The Agenda

Structural Racism and Complex Contagions

Ross Douthat offers a series of interrelated arguments about how conservatives ought to approach structural racism:

Liberals are quite right that American racism didn’t end with the civil rights era, but it has been significantly transformed by that era and its consequences. What was once a potent, culturally-specific ideology of white supremacy is now the more subtle mix of tribalism, suspicion and out-group stereotyping that’s common to most multiethnic societies, and its future influence in American life is much more likely to be reduced through a general upward trend — in which growth and opportunity reduce hostility and encourage integration — than through top-down campaigns that seek teachable moments every time something tragic (and, often, complicated) happens involving blacks and whites and violence. And likewise, if America becomes more racist and racially-balkanized in the future, as could certainly happen, it will probably because of a general failure to integrate immigrants, reduce crime rates, and encourage upward mobility, rather than because of a specific failure to come up with a policy agenda capable of rooting out biases people don’t even admit they have.

Conversations about structural racism bring to mind Amy Wax’s important 2008 book, Race, Wrongs, and Remedies: Group Justice in the 21st Century, which John McWhorter reviewed in The New Republic in 2010. McWhorter summarizes Wax’s central thesis:

There is a school of thought in America which argues that the government must be the main force that provides help to the black community. This shibboleth is predicated upon another one: that such government efforts will make a serious difference in disparities between blacks and whites. Amy Wax not only argues that such efforts have failed, she also suggests that such efforts cannot bring equality, and therefore must be abandoned. Wax identifies the illusion that mars American thinking on this subject as the myth of reverse causation—that if racism was the cause of a problem, then eliminating racism will solve it. If only this were true. But it isn’t true: racism can set in motion cultural patterns that take on a life of their own.

Wax appeals to a parable in which a pedestrian is run over by a truck and must learn to walk again. The truck driver pays the pedestrian’s medical bills, but the only way the pedestrian will walk again is through his own efforts. The pedestrian may insist that the driver do more, that justice has not occurred until the driver has himself made the pedestrian learn to walk again. But the sad fact is that justice, under this analysis, is impossible. The legal theory about remedies, Wax points out, grapples with this inconvenience—and the history of the descendants of African slaves, no matter how horrific, cannot upend its implacable logic. As she puts it, “That blacks did not, in an important sense, cause their current predicament does not preclude charging them with alleviating it if nothing else will work.”

Wax is well aware that past discrimination created black-white disparities in education, wealth, and employment. Still, she argues that discrimination today is no longer the “brick wall” obstacle it once was, and that the main problems for poor and working-class blacks today are cultural ones that they alone can fix. Not that they alone should fix—Wax is making no moral argument—but that they alone can fix.

The most depressing aspect of Wax’s thesis, according to McWhorter, is that it is so persuasive. One is reminded of Rick Santorum’s 2012 presidential campaign, during which he lamented the deterioration of the norms surrounding marital stability and child-rearing, particularly among less-affluent Americans. Though many conservatives enthusiastically embraced Santorum’s dark depiction of the evolution of American family life, the people most directly impacted by family instability were either unaware of or indifferent to his arguments, or they found him culturally remote and his arguments alienating and offensive. The process of changing the norms surrounding family life is best understood through the concept of “complex contagion,” which the social scientists Damon Centola and Michael Macy explored in a 2007 article on “Complex Contagions and the Weakness of Long Ties“:

For communicable diseases and information, the threshold is almost always exactly one. If you are infected with a rhinovirus from your child, there is no need also to be infected by your spouse. You are likely to catch a cold and to pass it on to others. Similarly, if you are told the score of the afternoon’s soccer match, there is no need to keep asking if anyone knows who won before spreading the news further. These are examples of simple contagions, in that contact with a single source is sufficient for the target to become informed or infected. While information and disease are archetypes of simple contagions, some collective behaviors can also spread through simple contact. A familiar example is a highly contagious rumor that spreads on first hearing, from one person to another. Or consider the tendency for cars to travel in clusters on a two-lane highway. The clusters form because the first car in each cluster is traveling slower than the car in front of it, and this normative speed then spreads to the cars behind who slow down to match the speed of the car in front. More generally, the familiar concept of a “domino effect” refers to a tipping process in which each actor responds to a single neighbor through simple contact.

However, many collective behaviors involve complex contagions that require social affirmation or reinforcement from multiple sources. As McAdam and Paulsen (1993, p. 646) observe, “the fact that we are embedded in many relationships means than any major decision we are contemplating will likely be mediated by a significant subset of those relationships.” The distinction between simple and complex refers to the number of sources of exposure required for activation, not the number of exposures. A contagion is complex if its transmission requires an individual to have contact with two or more sources of activation. De- pending on how contagious the disease, infection may require multiple exposures to carriers, but it does not require exposure to multiple carriers. The distinction between multiple exposures and exposure to multiple sources is subtle and easily overlooked, but it turns out to be decisively important for understanding the weakness of long ties. It may take multiple exposures to pass on a contagion whose probability of transmission in a given contact is less than one. …

By contrast, for complex contagions to spread, multiple sources of activation are required since contact with a single active neighbor is not enough to trigger adoption. There are abundant examples of behaviors for which individuals have thresholds greater than one. The credibility of a bizarre urban legend (Heath, Bell, and Sternberg 2001), the adoption of unproven new technologies (Coleman et al. 1966), the lure of educational attainment (Berg 1970), the willingness to participate in risky migrations (MacDonald and MacDonald 1974) or social movements (Marwell and Oliver 1993; Opp and Gern 1993; McAdam and Paulsen 1993), incentives to exit formal gatherings (Granovetter 1978; Schelling 1978), or the appeal of avant garde fashion (Crane 1999; Grindereng 1967) all may depend on having contacts with multiple prior adopters.

