Again I ask, if “systemic racism” doesn’t explain black-white disparities, what does? Some powerful institutions, like teachers’ unions, do in fact behave in ways that produce and prolong those disparities, but they’re the rare exception, not the rule. More importantly, nothing those unions do has a racist intent. If there are racists among their leadership, no one’s yet named them.
But the argument that America is irredeemably racist begins and very nearly ends with recitals of those black-white disparities. The theory is that, if 38% of prison inmates are black, but blacks are only 12.5% of the population, only one thing explains the discrepancy – anti-black racism by whites and their institutions. The entire lack of racist whites holding any form of power, plus disproportionate levels of black-perpetrated crime are facts the woke doggedly ignore. The rest of the argument attempts to draw a line from the days of slavery and Jim Crow to the present. Alas, that ship too founders on the reef of facts.
To begin with, economist Thomas Sowell makes the trenchant point that reality contradicts the expectation that outcomes for large groups of people will be the same or nearly so. To take an example from Sowell’s book, Discrimination and Disparities,
The murder rate in Eastern Europe has been some multiple of the murder rate in Western Europe for centuries. Today, … Latin America has 8% of the world’s people, but 38% of its recorded murders.
In the same vein, the U.S. murder rate is about 5 per 100,000 people; in Brazil it’s about 25/100k. In Baltimore, MD, it’s about 56/100k, but 35 miles down the road in Annapolis, MD, it’s about 3/100k. To the woke, none of that can be true because large groups must produce the same or similar outcomes. But they don’t. For all practical purposes, they never have.
In 1994, French historian Fernand Braudel wrote that “In no society have all regions and all parts of the population developed equally.” Duke University’s Donald Horowitz added that the idea of “proportional representation” among groups is something that “few, if any, societies have ever approximated.” And MIT’s Myron Weiner wrote that “All multi-ethnic societies exhibit a tendency for ethnic groups to engage in different occupations, have different levels (and, often, types) of education, receive different incomes, and occupy a different place in the social hierarchy.”
By whatever metric, if you expect outcomes for blacks and whites, whites and Asians, Asians and Hispanics, Hispanics and blacks, etc., or even blacks and blacks, to be the same, you’re in for a surprise.
Still, it may be that past racism produces today’s racial disparities.
The Waterloo of that argument lies in history the woke hope you haven’t read. The simple fact is that, among the many things holding blacks down today, e.g., out-of-wedlock childbearing and fatherless kids, crime, disdain for education and proper English and the broad-based rejection of “white” values, mostly cropped up within the past five or six decades. Jason Riley gives some examples:
In Philadelphia circa 1880, 75% of black families and 73% of white families were comprised of two parents and children. In Philadelphia circa 2007, “married-couple families account for only 34% of African American family households, while white married-couple families account for 68% of white family households,” according to the Urban League of Philadelphia… And Philadelphia was no outlier. Nationwide, data from every census taken between 1890 and 1940 show the black marriage rate exceeding the white rate.
Those things and countless others were true during times of overt and often brutal racial oppression of the type that’s entirely unknown today and that has been for decades. Given those historical facts, it is simply impossible to chalk up to slavery or Jim Crow today’s dysfunctionally high out-of-wedlock childbearing among black women, perhaps the single greatest cause of racial disparities.
What many black conservatives point to is a culture, predominant among some blacks, that all but guarantees failure. Chief among that culture is non-marital childbearing. For many decades we’ve known that children born to single mothers are more likely to be poor and, when they grow up, to engage in self-defeating behaviors like crime, drug and alcohol abuse, disdain for education and employment, etc. They tend strongly to go through life fatherless, the bane of any society’s existence that allows it to flourish, as ours does.
But, important as it is, out-of-wedlock childbearing is only one of black America’s problems, even though it may play a causative role in others. Before the 1960s, blacks tended strongly to place value on self-sufficiency, hard work, education, etc. Indeed, the success of the civil rights movement came in large part due to its advocacy of those very things. Blacks agitated for the freedom to do what whites did – to stand or fall on their own, without legal and societal obstruction, to be judged on “the content of their character.” That’s something whites came to understand, albeit belatedly, and a sea-change in white attitudes toward blacks emerged.
But the culture so criticized by black conservatives today holds everything “white” in contempt. How is “whiteness” identified? Scholar Shelby Steele tells us:
The middle-class values by which we (middle-class blacks) were raised – the work ethic, the importance of education, the value of property ownership, of respectability, of ‘getting ahead,’ of stable family life, of initiative, of self-reliance, etc. – are, in themselves, raceless and even assimilationist. But the particular pattern of racial identification that emerged in the sixties and that still prevails today urges middle-class blacks (and all blacks) in the opposite direction.
That culture also includes black leaders who entirely fail to demand real change. No white person is forcing black adults to have children out of wedlock. No white person demands that blacks turn their backs on the types of sensible, constructive behaviors Steele listed. If there is a silver lining to the anti-“white” black subculture, it’s the fact that blacks can fix it themselves. But if anyone, from Al Sharpton to Maxine Waters to BLM to small-church pastors is saying anything to counteract the narrative, I certainly haven’t heard it.
Rejecting those constructive behaviors clearly leads to adverse outcomes for the very people doing the rejecting. That contradicts basic human and animal nature. Usually, an adverse result discourages the behavior that produced the result. But for a lot of black people, the opposite is true, as Steele described. The question is “why?”
I’ll get into that next time.