September 9, 2015

It’s not about equality anymore

Unlike some other social issues, the matter of racial inequality is one in which the optimum situation can be easily understood – assuming that equality is the actual goal.

Imagine a continuum, a simple scale from left to right – or right to left if that is your preference.  The scale represents the legal and social status of members of one race relative to members of another.  We will call our two imaginary races K and G.  At one end of the spectrum (it does not matter which end) K has total ascendancy.  At the K-ascendant end, members of race G are not considered human.  They have no rights recognized by the K-dominated society.  Moving toward the center, members of race G gradually acquire human recognition and rights, while remaining still at least somewhat legally and socially inferior to members of race K.  By socially inferior, I mean unashamedly recognized as inferior by the social standards that dominate the society – by the media, common sentiment, and popular custom.  Arriving at the center, we reach a point of essential legal and social equality.  Allowing for the peculiar biases of individuals in both directions, the midpoint is that place at which race alone ceases to be either an advantage or a disadvantage to an individual.  For all intents and purposes, the distinction between members of race K and race G ceases to exist.  To use Martin Luther King’s eloquent formulation, it is the point at which individuals are “not judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”  We have arrived at the optimum situation – again, assuming we take for granted that the ideal condition really is racial equality.  But there is, of course, the opposite side to this continuum.  Beyond the center point, race G begins to dominate legally and socially, while race K assumes more and more the inferior position.  Finally, at the other extreme end of the spectrum, members of race K are not considered human beings, and have no rights members of race G feel compelled to recognize.  The symmetry of our abstract continuum is perfect.

It should be obvious that advocating a position at any point on the continuum, other than the midpoint, entails recognizing race as a relevant characteristic for the benefit of one side or the other.  After all, one cannot discriminate, however slightly, without at least recognizing the criterion one intends to use as the basis for discrimination.  Note, too, that the arrival of society at the midpoint, at King’s ideal, is not a guarantor that individual members of the two races will be equal in every respect.  Nor is it a guarantor that the two groups considered as collectives will be equal in every respect.  Arrival at the midpoint only confirms that, everything else being equal, individual members of the two races will be treated more-or-less alike.  The society may well discriminate, justly or unjustly, between people for other reasons.  In a color-blind society, an ax murderer of race K and an ax murder of race G will be about equally unloved, while talented and charismatic liars of both races will be free to aspire to public office.

Honest people can have rational debates about whether Dr. King’s ideal was ever reached, or even approximated, in American society.  President Obama correctly pointed out, with something a bit less than King’s beautiful language, that “It’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public.”  While this is true, it’s not just a matter of raising anecdotal incidents of personal offense either.  My own (admittedly non-conclusive) experience is that the remaining legal obstacles faced by black Americans were overthrown in my infancy, and the social barriers against them were steadily withering until about 2009.  Since the 1960s, however, a small but influential group of activists have crossed the midpoint of the continuum and kept going.

The first overreach of the midpoint came in the form of certain affirmative action policies, which offered preferential treatment to some black citizens on the justification that, as a group, blacks were (and undeniably still are) considerably poorer than whites and are under-represented in many professions.  A policy designed to elevate a race must recognize race as a criterion for discrimination.  This simply cannot be otherwise.  So much for not judging people by the color of their skin.  Moreover, affirmative action takes one out of the realm of individual merit, in which we evaluate each person by his or her own unique worth, and leaves us with the dangerous habit of framing justice in terms of the interaction between groups.  The problem with imagining justice that way is that it pretends that racial groups are homogeneous monoliths with collective feelings – each individual sharing in all the joys and sufferings of his or her particular race.  This idea does not hold up to scrutiny.  White investment bankers share no mystical common bonds with white Appalachian coal miners.  Their racial similarity is irrelevant.  If you are poor and white, the spectacular success of other white people really doesn’t make your star shine any brighter.  Likewise, if you are successful and black, you are not really dragged into the abyss by the millions of other black people living in poverty.  We’ve had plenty of black officials, both elected and appointed, at all levels of government.  There are black millionaires and billionaires.  Despite these facts, affirmative action policies ensure that two individuals of different races who happen to be economically equal will often not be entirely equal in the eyes of the government – which is to say, they will not be equal before the law.  Whether such policies are put in place with explicitly racist intentions or not, they inevitably have the effect of enshrining a form of racism in the concealing neutrality of statistics.  Whichever side of the midpoint one is on, a racist policy remains a racist policy.

