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Tuesday, July 31, 2018


Race paranoia strikes deep

by Tom Sullivan

It was the subtext to the sitting president's entire 2016 campaign. Donald Trump promised to take America back, back to the way things were before They claimed a rightful share of the American Dream: strong, self-reliant women; people of non-Christian faiths; gay people; non-binary people; brown people; people who insisted black lives had value. Mostly, he promised supporters that an America of people who looked like him, by people who looked like him, and for people who looked like him, would not perish from the earth.

Trump never couched his pitch in white backlash terms; it was understood. Ezra Klein examines the underlying demographic shifts for Vox. The Census Bureau minces no words about the trends, he writes. Their March report states:

The fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the United States is people who are Two or More Races, who are projected to grow some 200 percent by 2060. The next fastest is the Asian population, which is projected to double, followed by Hispanics whose population will nearly double within the next 4 decades. In contrast, the only group projected to shrink is the non-Hispanic White population.
The foreign-born population is expected to rise, and swiftly. "Women now make up 56 percent of college students," Klein writes, "and are 8 percentage points more likely than men to have earned a bachelor’s degree by age 29." The changes are "tectonic," and will have profound psychological consequences.

A 2014 study by Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson surveyed responses of "white, self-identified political independents" exposed to news that California had become a majority-minority state:
This was a gentle test of an unnerving theory: that the barest exposure to the concept that whites were losing their numerical majority in America would not just make whites feel afraid but sharply change their political behavior. The theory proved correct. Among participants who lived in the western United States, the group that read that whites had ceded majority status were 11 points likelier to subsequently say they favored the Republican Party.
A follow-up study found white subjects exposed to demographic information showing whites losing majority status “produced more conservative views not only on plausibly relevant issues like immigration and affirmative action, but also on seemingly unrelated issues like defense spending and health care reform.”

Astute readers know without a formal study that white voters are reacting to real changes that predate Barack Obama's presidency. Trump simply took the temperature of his base and exploited it.

Conventional wisdom that because of their historic numerical superiority whites did not "possess their own sense of racial identification" has proved wrong. Ashley Jardina, a political scientist at Duke University, found the emergence of white identity to be conditional.
“When the dominant status of whites relative to racial and ethnic minorities is secure and unchallenged, white identity likely remains dormant,” she writes. “When whites perceive their group’s dominant status is threatened or their group is unfairly disadvantaged, however, their racial identity may become salient and politically relevant.”
Note the use of may, not will, Klein writes. "None of this is inevitable."
“There are a lot of incentives for elites across the political spectrum to try and stoke identity in the first place,” Jardina told me. “Donald Trump has done a great job on this.” Then she added, a bit ruefully, “My dissertation reads sort of like a playbook.”
There is much more at the link. All of which is a long introduction to how that research might actually work if built into a conscious program.

Sigal Samuel wrote in The Atlantic that an international team of computer scientists, philosophers, religion scholars, and others have collaborated on using artificial intelligence to build virtual models that predict how people ("agents" in the model) in a secular culture change "their attributes and beliefs—levels of economic security, of education, of religiosity, and so on." One goal was to predict and mitigate the effects of stressors such as an influx of immigrants on secular societies:
Using a separate model, Future of Religion and Secular Transitions (FOREST), the team found that people tend to secularize when four factors are present: existential security (you have enough money and food), personal freedom (you’re free to choose whether to believe or not), pluralism (you have a welcoming attitude to diversity), and education (you’ve got some training in the sciences and humanities). If even one of these factors is absent, the whole secularization process slows down. This, they believe, is why the U.S. is secularizing at a slower rate than Western and Northern Europe.

“The U.S. has found ways to limit the effects of education by keeping it local, and in private schools, anything can happen,” said Shults’s collaborator, Wesley Wildman, a professor of philosophy and ethics at Boston University. “Lately, there’s been encouragement from the highest levels of government to take a less than welcoming cultural attitude to pluralism. These are forms of resistance to secularization.”

