I recently read an interesting article by John Metta over at Those People. I highly recommend reading it before reading my post as this is designed as a response and discussion and will not make as much sense unless you have read it first.
Overall, I liked the article. It was thought-provoking, well-written, and discusses a worldwide issue that absolutely needs to be addressed. That being said, most of what follows is going to be criticism of what I felt are weaknesses in the author’s approach. Also, keep in mind that I am a white male, so ensure your biases are in the correct place before continuing (rim shot).
Don’t believe me? An estimated 40% of U.S. male inmates, around 1 million individuals, are black. Now, some napkin math using the average price per inmate of around $31,000 per year that means we are spending, as a nation, around $31 billion dollars per year holding inmates from a group that accounts for less than 16% of our entire population. For perspective, the entire United States Marine Corps operates on a budget of less than $26 billion. I won’t get too much into the prison situation here, because it could easily be several books on its own, but regardless of the reason (spoiler: the reason is not that blacks are more likely to be criminals than whites due to their race), that’s a lot of money to spend locking people up. And this number is before we account for the social programs that now have to deal with single-parent homes and the higher rate of future criminal activity by children of prisoners (again, not because of race or even purely because their parent was a criminal…if only it were that simple).
The author also discusses institutional racism extensively, and although I disagree on the core nature of this racism (in fact, I wouldn’t call it racism per se) I do view it as something that needs to be addressed. He does an excellent job of expressing the frustration and humiliating experiences of someone who has lived so long dealing with a problem the majority of the population doesn’t have to deal with.
Here, however, is where my views start to sharply veer away from his. The key word in that sentence, “majority,” is something I believe is the root cause of his frustration, and unfortunately, for all the places he gets discrimination right, it’s the author’s focus on racism rather than the majority which leads him astray. He has lived as the minority, and been discriminated against as the minority. The problem is that it has less to do with his race and more to do with his status as a minority.
Why the distinction? Isn’t that the same as racism? Sort of, but the difference is important to the discussion. The thing is that his experience as the minority would be very different living somewhere where he was part of the majority. White men living as the minority will experience much of the same discrimination as he has experienced, and since he’s allowed to use personal anecdotal evidence, I will use my experience of living in Miami, with me as the minority, as the counter to his “white people can’t understand” argument. I remember very well the frustration and anger that being excluded because I couldn’t speak Spanish or hadn’t gone to prep school with my classmates generated. As a teenager I rebelled against this “reverse racism” and had some pretty racist views for a long time. Sure, I justified them, but my experience on the receiving end of discrimination created a huge amount of resentment towards the majority. Unfortunately for the author, hypocrisy is a difficult thing to avoid, and in calling people out for denying their own racism he subtly reveals his own.
Early on the author makes the assumption that white people don’t acknowledge racism, using his aunt as an example. This is clearly false, and he even indicates otherwise during his same article when he mentions Jon Stewart calling out racially motivated police violence. And that’s just one example; I read plenty of blogs and news sources that condemn and call for action regarding institutionalized racism. He calls out white people for lumping minorities into their minority group when something happens but is lumping white people into a group by saying so!
Guess what? I was just as bothered by the Walter Scott shooting as he was. It was clearly an unjustified shooting and I would have protested even if the guy had a serious criminal background. It doesn’t matter; you don’t get to decide to kill someone just because they were a bad person before, and with our criminal justice system being the way it is, being a criminal is roughly synonymous with being poor. If Walter Scott had been white, black, Asian, or Islamic I wouldn’t care.
Yet he seems to believe a white person can’t understand that, or purposefully ignores it. Why? There’s no logic behind that reasoning. The fact of the matter is that people naturally group anyone other than themselves into the groups that are different, minority or no minority. That’s why women are considered a “minority” even though they are actually a slight majority of the population at large. And the author is demonstrating this perfectly by indicating he sees each black person as an individual in their community but white people are this nebulous group of racists and closet racists.
My biggest issue comes during the paragraph where he states that all white people are complicit in racism because we benefit from it. Bullshit. Are all minorities complicit in racism because they benefit from scholarships and quotas? Oh, no, those are different, because white people have a natural advantage based on their socioeconomic status. While this is true, is the solution to create a system that continues to benefit people differently based on race?
Or maybe we should tackle the actual problem, which is the economic inequality? Many studies contradict his argument that more successful schools are whiter schools…more successful schools are richer schools, and the racial divide is so obvious primarily because of the racial wage gap more than a racial bias (although the latter still exists). Racial tensions contribute to this economic divide, especially when we add in the effect of police racial bias on the poor (another topic worth addressing by itself), but if we ignore the economic gap, and the power difference that gap creates, we get a very polarized and ultimately inaccurate view of society at large.
The author makes some pretty crazy claims at various points, such as the one where white people are in power because of racism. This is completely ridiculous. White people are in power because they are the majority, and we have a system that drives public policy to benefit the majority (and, to a lesser but still significant extent, to benefit the wealthy). This system is also known as “democracy” and is fundamentally driven by the force called “majority rules.” And if the institution were as systematically racist as the author implies I find it pretty strange that we elected a black man president twice in a row.
And that creates an even bigger disconnect between the author’s theory of racism and reality. I’m not saying that a black president automatically means we’re a progressive, unbiased society; as I mentioned earlier, institutional racism absolutely exists. The key thing is that our president’s family wasn’t poor. He had home schooling to supplement his public school education and went to some very high quality schools along with college preparatory school, eventually earning a BA followed by a law degree from Harvard.