I am not arguing for a moment that the generational poverty rampant among black Americans is irrelevant or illusory.  I have lived on the fringes of enough ghettos to know otherwise.  Rather, I am arguing that poverty and other problems common among black Americans cannot accurately be attributed to white prejudice as a matter of course.  To name one popular example, the incidence of out-of-wedlock births (a circumstance that reliably correlates to a child’s likelihood of ending up in poverty) has increased among blacks from less than 20% in 1950 to over 70% now.  Over the same period, the legal and social sources of discrimination have not gotten worse – but substantially diminished.  Moreover, regardless of what the legal and social trends have been, it is hard to imagine a causal connection between racism and out-of-wedlock births.  The same can be said of the prevalence of crime in urban black communities.  How exactly could racism on the part of whites foster black-on-black violence?  And why, if racism is the cause, didn’t it foster violence to a much higher degree during the era of Jim Crow?  If the incidence of black poverty is ever going to be reduced, it is essential that we make a serious search for its genuine causes.  A knee-jerk response of compensating for the imagined effects of racism with even more truly racist policies in the opposite direction effectively precludes that search.

Another argument has emerged in the last couple of decades that pushes us even further from Dr. King’s high ideal.  This is the idea of cumulative inherited responsibility.  This has been expressed in both the demand for slavery reparations (taken quite seriously by many politicians and academics) and in the more general rhetorical references to 300 (or 500) years of slavery, black oppression, etc.  Where many affirmative action policies moved the concept of justice out of the realm of individuals and into the realm of collectives, this historical attack moves justice even beyond the realm of groups of living persons and into the realm of the collectivized dead.  By the terms of slavery reparations, white persons not even descendant from slave holders – indeed not even descendant from people living in America when slavery was practiced – would be taxed to reward people who have never, themselves, been enslaved.  It takes a vivid imagination to put this idea into the same sentence with the word “justice”.  To the best of my knowledge, there really is no way to compensate the dead.  No amount of new suffering will make them feel any better.  Nor is there much hope for reconciliation in a world where one may still make claims on one’s great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great great grandparents’ grievances – great though those grievances may have been.  Of course, cumulative inherited responsibility is not a new idea.  It has served as the justification for wars and atrocities throughout recorded history.  It is the eternal battle of “us” and “them.”  It is an obscene idea to introduce under the banner of social progress.

A typical argument in favor of reparations is that, while living black Americans were never slaves themselves, they continue to suffer from the lasting social consequences of that institution.  This is true in some collectivized sense, but we have passed the point at which merely having dark skin creates an insurmountable barrier.  To say that President Obama hasn’t lived up to his full potential due to the historical existence of slavery would be absurd.  What greater position could he have aspired to had the man not held him down?  No doubt someone, somewhere, has looked down on him for something – but who among us, of any race, hasn’t suffered some humiliation?  Most of us would be better off if our ancestors had not been peasants.  We might be richer if we had been born to different parents, or been born in different places, or had better teachers, or been luckier in any of a million other ways.  It is irrational to imagine that kind of inequality will ever be eliminated – at any time, in any country, or under any form of government.

The reason we, as a society, lost interest in King’s ideal is that equality itself is a lofty but difficult goal.  Most human beings pursue their own self interests, or sometimes the interest of groups that they identify with.  To pursue King’s goal, one cannot think of oneself as a black American or a white American.  To give that up requires both a high level of trust and the ability to surrender a part of one’s identity.  Beyond that, having built a political apparatus to achieve legal equality, it would have been quite difficult not to turn it loose on other tasks – especially when the political will to use it as a weapon was loud and ever-present.  Historically, most revolutions start with grand ideas, end up in corrupt and cynical policies, and die in an eventual backlash.  The grand ideas are dead; the cynical policies are here; backlash is coming.

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