Politics & Policy

Reflections on Race Week

Perhaps we can get along, in a sense.

Well, that was interesting. Last week’s two big news stories were both about race: the dropping of all charges against the Duke lacrosse players, and the defenestration of Don Imus. Over in the Mother Country, Prime Minister Tony Blair created a separate kerfuffle by asserting, in a speech, that the very high rates of violent crime among young black men in Britain are not a consequence of poverty or racial discrimination, but arise from something in black ghetto culture itself.

#ad#And back in the U.S.A., we are coming up to two race-significant anniversaries. Ten years ago, on June 13, 1997, President Clinton issued Executive Order No. 13050 which — I am quoting from the document that emerged a year later — “created the Initiative on Race and authorized the creation of an Advisory Board to advise the President on how to build one America for the 21st century.” And 15 years ago, on April 29, 1992, there occurred the Los Angeles riots, remembered by most Americans for Rodney King’s plaintive question (May 1, 1992): “Can’t we all just get along?”

Fifteen years on, does Rodney King’s question have an answer yet? That depends on your definition of terms. There have been no more race riots as dramatic as those in 1992, though the 2001 Cincinnati riots came close. On a very broad, general impression, I would say that the racial situation in the U.S. is less fraught now than it has been for decades. We have settled into some kind of rough equilibrium. In that sense, yes, we can get along.

One of those terms that needs defining is “race,” of course. I used to start off my own columns on this topic by arguing that, to a good first approximation, there are really only two races in the U.S.: black, and nonblack. The issues between black Americans and all others were huge; the issues among all those others were tiny by comparison.

I don’t think this is any longer a tenable position. The swelling numbers and assertiveness of Hispanics have made this a three-cornered issue. (As to whether Hispanics are a race in the same sense that African Americans are — well, I leave you to discuss that among yourselves, noting only that the National Council of La Raza, which is the main lobbying organization for Hispanics, plainly believes they are. “La Raza” means “the race”!)

It may in fact be that racial conflict in the years to come will mainly be between blacks and Hispanics. It is already the case that black-Hispanic frictions are a major cause of trouble in our jails and in our schools. The recent great wave of Hispanic immigrants is fast generating a new underclass, and it is not at all clear that our country has room for more than one.

Setting that aside and concentrating on black-white relations — which have been the ones in the news these past few days — how are things going? Can we all get along?

On a personal level, we surely can. Most of us have individual colleagues, neighbors, or acquaintances across the black-white divide whom we like and respect. We get on just fine with them. Often we date them. Increasingly, according to a recent survey, we marry them.

The trouble is that this amity doesn’t scale up. One black person can get on cheerfully and happily with one white person. Unfortunately that does not get us very far with America’s problem, which is: Can 36 million black persons get along with 224 million white persons? That is a different question, about different things, and it has a different answer.

Numbers, numbers. A self-conscious, easily identifiable collection of a million people is not just one person multiplied by a million, appealing as that notion may be to an individualistic nation like ours. As with any large aggregation of atomic objects, it has emergent properties that are by no means easy to deduce from the properties of the individual component atoms. It has broad statistical features, which the human brain, employing that statistical computer that is one of its most potent and remarkable means for assuring the survival of its host organism, renders as stereotypes. It has a culture. And the statistical features that differentiate one culture from another may do so in troublesome ways.

In the U.S. today, the most glaring differences between black America and white America are in education and in crime. The terrible academic statistics for young black Americans, and the equally appalling statistics on black crime, are well known to everyone. Wishing, as most of us do, to live in a more harmonious country — or, as President Clinton’s 1997 advisory board urged the president, “to build one America” — we’d like to do something about this. The first step is of course to identify causes. What are the causes of those disparities?

Americans have come up with two broad categories of answers to that question, what I shall call the Folk Biology and Social Science categories. The Folk Biology explainers all assume that there are innate and intractable differences between populations that are descended, or mostly descended, from different, small founder-groups in the remote past, inhabiting different environments. Social Science explainers deny such differences and assume that all group disparities arise from social mechanics.

In the particular case of black-white disparities in education and crime here in the U.S., Social Science explanations are spread across a spectrum according to how much, or how little, importance the explainer assigns to the malice of white Americans — i.e. to racism — as opposed to cold impersonal or historical factors.

