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Race Relations, 2009


For obvious reasons, this is a good time to take a step back and think about what remains to be done to improve race relations in the United States.We should ask first where, ideally, we would like to end up. A realistic goal would be for being black to be roughly analogous to being Irish. That is, we don’t expect people to be literally colorblind, and we don’t demand that people ignore their Irish or African American roots. It’s perfectly fine to celebrate that heritage, but the celebration ought to be a relatively minor part of one’s makeup, no one should be discriminated against on account of this ethnicity, and of course any formal legal distinction on this basis ought to be forbidden.

How do we fall short of this ideal, and what can we do to reach it? In terms of legal distinctions in treatment, we are already there (with the important exception of racial preferences–a.k.a. affirmative action–discussed later). The government is not allowed to treat people differently on the basis of skin color, and it is illegal to do so in most publicly transacted private matters as well (employment, etc.).

Two problems remain. First, while we have made huge progress, there are still individuals who harbor racial bias and who, therefore, engage in racial discrimination. Second, a disproportionately high number of African Americans are clustered at the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder and a disproportionately low number at the upper end.

What can we do about the remaining individual bias and discrimination? We’ve made it socially unacceptable to be a bigot; our laws and our popular culture equally condemn racial discrimination. But the root task is to persuade people that they are wrong to think that African Americans are in some way inferior in the first place. And here, racial stratification is a problem: The reason for bigotry today is not that it is taught by the government or in school or even at one’s mother’s knee, but that the bigots observe the disproportionate number of African Americans who are poor or jobless or in prison or whatever, and conclude that there is something wrong with the whole race. This is unfortunate, but so long as these disproportions occur, it will happen.

So, how do we address the racial stratification? A central task is to improve some parts of black culture–most obviously by addressing the fact that seven out of ten African Americans are born out of wedlock. It is illegitimacy that results in the bunching of black people in poverty and unemployment and prison. Fix that problem, and there won’t be much left to improving race relations.

Now, on racial preferences. Classifying people according to skin color and what country their ancestors came from, and treating some better and others worse depending on which box they check, is obviously discrimination and obviously undesirable for the long-term harmony of an increasingly multiracial and multiethnic country. Racial preferences don’t diminish bigotry. Rather, they encourage it, by fostering resentment. What’s more, they paper over the real problems–like illegitimacy–and thus make it less likely that they will be addressed.

Americans have elected an African American president. Partly on that account, there is hope regarding the remaining impediments to progress. The president has already encouraged African Americans to follow the Obamas’ lead when it comes to family and child-rearing. It would also be heartening if he would follow the logic of something he once said, to the effect that his daughters probably shouldn’t get preferences, and that poor non-minorities probably should. He could scrap the counterproductive system of racial preferences, and transform it into programs that help disadvantaged individuals of all colors.


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