Centola and Macy identify four social mechanisms to explain why complex contagians require exposure to multiple sources of activation, including strategic complementarity (the costs and benefits of social action grow more favorable as the number of people who embrace the innovation increases — think of “network effects”), credibility (you’re more likely to embrace a social innovation if you see that it has improved the lives of the people around you), legitimacy (when the people who are close to you do something, you’re more likely to see it as a legitimate or acceptable thing to do — nonadopters will challenge the legitimacy of the social innovation, but they will fade in significance as their numbers shrink), and emotional contagion (basically, there are human impulses that appear to be magnified when you’re close to other people, spatially or socially).

So what does this have to do with Santorumism? When white conservatives living in rural areas and suburbs say that the decline of family values is something we ought to fight against, it’s not necessarily relevant to low-income Bengali-speaking immigrants residing in inner-city neighborhoods, as these individuals aren’t in the same social networks as Santorum and his allies, they look to their peers for social cues, they don’t see Santorum and his allies as conferrers of legitimacy in their communities, and they aren’t emotionally entangled with Santorum and his allies. In short, Santorumism is essentially irrelevant to their lives. Regardless of its sincerity, and I think it is fair to say that Santorum and his allies are entirely sincere in their concern about the fate of the family, Santorumism has very little purchase beyond its immediate cultural constituency.

When we consider the well-being of low-income Bengali-speaking immigrants residing in inner-city neighborhoods, it is fair to say that it is improved, in the short-term at least, by increased access to Medicaid, SNAP, and cash transfers, like the EITC. It is not obvious, however, that increasing access to such social programs will foster a larger social transformation. Rather, increased access will tend to increase disposable income, which could have all kinds of implications, e.g., it could encourage members of this relatively socially isolated group to increase their participation in the wider society (we have more disposable income, so we can get access to social goods that connect us to the mainstream of American life), or it could lead to a reduction in the work effort of second earners (we have more disposable income, so mother or father doesn’t have to work and can instead stay home with the kids and make sure they don’t get caught up in U.S. culture), thus increasing social isolation. The impact of an increase in transfers will always be mediated through the internal cultural dynamics of a given group.

Focusing on culture seems like counsel for neglect. I don’t think that’s right. One can argue, as I do, that increasing wage subsidies is good public policy even if one believes (or acknowledges) that it is unlikely to guarantee social uplift, as the ultimate social outcome will depend on how people take advantage of the new opportunities created by access to resources. Rather, focusing on culture is a way to emphasize the limits of “external” interventions in shaping a given community.

Though I don’t doubt that racism is real, or even that racism in some very broad sense remains pervasive, it is worth thinking through the purposes of anti-racist discourse. One obvious, and important, purpose is to remind people that racism still exists, and that it has an impact on the life chances of people who are subject to racism, though presumably discrimination motivated by racial bias is somewhat less of a “brick wall” than it was in 1990 or 1970. Another purpose, however, might be to cultivate solidarity between groups of people united by an ascribed identity yet who are otherwise quite dissimilar. For example, Americans of Asian Indian origin tend to be more affluent than Americans of Bangladeshi origin. Whereas Asian Indian Americans are among the most affluent national origin groups in the U.S., the Bangladeshi American community, which is much smaller, is quite poor, although reliable data is hard to come by. When we emphasize a pan-ethnic “South Asian” identity, however, these distinctions fade, and a highly educated and affluent Asian Indian American of Gujarati origin can draw on the plight of her less-affluent (notional) coethnics to convey some measure of authenticity or legitimacy. And this can be quite valuable if the Asian Indian American aims to present herself as a spokesperson for a marginalized group in the wider community. If this person sought to foster social transformation among South Asian Americans, it is she might have less success, given that the South Asian community is in fact a congeries of smaller communities that don’t have much to do with each other. It’s not obvious that an American of Gujarati origin would have any more luck influencing the status of women among people of Bangladeshi origin than an American of Filipino or Mexican or German origin. But if she were seeking to secure “a seat at the table,” focusing on structural racism — on everything done to the community by others and not the dynamics that take place within the community — would be a much safer bet, as her legitimacy wouldn’t be questioned by in-group members (who wouldn’t care, because she’s not calling on them to do anything in particular other than to be outraged).

The public policy goals that reform conservatives tend to focus on — revamping the safety net to encourage labor force participation and to increase household incomes, improving education and health outcomes by encouraging empowering innovation, making the tax code friendlier to households with children, and reducing crime rates (in light of the evidence on how violent crime impacts the cognitive outcomes of children residing in violent neighborhoods) while also reducing incarceration rates (in light of the impact of incarceration on the economic and social well-being of poor people) — all strike me as good things to do even if we leave structural racism aside. At the same time, my sense is that these efforts will prove disproportionately beneficial to people who’ve been historically marginalized, and that seems like a good thing. So naturally I think reform conservatives get things roughly right on the subject of structural racism.

But the really hard work of encouraging change within cultural communities, whether we’re talking about minority communities or “majority” communities (Americans of Appalachian origin are part of the “majority,” but they are also a culturally distinct minority), requires more focus on intracommunity dynamics, and the logic of complex contagions, than on racism as such, and this work is not something that is best understood through a partisan lens. That’s probably why those of us who follow politics tend to neglect its importance.

Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

Most Popular


The 24 Democrats

Every presidential primary ends with one winner and a lot of losers. Some might argue that one or two once-little-known candidates who overperform low expectations get to enjoy a form of moral victory. (Ben Carson and Rick Perry might be happy how the 2016 cycle ended, with both taking roles in Trump’s cabinet. ... Read More