Respect, just a little bit…
Two recent publications from last month, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Atlantic article arguing for slavery reparations, and former New York Times science editor Nicholas Wade’s book asserting the reality of racial differences, A Troublesome Inheritance, met with very different receptions from what is regarded as respectable opinion. The timing is coincidental, but I believe they represent two contradictory answers to the bedeviling problem of black inequality that are on a collision course, one coming from a conventional point of view and the other, if the mixture of silence and outrage with which conventional thinkers have received it are any indication, from the bowels of hell.
Mainstream political discourse is limited to two purely environmental explanations for black inequality. The right blames some combination of the welfare state and declining morals for inculcating a culture of illegitimacy, criminality and idleness; the left blames ongoing white racism and the legacy of slavery and segregation.
However these terms of engagement were arrived at they’ve served as a sort of gentleman’s agreement that seems to suit mainstream actors just fine: the right gets to condemn the welfare state and the left gets to condemn white racism. As for the individual wishing to participate in public life, he may place himself anywhere along a continuum between racism on one hand and culture on the other as the ultimate cause, assigning some proximate value to the other effect, but he cannot stray from the dichotomy.
In asserting the reality of race and the heritability of behavior, Wade has strayed. Despite refusing to draw it himself his argument leaves to unavoidable implication the probability inequality is more a failure of black ability than of white justice. It’s likely no accident he published his book after retiring from his regular post at the Times (we’ve become so used to purges for dissent the Daily Caller attributed his status as former science editor to the book’s publication–without taking the time to verify). Meanwhile Coates’ career is taking off as a result of his essay.
Wade is the first respectable mainstream figure to leave the reservation in a long, long time and he is riding roughshod over sacred ground. What’s lost in the mainstream controversy surrounding this popular science book is how little real controversy exists among geneticists.
In his 1975 book, Race,biologist John Baker cites a work from 1928 by Russian-born University of Minnesota professor of sociology Pitirim Sorokin, Contemporary Social Theories, which included a chapter on the debate about genetic racial differences (while taking neither side), as marking, in Baker’s view:
“…the close of the period in which both sides in the ethnic controversy were free to put forward their views, and authors who wished to do so could give objective accounts of the evidence pointing in each direction. From the beginning of the thirties onwards scarcely anyone outside Germany and its allies dared to suggest that any race might be in any respect or in any sense superior to any other, lest it should appear that the author was supporting or excusing the Nazi cause. Those who believed in the equality of all races were free to write what they liked, without fear of contradiction…Sorokin’s chapter is well worth reading today, as a reminder of what was still possible before the curtain came down. In recent years a corner of it has already been lifted.”
Baker was writing nearly forty years after Sorokin and it’s been almost another forty since the optimistic note he struck with that last sentence. Meanwhile, despite the failures of such alternatives as Freudian theory and radical behaviorism, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union and America’s ongoing failure to eliminate racial disparities–what might be called behaviorism’s two biggest failed experiments–and regardless of the recent revolution in genomics, Baker’s “curtain” not only has not lifted it has become iron, descended firmly between the mass of accumulated knowledge and respectable opinion.
Those failures, and the reemergence of hereditarianism within the study of genetics in recent years (if not outside of it), have prompted numerous false land-sightings by hereditarians so long at sea. Some see in the period between 1994 (when the Bell Curve was published) and 2005 a time of relative perestroika (Peter Brimelow’s “interglacial”) when it might have been reasonably assumed the tide was finally turning, at least in favor of an open debate. That thawing was cataloged by John Derbyshire in 2009 for National Review Online; as if to demonstrate how little permanent effect it had the same magazine would purge him exactly two years later for his (in)famous “Talk” post. Each year new studies come in, fallacies are debunked, frauds are exposed; and the prevailing narrative grows stronger, as if inversely proportionate to any empirical or objective success. Whether or not the existence of racial differences has been proven over the last generation, the durability of denial has proven stronger.
Perhaps the proponents of the culture-only explanations believe any inherent disparities are small enough to be made insignificant or ignored with some combination of policy, education and, on the conservative side, bourgeois values. Needless to say, such hopes would have to be fading by now from long exposure to failure. As for the prospects for the restoration of the old virtues, it’s hard to see that happening for any of us. The sexual revolution is here to stay. Progressive ideology, defined by its opposition to bourgeois values, needs no excuse for further hostility to them, but it finds one in black inequality–in that sense black inequality, specifically our obsession with it, has become just one more corrosive eating away at those values. But in the present milieu we have to either presume no difference between white and black norms despite all evidence to the contrary, or we have to dismiss their significance altogether.