"That keeps me up at night."

The Mutually Escalating Religious Violence (MERV) project "aims to identify which conditions make xenophobic anxiety between two different religious groups likely to spiral out of control." Monica Toft, an international-relations scholar with expertise in religious extremism, was shocked how well the results aligned with her field observations:
MERV shows that mutually escalating violence is likeliest to occur if there’s a small disparity in size between the majority and minority groups (less than a 70/30 split) and if agents experience out-group members as social and contagion threats (they worry that others will be invasive or infectious). It’s much less likely to occur if there’s a large disparity in size or if the threats agents are experiencing are mostly related to predators or natural hazards.

This might sound intuitive, but having quantitative, empirical data to support social-science hypotheses can help convince policymakers of when and how to act if they want to prevent future outbreaks of violence. And once a model has been shown to track with real-world historical examples, scientists can more plausibly argue that it will yield a trustworthy recommendation when it’s fed new situations. Asked what MERV has to offer us, Toft said, “We can stop these dynamics. We do not need to allow them to spiral out of control.”
Unless seeing things spiral out of control is your goal. Wesley Wildman, a professor of philosophy and ethics at Boston University, worries that if private-sector actors find these models powerful, military agencies—better-funded and highly motivated—or others might consider using the results for generating social strife.
“The MODRN model gives you a recipe for accelerating secularization—and it gives you a recipe for blocking it. You can use it to make everything revert to supernaturalism by messing with some of those key conditions—say, by triggering some ecological disaster. Then everything goes plunging back into pre-secularism. That keeps me up at night.”
But that may be giving these applications too much credit, says Neil Johnson. The physicist reminds Samuel that society is too complex to steer it by modifying a single factor.

Still, someone with enough resources might see no reason not to experiment on some small population somewhere. The United States, maybe?

USA Today examined the 2016 Facebook ad buys of the Russian Internet Research Agency:
* Of the roughly 3,500 ads published this week, more than half — about 1,950 — made express references to race. Those accounted for 25 million ad impressions — a measure of how many times the spot was pulled from a server for transmission to a device.

* At least 25% of the ads centered on issues involving crime and policing, often with a racial connotation. Separate ads, launched simultaneously, would stoke suspicion about how police treat black people in one ad, while another encouraged support for pro-police groups.

* Divisive racial ad buys averaged about 44 per month from 2015 through the summer of 2016 before seeing a significant increase in the run-up to Election Day. Between September and November 2016, the number of race-related spots rose to 400. An additional 900 were posted after the November election through May 2017.

* Only about 100 of the ads overtly mentioned support for Donald Trump or opposition to Hillary Clinton. A few dozen referenced questions about the U.S. election process and voting integrity, while a handful mentioned other candidates like Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush.
Exacerbating racial tension is a decades-old, Russian go-to tactic. Indictments from Robert Mueller allege Russians used it to "reduce black voter support for Clinton while increasing white voter turnout by riling racial resentment" and increase distrust in American democracy.

Klein cites an experiment by Harvard political scientist Ryan Enos that suggests how easy moving the needle can be:
In another experiment, I sent Spanish speakers to randomly selected train stations in towns around Boston to simply catch the train and ride like any other passenger. I focused on stations in white suburbs. The intent was to create the impression, by subtle manipulation, that the Latino population in these segregated towns was increasing.

Before and after sending these Spanish speakers to the train platforms, I surveyed passengers on the platforms about their attitudes about immigration. After being exposed to the Spanish speakers on their metro lines for just three days, attitudes on these questions moved sharply rightward: The mostly liberal Democratic passengers had come to endorse immigration policies — including deportation of children of undocumented immigrants —similar to those endorsed by Trump in his campaign.
That's not to suggest Russia's propaganda effort in 20916 was concieved as a massive social science experiment on the United States. But three days makes it look easy to pull off.

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