Ethics in AI

Ethics in AI

DeepMind researchers propose rebuilding the AI industry on a base of anticolonialism – “The researchers detailed how to build AI systems while critically examining colonialism and colonial forms of AI already in use in a preprint paper released Thursday. The paper was coauthored by DeepMind research scientists William Isaac and Shakir Mohammed and Marie-Therese Png, an Oxford doctoral student and DeepMind Ethics and Society intern who previously provided tech advice to the United Nations Secretary General’s High-level Panel on Digital Cooperation.”

The researchers posit that power is at the heart of ethics debates and that conversations about power are incomplete if they do not include historical context and recognize the structural legacy of colonialism that continues to inform power dynamics today. They further argue that inequities like racial capitalism, class inequality, and heteronormative patriarchy have roots in colonialism and that we need to recognize these power dynamics when designing AI systems to avoid perpetuating such harms.

“Any commitment to building the responsible and beneficial AI of the future ties us to the hierarchies, philosophy, and technology inherited from the past, and a renewed responsibility to the technology of the present,” the paper reads. “This is needed in order to better align our research and technology development with established and emerging ethical principles and regulation, and to empower vulnerable peoples who, so often, bear the brunt of negative impacts of innovation and scientific progress.”

The paper incorporates a range of suggestions, such as analyzing data colonialism and decolonization of data relationships and employing the critical technical approach to AI development Philip Agre proposed in 1997.

The notion of anticolonial AI builds on a growing body of AI research that stresses the importance of including feedback from people most impacted by AI systems. An article released in Nature earlier this week argues that the AI community must ask how systems shift power and asserts that “an indifferent field serves the powerful.” VentureBeat explored how power shapes AI ethics in a special issue last fall. Power dynamics were also a main topic of discussion at the ACM FAccT conference held in early 2020 as more businesses and national governments consider how to put AI ethics principles into practice.

some of DeepMind’s machine learning fairness research…

also btw…

Softlaw: “law that is software coded before it is passed.” (A very direct and literal take on @lessig’s “code is law”)[1,2]

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Killer Mike Takes His Allies Where He Finds Them

Killer Mike Takes His Allies Where He Finds Them

Rapper Killer Mike, left, and State Representative La Shawn Ford listen as Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a meeting with local activist and community members Monday, December 23, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images)

In 2018, Killer Mike sat down for an interview on NRATV, the former online broadcasting arm of the NRA. Perhaps predictably, the NRA took his quote on school walkouts and used it in a campaign against the March for Our Lives. He’s not sorry, though, and in a wide-ranging interview at GQ, Donovan X. Ramsey finds out why.

Still, the damage was done. Mike doesn’t apologize for sitting down with the NRA, however. He believes, at his core, that Black Americans should find allies wherever they can. “The greatest gift Atlanta has given me is to be able to judge people solely by the content of their character, because all my heroes and villains have always been Black,” he tells me. Mike repeats this a few times throughout the afternoon. He doesn’t say it about the NRA directly, but it speaks to how he measures allies and enemies. “You may start off with Professor X,” he says, “but Magneto got a fucking point.”

As we cruise around, I ask him if he plans on voting for Joe Biden in November. He demurs, asking me if Biden plans on signing H.R. 40, the bill that would establish a commission to study and develop proposals for reparations for Black Americans, before launching into an impassioned monologue:

“I don’t give a shit if Joe Biden the person is moved to the left. I don’t give a shit about liking you or you liking me. What I give a shit about is if your policies are going to benefit me and my community in a way that will help us get a leg up in America. That’s it. Because we deserve a leg up, and I’m not ashamed to say it.

“We fucking deserve it. My great-grandmother, who taught me how to sew a button, was taught how to sew a button because her grandmother was enslaved. The daughter of a slave taught me and encouraged me to write, read, sew buttons, take care of myself. So why the fuck am I going to accept anything? I don’t give a fuck if you kneel in kente cloth. Give a shit. What have you got for me?”

It speaks to the philosophy that undergirds all of Killer Mike’s political ideas and positions. Before anything, Mike is a Black man from the American South who is deeply skeptical of how much a white supremacist, heteropatriarchal power structure built on the evils of capitalism will do to ensure his freedom. So he’s willing to embrace methodologies and tactics from across the political spectrum to see what works.

Read the profile

A better world than this is possible

A better world than this is possible

The Republican Choice – “How a party spent decades making itself white.”

