Pinker parodies himself

We’re in a time of crisis, when a sense of injustice is acute, when communities are in flames and people march in protest, when white supremacists run the country and the police have willingly become a tool of fascism. What we really need right now is some clueless dweeb from Harvard to come along and reassure us that it’s all an illusion, the country is really becoming less racist, therefore all you white bigots out there can relax and not feel guilty because the statistics say you are all becoming better angels, even if you’ve institutionalized social norms that allow black concerns to be minimized even as you’re throwing huge numbers of them into an inhumane prison complex. That dweeb is the self-appointed guru of white denial, Steven Pinker. You can always count on him to show up at a cataclysmic failure of the system to let us know that this terrible event doesn’t really expose an ugly reality. Everything is getting better, don’t you know. So he takes to twitter to make his usual Pollyannaish pronouncement.

Good god. He’s a psychologist. He has to know that people are really good at rationalization, making self-reported attitudes difficult to trust. Look at this one graph he shows (as if a graph is more powerful than one photo of a cop with his knee on a black man’s neck):

What, exactly, is that supposed to demonstrate? That white people have become less racist since the 1970s, or that racists have been shifting their rationalizations since the 1970s? Are “Inequality is due to lower motivation among blacks” and “Inequality is due to lower ability among blacks” the only two excuses white people give for discrimination, so those two responses encompass the totality of the rationalizations? Has he even considered that both responses are pretty damned racist and are centered on explaining the othering of black people? Has he considered that a shift in what is socially acceptable to say in public doesn’t necessarily imply a shift in underlying attitudes?

Also, wow, over half the white respondents are making those two equally racist arguments. I don’t find this at all reassuring.

Pinker is referencing a black social psychologist (also a big shot at Harvard, which ought to be a caution to anyone reading their work — he’s black, but also in a highly privileged position) who is also cautiously optimistic about the future, but isn’t trying to bury the lede in happy-clappy noise.

We had all thought, of course, that we made phenomenal strides. We inhabit an era in which there are certainly more rank-and-file minority police officers than ever before, more African American and minority and female police chiefs and leaders. But inhabiting a world where the poor and our deeply poor communities are still heavily disproportionately people of color, where we had a war on drugs that was racially biased in both its origins and its profoundly troubling execution over many years, that has bred a level of distrust and antagonism between police and black communities that should worry us all. There’s clearly an enormous amount of work to be done to undo those circumstances and to heal those wounds.

Pinker really is the Norman Vincent Peale of our generation. We don’t need some racist-leaning, evo-psych-loving, IDW-associated professor telling us that everything will just get better gradually over time if we’re patient and wait for white people to become more tolerant. Action is the agent of change. Every incremental shift is the result of people standing up, speaking out, shoving reality in the face of the complacent and demanding change. There is no magic internal trend towards less racism, especially not among the people who hold all the power.


  1. blf says

    Heh. From the Grauniad’s now-current States politics / pandemic live blog (quoted in full):

    CBS News this morning has been publicising a poll they have conducted about race relations in the US, which shows sharply deteriorating figures from their previous studies.

    57% of Americans, according to the poll, think police are more likely to use deadly force against a black person than a white person, which is up from 43% back in 2016.

    In total, 42% of people polled thought race relations were getting worse, and 61% of people though race relations were “generally bad”. Not surprisingly, white respondents tended to be less pessimistic about the situation.

    There’s more detail on the poll here: Americans’ views shift on racial discrimination — CBS News poll

  2. remyporter says

    What does it matter if things are better if they’re not good enough? I’m willing to grant Pinker’s premise: things are better than they were. Sure, fine. But they’re not acceptable. So why even bring it up? Well, we all know why Pinker’s trotting out his apologia for the status quo. The question is rhetorical.

  3. specialffrog says

    Clearly if we just do nothing for 400 or so years the problem will have resolved itself.

  4. maireaine46 says

    “(as if a graph is more powerful than one photo of a cop with his knee on a black man’s neck):”
    That says it all.

    As a white older woman, I have found that other white people assume I share their racist views and say things they would not say if asked in a survey or if people of color were present. When I disagree, they are sometimes indignant, sometimes try to defend themselves with something they saw on Fox News. Same shit, different day.

  5. cartomancer says

    I suppose he must have more time to make public pronouncements now that his gig teaching metaphysico-theologico-cosmolonigology to the nobles of Westphalia has fallen through.

  6. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Well, I am sure all the dead black people are greatly relieved that they were killed by a lesser racism than that which killed Emmett Till. Except, oh wait, Rand Paul is holding up the anti-lynching bill in the Senate because wants to make sure that the interests of lynchers aren’t infringed.

    Reached for comment, George Floyd said, “…”, well nothing. The dead can’t talk. The dead cannot vote. It’s up to us to vote these fuckers out of office so hard that maybe they’ll experience some respiratory distress.

