Monday, June 19, 2017

On Loving and Racism

June 12, 2017, was the 50th anniversary of the US Supreme Court decision Loving v Virginia, which overturned a Virginia state law making interracial marriage illegal. It finally eliminated all such racial bans across the US. There was considerable interest in the case in the US (see for example here and here). 

Mildred and Richard Loving
The case involved a white man, Richard Loving, who married a woman, Mildred Jeter Loving, who was of mixed African and Native American descent. They grew up in a mixed race community, and knew each other because Richard was friends with Mildred’s brother, with whom he shared an interest in car racing. Interracial marriage was illegal in Virginia at the time, so they had gone to Washington DC to get a marriage license. Shortly after they were married, they were arrested in July 1958, in the middle of the night, by an eager sheriff. They avoided jail by agreeing to leave Virginia, but were homesick in DC and so, with the help of civil rights lawyers, and even though they did not seek to be activists, they appealed their case all the way to the Supreme Court. Fifty years ago, in a unanimous decision that reversed decades of legal precedent for anti-miscegenation laws, the Lovings won their appeal and were free to live in marriage in Virginia.

One aspect of the story that few people realize, and that I was not aware of growing up in the US, is that these racial laws are not that old. The law used against the Lovings was the “Racial Integrity Act” of 1924. I understood that the laws were “an instrument of ‘White Supremacy’”, as Chief Justice Earl Warren had written in his unanimous opinion, but I did not understand, growing up, that these laws had to be strengthened and reinforced to continue to mark the lines between the races, and indeed to create the lines. Many earlier laws had been repealed from the 1860s to the 1880s (e.g. in Illinois, Michigan, and Washington). Similar laws were repealed in 15 states between 1948 and 1965, in many cases probably because they also discriminated against Asians (California in 1948, Indiana 1965; see full list here). The Loving v Virginia case overturned anti-miscegenation laws in the remaining 16 states, mostly in the Deep South.

Many articles celebrating Loving Day, as it has become known, comment on the increase in frequency of interracial marriage. According to Pew, the rate has increased from 3 percent in 1967 to 17 percent today. Public opinion has changed too: according to a University of Chicago GeneralSocial Survey poll, only 14 percent of nonblack adults say they are “very or somewhat opposed” to a close relative marrying a black person, compared to 63 percent in 1990. (Of course, this is what they say to pollsters; the real number is likely to be higher, since there is strong social pressure to be non-racist--which is actually good.)

But it is worth looking more closely at these figures. First of all, it is striking that whites are the group with the lowest rate of intermarriage, just 11 percent, compared to 18 percent for blacks. For Asians, it is 29 percent, and for Hispanics it is 27 percent. Even more striking is that 39 percent of US-born Hispanics and almost half (46 percent) of US-born Asians marry outside their group.
As an aside, black men are twice as likely as black women to marry outside their group (24 vs 12 percent), while Asian women (36 percent) are much more likely that Asian men (21 percent) to marry out. (See details from Pew here).

Since whites are the larger group, it is perhaps not surprising that mixing is less common than in the minority groups. But I wonder if a good deal of the intermarriage is within “people of color” and thus not having as much effect on whites as might be assumed.

Furthermore, much of the supposed intermarriage may be between people who are already “mixed” themselves. A Eurasian man, born to an Asian mother and white father, will legally be considered Asian (the US government defines race matrilineally), but may not be treated as “Asian” in white American society. His marriage to a “white” woman will not raise as many eyebrows as his mother’s marriage may have.

Similarly, a white man married to a Cuban-American woman may be considered a “mixed marriage” because she checks the box as “Hispanic,” but in terms of phenotypic appearance, it is possible she could pass for white… or at least as Italian. It may not really be considered by their families as a "mixed marriage."

The issue is really a matter of our definition of “race” and culture. In a NY Times article printing reminiscences of mixed marriages, many wrote about “cultural differences.” If the couples grew up in different countries, or in different subcultures within the US, this may be an issue. But the story of Loving v Virginia is about “race,” not about culture; it is about not being able to marry because of what one looks like. The whole issue of race in America is confused, and intermarriage is making it more so. “Hispanics” are recognized as an “ethnic group” but are put on the same order of difference as “race.” Yet clearly a Hispanic’s experience in the US will be different depending on whether they are an Argentine who looks white like Lionel Messi (or the Pope) or a Dominican who looks black and indigenous like the baseball player RobinsonCanĂ³

Gradually, American definitions of “race” have to change. Chief Justice Earl Warren had questioned the notion of a “pure race” in his questions to the lawyer for the state of Virginia, but the final decision did not address that issue, focusing just on the idea that anyone should be able to marry whoever they want. As one commentator points out, it is unfortunate that the Supreme Court did not challenge the very concept of race.