“The GOP is a white party advocating for white (rural & suburban) interests. It did not become that way accidentally: it was the result of a long series of deliberate, shameful choices.”[1,2] –@drvox

The political wisdom is ingrained at this point: Black and brown people don’t vote for Republicans. From that principle flows all manner of Republican strategy… The GOP’s whitewashed political reality is no accident — the party has repeatedly chosen to pursue white voters at the cost of others decade after decade. Since the mid-20th century, the Republican Party has flirted with both the morality of greater racial inclusion and its strategic benefits. But time and again, the party’s appeals to white voters have overridden voices calling for a more racially diverse coalition, and Republicans’ relative indifference to the interests of voters of color evolved into outright antagonism.

Racism Is the Biggest Reason the U.S. Safety Net Is So Weak – “Harvard economist Alberto Alesina, who died last [month], found that ethnic divisions made the country less effective at providing public goods.”

“Opponents of redistribution in the United States have regularly used race-based rhetoric to resist left-wing policies… Within the United States, race is the single most important predictor of support for welfare. America’s troubled race relations are clearly a major reason for the absence of an American welfare state.”


To some, this might seem like a confirmation of right-wing ideas that diversity is bad for a country. But although it might help explain the success of homogenous countries such as Sweden and South Korea, Alesina’s theory is much more subtle than it might appear. As he explained in a 2003 paper, the key isn’t how similar the inhabitants of a country might appear on paper, but how much they see themselves as one people; fractionalization is in the mind, rather than in the genes. That implies that the way forward for the U.S. and other diverse countries, to become more equal and prosperous, is to de-emphasize racial and ethnic divisions and promote a shared identity.

Beyond ‘White Fragility’ – “If you want to let freedom ring, hammer on economic injustice.” (via)

Which brings us back to the present. The activists behind the Black Lives Matter movement have always connected its aims to working-class, egalitarian politics. The platform of the Movement for Black Lives, as it is formally known, includes demands for universal health care, affordable housing, living wage employment and access to education and public transportation. Given the extent to which class shapes black exposure to police violence — it is poor and working class black Americans who are most likely to live in neighborhoods marked by constant police surveillance — calls to defund and dismantle existing police departments are a class demand like any other.

But while the movement can’t help but be about practical concerns, the predominating discourse of belief and intention overshadows those stakes: too much concern with “white fragility” and not enough with wealth inequality. The challenge is to bridge the gap; to show new supporters that there’s far more work to do than changing the way we police; to channel their sympathy into a deeper understanding of the problem at hand.

To put a final point of emphasis on the potential of the moment, I’ll leave you with this. In a 1963 pamphlet called “The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Worker’s Notebook,” the activist and laborer James Boggs argued for the revolutionary potential of the black struggle for civil rights. “The strength of the Negro cause and its power to shake up the social structure of the nation,” Boggs wrote, “comes from the fact that in the Negro struggle all the questions of human rights and human relationships are posed.” That is because it is a struggle for equality “in production, in consumption, in the community, in the courts, in the schools, in the universities, in transportation, in social activity, in government, and indeed in every sphere of American life.”

“an underappreciated benefit of social democracy is it might diminish people’s incentive to exaggerate and lie for a living. ‘grift’ is a macroeconomic, not just a moral, failing. most people would do better things if they were under less stress and/or knew better things to do.” –@interfluidity

“This is a really great example of the culture around social welfare distribution in the US. A 0.5% error rate of overpayment merits front page headlines. That *20%* of people eligible for food stamps or the EITC don’t receive them is given little heed.” –@pamela_herd

“Still waiting to see a big in-depth news story about how much enhanced unemployment benefits are helping lower wage workers. There are literally millions of people receiving benefits over 100% of their normal income.” –@wsbgnl

“Just a handful of anecdotes via twitter replies of the impact of what @MattBruenig

calls the ‘superdole’ — much bigger unemployment benefits + $1,200 checks — approved by Congress in March” –@JStein_WaPo

“Policy ideas that redefine the rules of the game in order to win are really underrated. Want to increase GDP? Increase the population. Want to end illegal immigration? Make it legal. Want to end poverty? Give everyone money.” –@albrgr

“The 3 rules of pandemic economics: 1. Get families cash, or people will die. 2. Get companies cash, or firms will die. 3. Stop the pandemic, or there will be a lot of death no matter how much cash you spend.” –@DKThomp

COVID-19 Broke the Economy. What If We Don’t Fix It? – “Instead of reopening society for the sake of the economy, what if we continued to work less, buy less, make less—for the sake of the planet?” (via)

“Whenever there’s a crisis, everybody says we have to work more. Actually no, at the moment you want to save the world, work less,” said David Graeber, an American anthropologist and the author of Bullshit Jobs, a book that argues that many jobs that we currently work are meaningless.

