, first nature has a go at us, then nurture has a go at us, and the final product is who we are whether we like it or not.

As a result, abstinence only policies that fail to teach other forms of birth control are guilty of not taking into account the great diversity of human life strategies. By not doing so, such policies in effect discriminate against some people whose life strategies (which they do not really get to choose) may make it more difficult for them to conform.

Maybe someday such advocates for abstinence only policies will wake up to the fact that people differ from one another, and that having only one kind of sex ed fails to take into account the great diversity in human sexual strategies. When that time comes, we can all develop more rational approaches to preventing unwanted pregnancy and STDs that celebrate, rather than reject, the diversity that exists among humans across ALL traits, including sexual strategies.

a case against free speech (not)

In today’s LA Times, a sociologist and legal scholar makes the case for restricting hate speech, on the grounds that not doing so subjects the “disadvantaged members of our society to shoulder a heavy burden with serious consequences.”

But she makes no mention of the fact that freedom of speech laws have actually protected the disadvantaged throughout our nation’s history. In fact, the first to suffer when speech becomes restricted are the disadvantaged, because they, by definition, lack the power to defend their rights of expression.

For example, during the Civil Rights Movement, black Americans were actually sent to jail for protesting segregation. The basis for which they were jailed was that they were in violation of speech restrictions! Some were even arrested for offenses as banal as praying on the steps of the Albany City Hall. One of those individuals you may have heard of, his name was Martin Luther King.

A year or so later, King and other movement leaders were ordered by Birmingham Sheriff, Bull Connor, that they were not allowed to engage in “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing,” or even “conduct customarily known as ‘kneel-ins’ in churches.” According to the ACLU, “It was King’s violation of this injunction that landed him in prison for the stint during which he wrote the famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” (See the ACLU article in the comments for more examples of egregious violations of constitutionally protected speech during the Civil Rights Movement.)

The professor who wrote this opinion piece is presumably aware of this history, but she leaves it out of her argument here. We are left to suppose that she has faith that a system which regulates “hate” (an ambiguous word on a good day) would only ever do so in a way that upholds her own (biased/political) definitions of what that word means. The very fact that she is making this argument amidst a Donald Trump presidency is baffling to me. But I guess nothing can be that surprising on the Internet.

I conclude with a quote from the article from the ACLU, “If we don’t stand up for the First Amendment when racist speech is censored, it is the weak, the powerless, minorities, and those who seek change who will be hurt most in the end.”