Media, Social Science, Top Stories

The Case for Black Optimism

When was the last time you heard good news about the state of black America? Given the way the topic is reported in the media, you could be forgiven for not remembering. Most will be familiar with the standard portrayal: black people are disproportionately poor, incarcerated, born into single-parent homes, and harassed by cops. There’s the test score gap, which places black kids at a disadvantage when applying to college; the school-to-prison pipeline, which prepares black boys for prison by punishing them disproportionately in school; and the racial wealth gap, which won’t close for several centuries if current trends continue. 

In an era when bipartisan agreement is scarce, the Left and the Right seem to be united in their somber assessment of black America, though they locate the blame in different places. Democrats tend to blame systemic racism and the legacy of white supremacy. Republicans, on the other hand, tend to blame Democrats. Recall President Trump’s infamous appeal for the black vote: “You’re living in poverty. Your schools are no good. You have no jobs,” he maintained, blaming the Clintons for these circumstances. “What the hell do you have to lose?”

The narrative of doom and gloom, however, is misleading. Though it has gone largely unnoticed, black Americans have been making rapid progress along most important dimensions of well-being since the turn of the millennium.

Let’s start with incarceration. Without doubt, there is plenty of reason to be pessimistic about the U.S. prison system. America incarcerates a larger proportion of its citizens than any nation on earth. Black Americans, at 13 percent of the U.S. population, made up one-third of the nation’s incarcerated population in 2017. To make matters worse, conditions inside many prisons are ill-suited for rehabilitation. Alabama’s state prisons, for instance, are so rife with violence and sexual assault that Trump’s Justice Department has charged them with violating the eighth amendment to the constitution, which bans “cruel and unusual punishments.”

Nevertheless, there are reasons to be optimistic. From 2001 to 2017, the incarceration rate for black men declined by 34 percent. Even this statistic, however, understates progress by lumping black Americans of all ages together. When you look at age-specific incarceration outcomes, you find two opposing trends: Older black Americans are doing slightly worse than previous generations, but younger black Americans are doing better—so much better that they more than offset, in statistical terms, the backslide of their elders. To put the speed and size of the trend in perspective, between my first day of Kindergarten in 2001 and my first legal drink in 2017, the incarceration rate for black men aged 25–29, 20–24, and 18–19 declined, respectively, by 56 percent, 60 percent, and 72 percent. For young black women, the story is similar: a 59 percent drop for those aged 25–29, a 43 percent drop for those aged 20–24, and a 69 percent drop for those aged 18–19.

As a result of the divergent generational trendlines, the black prison population is not only shrinking; it’s aging too. In 2017, nearly three in ten black male prisoners were 45 years of age or older, up from one in ten in 2001. That may not seem like good news, but it is. The incarceration trendline for young blacks in the recent past predicts the trendline for all blacks in the near future. So the fact that the post-2001 incarceration decline for blacks in general was entirely caused by the plunging incarceration rate for young blacks in particular suggests that, as generational turnover occurs, the black prison population will not only continue to shrink, but will shrink at an accelerating rate. To paraphrase the economist Rick Nevin, our prison system may be overflowing today, but the “pipeline” to prison is already starting to run dry.

The great incarceration decline for black youth has been matched by a decline in teenage motherhood. Between 2001 and 2017, the birth rate for black women aged 15–19 declined by 63 percent. In fact, the black teenage birth rate in 2017 was lower than the white teenage rate as recently as 2002.

Nor has progress been confined to the younger generation. Between 1999 and 2015, the mortality rate for black Americans aged 65 and over shrank by 29 percent for cancer, 31 percent for diabetes, and 43 percent for heart disease. What’s more, all of those percentage drops were larger than the drops experienced by comparable whites over the same period. As deaths from disease have plummeted, black lives have extended. In 2017, black female life expectancy was 78.5 years, up from 75.1 years in 2000. Life expectancy for black men increased from 68.2 to 71.9 years over the same timespan.

