Historical Racism Is Not the Singular Cause of Racial Disparity

Historical Racism Is Not the Singular Cause of Racial Disparity

Samuel Kronen
Samuel Kronen

Even before the crescendo of Black Lives Matter last summer, the operative view among progressives was that historical racism is the overriding cause of racial disparities between black and white Americans today. The progressive ethos on race is neatly conveyed by the novelist William Faulkner’s remark: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” If the wide socio-economic gaps between whites and blacks in terms of income, wealth, health, incarceration, and education outcomes speak to the enduring legacy of slavery and segregation, large-scale efforts to improve the conditions of the country without regard for race seem insufficient to many. First, Americans must come to terms with the moral and political implications of living in a country that oppressed an entire class of citizens for hundreds of years on the arbitrary basis of ancestry, while flaunting democratic ideals of freedom and equality it was failing to uphold. Those who respond by pointing to the decline of anti-black racism since the civil rights movement or the subsequent success of other minority groups in the country are open to the charge of historical denialism or worse, and then swiftly consigned to the wrong side of history.

But “history” is more than a record of injustices committed by one group against another. And the facts of history don’t fall from the sky, but are chosen and ordered according to the prevailing visions of our own time. A particular vision of race has been taking shape in the United States since the moral revolution of the civil rights era. At bottom, it is a vision at war with the notion of colorblindness and the moral logic that says, to quote Chief Justice John Roberts, “the way to stop discriminating on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” As President Lyndon Johnson famously declared, “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘you are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.” In light of America’s long race-conscious history, race-neutral principles would only allow the privileges of whites and the disadvantages of blacks to accumulate in perpetuity while historical racism is left to repeat itself.

Proponents of this vision—notably the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and the historian Ira Katznelson—have reached something resembling a consensus on the cause of persistent racial disparities: The deep imprint left in the American psyche by the moral contradiction of slavery and democracy, and the culmination of that legacy in the mid-20th century when blacks were barred from the greatest period of government-driven wealth acquisition in American history, crowded into inner cities, and subjected to a vicious cycle of social ills that would ultimately span generations.

In his 2006 book, When Affirmative Action Was White, Katznelson shows how black Americans were systematically denied access to the post-war safety net provided by the New Deal in order to appease the racist Southern Democrats in Congress. “Still an era of legal segregation in seventeen American states and Washington D.C., the southern wing of the Democratic Party was in a position to dictate the contours of Social Security, key labor legislation, the G.I. bill, and other landmark laws that helped create a modern white middle class.” As the federal government was becoming increasingly involved in the national economy, the black population received virtually all the costs but none of the benefits of scrupulous city planning. The Housing Act of 1949 established “Urban Renewal” policies that would clear government-designated slums (that is, black working-class communities) to make way for public housing and the interstate highway system. James Baldwin famously referred to this process as “Negro removal.”

Blacks were then summarily cut out of the legitimate home-mortgage market when the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) colluded with the banks to deny credit to residents in black areas by the enforcement of racially restrictive deed covenants—a practice widely known as “redlining,” officially abolished by the Civil Rights Act of 1968—while blacks who did manage to escape the city centers in search of a home were steered to the other side of town by slippery realtors and exposed to predatory loan sharks. As the historian Kenneth T. Jackson writes in his 1985 book on suburbanization, Crabgrass Frontier, quoted by Coates in his 2014 Atlantic essay “The Case For Reparations”: Previously, prejudices were personalized and individualized; FHA exhorted segregation and enshrined it as public policy.” When a black family attempted to move into an all-white neighborhood—such as in the infamous case of Levittown, Pennsylvania, the first suburban hamlet in the country—the attempt was primed to be met with violent resistance by neighborhood mobs in order to protect property values.

In summary, whites fled the urban centers to settle in suburban areas and were followed by capital. Blacks were left trapped in the projects and consigned to subpar public housing in industrial areas without public transport or widely available low-skill jobs after the decline of the manufacturing sector. The concentration of poverty and the loss of investment led to a swell of social pathologies—addiction, violence, trauma, single parenthood, undereducation—that compounded with time and which neither the welfare system nor the criminal justice system were equipped to fix. The civil rights movement and its pivotal legislative victories were effectively too little too late. The condition of poor blacks is precisely what we should expect based on our history, it is argued. As Coates puts it, “It is as though we have run up a credit card bill and, having pledged to charge no more, remain befuddled that the balance does not disappear. The effects of that balance, interest accruing daily, are all around us.”

