August 14, 2007

A misguided college senior

That would be Brian Till of Haverford College, who writes in today's Philly Inquirer that the plight of today's inner cities is -- wait for it -- the fault of racism. Before I continue, Brian should be accorded a bit of leeway as he is a college student, and in today's college environment, with its emphasis on all things "group mentality/entitlement, it is fairly easy to understand how Brian has been "sucked in."

TWO WEEKENDS ago, fours kids from Newark, N.J., were shot in cold blood in their neighborhood schoolyard. All were African-American, all headed to Delaware State. Three young men were killed, the woman survived. There's a resurgence in violent crime sweeping through our inner cities, and segregation is worse today than it was at the time of Brown v. Board of Education. We know it's true, but we pretend it isn't so.

And the point is ...? That supposedly worse segregation than 50+ years ago and a resurgence of violent crime are somehow linked? And exactly on what basis does Till make the claim that "we know it's true" that segregation is "worse today" than 50 years prior? And even if it is true, so what? Here we go again -- someone who fails to grasp the difference between LEGAL segregation and CHOSEN segregation. During the era of Brown, Brian, segregation was LEGAL. Today, as I'm sure you've seen at college with their race-exclusive dorms and ceremonies, segregation is largely a CHOICE.

This country has stopped talking about race. My generation, the twentysomethings, has never had a national conversation on the topic.

The answer to this is an obvious one. I'll get to it shortly. But first, there hasn't been a cessation of such a conversation, but when folks like Brian lament the supposed "lack of conversation," what they really mean is that they are very disgruntled that more [white] people don't share THEIR views on race. Views which he amply demonstrates further in his article: Brian is aghast that there have been white plaintiffs that have challenged polices of racial preferences at colleges and elsewhere. He believes that this is due (in part) to the current [white] generation's "sense of entitlement."

But the reality that we think we see is a far cry from the truth. Today's America is still separate and unequal. Nonetheless, we are, to a large extent, without guilt. The sins of our fathers and grandfathers don't weigh on our conscience, and I'm not arguing that they should.

Then why bring it up? And yes, America is separate and unequal. But as noted above, it is "separate" today not because of race-exclusive laws, but largely by choice. Economics is another factor. Which leads to the "unequal" claim: No society will ever be truly equal as individuals are not equal. The belief in equal outcomes is one of the most fallacious in history.

But what should weigh on us is the reality in front of our eyes. The reality we refuse to look at. Our unwillingness to approach the inner cities, to talk about race and the structures of racism, to understand that racism can exist even if we personally aren't discriminating.

Today's embedded, structural racism is far more easy to ignore, and far more difficult to combat, than the state-endorsed racism of the last century. But this suburban generation's sense of entitlement and detachment from the inner city, and its belief that it isn't racist, is a dangerous combination. It creates the idea that the state of the urban poor isn't a function of discrimination, just a tough reality that can't be fixed.

The question that should be asked in this case is "Are the problems that the inner cities face today DUE to racism?" As noted above, Brian wants us to believe they are, and hence, we need to "talk about it." Unfortunately, as La Shawn Barber often blogs, the Brians in our country don't want a real discussion about race and the inner city because it would involve bringing up some very uncomfortable facts. Disastrous illegitimacy figures. Disdain for schooling. Absent parents. And more.

I'll be the first to agree with Brian that this generation's sense of entitlement is a head-shaker, yes. But the belief that the state of the urban poor isn't a function of discrimination is a quite valid one. Does racism cause a 70% illegitimacy rate? Does it foment lack of school study and focus on academics? In other words, I'd ask Brian precisely how racism causes these things and where the "line" is that minorities would draw that divides the "[due to] racism" and "personal responsibility" halves.

If we're to change the racial landscape, my generation of white Americans must recognize the structure of racism it sits on. It must come to understand that "not being racist" is nowhere near enough. If we're to bridge this divide, we must start by opening our eyes.

But consider, Brian: You included the civil rights struggles of the 50s-60s in your article. Great figures like Martin Luther King Jr. touched [white] America's soul because he was absolutely right. America changed because the majority was convinced of the moral rightness of King's (and others') advocacy. Your desire to "change the racial landscape" in the manner in which you prefer isn't getting many takers for a reason. And that's because, although the vast majority of white Americans recognize the history of this country hasn't been kind to African-Americans and that racism does indeed still exist, they just don't buy into your argument that said racism is the prime factor behind the ills of the contemporary inner city.

Again, that conversation you want to have is a one-way talk: Racism is the blame. I know -- I've attended such "talks." Moderators amazingly wonder why "more white participants don't speak up." The reason is obvious: Any views contrary to the above are met with derision which possibly includes the accusation of the "R" word. Maybe this is largely a cause of the suburban apathy to which you object. The aforementioned La Shawn Barber has frequently written about how even many black speakers have been chastised by other African-Americans for being contrarian to the opinion you hold.

