Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A Genuinely Original Thought About Race

Pace the author of Ecclesiastes, every once in a while we find that there is, in fact, something new under the sun.

As evindence, I refer you to the political philosophy blog Public Reason, where Simon Keller (Philosophy, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand) recently offered what I find to be a remarkably original "Thought About Racial Profiling." Keller begins by granting that the moral and political permissability of racial profiling is a judgment that can be yielded using both consequentialist reasoning (of the utilitarian sort) and contractualist reasoning (of the Rawlsian "original position"). That is to say, the logics of both consequentialism and contractualism lead one to the conclusion that it is in the greater interest of society as a whole--given certain statistical evidence about the relationship between racial identity and crime--to allow police to employ these statistical trends in the execution of law enforcement, to bring about a more just society.

So far, so good... but so far, not so original. However, Keller proceeds to tweak the proposed "policy" of racial profiling, suggesting that if one already advocates the conventional practice of racial profiling (in the interest of a more just society), then one ought to advocate even more strongly a "slightly modified version" that Keller wants to suggest. Here comes the curveball. Keller's slightly modified policy of racial profiling, in his own words, is as follows:

"Police pay extra attention to members of a certain race, but whenever an individual object of such attention is not arrested, she gets a payment as compensation.

This is a crude thought, but the idea is that if someone is pulled over partly because he is black, or searched at an airport partly because he is Arabic, then he gets - say - $100. Alternatively, we might have a blanket policy of tax rebates for - say - young black males, or they could receive cheaper college education, or some other institutionalized benefit, as compensation for being the innocent victims of a policy that is, on the whole, socially justified.

...I can’t see that [this modification of racial profiling] would be especially difficult to implement, nor that it adds any extra level of stigmatization or racial tension that the standard policies wouldn’t contain anyway."

Now, I think there are more than a few nuanced problems with simply conceding the permissability of "conventional" racial profiling to the consequentialists and the constractualists in the first place. (For example, doesn't the fact that we begin with a question about the moral/political permissability of racial profiling already illustrate our somewhat naive acceptance of a certain set of social-scientific "facts" that are themselves deserving of more critical judgment? I mean, shouldn't the first and most obvious question be: "does the practice of racial profiling produce--or at least reinforce--the racial profiles that are taken as the justification for this policy?") But my suspicion is that these nuances aren't lost to Keller, and that the point of his thought experiment is rather to demonstrate that there is a better and more just way of implementing the policy of racial profiling... IF racial profiling is really as justified as its advocates claim.

Which, of course, it may not be.

As Keller says in his conclusion, if you find his proposed policy obnoxious, then "isn't it obvious that whatever is wrong with [Keller's policy] is also wrong with racial profiling intrinsically?"


Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

Fascinating post and original article also. I'll probably have more to say about it later when I have more time to write, but one thing really quickly:

The thing that I love about consistent consequentialist arguments is that even if you disagree with some of the premises (and strongly disagree with the conclusion), and object to the possibility of making the calculations that they make, you can often find compelling arguments to connect two propositions that you wouldn't ordinarilly connect (I think that this is what Peter Singer does at his best)...

The concluding paragraph(from the Public Reason blog): "Alternatively, if you think that my proposed policy is obviously obnoxious: Isn’t it also obvious that whatever is wrong with it is also wrong with racial profiling intrinsically? Could it be acceptable to inconvenience people partly because of their race, but not permissible to compensate them for it?" fits into this category for me, and all conservative law and order types should have to think about it.

John said...

I think one could go further and not just question "the relationship between racial identity and crime" but question the social construction that leads us to think of race as "obvious", racial identity itself, the whole "ontology of race". One can draw limited results from reversing the argument created by one group's suspicion of another group, e.g. by a lawsuit or the compensation that is outlined by Simon Keller. But we remain caught up in dualist thinking about race. This is the "classic" construction of race found in Hegel's Philosophy of History (that this goes along with statecraft is a problem that haunts the modern state!) and that still defines much thinking about race in America. My point is that this construction does not cover all "racial identity", it is not a formula for human relations. This becomes evident when we examine the status of Muslims in the West, who I would submit are not considered threatening because they are of another race, but because they represent something foreign to the West.

I feel that it is necessary to discontinuously jump to a different conception of race, no of humanity, which is no longer dualist, to get past the deceptive nature of the discussion in our society. Dr. J, you have ably followed the logic of our current thinking (and ended with an appropraite question), but is it enough to reverse the terms of the discussion?