Not only are black Americans healthier and longer-lived than they were two decades ago, they’re also more educated. Between the 1999–2000 and 2016–2017 school years, the number of black students who earned bachelor’s degrees increased by 82 percent, from 108,018 to 196,300. Over the same period, the number of associate’s and master’s degrees awarded to black students more than doubled, rising from 60,208 to 129,874, and 36,606 to 89,577, respectively (population growth accounts for some, but not all or even most, of this growth). 2018 census data showed that 37 percent of black Americans aged 25–34 had some kind of college degree. If black America were its own country, that would place it in between Germany (31 percent) and Spain (43 percent) in terms of educational attainment. What’s more, the economist Raj Chetty has found that black women, though less likely to attend college than white women, are now more likely to attend college than white men from similar socioeconomic backgrounds.

Along with more education has come more upward mobility. The Federal Reserve recently reported that over 60 percent of blacks at every level of educational attainment say they’re doing better financially than their parents—a higher percentage than either whites or Hispanics. And although black men still lag behind white men in terms of upward mobility, Chetty has found that black women now go on to earn slightly higher incomes than white women from similar socioeconomic backgrounds.

All told, there is more than enough data with which to tell an optimistic story about the recent history of black America. However, the same data that justify this optimism can appear to justify pessimism if you look at it differently. Recall, for instance, the 72 percent drop in the incarceration rate for black men aged 18–19 from 2001 to 2017. Framed as such, it looks like progress. But here’s the same data framed differently: In 2001, black men aged 18–19 were nine times more likely to be behind bars than comparable white men. By 2017, they were twelve times more likely to be behind bars. Framed as such, it looks like regress.

This particular framing effect is just one example in a larger pattern: The evidence against racial progress tends to compare black-white gaps today to black-white gaps in the past. Here, white metrics are used as benchmarks against which to measure black progress. By contrast, the evidence in favor of progress tends to compare black metrics today against black metrics in the past. White metrics do not enter the equation. Crucially, the same data can often be made to look like either progress or regress depending on which framework is chosen.

The question of black progress, therefore, is less a matter of weighing the reality of progress against the reality of regress than it is a matter of looking at the same reality through two different lenses. Through one lens, progress means reducing the size of black-white racial gaps; let’s call this the gap-lens. But through another lens, progress means improving black outcomes relative to where they were in the past; let’s call this the past-lens.

The rationale for choosing the gap-lens is this: if not for our racist history, the racial gaps we observe today would not exist. That history includes not only two and a half centuries of chattel slavery, but also the many and varied Jim Crow era policies, from school segregation to redlining, that prevented blacks from taking advantage of the American dream. To measure the width of a racial gap, this view holds, is to measure the depth of America’s failure to redress that history. What’s more, if we fail to close statistical gaps between blacks and whites, then we would be surrendering ourselves to live in a permanently racially-stratified society, a society in which—even if everyone were doing better than their parents—whites would hold more economic power than blacks in perpetuity.

Though the rationale behind it is powerful, the gap-lens, taken to its logical end, borders on the absurd. Imagine we had a button that doubled the amount of everything good for each racial group and halved the rate of everything bad—so, black wealth doubles, white wealth doubles, black incarceration is halved, white incarceration is halved, and so on. As we pressed the button repeatedly, America would increasingly approach utopia. Yet the racial gaps—that is, the ratios between black and white outcomes—would remain unchanged. Therefore, viewed through the gap-lens, we will have made no progress at all. Indeed, any amount of black progress can become invisible when viewed through the gap-lens, given sufficient white progress. That’s a problem. A framework for progress that, under certain conditions, would not recognize the difference between our current world and a quasi-utopia seems, frankly, to miss the point of the word.

The gap-lens also relies on the dubious presumption that white outcomes are the best benchmark against which to measure black outcomes. One reason this presumption fails is that the median white American is a full decade older than the median black American. Thus, comparing all blacks to all whites on any outcome that varies with age—for instance, incarceration or wealth—is comparing apples to oranges.