As a society, we place moral value on working. “We really do believe that if you’re not out working hard you don’t deserve anything. You’re a bad person,” Graeber said. “But that morality is perversely destroying the planet.”

“in the old class analysis the people workers resent, who boss them and underpay them, are capitalists. @davidgraeber points out that for most workers, it’s managers and professionals who directly boss and underpay, rather problematizing contemporary ‘left’ political parties.”[3] –@interfluidity

America’s Democratic Unraveling – “Countries fail the same way businesses do, gradually and then suddenly.”[4,5] (via)

U.S. institutions were vulnerable to Trump’s attack because public trust had been quietly ebbing away from them for some time. For more than three decades after World War II, growth was not just rapid but broadly shared, at least among whites, enabling most Americans, even those without college degrees, to find good jobs. But instead of spreading those gains even more widely, and cutting African Americans into the American dream, U.S. economic institutions became less inclusive over the last three decades, and politics became more beholden to moneyed interests. Endemic racism persisted, and economic inequality deepened, producing radically disparate outcomes for different groups of Americans. The financial crisis of 2008, and the subsequent bailout for banks, only accelerated the trend toward inequality and deepened distrust in Congress, the judiciary, the Federal Reserve, and regulatory agencies.

Do Protests Even Work? – “It sometimes takes decades to find out.” (via)

So why don’t authorities always ratchet up the repression until people give up? Why do they sometimes give in to protest movements? The key to understanding that is also the key to understanding the true long-term power of social movements. Movements, and their protests, are powerful because they change the minds of people, including those who may not even be participating in them, and they change the lives of their participants.

“I cannot believe that we literally witnessed more progress being made from a week of riots than a decade of electoral politics, we are witnessing massive voter suppression & election rigging in real time and so many of you are STILL on some ‘wait til november…’ shit. GROW UP”[6] –@themermacorn

“Noam Chomsky on the legacy of Bernie Sanders’ campaign: “It’s the constant activism that is reshaping the array of choices, issues, policies. You don’t win by snapping your fingers. Some things work, some things fail, and you pick up and go on from there.” –@jacobinmag

“For the political time junkies – I wrote a long blog post about the possibilities of a Biden ‘reconstructive’ presidency. Hint: it’s about social movements, not just the president.” –@julia_azari

Never The Same – “Things are different now. They started to change in 2008, when Congress and the Federal Reserve threw unprecedented money at the economy to keep it from collapsing. They’ve done it again this year with even more money. Trillions and trillions of dollars. It was a huge debate in 2008. It’s much less controversial today.”[7]

My theory is that once a new kind of stimulus is tasted it becomes a permanent feature of how downturns are handled. This isn’t about the technical details of stimulus. It’s not even about whether you think it works. It’s about the perceptions of struggling people who demand something be done, and their knowledge of what can be done…

I don’t care whether you think those things are right, wrong, moral, or will have ugly consequences. That’s a different topic. All that matters here is that people’s perception of what policymakers are capable of doing when the economy declines has been shifted higher in a huge way. And it’s crazy to think those new expectations won’t impact policymakers’ future decisions.

It’s one thing if people think policymakers don’t have the tools to fight a recession. But now that everyone knows how powerful the tools can be, no politician can say, “There’s nothing we could do.” They can only say, “We chose not to do it.” Which few politicians – on either side – wants to say when people are losing jobs.

The Jobs We Need – “Workers have been left behind as the U.S. economy expanded and chief executive salaries skyrocketed over the last four decades.”[8,9,10,11] (via)

American workers need a raise. But it is not enough to transfer wealth from the rich to the desperate. In confronting the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood that a sustainable improvement in the quality of most American lives required an overhaul of the institutions of government.

“These economic royalists complain that we seek to overthrow the institutions of America,” Roosevelt said in 1936. “What they really complain of is that we seek to take away their power.”

Now as then, the profound inequities of American life are the result of laws written at the behest of the wealthy and public institutions managed in their interest. Now as then, the nation’s economic problems are rooted in political problems. And now as then, the revival of broad prosperity — and the stability of American democracy — require the imposition of limits on the political influence of the wealthy. It requires the government to serve the interests of the governed.

Americans especially need to confront the fact that minorities are disproportionately the victims of economic inequality — the people most often denied the dignity of a decent wage. That inequity is the result of historic and continuing racism, and it should be addressed with the same sense of fierce urgency that has motivated the wave of protests against overt displays of racism.

