Home » Analysis » A Facebook Colloquy and Rejoinder on My Post About Ferguson, or Racism is Bad, Mmmkay

A Facebook Colloquy and Rejoinder on My Post About Ferguson, or Racism is Bad, Mmmkay

Those of you who read these posts through my Facebook page will have seen all of this before, and you can skip this post. I’m repeating myself here because I wanted to add this contextual material explaining some of the media reaction to the events in Ferguson, Missouri, and to highlight the uses and misuses of social science data.

First, the context. I had posted that among other things, the institutional racism in the City of Ferguson was symptomatic of a peculiar brand of Midwestern apartheid, given that the town is two-thirds black, but only has one black member of the city council. I did this in the course of pointing out the usefulness and importance of the Voting Rights Act, and to subtly and indirectly advertise my agenda.

Subtlety is overrated. I think the U.S. Department of Justice should exercise its rulemaking authority under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to impose preemptive review of election procedural irregularities on all political jurisdictions in the United States. I’ve said it before. I’ve written the draft rules for it. I’ve petitioned the Department to conduct a review, and I’m waiting patiently for a formal response.

But that’s all by-the-by.

One of my Facebook friends, purely for the sake of fueling discussion and acting as a devil’s advocate, tried to get a rise out of me by making two thin arguments based on recent media coverage of Ferguson in the online magazine Slate and in the Washington Post, and in a story that appeared in the Pacific Standard. (The Slate article by Jordan Weissmann is here: http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2014/08/14/ferguson_missouri_government_why_is_it_so_white.html. The Washington Post stories (or more properly, the online editorials in the Washington Post’s politics blog),  are these:  http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/08/15/how-ferguson-exposes-the-racial-bias-in-local-elections/, and http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2014/08/15/is-ferguson-anomalous/. The article in the Pacific Standard by Seth Masket that suffers the brunt of my criticism is here: http://www.psmag.com/navigation/politics-and-law/fergusons-missouri-city-council-black-white-race-different-88564/).

One argument was that Ferguson is some sort of anomaly – that it was wrong of me to generalize from the racism in Ferguson that broader Federal enforcement of the Voting Rights Act was called for, because Ferguson is just so “out there” that it can’t be categorized – that the City of Ferguson is just a horrible outlier that in no way reflects the racial issues we hold in common. The other argument was that the election process in Ferguson wasn’t directly relevant to Ferguson’s racial tension, because the mere fact that the city council elections were off-year elections (and had low turnout) could not be the sole reason why Ferguson is such a mess.

So, with that background, here’s the edited, corrected gist of my response:


  • I agree that the Washington Post blog piece linked above (How Ferguson Exposes the Racial Bias in Local Elections)  grasps at straws a bit (if racial discrimination could be engineered solely by putting municipal elections in odd-numbered years, a lot more cities would look like Ferguson).
    But I have to agree that the City of Ferguson is neither an anomaly, nor is it (as the article in Pacific Standard suggests) an outlier, except in a very narrow sense.
    To be fair, even Seth Masket (the author of the Pacific Standard story) makes clear that while the percentage of minority representation on the Ferguson city council makes the city lie well outside a median average of the level of proportionate African-American representation on a city council, Ferguson is assuredly not an anomaly, as the city is representative of a substantial number of political entities wherein institutional racism is alive and well.

    The charts that Mr. Masket reference (one comes from a fairly old social study, and the other is updated with 2010 census data) are pretty noisy, and the data points are awfully baggy. I’d hesitate to conclude much of anything from these plots, given that the data set didn’t control for (1) single-member versus at-large city councils, (2) region, (3) population size, or (4) much of anything else, really.

    All I can safely conclude from the charts is that the data set in question suggests that there is a roughly linear correlation between the number of blacks in a city and the number of black city council members in that city. That’s … um … interesting … but more or less worthless.

    For instance, in a redistricting trial, this chart would be met with glazed eyes, because it doesn’t track chronological trends, it doesn’t identify the predisposition among voters to use race as a factor in choosing candidates, it doesn’t identify voter turnout, barriers to voter registration or participation, neighborhood and block level demographics, or any of the other bazillion facts that are used to assess racial discrimination.

