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The Racism Treadmill

If racism still looms large in our social and political lives, then, as one left-wing commentator put it, “progress is debatable.”

· 15 min read
The Racism Treadmill

The prevailing view among progressives today is that America hasn’t made much progress on racism. While no one would argue that abolishing slavery and dissolving Jim Crow weren’t good first steps, the progressive attitude toward such reforms is nicely summarized by Malcolm X’s famous quip, “You don’t stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you’re making progress.” Aside from outlawing formalized bigotry, many progressives believe that things haven’t improved all that much. Racist attitudes towards blacks, if only in the form of implicit bias, are thought to be widespread; black men are still liable to be arrested in a Starbucks for no good reason; plus we have a president who has found it difficult to denounce neo-Nazis. If racism still looms large in our social and political lives, then, as one left-wing commentator put it, “progress is debatable.”

But the data take a clear side in that debate. In his controversial bestseller Enlightenment Now, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker notes a steep decline in racism. At the turn of the 20th century, lynchings occurred at a rate of three per week. Now, racially-motivated killings of blacks occur at a rate of zero to one per year.1 What’s more, racist attitudes that were once commonplace have now become fringe. A Gallup poll found that only 4 percent of Americans approved of marriages between blacks and whites in 1958. By 2013, that number had climbed to 87 percent, prompting pollsters to call it “one of the largest shifts of public opinion in Gallup history.”

Why can’t progressives admit that we’ve made progress? Pinker’s answer for what he dubs “progressophobia” is two-fold. First, our intuitions about whether trends have increased or decreased are shaped by what we can easily recall—news items, shocking events, personal experience, etc. Second, we are more sensitive to negative stimuli than we are to positive ones. These two bugs of human psychology—called the availability bias and the negativity bias, respectively—make us prone to doomsaying, inclined to mistake freak news events for trends, and blind to the slow march of progress.

But while psychological biases may sufficiently explain progressophobia on most other topics, our denialism about racial progress calls for a deeper explanation—an explanation in terms of widely-held beliefs about race and inequality.

One such belief is the notion that disparities between blacks and whites—in income, housing, employment, etc.—are caused by systemic racism. The award-winning writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, for instance, summed up the state of racial progress like so: “I could see that some fifty years after the civil rights movement black people could still be found at the bottom of virtually every socioeconomic metric of note.”2 Ibram X. Kendi, another celebrated race writer, put it bluntly: “As an anti-racist, when I see racial disparities, I see racism.”

But the premise built into the thinking of Coates and Kendi is false. I call it the disparity fallacy. The disparity fallacy holds that unequal outcomes between two groups must be caused primarily by discrimination, whether overt or systemic. What’s puzzling about believers in the disparity fallacy is not that they apply the belief too broadly, but that they apply it too narrowly. Any instance of whites outperforming blacks is adduced as evidence of discrimination. But when a disparity runs the other way—that is, blacks outperforming whites—discrimination is never invoked as a causal factor.

Here’s a clear example of the disparity fallacy: a recent study by researchers at Stanford, Harvard, and the Census Bureau found that, “[a]mong those who grow up in families with comparable incomes, black men grow up to earn substantially less than the white men.” A New York Times article attributed this disparity to “the punishing reach of racism for black boys.” But the study also found that black women have higher college attendance rates than white men, and higher incomes than white women, conditional on parental income. The fact that black women outperformed their white counterparts on these measures, however, was not attributed to the punishing reach of racism against whites.

Economic disparities that favor blacks have been reported for decades, yet they have rarely if ever been attributed to anti-white systemic bias. A 1994 New York Times article reported that, among college graduates, black women earned slightly more money than white women did. In addition, the economist Thomas Sowell has pointed out that, as early as 1980, U.S. census data show black college-educated couples out-earning their white counterparts.3

The black/white unemployment gap provides an even older illustration of the disparity fallacy. Many commentators have reflexively attributed the modern unemployment gap to systemic racism. But in historical eras with far more racism, the gap was reversed. According to Sowell, “[b]lack unemployment rates were lower than that of whites in 1890 and, for the last time, in 1930.”4 Facts like these, however, are never explained in terms of discrimination in favor of blacks. Indeed, why progressives only commit the disparity fallacy in one direction is never explained. What the writer Shelby Steele has said about progressives and racist events is equally true of statistical disparities that disadvantage blacks: When they learn of one, “they rent a jet plane and fly to it!”

It’s a sign of the poverty of our discourse on racial progress and inequality that the rarest findings are thought to be normal, and the most common findings are thought to require special explanation.

‘Systemic Racism’—An Unhelpful Concept
Sydney. London. Toronto.

