Problematic Proxies

Somehow eight weeks have already come and gone, dear readers, since I first started this new sub-topic of my blog. I’ve enjoyed it immensely, and I flatter myself to think that perhaps something of what I’ve said here has been interesting or genuinely new. But alas, we have come to the end of our road on this topic, and I wanted to leave you all with something like I left you with on my last topic, a tool that you could yes moving forward to analyze the world around you yourself. So today I want to talk about a  tool of oppression that’s just as insidious as it is interesting: proxies.

Proxies are a concept originating from applied statistics, when data scientists want to measure a variable that, because it is either illegal or impossible, they can’t gather information about directly. Instead, they measure a different variable that is strongly correlated with it, and extrapolate from that the information they desire. One the one hand, the makeup of polar ice cores can tell us an incredible amount about the atmospheric conditions on ancient earth.

Proxies, however, can also be used in reverse, to obscure rather than to uncover. Instead of giving us a glimpse into worlds we usually cannot see. Imagine, for example, that a company wanted to make sure it never hired a person of color. It can’t do so by asking for a client’s race and refusing to hire any non-white employees, because that would leave them open to lawsuits. Instead, it can ask all of its potential employees to provide their home address, and then throw out any applications that come in from minority-heavy neighborhoods. Proxies can be used to hide and support oppression. 

Something like this is heavily discussed every time an election year rolls around. Certain states have stricter voting laws than others, requiring more forms of government ID to register or making the process more complicated. This, on the face of it, is somewhat benign, and politicians who support these laws argue that they do so only to prevent election fraud. But when we investigate this idea with proxies in mind, something disturbing reveals itself: these laws have a wildly disproportionate effect on minorities, severely inhibiting their ability to vote far more often than they do white citizens. That these stricter laws often materialize in Republican states is no accident. They are tools of a party in power, a party using proxies to ensure that a group that normally votes largely for the other party has as hard a time voting as possible.

This concept, of course, will be nothing new to people who recognize the the term “de facto segregation.” The term arose after the civil rights victories of the 1960s, but the concept has been around since the passage of the 14th, 15th, and 16th amendments at the end of the civil war. Barred from preventing blacks from voting by law, many states instituted literacy tests that they recognized that, as former slaves, most newly enfranchised blacks would be unable to complete (most whites weren't either, but "grandfather clauses" solved that). This, as all de-facto segregation is, was nothing more than the usage of proxies to obscure racist practices, and it bears a frightening resemblance to some of our stricter voter ID laws. However, recognizing how proxies are in play here allows us to uncover incidents like these, to interrogate the laws we live by. So as I turn away from this topic, I urge you all to interrogate the policy decisions being made every day with the ideas of proxies in mind. Does a law, a tradition, a social norm operate on a guideline that just so happens to punish a particular group of people? This is very rarely a coincidence.

With excitement and optimism,