But, while this account is not inaccurate or without import, it has been profoundly influenced by the deep impulse in American culture to make moral meaning out of historical racism—determining which facts merit selection and which ones don’t. The effect is to render a moral analysis of history as though it were a causal analysis of the present. But morality is not causation. Though often equated in prevailing race discourse, the moral gravity of historical racism and the cause of present racial disparities are not the same thing. More crucially, the belief that historical racism is the sole cause of current outcomes compels a backward-looking stance more concerned with reversing past injustices than with addressing the problems of the present. Meanwhile, crucial facts are left out of the narrative that would otherwise throw its underlying vision into doubt.

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If events in the period between World War II and the 1960s were responsible for recurring racial disparities today, we would expect black Americans to be doing measurably worse over that period than either before or after. Indeed, this is the foundation of Katznelson’s argument in When Affirmative Action Was White. “Why did the disparity between black and white Americans widen after the Second World War,” he asks, “despite the country’s prosperity?” Citing a study by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Assistant Secretary of Labor under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson (and later author of the controversial Moynihan Report on the disintegration of the black family), Katznelson catalogues the decline of black American well-being over that period both on their own terms and relative to whites.

But other data point in a different direction. In their magnum opus, America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible, Abigail and Stephan Thermstrom show that, between 1940 and 1960, the percentage of black families with income below the poverty level was almost cut in half, from 87 percent to 47 percent. In key skilled trades, the income of blacks relative to whites more than doubled between 1936 and 1959,1 while black income rose absolutely and relative to white income across the board from 1939 to 1960.2 The rise of blacks into professional and other high-level occupations was greater during the years preceding the civil rights movement than in the years afterwards,3 and blacks began closing the gap between themselves and whites in years of schooling over the same period.4

While some of this can be attributed to broader structural forces in the economy, it’s significant that blacks were moving ahead along vital socio-economic metrics over a period that supposedly set them back. Coates, meanwhile, writes that discriminatory laws “reached their apex in the mid-20th century when the federal government—through housing policies—engineered the wealth gap.” But this doesn’t gel with the black economic and social progress during the post-war years. Significantly, the fact that black Americans were making progress over a period of rampant overt racism contradicts the assumption that racial disparity reflects the scale of bias in society.

Another crucial link in the progressive account of disparity is the discriminatory manner in which New Deal programs were rolled out. Coates, quoting the NAACP at the time, argues that the New Deal, by excluding agricultural and domestic workers, was effectively a “sieve with holes just big enough for the majority of Negroes to fall through.” While there is little doubt that the Southern “Dixiecrats” held disproportionate influence in the Democratic Party, it’s tough to argue that racism was the central force animating the New Deal. As the social democrat Dr. Toure Reed recounts in his book, Toward Freedom: The Case Against Race Reductionism, “The most obvious problem with the claim is that it ignores the fact that the majority of sharecroppers, tenant farmers, mixed farm laborers and domestic workers in the early 1930s were white.”5

According to the 1933 Labor Census, about 11 million such workers were white—a full 27 percent of the total number of white workers—while 2.4 million were black. Moreover, white Americans made up 74 percent of all those excluded from Social Security Administration coverage. How likely is it that a set of policies engineered by white supremacy would have such a negative effect on white people? The idea that New Deal policies set the stage for current racial disparities doesn’t align with the impact of those policies.

The most persuasive argument in this narrative involves the institutional practice of redlining—an umbrella-term for the selective and often racially coded geographic distribution of financial services. Between the 1930s and 1960s, when the housing market was really taking off, banks provided amortized FHA-insured loans to designated areas with a low risk of default according to maps drawn up by the Home Owners Loan Corporation—a government-sponsored organization created as part of the New Deal. The areas with large populations of blacks emerging from the south during the Great Migration were rated “D,” lined in red, and usually considered ineligible for FHA backing. And with blacks shut out of the deepest vein of intergenerational wealth in modern life and sequestered to a nether-realm of perpetual disadvantage, “the concentration of poverty” was “paired with the concentration of melanin,” writes Coates. “The resulting conflagration has been devastating.”

