Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Black Underclass

I comment on two articles that riff off the Ferguson tragedy. One is by Michael Jeffries, a professor of American Studies at Wellesley University, appearing in the Boston Globe. The second is by Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times. Both of them ding white people generally for the killing of Micheal Brown.

Mr. Jeffries argues by exaggeration. He presents anti-blackness, a concept larger than racism in that it requires no intent. Instead, anti-blackness
is not simply about hating or penalizing black people. It is about the debasement of black humanity, utter indifference to black suffering, and the denial of black people’s right to exist.
Even if Mr. Brown's death were a cold-blooded, unjustified shooting, it is a gross overstatement to claim our society expresses utter indifference to black suffering, much less the denial of black people's right to exist. Surely there is some middle ground between disagreeing with the grand jury and Mr. Jeffries' over-the-top assertions. There simply are too many white people who care deeply about what happens to black folks. Indeed, many of those white people are police officers.

But Mr. Jeffries' article convinces me that there is a problem. Our criminal justice system is clearly out of whack. Black men are justified in believing the odds are stacked against them. He blames stereotypes and built-in anti-blackness, which I suppose he believes is a genetic trait common to white people. In his view, these problems will be solved by us white folks facing up to anti-blackness, even though it makes us uncomfortable.

Mr. Kristof suggests a specific mechanism through which anti-blackness (he doesn't use that term) can be confronted--a South Africa-style Truth & Reconciliation Commission, consisting of six whites and six blacks.
A new commission could jump-start an overdue national conversation and also recommend evidence-based solutions to boost educational outcomes, improve family cohesion and connect people to jobs.
Wow! That's a pretty impressive day's work for twelve people, especially given the failure of the New Deal, the Civil Rights movement, and the Great Society programs to accomplish the same thing. But never mind--the hundreds of billions of dollars we've spent on those august programs will pale in comparison to the "evidence-based solutions" now to come forth.

The very unreality of these proposals demonstrates the failure of big government liberalism. That two leading thinkers can't come up with anything more practical is a scandal. To find out what a real Truth & Reconciliation Commission might hear, all you have to do is read the comments to the two articles. Perhaps there's some truth there, but not much hint of reconciliation.

The problem with both articles is they fail to understand the root causes of the issue. That core problem is that black people (or, more specifically, African Americans--the descendants of former slaves) are an underclass. That means they have lower status than any other ethnic group in America.

The problem with status is that it's a zero-sum game. If we raise the status of black people, then somebody else will have the lowest status in America. That's why nobody (except maybe black people) wants to raise their status. Next in line for the honor might be the Scots-Irish of Appalachia--certainly one reason why the Democratic Party has crashed spectacularly in those states.

Low-status people exist in every society. In much of Europe the Roma (Gypsies) fill the role. In India it's Dalits (untouchables) or Muslims. In Syria it was the Alawites, until Hafez al-Assad took power. In much of the Arab world it's the Palestinians.

The problem with low-status people is they have nothing to lose. That alone explains the high criminality in black neighborhoods. It describes why black men resort to physical intimidation to assert dominance--all other status markers are closed to them. Low-status people are the folks who burn down their own neighborhood when things don't go their way (see, e.g., the Palestinians in Gaza).

Status correlates with money, but probably not the way you think. If you have high status, you usually make some money--see Bill Clinton or Bill Gates. On the other hand, give low status people some cash (e.g., former NFL players such as OJ Simpson), and they'll still be low status. In a word relative poverty is a symptom of low status, not a cause. Unlike status, wealth is not a zero-sum game--people can all get richer at the same time.

Some conservative whites mock blacks for their low status behavior. That's rude and crude, but at least it's honest. Liberals, on the other hand, are just hypocritical. People like Mr. Kristof cry crocodile tears over the plight of black people, but offer no useful suggestions about how to change anything. Fixing inequality or improving education--as valuable as those may be in their own right--will not address the status difference.

In fact, liberals don't really want to improve black's status, for otherwise their's will fall. Their efforts are accordingly half-hearted and symbolic. They help in infantilizing and patronizing ways, such as through affirmative action, or race-based welfare programs. Helping black people is cause rather like saving whales.

President Obama's response is revealing. His father was a very high status individual in Kenya, with multiple wives. His mother was a highly educated, modestly successful, white anthropologist. In no case does Mr. Obama share the heritage of African Americans. It is thus not surprising that he keeps his distance from racial, hot-button issues. (His wife and his daughters do share the African American culture, but it's hard to class them as low status. They've escaped the ghetto.)

The only people who can raise the status of black people are black people themselves. They will do so against the strenuous opposition of other groups who do not want to be displaced in the status sweepstakes. Certainly that includes poor whites, who will resist them to the last breath. It also pits them against Latinos, many of whom are making a run for the middle class.

Gregory Clark notes that status differences persist over centuries, and disappear only gradually through intermarriage. Thus it is not easy to be optimistic about race relations in America. Blacks will continue to seethe at their low station in life, and everybody else will continue to fear and distrust them.

The best we can hope for is a reasonably peaceful modus vivendi. That depends on an impartial rule of law, including a reasonably honest criminal justice system. Unfortunately, I don't think either Mr. Jeffries' or Mr. Kristof's articles help with that effort.

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