A few honest, good faith thoughts on the root cause of racial disparities and the potential room for disagreement in a world increasingly polarized on topics of race and equity. Where do we go from here?
As far as the average person goes, I consider myself pretty well read and well informed. I’ve studied the Founding of the country, the lead up to the Civil War, the Civil War itself, and Reconstruction. I know about the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the atrocities they committed after the Civil War. I’m familiar with Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement, and I’ve read widely on the disparities that exist in America today. In addition to history books and biographies, I’ve even gone back to the original source material, reading the speeches of civil rights leaders like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King in addition to the Presidents and the other politicians.
I’m not saying this to brag, merely to give you a sense of how familiar I am with a range of issues directly related to modern discussions on race. I’m far from a scholar, but at the same time I’ve always had an inquisitive mind and been a voracious reader. In addition, unlike a lot of people, I enjoy reading contrary perspectives. I seek out opinions different from my own, if only to understand how other people think (it’s a useful trait for someone that fancies themselves a fiction writer and filmmaker in their spare time). At times, I’ve even changed my mind on big issues, from the War on Terror to my opinion on Thomas Jefferson and Ulysses S. Grant (both of which are much higher than previously).
I’m not even saying this because I believe I have to be right about anything. It’s a sad fact of the human condition that we will likely prove to be more wrong than right over the course of our lives. This shouldn’t prevent us from seeking new knowledge at every opportunity and constantly challenging our opinions, nor has it for me. I’m saying this merely to suggest that I’ve done the work: I’ve read widely on the issues, I’ve thought closely about them, and I’ve reached my own conclusions.
The problem is: My conclusions aren’t the same as the anti-racists. This isn’t to suggest that we disagree on everything. There is no doubt that racism still exists in America and the world at large, and that there are disparities between the different races. I believe that, wherever possible, we should seek to resolve these disparities and improve conditions for all races. I believe it’s also true that a black man or woman growing up in America, born in the same year I was, even from the same town, will have a different experience than me.
Where I disagree with the anti-racists is the root cause and what to do about any given disparity. Simply put: I don’t find claims of a looming spectre of white supremacy, white privilege, and systemic racism to be convincing or even helpful to solving any of the problems they point to. To the extent there is real racism in America, I believe it happens at a much lower level than federal, state, or even local institutions. In my humble opinion, the root cause of many of our challenges with race are actually problems with class and socio-economic status combined with poor government in primarily urban centers.
The reason I believe this is pretty simple: The landmark Civil Rights Act passed in 1964 essentially made overt discrimination illegal. I do not mean to suggest it solved the problem in and of itself, but it changed the dynamic to make racial discrimination a crime. This had two effects. First, it put a high cost on explicitly racist practices in government and business. There is no organization in the world today with a race-based policy to limit employment. Quite the contrary, most large organizations are actively trying to recruit more minorities, often at the expense of white workers. Second, it set the stage to help rectify more insidious cases of implicit racism. This led to an entire industry based on racial sensitivity, awareness, and anti-racism training.
To be sure, this doesn’t imply that these programs have been smashing successes, but it should go a long way to proving the purity of intent. It is difficult for me to believe that corporations would spend thousands if not millions of dollars to recruit more minority workers and train their employees to be more respectful of minority workers while simultaneously pursuing intentionally racist practices. I’m willing to listen to any explanation as to why that would be so, as well as any suggestions to improve hiring and training practices, but to my knowledge no one has really tried to reconcile the two.
Instead, the focus has shifted, downward. Explicit racism, as in slurs, discriminatory practices, and other overt displays of prejudice, has been replaced by a never ending quest to find far more subtle forms. The language of “disparate impacts” is the primary tool to identify these more subtle forms of institutional racism, but, as the old adage goes, correlation is not causation. Simply because something is disparate says nothing about why the disparity exists, and yet the presence of the disparity alone constitutes evidence of systemic racism in the eyes of the anti-racist.
Policing and education are both excellent examples of this phenomenon. There are obvious disparities in both, some of which might well be due to racism, but what system are they referring to when funding and control both happen at the local level? There is no national governing body for either police or education. What institution is racist in that case? Each of the thousands of local districts are somehow individually coming up with the same aligned racist policies?
Moreover, the urban areas suffering from the most disparities are usually controlled by Democrats, often minorities themselves. For our purposes here we can assume that Democrats are the party of the anti-racists. I understand that is a rough generalization, but it should serve for now. If you accept that, are we to believe Democrat-run schools and police in these localities are intentionally instituting racist policies to harm their own constituents, the very constituents that voted them into power?
