Reactance Without Atrocity (to Racist Coercion)
Part 1: How ICE helps us see that forcing colleges back to campus is racist.
Posted Jul 12, 2020
This is the first part of a two-part series of essays.
[July 14 update: I posted this essay July 12, two days before the Trump administration announced that it was rescinding the ICE policy described below. I almost certainly had nothing to do with influencing the administration's decision, but I am very happy regardless.]
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced on July 6 that international students who remain at institutions with too many online classes may be deported. ICE is making no allowance for the fact that the U.S. is even more embroiled in the COVID-19 pandemic than it was four months ago. ICE’s announcement coincides with a push by the Trump administration to reopen schools of all kinds around the country. ICE’s heartless treatment of international students—and its campus-opening endgame—is, like most actions by ICE, racist in its effects.
People of color are likely to be disproportionately harmed by reopening the schools. The logic behind this claim is not hard to understand. Thanks to advocacy by Ibram X Kendi and others, we now know that people of color—especially black, Latinx and Indigenous—suffer disproportionate hospitalization and death rates from COVID-19 throughout the United States. Reopening the schools will exacerbate the unchecked spread of COVID-19 because schools, and the public transportation that goes to and from them, are petri dishes for viruses. This means that reopening schools, including college campuses, will be racist in effect.
Would it be fair to say that ICE’s service to the Trump administration reopening push is also racist in intention? Team Trump does seem to have a penchant for courting white nationalists, preserving white supremacist statues and names for military bases, and even using white supremacist symbolism in its political ads. And the administration has been greatly assisting the spread of COVID-19 for months with misinformation and deliberate resistance to sound medical and policy advice. Polite society prefers to imagine that Trump has made all of his catastrophic “errors of judgment” regarding COVID-19 because he is so concerned with “the economy.” It would be less polite, though no less plausible, to say that Trump knows his base wants a lot of people of color to die, and he’s delivering for them very competently.
It’s not clear that the question of intention is worth dwelling on too long, though. In an age that increasingly understands structural racism, speculation about intentions and psychological states can take our eye off the ball. In most cases, if people of color are disproportionately harmed by an action or structure, it’s racist. Period.
The psychological states of those implementing and benefiting from racist actions and structures are only somewhat relevant to solving the problems created by them. Further strengthening already strong moral taboos against racism will not end the racist war on drugs, for instance. A more effective target for transformative persuasion, in this case, is American punitiveness, as Michelle Alexander has argued. And arguably the best solution to racism is to politically dismantle or transform the structures that enable racism. Attitudes will follow these structural transformations soon enough, as stateways change folkways.
Another reason not to go too deep into the rabbit hole of guessing people’s intentions is that original intentions tend to get changed up by actions and their outcomes anyway, thanks to cognitive dissonance. If the schools reopen as Trump and ICE wish, many people will die, and people of color will die in disproportionate numbers. Having set this process in motion, any not-all-that-racist types who supported reopening for some nobler reason than racism (save the whales! world peace!) would experience some dissonance between what their intentions were and what the actual outcome was. To escape this tension, they would become more inclined to downgrade the importance of black (and Latinx and Indigenous) lives. This is called “dissonance reduction.”
A lot of attitudinal racism can be explained by such dissonance reduction, especially in rights-and-freedoms-loving America. If the path you travel in life while pursuing your glorious rights-and-freedoms makes it expedient for you to kidnap, enslave, rape, torture, murder and culturally erase a certain set of people (for, say, "the economy"), you’re going to have to unleash contempt and hatred on that set of people also if you want to keep feeling good about yourself. You generally have to have contempt and hatred for all the victims of your ongoing horrific injustice if you want to smile contentedly at yourself in the mirror every morning. That’s one of the unpleasant sides of pursuing happiness. The only other alternative is to feel bad about yourself for the wrong you’ve done, repent, accept forgiveness, and make a change. But no proud American wants to do that anymore, praise Jesus.
In any case, if the effective racism of ICE’s July 6 blackmail really is intentional, then ICE can at least congratulate itself for its cleverness. ICE has put universities in a “racist if you do, racist if you don’t” position. Coercing universities to meet in person in order to prevent one form of structural racism—ICE deporting international students—is essentially forcing them into an even worse form of structural racism: exacerbating the racially-stratified sickenings and deaths from COVID-19.
It’s not all hopeless, though. One potentially positive development is that ICE’s blackmail of the universities is likely to elicit “reactance” from many in the university community. Reactance is an inclination to be dissuaded by coercive persuasion efforts. Such coercive persuasion is even more dissuasive if the coercive messenger’s values are perceived as deeply inimical to one’s own.
