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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Non-White Friends

In my last post, I wrote about some of my recent research arguing that the diversity rationale -- as set forth most explicitly by the Supreme Court in the University of Michigan affirmative action cases -- has rendered non-whiteness a commodity.  That commodity is valued by non-white institutions.  Schools like to be able to advertise the diversity of their classes.  Employers like to advertise the diversity of their workforces.  In both instances, non-whiteness yields social and economic benefits to the predominantly white institution.  Of course, I'm not claiming that all of this is the result of the Supreme Court's reliance on the diversity rationale.  But that decision both reflects and reinforces an intense legal and social preoccupation with diversity in which non-whiteness has acquired a specific value to predominantly white institutions.

The value placed on non-whiteness extends beyond institutions and also affects the contours of relationships between white and non-white individuals.  At the most atomized level, we see this in white individuals' desire to have -- or at least to claim that they have -- racially diverse groups of friends.  Comedy provides a window into this ongoing social preoccupation.  Half-jokingly -- but only half-jokingly -- one commentator observes that "[o]bviously, whites want black friends so as not to appear racist."  Or recall the episode of Seinfeld in which George's boss accuses him of racism, and George desperately wants to prove him wrong.  "It'd be great if he could see me with some of my black friends," George muses.  "Yeah, except you don't really have any black friends," Jerry observes.  (Spoiler alert: the episode culminates with George paying Jerry's pest exterminator, the only black person he knows, to go to lunch with him in the presence of his boss; the plan backfires when the scheme is uncovered and George's boss tells him that he has "sunk to a new low.")

Comedy aside, society assigns a great deal of implicit significance to interracial friendships and affiliations.  Consider the slowly unfolding drama surrounding Trayvon Martin's death, in which repeated testimonials by a "black friend" that George Zimmerman was not racist (see here, here, and here) captured headlines.  It's difficult to believe that the same significance would have been attributed to a similar testimonial by a white friend.  Or recall the the fallout in response to the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina, including, most notably, Kanye West's assertion that "George Bush doesn't care about black people."  The following year -- after declining invitations to do so for five years in a row -- Bush spoke at the NAACP's annual meeting, during which he colloquially referenced his black friends Robert L. Johnson (the founder of Black Entertainment Television), Reverend Anthony T. Evans (a prominent pastor in Dallas), and then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Empirical research indicates that these prominent examples reflect larger social trends.  For example, research by sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva (Duke) reveals that white people tend to inflate both the number and closeness of their non-white friends.  Likewise, in interviews, white subjects tended to accompany assertions of arguably racist views with citations to (often anonymous) non-white friends or acquaintances.  A reanalysis of the sociological research cited in the University of Michigan affirmative action cases reveals similar tendencies.  A Gallup survey polled students at the University of Michigan and Harvard regarding how many cross-racial friendships they had.  Ninety percent of white students report having three or more close friends of other races, as compared to only 37% of black students, 29% of Latino/a students, and 53% of Asian students.  The reanalysis suggests that if all the white students were telling the truth, then every student of color reporting three or more cross-racial friendships must have had an average of nineteen close friendships with white students.  Possible?  Sure.  Likely?  Not in my view.

A fascinating recent article by Professor Justin Driver (University of Texas), even suggests a judicial variant of the "non-white friends" argument.  Professor Driver's meticulous research uncovers substantial variation in the circumstances when courts choose to explicitly identify the race of parties or other individuals discussed in their opinions.  One trenchant example is Ricci v. DeStefano, in which the Supreme Court held that the New Haven fire department's decision to ignore standardized test results that disparately affected racial minorities violated Title VII.  Justice Kennedy's majority opinion discusses three witnesses who testified before the New Haven Civil Service Board regarding standardized testing and the fire department's method for determining promotions.  The opinion identifies two of the witnesses only by their professional credentials; of the third, Vincent Lewis, the opinion states explicitly that he "is black" and emphasizes that Lewis testified most strongly that the exam was nondiscriminatory.  As Professor Driver succinctly explains:  "This identification is striking because, in a decision that cautions against the dangers of racially disparate treatment, it treats Lewis disparately by race."  The emphasis on Lewis' race is particularly striking because one of the other experts was also black -- yet Kennedy chose to racially identify only Lewis, the expert whose assessment of the test best harmonized with the result the Court ultimately reached.  One way to read this otherwise gratuitous racial emphasis is as a species of the "non-white friends" defense.  That is, if a black expert believed that a test was nondiscriminatory, it's more likely that it was.