Do you really want to have an all-out honest discussion, Brian?

Posted by Hube at August 14, 2007 05:24 PM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

I'm not entirely sure what you mean by "an all-out honest discussion," regardless, I think that you are wrong. The inner-cities themselves are a product of racism. Any cursory sociological history of the United States will include a discussion of white flight, or the phenomenon of white families leaving the cities (for the suburbs) as African-Americans began residing in the cities. Because white families held most of the wealth in the cities, once they left, businesses soon followed. Often these were the businesses that offered jobs that could sustain a small household, so you had economically depressed urban areas with a large number of unemployed African-Americans.

There's been plenty of research on what happens in areas of high residential segregation and low economically development. Namely, the pathologies that we tend to associate with the inner city emerge.

This doesn't excuse the crimes committed, but it is a valid (and widely accepted) explanation for the conditions of the inner-city, conditions that are largely the result of racist policies propagated by federal and state governments. You cannot possibly believe that the actions of the United States government over a period of 100 years to actively disenfranchise African-Americans hasn't had a significant effect on the economic and social situation of African-Americans.

Posted by: Jamelle at August 14, 2007 05:52 PM

The inner-cities themselves are a product of racism.

Is "white flight" a product primarily of simple racism or is (was) it primarily an economic function i.e. that suburbs were being developed and their subsequent businesses? And, with white flight in education, is it a product of racism or is it a reasonable concern about the quality/atmosphere of education?

Again, I do not deny that there was, and is, racism. What I do claim is that racism is not anywhere near what it was 50-60 years ago, and that racism is not primarily responsible for the plight of inner city African-Americans today. Consider the status of blacks given the time-frame you cite -- why was there significantly less illegitimacy and better educational attainment in the era of legal segregation?

There's been plenty of research on what happens in areas of high residential segregation and low economically development. Namely, the pathologies that we tend to associate with the inner city emerge.

But the legal segregation of which you speak doesn't exist, and hasn't been enforced by the law in over 50 years. At any rate, you are saying that African-Americans are just "hostages" to such [economic] conditions and have no choice but to fall prey to said pathologies. I wonder what other minority ethnic groups, like Jews, would say to that.

This doesn't excuse the crimes committed, but it is a valid (and widely accepted) explanation for the conditions of the inner-city

The "but" you threw in there just excused them.

Posted by: Hube at August 14, 2007 06:57 PM

I'm not entirely sure what you mean by "an all-out honest discussion,"

Sorry, but I thought that was clear. As I stated in the post, an all-out honest discussion about race would include some of the "uncomfortable" questions I noted. But, as you infer in your comment, these too are products (pathologies) of racism. To which I would again refer to my post: where then is the line drawn between racism and personal responsibility? When does the "blame" cease?

And, again, CAN whites actually participate in such a discussion without having to wear the modern-day Scarlet Letter known as "R"?

Posted by: Hube at August 14, 2007 07:09 PM

You're right, there hasn't been government enforced legal segregation for 50 years. That doesn't erase the fact however that the 100 years of government sanction discrimination has had a real and lasting impact on the development of African-American communities.

You can't compare other minority communities - like Jews - because they haven't had the government actively preventing them from advancing. Even more than that, extremely negative attitudes towards African-Americans that developed among the majority population served as another way to prevent African-Americans from gaining any sort of economic foothold. Racism in the sense of personal interactions is nowhere near what it was a half century ago, but that doesn't mean the structural legacy of racism doesn't remain.

Here's an example. The best way to predict whether or not a student attends college is whether or not his parents did. Generational college attendance correlates very highly with a higher position on the socio-economic ladder. What happens though when one is prevented from even beginning to scale that ladder? Just as wealth and education tend to perpetuate themselves in concentration (the suburbs), ignorance and poverty do the same.

That doesn't mean that individual choices don't count for anything, but it does mean that for many African-Americans, they begin at the worst possible position. Life is a series of choices, but those choices are bounded by circumstances that are largely out of control.

But to address one of your questions, white flight was driven partly by economics and partly by racism. Following the Second World War, when we see the development of the suburbs. The low interest loans given to white families to buy homes were denied to black families, forcing them to move into the cities, which would prompt white families to take advantage of said loans and move to the suburbs.

Since property taxes are used to fund education, and since property values were declining rapidly, inner-city schools were then immediately hit with fewer funds and in many cases fewer teachers.

Anyway this is a bit rambling, but I do think that whites can join in these conversations without a scarlet "R", but I'm sorry, that requires one to recognize the existence of things like structural racism. You're right, there is a great deal of personal responsibility involved, but on the same token, these things don't happen in a vacuum, and we have to take into account the organized oppression of the African-American community, of which we are only recently (in the last forty years) moving away from.

