Are we liberals catching up to the right!


Paul Krugman discusses who’s clueless: We agree with the general thrust of this morning’s column by Paul Krugman.

Krugman discusses several ways the modern GOP has stood in opposition to research, facts, science and evidence. Our impression?

He may have wandered onto foreign soil in his second paragraph, where he mocks a position taken by the Texas GOP regarding “Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS),” which was said to be “simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE).”

On that matter, we’ll guess that Krugman may have knee-jerked a bit—and we wish he wouldn't do that! But as a general matter, we agree—in the past few decades, the GOP has been considerably less fact-based than the Democratic Party.

That said, warning bells sounded for us at this part of Krugman’s column:
KRUGMAN (2/11/13): O.K., at this point the conventions of punditry call for saying something to demonstrate my evenhandedness, something along the lines of “Democrats do it too.” But while Democrats, being human, often read evidence selectively and choose to believe things that make them comfortable, there really isn’t anything equivalent to Republicans’ active hostility to collecting evidence in the first place.

The truth is that America’s partisan divide runs much deeper than even pessimists are usually willing to admit; the parties aren’t just divided on values and policy views, they’re divided over epistemology. One side believes, at least in principle, in letting its policy views be shaped by facts; the other believes in suppressing the facts if they contradict its fixed beliefs.
Careful, Kruggers! the analysts cried. We can recall when a great deal of irrationality routinely came from us on the left. (Professor Theoharis is bringing back memories in her doctrinaire, slippery new book.) And we think we may see some areas where we liberals are catching up fast.

In our view, the liberal world seems increasingly irrational—and fact-averse—in the general area of race. First, consider a piece in yesterday’s Washington Post. Then, consider a recent post in which Kevin Drum linked to several other liberal pundits.

In yesterday’s Outlook section, Matthew Hutson reviewed a new book about various types of unconscious bias, including unconscious racial bias.

This is the way the review began. Can you spot a missing fact in the passage we have highlighted?
HUTSON (2/10/13): What if we’re not the magnanimous people we think we are? That seems to be the conclusion of the past few decades of social psychology research. Freud stuck a dagger in the comforting idea of complete, conscious self-awareness, but experimental findings suggest that not only do we not know ourselves, if we did, we might not invite ourselves over for dinner.

This research takes Freud’s dagger into our vanity and twists it. One of the greatest sources of torque is what’s called the Implicit Association Test, a computer-based assessment that susses out unconscious biases. One version, the Race IAT, reveals that 75 percent of its takers, including some African Americans, have an implicit preference for white people over black people. The story of the IAT, and of prejudice in general, is told in the accessible and authoritative “Blind Spot” by Mahzarin R. Banaji, one of the test’s chief developers, and Anthony G. Greenwald, the researcher who created it in 1994.
Hmmm. Somehow, Hutson knew that 75 percent of all people who take the Race IAT display “an implicit preference for white people over black people.” But he didn’t know the corresponding percentage for black people who take the test!

“Some” African Americans have that same preference! That was all he said!

Frankly, we were suspicious. We clicked from the book review to the IAT web site and found the apparent percentage in its FAQ feature. The percentage was rather high:
IAT WEB SITE: For White respondents, the automatic White preference may in some sense be an in-group preference. However, the automatic White preference is more than that—it is observed with similar strength among Asian Americans, for whom neither Black nor White is an in-group. In this sense, the IAT may reflect an attitude that is learned through experience in a culture that does not regard Black Americans highly. Moreover, if the IAT result represented an in-group preference exclusively, then Black Americans should show for their group the same level of automatic preference. We know that that is not the case. 50% of Black Americans show automatic Black preference, but the remaining half show an automatic White preference. We conclude from such data that the IAT preference is some combination of an automatic preference for one’s own, moderated by what one’s learns is regarded to be “good” in the larger culture.
If we’re reading that correctly, fifty percent of blacks who take the Race IAT display “an implicit preference for white people over black people.”

It’s certainly possible that fifty percent of black test-takers have some sort of “implicit preference for white people over black people,” whatever we might end up deciding that means. But why do you think that rather large number didn’t make the review?

Why did Hutson simply say “some?” Why didn’t he give us a number?