The Rev. Dr. William Barber II, a civil-rights leader who emphasizes the foundational importance of economic justice, has pointed to the constitution that North Carolina adopted after the Civil War. The document affirms the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But African-Americans were among the state’s legislators for the first time, and the former slaves got another principle enshrined as well: that workers are entitled to “the fruits of their own labor.” They understood that economic security makes other freedoms meaningful.

It is time to ensure that all Americans can share in the nation’s prosperity.

You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body Is a Confederate Monument – “The black people I come from were owned by the white people I come from. The white people I come from fought and died for their Lost Cause. And I ask you now, who dares to tell me to celebrate them? Who dares to ask me to accept their mounted pedestals?” (via)

Architecture of Oppression: Racism and Bias in Community Planning

Architecture of Oppression: Racism and Bias in Community Planning

There’s No Such Thing as a Dangerous Neighborhood. Most serious urban violence is concentrated among less than 1 percent of a city’s population. So why are we still criminalizing whole areas? (Stephen Lurie, CityLab) On the other hand, a study in 2019 (abstract only) shows that growing up in an affluent community brings “compounding privileges” and higher educational attainment—especially for white residents. (Tanvi Misra, CityLab)

America’s Cities Were Designed to Oppress. Architects and planners have an obligation to protect health, safety and welfare through the spaces we design. As the George Floyd protests reveal, we’ve failed. (Bryan Lee Jr., architect and design justice advocate, CityLab)

For nearly every injustice in the world, there is an architecture that has been planned and designed to perpetuate it. That’s a key principle of the Design Justice movement, upon which I base my practice. Design Justice seeks to dismantle the privilege and power structures that use architecture as a tool of oppression and sees it as an opportunity to envision radically just spaces centered on the liberation of disinherited communities.

That built-in oppression takes many forms. It’s in the planning decisions that target non-white communities for highway projects and “urban renewal” schemes conceived to steer economic benefits away from existing residents. It’s in a design philosophy that turned neighborhoods into mazes of “defensible space” that often criminalize blackness under the guise of safety. And it’s in the proliferation of public spaces that often fail to let certain cultural communities congregate without fear of harassment.

This moment, like so many others, rose out of the state-sanctioned murder of black people. It emerged from the killing of George Floyd, and Tony McDade, before that, Breonna Taylor, before that Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others. It grew out of the specter of impending violence that follows black and brown people daily. And it grew out of the apathy of this nation toward a black community so profoundly sickened by our built environment that a global pandemic disproportionately impacts us.

Rebellion is a response to a prolonged dehumanization of a people unwilling to be participants in their own demise; it is often the soft power of the built environment that provides the preconditions for that dehumanization and the atrocities that follow.

‘Safe Streets’ Are Not Safe for Black Lives. (Destiny Thomas, anthropologist and transportation planner, CityLab)

This spring, a pandemic cleared cars from the streets. Many U.S. cities seized the moment by announcing new bike lanes and networks of “slow streets” that limit vehicle traffic. It is a transportation planner’s dream to hear that thousands of miles of streets are being reorganized to make room for more walking, biking and playing.

But to me, as a Black planner and community organizer, the lack of process and participatory decision-making behind these projects was an absolute nightmare. Pop-up bike lanes, guerrilla-urbanist playgrounds, and tactical walkways have been notorious for being politically crude for as long as I’ve been in the field: By design, their “quick-build” nature overrides the public feedback that is necessary for deep community support. Without that genuine engagement, I feared that pandemic-induced pedestrian street redesigns would deepen inequity and mistrust in communities that have been disenfranchised and underserved for generations.

Why Race Matters in Planning Public Parks. A major overhaul of a huge Houston park reveals disparities in what white, black, and Latino residents want—and need. (Brentin Mock, CityLab, 2016)

Houston is embarking upon a $220 million parks project called Bayou Greenways 2020, a 150-mile network of continuous hiking trails, biking paths, and green space that will run throughout the city. When completed in 2020, it will make good on plans made by the urban planner Arthur Comey in 1912 to connect the city’s parks with the many strips of bayous scratching open the Houston landscape. Residents approved by ballot referendum a $166 million bond in 2012 to pay for the Bayou Greenways 2020 project, and for improvements to the near-50,000 acres of park space in the city. The goal is to connect the area’s bayous and parks to neighborhoods spanning the region.