More importantly, when we compare black outcomes to white outcomes and blame all of the gaps on institutional racism, we treat American society as if it were a simple 8th-grade science experiment: white people are treated as the “control group”; black people are treated as the “experimental group”; and the “independent variable,” applied only to blacks, is institutional racism. On this oversimplified paradigm, we could reasonably assume that all racial outcome gaps are caused by institutional racism. But reality is more complex. Black Americans and white Americans are unique groups of people with different histories, different demographics, and different sociological characteristics. Such confounding variables make it overly simplistic to pin all racial gaps on institutional racism.

Despite such flaws, the gap-lens is the default lens through which many scholars and journalists view black America today. Whether it’s wealth, incarceration, or education, the habit of framing black metrics relative to white metrics is so deeply ingrained that it seems naïve to observe that we do not view other racial groups this way. Which is to say, when we ask whether white Americans have made progress, we compare whites not against some other group but against themselves at an earlier point in time. Why, then, do we treat the analysis of black America differently?

For many, the answer lies in history. It makes sense to analyze black America with a unique lens precisely because black Americans trail a unique history of oppression. There is no way to acknowledge that ugly history, in this view, without looking directly at the gaps caused by it.

I understand this rationale, and have some sympathy with it. However, it ignores the downsides associated with focusing on racial gaps. There is a spectrum of possible outcomes in multi-ethnic societies with violent, segregated conflict at one end, and peaceful, integrated cooperation at the other. Somewhere in between lies a circumstance, neither disastrous nor ideal, in which members of different racial groups are encouraged to measure themselves against one another, generating racial envy and resentment. Americans in general, and black Americans in particular, currently exist in such a circumstance. Yet because it is the water in which we swim, it is difficult to recognize that such racial tensions are not the inevitable consequence of living in a racially disparate society.

It is easier to see the role played by the commentariat in generating racial tensions by looking at situations in which such tensions were absent. For example, in his essay, “The Politics of a Multiethnic Society,” the late Harvard sociologist Nathan Glazer made the following observation about European immigrant groups in the American Northeast:

If these groups had analyzed the statistics, they might have found much to grouse about. Since the Irish dominated electoral politics, all other groups were by that token “deprived.” Since the Jews were the most successful in terms of high occupational status, all the others were by that token “deprived.” Yet that is not the way the political debate went, and all the European ethnic groups believed they had done well in America, and there is scarcely a one that bears grievances.

The key observation in Glazer’s analysis is not that these ethnic groups were successful (though they were), but that they believed they were successful. Implied in that observation is the idea that a group of people can be doing quite well but can nevertheless be made to believe the opposite—so long as they are habitually compared to other groups in the media. It’s a truism that a single person suffers when he measures himself by the yardstick of another, particularly when the other person had various advantages and head starts that he lacked. In a similar way, by forever measuring blacks against an improper yardstick, the gap-lens, though intended as a way of acknowledging the unique history of oppression blacks have endured, in effect punishes them twice for it.

To be sure, there are circumstances in which it makes sense to define progress in terms of closing racial gaps. For instance, having political leaders who reflect the population in terms of race and ethnicity is, everything else held equal, good for the social fabric of a multi-ethnic society. To that end, I’m not arguing that we should abolish the use of the gap-lens in every case. I’m arguing that, in the great majority of cases, the past-lens yields a more useful picture of the state of black America. Which is to say, black progress can be understood independent of white progress and celebrated on its own terms.

What do we gain by acknowledging progress? For one thing, ignorance of how much progress blacks have made in recent years leads many to mistakenly believe American institutions are so racist that nothing short of complete overhaul would suffice to repair them. The fact that those very same institutions have allowed for, if not ushered in, huge amounts of progress for black people in recent years suggests a more sober-minded approach. We should not burn the system down. We should reform it one increment at a time.