Thus Coates, having already sought to tie present black dysfunction to historical racism by way of a lengthy account of housing discrimination in Chicago, sets out to deny both the importance of fatherhood and civility or the reality of blacks’ vastly different concepts of them:
One thread of thinking in the African American community holds that these depressing numbers partially stem from cultural pathologies that can be altered through individual grit and exceptionally good behavior. (In 2011, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, responding to violence among young black males, put the blame on the family: “Too many men making too many babies they don’t want to take care of, and then we end up dealing with your children.” Nutter turned to those presumably fatherless babies: “Pull your pants up and buy a belt, because no one wants to see your underwear or the crack of your butt.”) The thread is as old as black politics itself. It is also wrong. The kind of trenchant racism to which black people have persistently been subjected can never be defeated by making its victims more respectable. The essence of American racism is disrespect. And in the wake of the grim numbers, we see the grim inheritance.
Coates obscures the true context of Nutter’s remarks: an outbreak in Philadelphia of violent black “flash-mobs”–impromptu recreational race riots organized via social media–in the summer of 2011. This was not merely the depressing and familiar routine of “violence among black males”. In fact it wasn’t limited to males and included children barely in their teens. That Coates sees in paternal responsibility and refraining from violence “individual grit and exceptionally good behavior” demonstrates the bizarre contortions necessary to explain black behavior if heredity is disallowed–and the behavior he excuses demonstrates the disastrous effect of that denial. Elsewhere in his essay he continues:
From the White House on down, the myth holds that fatherhood is the great antidote to all that ails black people. But Billy Brooks Jr. [victim of street crime] had a father. Trayvon Martin had a father…Adhering to middle-class norms has never shielded black people from plunder…”
The “plunder” theme holds throughout his essay, which aims to construct a narrative of black industriousness thwarted up to the present by white malice. Needless to say he has to ignore the vast sums spent and massive federal effort of the last half century to encourage greater black participation in the economy–among other things he dismisses affirmative action out of hand because despite its practical effect in transferring wealth to blacks, affirmative action’s
…precise aims, for instance, have always proved elusive. Is it meant to make amends for the crimes heaped upon black people? Not according to the Supreme Court. In its 1978 ruling in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the Court rejected “societal discrimination” as “an amorphous concept of injury that may be ageless in its reach into the past.” Is affirmative action meant to increase “diversity”? If so, it only tangentially relates to the specific problems of black people—the problem of what America has taken from them over several centuries.
This confusion about affirmative action’s aims, along with our inability to face up to the particular history of white-imposed black disadvantage, dates back to the policy’s origins. “There is no fixed and firm definition of affirmative action,” an appointee in Johnson’s Department of Labor declared. “Affirmative action is anything that you have to do to get results. But this does not necessarily include preferential treatment.”
Where does one begin? The Bakke ruling introducing “diversity” was an attempt to rationalize a manifestly unconstitutional practice specifically to continue the project of elevating blacks economically, socially and politically. Yet for Coates, the very real transfer of wealth that has represented and the degradation of the constitution that is the “diversity” ruse (now its own monstrous sham) employed to continue it, mean nothing because it all somehow “only tangentially relates to the specific problems of black people.” What are the “specific problems of black people”? Apparently just the grim facts we already know, that their poverty is deeper, their neighborhoods more blighted, their behavior more violent, combined with the historical humiliation of slavery and, if Coates is right, the continuing reality of segregation.
But those same pathologies, combined with the intense bigotry of blacks, is the motive force behind white flight and segregation. The segregation of the past is invoked to explain, among other things, the violence and chaos of the present; what we don’t allow is the possibility the violence and chaos of the present explain the segregation of the past (and present, for that matter; the same white liberals who encourage Coates’ emotional musings are almost entirely ensconced in their own highly segregated neighborhoods). That very repression itself is evidence against the assumption.
White flight anticipated quite accurately the the degradation that followed the black takeover of urban America. To assume it’s nothing more than self-fulfilling prophecy because whites took their money and civility with them is to assume a complete lack of black agency, much less responsibility. Just who are the racists here?
Coates isn’t about to suggest limiting affirmative action to blacks or replacing it with reparations, heaven forbid, and he has no new ideas for how the money will be directed beyond more efforts at desegrgation–because there are none. He’s arguing that reparations will transcend the long cycle of failure merely by being directed specifically at the problem of black inequality.
But one can sense Coates’ real issue is with the broadening of affirmative action and victim status to other groups, who are now successfully copying black grievance as political strategy. That strategy has proven quite effective in turning black failure into political power and government subsidy. Without the assumption that disparate impact is always proof of of discrimination, where would black political power be? What would it have to trade on? Indeed, where would Ta-Nehisi Coates be without it? It’s the alchemy of demagogy, turning the lead of failure into the gold of patronage.
