Why Aren’t You a Racist?
American civilization lives an immense contradiction. The charter of our society is egalitarian—all men are created equal—but its reality is deeply unequal and growing more so. We try to resolve this contradiction by distinguishing equality of opportunity from equality of outcomes, but that doesn’t really work. Why do the same groups of people consistently have poor outcomes if human beings are fundamentally alike and the game is fair? If you accept this logic and yet you are determined to maintain or even increase inequality, the only real out is to vilify the losers. What makes this such a dreadful trap is that it is never enough to ascribe perverse behavior to those at the bottom. They have to be made actually deviant by social and political action. The erstwhile friends blamed patient Job; but if the poor really were as patient as the patriarch and sat on their dung heaps scrapping their sores with a potsherd, it would be an intolerable reproach to the happy others. The nation needs the drug abuse, the violence, the ignorance, which is why it doesn’t leave it chance. Rather than trouble the sleep of the righteous, the teachers, cops, judges, prosecutors, and many others work long hours to ensure the required outcome.
Whether you’re on the left or the right or the top or the bottom, this solution is not much of a solution.
The left can’t really acknowledge the fundamental unfairness of the system without coming across as ranting Jeremiahs or dangerous radicals. Besides, and this is really the hard part, to publicly recognize realities would alienate and anger racial minorities, who don’t want anybody to advertise the de facto inferiority of poor people even if that inferiority is manufactured by the system—mentioning in passing that poor black neighborhoods really are dangerous and black people on the average are far less numerate and literate than other groups is what got me banned on Salon, even though the aside occurred in the contest of a comprehensive denunciation of structural racism.
The right has its own problems with demonizing minorities. Many poor people who are white and vote Republican don’t appreciate the implicit negrification implied by the strategy; but it goes beyond that. There are few conservatives, especially in the base, who want to think of themselves as racists since racists are bad people and they aren’t bad people. Hence the tortured attempts to explain why those people don’t just lift themselves by their bootstraps and all become proprietors of 162 pizza restaurants. I guess the influence of evil liberals and the corrosive effects of government handouts are supposed to supply the explanation, but that hardly accounts for why black folks are uniquely susceptible to the purported sophistries of the intellectuals and other agents of the antichrist or, for that matter, what the motives of the evil liberals and minions of the dark lord are supposed to be. Well, evil is a theological concept. It doesn’t explain anything. It is a marker of the place where explanations fail. Meanwhile, the economic conservatives have another problem. Dog whistling the base certainly gets people into office who help you avoid paying higher taxes or salaries, but riling up the peasants carries well-known risks. What if somebody gets in power and takes the propaganda literally? You never know when the siren song of resentment politics will turn into the last trump. Restraint and moderation in political manipulation has a practical as well as an ethical rationale. Playing with fire, you can get burnt. And what if the poor somehow got organized?
Over and beyond its political dangers, the maintenance of unnecessarily high levels of poverty is not a cheering prospect even for the rich. Many of our billionaires simply won the lottery and woke up in the right cradle, but at least some of them actually built something and even those who didn’t may have normal moral instincts. Those who have an engineering mentality don’t like the human and financial waste it requires to build and expand economic inequality—poverty is extremely expensive. Meanwhile, those who buy into Enlightenment values or the social message of any of the major religions are repelled by the unfairness of it all.
The ideology is especially hard on the poor because it makes them blame themselves for their own condition precisely because they largely buy into the meritocratic and egalitarian ideology of the country. Nobody is more American than African Americans—they’re the ones who act as if Jefferson didn't have his fingers crossed even if they know better. Contrary to what you hear on Fox or AM radio, black people don’t hear messages of self-pity from their leaders. Instead, they are bombarded with non-stop admonitions, sermons, and pep talks, which, like other forms of self-help, generally promise rather more than they can deliver. Of course if you tell people that things would be splendid if only they were exceptional, some of them really will become exceptional. That’s part of the reason why despised minorities produce extraordinary people—without the prodigious creativity of black musicians, we’d all still be whistling Green Grow the Rushes, after all. It’s also true that nothing will improve without the heroic agency of the victims. Nevertheless, the net effect of the rhetoric seems to be self-hatred more than anything else. Maybe that’s better than anger or despair. I don’t know.
