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white supremacist violence and causality
This week, a man showed up with a critique of research on white supremacy that I hadn’t heard before. Let’s discuss.
As a young(ish) woman in academia, and especially one who insists upon yelling about structural white supremacy in the same breath as white supremacist “terrorism” (imagine!), I have gotten very used to older men dismissing my arguments. My whiteness protects me from anything personally harmful here, so instead I get inanity. “The problem is violence, not white supremacy.” As though those were different things! “The problem is Islamism, not white supremacy.” Perhaps these too are connected, and perhaps concern about the former is exaggerated because of the latter! “White supremacy doesn’t actually kill that many people!” *throws readings on structural violence and runs away*
But yesterday I heard a new one—one I’d heard in other contexts, about other social science research. “Most of the work on terrorism [sic] is correlational but mistaken for causal. We haven’t proven causation for far-right terrorism.” To put this into the language I use: this person was claiming that research claiming that structural white supremacy enables, produces, or affects white supremacist violence isn’t…conclusive enough? Scientific enough? This person is a nuclear physicist, so probably the latter.
Setting aside the mind-bending logic in that statement—that there may not be a connection between structural white supremacy and white supremacist violence; it’s in the name, my dude—I want to take a moment to actually unpack the causality critique, because there’s a larger point here about the alleged vanguard of social science research these days and why it’s utterly unfit for purpose.
Many political scientists will be intimately familiar with this, so pardon the explanation: as part of a larger push by funders, universities, governments, and white gatekeepers (these categories overlap) to make social science more science-y, the gold standard of political science is shifting toward causal inference. Confounders, post-treatment effects, and endogeneity be damned: we are going to remove the complexity that makes the social world interesting, or at least relegate it to a box labeled “problem,” and instead claim we can trace, with a high degree of confidence, whether the presence of something, or the degree/intensity of it, has a direct causal effect on the presence, or degree/intensity, of some outcome we care about. (I am having flashbacks to grad school; someone come hold me.) If I pour a glass of water on the floor, the floor will get wet. That sort of logic, but about complex social processes.
There are ways, allegedly, of doing this with qualitative case study material. (Raise your hand if you also had to read King, Keohane, and Verba in grad school, and raise your other hand if you also threw it away instead of recycling or donating it because no one should be subjected to that godawful book.) But the pinnacle of political science research is the experiment—or fancy statistics if you must, but those statistics should probably be simple and done to experimental data. Make it a field experiment, a lab experiment, a survey experiment, whatever you have to do, but make it an experiment, so help you [insert name of experimentalist God or whatever].
It may be extremely obvious that I, well, don’t love this school of thought. It gets a lot of things wrong with how the social world works. It minimizes lived experience and deep context-specific knowledge as partial and subjective, as though that were a bad thing, thereby contributing to what Tema Okun calls white supremacy culture. It advocates one way of doing things, which is dogma, not knowledge production. It assumes the order we’ve ascribed to the natural world—which, lol; separate rant—also applies to people with complicated beliefs and agency and all that jazz.
And, when it comes to understanding white supremacist violence or “terrorism,” it misses the point completely.
How do we know that structural white supremacy contributes to white supremacist violence? Part of it is in the definition of “white supremacy” itself, which is inherently violent in its dehumanization and exploitation of people racialized as nonwhite. But let’s suppose this person who showed up in my inbox meant “violence” in its most extreme physical manifestations: mass shootings, bombings, things that might get called “terrorist attacks” on the evening news. What makes this violence possible in the first place?
Here, we—and by “we” I do mean mostly white people, but not exclusively—have to turn to a source of knowledge that the causal inference mafia dismisses: lived experience. We have probably millions of pages of writing—academic, yes, but also personal, memoir, poetry, song—documenting the oppression experienced by Black, brown, Indigenous, queer, trans, migrant, disabled, and all intersections of these people at the hands of white supremacy. Centuries of oral histories, artworks, stories that are not all for our (white) consumption, but so many that are in the public domain if we would only care to read them. The evidence, the experience, is overwhelming. Pretending neo-Nazi violence and the structural violence of the carceral state are disconnected is to assuage white guilt and prioritize white comfort. It is to ignore, for example, the development of Western-style carcerality in East Africa under British imperialism; it is to pretend imperialism had no white supremacist components; it is to turn away from precursors to the Holocaust in German Namibia and the colonial US on which the Nazis explicitly drew. It is to ignore that immigration is a common thread running through all of this—fear of the outsider, constructed as the invader—and that immigration attitudes tell us something about national character and performative citizenship. It is to ignore work outside of the ”causal inference” tradition that may feel too radical, from Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Julian Go, Angela Davis, and so many with no connection whatsoever to the ivory tower. Who is this state built for? Who does it continue to serve?
When we say we don’t know the causes of white supremacist violence, maybe we mean we don’t know why Person A over there chose to commit an attack. And maybe that’s fair. But more broadly? At the level to which the church of positivist social science would have us generalize? We know. Or we should know. Put differently, we know enough to know.
I shared some reading with the person in my inbox. Given the speed of his response, he clearly didn’t engage with it. That’s his choice, but it’s not one those of us grappling with responses to white supremacist violence can afford to keep making. Demanding standards that are not only impossible to meet—you can’t operationalize structural white supremacy to put it in a statistical model, and you can’t run experiments with violence, so are we doomed then, causalists—but that are also dismissive of so much knowledge is to perpetuate white supremacist epistemologies, however inadvertently. What we need is out there. It’s loud. It’s persistent. It’s been repeated for decades. It’s on overwhelmingly white social scientists to listen.
The University and College Union (UCU) has called 18 days of strike action across February and March, in response to a pay offer drastically below the rate of inflation over the past decade. There are a lot of internal union politics to this decision and style of industrial action that I’ll happily explain to the extent that I can to anyone with questions. But the bottom line, immediately, is that we need a lot more money in our strike fund. Every little bit helps! ucu.org.uk/fightingfund
Because we are apparently doing this discourse: no, professors shouldn’t charge grad students who want to talk to them about their work. With what money would grad students pay them? Come on.
Good reading: Recently I devoured Kathy Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment. It’s about what Kathy calls “rural consciousness” in Wisconsin and what it can tell us about identity and support for the Republican Party in large parts of the US. It’s also about the importance of using interpretive fieldwork methods to study public opinion. Most importantly, though, it’s about how to write a damn good, honest academic book. Read it!
Shameless self-promotion corner: I reviewed Dan Byman’s Spreading Hate: The Global Rise of White Supremacist Terrorism for International Affairs. tl;dr: Byman’s not a causalist, but the book is nevertheless a great example of the perils of divorcing structural white supremacy from white supremacist violence.
It’s EWIS workshop season, and there are so many exciting options this year that will get you to Amsterdam in July! With any luck, I’ll be at this one, organized by Rabea Khan and Sarah Gharib Seif, on what it means to be “critical” when studying “terrorism” in the modern-colonial world. There’s also this one on counterterrorism that looks awesome, run by critical scholars whom I trust. Deadline for all submissions is February 5.
Did you write an IR theory PhD dissertation in the last two years? You should nominate yourself for APSA’s Nuno P. Monteiro Award. Deadline March 31. Details here.
Are you an early-career instructor in the UK doing awesome stuff? You should nominate yourself for BISA’s Early-Career Award in Teaching International Studies. Deadline February 13.
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