But the sudden haste of this renewed push for reparations, and the suspiciously coordinated appearance of the reception of Coates’ essay, complete with helpful suggestions as to how reparations might be raised (such as simply printing a trillion or so dollars a la quantitative easing) suggest a recognition on the left that time and the patience of non-black America are running out; further, with Barack Obama still in office the time may never be better (the author will neither confirm nor deny having met privately with the president shortly before he would have begun writing the essay).
As America becomes more racially diverse the old black/white dynamic is threatened–recall Eric Holder’s “nation of cowards” speech”, what Steve Sailer described as a signal to other grievance groups to move to the “back of the bus” and recognize black primacy of place atop the hierarchy of grievance. Others are adapting the black model of turning grievance into power and cash. Coates, in decrying “diversity” wants to make that successful model somewhat proprietary. But the question as to the cause of black inequality–white injustice or black inadequacy–becomes more troublesome still. Because one of these is a corrosive destroying the fabric of the republic and society.
But to return to the question of values, despite Coates’ cavalier dismissal of them, might a return to traditional family values help? One of the assumptions of desegregation is that pathologies will no longer be concentrated, and presumably blacks, freed of concentrations of other blacks, will be able or willing to adopt whiter norms. One of Wade’s troublesome heresies is to suggest Western institutions can’t be adopted by most non-Western societies because
If institutions were purely cultural, it should be easy to transfer an institution from one society to another.
Wade limits himself to societal-level comparisons. But he accepts the Cochran-Harpending thesis of continuing, accelerated evolution to the present day–contradicting the old convention holding evolution to have stopped about forty thousand years ago that, as if by design, left room for egalitarian assumptions that no meaningful evolution transpired after humans began splitting off into separate geographical populations after the migration out of Africa. Wade repeatedly describes evolution as “recent, regional and copious”, and again presents us with an unavoidable implication: that an individual’s genetic legacy must leave him more suited for that type of society in which his genetic makeup was forged and less suited, to the extent it differs, for one to which he has been “transferred” by the migration, forced or voluntary, of recent ancestors.
If this is true it explains black inequality and further means it’s no more fair to declare it America’s collective moral failure than to declare it blacks’ individual moral failure. It’s a problem without a solution and one–perhaps not by coincidence–we will not allow ourselves to identify. So we are condemned to a history of failed attempts to square this circle; a history that may eventually include reparations.
But is the characterization that blacks “suffer” from being Americans, from living in a modern economy and a liberal society, simply because these disparities outrage blacks and progressives, accurate? If we are different, what does equality even mean? Do blacks live in misery, or is the perception a projection of white values? Are we merely obsessing over the wrong metrics? If it can be shown blacks are happier on average than whites, does that make a difference?
A little over a year after having the temerity to suggest black teenagers pull up their pants, that same Mayor Nutter denounced Philadelphia Magazine for publishing an article about, among other things, the violent harassment of whites in the city. That article’s author pointed out the remarkable reversal that has taken place in American cities with large black populations: it is whites who now “know their place” in regard to blacks. That knowledge has been arrived at by intimidation and violence–a reality that has long been taken for granted and is somehow both a running joke and a grim, humiliating reality. The essence of black and white relations now is indeed “disrespect”, as Coates asserts–but of demoralized whites by confident blacks. White adaptations to this relatively new reality include submissiveness and copying–generally to the individual’s detriment–of black cultural norms seen as more genuine. An ongoing, broad kulturkampf has made “white” derogatory in not one but two ways: culturally synonymous with weak, effeminate and awkward, and politically synonymous with oppressive or illegitimate.
So it’s no surprise blacks consistently demonstrate higher levels of self-esteem than other groups and–unique among racial groups–their self-esteem isn’t dependent on any sense of accomplishment as these researchers were surprised to find:
…given that personal efficacy and self-esteem are positively correlated, and given that blacks have relatively high self-esteem, the fact that blacks have relatively low personal efficacy is something of an anomaly.
Coates and company argue, among other things, there is a psychological mechanism tying past discrimination to present dysfunction–the logic of the “legacy” of slavery/segregation argument. Study after study fails to find proof of the wounded individual psyches posited by these just-so surmises. Inequality is taken as a priori evidence of repression. But these studies tend more often to reinforce stubborn, long-held folk impressions (“racist stereotyping”) of racial differences in psychology and intelligence reflected in behavior.
The alternative to the present order, defining justice as equality of opportunity and accepting the resulting inequality of results, does not appear politically or socially tenable–if our elites will not allow it, blacks, and now our growing Hispanic population, will not accept it. If we differ in abilities, then the enforced measure of fairness–disparate impact–ensures no end to our strife, no end to the demagogy of such as Coates, and no end to the escalating repression and, yes, plunder of such as reparations. Slavery then is indeed America’s “original sin”, and one for which we cannot and will not atone. Dark days are ahead.