Friday, April 16, 2010

Social Justice the Easy Way

John McWhorter has a review of Freedom is Not Enough: The Moynihan Report and America's Struggle over Black Family Life--from LBJ to Obama, by James T. Patterson.  While agreeing in principle with the original report, and the idea of racial equality in general, McWhorter spends much of the review lamenting what he views as the movement for minority social justice's devolution into corrosive federal welfare programs.  While (certainly in retrospect) many of the attempts by the government at social justice were failures, they weren't all bad - as I'm sure more than one struggling single mother could have told you -  and it seems a fool's errand to try and pretend we can imagine what the black community would have looked like without them altogether.  The odd thing is how little time McWhorter spends actually discussing what positive solutions have been tried and where we need to go from here.

He ends with the shallow and tired phrase, "we may have a long way to go—but we’ve come a long way too."  But as a summation of his thesis, it's actually perfect: obviously we have come a long way, and (obviously) we have a long way to go, but if all you're going to do is highlight the fact that the Black community is doing a little bit better in some ways, then your thesis is not only vapid, but actually quite corrosive in that it perpetuate a false sense of momentum that simply doesn't exist. 

He begins with a glaring glossing over of a completely false premise.

"We all applaud that blacks attained liberté from the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and in its wake, égalité—the means to opportunity—by means of affirmative action and changes in racial attitudes."

Strictly speaking, the Civil Rights Act took legal discrimination off the books.  But that is not the same thing as "the means to opportunity".  If you keep a man in a small box for 3 weeks, then set him free, he in no way has the same "means to opportunity" as you.  His damn legs are sore and his muscles are weak!  The human mind is a complicated thing.  Progressives have always known that before a man can be free his mind must be free as well.  This involves not just liberation, but active learning

To fully take advantage of the "freedom" modern society offers, one must first know how to access it.  And there are many levels of self-efficacy.  One must know how to navigate different social settings.  One must learn how to manage one's emotions and cultivate appropriate discipline.  Must know the pathways to success, whether through intimate knowledge of successful peer networks or the broader trajectories of college or business. 

To the extent that society does not recognize this, it fails to take the proper steps to see to it that the black community (or any, really), is rehabilitated.  And the excuse that "there is nothing we can do" is simply false.  The process of self-efficacy begins at birth (or even before so in terms of environmental toxicity and maternal health), as social capital begins to build.  Language and emotional development pathways begin to grow according to environmental stimulation, which in practice ends up being the caregivers.  In disadvantaged minority communities today we see many children coming in to kindergarten often years behind developmentally.  Evidence-based programs exist that can strongly mediate this problem, but they require levels of funding that so far the public seems either ignorant of or unwilling to embrace.

In light of this truth about human development, which we have known about for far too long to plead ignorance, McWhorter's lame social congratulation is maddening.  Much of his piece is devoted to blaming black poverty on welfare - programs designed with a minimum of social justice in mind.  Yet he gives no thought at all to how black consciousness and efficacy might actually evolve, and what programs - he mentions "education only once, in passing - might be an appropriate response to what is obviously a legacy of our nation's treatment of people of color.

In the end, the piece - itself an example - stands as an indictment of the kind of willful social denial and neglect that America has shown the Black community.  It's appreciation of Moynihan is backhanded, in that whilst praising him for outlining the moral argument for social justice, it bashes Patterson for failing to properly see how destructive welfare was.  Yet the picture McWhorter paints is of a black community profoundly worse off, despite giving any indication as to what he would have offered welfare recipients instead.  This is a betrayal of the moral argument for social justice which he claims to himself believe in.  He just has a funny way of showing it.

1 comment:

  1. Stumbled over to your blog from TheRoot, and glad I did. One of the most cogent analysis of McWhorter I've read in a while. God knows why one would bother ... still, nice work.