Sunday, August 15, 2010

Poverty and Moral Cowardice

John McWhorter reviews Race, Wrongs and Remedies: Group Justice in the 21st Century, by Amy Wax.
 There is a school of thought in America which argues that the government must be the main force that provides help to the black community. This shibboleth is predicated upon another one: that such government efforts will make a serious difference in disparities between blacks and whites. Amy Wax not only argues that such efforts have failed, she also suggests that such efforts cannot bring equality, and therefore must be abandoned.
This central theme of the book, which McWhorter laps up none too eagerly, sickens me not only in its falseness but in its utter complacency and moral cowardice.  They both agree that society can really do nothing to help solve black poverty disparities, and so we should stop trying.  I suppose if this was true, then maybe we ought to stop.  But how could we even know this?  What a horrible failure of imagination?!!

So, let's ask whether this is true: can government policy make a difference?  OK, I'm a teacher, so I have a few thoughts.  Say I have a class in which a good 3rd refuse to do their homework and study, and their parents have no idea how to help their children.  But my day is full enough just managing to teach well.  So I literally have no time to spend 2-3 hours after school everyday tutoring/mentoring these kids.  I know for a fact that it would help them.  But there is no one to do it.  I, like McWhorter and Wax, must rely on some magic ghetto fairy to get these kids and their parents on the right track.  Yet sadly, unlike those sad individuals, I know that there are things we can do to help.  I could list a dozen programs that have proven to be very effective in helping to facilitate self-efficacy among poor minority families.

McWhorter laments that Wax offers no possible solutions to the problem.  No, really?  Of course she doesn't!  Because aside from government programs and a smattering of charity (which I imagine would be useless as well, right?), the only answer lies in sitting back and watch the world to turn, hoping in vain that minorities might someday "lift themselves up by their own bootstraps".  McWhorter offers us a metaphor I've heard him use before.
A pedestrian is run over by a truck and must learn to walk again. The truck driver pays the pedestrian’s medical bills, but the only way the pedestrian will walk again is through his own efforts. The pedestrian may insist that the driver do more, that justice has not occurred until the driver has himself made the pedestrian learn to walk again. But the sad fact is that justice, under this analysis, is impossibleThe legal theory about remedies, Wax points out, grapples with this inconvenience—and the history of the descendants of African slaves, no matter how horrific, cannot upend its implacable logic. As she puts it, “That blacks did not, in an important sense, cause their current predicament does not preclude charging them with alleviating it if nothing else will work.
This metaphor is broken because it assumes that black people - or any minority behind the disparity gap - must not want to succeed.  Obviously the pedestrian must make some attempt to walk.  Traffic accidents generally do not cause depression or catharsis.  But if they did, would not the driver be responsible?  What if in this case the traffic accident destroyed the person's family, driving his mother to drugs and his father to criminality and prison?  What if it forced him to grow up in a hostile environment where social pressures surrounding him all pointed downward?  That's one bad fucking accident!

Yet, in a way, this isn't even about guilt, or reparations.  This is simply about human decency.  If we ask ourselves can we help, and the answer is yes, then end of story: we must.  These are our fellow citizens.  If Wax and McWhorter truly think that nothing can be done to help and they just want to sit around on their asses while millions of poor kids could use a helping hand, then that's on them. 

As I said, I'm a teacher.  Waiting's for others.

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