social justice tradeoffs (continued)

The other day, I wrote about the tradeoffs between mutually incompatible social justice goals. I highlighted a paper by the sociologist, Chris Martin, that examines these tradeoffs in the areas of race & gender.

Around the management of race relations, Martin discusses the tradeoff between unity (color-blind) and proportionality (color-conscious) based approaches, which he describes as “polar opposites”. Unity models minimize distinctions between individuals or groups, with a focus on the common ingroup cohesion. By contrast, proportionality models highlight distinctions with an emphasis on reparative policies such as affirmative action. The differences between the two polar opposites results in tradeoffs.

While some academics and activists acknowledge tradeoffs such as these, many do not. In this case, a common view is that unity based approaches cannot correct social injustice, and so therefore they are “color-blind racism”. Martin does not reject the hypothesis that “color-blind racism” is a tradeoff in the direction of unity, but he proposes that a 2nd variable also exists, “color-blind unity”. With the addition of color-blind unity, Martin proposes that unity models can be considered antiracist, too. Thus, activists can alternate between unity and proportionality depending on the situation.

Building upon Martin’s thesis that both unity and proportionality are antiracist, I want to highlight another tradeoff that I believe exists in proportionality models, given that proportionality is the dominant focus in 2017. The tradeoff I am referring to is what I call “injustice false positives”. A false positive happens when we incorrectly identify an attribute or condition as being present. An injustice false positive happens when we incorrectly identify injustice, such as racism or bigotry, as being the cause for a particular behavior or event. For example:

  • Caleb, who is African American, believes his colleague, Jeff, who is white, is racist, because Jeff never acknowledges him in passing. Is Jeff racist, or is Jeff a grump?
  • Mariam, who is Muslim, believes that she is discriminated against at the airport for wearing the hijab. How else can she explain why she gets occasionally selected for extra screening? Has Mariam experienced discrimination, or randomized screening?
  • Jose, who is Mexican, is responsible for identifying bias incidents at his school. Upon examining some data, he notices that a particular immigrant group is dropping out at a higher rate than the school average. Jose believes the higher dropout rate is evidence that this immigrant group is experiencing discrimination. Is this evidence for discrimination, or economic disadvantage (or something else)?

In any of the three cases above, we can’t know for sure whether an injustice has occurred without further information. It may be that one has, or it may be that there is a more ordinary explanation. It’s also possible that there is injustice, such as economic injustice, but it’s not related to racism or bigotry. However, in most cases, it is possible that the details may be fuzzy. In those situations, probabilistic assumptions are made, but probabilistic assumptions are not absolutes, so people are going to inevitably be wrong.

In a system where there is an intense focus on proportionality, injustice false positives are unavoidable and will increase in frequency (versus false negatives, which may increase in the opposite direction). Due to these tradeoffs, it is in the interest of diverse societies, so long as they value harmony and equality, to embrace both unity and proportionality based approaches to antiracism. That might mean that, in some areas, we may have to become comfortable with disproportionality, because disproportionality occurs naturally as much as, if not more than, it is caused by racism or prejudice (I want to stress here that I am not referring to poverty, crime, or general hardship. We should not become comfortable with those). In fact, we may even learn to embrace disproportionality, in the absence of injustice, as just another form of diversity. After all, how can diversity thrive if policy treats everyone as literally indistinguishable clones? But on the other hand, we may have to learn to also come to terms with the fact that difference breeds competition and conflict, and this too occurs naturally.

In conclusion, the primary goal of diverse societies should be to reduce the negatives and maximize the positives of both unity and proportionality focused approaches to antiracism. By doing so, we may be able to achieve something like maximal unity in conjunction with minimal injustice.