But why is it problematic if white people exaggerate their non-white friendships, or if white people emphasize convergences between their own views and those of non-white individuals?  As I see it, the concern is that white people are using non-white people as a source of social capital and racial credibility without actually attempting to engage in meaningful interracial relationships.  Because of the value associated with non-white racial identity, white people see non-white people as a means to benefit themselves rather than as intrinsically valuable friends and associates.  Of course this isn't true of every relationship between a white person and a non-white person, or even of most such relationships.  But the value associated with non-whiteness -- a value both reflected and reinforced by the diversity rationale and the surrounding social preoccupation with diversity -- creates incentives for shallow relationships and affiliations without creating parallel incentives for the harder work of cross-racial engagement and understanding.

Posted by Nancy Leong on May 16, 2012 at 12:33 PM | Permalink


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Thanks to all for the comments. A few follow-up thoughts:

@Orin: I hadn't thought of this precisely in terms of form versus substance before, but my tentative inclination is to say that I think that valuing form can interfere with valuing substance. To put this very crudely: if someone's thought process goes something like "I need to get some non-white people to come to my party so that my friend group looks racially diverse," then that thought process is displacing a more difficult and complicated thought process about why, for example, the person doesn't already have non-white friends. I think this puts me in the first of your two categories. I don't think form is all that meaningful, and to the extent we're focusing on it we're not focusing on substance. I appreciate your framing the issue to me in this way and I'll think about it some more.

@DKM: I appreciate your comment, and I am actually in agreement with you that commodification of racial identity is highly problematic for the reasons you describe (and others). My use of commodification rhetoric is intended to be descriptive; that is, I think that racial identity *is* assigned value in society, not that it should be. In the article I reference in the post I actually argue that racial identity should be decommodified as much as possible.

Posted by: Nancy Leong | May 18, 2012 2:41:30 PM

Juan Cole, at his Informed Comment Blog, has posted on 5/17/12 "Minority Births the Majority? On how the whole idea of White People is Made Up," in addressing a recent statistic.

Posted by: Shag from Brookline | May 17, 2012 7:06:30 AM

Interesting arguments.
2 points I'd make:
1) I think the more interesting question about the "commodification of non-whiteness" is whether diversity has value in and of itself, rather than simply as a show of progressiveness and inclusion (or, more far-fetchedly, as a way to comply with diversity laws). If diversity does provide such value (such as by avoiding groupthink), a business advertising its diversity is really no different than advertising how many Princeton/Yale/Harvard grads it has-- a way to tell its clients (and everyone else) how much value it adds.
2) I think I agree that non-whiteness has value, for a number of reasons (including the ones you mention). But I think it's also safe to say that whiteness has value as well, and arguably much more value. In fact, assuming your thesis is correct, it seems clear that the most highly valued commodity as far as race is concerned is to have a vast majority of whiteness mixed with a few token nonwhites. Under that "value maximizing" scenario, whites are still much more highly valued than nonwhites. So I guess I think your thesis is interesting, but I don't particularly care for the "commodification" analogy, since whiteness is also clearly a commodity and a much more valuable one at that.

Posted by: DKM | May 16, 2012 2:53:51 PM

My first thought was whether this same pattern appears in France, a nation that purports (at least at the governmental level) to be color-blind. I don't know what the result to expect, but I suspect it would tell us something interesting about whether "color-blindness" is possible.

Posted by: Stuart Ford | May 16, 2012 1:57:37 PM

Your argument seems to be that we often value form over substance, and that this is not an ideal approach. I generally agree, but what is your alternative? It seems to me that there are two major alternatives. First, we could stop valuing form, and value substance instead. Second, we could first value form, and then ensure that we also value substance in addition to that. Which do you propose? I ask that because I sense the two sides to these sorts of debates tend to map the form/substance line: One side says that we should value substance instead of form, and the other says that we have to follow form because it is our best indicator of substance. It seems to me that your argument could be construed as being on either side depending on which alternative you have in mind.

Posted by: Orin Kerr | May 16, 2012 12:57:06 PM

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