by Guy Burgess
Whenever people try to address a social or economic problem that is unevenly distributed across racial, gender, or other there is a tendency to fall into what I call the "disproportionality trap." This trap is characterized by a focus on the disproportional distribution of a problem, rather than the problem itself. So, for example, many people are now focusing on the degree to which police shoot unarmed Black men more often than they shoot unarmed White men. The problem is defined as differential policing due to racism, rather than the shooting of unarmed men. That implies that as long as Black men are only shot as often as White men, the problem would be solved—even if lots of unarmed men are still being shot.
Disproportionate Impact Traps lurk around pretty much any social problem – poor health, lack of educational opportunity, poverty, criminal victimization (including police violence), substance abuse, environmental degradation, unemployment, and limited opportunities for advancement – to name just a few. It also lurks around any social goods such as educational achievement, high-paying jobs, leadership roles, and cultural influence. This is because problems and goods are mirror images of one another: if you don't have one, you do have the other. To keep things a little simpler, however, this essay is going to focus on the problem side of the equation—people who are disproportionally worse off than others on any identified issue.
It is certainly true that the disproportionate incidence of a problem is a red flag that almost always indicates the presence of an important secondary problem – discrimination. Still, focusing too much on the disproportionate ways in which a problem impacts particular groups can lead to a series of secondary problems that can easily make things worse, rather than better.
|Focusing excessively on disproportionate impacts can make it easier for those on the winning side of a social problem to avoid trying to actually solve the problem.|
First, focusing excessively on disproportionate impacts can make it easier for those on the winning side of a social problem to avoid trying to actually solve the problem. If they can just show that they are trying to reduce the disproportionate nature of the impacts, then they become the "good guys" and don't have to worry so much actually solving the problem.
Secondly, this way of thinking about a problem tends to pit the various affected groups against one another. Telling everyone that any effort to address the problem will, primarily, be aimed at making the impacts more proportional, tells other groups (who are also being adversely affected by the problem) that the proposed actions are unlikely to help them. This, in turn, makes it much more difficult to build the kind of broadly-based coalition that is required to implement the kind of large-scale effort that is usually required. Not surprisingly, this tends to further reinforce, rather than ameliorate, tensions.
Avoiding the disproportionality trap is, unfortunately, not as easy as it might sound. There is an equally dangerous counter trap that must also be avoided. The counter trap arises when a society decides that it would be too divisive to focus on group differences and that it should therefore just focus on reducing the incidence of the problem without regard to group differences. This all too frequently produces a situation in which all of the problem-solving effort gets focused on helping traditionally more advantaged groups. This is a big part of how the distribution of social problems got so disproportionate in the first place.
To simultaneously avoid both traps, you need a well-balanced approach that navigates the middle ground between the two extremes in ways that assure that problem-solving efforts will be equitably distributed across all segments of the population according to need and the prevalence of whatever problem you're trying to address. If done successfully, this winds up concentrating assistance on those groups that are disproportionately affected in ways that are not all that different from what one would get with a heavier focus on proportionality. The advantage is that you pick up a lot more allies while also limiting the number of adversaries.
|This approach of attacking problems based on need and not group membership requires looking beyond easily obtainable (but problematic) data and examining the complexities of a problem's distribution within larger society.|
This approach of attacking problems based on need and not group membership requires looking beyond easily obtainable (but problematic) data and examining the complexities of a problem's distribution within larger society. Due to our increasingly diverse and integrated society, simple racial boundaries are becoming increasingly blurry and fraught with complex questions about who exactly is in which group.
Even aggregating various races into "people of color" (who may or may not come from advantaged backgrounds) and whites (or white males) is problematic. This is especially true when combined with liberal rhetoric that is perceived by some, particularly conservative, whites as asserting that all whites are "privileged" and, therefore, undeserving of their position in society and also responsible for all the wrongs of their ancestors. The sense that whites are guilty no matter how honorably they live their own lives and irrespective of the disadvantages (such as class discrimination) they may have personally faced, further drives animosities. And, the notion that thinking such thoughts is "racist" makes many whites angrier still. In short, many whites see their very identity as under attack, and without any way to defend their culture and identity without being labeled as a racist. Interestingly, these are the two legs of long-time civil rights mediators Pompa and Hansen's "two-taproot/fuse theory of racial violence". When people believe they have been wronged, and see no legitimate (within the system) remedy, it takes only a very small spark to light a fuse that explodes into violence.
The amplification of racial tensions and the outright racism that often results is also being driven by Republicans politicians who have, going back to the 1960s civil rights era, repeatedly found ways to "play the race card" to political advantage. At the same time, Democrats have, for sound moral (and tactical) reasons, positioned themselves as the defenders racial and other minorities (such as women, the disabled, and LGBTQ people). With both sides seeing the emphasis of these differences as the key to their moral identity (and their electoral prospects), it's not surprising that racism has continued to flourish and intensify.
With Donald Trump, we seem to have a political leader who is, to the best of his ability, is seeking to exacerbate and further exploit racial differences as the key to remaining in power. This is a strategy that plays nicely into the ongoing uproar over racially-motivated police violence and the belief among much of the left that racism as the central, highest priority problem facing US society. Regardless of what one thinks about the merits of this argument, it is pretty clear that that it is helping to frame the election in ways that are advantageous to the President and helping him avoid having to address the many shortcomings of his administration.
|The fate of the United States now seems likely to be determined by how well it can escape from both the disproportionality trap and the associated disproportionality counter trap.|
The fate of the United States now seems likely to be determined by how well it can escape from both the disproportionality trap and the associated disproportionality counter trap. Can we find a way to escape the us-vs-them thinking that these traps engender and embark on a common search for solutions to our common problems that are broadly seen as being in everyone's best interest?
This isn't going to be easy. We have now so firmly fallen into both traps that our politics and our identities are largely shaped by them. Still, the election may be a wake-up call – a time when we collectively realize that our mutual hostility has taken us to the brink of ruin and we start to build a new, "we are all in this together" politics.