Thanks in part to reactance tendencies, when a racist institution like ICE seems really intent for something to happen, it becomes easier to discern the racist effect that might arise from ICE getting what it wants. We think, “Hmm, why are ICE racists so interested in college kids enjoying the known pedagogical benefits of in-person instruction?” Then we do some information search and some logical crunching and have a eureka moment. After that, we will have trouble unseeing how racist it would be to reopen the schools. This opening of our eyes to reality is just a thin silver lining in a very dark historical cloud, but we should take whatever good we can get when the clouds are this dark.
This likely reactance to ICE’s persuasion attempt may become a headache for university administrators who wanted to reopen campuses before ICE made it uncool. Indeed, before ICE’s July 6 announcement, a plurality of college and university administrators were feeling perfectly fine about reopening their campuses for the fall semester. The stampeding pandemic, apparently, did not bother them. ICE’s coercive endorsement of their plans, however, could be the kiss of death for those plans. If ICE had left the issue alone, reopening many campuses throughout the country could have been done under plausibly pedagogy-loving auspices, but now it will look racist. That’s good, though, because reopening the campuses is racist.
Back in the days when no one wanted to be perceived as racist (days for which I, like most people, have some nostalgia) people’s non-racist intentions could interfere with discerning the racist effects those people were having. This made structural racism harder to fight since a lot of people implementing it didn’t approve of racism ideologically and may even have manifested lower-than-median levels of racism psychologically. In other words, when a bunch of sweet-talking liberals support an effectively racist policy or structure, it’s a lot more likely that ordinary people targeted by their public relations messaging will accept and normalize the racist policy or structure.
Remember when Islamophobia was something liberals could get behind—at least if they read a lot of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and watched a lot of Bill Maher? Then Trump and his band of inbred alt-rightists completely stained Islamophobia forever and now we can’t unsee how racist it is. And remember when Obama made drone assassination of kids of color in poor, far away nations look liberal, humane, and regrettably necessary by doing so much of it? Now Trump has dramatically escalated the drone program and liberals feel less inclined to praise drone assassination as “minimiz[ing] loss of life compared to indiscriminate forms of destruction such as artillery.” Perhaps all people with a certain threshold of brains and principles should grudgingly thank Trump and ICE for the conceptual clarity they have given us by eliciting our reactance on these matters. But again, this is a very thin silver lining in a very big, very dark cloud.
Though Trump and ICE have ruined the pedagogically compassionate façade behind plans to reopen campuses, opening-ready college administrators might still try other ways of morally minimizing what they’ll probably continue to command. These administrators could, for instance, take a cue from Trump and double down with some what-aboutism. A tempting move would be to say “anti-racist protesters are crowding the streets too, are they racist?”
Unfortunately for administrators, that would be a transparently weak and desperate move and would just pile the dirt of their stain higher and deeper. That’s because anti-racist protesters make their voices heard outside in the open air. The vast majority wear masks. They protest voluntarily on the days they want to go, not because someone has coerced them to go several days a week to pay the rent. And thus there is scant evidence that protests are causing the spikes in COVID-19 that we’re seeing around the country. In New York City, for example, protests have been frequent, voluminous, and sometimes rowdy when provoked by horrific police brutality. Returns to NYC indoor workspaces, on the other hand, have proceeded at a very cautious pace by national standards. COVID-19 cases, defying predictions of a post-protest spike, have notably continued to decline.
It is important, given the present salience of racial injustice, to highlight the effective racism of reopening campuses for physical classes and other in-person work by college staff. I don’t want to mislead anyone’s moral compass, though, by putting racism in the highest slot in the hierarchy of moral outrages. There are reasons, after all, why racism is bad. Racism is bad because it harms and kills people on morally irrelevant grounds. Harming and killing people on morally irrelevant grounds is repulsively unfair. It’s the extreme opposite of do-to-others-what-you-would-have-them-do-to-you. And actually, harming and killing people on morally relevant grounds isn’t so good either. Killing and torturing people for being “terrorists,” “superpredators,” or “thugs” technically rests on morally relevant grounds. But it still has pretty grim—and, indeed, racist—effects.
So maybe just harming and killing people—including coercing people into situations that will plausibly exacerbate suffering and death—can be considered sufficiently bad already without having to add racism to the list of charges to cross the outrage threshold. A major reason racism is bad is because of its association with unjustly-inflicted suffering and death, but it would be odd to say that the reason inflicting unjust suffering and death is bad is because of its association with racism.
In Part 2, I explore more directly the harm and death that re-opening campuses could cause, harm and death that would be sufficiently morally horrific even if people of all races and ethnicities were being hospitalized and dying in exactly the same proportions.