While this connectivity is the stated priority for this massive parks overhaul, not everyone in Houston is feeling it. In fact, connectivity seems to matter most only to Houston’s whiter and wealthier residents. When the city’s parks and recreation department conducted its Master Plan Parks Survey in 2014, the majority of respondents replied that they wanted their neighborhoods and parks linked to biking and walking paths. The problem with that survey is that about two-thirds of the respondents were white with household incomes over $75,000. This is clearly not a good starting point for Houston, one of the most racially diverse, (and heavily segregated) cities in the country.

To correct this misrepresentation, a group of researchers from Rice University, conducted another survey, with the parks and rec department’s blessing (and funding!). This one was targeted at African-American and Latino neighborhoods to find out what they wanted from the new park upgrades. Lo and behold, the priorities differed from those of the initial survey. As the researchers write in the report about the surveys, “More Inclusive Parks Planning: Park Quality and Preferences for Park Access and Amenities.

Houston’s Bayou Greenways is still proceeding, but is being followed with the more inclusive Beyond the Bayous project, which aims to make green space available to all Houstonians, so that everyone can enjoy equitable access to green spaces, according to the official Houston Parks Board website.

The Asymmetry of Racial Discourse

The Asymmetry of Racial Discourse

No political topic can turn friends into strangers and strangers into enemies as predictably, swiftly and decisively as that of race in America.

A recent conversation with friends went sour after I asserted that racism itself can’t explain the persistence of racial inequality in the country. The psychological and moral tone of the conversation shifted tectonically and we became awkwardly conscious of the optics of discussing this issue as three white males ensconced in relative comfort and security. What followed was a prolonged ear-beating about the continuing prevalence of racism and white privilege. I had to convince people whom I’ve known for most of my life that I wasn’t a racist or unconsciously supported a system of racial inequality.

It all felt so rehearsed, impersonal and surreal, as though we were each acting out our prescribed roles in a larger drama that had been determined by the momentum of history. In this tragicomedy, I was the bad white who didn’t understand racism and my friends were the good whites putting me in touch with the latent knowledge of my unearned advantages in life. Stranger still, it felt as though each of us were more preoccupied with staving off the underlying moral terror of being associated with the evils of historical oppression, than debating an important political issue. But how can any progress be made on the racial front when close friends, in private, can’t even bring themselves to discuss the issues openly without censoring each other for perceived transgressions?

This anecdote speaks to the theatricality of racial discourse in America and the interpersonal contortions compelled by the prevailing narrative on race.

The Prevailing Narrative

This narrative goes as follows. Race is an invention of the west, constructed to vindicate the economic exploitation of nonwhite groups; the cultural phenomenon of racism is the inevitable outgrowth of this invention, designed to justify the elevated social status of white populations. Although the civil rights revolution brought about some noteworthy changes, racism lives on in tropes, stereotypes, stigmas and implicit associations, manifested in social policy. In addition to the intergenerational injustices of slavery and Jim Crow, these forces wholly explain present inequalities that appear as racial disparities of outcome.

The logic suggests that, if not for the subjugation of nonwhite groups, there would be no America to speak of. All the nation’s wealth and power—of which whites have been the foremost beneficiaries—was the result of the exploitation of people of color. And if white privilege is a direct historical consequence of minority disadvantage, it is incumbent on whites to come to terms with the costs of their historic privilege, take greater responsibility for racial inequity and set about dismantling systemic racism by extracting racist people and ideas from our institutions and expanding the concept of racism to encompass a wider scope of offenses. When there is basic parity between blacks and whites on various socioeconomic metrics, we will finally have taken account of our original sin, exorcised the source of our collective guilt and can move on to other issues.

There is a certain internal coherence to this narrative. It includes a diagnosis of the problem (historical racism and its present implications), a methodology to fix it (acknowledging privilege/oppression and offsetting bias) and a terminus at which point it will be resolved (racial equity). It is crucial to understand why so many people feel compelled by these ideas and can identify with the moral vision guiding them. Bringing the unconscious elements of this narrative to light may help tame its excesses.

The Alternative Narrative

A number of commentators and analysts, many of them black and well to the left of center, have noted the fallacies, inconsistencies, hyperboles and discrepancies embedded within this story.

Thomas Sowell has argued that disparities between ethnic groups are the norm rather than the exception, and that the need to explain racial disparities in terms of justice, rather than as a result of underlying social conditions, is a misguided attempt to create a nonexistent order from the chaos of the cosmos. Coleman Hughes has expanded Sowell’s work on the disparity fallacy by arguing in favor of cultural explanations for present inequalities, which allow for greater black autonomy, and against the left’s stubborn unwillingness to acknowledge racial progress. John McWhorter has long argued that anti-racism has become a secular church bearing all of the motifs of religious faith—atonement, heresy, original sin, judgment day, sainthood—encouraging a cult of victimhood, which discourages blacks from meeting their true potential. Glenn Loury has discussed the chasm between elite intellectual rhetoric about race and the lived experience of poor blacks in crime-ridden inner city neighborhoods. Thomas Chatterton Williams has made the case that today’s racial activism mirrors certain white supremacist beliefs by tacitly presuming that the fate of black Americans remains in the hands of all-powerful decision-making whites. And Shelby Steele has discussed the moral and psychological excesses of post-civil rights liberalism, which sacrifices national unity and colorblind principles at the altar of white guilt.