    So this data set that some social scientists scraped off of the 2001 Census (and then updated with 2010 data) answered the question, “If there are blacks in a city, is there a predictable likelihood that there will be some blacks on the city council as a linear function of the proportion of blacks to other races?” And the answer was “yes” – the 2001 and 2010 Census data for cities with 10,000 people or more showed that in general cities with more black residents have more black members on the city council.

    Which, … okay. But there’s a difference between saying “it seems like cities with more blacks tend to have more blacks on their city council” and saying anything meaningful about why minorities are not generally proportionately represented on governing bodies, why minorities have a harder time getting elected (when other variables are controlled), or why certain political structures promote and entrench elected officials who are not representative of the local population.

    So when looking at a specific racist spot in the world, we have to figure out how racist it is. Sure, voting based on race is a voter’s right. But what I want to know isn’t whether it’s okay to vote based on race, but how often it actually happens in a particular jurisdiction.

    Take the example of Representative Lloyd Doggett. Over the years, the Texas Legislature has done its darndest to destroy Lloyd Doggett’s Austin power base, by taking away all of his white voters and replacing them with Hispanics.

    In changing Doggett’s district, the Republicans could take credit for creating an Hispanic minority-opportunity district that would remain Democratic (albeit with the hope by conservatives that the Congressional representative would be someone other than Doggett, and would therefore lack the serious political clout of committee memberships that come with seniority). And the Republicans could incidentally argue that Representative Doggett’s legal complaint against the redistricting was racially motivated, therefore driving a race-based wedge between two groups of Democratic Party voters.

    But … although victimized by gerrymandering in 2003, 2011, and 2013, Lloyd Doggett managed to win CD25 both in 2004 and 2012, and will likely win in 2014. He won because he campaigned like hell, and he had to campaign like hell because it was easy for conservative operatives to cynically find and run unknown DINO candidates that had Hispanic surnames in the Democratic primary, with the intention of further marginalizing Democratic Party voters in Travis County.

    So here’s the question that more than one court has wrestled with. Is Lloyd Doggett a minority-opportunity candidate? He is if a representative sample of registered voters who identify as minority voters say that all things being equal, they would vote for Lloyd Doggett in preference to a candidate who is perceived to be Latino or Hispanic. If Hispanic voters display a history of voting for someone other than Lloyd Doggett, we would likely conclude that he is not a minority-opportunity candidate.

    Are the voters racist who say, “No, I wouldn’t vote for Lloyd Doggett, because I only vote for members of my defined class.” Um. Sure. I guess I could call them racist if I wanted to be a jerk, except that I don’t actually care if the specific voters in Congressional District 25 deserve the social opprobrium of the label “racist.” Because the label itself is neither useful nor meaningful in the context of gauging levels of political discrimination based on minority status.

    The relative predisposition of CD25 minority voters to vote for minority candidates is only relevant to me to the extent that I might say either that they are, or are not, getting the candidates elected that they actually want in office. If they are getting the candidates they want, then they aren’t being discriminated against. If they aren’t getting the candidates they want, then they are being discriminated against.

    I admit that in a sophistical, lawerly sort of way, I avoided answering the real provocation that lay in the statement that racism by the voters while in the voting booth is the democratic prerogative. In response to that, I was supposed to say, “No. Racism is bad. People shouldn’t be racists.” But instead I said, “Racism is a factor.”
    My wife thought that I should look at the moral axis of the statement and make it clear that I think people shouldn’t be racists when casting their ballots (except with respect to those filthy pro-Pharaohic Upper Kingdom Narmer-lovers in nomes to the south of the Third Cataract. They use cow dung as a flavoring agent in their beer! That’s just wrong. Go domesticate hops, you Upper Kingdom bastards!)

    So sure, I’m against racism. Which is a fine sentiment, but without racism, class conflict, and all the meaningless prejudices of which we are so fond as a species, how are we expected to keep score?

    (My wife later reminded me that the scoring mechanism of American society is, and has always been money. Racism is just a game mechanic used as a die-roll modifier in the retrenchment and division phase of the game turn interphase, per page 31 of the rulebook. Cf. “The United States of America Game,” version 2.27, revised, 2014 edition, original 1791 game design by Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, et al. Pat. Pend. all rights reserved (Hasbro)).


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