We don’t know the answer to that, but we’ve seen this done before. With blinding speed, this latest Case of The Missing Percentage made us think of that recent post by our favorite, Drum, “Racial Resentment and Fox News.”

Question: What liberal doesn’t want to read a post with a headline like that?

Drum started by saying that Thomas Edsall had “present[ed] some evidence that racial resentment has increased in the Obama era, especially among Republicans.” Drum linked to Edsall’s piece at the New York Times web site. He then discussed the reactions of several liberal bloggers.

Question: Have you ever seen a liberal balk at a claim like this? We liberals seem to love the idea that “explicit racism” or “racial resentment” have increased in recent years, especially among Republicans or among viewers of Fox.

It’s always possible that such claims are true, of course. But you can’t express the idea so fuzzily or so improbably that we will reject or challenge what you have to say.

For our money, Edsall’s piece largely proves this point. This is the semi-coherent way he explained “racial resentment:”
EDSALL (2/6/13): In their 2010 paper, “President Obama and the Growing Polarization of Partisan Attachments by Racial Attitudes and Race,” Tesler and Sears argue that the

“evidence strongly suggests that party attachments have become increasingly polarized by both racial attitudes and race as a result of Obama’s rise to prominence within the Democratic Party.”

Specifically, Tesler and Sears found that voters high on a racial-resentment scale moved one notch toward intensification of partisanship within the Republican Party on a seven-point scale from strong Democrat through independent to strong Republican.

To measure racial resentment, which Tesler and Sears describe as “subtle hostility towards African-Americans,” the authors used data from the American National Election Studies and the General Social Survey, an extensive collection of polling data maintained at the University of Chicago.
According to Edsall, Tesler and Sears found that “voters high on a racial-resentment scale moved one notch toward intensification of partisanship within the Republican Party on a seven-point scale from strong Democrat through independent to strong Republican.”

Speakers of English may be able to imagine what that goulash might mean. That said, Edsall’s clarity was largely AWOL this day. Adding insult to injury, this is the link he provided under the words “racial resentment scale.”

Click that link, and you will see what real confusion is! But it’s OK, as long as Edsall is making the claim we adore.

Alas! As always, Tesler and Sears used those questions from the American National Election Studies and the General Social Survey to measure this rather amorphous trait—the trait Edsall defined as “subtle hostility toward African-Americans.” To help us know how this subtle trait is measured, Edsall now quoted Tesler and Sears.

Doggone it! As always, what follows was the first question they cited. This is the kind of question they used to determine who has “racial resentment:”
TESLER AND SEARS: The scale was constructed from how strongly respondents agreed or disagreed with the following assertions: 1) Irish, Italian, Jewish and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors.
The use of the term “special favors” guarantees that no conservative would ever disagree with that assertion. Yes this blatantly obvious “gotcha” question is used to establish “racial resentment,” which generally sounds a lot like racism by the time we finish our dance in the end zone.

(By the way: Would any Democratic politician ever say that African Americans should get “special favors?” Of course not! Also, how would you answer that question? Do you think blacks should get “special favors?” Careful! Resentment watch!)

Race is the most important, most destructive factor in all of American history. The topic has produced so much suffering that it ought to be treated with respect and with care. But race is also an area where we liberals often seem to be training ourselves to be just as dumb as conservatives have been for the past thirty years. Facts, logic, clarity seem to mean little to us in this area. We rush to agree with the latest conclusion as long as it sounds very bad.

Krugman is right about the general drift of the past thirty years. But with the rise of liberal news orgs, we liberals are dumbing ourselves back down, and it can be done—many of us were less than brilliant in the street-fighting days of the 60s. At present, race seems like the area where we liberals are most eager to toss away norms of reasonable analysis. And by the way:

It isn’t just that book review where the percentages tend to get lost for black respondents. It’s routine to disappear percentages for black respondents on various measures of alleged anti-black feeling. Just a guess: If the percentages for black respondentss turn out to be too high, supplying them tends to kill all our pseudo-liberal fun. Or do you think it was a coincidence that that percentage—50 percent!—was AWOL from yesterday’s Post?

Has racial resentment actually grown? How about “explicit racism,” which the AP pretended to measure last year?

