White Supremacy and Evolutionary Games


Dan Hicks


December 6, 2019

This morning I’m productinating (productively procrastinating) by reading Ann Cudd’s review of Cailin O’Connor’s The Origins of Unfairness. I started to read O’Connor’s book a couple of months ago, but game theory is not my thing, so I think I only made it as far as the introduction. Both the introduction and Cudd’s review frame O’Connor’s project as primarily trying to explain the origins of patriarchy — understood as a systematically unfair gendered division of labor and goods — using evolutionary game theory. But O’Connor has also taken this approach to explain the origins of white supremacy. Her work in this area includes a preprint of a paper with Liam Kofi Bright and Justin Brunner (which I have read), several forthcoming papers cited in that paper (which I haven’t read), and apparently some of the later chapters of O’Connor’s book (again, which I haven’t read).

In both the paper and (based on Cuddy’s summary) the book, white supremacy is operationalized as a systematically unfair division of labor and goods between two groups, one in the majority (i.e., more than 50% of the individuals) and the other in the minority. The models show how, under certain conditions, minority individuals will come to adopt a “non-aggressive strategy,” requesting less than their fair share in a division of goods when interacting with majority individuals. Here’s Cudd’s summary of the dynamics:

When there is a minority-majority interaction, if the majority risks playing the aggressive strategy some of the time, the minority type will more quickly learn to play the non-aggressive strategy, and this will result in an unequal split becoming the stable outcome of minority-majority interactions. This is because minorities meet more majorities than they meet each other, and so they quickly learn that the other type are more likely to play aggressive than same type and thus minorities more quickly learn that they must play the less aggressive strategy when they meet the other type.

Thus, the fact of being a minority interacting with a majority social category itself becomes a cause of inequality.

Call this process the minority disadvantage dynamics. With respect to white supremacy, I take it that the overall thesis that O’Connor and her collaborators want to defend is that the minority disadvantage dynamics explain the development of white supremacy. Cudd finds their analysis compelling: “My own view is that the models hit the mark and provide a powerful statement about how unfairness between genders and races is likely to arise in a wide variety of actual conditions.”

In the last two paragraphs of the review, Cudd considers an objection, namely, that O’Connor’s models neglect the ways in which “historical acts of violence, terror, and greed have played critical roles in the oppressive structures we see today in any given society.” Cudd responds that “these forces simply reinforce the explanations [O’Connor] has given, but do not nullify them” and that O’Connor “has provided is a set of models to frame the work of empirical social scientists, historians, ethicists, and social philosophers who can put the flesh on the system.” Using new mechanist terminology, we might say that O’Connor et al. have provided a “mechanism schema,” “a truncated abstract description of a mechanism that can be filled with descriptions of known component parts and activities” (MDC 15) to produce an empirically-informed, conceptually-well-supported explanation for actually existing systematic injustice. Specifically, by mapping the entities and activities involved in the minority disadvantage dynamics to entities and activities in the actual history of gendered or raced divisions of labor, we can produce such explanations of patriarchy or white supremacy.

As I understand it, our knowledge of the actual origins and development of gendered divisions of labor is extremely limited. Archaeology is hard, especially when we’re talking about processes that were unlikely to leave unambiguous material traces (what was the gender distribution of the people who used that bowl?) that have survived ten thousand years or more. The diversity of gender systems across thousands of human cultures also complicates things a bit: kinds of work done by men in one culture might have been done by women in another culture, or not been gendered at all, which makes it difficult to generalize; and of course many human cultures don’t have binary gender systems.

By contrast, we know a lot about the origins of white supremacy. Briefly, Europeans abducted thousands of Africans, transported them thousands of miles over the Atlantic Ocean, tortured them, and kept them culturally isolated from nearby populations; all in order to force them to work on land that had been appropriated from indigenous people using genocidal methods. African slaves and their descendants were not particularly satisfied with this arrangement, but a system of horrific violence and the ideology of biological race were effective at creating what were, up to that point, some of the wealthiest societies in human history.

Can the minority disadvantage dynamics be mapped on to this history of white supremacy? The entities would seem to be straightforward: the white settler-slavers are the agents who get the unfair advantage, while the black slaves are the agents who get the unfair disadvantage. Beyond this, however, things get more difficult.

One issue is that evolutionary game theory idealizes interactions between agents as cases of free choice. In each play of the game, all of the agents involved are free to choose among the available options. While Hobbes thought that threats of violence — and even instantiated violence — were entirely compatible with a free choice, most of us today would call this coercion. Slaves were not free to decide whether or not they would work for their owner; that’s why we call them “slaves.”