Indeed, it is rare to find any two ethnic groups achieving identical outcomes, even when they belong to the same race. A cursory glance at the mean incomes of census-tracked ethnic groups shows Americans of Russian descent out-earning those of Swiss descent, who out-earn those of British descent, who out-earn those of Polish descent, who out-earn those of French descent in turn. If the disparity fallacy were true, then we ought to posit an elaborate system that is biased towards ethnic Russians, then the Swiss, followed by the Brits, the Poles and the French. Yet one never hears progressives make such claims. Moreover, one never hears progressives say, “French-Americans make 79 cents for every Russian-American dollar,” although the facts could easily be framed that way. Similar disparities between blacks and whites are regularly presented in such invidious terms. Rather than defaulting to systemic bias to explain disparities, we should understand that, even in the absence of discrimination, groups still differ in innumerable ways that affect their respective outcomes.

Black Culture

One crucial way in which groups differ is culture. Culture matters enormously. The importance of culture is, ironically, a value often expressed by progressives. When presented with arguments that point to genetic influences on human behavior, many on the Left respond by emphasizing the importance of culture over genetics, that is, nurture over nature (see Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate for more.) Moreover, cultures differ from one another. This is true by definition. It’s unclear what the “multi” in “multi-culturalism” could possibly mean if cultures were all the same. Put these two premises together, and you arrive at what should be an equally banal conclusion: if culture matters enormously, and cultures differ from one another, then differences between cultures matter enormously.

But, together with the disparity fallacy, the denial of cultural explanations for disparity has become the received view among progressives. Coates, for instance, has dubbed cultural explanations of disparity “lazy.”5 Others believe such arguments to be intrinsically racist when applied to blacks. The sociologist and award-winning author Michael Eric Dyson has argued that cultural explanations of black/white disparities are seen by whites as “heroic battles against black deficiency.”6

But intuitive examples of the importance of culture are all around us. Disparities in athletic achievement, for instance, are inexplicable without reference to culture. Although blacks make up 14 percent of the U.S. population, they account for only 8 percent of MLB baseball players. This relatively small disparity has been enough to prompt articles in US News, NPR, and Vox that blame the decline in black baseball representation on everything from mass incarceration to racial bias to a generic sense among white fans that “baseball culture should stay white,” as the Vox piece summarized it.

Meanwhile, blacks account for a staggering three-fourths of all NBA basketball players, while whites account for a mere 18 percent. Curiously, progressives have not seen the under-representation of whites in basketball as requiring any explanation whatsoever. When whites are under-represented somewhere, it is assumed to be a choice or a cultural preference. But when blacks are under-represented somewhere, progressives descend on the issue like detectives to the scene of an unsolved murder, determined to consider every possible explanation except for the “lazy” one: that in black culture, basketball is more popular than baseball.

Strangely, it is only among thought-leaders that these twin dogmas—the disparity fallacy and the denial of cultural explanations—have become gospel. Black people themselves are, on the whole, open to other ways of thinking. For instance, 60 percent of blacks attribute disparities in income, jobs, and housing mainly to factors other than bias, according to a 2013 Gallup poll. A more recent Pew poll found that 60 percent of blacks without college degrees say their race hasn’t affected their chances of success in life. The belief that cultural factors don’t influence outcomes, too, seems to be the special province of progressive intellectuals. For example, when asked by Pew in 2008, 71 percent of blacks said that rap was a bad influence on society. Nevertheless, for years progressives have accused those who criticize harmful elements within black culture of “victim-blaming,” never stopping to wonder whether the supposed victims actually felt blamed by such observations.

It’s no accident that the majority of blacks don’t view racial bias as the main issue they face today. Indeed, there is reason to believe that culture, rather than bias, is the primary cause of unequal outcomes for blacks. The kind of experiment necessary to settle the question would involve taking two groups of black people, putting them in the same environment, holding every variable constant except for culture, and measuring their life outcomes. Of course, for all sorts of ethical and practical reasons, such experiments can’t be done. But history has run the experiment, however crudely and imperfectly, several times.

The first natural experiment occurred when Sowell used 1970 census data to compare the incomes of second-generation West Indian blacks and American blacks in the New York metropolitan area. Both groups would have looked and talked the same; both groups were born and educated in the same area; and both groups were trailing brutal histories of chattel slavery.

