14 June 2017

Yellow Fever and Anti-Racist Hysteria: A Theoretical Problem

Stephen Kershnar
Yellow Fever and Racism
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
June 8, 2017

            Recently, students forcibly took over Evergreen State College claiming that it was awash in racism. Students at University of California at Berkeley, Middlebury College, and Claremont McKenna College prevented public intellectuals Milo Yiannopoulis, Charles Murray, and Heather Mac Donald from speaking because of their alleged racism. A couple of years ago, Yale was torn by protests over racial and ethnic appropriation of Halloween costumes and anti-racist protesters at the University of Missouri pressured the chancellor and president into resigning. At Dartmouth, Black Lives Matter protesters stormed the library and aggressively confronted white students who were quietly studying.

            Structuring the racial issues in this country solely in terms of black and white misses subtle ways in which responses to race are complex and, in some cases, rational. Once instance of such a complex case it that of racial preferences in sex and dating. One example of this is the purported preference some black men have for white women.

Another such case, and the one I focus on here, is yellow fever. This is the preference among some men for sex, dating, and marriage for Asians, in particular for Asian women. This preference gives Asian women a competitive advantage in dating and marriage. It disadvantages competitors, especially, black and Hispanic women. This advantage can be in a study by Cardiff University’s Michael Lewis that found that Asian women are seen as more attractive than women of other races. The preference is reinforced by the stereotype of Asians as having a strong work ethic, being family-oriented, and valuing education. These preferences give Asian women a competitive advantage.

            The problem for the anti-racists is that yellow fever appears to benefit one group over another and yet is unobjectionable. In support of this claim, philosopher Raja Halwani argues that there is nothing wrong (or bad) about normal heterosexual preferences (consider, for example, preference for women who are thin, feminine, and of normal height) and these preferences are arbitrary. Preference for Asian women is no different than these other preferences. Hence, there is nothing wrong about preferring Asian women. 

            Feminists reject the idea that it is wrong (or bad) to have normal sexual preferences. They argue that preference of thinness (as opposed to fatness) or femininity (as opposed masculinity) in women oppresses them because it judges them on feminine beauty rather than intellect and ability. Even if this were true, it is not clear that an individual or even a population can control their sexual preferences and it is not wrong to think a certain way if you can’t avoid it. This is especially true if some preferences (for example, for femininity) are deeply embedded in the culture or genetically linked. Also, it is unclear whether the preferences that would replace those for thin and feminine women would make women better off. It is unclear whether women would be better off if men preferred chubby women.
            Yale University’s Robin Zheng argues that unlike normal heterosexual preference for women who are thin, feminine, and of normal height, preference for Asian women is objectionable because it harms Asian women. It harms them, she argues, because they must spend time and energy considering whether men like them for who they are or their exotic features. It also reinforces racial stereotypes, specifically that Asian women are hyper-sexual and submissive, and these stereotypes are problematic.

            Zheng’s argument is odd. Normally, people want to be preferred. Women go through great lengths to be sexy, in shape, and educated in order to get an advantage in dating and marriage markets. If it is a competitive advantage to be preferred because of one’s race, then it is hard to see why the preference would be bad for the preferred group. By analogy, thin women enjoy the significant advantage in dating that being thin provides.

Also, by analogy, if women in the Ivy League had Hebrew fever (preference for Jewish men) and, as a result, Jewish men got more and better dates than they would otherwise get, they would, and should, welcome this preference. Zheng doesn’t focus on the degree to which yellow fever disadvantages Asian women’s competitors, especially black and Hispanic women. This, if anything, is what is troubling about it.

            Contrary to the widespread perception, though, it is not clear that that yellow fever is widespread. A study by Boston University’s Raymond Fisman and his colleagues found that Asian women discriminate against black and Hispanic men, but did not discriminate between Asian and white men. On his study, white men didn’t prefer Asian women. If this study captures the more general pattern, and it is only one study, then it is Asian women’s preferences that account for the frequency of white male and Asian women couples.

            The problem is that if preferences in dating and marriage markets are neither wrong nor bad, it is hard to see why the same is not true of the economic and friendship markets. That is, if people prefer to be around some groups rather than others, whether at work or play, it is hard to see why that’s wrong. Nor does it become wrong if it rests on a view of who’s sexy or would make a good spouse. 

In particular, there is some reason to believe that women of every race prefer to stick to their own kind (see Anita in West Side Story) with the exception of Asian women. This sort of preference is likely to have a noticeable effect on people’s lives. It shapes whom they are friends with, date, marry, and work with. Women’s in-group preferences don’t intuitively seem wrong or bad. This is a problem for the anti-racist crowd in that it suggests that race-based preferences might be neutral, despite its tendency to segregate people and produce racial disparities. This finding does not fit cleanly into the mindless race-focused rage that is roaring through campuses.

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