Posted by: Jamelle at August 15, 2007 02:15 AM

Jamelle: Thanks, first, for the thoughtful and reasoned discussion. You are correct -- an honest discussion does require one to acknowledge the existence of [structural] racism. The question is to what degree, and would this degree be sufficient to "satisfy" those who fervently believe as Brian Till does. To address your last point first, I would again ask "Why were the dismal statistics (illegitimacy, academics) for African-Americans better under legalized segregation? What prompted the rather sudden negative shift in the 1960s? The fact is that there is very little correlation between the [liberal] remedies for "structural racism" since that era, and actual black improvement. Indeed, in many respects they've exacerbated the problem for inner city African-Americans.

Regarding property taxes and education, property taxes are not the only means by which education is now funded. It is a local/state decision. Here in DE, the state funds the majority of education expenditures. But given that, why do many inner cities spend some of the highest amounts of $$ per pupil in the nation? Washington DC is but one example.

And using Jews as an example is quite apt. To say they were not actively prevented from advancing is just wrong. One of the reasons that Jews as a group are successful is because of such prevention -- they, over history, were denied access to capital and loans and hence took matters into their own hands. Same with education; the same preferences that we see (or saw) on campus today were used against Jews in the past. Now, a too-high quantity of Asians is deemed a "negative" because it would disrupt "diversity"; then, it was just plain bias that prevented too high a concentration of Jews. And the two are somehow mutually exclusive? I don't think so.

The end of outright white supremacy has been transformed (quite rapidly, too) into the era of white guilt. White [liberals] do not feel that personal responsibility has much of a role for the historically oppressed since, after all, said oppressed have long been the victims. To believe the contrary is, as Shelby Steele has pointed out, a "heresy." This makes it quite easy, too then, for these groups to paint those who feel differently as "racists." This goes back to my question about "where the line is" between personal responsibility and racism.

I think one of the biggest unsaid difficulties in the whole civil rights era-racism debate is how American [constitutional] law has had to deal with the end of legalized segregation. Jurists have had to twist beyond recognition statutes that clearly state race cannot be considered (like the 1964 Civil Rights Act) into allowing racial "remedies." This causes whites (probably like Jennifer Gratz) to wonder. In my opinion, there would be a lot less consternation over this "twisting" if clear laws were placed on the books (or the Constitution modified) to allow for overt remedies for the historical wrongs perpetrated against African-Americans. This, of course, would pose its own set of problems (could it even have passed? What sort of time limit would it entail?) but at least there wouldn't be the inherent conflict we've witnessed as to what the law clearly states, and what it's been "interpreted" to mean.

I've now rambled! Thanks again for your thoughts.

Posted by: Hube at August 15, 2007 10:01 AM

Hey no problem and thank you for the intelligent comments. I usually don't enjoy reading conservative blogs, but even though I disagree with you, I like yours. Keep up the good work.

Posted by: Jamelle at August 15, 2007 07:22 PM

Hube, you just missed it. You mentioned Asians but stuck with your original use of the Jews as control group for blacks.
Asians are for ,the most part, visibly identifiable as are blacks. They were once forbidden to have their women immigrate by law. They were used in dangerous jobs while building the railroad in place of blacks who were considered to valuable to lose.
Yet they succeed in this country at a rate higher then whites (based on education and income) The difference is not an absence of racism but the positive aspects of culture.
Ever wonder why there are so many Korean businesses in inner cities Jamelle? It's because they have a type of community banking where the successful elders loan money to the newcomers. They cut the banks right out of it. How cool would it be if blacks did that?
Instead, we, as a nation teach them to suspect racism is keeping them down. If you believe you have no chance because the deck is stacked against you ,then why even try?

Posted by: jef at August 17, 2007 10:21 PM

"What prompted the rather sudden negative shift in the 1960s?"

An economist wrote an odd little book called Freakonomics and in one chapter he studied how names correlated with economic status, an interesting point was that an "Afrocentric" shift in naming correlated with low economic status, another indication that the issue is cultural. In the end it seems that black Americans have to make up their minds about what they consider "success" as a culture or civilization. You can't glorify a "noble savage" type of ideal while also expecting high levels of education, civilization, etc.

There is a similar conflict in the standards of success that white liberals support because multiculturalists who idealize the "noble savage" then turn around and adhere to civilized ideals when it comes to tribalism/gangs, naturalism/criminality, etc. It's their own ideals that are contradictory because they want all the results of civilization such as civility overcoming criminality, yet constantly attack the type of philosophy and civilization which bears such fruit.

If the "noble savage" or the ideals of ancient Africans are actually your standard of success as a culture then don't shift to the standards of another civilization to complain about gangs and crime.

Posted by: mynym at August 19, 2007 12:33 PM