Reader, I have been vouchsafed a revelation, a sudden flash of understanding, a satori, a glimpse of the inner workings of the universe, of the waters that are under the earth, of the hidden tissues that connect aspects of reality not normally thought of as being related to each other in any way at all. Illuminated by that flash was quite a large part of the entire political landscape of the present-day USA, as if seen from a plane through a sudden gap in the clouds.
I am going to lay out my revelation in three parts: a preamble, then a syllogism, then a conclusion. The syllogism seems to me so all-encompassing and revelatory that, shucking off false modesty, I am going to call it “The Great Syllogism.” (Students of classical logic may complain that it is not, strictly speaking, a syllogism at all — more like a dilemma. “Syllogism” has taken my fancy, though, and Merriam-Webster’s Third seems to permit this usage. How many students of classical logic are there nowadays anyway?)
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.
Not so much a preamble as a actual amble, conducted here in the outer New York suburbs, through some leafy streets with houses standing on plots that vary from one-sixth to one-half of an acre, and that show up in real-estate catalogs, when they do show up, at prices from the low 300s to the high 600s. The time: around 9:30 on a weekday morning. My state of mind: I had finished my breakfast, read the newspaper, seen the kids off to school and the wife off to work, attended to some e-mail chores, and read some news and opinion pieces on the Internet. Among the latter was Peter Wood’s review of John Ogbu’s Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb. Then I set out to walk my dog.
There aren’t many people around in the burbs at this time of the morning. Other than a couple of encounters with neighbors, the human beings I saw fell into three categories.
Garden-service contractors. These people pull up in vans and trucks, unload mowers, trimmers, and blowers, and set to work keeping the gardens neat and tidy. Lots of these, very noisy and a bit of a nuisance on that account, but better they should do this on weekdays than at weekends.
Home-improvement contractors. I passed three or four houses that were being fixed up in one way or another — having an extension built, getting a new roof or siding put on.
An elderly lady out walking. She had a baby with her, presumably a grandchild, in a stroller being pushed by a children’s nurse.
The garden-service people are solidly Central-American Indian types, though often working for a white boss. They are small-built, dark-skinned, and black-haired. When I give them a friendly greeting they seem pleased and greet me back, smiling, but in a way suggesting that “Good morning!” is just about the limit of their English-language skills.
The construction people are a mix of white and Hispanic, the one constant factor being that everyone acting in a supervisory way is white. One of the roofing team — the owner of the firm, it sounds like — is talking up to his man on the roof. He is doing this through a third party, who translates his Noo Yawk English into Spanish.
The elderly lady out walking with her grandchild is white, but the children’s nurse pushing the stroller is a Mayan sculpture come to life. The wordless smile with which she returns my greeting shows gold teeth.
I don’t see any black people at all, nor any East Asians.
(1) At any point in time — this one, for example — the United States economy needs different kinds of workers in different numbers. It needs a certain number of lawyers, accountants, architects, and doctors. It needs a certain number of network supervisors, computer programmers, web designers, schoolteachers, tax preparers, and nurses. It needs a certain number of garden-service workers, lumberjacks, auto mechanics, plumbers, steel-fixers, cops, soldiers and child-minders.
(2) Always scornful of privileges bestowed by accidents of birth or place, this country has a deep attachment to the idea of meritocracy. In recent decades we have developed an equally strong emotional investment in the concept of racial equality.
(3) Our very best efforts at creating a meritocratic education system always turn up the same unhappy results: students of Ashkenazi-Jewish and East or South Asian ancestry are over-represented among the educational successes, while students of West African ancestry are over-represented among the educational failures.
(4) All sorts of theories are available to explain (3) — John Ogbu’s is only the latest. Unfortunately we don’t know which theory is true. Possibly just one of the theories is true. Possibly the true cause is something nobody has thought of yet. More likely the truth contains elements, in different proportions, from several theories.