However, we might say that slaves were free to decide whether to comply or rebel, either on particular occasions or with the slave system as a whole. The violence they would face for not complying — and the value of freedom if their rebellion were successful — could be bundled into the payoff matrix. “Free choice” might not accurately capture the phenomenology or injustice-as-domination of slavery, but those are not the aspects of white supremacy that evolutionary game theory is trying to explain.

If we’re making the decision to comply or rebel the primary choice faced by slaves, then another issue arises. The chances of successful rebellion likely depend on the decisions made by other slaves, including the decision of whether to join the rebellion but also the decision of whether to let the slavers know about the impending rebellion. However, in principle this could be accounted for by moving to a more complex multi-player game with multiple different strategies available to each type of player. I’m not sure how robust evolutionary game theoretic results tend to be when they’re generalized in this way, but for the purposes of this blog post let’s suppose that the basic picture of the minority disadvantage dynamics still holds up.

There’s still another issue, though, which I think is a much more serious problem for the empirical project suggested by Cudd on behalf of O’Connor. In the slave societies of the US South and the Caribbean, slaves were the majority group, not the minority. White people were the minority in South Carolina from about 1708 until about 1910. In 1788, Haiti (then Saint-Domingue) had about 25,000 Europeans, 22,000 “free coloreds,” and 700,000 slaves. The white settlers were always the minority in what we might call the “non-genocidal” settler societies, such as in Africa and Asia, where the indigenous population was not destroyed or removed. (You might object that the case of Haiti is consistent with O’Connor et al.’s model, because it shows that a majority can overthrow an oppressive minority. But presumably slaves were in an overwhelming majority for several decades before the revolution began in 1791.)

The minority disadvantage dynamics are driven entirely by how frequently individuals encounter members of their same and different groups. Minorities have a disadvantage because they less frequently encounter individuals who will give them a fair deal (i.e., members of their same group), and so the majority gradually accrues the lion’s share of the wealth. But in actual white supremacist slave societies, it was the slaver minority who captured the wealth, not the enslaved majority. The minority disadvantage dynamics cannot explain the minority advantage phenomenon observed in most actual white supremacist societies. It seems that we need to appeal to power relations, not population shares.

O’Connor, Bright, and Bruner do develop models that incorporate bargaining power, as an assumption that “when members of social groups bargain, and when bargaining breaks down, the fall back position for one group tends to be better than for the other” (7). They use this to model intersectional scenarios which have majority-minority dynamics along one axis of oppression (e.g., a black racial minority) and similar populations but asymmetric bargaining power along another axis of oppression (e.g., women have less wealth than men) (§4). They show that these dynamics disadvantage the minority group, the less powerful group, and especially disadvantage the intersectional less power-minority group (i.e., black women). The more power-majority group (i.e., white men) enjoy the largest advantage.

However, in this model, the power dynamics exacerbate the inequality produced by the minority disadvantage dynamics; they do not negate or reserve it. The majority still has an advantage. If we swap the black-white share of the population (which is equivalent to swapping the black and white labels attached to the model), then black men would enjoy the largest advantage. And so this way of combining power and minority disadvantage can’t explain the minority advantage phenomenon.

An alternative approach could have a single axis of oppression, with both minority-majority and power dynamics operating along this single axis. Namely, one group would be larger than the other, but this group would also have significantly less bargaining power. For some parameter values, this kind of model would produce minority advantage; namely, if the bargaining power asymmetry were strong enough, it would overcome the minority disadvantage dynamics. But here the minority disadvantage dynamics do not explain the minority advantage phenomenon. Rather, this model shows how bargaining power can produce minority advantage despite the minority disadvantage dynamics.

In short, I don’t see how the minority disadvantage dynamics can be mapped on the actual historical development of white supremacy in slave and settler societies. So then I further don’t see how it can be used to explain the origins of white supremacy.

For all that I’ve argued here, O’Connor’s overall project may provide useful mechanism schemata for explaining the origins of patriarchy. This is O’Connor’s primary aim in The Origins of Equality, and so perhaps one could agree with my critique here and still accept most of Cudd’s conclusion that “the models hit the mark.” And, in the same way, alternative evolutionary game theoretic models — ones emphasizing power asymmetries — might provide useful mechanism schemata for explaining the origins of white supremacy. But I think the minority disadvantage model, highlighted by Cudd in her review and at the center of O’Connor’s collaborative work on white supremacy, misses the mark.