Brief Thoughts on Racism, Ethnocentrism, and Same-Race Preferences

by Reihan Salam

My latest column for The Daily is on Catherine Hakim’s erotic capital thesis, which we discussed in this space last fall, and some of its implications. It is also an indirect response to some of my critics, who believe that my last column, which ended with the following paragraph:

One thing that is undeniably true is that American conservatives are overwhelmingly white in a country that is increasingly less so. As the number of Latinos and Asian-Americans has increased in coastal states like California, New York and New Jersey, many white Americans from these regions have moved inland or to the South. For at least some whites, particularly those over the age of 50, there is a sense that the country they grew up in is fading away, and that Americans with ancestors from Mexico or, as in my case, Bangladesh don’t share their religious, cultural and economic values. These white voters are looking for champions, for people who are unafraid to fight for the America they remember and love. It’s unfair to call this sentiment racist. But it does help explain at least some of our political divide.

The basic response to this paragraph was, “If not liking people of different groups isn’t racist, what is?” I have a narrow definition of racism: a belief in the intrinsic, innate superiority of some groups relative to others. To believe that Bengalis are on average more gregarious than, say, Finns isn’t to believe in Bengali superiority. One could, and should, also believe that this gregariousness reflects cultural practices more than genetic proclivities, though it isn’t to dismiss the (rather remote) possibility that the latter plays at least some role. And of course this brackets the question of whether gregariousness, or an affinity for racquetball or the accumulation of land as opposed to less-tangible assets, etc., should be considered a uniquely important virtue. My suspicion is that dominant groups define the qualities with which they are associated as virtuous, and evaluate members of other groups by these often rather arbitrary yardsticks. Moreover, I don’t think it is racist for, say, Tamils to prefer the company of other Tamils, even if this fellow-feeling is grounded in something other than language. Ethnocentrism might not be a praiseworthy impulse, but it is not identical to racism. 

What some of my interlocutors don’t always understand is that I am not their mirror image. That is, I don’t construct my columns solely to score points. Were that the case, I wouldn’t have made an observation that would predictably lead anti-conservatives to conclude that I am either a bigot or an Uncle Tom. Rather, I write in the hope and expectation that people read people with whom they disagree to challenge their settled views. Suffice it to say, this isn’t generally the case, but I’m happy to continue behaving as though it is, as it is true of enough people to justify the effort. 

To return to my more recent column, on the erotic capital thesis, I offer the following:

One reason the concept of erotic capital might make us uncomfortable is that it is very obvious that some people are born with it while others are not. Some people are born stunningly beautiful, and it takes less effort to cultivate and amplify natural beauty than to turn an ugly duckling into a swan. It is also true, however, that Bill Gates was born with prosperous, loving parents who indulged his knack for computer programming.

A better understanding of erotic capital can help us understand a number of inequalities, including racial inequalities. In a 2008 paper in the Review of Economics and Statistics, a team of economists and social psychologists conducted a speed-dating experiment with graduate students at Columbia University. They found that men were essentially indifferent to the race of the women with whom they interacted, paying far more attention to attractiveness. Women, on the other hand, were far more likely to express interest in partners of the same race, holding attractiveness constant.

When we think of how we might combat racial inequality, we tend to think of large-scale, society-wide interventions, like tough anti-discrimination laws and affirmative action programs. But strong same-race preferences arguably have much larger implications, as they present a social barrier to members of racial minorities that anti-discrimination laws can’t overcome. Only by marrying into dominant social groups can members of minority groups gain access to the most privileged and powerful social networks. Racial preferences devalue the erotic capital of some while enhancing that of others. If we come to believe that erotic capital really matters, we might come to see this phenomenon as a grave injustice.

It is easy to advocate for policy interventions that require others to act in accordance with your wishes. It is somewhat more difficult to look at our own behaviors, choices, and preferences and to consider how they might reproduce and exacerbate inequalities.  

I’ve noticed that many of my web counterparts find it easy to dismiss the nostalgia I describe as racist, though it should be obvious to any observer that this is a complex, multi-faceted phenomenon, and that it can’t be painted with a broad brush, which was my essential point. Might they acknowledge that same-race preferences are far more consequential in terms of their impact on society? 

I should stress that I don’t think that same-race preferences of the kind I describe are anyone’s business. I also believe that we as a society don’t take the possibility that members of different cultural groups might choose to pursue different ways of life seriously enough, e.g., urban Bengalis might just prefer renting to owning a home, which inclines me to advocate for policies I see as neutral across these varying preferences. This approach has its limits. There are defensible reasons to, for example, give some preference to saving over consuming, but the decision to institutionalize these preferences should clear a high evidentiary bar.