Different Inequalities

I’ve seen people mount convincing arguments both that racism is more acute than sexism and that sexism is more acute than racism. Now that Echidne pointed to a school shooting in which the shooter specifically targeted girls (and had originally intended to rape them before killing them) as an example of the media treating sexism more lightly than racism, I feel obliged to jump into the shark pool.

The reason both gender-trumps-race and race-trumps-gender arguments can come off as reasonable is that racism and sexism don’t work exactly the same way. In some areas, gender dominates – for example, there’s more awareness of racially motivated hate crimes than of gender-based ones. In others, race dominates – for example, the irrational fear of The Other is much stronger with race than with gender.

The major inequalities don’t seem to have any serious trumping hierarchy. Economically, racial minorities and women are both discriminated against to more or less equal degrees; indeed, one good way of separating seriously oppressed minorities (e.g. African-Americans, Pakistani-Brits, Shudra Indians) from less seriously oppressed ones (Jewish-Americans, Indian-Brits, or even Chinese-Americans) can be checking whether male members of the group are significantly better off than majority-ethnicity women economically.

On the other hand, it’s dangerously easy for someone involved in a specific progressive movement to assume that there’s a trumping hierarchy. To see why, look at the criteria people use to establish trumping hierarchies. It’s natural for feminists to be aware mostly of gender-specific forms of inequality: sexual puritanism, ignorance of hate crimes, traditional values; job discrimination against mothers and pregnant women, devaluing female labor, anti-working mother sentiments. These are as far as I can tell much more acute on gender than on race, so someone who’s acquainted with these can easily be misled to believe that gender trumps race.

Contrariwise, antiracists, who are more aware of race-specific inequality (overhyped fear of BOW crime, police racism, intolerance of mixed-race relationships; high unemployment among most minorities, employment discrimination among people with ethnic-sounding names, low spending on majority-minority schools), will similarly tend to evaluate other forms of inequality based on the criteria familiar to them, again reaching the conclusion that their situation is worse.

Obviously, reconciling these different inequalities is a lot of work, since it’s nearly impossible to come up with a set of objective measures. The best that can be done is come up with a set that’s supposed to accord with the liberal intuition that American sexism and American anti-black racism are equally strong, but then we’ll run into problems with other groups – for example, gays, or Hispanics, or atheists.

So for now, I think the best course is to use that liberal intuition and only analogize to other groups when appropriate. For example, it’s perfectly legitimate for a feminist to point out that certain language about women would not be tolerated against black people, or for an antiracist to point out that conservative politicians saturate their messages with coded racism but not coded sexism. These analogies are good insofar as they attempt to bring the level of inequality in a specific component down to this suffered by the least oppressed group, which helps all marginalized groups.

It’s just that getting overzealous has the annoying tendency of trivializing other oppressions, which causes different progressive movements to fight instead of reinforce one another.

4 Responses to Different Inequalities

  1. Stentor says:

    Very well put. I’m always frustrated when I see people making legitimate “you wouldn’t do that to a woman/black person” arguments, then going on to assert that racism/sexism is more socially acceptable than the other.

  2. […] But there’s another angle here, that of biased criticism. When I wrote about different inequalities, I mentioned that people looked for the forms of oppression they’re familiar with. This also applies here: when people attack Hollywood for being too liberal or too conservative, the evidence they give is colored by the sort of bias they look for. A conservative who sees a movie with a racially and sexually diverse elite military team that solves everything by force will conclude the movie is all about political correctness; a liberal who sees the same movie will conclude it’s all about lionizing military might. […]

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