Since the shooting death of Michael Brown in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson just over a year ago, Americans have been engaged in a spirited dialogue, to put it mildly, about the status of black people in our country. The main result of this dialogue so far appears to have been an alarming rise in what we might call racial pessimism. In August, Gallup released a survey that found that the share of whites satisfied with how African Americans are treated in the United States has fallen from 67 percent in 2013 to 53 percent in 2015, a quite striking decline. The share of blacks who feel the same way, meanwhile, fell from 47 percent to 33 percent over the same period, which is to say from low to dismally low.
There has been no similarly dramatic change in the material condition or the legal status of African Americans over this short interval, so what has been the source of this growing dissatisfaction? It is very simple: A rising generation of intellectuals has been offering an unremittingly bleak interpretation of the black experience in American life, and this interpretation has gained a great deal of purchase in the news media. Following the death of Brown, social-media activists, most of them young and black, have been rallying under the banner of #BlackLivesMatter, a Twitter hashtag devised by the activists Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi to draw attention to the (alleged) epidemic of police violence against African Americans. Because Black Lives Matter is a diverse, decentralized movement, one hesitates to say that it speaks with a single voice. But I’d say that if there is a preoccupation shared by the leaders of the movement, it’s the idea of white supremacy as the chief obstacle to black progress.
What is white supremacy, exactly? That is hard to say. The basic idea, as I understand it, is that our public institutions have been created to serve the interests of Americans who are seen by themselves and others as white. This “seen by themselves and others” part might seem silly, but the boundaries of whiteness have long been contested. There was a time when the Irish didn’t count as white, though they certainly do today. What about the son of a Korean-immigrant father and a Czech-immigrant mother? Or the fair-skinned second-generation Iranian American who grew up among Mayflower descendants? To the extent that these individuals identify as white and enjoy the benefits of being seen as such, they are white, according to this line of thinking. To be sure, whiteness is not infinitely malleable. The critique of white supremacy maintains that black people are permanently excluded from whiteness, with the rare exception of those who can “pass” as white and choose to do so.
The persistence of anti-black racism has indeed disadvantaged African Americans in many ways. The abolition of slavery and the dismantling of Jim Crow laws did not mean the end of exclusionary policies that made it difficult if not impossible for blacks to accumulate wealth. In When Affirmative Action Was White, the leftist Columbia University historian and political scientist Ira Katznelson documents the ways in which liberals of the New Deal and Fair Deal eras accommodated the demands of segregationist Democrats, who were quite happy to back generous new social programs as long as blacks weren’t allowed to make use of them. Indeed, Katznelson’s provocative argument is that the advent of these programs widened the existing gap in economic and educational outcomes between whites and blacks, a development that in his view justifies racial preferences for blacks. Of course, this conclusion doesn’t follow if one believes that preferences can actually harm the interests of blacks, but that is a separate matter.
Other critics of white supremacy, such as Ta-Nehisi Coates in his much-lauded essay in The Atlantic on “the case for reparations,” place heavy emphasis on the role of race in shaping American cities. First, these critics argue that racially motivated local land-use regulations, inequitable federal housing subsidies, and selective intimidation helped create hyper-segregated urban neighborhoods. Second, they maintain that a combination of overzealous policing and a racist criminal-justice system have traumatized these heavily black neighborhoods and contributed to family breakdown. There is definitely some truth to the notion that racism played a significant role in the concentration of poverty in black neighborhoods.
It is also true, however, that, as Edward Glaeser and Jacob Vigdor found in a 2012 analysis of census data, the share of black Americans living in hyper-segregated ghetto neighborhoods has fallen from 80 percent in 1960 to 20 percent in 2010. Middle-class blacks today lead far more integrated lives than their parents and grandparents did. But this mass exodus of middle-class blacks from urban ghettos has been a double-edged sword. In The Truly Disadvantaged, the renowned African-American sociologist William Julius Wilson argued that the economic and social opportunities created by desegregation led upwardly mobile black families rich in cultural and social capital to depart majority-black communities, leaving these communities in a much-diminished state. What can’t be denied is that these opportunities would not have presented themselves had the racism of earlier eras not attenuated to at least some degree. The threat of anti-black racism has historically played a unifying role among African Americans, and its decline has caused the lives of lower-class blacks and their better-off counterparts to sharply diverge.
One of the more striking illustrations of the class divide among African Americans is that while in 1978 poor blacks over the age of twelve were only slightly more likely to be the victims of violent crime (45 per 1,000) than better-off blacks (38 per 1,000), poor blacks in 2008 were vastly more likely to be crime victims (75 per 1,000) than better-off blacks (23 per 1,000). Why is it that poor blacks are far more vulnerable today than they were in the late 1970s, while better-off blacks are far less so? In her book Ghettoside, the Los Angeles Times reporter Jill Leovy argues that while police officers aggressively combat petty offenses in poor black neighborhoods — practicing the “broken-windows policing” that has proven so controversial in recent years — they do an extremely poor job of solving murders and other serious crimes. The disastrous result is that the minority of blacks who reside in hyper-segregated ghetto neighborhoods are more isolated than ever, and many have come to distrust the conventional criminal-justice system, which has proven so ineffective. Instead, residents of these neighborhoods either live in fear or they settle their own scores. In the worst cases, such as the South Los Angeles communities vividly described by Leovy, violent gangs impose their own “shadow law,” which competes with the formal law of the police and the courts. Meanwhile, better-off blacks who have been able to exit these neighborhoods are physically much safer, and in a far better position to access economic opportunities, than their counterparts of a generation ago.
