Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Siren Song of Race

Ulysses and the Sirens, Draper, 1909
Adam Serwer writes of continuing conservative denial of racism as an ongoing issue in society - that discrimination and racial bias are persistent threats to equality.  He points to a recent spate of rhetoric claiming that the real threat is actual minority-on-white hate crimes.  Conservatives pretending that racism isn't a problem is nothing new.  Many seem unable to grasp its basic nature, and importantly the concept of unconscious bias.  As Serwer writes,
Moreover, the notion that explicit racial violence is the only accurate barometer for bigotry ignores the uncountable ways institutional prejudice can sustain itself without explicit violence. Even if hate crimes in 2010 were slightly higher in 2008 instead of being lower, that wouldn't alter the fact that more young black men were "randomly" stopped and frisked in New York City than there are young black men in New York City.

However, in laying out the basic conservative position on race, Serwer makes an interesting claim.  He writes that conservatives believe
"disparities in wealth, employment, and education are simply manifestations of self-perpetuating discrepancies in human capital".   
Yet as a pretty radically progressive.  I think this is largely true.  How can this be?
All three of these disparities - wealth, employment, education - are tightly woven into SES, which is more of a predictor of income mobility than anything else.  Upper SES minorities will do very well.  To the extent that certain races/ethnicities are disproportionately lower-SES, this is indeed a function of historical racism.  But its lasting effects have little to do with discrimination, and much to do with ghettoization and the effect of entire communities of people lacking in human and societal capital.

So how does this play out politically?  I've long felt that the national conversation on education is confused and misguided.  Yet the confusion may lie in a larger misunderstanding of the way our society works, specifically with regard to poverty and class.  Our general political polarization both feeds and is fed by this misunderstanding, and I think Serwer's assumption is illustrative of the confusion on both the left and right.

For at least the past 40 years, the left and right in America have been at odds over race and class.  The civil rights movement made it clear to all that racism is wrong (at least consciously), and yet deep disparities continue to exist.  The right long ago adopted a stance that racism, no longer codified and thus eradicated, was no longer an issue, and that minorities were now free to succeed in America.  The fact that they haven't been is proof not of racism but of either bad genes or simple lack of will or choice.  A popular, third explanation relies on the ironic notion that it has actually been progressive welfare policies that have kept minority groups poor by removing the threat of failure, which ostensibly would have forced them to "pull themselves up". 

This explanation is interesting because it relies on an acceptance of environmental, behavioral mechanisms, which historically have made up the core of the progressive critique of capitalism; our system of property and economy is by nature oppressive because it relies on the perpetual exploitation of lower-capital individuals by the higher-capital, inevitably reinforcing class, or capital stratification.  A central component of this argument is the role of the environment, especially education, in cementing class immobility through the limiting of societal capital resources and thus human capital development.  The right-wing claim that welfare creates class immobility essentially mimics the progressive argument, yet flips it on its head and indicts not the capitalist system as a whole, but attempts to reform it. 

Both visions see the problem as environmental and behavioral, yet the right see no problem with capitalist class stratification itself, and imagine that left to their own devices, people ought to be able to attain any level of success they so desire.  So they acknowledge government intervention as a negative behavioral factor, necessarily limiting human will and potential, yet disregard class itself, including the notion of human and societal capital, as a limiting factor.  Considering the epic, total scope of behavioral effects of class on human potential, one wonders how limited government intervention could possibly compete as a negative influence on capital development.  The notion on the right is that people are choosing to live off of food stamps and government assistance instead of choosing paths of success.  Yet without the larger, pervasive effects of limited human and societal capital, how could the siren song of food stamps have much pull?  Who for instance, in a middle class family sets out to live a life "as many conservatives might put it" of suckling at the government teet?

Unfortunately, when race comes into the picture, we seem to have trouble dealing with these deeper issues of class and capital.  Because of a right-wing backlash against left-wing charges of extant social racism, many seem still to be stuck hashing out battles from decades ago.  Progressives look at ethnic disparities in income, employment and education and can't help but see it in racialized terms.  There is obviously a racial component to this injustice, especially since it was only a few decades ago that these disparities were all but codified by law.  Conservatives, loathe to admit structural problems endemic to capitalism, and feeling assaulted culturally by the post-Southern left, with their pointy-headed talk of the unconscious and continued critiques of cherished tradition, point to the fact that racism has all but been denounced by society at large, and that they can't be held responsible for continued failure of low-SES minorities to succeed.

A back-and-forth reactionaryism ensues, in which progressives - correctly - charge conservatives with race-denialism, and conservatives - correctly - charge progressives with using race to avoid talking about individual responsibility in minority communities.  Neither is completely true, but neither completely false either.

Progressives, like Serwer, do disservice to their larger, progressive moral claim when they pretend that the problems facing minorities are all about race.  They clearly aren't.  At core, the issue is a failure to develop human and societal capital.  This disparity of capital began with race, but now has become so entrenched after multiple generations that it can perpetuate itself on its own, without discrimination to drive it.  That doesn't mean that there still isn't discrimination.  And at some level, unconscious bias pervades our politics and drives disagreement over whether or not low-SES minority communities deserve extra help.

A productive discussion would begin with the acknowledgement on both sides that human and societal capital are lacking in poor communities.  We can both acknowledge that it was, at least originally, established by a legacy of racism.  We can then have the debate about what we as a society should do about it.  If conservatives see government assistance as a problem, they can then put forward a narrative of how these communities would be expected to find success on their own, given the cycle of capital depletion they face.  Progressives can make the case for government interventions that will not foster dependency but build capital. 

As it stands, race is a polarizing distraction from what really matters: equal access for all to economic and social justice.  In education - arguably the most important leverage point for social equality - progressive reliance on racism as a substitute for class critique has led them to the belief that poor educational outcomes in poor minority communities is a function of teacher quality, with the implicit, unspoken assumption that racism must be a factor.  This has allowed them to partner with conservatives, as a group uninterested in social critiques or government intervention, to also see the teacher as the locus of dysfunction, with the implicit, unspoken assumption that a large number of minority students have themselves to blame for their dysfunction, and don't deserve assistance.

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