While selectively granting loans based on geographical patterns rather than individual qualifications is unfair in a broad sense, that isn’t the claim in dispute. Redlining is one of those terms in the modern political lexicon that is just complex enough to elude everyday common understanding, while raising the specter of grand structural forces that control everything. But it’s by no means obvious how the government marking an area in red on a map would promptly turn a thriving community into a social hellscape that would continue for decades after the policy was ended. There are two key empirical claims at work here. The first is that redlining maps were racist in origin, irrespective of whether blacks qualified for loans: “Neither the percentage of black people living there nor their social class mattered,” Coates claims. “Black people were viewed as contagion.” The second claim is that these practices explain the plight of poor black communities in contemporary America. Neither claim stands up to scrutiny.

If the redlining maps were based on race alone, we would expect the black neighborhoods and their occupants to have better economic characteristics than their white counterparts at the time. But a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research finds the exact opposite. Redlined areas with a predominantly white population had better economic characteristics than redlined areas with above-average shares of black residents—“the opposite of what would be expected if Black neighborhoods had been targeted for the lowest security grade because of race.” Moreover, a full 85 percent of households in redlined areas were occupied by whites, while data from the 1930 census showed that black households were concentrated in distressed areas years before the HOLC drew up those maps. This is not to justify the practice itself, nor to elide the fact that many industrious black families were prohibited from better neighborhoods because their race was used as a proxy. This is a causal, not a moral analysis. Redlining was not mostly about race.

If it were true that redlining practices were responsible for the state of poor black neighborhoods in our own time, we would expect the insurance maps of then to line up with the downtrodden neighborhoods of now. But they don’t. A 2019 paper by the Brookings Institute found that the majority of formerly redlined neighborhoods were not predominantly comprised of black residents.

Using the Mapping Inequality Project’s digital scans of the HOLC redlining maps, the study’s authors found that the black population share comprised about 28 percent of formerly redlined neighborhoods, trailing both white and Hispanic residents. While the paper notes how these neighborhoods are more racially segregated and economically disadvantaged than average, there is a great deal of variance between different redlined cities in their composition and economic characteristics—people move around and places change. Moreover, these areas tend to be relatively small, and often have a lower share of the black population than the rest of their respective cities. Some cities have no record at all of using HOLC maps, such as Washington, DC, which is among the most segregated cities in America. Historical redlining doesn’t explain the problems of poor black neighborhoods.

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But doesn’t the fact that blacks were economically disadvantaged when the maps were drawn speak to the broader scope of racism in our history? Yes and no. Again, drawing causal conclusions from a moral interpretation of history invariably drowns out other relevant facts. Beginning in 1916, when 90 percent of black Americans lived in the south, six million southern blacks migrated to northern cities. They brought a very different way of life suited to an agricultural environment and unacquainted with big city norms. Before then, racial barriers in northern cities were beginning to dissipate, with the descendants of free blacks in the north often living side by side with whites and attending integrated schools. For instance, as early as 1860, no neighborhood in Detroit was even 50 percent black. In Michigan, blacks were being elected to public office as early as the 1890s by a predominantly white electorate.6 In 1899, W.E.B. Du Bois commented on the “growing liberal spirit toward the Negro in Philedelphia” in which “the community was disposed … to soften the harshness of race prejudice.”

This growing liberal spirit began to wane, however, when millions of black southerners arrived, leading white majorities in those cities to erect racial barriers against blacks in general. This development reflected a common historical pattern, in which ethnically similar groups with different cultures are punished for the mass influx of the less developed group, such as the retrogression in American attitudes toward Jews when millions of eastern European Jews immigrated to the US after German Jews had already been living there for generations. In fact, the term “kike” was invented by German Jews as an epithet against their Eastern European counterparts, and major efforts were made to acculturate the incomers in order to prevent the arousal of anti-Jewish sentiment.7 Du Bois expressed a similar sentiment regarding blacks:

Yet it has everywhere been manifest in the long run that while a part of the negroes were native-born and trained in the culture of the city, the others were immigrants largely ignorant and unused to city life. … Thus the history of the negro in Northern cities is the history of the rise of a small group by accretion from without, but at the same time periodically overwhelmed by them and compelled to start over again when once the material has been assimilated.

It would be a huge coincidence if the deterioration in race relations in the 20th century and the hardening of racial restrictions occurred at the exact moment that millions of southern blacks came north. What’s more, many of these developments correlated with different periods of migration, such as the later migrations and retrogressions in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Oakland.

