Awareness of Racism and Singing to the Choir

In the past few months, I have been exposed to more works by African Americans and to more documents about the black condition in America than usual. So far, I haven’t learned anything really new, perhaps because I am a sociologist by trade with an interest in slavery going back fifty years. All the same, I appreciate the refresher. This is a good point to warn that I am at odds with many of my fellow conservatives about the debt, if any the US, owes in connection with slavery and in connection with Jim Crow. (See: Systemic Racism: a Rationalist Take; and also, my shorter: The Great American Racial Awakening: A Conservative Approach (Part One).) I also insist that mine – insisting on the recognition of some sort of debt – is the true conservative position. This position in no way entails accepting passively everything the woke movement is telling us about current racism in America.

Recently, I watched almost all of the good PBS documentary “Driving while Black.” The first part illustrates well, with both many historical documents and the memories of older people, how African Americans used to travel with the help of special guidebooks designed to ensure they did not inadvertently find themselves in hostile territory. It was worse than traveling in a foreign country whose language you don’t know, it seems. (I did this myself in Croatia, in 1962, before mass tourism spread far and wide some knowledge of English.) It was a concerted collective effort to escape the consequences of explicit deliberate racist policies (as well as of widespread racist sentiment).

Then, the emphasis of the documentary shifts to the creation of the Interstate Freeway system. The narration comments on the fact that the development of the freeways involved the clearing out, the destruction of many local black communities, including their many Mom-and-Pop businesses. I am guessing there is no doubt it did. But the commentator keeps the topic closed as if the last had been said thus giving the impression that black communities were targeted for destruction out of racial prejudice (in thematic continuity with the first part of the documentary). Some may have been so targeted, or even all, but there is another explanation that makes racial prejudice a superfluous explanation.

One of the considerable, but variable costs of public way construction (roads and railways) is the expropriation of the land on which the public way is to stand. In many cases – that, I think, have rational technical explanations – the land to be expropriated is occupied by structures with commercial value. It’s common practice, and I would argue, good practice, to try as much as is possible to find a path that minimizes the cost of the relevant expropriations. (In the US, in the past 80 years, public pathways have been financed by the taxpayers. As a taxpayer, I wouldn’t want planners to deviate from this practice.) An unintended consequence of this rational practice is that black-owned and black-leased building are over-represented among those destroyed on the occasion of freeway building. No racism has to be involved though it may be.

This is just a prominent instance of a general, diffuse problem: Authors, journalists, politicians impute authoritatively a racist cause to inferior black outcomes where racism may or may not be involved. There is often not even a pretense of causal analysis, not even of merely mental analysis. The simply plausible magically becomes reality. Yet, it’s true that African Americans, more often than whites, often end up with the some of the worst jobs, some the worst commercial services, and as of lately (2021), even with some of the worst health outcomes.

It should be obvious that any of the above, and many other noxious outcomes, may be the pure products of mere poverty or of inferior education, or of both. African Americans are, in fact, poorer than average. So, before claiming that racism, or a systemically racist policy is at work, it would be logical to figure out if the bad outcomes may not be entirely explained by poverty. Saying the same thing in a different way: If whites in similar economic circumstances experience the same bad outcomes, or worse ones, the racial explanations are superfluous. Incidentally, racism could still be at work but it would appear much less self-evident to the general sympathetic public. It would happen like this: African Americans have the same high rate of diabetes as whites at the same education and economic level but, for the latter, diabetes is a product of poverty and ignorance, and for African Americans, it comes from poverty, ignorance, plus something else. See how credible such a statement would be. Or this: Poor whites lag in vaccinations because they also tend to be uneducated but equally poor and equally uneducated African Americans lag in vaccinations because of the racist treatment to which they are subjected.