I am uncomfortable with the hope for more interracial marriage as a solution to America’s racial problems. It sounds like the inverse of eugenics, and it does not really address the racism at the root of discrimination. Racism is a cultural idea; it does not spring naturally from physical differences. There are  Yet, confusing categories does serve a purpose. We can call this the Sneetches Theory of antiracism, after the Dr. Seuss story of Sneetches with stars on their belly who discriminated against those who did not have a star. Technology to add and remove the star created confusion of categories, after which all lived happily together (see video of the story here). My father served in Puerto Rico during WWII, and he told me segregation in the military seemed ridiculous because brothers, with the same mother and father, would be assigned to “white” or “Negro” units, based on their physical appearance and the mood of the officer in charge on that particular day. Clearly “race” was a problematic category, and it undermined attempts to “keep them in their place.”

But ultimately, racism will be defeated through cultural change, not biological change. As in the story of the Sneetches, only when people agree to drop the categories will racism be overcome.

I heard a disturbing interview with Pat Buchanan on This American Life. Buchanan was asked how he felt that he had run for president three times in the 1990s and lost, but Trump took most of his ideas and won. (He said he was fine with it, happy the country is being saved.) In the interview, he defended his anti-immigrant position, a basically racist view, saying the country is already too divided, so the US should not let in non-white immigrants. He claims they do not assimilate. He thinks the US was better before 1960 when it was “majority European white” and when asked why he is against immigration, he says “I feel more comfortable with the folks [I] grew up with.” Until Trump’s election, these views were dying out with Buchanan’s generation. It remains to be seen whether the racism of the Alt Right is the last gasp of the reactionaries, or will be strengthened and emboldened by the Trump administration. In any case, I find it surprising and disappointing that intelligent people like Buchanan can say such racist things, fifty years after Loving v Virginia.


Friday, June 09, 2017

Incentives, Work and "Culture"

We are having some renovations done on our home, and the contractor’s site supervisor, who I’ll call John, had warned me well in advance that the drywall workers were very messy. He said he could not figure out why, but they were very dirty and did not bother to clean up the site. He warned me, and he was right.

There are two kinds of “drywall” workers: the ones that cut and screw/nail in the drywall onto the wooden frame, and the ones who use plaster to finish the wall. The second type of worker puts coats of plaster, which is called “mud,” to make the wall flat. They have to put on more than one coat, and then sand it to take out bubbles and make it smooth.

You can get a sense of what drywall workers do by looking at the pictures at this "how to" site here.   

The drywall workers were all Mexican, and they worked very fast. They work on stilts so that they don’t have to move ladders and go up and down. But when they were done, they left a mess in their wake. There were scraps of drywall, screws, tools all over the floor. Once the mud work started, the powdered plaster was everywhere and splots of plaster covered the floor all the way down the stairs and outside the door. These blobs landed on the floor when they took breaks and went outside. There was even white plaster on the walk outside our house. Fortunately the floors were covered with “ram board,” which protects them. This was amazing; the workers who had done demolition had not created the same kind of dust and mess.

Part of the reason for the mess is that the plaster powder is dusty and hard to keep under control. Plus, when the workers mix it, bits of it easily go spinning out of the bucket as they use the electric mixer to prepare the “mud” to a proper consistency. And then the sanding will inevitably cause a lot of dust. Still, that is only part of the reason. Tile workers also have to mix grout and cut tiles, and they don’t make that kind of mess. And they don’t leave a trail of plaster when they take breaks.

John had told me that he could not figure out why the drywall workers were so messy. He said they were the only trade that was so messy. Carpenters, plumbers, everyone else cleaned up after themselves.