Indeed, aside from cultural differences, West Indian blacks would have been virtually indistinguishable from their American counterparts. There is no better demonstration of their superficial likeness than the fact that many prominent black leaders—including Marcus Garvey, Stokely Carmichael, Malcolm X, Harry Belafonte, and Sidney Poitier—were actually of black West Indian, not black American, ancestry.7 But despite being subjected to the same racist treatment by local whites, second-generation West Indian black families were highly successful, out-earning American black families by 58 percent, and even out-earning the national average income by 15 percent.8 Sowell’s conclusion was unequivocal: “Neither race nor racism can explain such differences.”9

The second natural experiment involves comparing the outcomes of black immigrants on the whole with the outcomes of American blacks (i.e., blacks descended from American slaves.) Although black immigrants (and especially their children, who are indistinguishable from American blacks) presumably experience the same ongoing systemic biases that black descendants of American slaves do, nearly all black immigrant groups out-earn American blacks, and many—including Ghanaians, Nigerians, Barbadians, and Trinidadians & Tobagonians—out-earn the national average. Moreover, black immigrants are overrepresented in the Ivy Leagues. Though they comprised only 8 percent of the U.S. black population in the 2010 census,10 41 percent of African Americans attending Ivy League schools were of immigrant origin in 1999. Five years later, the New York Times reported a finding by two Harvard professors that as many as two-thirds of Harvard’s black students “were West Indian and African immigrants or their children, or to a lesser extent, children of biracial couples.”

Granted, neither of these natural experiments prove that culture, specifically, caused the divergent outcomes. It’s impossible to disentangle confounding variables like immigrant self-selection, demographic differences, and other unknown factors. But the results of these natural experiments do suggest that the role of systemic bias as a causal factor in the creation of unequal outcomes has been greatly exaggerated. If systemic bias accounted for as much of the variance in success as progressives seem to think it does, then it’s unlikely that groups that experience equal amounts of systemic bias would achieve such wildly different levels of success.

Culture, however, is an intangible. “I don’t know how to measure culture…and I’m not sure anyone else does,” said a Georgetown economist quoted by Coates.11 But while it’s technically true that we can’t measure culture, this concern, like so much of progressive thinking on race, is applied selectively. Time magazine has run an article entitled “Rape Culture is Real”; The Atlantic has run articles entitled “America’s Gun-Culture Problem,” and “What Critics Don’t Understand About Gun Culture”; “Consumer Culture” is the subject of countless books and scholarly articles, and the name of a course at Cornell University. We have no problem discussing potentially negative cultural factors when the culture in question can be attributed to men, whites, or capitalism. It is only when one suggests that blacks too have cultural problems that such objections are pulled out of the ether.

One destructive feature of black culture is the conviction among many blacks, especially teenage boys, that those who achieve academic success and speak standard English are “acting white.” President Obama addressed this troubling epithet in 2004, when he called on blacks to “eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.” Ten years later, he reiterated this criticism, adding that “the notion that there’s some authentic way of being black, that if you’re going to be black you have to act a certain way and wear a certain kind of clothes, that has to go.” The iconic rapper Jay-Z made the same point in a recent interview with Dean Baquet of the New York Times. Addressing Baquet, (who is also black) he said, “It’s O.K. to think. It’s O.K. to be smart. You know, there was a time when people was like, ‘you talkin’ white.’ It’s like, what does that even mean?…And I’m sure you’ve heard it growing up many times.”

In an economy increasingly based on cognitive labor, it’s hard to imagine a cultural feature more harmful than a socially-enforced taboo on academic striving. But worries about the harm caused by the ‘acting white’ epithet have been met with skepticism by progressives. An article in Vox called the acting white phenomenon a “myth” that could “shape attitudes about black people and perpetuate racism.” This gloomy prediction, typical of progressive styles of argumentation, was asserted without evidence.

A similar progressive arguing tactic is to set up a false dichotomy with a progressive opinion on one side of the divide, and bigotry everywhere else. Ibram X. Kendi typifies this tactic: “Either there is something wrong with our policies, or there is something wrong with black boys (or black people). Either the United States is riddled with racist policies or inferior black boys.” Given the choice between saying America is racist and saying blacks are inferior, most people will choose the former.

But those aren’t the only options. Among other things, there is culture. Indeed, cultural explanations of disparity are the exact opposite of racial-supremacist explanations for the same reason that nurture is the opposite of nature. What’s more, criticizing elements of a culture that are counterproductive is not the same as blaming individuals from that culture for their own circumstances. The argument is not, as Coates has unfairly summarized it, that “some amount of the racial chasm is the fault of black people themselves.”12 Rather, it is that “structural conditions shape culture, and culture, in turn, can take on a life of its own independent of the forces that created it,” as the writer Jonathan Chait has put it.

A set of taboos and false dichotomies created by intellectuals for intellectuals have made this subject needlessly difficult to discuss, but discuss it we must. We no more choose the culture we are raised in than we choose the year we are born in. Nevertheless, culture matters, and black culture is no exception. To inoculate black culture against all criticism is to doom blacks to pay the price for the destructive elements of their culture in perpetuity.