These views have shaped an alternative narrative about race in America, which emphasizes humanist ideals, individual self-determination and political pragmatism over intertemporal racial justice. In this telling, since the demise of legalized segregation in the 1960s, Americans have been incentivized to exaggerate the effects of racism in society to explain recurrent socioeconomic inequities between blacks and other groups, either to endow themselves with a sense of virtue and assuage personal insecurities or to dissociate themselves from America’s past sins and appear innocent of historical racism. This has resulted in increasing cultural polarization. By framing issues that impact Americans of all colors—although they may disproportionately harm certain groups—in strictly racial terms, we render necessary compromise anathema and muddy policy issues. Is mass incarceration a problem because it’s racist, for instance, or because the prison system is punitive, brutal and dysfunctional?

We ought to be moving toward a society in which our cultural, political and ethnic identities are less relevant to public life and Americans are socially, economically and morally better off than in the past—as opposed to a society in which racial groups are closer to enjoying a parity of opportunities and outcomes.

Responses to These Two Narratives

It is not obvious which narrative is closer to the truth. But there is an asymmetry in the ways in which media, academia and the broader culture respond to these competing visions. After Coleman Hughes’ testimony before Congress against reparations, notable Twitter users with hundreds of thousands of followers tweeted out pictures of his family and unearthed old posts intended to embarrass and discredit him. Similar responses have met most of the other writers named above.

It would be unthinkable for anything similar to happen the other way round. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ibram X Kendi, Michael Eric Dyson and other progressive analysts of race would never be no-platformed or shouted down in public—because they represent the mainstream orthodoxy and awaken many Americans’ need to distance themselves from the brutal history of slavery and Jim Crow. Those championing the counter narrative, however, are often accused of being racists, race traitors or just callous and ignorant. One side receives praise or quiet acquiescence, while the other is routinely stigmatized, anathematized and pathologized.

Yet the counter narrative has become increasingly difficult to ignore due to the widening gap between the moral proprieties of our institutions, enforced from the top down, and the lived reality of generations of Americans emerging from the bottom up—most of whom aren’t identifiably white. Whites will no longer be the majority in America by the middle of the twenty-first century; 60% of Black Americans without college degrees say that racism hasn’t harmed their chances of success in life according to various polls; several dark-skinned ethnic groups outearn white Americans by a significant margin; about 40% of Americans living in poverty are white. This all contradicts the notion that an amorphous white supremacy remains the central organizing principle of American society. Fitting these facts into a narrative of racial oppression is like wrenching a square peg into a round hole.

This disconnect creates an opportunity for far-right and/or ethnonationalist figures, who leverage the incongruities of mainstream discourse to build online audiences, to promote a grand narrative of white victimhood and encourage conspiracy theories.

The progressive narrative about race isn’t going anywhere—nor should it—but it’s sorely in need of a sanity check. We’d all have a deeper grasp of the issue if debates were to happen more openly. 

The conflict of visions about race in America is not a disagreement over facts. It involves deeper questions of national and moral identity—of how we conceive of ourselves and relate to our fellow citizens. While one side contends that America will never be free of its historical legacy until we collectively acknowledge the depths of racism in the country, the other side asserts that we won’t move forward as a nation until we stop blaming each other for past sins. On one side, we have a demand for atonement, and, on the other, for forgiveness. Which is more needed at this moment in history? That’s the question each side must definitively and publicly answer.

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Samuel Kronen is an independent writer interested in American culture, identity, and race politics.

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  1. Race theory implicitly assumes that blacks are helpless and need whites to “save” them, which is a racist belief in itself. One can make a good argument that the welfare system instituted in the 1960s destroyed the black family and black culture, creating dependence. Why, if racism is so oppressive, can black immigrants from Africa have a higher average income than whites? Why do Persians who arrived here barely speaking English do so well? It is cultural. The inner city black culture teaches the men in particular that they have no place in white society (black women do much better) and only gangs are their option. As Amy Wax pointed out, if blacks finished school, got married and stayed out of jail (and going to church wouldn’t hurt) they would probably double their income. But Leftists want black culture to be equated with skin color and not to be criticized.