None of which is to excuse the racist attitudes of northern whites, nor to erase the hopes and struggles of those fleeing the south. But it wasn’t blacks alone who were discriminated against. The first racially targeted zoning laws go back to the 19th century against the Chinese, and restrictive deed covenants of the 20th century often excluded Irish, Japanese, and other recent immigrants—only specifically excluding those outside the “Caucausian race.” In his essay “Black Rednecks and White Liberals,” Thomas Sowell notes that a 1951 survey conducted in Detroit found that white southerners living in the city were considered “undesirable” by 21 percent of those surveyed, compared to 13 percent who ranked blacks the same way. When poor whites from the south moved north for work, “occasionally a white southerner would find that a flat or a furnished room had ‘just been rented’ when the landlord heard his southern accent.” In short, blacks weren’t the only group subjected to residential segregation, but their visible racial identity made them an easier target. The history of blacks in the north provides a vital lesson for race relations today: Racial differences can be more or less meaningful under different cultural conditions.

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More illustrative of the prevailing view of racial history and its blindspots than what it highlights, however, is what it omits. For instance, one would never guess, upon hearing this account, that the legislative victories of the civil rights movement were followed by a massive wave of reparational, race-conscious policies introduced as part of President Johnson’s War on Poverty and Great Society initiatives. These spent an estimated 20 trillion dollars on programs geared to ameliorate “poverty and racial injustice.” A few examples include the Food Stamp Act of 1964, the Child Nutrition Act of 1966, the Social Security Amendments of 1965, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the Social Security Amendments of 1962, and the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964.

The War on Poverty was based on the notion that black poverty was unique because of historical racism, just as activists claim today. But the desired results were not forthcoming. Violence, single households, joblessness, welfare dependency, teen pregnancy, drug addiction, and all of the ills we associate with the urban ghettos today were accelerated in the late 60s, whether or not those policies were a cause of the decline or just an ineffective remedy. So, much of what is called for by modern anti-racist activists has already been tried and failed. And yet it is critics of such policies that are accused of not knowing their history.

The failure to grapple with countervailing facts has implications in our own time. Urban renewal policies were among the most damaging to black communities—leveling working class neighborhoods and concentrating the poorest section of the black population into dystopian high rises with incentives that dissuaded upward mobility on penalty of eviction. But even these policies were informed by public housing schemes designed by a progressive activist named Catherine Bauer (referred to affectionately by a friend as “Communist Catherine”) under anti-poverty, anti-racist principles that sought to abolish private ownership and establish a workers’ paradise. These were rolled out under the civil rights-friendly President Truman. The aftermath was disturbingly documented in this multi-part 1982 PBS documentary on Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes project (the first video is mislabeled “Cabrini Green Public Housing Projects” for some reason, another project closer to the heart of the city). Some of the most destructive racial policies were framed in progressive terms, and can’t be attributed to racism.

Why don’t we hear about this? Much of what doesn’t make sense about how we discuss race in America is a holdover from the 1960s, when the country finally accepted responsibility for its brutal history. It’s understandable that America’s acknowledgment of its own participation in evil would leave a moral stain on the national culture, but the stigma of collective racial guilt has taken on a life of its own. For reasons that are perfectly understandable in the context of history, much of our racial discourse is animated by the deep desire among many whites to avoid being seen as racist against blacks and the deep desire of many blacks to avoid being seen as less than whites. Using racism as an all-purpose explanation for disparity satisfies both sensibilities.

But it comes at a cost. The implicit assumption behind the idea that racism lies behind every disparity is that, if it turns out white racism weren’t the culprit, then blacks themselves must be at fault. In this false dichotomy, either white people or black people are to blame for racial disparities, as though relative statistical disparities between groups demand moral explanation. But this is backwards. Disparities exist everywhere that different groups exist, regardless of institutional bias. To take one example among thousands, Americans of Indian descent have an income of over five times that of Americans of Iraqi descent, despite belonging to the same race. But, above all, disparity discourse gives the false impression that the success of one group is contingent on the failure of another. The complex tangle of historical, demographic, socio-economic, geographic, and cultural forces behind white-black disparities can’t be captured by a moral melodrama of collective guilt and victimization.

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Even if disparities between white and black Americans were a consequence of historical racism, contrary to everything I’ve written so far, it still wouldn’t mean that race-conscious anti-racism is the appropriate response. Consider the racial wealth gap. According to an analysis by the Brookings Institute, the net worth of a typical white American family ($171,000) is nearly 10 times greater than that of the typical black American family ($17,150), as of 2016. “Perhaps no statistic better illustrates the enduring legacy of our country’s shameful history of treating black people as sub-citizens, sub-Americans, and sub-humans,” Coates laments, “than the wealth gap.”