(5) Until we understand the causes of (3), the most meritocratic system of education we can devise will produce a society with a highly paid cognitive elite in which persons of Ashkenazi-Jewish and East or South Asian ancestry are over-represented, a class of manual and service workers in which black people are over-represented, and a clerical or small-entrepreneurial class in which white gentiles are over-represented.
(6) Such a society would be grossly offensive to American sensibilities. (See (2) above.) It would also, in all probability, be unhappy and unstable.
(7) Adjustments to the meritocratic principle therefore need to be made: “affirmative action,” imposed “diversity” quotas in businesses, anti-discrimination laws, and so on. We must trade off some meritocracy for social harmony.
(8) The effect of these adjustments is — as it is intended to be! — to move up into the clerical class people who, in a pure-meritocratic system, would be in the manual class. (And, to a less significant degree, to move up into the cognitive-elite class people who would otherwise be clerks.)
(9) Corresponding adjustments to shift down into the manual class people who would, on a pure-meritocratic principle, be in the clerical class, are politically impossible.
(10) Therefore the manual class is seriously under-staffed.
(11) Millions of third-worlders are only too glad to come to the USA to do manual or low-level service work.
(12) Unfortunately the immigration laws do not allow them to come here.
(13) The immigration laws should therefore be changed to permit a large inflow of unskilled aliens from the third world.
(14) Such changes are unpopular with large parts of the American public, who fear the cultural and economic consequences.
(15) Politicians know (14) and therefore will not change the immigration laws. And so:
(16) For the sake of social harmony, we have no choice but to turn a blind eye while several million unskilled aliens enter our country and stay here illegally.
The paradox is that this particular way of avoiding one kind of social disharmony — racial stratification by class — introduces a different kind: the colonization of large parts of our cities by non-English-speaking foreigners who, because of their illegal status, are stuck outside the mainstream of American life. Also because of that same status, they are looked on with mistrust by citizens and legal immigrants. This unhappy state of affairs is none the less considered, by most of us, to be the lesser of two evils. Rough, dirty, and strenuous work must be done.
Our political classes, who of course know all that I have been saying here, had a plan to finesse the situation by simply “regularizing” the illegals, thus at least removing the stigma of law-breaker from them. That plan went up in the smoke of 9/11. It was, in any case, grossly unfair to legal immigrants, who have to jump through numberless hoops to get the right to live here (it took me seven years). We are stuck with the present situation, with the Great Syllogism. Probably we are storing up untold trouble for ourselves. The latest news in my own neighborhood is that an exceptionally vicious Central American gang named Mara Salvatrucha is now entrenched here on Long Island. (“Working as landscapers and busboys by day and criminals at night,” says the New York Post. Which puts those cheery lawn-service workers in a new light.)
Americans, though, do not lose much sleep over the prospect of future evils. This is a big, empty country filled with boundless optimism. David Brooks has remarked that the usual reaction of Americans when faced with “disapproval, anxiety, and potential conflict” is to move away. Similarly, given the choice between a pressing problem today and a reckless policy likely to deliver far worse problems tomorrow, we opt for the second. The future, after all, is full of possibilities, and by the time that second batch of problems arrives, we may have found some way to cope with them.
Let’s hope that that is what happens. Ross Perot used to speak of the “giant sucking sound” of manufacturing jobs fleeing the U.S. to low-wage countries south of the border. The giant sucking sound I am actually hearing, ten years later, is the sound of millions of unskilled third-worlders being pulled into this country by the vacuum at the bottom of the labor market — a vacuum we have ourselves created by deciding that such low-quality work should not be done by Americans, especially not by those Americans most likely to be assigned to it by our educational system.
We no longer believe in the dignity of labor. We all want our kids to go to law school, and have convinced ourselves that they have a right to do so. What do you think the slogan “No child left behind” means? It means that no American child should have to become a low-status worker. That’s what it means, and that is what we honestly and sincerely wish, because we fear we know what an American-born class of low-status workers would look like. Everything else follows by pure logic.