The failure of our criminal-justice system to liberate ghetto communities from the tyranny of violence is profound. I would argue that this failure amounts to a national crisis. Yet the divergence between poor blacks and better-off blacks suggests that reducing this failure to the racism of the criminal-justice system is a mistake. James Forman Jr. of Yale Law School has documented the role of black activists in the late 1960s in pushing for more aggressive law enforcement in neighborhoods plagued by violent crime. He details the rise of more-punitive crime policies in black-majority jurisdictions with black-majority police forces, focusing in particular on the District of Columbia. While Forman’s work doesn’t definitively prove that racism played no role in the incarceration boom, it does remind us that many African Americans embraced tough-on-crime policies as violent-crime rates spiraled out of control, and that white supremacy is at best an incomplete explanation of why incarceration rates soared from the 1960s through the 1990s.
The late legal academic William Stuntz insisted that the 14th Amendment guarantee of “equal protection of the laws” ought to be taken literally. To Stuntz, this phrase meant that all citizens, regardless of race or economic status, had the same right to the law’s protection. In his view, the systematic under-policing of violent neighborhoods ought to be understood not just as a regrettable policy failure but also as a constitutional violation that governments at all levels should be forced to address. If Leovy and Stuntz are right, one could argue that the real problem with crime-control efforts in violent urban neighborhoods is not that they’re overzealous but that they are not zealous enough, or rather that they’re not zealous enough about ensuring that violent criminals are brought to justice.
What if white supremacy really is as pervasive and powerful a force as many left-of-center intellectuals believe? What would be the implications for those who want African-American communities to flourish?
One of the central intellectual tenets of the Black Lives Matter movement has been an emphatic rejection of the “politics of respectability,” the notion that black Americans will command respect from the wider society if they embrace bourgeois norms such as persistence, thrift, sobriety, and the value of hard work. Aurin Squire, writing at Talking Points Memo in February, elegantly summarized the case against respectability politics, describing it as the view “that systemic oppression can be overcome if we’re clean, mild, moderate, and economically successful enough.” Last October, Coates offered an equally bracing critique: “Respectability politics is, at its root, the inability to look into the cold dark void of history,” he wrote. “For if black people are — as I maintain — no part of the problem, if the problem truly is 100 percent explained by white supremacy, then we are presented with a set of unfortunate facts about our home.”
What the critique of respectability politics obscures is that preaching bourgeois virtues needn’t have anything to do with catering to a white audience, or with contempt for the black poor. One could believe that the cultivation of bourgeois norms can be advantageous and, as an entirely separate matter, that dehumanizing treatment at the hands of the police is an outrage regardless of whether one behaves “respectably.” Nor must preaching the centrality of self-help entail ignoring or forgiving white supremacy. Rather, accepting the centrality of self-help means rejecting what Amy L. Wax, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has called “remedial idealism.” Remedial idealism is the view that “because outsiders, and not blacks themselves, are responsible for present racial inequalities, those outsiders must eliminate them.” The trouble is that even if we accept that outsiders ought to eliminate present racial inequalities, it is by no means clear that they will make the sacrifices that this would entail. Most people are self-interested, after all. Demanding that whites forswear their privilege won’t suddenly make them do so. If the only route to black progress is a moral reformation among whites, and if white supremacy is here to stay, black people are doomed to lives of poverty, misery, and marginality. If I believed any of that, I’d be a racial pessimist too.
Fortunately, there are other ways forward. The divergence in outcomes between poor and better-off blacks demonstrates that black upward mobility is possible, even in a society in which racism persists. It could be that the most effective way to advance black interests is to build up the collective wealth and power of the black community rather than rely on white benevolence. A number of scholars, including Nancy DiTomaso and Daria Roithmayr, have documented how people pass on valuable knowledge, including valuable knowledge about employment and housing opportunities, through their social networks. And these social networks tend to be very racially segregated. While it is a disadvantage not to belong to the most-privileged social networks, less-privileged social networks can make up for this disadvantage to at least some extent by becoming even more tight-knit than the networks of the privileged. This is a strategy that many black migrants from the Deep South pursued in the last century, and it is often employed by immigrants in our own time.
Building up wealth and power is of course easier said than done, particularly for people living in neighborhoods and regions plagued by high levels of unemployment and underemployment. Over the past several decades, there has been a large-scale migration of middle-class blacks from cities in the northern and western United States to dynamic cities in the Old Confederacy, which the Brookings Institution demographer William Frey has dubbed “the New Great Migration.” Why would African-American families leave progressive bastions such as New York, San Francisco, and Portland, Ore., for Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston if the former are largely free of anti-black animus while the latter are arguably somewhat less free of it? Are blacks flocking there because those cities have a reputation for providing high-quality social services to African Americans in need, or because their commitment to racial preferences surpasses that of northern metropolises? Hardly.
While whites in northern and western cities are generally more “progressive” than those in southern cities, southern cities are more affordable and, as a rule, they offer more job opportunities. This combination means that those who are able to secure full-time employment are also in a better position to save, and therefore to build wealth. Moreover, rising black populations in these fast-growing southern metropolitan areas hold out the promise of rising black political power, which can be wielded to advance communal goals. The New Great Migration might seem unremarkable and bourgeois. But it is in its own way an extraordinary example of communal uplift, and those who want to see racial progress in America ought to celebrate it.