That the racial wealth gap elicits opprobrium is unsurprising. While income is accrued from year to year, wealth—assets and investments minus debt—is accrued from generation to generation, compounds across time, and correlates with virtually every metric of human flourishing: longevity, safety, health, happiness, freedom. It is the essential modern bulwark against unexpected catastrophe—job loss, illness, death of a breadwinner. Worse, the relative wealth gap between whites and blacks has actually increased since the 1960s. “The difference between the lived experience of black Americans and white Americans when it comes to wealth,” writes Nikole Hannah-Jones in a long essay for New York Times Magazine, “can be described as nothing other than a chasm.”

But the wealth gap perfectly illustrates the problem with using statistical disparities to diagnose and address social issues. An analysis by the left-leaning People’s Policy Project reflects just one of the problems with what Coleman Hughes had called the disparity fallacy by uncovering an element of the racial wealth gap that’s gone unremarked upon in most mainstream discourse—almost all of it is coming from the top. The gap between the wealthiest 10 percent of the white population and the wealthiest 10 percent of the black population accounts for 77.5 percent of the total wealth gap. And although the racial wealth gap exists to some degree across class lines, if we were to eliminate the disparity between the bottom 50 percent of blacks and whites in terms of wealth, a full 97 percent of the total gap would remain. Only three percent of the racial wealth gap is explained by the disparity between the poorer half of each population, while the vast majority of the gap is explained by the disparity between the top 10 percent of the wealthiest white and black Americans in the population.

Perhaps some of this gap can be attributed to historical or present discrimination, but most Americans are not particularly wealthy. As Adolph Reed Jr. (Toure’s father, as it happens) notes in his essay with Walter Benn Michaels entitled “The Trouble with Disparity,” if the racial wealth gap were to disappear tomorrow, it would hardly affect the overall wealth gap between the rich and the poor. Closing that gap would be the most expedient approach to narrowing racial wealth disparities. In fact, the efforts of civil rights activists such as Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph to establish universalist economic programs to aid both poor blacks and poor whites used exactly this moral and political calculus. It seems almost insane, on its face, to focus on a marginal gap between two groups of people in a diverse and changing population when most Americans are not particularly wealthy or poor and most live paycheck-to-paycheck.

It’s never wholly explained why policies meant to benefit the poor irrespective of race, whether with an expanded social safety net or universal health coverage, wouldn’t be sufficient to address the disproportionate poverty experienced by black Americans. When pressed on this point, progressives usually assert that the effects of racism go beyond poverty. But if it’s admitted that racism and poverty are separate issues, shouldn’t we address them on their own terms without equating them with race-conscious policy prescriptions like reparations? Acknowledging as much, however, would foil the argument that socio-economic disparities reflect transhistorical racism. If racism and poverty exist independent of each other, the case for reparations collapses. Coates, for instance, asserts that “reducing American poverty and ending white supremacy are not the same” because closing the “achievement gap” would do nothing to close the “injury gap,” citing racial discrimination in employment to drive home his point. But isn’t Coates just equating racism with socio-economics by using employment discrimination as an example? By equating cultural symbolism with political economy and grafting the moral onto the material, progressives evade the implications of their own argument: Racism is racism and poverty is poverty.

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Nevertheless, symbolism has its place in the national culture, and it’s worth taking the case for cultural anti-racism seriously. Marshalling the symbolic case for reparations, Coates writes: “And so we must imagine a new country. Reparations—by which I mean the full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences—is the price we must pay to see ourselves squarely. … What is needed is an airing of family secrets, a settling with old ghosts. What is needed is a healing of the American psyche and the banishment of white guilt. What I’m talking about is more than recompense for past injustices. … What I’m talking about is a national reckoning that would lead to spiritual renewal.”

Well I, too, would like to see a spiritual renewal of the American consciousness and a banishment of white guilt. But if anyone imagined that considering reparations and meditating on racism in the US would lead to a banishment of white guilt, the events of 2020 should have put such imaginings to rest. There is more of it than ever.