In the world of politics, acceptable discourse about black-white disparities is all conducted in terms of Social Science explanations. There are many reasons for this, not the least of them being that politicians get our attention by promising to fix things. If the Folk Biologists are right, the thing is unfixable, and politicians are left saying: “You’ll just have to make the best of it, I’m afraid. Nothing I can do.” This is not a thing that politicians say.

A politician can still position himself on the Social Science spectrum, though, assigning more or less of the problem to white malice. In his speech at Cardiff last week, Tony Blair repositioned himself on that spectrum, to a point further from “It’s all the white man’s fault,” and closer to “Black British people — look at yourselves.” In the British context, that was sufficiently sensational to make headlines. (What if Blair had dumped the Social Science model altogether and embraced Folk Biology? The imagination reels.)

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Serious American thinkers about race, while staying scrupulously inside the boundaries of the Social Science model, are way ahead of the prime minister here. The last serious, important book on black-white educational disparities out of the Social Science model actually had the title No Excuses. Its authors, Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom, took the “culture” theory as far as it can be taken, probably further than Tony Blair would be willing to take it — and this was four years ago.

#ad#The fact that we have heard nothing much from the Social Science explainers since the publication of No Excuses only reinforces the impression left by the Thernstroms’ book: that the Social Science model is close to a point of total collapse. Efforts to shore it up — like the preposterous “stereotype threat” theory that was getting publicity in 2004-5 — just make it even more plain that the social scientists are chasing causality down ever-narrower capillaries of metaphysical speculation.

Similarly with the black-white gap on criminality. Here’s a way to quantify the gap. Take a white male aged 18-64 at random from the white population of the U.S. What is the probability that he is in jail? According to the 2000 Census, it is slightly better than one percent — 0.0107, to be precise. For a black male, the number is much higher — 0.0790. An average black American adult male is therefore 7.4 times more likely to be in jail than his white counterpart. Why?

The Social Science model offers poverty and racism as answers, with the racism of policemen and judges especially salient. As with the education gap, these explanations have an exhausted appearance. They were certainly plausible 40 years ago, when there were few black judges and policemen. Now entire cities — judges, policemen, and all — are run by black Americans. Those cities turn out to have the worst black-crime statistics of all! That 7.4 ratio I gave above was for the nation as a whole. In Washington, D.C., the ratio is 29.3. (The statistical legwork here was done by Human Rights Watch. A Folk-Biological interpretation of the numbers was offered by the statistician who uses the pseudonym “La Griffe du Lion,” here.)

That is all academics, of course. In the everyday world, ordinary citizens stumble on as best we can. The widespread preference is to avoid the whole topic as rancorous and unpleasant. Many, perhaps even most, white Americans, if cornered on the issue, would admit to believing some version of the Folk Biology model. Black Americans remain unanimously devoted to the Social Science model, with, to judge from radio call-ins, newspaper “letters to the editor” columns, and personal anecdotes, a preference for the left-hand, “blame whitey” end of the explanation spectrum.

And on we stumble, depending on a good deal of hypocrisy to steer us through the obstacles. White liberals who would rather pluck out their eyeballs than let their kids attend a majority-black public school nevertheless protest indignantly about the supposed racism of Don Imus. A presidential candidate who subtitled his autobiography A Story of Race and Inheritance will tell you (I am sure) if you ask him, that race is a figment of your imagination, a “social construct,” while inheritance is of no importance whatsoever in human affairs, and never has been, and never could be. White Americans, a scattering of bohemians aside, beggar themselves to buy homes as far as possible from big concentrations of their black fellow-citizens. Inside those concentrations, black Americans stew in dependency and hopelessness. When, as happened with Hurricane Katrina, the dependency and the hopelessness decorate our TV screens for days on end, we turn away in embarrassment, having no real clue what to do about any of it.

It’s an equilibrium, of sorts. Not a very tidy or satisfactory one; but then, human affairs are rarely tidy or satisfactory. The politico-psychological imperative to continue asserting faith in the Social Science model generates programs — like the ludicrous No Child Left Behind extravaganza — that waste a few billion dollars here, a few billion there, but we can afford it. The country is big enough that we can mostly keep away from each other, which is mostly what we prefer to do. (Even for purposes of “oppression.” A tiny feature of the Duke case, picked up with breathless indignation by ABC’s Terry Moran, was that the partying white lacrosse players specifically requested a white stripper.) So perhaps, after all, the answer to Rodney King’s famous question is a qualified “Yes.”

And President Clinton’s 1997 Initiative on Race? Oh, nobody remembers that. That was ten years ago, for goodness sake.

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