  2. I’ve had to be very careful in navigating these issues as both a university professor and a member of the Unitarian Universalist church — three years ago I had no idea I was joining a church that was “saturated in White Supremacy culture” until the UU Association started pumping Critical Race Theory into its magazine and into the services of local churches!

    The balance I have found is in agreeing that there are some changes that can/should be made both individually and (especially) institutionally, while simply avoiding the rhetoric of self-flagellation. In following this approach I have discovered that most of the “good white people” aren’t actually all that interested in taking concrete steps to remedy the effects of historical, systematic, or institutional racism — mainly they are just interested in talking non-stop about racism. So these people are pretty easily side-stepped, so long as you yourself have worked out your own issues about being white.

    1. Shame on you for submitting to any BS involving Critical Race Theory. They’ll never be satisfied so don’t even bother.

    2. Shame on me? And how are you going to respond if you end up in a mandated diversity training at your place of work where you are basically asked to learn about and agree with teachings that come from Critical Race Theory? Are you going to tell the facilitators that they can “go fuck themselves” and then lose your job and possibly your career? I suspect this is going to be rolled out ever more fully into our culture (especially as liberals gain institutional power in the next few years) and I believe my “middle path” is about the best anyone can hope for.

    3. I appreciate your problem, Boethius, and I understand your compromise. But we can hope for more than a middle path. We should beware of concealing or falsifying our preferences too much and for too long. Even by commenting anonymously here you have already taken a step in the right direction. Rest assured there are many more like you than you may think.

    4. As a Unitarian Universalist you are, no doubt, familiar with the Gadfly Papers controversy. The man who wrote those essays is my minister. He has been put through the wringer by those who want to push the “white supremacy culture” paradigm, both in the UU Association and among a sizable minority of his congregation. I agree with you that you could have your livelihood threatened by refusing to adopt the preferred antiracism agenda put forward by the ideologues: Look at how Bret Weinstein and Heather Heyer were treated at Evergreen State University a few years ago. I am glad that I am retired or I would probably have to face these issues at my workplace. I would probably end up being fired.

  3. I am amazed that this debate in the USA focuses only on racism in the USA. Why not broaden this debate to the rest of the world? White Europeans have been oppressed & enslaved by the following: 1. Arabs & Berbers after the invasion of Visigothic Spain in 711 CE. 2. Turks after the conquest of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, especially after 1453 CE. 3. Mongols after the conquest of the Kievan Rus & the other Russian principalities. 4.Arab & Berbers (Moors) from north Africa raiding trading & fishing ships & coastal communities in Europe from 1492 CE to after 1815 CE. See “White Gold”, a non-fiction history by Giles Milton for information about this last subject.

  4. @johntshea yes sir. yet many sadly butt hurt on this thread from that comment.

  5. Maybe the very worst thing about the currently prevailing politically-correct progressive “racism” narrative is that it increasingly discredits liberalism and progressivism in general, even anti-racism itself, in the public mind, associating liberalism and even plain anti-racism more and more with the politically-correct, “woke” mentality and the “callout culture” in the popular mind. More and more Americans, even in the educated classes, seem to feel these days that if you can’t agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ibram X Kendi, Michael Eric Dyson, the intersectionalists, and the no-platformers, then you must agree with Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Breitbartm and Fox News–that if you aren’t thrilled by the intersectionalists, no-platformers, and “white privilege” ideologies, you should join the tribe of the folk who would privatize Social Security and the Post Office, abolish Medicare, criminalize abortion, bring back school prayer, build a 1500-mile Berlin Wall along the US-Mexico border. and end gay marriage and the graduated income tax. There seems to be less and less “public space” these days for people (like myself!)who might. for instance, happily go along with an out-and-out Socialist economic agenda (or at least an expanded “welfare state” along Scandinavian lines) while at the same time vigorously rejecting the “white guilt” ideology (as I myself likewise do)!

    1. * More and more Americans, even in the educated classes, seem to feel these days that if you can’t agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ibram X Kendi, Michael Eric Dyson, the intersectionalists, and the no-platformers, then you must agree with Donald Trump, Steve Bannon, Breitbartm and Fox News–that if you aren’t thrilled by the intersectionalists, no-platformers, and “white privilege” ideologies, you should join the tribe of the folk who would privatize Social Security and the Post Office, abolish Medicare…”

      There is something wildly reductive about the bazooka that fired that series of false choices.