Moreover, the idea that the explosion of anti-racist activism since the death of George Floyd has led to spiritual renewal in America is a tough sell. The problem with spiritual anti-racism, however sincere its advocates, is that it associates the universal human emotion of guilt (or original sin) with the particular circumstances of a particular society, as though the feeling of guilt would disappear once society were perfected. Collective racial guilt is not something that can easily be flipped on and off like a light switch, and the stigma that comes with it inevitably fosters resentment among white people who don’t particularly like to think of themselves as guilty of historical atrocities committed before they were born, and minorities who don’t particularly like to think of themselves as historical victims.

Coates’s argument assumes that it’s possible to right the wrongs of history. Frankly, it’s an insult to all those who came before us to selectively appropriate their suffering to fulfill our own moral needs in the present. There’s no getting around the fact that correcting for past injustices between hazily defined groups necessarily entails punishing living individuals who are generations removed from the original crime. Thomas Sowell describes this phenomenon as follows:

Nothing that is done among living contemporaries can change in the slightest the sins and the sufferings of generations who took those sins and sufferings to the grave with them in centuries past. Galling as it may be to be helpless to redress the crying injustices of the past, symbolic expiation in the present can only create new injustices among the living and new problems for the future, when new-born babies enter the world with prepackaged grievances against other babies born the same day.

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Underlying many of the views espoused by progressive activists today is the notion that American history has been uniquely oppressive, while the success of the country is a direct result of that oppression. The destruction of the black family, Coates contends, was “not incidental to America’s rise; it facilitated that rise. By erecting a slave society, America created the economic foundation for its great experience in democracy.” While there’s no question that slavery produced a great deal of wealth in colonial America for plantation-owners and northern industrialists, if wealth were an exclusive byproduct of slavery and conquest, the world would be a much wealthier place. In fact, slavery has existed on every inhabited continent in every major society on historical record, from the Persians to the Hans and the Mongols and the Ottoman Empire, and still exists in some parts of the world. American slavery was neither unique in its brutality nor its scope.

What is unique about the United States and the West more broadly, however, is that it was the first society to question the moral foundations of slavery and actively root it out the world over. That there have been writings attempting to justify slavery in America doesn’t belie this point; there would be no point in justifying slavery if it wasn’t felt that it was something requiring justification, whereas the necessity of enslaving other human beings was taken for granted for much of history. As the Jamaican-born cultural sociologist Orlando Patterson writes, “For most of human history, and for nearly all of the non-Western world prior to Western contact, freedom was, and for many remains, anything but an obvious or desirable goal. … Indeed, non-Western peoples have thought so little about freedom that most human languages did not even possess a word for the concept before contact with the West.”

It is not the contradiction between democratic ideals and racist tradition that demands reconciliation, but the fact that a society which reared the modern world was not exempt from the tribalism that has prevailed over our species’s history. The grating sense of injustice produced by juxtaposing America’s success and its complicity in slavery and segregation is itself, ironically, a testament to American exceptionalism. Similarly, the fact that it is Americans who are having an institutional racial reckoning, as opposed to, say, Saudi Arabians or Indians, itself disproves the claim that the United States is uniquely racist in a global context. The demands of race activism are likewise contradictory: On one hand, we are told that it’s a horrible shame that blacks have not been fully accepted into mainstream American life; on the other, we are told that mainstream American life is a barren moral wasteland of existential depravity. It can be one or the other, but it can’t be both without descending into nonsense.

The notion that American prosperity is built atop a mass grave is a metaphor. In the same metaphorical sense, all of our relative privileges are built off the backs of everyone who has suffered and died throughout human history. But this sort of zero-sum thinking elicits more guilt and resentment than gratitude and appreciation. If we are going to speak in metaphors, we may as well use good ones. A more constructive metaphor for human history is that we are all living off the sacrifices made by our collective ancestors and we should take solace in their resilience instead of weaponizing their victimization.

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Ultimately, debates about the nature of racial inequality arise from a conflict of visions over the nature of human society and life itself. In a paper for the Manhattan Institute, Brown economist Glenn Loury articulates two different causal narratives around the persistence of racial disparity—a bias narrative and a development narrative. The bias narrative is concerned with discrimination against historically disadvantaged groups within the structures of society, and the development narrative is concerned with the underlying set of skills, habits, interests, and values conducive to success that develop in childhood within the family and community before discrimination has a chance to inhibit opportunity. While proponents of the bias narrative seek to explain why some groups achieve less than others by looking at institutional discrimination and socio-economic disadvantages, proponents of the development narrative seek to explain why some groups achieve more than others despite discrimination and poverty, whether they are Indian, Japanese, Taiwanese, Nigerian, or Filipino Americans.