Again, I’m willing to listen why that might be so and, of course, anything is possible, but it doesn’t seem likely to me. If that is not the case, however, we need to look for another cause of these disparities than institutionalized racism. For example, I do not doubt that over policing is a problem in poor neighborhoods, nor that it produces unintended side effects, namely young black men getting arrested for minor infractions that lead to more serious charges down the line plus more encounters with the police in general.
At the same time, I think simply attributing that to racism doesn’t yield any substantive answers. The real question is why are there more police in these neighborhoods and what the neighborhoods themselves want for their own residents. Are we to believe that large numbers of police are staked out in minority neighborhoods simply because of racism or are there other factors in play?
Likewise, much is made of the poor results of primarily inner city educational systems. Are we to believe these poor results are intentionally due to racism, the districts actively wanting to hold minorities back? Or could there be another cause? Much is made of the differences in funding for schools between lower and upper class neighborhoods and, to a point, there’s some truth to that, obviously richer people have more resources to spend and will invest them in their offspring.
At the same time, attributing this to racism instead of class seems illogical. A black person or other minority in an upper class neighborhood has the same advantages and access as a white person, meaning no school district that I am aware of intentionally spends more on white people and less on black people at the same time. Further, while I am willing to discuss how to invest more and spend more wisely in urban districts, it’s not like we’re not spending now.
For example, Baltimore city schools spend an average of $16,184 per student, the third highest in the United States. Should we not ask if that money is wisely spent? If we wanted, we could equip every student with a new Chromebook every year (about $200), a high speed internet connection (about $960 per year), and an iPhone (about $1,500 per year) for less than $3,000. Before we jump to hazy institutional racism as a cause for poor educational results, we should look to basic mismanagement of the budget in my opinion.
I think we should also consider how all of these issues are linked. Much is made of the limited representation of minorities in STEM fields at organizations like Google, Apple, and Facebook, but little attention is paid to how those companies are hiring at the end of the line, after years of mismanagement of schools and possibly police. The failure of elementary schools in urban districts to properly educate students has effects for decades, more encounters with police, and less job opportunities. A student whose schools failed them in 3rd grade isn’t likely to become a programming wiz in college. The early failure will haunt them and society at large for their entire lives.
Lastly, whatever the root cause of any specific issue or the extent to which racism is involved, I simply don’t see how it’s helpful to attribute every disparity to a vaguely defined white privilege and white supremacy. I reject the notion, common in anti-racist circles, that white supremacy is perpetuated by common traits such as “either/or thinking” or “worship of the written word” and I believe anything built on that foundation is suspect. Further, I don’t see how it is remotely helpful to harangue white people in the workplace, informing them that to be less white is to be less ignorant, much less young children in school.
This is not to say that I believe all racial sensitivity discussions are bad. This is a diverse country with a rich heritage. We should all educate ourselves on the traditions of other cultures and be aware that not everyone celebrates the same holidays, reveres the same cultural figures, or even thinks the same way. We should also be sensitive to how things appear to other people regardless of our intentions and be mindful that not everyone has the same experiences. The knowledge of other cultures and self-awareness of other people are both positive things that should be celebrated for the richness it brings to our lives, not used as a whipping post for elementary school students to bemoan their whiteness.
Lastly, I find conversations centered on vague terms like “whiteness” and “blackness” to be counterproductive. Yes, I understand they mean something and I’m not saying they should never be used, but at the same time I believe they have very limited utility because the diversity of each group by far overwhelms the unity. The same way I will never know what it means to be black man growing up in New York, I’ll never know what it means to be white rancher growing up in Montana. In fact, I probably have more in common in a lot of ways with the black man in New York.
This is a country of 50 states and almost 350,000,000 people, each with their own history and story. There are things that unite us and things that divide us, some of them are racial, but I believe most of them are not. Ultimately, I find the frequency with which we turn to racism or white supremacy as an explanation these days to be divisive and counter productive, especially when I find it impossible to believe that large numbers of my fellow citizens in this generous nation truly hold hatred in our hearts.
I understand the anti-racists disagree, but as I’ve attempted to demonstrate here, I’ve done the work and believe I am reaching reasonable conclusions in good faith. What now? Can we have a reasonable conversation? Are any of my points valid? Am I allowed to have a civil disagreement? Or am I irredeemable?