  7. komarov says

    Even taking everything at face value, all I see in those graphs is a really shallow decline on a really long time-axis. How embarrassing, this is pretty much what you’d expect to see when you wait for a problem to fix itself instead of actively working on it. The ice caps will go long before these shitty attitudes.

  8. raven says

    Even taking everything at face value, all I see in those graphs is a really shallow decline on a really long time-axis.

    Good point.
    I/we can’t wait 50 or 100 years for things that might get slightly better.
    Our lifespans aren’t that long and we will run out of time and die before that happens.

    I’m unlikely to be alive even 15 years from now.
    But I’m alive today and that matters…today.

  9. raven says

    Pinker doesn’t even confuse cause and effect.
    He just ignores it altogether.

    Change happens when many people demand change and work hard for change.
    Change doesn’t happen because you wait a few centuries. That is completely irrelevant.

    Not impressed with Pinker at all.

  10. sarah00 says

    I fail to understand how Pinker thinks this helps. So what if attitudes are getting incrementally better? Institutional racism is still ingrained. And those attitudinal changes haven’t happened by chance. They’re the result of a lot of hard work by a lot of people and just saying ‘look, things are getting better’ ignores that work.

    I went to a talk once by a woman who was one of the first female faculty at an Ivy League university (I wish I could remember her name as it was an excellent talk but it was several years ago now). She described all the myriad ways she was marginalised as one of a very small number of female faculty but every now and then a Dean would come along who wanted to improve the proportion of women and instigated programs to achieve this aim, and the number of female faculty would increase. And then they’d leave, and no more female faculty would be hired, the numbers remained static. And then eventually another Dean would come along who realised this was an issue that needed tackling, instituted changes that increased the number of women hired and the numbers would increase again. Until they left and the numbers would plateau yet again. The moral of this story is that change doesn’t happen by itself, you’ve got to make it happen and if you just see a graph with a satisfying line and assume that everything’s going in the right direction so no work is done you’re making a huge mistake.

  11. says

    Pinker is a one trick pony and his trick is: the world is getting better. Therefore everything that might count against that thesis is being discarded. Remember, the man discarded two world wars within 30 years as an outlier and claimed the Vietnam war was a Vietnamese squabble where the US had somehow been caught in. What evidence do you think could anybody bring forward that would make such a person change their mind?
    And isn’t it nice that people no longer think that schools shouldn’t be segregated by law but merely by fact?

  12. kingoftown says

    The graph saying over half of white americans think black people are poorer because they “lack motivation” is supposed to be reassuring?! As well as deep racism it also shows entrenched classism with a lack of understanding how the poverty cycle works. A very shallow (and dubious) gradient of improvement since the 70s really doesn’t make me feel better about it either. At least it explains how Trump was elected.

  13. yjw11374 says

    Dr Pangloss, tenured at the best of all possible universities, in this best of all possible worlds

  14. dstatton says

    That graph is from 2008, eight years before Trump was elected. Since white racists are saying thinks out loud again, how about another survey?

  15. robinson says

    That graph is a gross misrepresentation of Lawrence Bobo’s argument. Note that the source is not provided. It’s an illustration to show that the expression of overt racism is in decline, but his argument was that institutional mechanisms of racism have taken their place.

    One may also want to consider what stereotypes one has of middle-class African Americans in expressing ones skepticism. Much of what is presently known about the institutional mechanisms that currently oppress people of color have been from his research.

  16. mnb0 says

    Indeed, if things are gradually getting better it’s because people refuse to take it. This means we need more protests like these.

  17. ORigel says

    The graph only goes to 2005, 2006. Even then, the trend had flattened.

    Pinker has a point, in that decades ago racism was even worse. But that doesn’t change the fact that lots and lots of white people are racist. And attitudes won’t change without people DEMANDING CHANGE, something Pinker and his ilk will never do.

  18. christoph says

    I like that they use the phrase “cautious optimism.” I’m completely and totally reassured by that.

  19. gijoel says

    Pinker really is the Norman Vincent Peale of our generation.

    Ignatius C. Reilly more like.

  20. Matt G says

    I guess being a Harvard “intellectual” gives you license to rationalize….

  21. says

    Another fine addition to the “white people telling black people why they’re wrong” genre. Lot of it about at the moment. I wish I was articulate enough to come up with the equivalent for mansplaining. Anyone?

  22. Louis says

    Great news folks!

    You know how the shit you were in came just over the bridge of your nose? Well now, after about fifty years, it’s just below the bridge of your nose!

    What do you mean you can’t breathe because of all the shit? And why do you think I am also ignoring the ocean of piss you’re drowning it? The shit’s gone down hasn’t it?