Exploring this kind of issue, the relative weight of self evident factors in determining bad outcomes is comparatively easy. Such quest would rely on fairly available public data and on methods (multivariate analysis with econometric evaluation) that were already not new when I was pursuing a doctorate in the 1970s. There must be hundreds of sociologists and of economists equipped to conduct this kind of research in the USA. I am following multiple media in a haphazard manner, it’s true, though with a conservative bias, from the Wall Street Journal to internet trash. I do this every day for hours. Yet, I never bump into the fruits of such reasonably principled research. Of course, Stanford and Hoover Institution black economist Thomas Sowell has conducted just such analysis for many years but he is never cited by anyone to the left of dead center. Instead, his existence is sometimes acknowledged as that of beloved but slightly screwy old uncle who may even have passed on. In my book, the seeming absence in the public arena of reasoning guided or influenced by such obvious research should be enough to make one suspicious. I think this stream of public reasoning is being suppressed. (Please, go ahead and show me that it’s abundantly represented, via any media, contrary to my impression.)

Technical note: I hate to break the hearts of my possible liberal – and even progressive – readers but the following is correct: If proper analysis demonstrated that income level, level of wealth, and educational status together are not sufficient to account for inferior black outcomes, that would not be enough to pin the blame on racism, be it of a personal or systemic nature. This is another issue that’s being kept in the dark as far as I know.

The end of the documentary, “Driving While Black,” mentions briefly the possibility that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 also destroyed thriving black communities. It did so by suddenly giving black shoppers attractive alternatives such as (then) Safeway. I am not sure how I would bet about this right now, as I write, but it’s possible to imagine that the Civil Rights Act was more destructive in this respect than the construction of the Interstate Freeway system. The documentary had the opportunity to raise the question. It did not. This good document would have gained immeasurably in intellectual credibility if it had. My impression is that currently, there are few critics of any race that would have the intestinal fortitude to do so. (Again, please, show me that my impression is wrong.)

I am concurrently reading a novel by a prolific African American author: The Son of Mr. Suleman, by Eric Jerome Dikey. First, it’s delightful novel and I enjoy every minute of it. The writing is effervescent even if it often verges on being in a language I don’t quite understand. (For me, it’s a bit like reading Portuguese, a language I have not studied but that is close enough to my own native French and to the Spanish that I have studied that I can usually make it out.) The reading is also a bit jarring for one strange, specific reason. The novel accomplishes with ease what good novels do: through action, dialogues, monologues, and disquisitions, they transport the reader into a world that he would otherwise likely not discover. In this case, the hero is a vigorous black man in his thirties plying his ill-defined trade in the second-rate academic venues of Memphis, Tennessee. Except for the academic setting, this is pretty far from this California old white man’s experience.

The jarring starts in the first few pages with a Trumpdetestation statement that appears utterly unrelated to anything beginning in the story. Thereafter, every so many pages, appears a politically, cliched affirmation about racism that ads nothing to the story. It’s as if the author felt like – or had been ordered to – assert with an imposed frequency, his membership in the mainstream of conventional African American struggle against racism. These interruptions are all the more ludicrous because, again, the normal course of the novel does a talented job of describing racism from the inside, so to speak. Bizarrely, the hero is being periodically sexually exploited by a rich, powerful, attractive, white, and, you guessed it, blonde woman. And, as one might almost expect, the hero blames his troubles mainly on racism. But the fact that he is an adjunct professor would be enough to explain his misery. Let me explain for my overseas readers: That’s a category of university faculty members who carry full course loads but are slated to never get tenure. (Yes, in American universities, tenure, “titularisation” is neither automatic nor a function of years taught. It’s competitive. It’s an “up-or-out” process. A teacher who does not win tenure has to find a job somewhere else.) In the last school were I taught, there were dozens of such adjunct personnel. They were all white. At any rate, in spite of all this, I warmly recommend this book.

At this point in the year, I am pleased to have been exposed to material on race relations that would normally not have been on my menu; nevertheless, I am struck by the many failures to take advantage of the situation to gain intellectual heft with other than whining and guilt-devoured white liberals. I suspect there is a convergent attempt, a cultural movement of the left, to remain vague in order to avoid revealing or admitting the obvious: that the past 60 years have seen enormous progress toward racial equality and justice in America. There was a chance to sing to other than the choir and it’s being largely wasted.