Under the circumstances, I have to wonder why there hasn’t been a resurgence of overtly racist thinking. It’s not that I know any way to make scientific or philosophical sense out of racism—I’m not going to rehearse the usual and perfectly sound criticisms of the concept here—and I figure that one man’s blood has as much salt in it as another’s. It’s not that racism has any prospect of turning out to be an adequate or even coherent theory of human differences. I’m simply pointing out its obvious utility as a way of easing our social dilemmas. If we gave up the notion of the biological equality of all sorts and conditions of people, we wouldn’t have to try to square the circle. The enormous gaps in wealth and income between groups would be justified by nature. Sudras don’t have the rights of Brahmins because the Gods made them inferior and assigned them their place. No reason for either the Brahmins are the Sudras to worry about it. It’s nobody’s fault. Problem solved. And if you can deny global warming, the scientific difficulties shouldn't daunt you.
I pick up some indications that something like a return of the repressed is indeed underway. Jeff Bush didn’t mention the Bell Curve when he endorsed another one of Charles Murray’s books the other day; but Andrew Sullivan, who promoted the Bell Curve back in the day when he edited the New Republic still endorses its conclusions as obviously true. I’m sure he has lots of company. It just isn’t the case that racists have to be malevolent skinheads. Murray’s dreams are far more peaceful, almost bucolic, rather like some of the idealizing pictures that Southerners used to imagine of darkies living their lives in innocence and simplicity in the cabins out back, except if you read Murray closely, you’ll see that not all the darkies are necessarily dark. A renovated racism doesn’t have to hang everything on color or assume that all the natural slaves are black. Among the techno-libertarians you run across the notion that mankind is undergoing what amounts to a speciation event in which the dullards mate with dullards and the smart with smart, thus producing sibling species or natural castes. The advantage of this non-racist racism is that it doesn’t have to tie itself in knots over exceptional black people. They are simply nerds of lower albedo, a different variety of us. What’s needed is some way of getting around this equality business, not necessarily the old way.
In lieu of a refurbished scientific racism, I’d personally prefer another approach. Most of the poor people in this country work. Suppose they got paid better. Minorities but also poor whites tend to be less well educated than well off whites and Asians, in large part because a crucial part of anybody’s education takes place at home before school age and many minority people simply have less cultural capital to pass on to their offspring. So what if we spent the money and time to educate the adults in poor communities so they’d have that capital? Many poor neighborhoods have inadequate access to the Internet. How would it be if we made access universal just as we promoted rural electrification back in the New Deal? Poor people often lack access to basic banking services like check cashing and savings accounts. Why can’t the Post Office supply these services and make a profit in the process? Cities depend on fines and fees that disproportionately burden poor people because they lack the necessary tax base. What if we figured out how to provide the cities with reliable alternate sources of revenue? Many urban neighborhoods are unsafe because arbitrary and oppressive policing is not the same thing as good policing. So what if we hired enough cops and trained them well enough so that they were able to be on the side of the inhabitants? By treating drug use as a criminal issue instead of a health issue, we fill prisons with miserable people, wreck families, promote violence, and create powerful criminal organizations. What if we stopped?
Of course suggestions like these have the same drawback, which is presumably fatal. They all imply that we move in the direction of a more equal society and mean that the haves will have to be have lesses, though granted the economic inefficiencies of a drastically unequal society, the game is probably not zero sum. My suggestions wouldn’t eliminate poverty, either—even social democracies like Sweden continue to have poor people—but perhaps we could greatly reduce the number of the poor. After all, there used to be fewer poor people in the U.S. They also wouldn’t eliminate racism. Races may be largely arbitrary groupings built on imagined essences, but racism, i.e., the human tendency to identify and demonize groups on the basis of superficial differences, does seem to be natural to our kind. Thing is, though, I’m less concerned about who Uncle Ernie can’t stand and more concerned whether the political system of my country treats people fairly. I’m weary beyond measure with the way that every debate about race and poverty ends up being a question of verbal propriety as if things would be magically better if nobody ever used or even mentioned the N-word. Does anybody care about what people do?