Thursday, February 6, 2014

A conversation on matters racial

    What is racism? It isn't just knee jerk hatred of some group, but an entire framework of perception or, rather, misperception. Not just ignorance, but a forced skewing of the world, a filtering, to keep the despised category viewed negatively. Thus, for instance, Holocaust denial. Since the ultimate atrocity runs the risk of casting Jews in a poignant light, as victims of an incredible wrong, perhaps even deserving of sympathy, it's easier to wave it away — never happened, another Jewish lie — than try to grasp its implications.
     Racism leads to a fixed gaze at the negative qualities of the feared minority, and a dismissal of positive qualities. We saw that in the "English only" crowd which complained about a beautiful Coke commercial that ran during the Super Bowl Sunday, and featured immigrants enjoying regular activities while singing "America the Beautiful" in a variety of languages, which is anathema to those locked in their own white bread box. It boggles my mind that anyone would be so ignorant and twisted and oblivious as to object. But they did. 
     Yesterday's post, and column in the Sun-Times, was about one of the more puzzling realities in our society. Why is there so much poverty and dysfunction in African-American urban society, when other groups, even foreign-born blacks, come to this country, adjust, and thrive? What holds African-Americans back? The column touched upon an experiment that seems to demonstrate that impulse control, key for making the sacrifices that helps a person, or group, accomplish goals, is more difficult when you believe the game is rigged. That seemed a hint at what is going on here.
     Most of my email was from people intrigued with the subject. Then there was this  reaction from a reader, who we will call only by his first name, Richard, since he seems to be an attorney, and therefore perhaps litigious:
It keeps getting harder to explain the failure of African Americans to succeed when other "groups" do so well. The current rationale apparently is that after 40 years of affirmative action, a trillion dollars spent on the War on Poverty and African Americans in all sorts of successful positions including POTUS, that as a group, African Americans haven't yet understood that the path to success is open to them. The 70% out of wedlock birth rate, school drop out rates and high numbers of blacks in jail are cited as things preventing success as if the blacks themselves had no role in creating those roadblocks in the path to success. Here is another theory. Blacks are held back because government is still treating them as if they can never succeed on their own. No one is coddling Asians, Indian Americans, Cubans etc. (BTW take the "America has been tough on blacks" element out of the discussion - where in the world, including Africa are blacks as a group successful by American standards?) If politicians want to fix this problem, quit making failure by blacks so expected and so comfortable.

   The key words in the above are "coddling" and "comfortable."  Richard seems to be arguing that African-Americans have it especially easy in this country. Affirmative Action -- an attempt to get blacks into colleges and jobs, is the reason there's a high incarceration rate among African American men.
    How to respond? The safe thing to do would be not to. "Thank you for writing," and leave it at that. But I'm always tempted to probe this mindset, and I write back to anyone who is halfway civil. He was civil, or trying to be. I replied:
 You think African-Americans are coddled in this country? Thanks for writing.   NS         
    He answered:

           I think they are treated like children. 

    Again, I was tempted to end the conversation. But he at least was talking. I thought a moment, then wrote:
That all depends on how you treat your children. Welfare was corrosive, but in  case you haven't noticed, Bill Clinton got rid of welfare. Anyone who thinks that black Americans have it cushy and thus deserve whatever they get a) doesn't know what life is like outside of their cocoon b) already has hatred in their heart and is trying to rationalize it by blaming the victims. Thanks for writing.
     Richard was not about to back down. He replied:
So a person who thinks lowered expectations for blacks is holding them back - not an inability to see there is a path to success for them in America - is either a) ignorant or b) racist? Pretty standard response when argument fails.
    Again, I try not to waste time engaging with people who cannot re-evaluate themselves, and who dismiss your sincere beliefs as the "standard response." But the inconsistencies in his reply, its general tone of Fox Newishness, and the fact he, sadly, speaks for multitudes, were overpowering. I wrote:
"I think they are treated like children" says nothing about expectations, lowered or otherwise. Are we arguing here? What is your argument? I don't see one. I've made my argument, you replied that blacks have it cushy. I said you're mistaken, and now you're claiming ... what?
      At which point Richard fell silent, either satisfied in his intellectual victory, or not willing to waste further time grappling with the Lunatic Left. I don't often print replies -- the comments section is for that -- but I wanted to preserve our exchange, just because it reveals a mode of thinking that is no doubt common. The high crime on Chicago's South and West Sides, the brokenness of our schools, the plague of drugs, are because society makes it too easy for those who fail. Their lives are a bed of ease, of free breakfast programs and blocks of surplus government cheese. If many black people don't do well, it's their own fault, and the society that shoved them into that box can sleep easily, knowing it has done all it can and its generosity was met with grinning abuse. All those after-school programs, the prenatal care — that's why we don't have more black fire fighters. We've made being in poverty in Englewood such a sweet deal, that nobody can stir themselves to try to escape it. I wouldn't think anybody in the world would believe that, just as I never imagined that the Coke commercial would send xenophobes howling to the ramparts. But it did, and obviously they do feel that way. The point of the column is that a roadblock to African-American success is that, no matter how they strive, society will often be arrayed against them, casting their successes as undeserved freebies, their sufferings as self-inflicted. I think Richard's perspective sheds light on the validity of that fear.


  1. Great post.

    It's not like a teenaged black boy was shot for walking around in a hoodie with a Snapple and Skittles AND NO PROSECUTION WOULD HAVE HAPPENED WITHOUT AN OUTCRY.

    Sure, a black man is POTUS. It's not like that hasn't brought racism out into the open. No President has ever been treated so disrespectfully by the opposition to the point of shutting down the government and blocking every appointment.

    It's not like gun lobbyist Larry Pratt just whined about how happy Africans are, to the point of singing, and American blacks should just learn their lesson.

    A million tiny digs add up.

  2. Neil,

    I think that our national myth of the "meritocracy" -- the "just-world fallacy" by another name -- is one of the reasons that attitudes like this linger.

    People at the top desperately want to believe that we live in a true Meritocracy and that they "deserve" their lot in life. (If they deserve it, it will last. If it's due to luck, even in part, it could all go away in a flash.) Very successful folk, conservative and liberal alike, take comfort in our meritocracy myth. Unfortunately, the natural corollary to that myth is that the people at the bottom necessarily "deserve" their lot in life as well.

    The broad appeal of the meritocracy myth as a mechanism for coping with existential dread makes attitudes like Richard's especially difficult to change.

    Anyway, that's my thinkin' on it.

    -- MrJM

  3. This really isn't a race issue. This is a poverty issue. Children become disillusioned when they see and hear the despair faced by their families. Any money spent on children and families is not an expense but an investment. The return is a self-reliant tax payer who as a child needed food, shelter and healthcare and is now paying back that debt; much like those of us who were so very lucky to be born into supportive homes with loving parents. As an educated conservative, I"m more interested in the spending incurred by defense lobbyists and pork barrel spending than any entitlement program that helps better people. I am not sure who said it, but it's said that a society is judged by the way it treats poor.



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