Your economic and social background have a much greater impact on your success than race. Unfortunately, for a multitude of reasons, right now the wage gap between races is higher than ever, partially because minorities were hit harder after the 2008 recession. If you read that article, however, you’ll notice that the wealthy individuals in those minorities were less affected (and, because when you’re looking at medians in a smaller data set, those wealthy individuals drove the median values for minorities lower).
So why does all this matter? If minorities are more poor than whites, isn’t this the same as what the author was talking about? The end state is the same…minorities are less likely to be successful in their lives than whites. That’s exactly what the article was talking about; institutionalized racism that benefits white people.
The reason it matters, and one of my final issues with the article (it has two facets), is that he doesn’t offer any solutions. He is quick to appeal to emotion by saying critics are being defensive and are simply labeling him as the “Angry Black Man.” He literally plays the “race card” while deriding people for doing so. Discussions don’t work that way; if you aren’t willing to accept criticism from the outset then you aren’t having a dialog, you are giving a lecture. He cuts whites out from the discussion from the first couple paragraphs, basically saying that one of two things must be true…we are actual racists, or we are simply denying racism exists.
Don’t believe me? Take this quote, prominently displayed in the opening of the article: “The only difference between people in the North and people in the South is that down here, at least people are honest about being racist.” And then he goes on to talk about how his aunt, a northeastern liberal, can’t understand her own racism and that we won’t have a dialog to protect the feelings of people like her.
When I started writing this blog I told one of my friends that the article was interesting but had significant flaws. He asked what the flaws were, and pointed out that it seemed like his black friends agreed with the article, but his white friends had issues, which helped prove the author’s argument. I responded that it made sense, given the nature of those flaws, and the flaw I was thinking about specifically is the one where the author shuts white people out of the discussion. Much like racism itself, it’s very obvious when you’re on the receiving end, and harder to spot when you aren’t. So it didn’t surprise me that white people reading the article would be uncomfortable, the same way that men are often uncomfortable reading articles by feminists who similarly shut men out of the discussion and lay the blame on their feet, intentionally or otherwise.
Empathy, however, is not an experience-only club. I don’t have to have been homeless to want to help the homeless, or been pregnant to sympathize and want to help my wife deal with the rigors of childbirth. Just as millions of Americans who have never served in the military support me, and I don’t spit in their face because they can’t understand what it’s like. By excluding those who sympathize, recognize the problem, and want to help, he naturally creates the same division that he has felt his whole life on the receiving end of racism.
You don’t solve racism with more racism, and all the article offers in the end is a call to speak out against racism while black people are dying as if the problem only affects black people. It doesn’t. I’m white, I’m probably not going to be killed by police, but when my fellow Americans are being murdered by the people sworn to protect and serve them it makes me furious to hear you say I don’t care because I’m not black. BULLSHIT. I consider everyone living in this country to be my family, I swore an oath to defend this country with my life, and that includes every black, Asian, Hispanic, and every other minority out there. It absolutely affects me, which is why I want solutions, not nebulous calls to speak out, or not, I guess, because I’m white so my voice doesn’t matter.
That’s the second facet. There’s no solutions. Not even a hint at the way forward. Well, I have some ideas, and they come from trying to solve the problem. As I mentioned earlier, I don’t believe race alone is the biggest factor, and if we can eliminate the root causes I believe racial tensions will dwindle down as well. And I can back it up.
First we need to examine what “equality” means and realize that equality matters economically, not just racially. No, no, not communism. But we need to flatten the curve a lot. The difference in productivity between two people is virtually never the difference between $15 per hour and $5,000 per hour, regardless of job or position. The best CEO or sports star is still reliant on a huge group of people for their success, and we’ve built a system that narrows the income to a select few. The U.S. pays their CEOs more than any other country in the world by a significant margin and that needs to fall back down.
Second, we need to take a hard look at our legal system, which is a mess and is anything but equal. The laws that apply to the poor don’t apply to the rich to a startling degree, and the rich who perform crimes worse than thousands of poor people walk away without getting charged, let alone convicted. During the 2008 crash they found rampant corruption and white-collar crime in Wall Street, with some players walking away with billions of other people’s dollars, and we have all the evidence to prove it, yet they’ve never even seen the inside of a courtroom. Down the street, poor black people are getting thrown in jail, beaten, raped, sometimes murdered, just for standing outside their house. We have poor people losing their entire livelihoods over parking tickets, tickets they are being charged for parking in spots on public property. I could go on and on, but when your justice system is blind to the rich’s crimes and the poor’s rights we have a serious problem that goes far beyond racial tensions.
Finally, we need to stop trying to patch race relations with institutionalized but meaningless gestures. You don’t fix racial divides by keeping those divides and shoving money one way or another, you fix them by making those divides disappear as much as you can. The military is a great example; after working nine years in the military I believe it’s one of the most racially equitable areas of our country. Are there racists in the military? Sure. Is it institutionalized? Not really, not once you’re in (officer to enlisted ratios still favor whites, but I would argue that’s more to do with the college degree restriction than military screening). One of the biggest factors that makes race meaningless is that everyone has a group, a family, and those people are your group regardless of race, religion, or anything else. A Marine is a Marine, and you don’t get to ignore them because they aren’t in your “group.”
We need to rebuild some patriotism, and get people of different groups exposed to each other on the same team. Not merely busing kids to different schools, but recognizing that we’re all Americans, we’re part of a state, a community, and that what affects one of us affects all of us. As long as the black community continues to view race relations as “their problem” it will continue to be just that.