More importantly, if we want to continue making progress, then we must understand the root causes of progress, and in order to understand its root causes, we must first acknowledge that progress has happened. In recent decades, black Americans have been progressing, sometimes rapidly, along virtually every dimension worth caring about. And, without becoming complacent, we can be cautiously optimistic that such progress will continue. A complete conversation about race and racial inequality must involve not just identifying what goes wrong, but also what goes right—for if we fail to learn from the triumphs of our own recent past, we are doomed not to repeat them.


Coleman Hughes is a Quillette columnist and an undergraduate philosophy major at Columbia University. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Spectator, City Journal, and the Heterodox Academy blog. You can follow him on Twitter @coldxman


  1. An incredibly insightful and educational article. Thoroughly well-researched, with links to studies provided- a real gold mine. I have to admit that reading your piece, gave me a similar feeling to that usually only ever encountered when reading Steven Pinker, that of optimism. My only question is when are you going to publish your first book? Because I certainly intend to buy it. You may well be the next Thomas Sowell in the making, although possibly more centrist or moderate, in your political outlook.

    I have been researching similar phenomena in the UK, and formulating potential observations about commonalities and differences in the black-white experience, across the West, particularly in relation to structural disparities. If I might make a couple of suggestions, It might be worth taking a look at the policing approaches in Scotland, and in particular those used when Glasgow was the knife-crime capital of Europe, to see what happens in the absence of race. In Scotland, the approach was proactive policing paired with the Gary Slutkin method of ‘violence interrupters’ and community resourcing. A particular observation of mine, in relation to the Theresa May Government and the knife-crime epidemic, is that whilst police resources have subsequently been promised, the corresponding community resources have not been forthcoming.

    One thing that I would recommend researching is Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, because I believe it should be possible to run programs within communities aimed at reforming teenage boys and young men, before they escalate to becoming more serious criminals. The system could be run on the basis of volunteering, charity and commission paid on statistically-derived future savings to the tax-payer. These programs could be backed and accredited by Law Enforcement, helping to heal divides between the African American and Law Enforcement communities.

    I also think that there is an extent to which pro-active policing and ‘Broken Windows’ has strayed from it’s original purpose, as a tactic within the umbrella of community policing. Perhaps the most harmful aspect of this has been the purpose-drift that has somehow led it to become associated with, and tainted by, the flawed policy of zero tolerance. I attach an interesting talk by George L. Kelling, one of the original authors of ‘Fixing Broken Windows’, from St. Olaf College and well as a talk from a detractor, who points out some of the more harmful aspects of it’s more misguided application. There is a particularly candid moment in George Kelling’s presentation, in which he admits that he often dreaded receiving phone calls from enthusiastic Police Chiefs intent on introducing his ideas tomorrow, with none of the necessary training.

    On education, I have been struck by examples from both sides of the Pond, from the Charter and Free Schools movements. The failure in Western politics is to analyse and critique the structure and commissioning of public education, without looking at the processes which provide content, continuously train teachers and the environment provided to poor, inner-city, multi-ethnic kids. Both the Michaela Community School in London and Success Academy in New York provide exemplary examples of educational experimentation that have achieved nothing short of miraculous results.

    The interesting thing is that whilst Michaela pursues the more traditional didactic method, Success Academy is strongly pro-progressive pedagogy. In other respects though, the commonalities are striking. Strict enforcement of low-level discipline, such as detentions, in order to head off more serious disciplinary offences. Teachers standing in hallways watching kids move efficiently and quietly from one class to another, on order to squeeze every moment of possible learning from the school day. Both seem to reject the notion that people like Shakespeare or Mozart might be harmful to black kids, by simply being dead white men. Parental involvement in the learning process, is not only encouraged, but mandatory. Above all, both systems have extremely strong in-house teacher training aimed at improving teacher performance. Another example can be found in the highly successful Brampton Manor Academy, which caters to ‘A’-level students- a visit to their website is far more informative when one looks at their discipline code and sees that they want to teach graduates themselves, rather than deal with teachers trained by the educational establishment.

