In his response to David French’s argument that conservatives ought to devote more time and attention to the importance of bridging racial divides, Roger Clegg offers a dissent. Rather than dwell on racism, he calls for “a period of benign neglect.” He writes that “the principal reason for the stubbornness of racial disparities in this country is family structure,” and that “the persistence of the racial disparities [between blacks and whites] cannot, I do not think, be blamed on present or past racism: That’s not what causes people to have children out-of-wedlock today, and indeed those birthrates have markedly increased over the past 50 years just as the amount of discrimination in this country has markedly declined.”
I disagree with Roger. Before turning to racism in the present, consider the role of past racism. I believe it continues to have a powerful effect on life outcomes among multigenerational African Americans, i.e., African Americans who are the descendants of enslaved women and men (as opposed to foreign-born African Americans and their offspring, who represent a rising share of the U.S. black population). Past discrimination created significant obstacles to labor-market success and wealth accumulation, which in turn have made life more difficult for those in subsequent generations. It contributed to the rise to ghetto communities defined by high levels of concentrated poverty, which in turn have had lingering negative effects on those residing in them — I found Patrick Sharkey’s Stuck in Place particularly convincing on this point. That growing up in a high-poverty neighborhood has a negative impact on a child’s ability to learn is not especially controversial. According to Sharkey’s research, so too does having a parent who grew up in such a neighborhood, even if the child in question is raised in a low-poverty neighborhood. It is easy to see how these effects might compound over time. Remember that one driver of America’s marriage crisis is the dearth of marriageable males, which is most pronounced in communities that have endured discrimination for generations. Though this could be a coincidence, I doubt it.
Sharkey’s findings are just the tip of the iceberg. There is an extensive literature on how childhood stress and trauma can exacerbate health problems later in life, which in turn can limit one’s ability to make a living, which in turn can make one a less desirable marriage partner, which in turn can … you get the idea. One can argue that dwelling on the present-day effects of cumulative disadvantage is counterproductive, and that self-help is always the best and most reliable way for those burdened by it to better their lives and those of their loved ones. Fair enough. But that’s different from the claim that the persistence of racial disparities (in marriage rates, rates of nonmarital childbearing, and much else) is not rooted, at least in part, in past racism.
And while racism has greatly diminished in recent decades, there is evidence that anti-black discrimination in hiring persists. Indeed, immigration restrictionists have long observed that employers tend to prefer immigrant laborers over native-born African Americans. One can argue that this is best understood as statistical discrimination, as low-skill unauthorized immigrants may well on average be better employees than native-born teenagers or native-born ex-offenders, as the former are less likely to have been raised in chaotic circumstances and more likely to be desperate to hold on to low-wage work. But it should go without saying that statistical discrimination of this kind has long-lasting pernicious effects: If I can’t secure entry-level employment, how will I gain the experience and training I need to succeed? Roger believes that while statistical discrimination exists, “we should not pretend that this is a bigger problem than it is.” Again, I’m inclined to disagree. I believe that statistical discrimination isn’t just a problem for its victims — it’s a problem for society as a whole, as Tyler Cowen recently suggested: It deprives us of talent that we can’t afford to waste.
More broadly, there is the question of social networks. To oversimplify, most people find opportunities not via open, transparent, objective processes, but rather via friends, family members, neighbors, and acquaintances. These networks tend to be highly segregated by race and class (see the work of the Public Religion Research Institute, which surveys the racial, religious, and political composition of core social networks). I know I’ve benefited from being surrounded by college-educated people raised in intact families who’ve helped me learn how to navigate my professional and social worlds. Suffice it to say, I’ve met others who haven’t been quite as fortunate — people who were raised in straitened circumstances in deprived neighborhoods, and who were only able to break out of bad equilibria because of extraordinary acts of will or fortunate twists of fate. Back in 2013, the economists Elizabeth Ananat, Shihe Fu, and Stephen L. Ross released a working paper that heightened our understanding of how segregated social networks can impact earnings. In short, they found that the gap in average wages between blacks and whites was smaller in smaller cities than in bigger cities. What’s their explanation? I touched on this in an article for National Review in 2015:
Instead of focusing on racial prejudice, Ananat et al. argued that while workers benefit from the knowledge spillovers that come from living and working in a place where there is a higher concentration of people doing a certain kind of job, these spillovers tend to be bounded by race. Blacks have fewer same-race peers than whites from whom they can learn new skills and identify new opportunities, and so whites gain more insider knowledge with each passing year, which in turn allows them to earn more money.
Does this pattern reflect racial animus on the part of whites toward blacks? I don’t believe so. But is it the case that blacks and whites are less likely to cross paths and form friendships due to the legacy of past discrimination and (perhaps to a lesser extent) the interaction of subtler forms of color and class prejudice in the present, and does this kind of social segregation contribute to persistent racial disparities? Yes, I believe that’s a big part of the story.
And that’s why I greatly appreciated David’s call for a more constructive conversation about race on the right. Like David, I believe that conservatives can make an important contribution to racial reconciliation. To do that, however, it is important to acknowledge that past discrimination has ongoing ill effects.
It is important to be precise. Speaking for myself, I see the status of multigenerational African Americans as a separate and distinct issue from the challenges facing other groups, such as recent immigrants from Asia, Latin America, Africa, and their descendants, and conflating these groups strikes me as a serious mistake. As an American of color, to use a rather awkward term, I can’t say that racism has played a significant role in limiting my life prospects. For one, as a second-generation American of South Asian descent, I have almost certainly benefited from positive stereotypes about the groups to which people assume I belong, often incorrectly. The same can’t be said of people who are subject to negative stereotypes. Conservatives would do well to recognize that negative stereotypes play a serious role in limiting the life chances of millions of our fellow citizens, that segregated social networks (which are to some degree a reflection of negative stereotypes) contribute to persistent racial disparities, and that promoting social and economic uplift among the members of disadvantaged groups would redound to the benefit of all Americans. Thankfully, my sense is that there is a large and growing number of conservatives who share David’s take on these issues.