Wednesday, March 6, 2013

In other words "no"

Is the south more racist than the north? That is the question. Tellingly, The New Republic decided that best person to ask the question is a man who hates the south. Right from the start, you know that Chuck Thompson is going to say "yes".

But you also gotta know it isn't going to be easy for him to reach that conclusion. It's easy to prove that the south used to be very racist but a lot has changed.

Thompson acknowledges these problems and even goes so far as to admit that there is no evidence for the claim. Let's repeat that: There! Is! No! Evidence!
I tried to find a magic formula, aggregate statistics, gather a collection of irrefutable facts to show that what I felt to be true, what many of us feel to be true, is in fact the truth—that Southerners really are more racist than the rest of us. But the truth about bigotry in Dixie is that, with one or two exceptions (we’ll get there in a minute), you cannot prove that racism is worse in the South than it is anywhere else in the country.
And there is more:
Articulating the country’s widespread gut conviction, Feagin and Myers have a powerful argument. Pity that the facts don’t support it. Based on empirical evidence—scholars never tire of tracking wealth distribution, voting patterns, and the like—you simply can’t state unequivocally that racism in the South is worse than it is anywhere else in the country. The land of Harpers Ferry nostalgics may yield plenty of horrifying anecdotes and a bitter historic record to support such a view, but constructing a quantifiable measure of racism turns out to be nearly impossible.
The obvious question is, "Why is it a pity that the facts don't support the contention that the south is more racist than the north?" Isn't that a good thing? Well, it's only a good thing if you aren't looking for reasons to hate the south and Thompson is.

The one or two pieces of evidence that Thompson alludes to above, by the way are 1. Southern Poverty Law Center's "hate Map" and 2. anecdotal evidence. And given that Thompson himself refers to the first as "infamous", you can tell it's going to be a rough haul.

You don't have to look any further than the article itself before you start to find evidence about why the map might be infamous. Thompson and the Southern Poverty Law Center, for example, advance the claim that what they call "anti-immigration" laws are proof of hate. Well, perhaps they would be if they were anti-immigration laws but they aren't. They are laws intended to help capture people who have entered the country illegally! That's a crucial difference.

The anecdotes are easier given that the south is a target-rich environment. But even there it ought to trouble Thompson a lot more than it does that two of the three monuments to racists in South Carolina he provides as anecdotal evidence date to 1940 and 1906 respectively. The thing about anecdotal evidence is that you can cherry pick the best examples for your case while forgetting any and all counter examples. That Thompson is reaching not just for anecdotal evidence but weak anecdotal evidence is telling.

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