    I would also consider looking at Northern Ireland, when looking at education. The catholic community in Northern Ireland was once confined to council estates and dilapidated terraced housing, whilst their wealthier protestant contemporaries lived in leafy suburbs and wealthy rural areas. The role of the non-selective Catholic Grammar, has been instrumental in eliminating this structural disparity, and in some instances reversing it. Much has been made of the role of community involvement in achieving higher educational standard for Catholic kids, but I believe that there are deeper forces at play. I did find one study that showed that whilst the forerunners of The Council for Catholic Maintained Schools were happy to take the funding from the UK Government, they appeared far more reluctant to take their suggestions on curricula, teaching methods, discipline and the concept of teaching skills instead of knowledge, but I have been unable to locate it since.

    The drive of the Protestant system to keep pace with Catholic Schools, has been so strong that the results for Northern Ireland actually raise the results for the White British demographic. Again, this demonstrates how the absence of race, can point towards methods which can be deployed to remove structural disparities- because the Northern Irish Catholic community was once poorer and more-deprived in almost every respect, than their Protestant counterparts.

    Throughout your essay, you commented on the use of a lens to make comparisons, specifically in the comparison of the past versus the present, as opposed to between black and white. Perhaps intuitively, I have been taking a similar approach by looking at policy, in the absence of race. Indeed, in one recent example, I came across was an observation by Munira Mirza, that the reason for sentencing disparities in the UK, was based upon race, but not in the way that people expected. The fact that BAME individuals did not trust their lawyers or the Criminal Justice System was nearly the entire root of the discrepancy- because in choosing to plead not guilty in cases, they failed to avail themselves of the standard discounts for saving the court’s time.

    I firmly believe that real progress can only ever be achieved through increments. To that end, a better approach to studying disparity is to become detectives searching through data and history, rather than blaming it all on the pernicious influence of some all-encompassing unconscious bias. The truth is that their are likely dozens of individual instances that can be pointed to and found out by careful scrutiny. Another example, lies in the policing role adopted by educational bureaucracies- does the over-policing, by over-zealous bureaucrats searching for evidence of statistical racism in teaching, lead to adverse outcomes for black kids, with the failure in low-level discipline resulting in more serious disciplinary infractions with no choice other than suspension and expulsion? A sobering statistic from the UK- the fact that kids referred to Pupil Referral Units are 200 times more likely to involved in knife-crime incidents either as victims or offenders, shows how harmful such a perverse system might be.

    I commend you again for your excellent and thought-provoking essay, and will particularly relish drilling down in the studies you have furnished.

  2. There is no institutional racism against blacks in America. That Jim Crow laws or slavery once existed does not mean they still do. What there is systemic race baiting by the MSM. There is also a very real need for introspection in black culture. For example, the rapper 6ix9ine has been berated by other black celebrities and idiotic magazines like The Root for turning state witness against the Nine Trey division of the Bloods gang. He is seen as a snitch. But the Bloods are scum. They hurt people, and they do no favors for the black “community”. Criminality has become lionized in black culture. Rappers will sing a dozen songs about pimping, slinging dope, and murder then have a song where they are totally aghast at a cop searching their vehicle. Also there is a ton of ignorance about Africa. I remember Richard Pryor saying on how when he went to Africa, the biggest joy was realizing there were “no niggers” in Africa. Total delusion. Blacks will hate other blacks with a hate that extends into genocide, be it Rwanda, Sudan or xenophobic South Africa. The biggest obstacle for blacks who perform well at school is not white bigots but black peers who resent them.

  3. “America incarcerates a larger proportion of its citizens than any nation on earth.”

    Because that proportion of its citizens chose to commit serious crimes its other citizens do not commit.

    The “Gap-lens” point is very interesting, and also relevant to the whole “inequality” debate. Millionaires can feel oppressed compared with billionaires!

  4. The primary reason for this is that America can afford to spend the money to incarcerate “a larger proportion of its citizens.”

    And it’s not that America is a nation of criminals, it’s that most other countries are too poor, or too cheap, to spend the amount of money on incarceration that American taxpayers are willing to accept.