Similarly, these visions draw the line of causation from opposite directions. While proponents of the bias narrative highlight the evidence of discrimination in the job market, housing market, school system, or the criminal justice system to explain disparities, proponents of the development narrative look at the differences in work experience, credit ratings, spending and study habits, or crime rates independent of socio-economics both within races and between them, such as Asian-American ethnic groups in poverty-stricken neighborhoods who achieve higher test scores than middle-class whites or blacks, or the differences in educational attainment and economic success between American blacks and Caribbean American blacks.

Importantly, the two narratives don’t have to be mutually exclusive. The degree of racial bias in society might influence group development, while group development might influence the degree of bias. The crucial difference between them is that proponents of the bias narrative tend to reject out of hand the idea that a black development is untethered from historical and present racism, while proponents of the development narrative are open to the prospect that deleterious cultural patterns can exist beyond the life span of the conditions that created them and, similarly, that eliminating bias in society won’t necessarily eliminate the developmental issues. Both narratives conceive of race in American culture as predominantly a social construct, but while the bias narrative holds that the stigma of blackness is created and perpetuated by white society, the development narrative attributes the meaning we give race to the relationship between black American culture and American culture at large. Loury writes:

On this view, persistent inequality may no longer be due mainly to a racially discriminatory marketplace, or an administrative state that refuses to reward black talent equally, as was the case in decades past. Rather, today’s problem may be due, in large part, to a race-tinged psychology of perception and valuation—a way of seeing black people, and a way of black people seeing themselves, that impedes the acquisition of traits that are valued in the marketplace and are essential for human development.

Arising from these different visions are very different interpretations of American history and the meaning of equality. The bias narrative envisions the nation’s past in the light of a dominant majority group exacting harm on various minorities through exclusion and persecution that culminates with the majority recognizing its crimes and together seeking justice for minorities. The development narrative envisions the United States in terms of disparate ethnic groups with divergent cultural legacies who rise to prominence through an often painful developmental process that ultimately culminates in every group achieving relative success and developmental equality.

There is a rich history of American ethnic groups overcoming discrimination, poverty, and ghettoization to rise to or above the level of the majority, from Italian Americans to Jewish Americans and, increasingly, Asian and Hispanic Americans. Unless we are willing to accept the racist idea that, to paraphrase John McWhorter, black Americans are the only group in human history who can’t succeed under anything less than ideal conditions, there is no reason to believe the ultimate story of black Americans will be any different from other successful ethnic groups. Indeed, proponents of the development narrative have a much less fixed vision of race—they assume that blacks can and will join the majority and their unique cultural heritage will increasingly become the cultural legacy of the United States itself, as we’ve seen with other groups. This is why the development narrative weighs progress in terms of how little meaning we give to race in everyday American life—whether quantified by rates of intermarriage, the temperature of race discourse, or the political diversity within minority groups—rather than in exclusive terms of socio-economic outcomes.

It seems that we’ve arrived at a crossroads in American race relations. The popular vision of race in America seems to be incapable of breaking the gridlock that places the fate of black Americans in the hands of white society and then condemns that society to the wasteland of history. An alternative vision, while there are some encouraging signs, has yet to materialize. But history is not destiny. Formerly marginal groups are fast joining the ranks of mainstream American culture, regardless of color. While progressives lament the “white adjacency” of Asian and Hispanic Americans, those very groups are rapidly melting into a new majority, while black Americans are urged to retreat into ethnic enclaves and treat the United States as a hostile territory. My fear is that black Americans are going to be once again left behind, not because of racism, but because of the use of race for moral and political power and the attendant cultural need to revive a history that is steadily fading from our world.

 

Samuel Kronen is an independent writer interested in culture, politics, and identity. You can follow him on Twitter @SalmonKromeDome.

References:

1 Orley Ashenfelter, “Changes In Labor Market Discrimination Over Time,” Journal of Human Resources, Fall, 1970, p. 405
2 Jason Riley, False Black Power, pp. 79–80
3 US Bureau of the Census, Changing Characteristics of the Negro Population, pp. 117, 118, 133
4 US Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970, p. 381
5 Toure Reed, Towards Freedom, p. 106
6 Thomas Sowell, Black Rednecks and White Liberals, p. 48
7 Thomas Sowell, Ethnic America, p. 81

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