Those are deeply serious questions. Why don’t we treat them as such? Or are we just willing to trust the professors, seeing how brilliant they are?


  1. Let's give Krugman a pass today.

    "Democrats, being human, often read evidence selectively and choose to believe things that make them comfortable" is more than clear, And pretty much covers your complaints here, Bob.

    Meanwhile some remedial reading for this comment board's perennial rightwing econ troll:

  2. If not race, what about sex? I'll follow Krugman around the various Sunday shows like cats smelling mackeral, but anything that smacks of identity poiltics makes me grapple for the remote, even though I agree completely with Somerby on the importance of race in American history.

    On Saturday's "Up" with Chris Hayes, guess who made it through the snow, or slept at 30 Rock the night before: MARLO THOMAS! Who'd a thunk she and Gloria Steinem (both looking suspiciously great for their ages) would've made a feminists bookends! But how boring is 60 minutes of feminist issues! And frankly what a phony Chris looked like acting as eager about the subject as he would be for horse-race politics and macroeconomics and other policy wonkery. He looked like he was trying to get the ladies' phone numbers by being a good little boy-feminist.

    I have the same reaction to every panel focussed on "The Experience of Being in America." Yawn. Those are the weekends that I prefer Animal Planet to BookTV.

  3. Krugman faults Cantor for objecting to NSF support for the social sciences. Ironically, that wretched article by political scientists Tesler and Sears is an excellent example of why Cantor is right to so object.

  4. Krugman criticizes Cantor's opposition to government support for “comparative effectiveness research.” Krugman says, "How are individuals supposed to make good medical choices if we ensure that they have no idea what health benefits, if any, to expect from their choices?"

    Krugman makes the logical error of assuming that medical advances can be accomplished only by specific government-funded programs. But, people can accomplish things without government involvement. IMHO doctors, hospitals, drug companies and other medical service providers can and do find ways to make their work more effective on their own, even though they don't have a specific government grant for that purpose.

  5. That some black people show an innate preference for white people has been established and I even remember seeing a report on it on one of the major networks (they redid the doll test a few years ago). It shows the pervasiveness and the ugliness of a racist culture.

    What it doesn't show is that it's OK for white people to be racist. I don't know if that's Somerby's argument, but it sure sounds like "Conservatives can be racist if black people are racist too!"

    But to add to the point that there's something fishy about these tests: I'm really surprised that this test had a 50/50 divide. What about black people who express no preference? They must exist.

    More importantly from a statistical point of view: what about the group of people whose answers were too inconsistent to draw conclusions from? They exist in every battery-type test, especially psychological ones. Were these researchers not testing for significance of their results? Were they counting up responses for each preference and then calling it a day?

  6. "In our view, the liberal world...."

    I couldn't get much past this. The "liberal world" invoked here does not exist, as invoked. Well, yes, a hodgepodge of people/views that share enough to be subsumed under a single term (say "liberal," if you want), yeah, that does exist. But it is "hodgepodge."

    We all are only muddling through, when you get down to it. Some generosity is what may make it work out in the end.

    I am groping, as Mr. S is in this post, seems to me.

  7. Race has been terribly important in our history, so it's natural to assume that the strongest type of unconscious bias would be based on race. But, is that really the case?

    I wonder what would have shown up if these social scientists had looked for unconscious biases for or against polarizing groups not defined by race, such as Occupy Wall Street participants, Tea Partiers, gun owners, businessmen, rich people, Rush Limbaugh listeners, Roman Catholics, or Mormons. They might find as much or more unconscious bias against some of these groups as there is against blacks.

    P.S. Because of current tendencies among academia and the media, I don't imagine that there'd be the same interest in a study showing, e.g., a high degree of unconsious bias against Mormons.

    1. "Occupy Wall Street participants, Tea Partiers, gun owners, businessmen, rich people, Rush Limbaugh listeners, Roman Catholics, or Mormons."
      There is some choice involved, more or less,in a person's allegiance to the groups you mention. Being of African descent is a biological trait, not a faith, creed, or philosophy. Being anti-Mormon or anti-Roman Catholic is not the same as being racist. Religions are social institutions and as such fair game to some level of civilized critique. Criticizing or maligning some one for their race-that is the evil type of prejudice that civilized people have learned to condemn.