    Britain, for example, incarcerates a smaller percentage of its criminals. But I don’t believe it’s because Britons have a more enlightened view of criminal rehabilitation (although many claim this). I believe it’s more a case that British taxpayers simply don’t want to spend the money on new prisons that Britain so desperately needs. The rest of Europe, too.

    All very well, but it’s unfair for critics to simply say that America “incarcerates a larger percentage of its citizens” without considering that Europeans should be incarcerating a larger percentage of theirs.

  5. Great article, bringing great news. It reminds me of the optimism I felt during Obama’s first campaign, the sense that black America had “arrived.” Sufficient time had passed since there was any structural discrimination that black Americans were going to rise or fall on their own merits and be fully integrated into the America of promise. I wonder in what state race relations would be if Americans had kept the faith and hailed these signs of extremely rapid incremental progress instead of getting impatient and unreasonable?

    The media environment tailored to supporting the grievance-based narrative of one political party has more than enough resources to provide a statistically-robust, nuanced, and contextualised report on race issues (certainly at least as much as an undergraduate can pull off on top of what I’m sure is a demanding courseload). Instead, they latch on to isolated events such as police shootings of black men, and never dig any deeper to find, for instance, that a white man is more likely to be shot by police than a black man in similar circumstances, or that black police officers are as likely to shoot black men as white police officers. Absent these kinds of details, these isolated incidents build a narrative that is both contrary to reality and harmful to black Americans. Instead of being proud of rapidly-diminishing criminality and rapidly-rising educational attainment, the media encourages them (and everyone else) to see black America as under attack. I think the moral effect of this perception can’t be underestimated. People are often at their worst when they feel the world is unfair and nothing they do can improve their lot.

    Assuming the totality of the media establishment should be able to muster the intellectual rigor of one (albeit high-performing) undergraduate student, it is difficult to imagine the promulgation of this narrative is not deliberate. Particularly when it suits the political needs of the Democratic party. If I recall correctly, 17 % of African-Americans earning over $100 000 voted for Trump. The link below reports that 16 % of black men with college degrees voted for Trump, compared to 11% for those without, and a similar pattern for black women. That more education (and even moreso, higher income) is correlated with an increase in support for Trump, contrary to the trend among white voters, suggests to me that black Americans who feel more enfranchised and perhaps buy into the meritocratic system are more likely to vote Republican. If Republicans won 17 % of the total black vote, they would never lose another election. The danger to Democrats of black Americans believing in American meritocracy and becoming affluent is clear. An easy way to prevent this is to instill the narrative that America is a racist place and black efforts to improve themselves will face undue challenges.

    Essential to black enfranchisement, healing racial divides, and preventing leftist takeover is countering the victimhood narrative prevalent in the media with the combination of sound statistics and thoughtful consideration presented in articles like this one.

  6. Another excellent article by a consistently top notch contributor. It seems the lesson here is that we need to consider both lenses…in just about every circumstance, since one only tells (at best) half the story. That would seem like a decent life lesson in general.

  7. When Muhammad Ali went to then Zaire to fight George Foreman, he said: “I’m sure glad my granddaddy got on that boat.” Blacks in America enjoy a ton of privileges blacks in Africa do not. Colin Kaepernick can get very rich standing up to an “oppressive” government. If he tried that shit against an African dictator, he would face near unimaginable horror.

  8. Well,if you really want my answer it’s this. No one owes anyone a damn thing. Blacks were oppressed and the solution to that is equality not reparations. Every race has done something vile to another race. My belief is we are all human beings, and inevitably flawed. We should do our best to treat each other fairly and kindly. A black man owes me nothing except to judge me as a person, not a pigment, and I owe him the same.

  9. A lot of people both black and white fought sacrificed and died for the opportunities blacks have today. Those who deny these opportunities and advancements, demean the bravery and accomplishments of their progenitors. Some are privileged to live in a country that strives to rectify its wrongs. The glass half empty people relish their own misery and waste too much energy trying to win the one-upmanship misery game. They are prisoners to their own pessimism or should I say slaves?

