Monday, April 26, 2021

Irrational Decisions

We like to think that people make rational decisions. And we make predictions based on that assumption. But assuming rational human behaviour damns us. Charles Blow illustrates how recent American history proves this point:

One of those who came before me was a man named Thomas Wicker, a Southerner like myself. He’d been the lone Times reporter accompanying President John F. Kennedy on a trip to Dallas, and dictated the details of the assassination from a phone booth. Wicker, who wrote under the byline Tom Wicker, went on to inherit the column of the retiring Arthur Krock, whom The Times called “the dean of Washington pundits, who had covered every president since Calvin Coolidge.”

Wicker saw the Civil Rights Era as a Great Awakening:

In 1965, The Voting Rights Act, one of the seminal pieces of civil rights legislation in the history of this country, was signed into law. Soon after, in August of that year, Wicker penned a most prescient column, one I have recalled often, which contained some wise caution, but also some naïve optimism.

Wicker wrote: "At best the Negroes can make themselves no more than a minority of the Southern electorate, Democratic leaders here are apprehensive on two counts. The least likely is the possibility that the Republican Party, newly resurgent in the South, might seek to isolate Negroes in a hapless Democratic Party and turn itself into a larger white man’s party.”

But that is precisely what the Republican Party has done, particularly in the South.

Wicker didn’t believe that this would happen, in part because white Southerners also approved and benefited from “the Democratic approach to welfare and economic problems.” In his estimation: “Where the pocketbook collides with the race issue, the pocketbook usually wins.”

Wrong again. History has shown us over and over that white racists will consistently vote and act against their own interest so as to oppose or deny Black people. As Heather McGhee so brilliantly argues in her most recent book, “The Sum of Us,” they will drain the pool rather than share it with Black people.

When slavery was ended in this country, it would have been smart for poor whites and Blacks to make common cause because they had common economic interests. America — and Western culture — taught white people that there was intrinsic value to whiteness, even if you were poor, that it was a racial Rolex that could always be bartered.

So, the preservation of whiteness is a driving force of the racists’ political prerogative, even if they are working class, struggling or poor. As Walter Johnson wrote in the Boston Review in 2018, “The history of white working-class struggle, for example, cannot be understood separate from the privileges of whiteness.”

White supremacy is irrational. But it is alive and well.

Something to think about as this pandemic rages on.

Image:  The New York Times


Anonymous said...

White supremacy has Ford's rural MPPs screaming "unfair" when Covid vaccines are directed away from their low-risk parts of Ontario to hard-hit areas like Brampton. They're smart enough not to say, "Why are you giving white people's vaccines to people of colour?" But don't worry, Ford hears that message loud and clear.


Owen Gray said...

Lee Atwater understood the code, Cap. And politicians understand that code very well.

Lorne said...

Reading your post, Owen, I couldn't help but think of To Kill A Mockingbird, a novel in which poor white trash prevails over Tom Robinson. As in the real-life tragedy of Emmet Till, white supremacy was on full display.

Owen Gray said...

I loved the book, Lorne. And I loved teaching it. It rang true for me and the experience I had as a student teacher in North Carolina -- which, incidentally, was where Wicker grew up.

jrkrideau said...

We like to think that people make rational decisions.

I thought only simple, naive, people like economists still thought like that.

Have a look at Daniel Kahneman's book "Thinking fast and slow". Or some of the recent research on decision making under conditions of financial insecurity.

That said, some decisions that look irrational to the outside observer may make perfect sense given the person's motivations and values.

Owen Gray said...

I agree that individual perspective may count for more than rationality in decision making, jrk. My point is that when you look, for instance, at anti-vaxxers or Trump supporters, they cannot be convinced by rational arguments.