    2. Glen Loury’s account of the disparities of outcome by group being down to a gulf in what you could call human capital is by far the most convincing.

      It’s unquestionably true that if you were to unpick the reasons for that gulf, racial prejudice particularly historic race prejudice would obviously play a significant part. Not the only part, but a significant one.

      The key point is that if we woke up tomorrow with all racial prejudice having been eliminated, and even if there was the great reckoning that the ‘people with three names’ (copyright John McWhorter) are calling for, then that gulf in human capital would still be there. No amount of naval gazing on the part of white people is going to change that.

      Changing it is incredibly difficult and incredibly complicated. It will be in part down to public policy, in part down to individuals, in part down to changes of culture and in communities, but only that hard work will ultimately make a difference.

      That so many white people have for various reasons fallen under the sway of the ‘people with three names‘ and Critical race theory in general is at best a divergence and an irrelevance at worst it’s a disaster for all involved.

    3. Right on! Fortunately, we have brave souls such as Coleman Hughes and John McWhorter to contribute rationality to the discussion!

  6. This author describes the verbal battles I have been having with people who insist that I confess my privilege and acknowledge my having benefited from and been complicit in racism. My refusal to comply has caused some to consider me an enemy and is dividing groups across the country who should be working together to advance genuine social justice, including many church organizations and school faculties. Self-flagellation should have died with the Middle Ages, yet it continues in another pernicious form on the political left today.

    1. Just like Marian Elizabeth Hennings, I too am saddened and dismayed that people and groups who could be working together to advance genuine social justice are considered “enemies” because they refuse to confess their “privilege” and acknowledge having “benefitted” from or being “complicit” with racism. Conversely, if I call myself a liberal and an anti-racist, or admit to generally supporting the Democrats in American politics, I find myself all too often lumped together with the “woke” politically-correct “social justice warriors” and “white privilege” ideologues whom I actually abhor almost as much as I abhor the racists, white supremacists, and “Alt-Right’ers.” Again just like Ms, Hennings, I think self-flagellation should have died out with the Middle Ages, as a practice that belongs with ascetic world-denying hellfire-and-brimstone religions and not with people professing to be progressive humanists–it makes me think of the self-flagellating albino Opus Dei monk in “The DaVinci Code” who regularly whips himself bloody with his “cilice” for having indulged in “sinful,” “fleshly” thoughts in-between his holy mission of piously assassinating enemies of the Church!

    2. The Left has always been obsessed with doctrine. From Marx, the Left has constructed vast edifices of theory on very little experimental evidence.

  7. The previous “comment” is an embarrassment, and whoever wrote it should be ashamed of themselves. The writer of the essay was making a good-faith and intelligent attempt to understand an issue of primary importance in America today. Frankly, I don’t know where I stand. Racism is still very, very real in our country, but to say that it is an all-explaining cause of socio-economic inequity is an inadequate explanation. So I guess I do know where I stand. I stand with the writer of this essay, and against the total thoughtlessness of the writer of the comment.

    1. Just FYI, it’s really unclear what “previous” means in a system that shows threaded comments ordered with the most recent thread starters first. It’s best to say “the comment by X” in this case.

    2. @Josh Gidding Sure, racism is real. And your friendly neighborhood leftist is likely the main exponent of such beliefs. Off with you, dolt.

    3. “The previous “comment” is an embarrassment.”

      Only to those who don’t, or don’t want to, really understand what’s popping.

      The massive belligerence/ manipulativeness of most Awoken Ones is, not embarrassing, but monstrous.

      Those who dare to stand up to these monsters should be proud, not embarrassed.

      While I understand Mr. Kronen’s effort at a good-faith and intelligent understanding of this stuff, he ducked facing elephants in the room.

      Racism is “an issue of primary importance in America today…. Racism is still very, very real in our country”. HaHa.

      “Racism” is an issue of primary importance, mostly to those who get off on playing games with their *fluctuating* definition of “racism”, and who live for their **hate** of “Deplorable” whites (i.e. those whites below the Upper Middle class level).

      Such folks are known as Awoken Ones, and are (if possible) shunned by all who have any street smarts.

      Most Dems/ Lefties (esp. the activists) see *white* racism as an issue of primary importance, but have not the slightest problem with racism VS. whites, tho they’ll NEVER admit this.

      The only liberals/ Lefties remotely worth talking to, are those who at least can take some steps, toward admitting what is brutally obvious to street-smart people.

      Those who can’t go near such admissions are, more or less, embarrassments.

  8. You need new friends man lmao

    1. Amen! With “friends” like that, who needs enemies?