  10. Well said. I would also add reparations can lead to evil because the aggrieved side often confuses selfish greed and or cruelty with justice. Some examples: the WW1 reparations that crippled Germany and played no small part in the rise of Nazism. Also, land reform in Zimbabwe in which white farmers were stripped of land they paid for and knew how to work. The result: increased poverty for blacks and economy that was permanently shattered.

  11. Then I hope, @Kapeth, that T’Çhalla does his best for his people against the rapacious capitalist predators. And with help of his all-female body guards and a full basket of magical healing power, this must come true, all the way!

  12. Coleman Hughes - love your articles. Keep up the good work.

  13. Society is more divided by wealth than by race. A wealthy white person and a wealthy black person have more in common that a wealthy white person and a poor white person. This fact alone makes it difficult to take the contemporary liberal-left seriously, as their race/sex/gender hysteria ignores far deeper divisions.

  14. So…a few hours after reading this article, the subject of black Americans came up with a woman who then claimed to have a degree in Sociology. When this (white) woman spoke of black Americans, she did so in the soft, tender voice she used with her 8-year-old son on the phone. Because of slavery, she said in that voice, they are in the position they are in. That dark history is the reason why they are…

    They’re what? I asked. What are they?

    She gave me the look. You know the look. I was supposed to join in some sorrowful hymn on the matter of Black Americans, how poor they are, how much they need our apologies, our help, our…pity…

    I then tried to summarize this article against the force that I was breaking the tacit law, that all discussions between white Americans on the matter of Black Americans must be conducted with a sufficient amount of pity in the voice. She said she knew about framing the data, due to her degree. But that didn’t mean that an optimistic reading was correct.

    We both knew, without saying so, that the rule is PITY. If you are white and don’t show a sufficient amount of PITY…you are…


    The new Racism decrees expressing sorrow for a past that your ancestors weren’t even here to commit…you have to believe, with all of your guilt-ridden heart, that the past – when it comes to this particular population – is so heinous that it affects the present. That nothing they are doing NOW would affect them…(how this is even logical, I have to say, still confounds me to this day)…and when I tried to explain the ravages of welfare – how THAT was ‘institutional racism’ she looked at me in absolute HORROR. How could I say such a thing? They were HELPED. What’s wrong with HELP? I asked had she seen that HELP with her own eyes? I saw it in Chicago in the 80’s. Institutionalized single-motherhood. Institutionalized marginalization of men…

    Naturally she was horrified at this suggestion. I had to assure her it wasn’t my argument. A black person had made this argument.

    This relieved the tension somewhat – but only somewhat. After all, what was a white person doing, reading that argument? Didn’t I know that I’m to blame for all of the ills of this population? And that what we were supposed to be doing in that moment was flagellating ourselves? Taking all of the responsibility for the ills of this particular group, despite the fact that nothing we have ever done in our lives has had any effect on them?

    The New Racism: Believing that black Americans can help themselves.

  15. It blows my mind the beliefs people have about African American incarceration.

    There’s some mythical thinking about racial injustice in the US justice system. Some people think black Americans just end up in prison because they’re black through no fault of their own.

    Well, I’ve actually been to prison and trust me, no one is there for no reason. To the contrary, most incarcerated people have only been caught and punished for a fraction of the crimes they’ve committed. And all of the federal sentencing and over half the state sentencing is mandated by sentencing guidelines. Guidelines that put a sentence on a grid with one axis being the severity of the crime and the other axis being ones prior criminal history.

    There’s no third axis for “black or Latino”. Everybody who commits a crime and has the same history gets the same sentence.

    But still I’m met with incredulity when I tell people that no one is in prison for no reason. They say, “ But… racist cops…”. To which I say, “ Do you have any idea how god damn impossible it would be for a cop to frame someone for something they didn’t do with existing tech today?”.

    It’s this totally untethered belief that you just can’t penetrate with logic.

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