It might be tempting to give a “cultural” explanation, and say it is because the workers are Mexican. This would be false, because the tile workers have been working recently and they are meticulous and very clean, and they are also Mexican. I also hasten to add that these kinds of “cultural” explanations are at best misleading, more likely totally wrong. When I was a kid, it was an ethnic slur but taken as common knowledge that Mexicans were “lazy.” Now, it is universally accepted that Mexicans are very hard workers. I don’t think Mexican culture has changed in one generation. Similar changes have occurred to Western perceptions of Chinese culture; Chinese have gone from working hard but not efficiently or intelligently in the 1950s, to being frighteningly efficient and intelligent workers today. If culture changes that quickly, what kind of explanatory power does it have? No, it is the American perception that has changed.

I was curious as to what could be the cause of drywall workers being so messy, so I asked John how the drywall workers are paid. Just as I suspected, they are paid by the square foot. Piece-rate! In fact, I found out from our contractor that drywall workers charge extra if you want them to clean up. Cleaning up is not part of their job. It ends up being cheaper for the contractor to use her own workers to clean up rather than pay the drywall workers to do it. So, they of course do not worry about cleaning up. Tile workers are paid by the job; there are tolerances for how even the tiles need to be, so they cannot rush a job. And they keep the job site clean.

Economists and economic anthropologists know the importance of incentives. We take it for granted that incentives strongly influence human behavior. Many people know that, but many also do not, or do not think of it. People are often tempted to make generalizations about the “culture” of an occupational group, or an ethnic group. In fact, in this case at least, the “messiness” of the workers is easily explained by the incentives they are working under.

There is also an additional layer, however, that does relate to “occupational culture.” Our contractor mentioned that until the recession of 2008, drywall workers only worked on new construction projects. Small renovation work was not of interest to them. Renovators used to have to do drywall “in-house” (with their own staff). John told me that because it is dusty, and it is easy to get cut while cutting the drywall, most carpenters do not like to do that work. And those who specialize in it are very fast and efficient at it. Because new construction decreased dramatically after 2008, the drywall workers were willing to take smaller renovation projects. And since there is a lot of renovation work available, and they’ve gotten used to working at small jobs, they continue to do renovation work even though the economy has picked up again.

But their way of working seems to still be that of work on new construction. As John put it, they seem to forget that there are people living in the house they are working on. In a new construction site, it does not matter if plaster gets on the floor, because the floor probably has not been finished, or even laid. It is different in a renovation, and it seems these workers have not modified their work practices. Maybe we could call this an occupational culture of "messiness" that carries over from working on new construction.

Many people are telling me that the labor market is getting tight. Indeed, my contractor told me that there is now a shortage of labor. She has trouble finding good carpenters. She said that the carpenters they get are often older; young people want a desk job, or something with computers. Yet, carpenters can make a good salary, easily $70,000 per year, she says. Her husband (who does office work for her renovation business) has pointed out that the tradesmen are in much better shape than he is, because they are always moving. Desk work is not very healthy, actually. But Americans tend to look down on physical labor, even on highly skilled work, much like Chinese do. Young people are less willing to go into the trades. There probably is some "cultural" bias at work, but I suspect that salary is still higher for most office work, and contributes to this bias. 

If we look at government wage statistics, we can see that while an experienced tradesman can make a good living, managers in office jobs can make more. Here are the annual mean wages for a few trades:

“Installation, Maintenance, and Repair Occupations:” $46,690
      Carpenters: $48,340
      Helpers—carpenters: $30,020
      Cabinetmakers and Bench Carpenters: $34,800

This is higher than wages in Sales (average $40,560, but only $25,940 for Retail Sales Workers), and higher than wages in “Office and Administrative Support Occupations” (average $37,260, and $33,010 for “Office Clerks, General”). On the other hand, “First-Line Supervisors of Sales Workers” average $51,230, and “First-Line Supervisors of Office and Administrative Support Workers” make $57,890, so it may well be that young people are anticipating higher wages down the road when they can become supervisors, rather than focusing on the average wages of workers.


The case of messy drywall workers shows the importance of incentives (they are paid by piece-rate), but also the effect of occupational culture (they are used to work on new construction projects). Added to all this is the perception of work (of drywall work being dusty and “dirty,” and of construction and physical labor being less desirable than office work). “Culture” ends up being used in many different ways to summarize the current situation, and often does not really explain anything, but provides a hook for our description. As this example shows, there are many factors that influence "culture," so just calling it "culture" can be a circular explanation. We’re still struggling to describe all these factors clearly, especially how the different factors interact with each other.