The Racism Treadmill

The disparity fallacy and the denial of cultural factors conspire to create a dynamic that I call the Racism Treadmill: as long as cultural differences continue to cause disparities between racial groups, and as long as progressives imagine that systemic racism lies behind every disparity, then no amount of progress in reducing systemic racism, however large or concrete, will ever look like progress to progressives.

Indeed, it may be a mistake to think of progressives as engaging in progress-oriented activism to begin with, because that would imply that they are progressing towards some specified endpoint. But if the progressive definition of ‘progress’ ends with a disparity-free world that will never—indeed could never—exist, then progressives are left with a Sisyphean politics; an agitated march to nowhere in particular.

I submit that the Racism Treadmill, and the dogmas that motivate it, account for much of the progressophobia of the activist Left on the topic of race. The Treadmill shows itself in the way progressives appropriate the tragedies of history in order to summon rhetorical gravitas in the present. Carceral policy is not just bad, it’s the “New Jim Crow”; posting reaction GIFs on social media that portray black people is “digital blackface”; and, even though three separate analyses have found no racial bias in police shootings, such shootings are said to be “reminiscent of the past racial terror of lynching,” as a United Nations report put it. It seems as if every reduction in racist behavior is met with a commensurate expansion in our definition of the concept. Thus, racism has become a conserved quantity akin to mass or energy: transformable but irreducible.

There’s no reason to think that the definition of racism will stop expanding any time soon. And there’s no reason to think that progressives will ever stop demanding institutional reforms to fix racism—up to and including attempts to reform our subconscious minds with such things as mandatory implicit bias trainings. In a BBC feature on racism, the acclaimed poet Benjamin Zephaniah remarked, “laws can control people’s actions, but they can’t control people’s thoughts. As racism becomes more subtle, we need to keep pressuring our institutions to change.”

Luckily, he’s right that laws can’t reach into our subconscious minds, since anti-bias trainings don’t seem to work. But Zephaniah’s remark would have sounded alien to the Civil Rights leaders of yesteryear. In the words of political scientist Adolph Reed,

Black political debate and action through the early 1960s focused on concrete issues—employment, housing, wages, unionization, discrimination in specific venues and domains—rather than an abstract “racism.” It was only in the late 1960s and 1970s, after the legislative victories that defeated southern apartheid and restored black Americans’ full citizenship rights, that “racism” was advanced as the default explanation for inequalities that appear as racial disparities.

If the early 1960s were about reaching the mountaintop, then the modern era is about running on the Treadmill. Coates’s refrain, “resistance must be its own reward,” has become the watchword of the movement.13

The War on Racism, though intended to be won by those prosecuting it, will, in practice, continue indefinitely. This is because the stated goals of progressives, however sincerely held, are so apocalyptic, so vague, and so total as to guarantee that they will never be met. One often hears calls to “end white supremacy,” for instance. But what “ending white supremacy” would look like in a country where whites are already out-earned by several dark-skinned ethnic groups (Indian-Americans top the list by a large margin) is never explained. I would not be the first to point out the parallels between progressive goals and religious eschatology. Coates, for instance, professes to be an atheist, but tweak a few details and the Rapture becomes Reparations––which he has said will lead to a “spiritual renewal” and a “revolution of the American consciousness.”14

Staying on the Racism Treadmill means denying progress and stoking ethnic tensions. It means, as Thomas Sowell once warned, moving towards a society in which “a new born baby enters the world supplied with prepackaged grievances against other babies born the same day.”[15] Worse still, it means shutting down the one conversation that stands the greatest chance of improving outcomes for blacks: the conversation about culture.

By contrast, getting off the Treadmill means recognizing that group outcomes will differ even in the absence of systemic bias; it means treating people as individuals rather than as members of a collective; it means restoring the naive conception of equal treatment over the skin-color morality of the far Left; and it means rejecting calls to burn this or that system to the ground in order to combat forms of racial oppression that grow ever more abstract by the day. At bottom, it means acknowledging the fact that racism has declined precipitously, and perhaps even being grateful that it has.


1 Pinker, Enlightenment Now, 219.
2 Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power, 152.
3 Sowell, The Economics and Politics of Race, 201.
4 Sowell, Intellectuals and Race, 95.
5 Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power, 156.
6 Dyson, The Black Presidency, 13-14.
7 Sowell, Three Black Histories, in The Wilson Quarterly Vol. 3 No. 1, 102.
8 Sowell, Three Black Histories, in The Wilson Quarterly Vol. 3 No. 1, 102-103.
9 Sowell, Black Rednecks and White Liberals, 32-33.
10 Chua & Rubenfeld, The Triple Package, 41.
11 Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power, 28.
12 Coates, We Were Eight Years in Power, 154.
13 Ibid., 289.
14 Ibid., 202.
15 Sowell, Intellectuals and Race, 138.

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