Back in November, 2011, I was approached by A.R. Ward, a blogger over at Andrew Breitbart’s BigGovernment site, and asked if I would be interested in engaging in a debate or dialogue of sorts, regarding the issue of race and racism in America. I knew of A.R. only because, for the previous several months, he had been blogging at his own site, specifically about me, my writings, and all the myriad flaws that he claimed to have found in my positions. His interest in me seemed to coincide with the rather public beef — first on Facebook, and later Twitter — between myself and his pal, Breitbart, so I never really knew how much of his interest was his, and how much was proxy for Andrew, but in any event, I found it interesting. Indeed, it was even a bit flattering to have someone dedicate an entire blog just to rebutting the things you say. And since I say a lot, I figured if nothing else, I could keep him busy.
Anyway, I said I might well be interested in such a debate, depending on the specific topic, the format, and the rules of engagement, and even invited him to attend my upcoming speech at Occidental College just outside Los Angeles, where he lives, and to ask the first question during the Q & A session that evening. He did, on both counts, and then shortly thereafter we agreed to conduct an online dialogue, lasting three rounds total, on a topic on which we could both mutually agree. He sent me one topic draft, I tweaked it a bit and sent it back to him, and then he agreed to my wording. Since then, we both completed two full “rounds” and he has submitted his final statement/rebuttal to me. Because of a host of other obligations, familial and professional, I have yet to complete my final statement, but am working on wrapping that up in the next week or so. Meanwhile, and although we had agreed not to publish the debate until it was completed (with no caveats that would allow us to publish it partially if the other debater was delinquent in responding to something), and only to publish it in full (no excerpts that would allow for distortions of context), A.R., perhaps needing attention, decided to go ahead and publish an incredibly partial, truncated excerpt from the debate on his site.
Feeling as though one should see each completed round as it currently stands, rather than just snippets intended to make one debater seem particularly absurd and the other especially bright, I am now, in retaliation, posting the full two rounds thus far completed. Upon finishing up my final statement, I will post his closing and then mine, for a fully completed debate. Please note, my decision not to publish his final statement here should not be interpreted as an indication that he did not have a rebuttal (and in fact, a quite strong one I feel) to my second round comments. He did, and has proven to be a very able debater, well-versed in conservative theory, both racial and economic. I just believe it is irresponsible to post partial debate rounds online until they are completed. We have finished two, and here they are. In any event, what I am posting is far more complete than what he posted on his own site.
Although the dialogue is quite long, I think it stands as a pretty comprehensive example of how folks on the right and left simply do not see the world in anywhere near the same way; and especially on the matter of race and racism. His position is fairly standard as a representative of the mainstream conservative worldview on these matters, and mine is mostly reflective of the left and antiracist worldview, although it differs in some ways too. It is my hope that readers will learn something from the discussion, and that the exercise will perhaps inform our understanding of how the right and its spokespersons simply cannot face the truth about racism in America, past or present.
(Readers will note that for the most part, the first two rounds here do not include footnotes or hyperlinked web citations. I am hoping to go back and insert these soon, as I know they would be helpful on both ends. A.R. includes some in his third round rebuttal (to be posted soon), as will I, but I will also strive to insert links where possible for my fact claims in rounds one and two. Until then, it should be noted that almost all fact claims herein are to be found in my previous two books, with footnotes; namely, Dear White America: Letter to a New Minority, and Colorblind: The Rise of Post-Racial Politics and the Retreat from Racial Equity. Questions about particular fact claims can be directed to me at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Topic for Discussion:
“Some forty-plus years since the passage of civil rights legislation, racial disparities between whites and people of color, in terms of income, educational attainment, wealth, health and incarceration remain substantial (and in some cases have even grown). How can we explain such ongoing and even growing racial inequity in a society with legal safeguards against discrimination, and in which most would agree overt racism and discrimination have diminished? Are there perhaps other forces — beyond racism and discrimination — that are to blame for these disparities? Or can racism and discrimination still explain a significant amount of the disparities that exist between whites and people of color, despite the passage of civil rights laws?”
A.R. WARD(opening statement):
These continuing and even widening disparities are very troubling for any thoughtful person. The fact that things may be getting worse in some areas gives any person reason to reassess what he or she believes is the explanation. Although I may never convince some people of the sincerity of my concern, all I really care about is providing a real path to a solution.
To me, this conversation doesn’t take anything away from the fight against racism, just as I view fighting antisemitism worthwhile, I don’t see antisemitism as the explanation for the differences in incomes between Jews and non-Jews. In fact many groups who we acknowledge are discriminated against still show gradual progression, not decline. For example, African Americans were progressing even in the face of the racism of the 50’s and 60’s.
The gradual progression of blacks up through the 60’s also makes it hard to believe that there was a perpetual decline set in place by the racist barriers implemented 135 years ago. I want to be crystal clear that I’m not suggesting that we return to these racist policies. They didn’t “work,” they didn’t help blacks, they were completely evil. I only suggest that policies put in place since then have been damaging as well, or even more damaging in some regards, but very unlikely to be driven by the same kind of racist sentiments.
It’s hard for me to believe that either overt or covert racism has become more prevalent in the last 50 years. It’s hard to believe cops, teachers, politicians, judges, and the systems they operate in have become more racist since the time of Jim Crow. Does anyone really believe there is more housing discrimination, more employment discrimination, and more deep seeded racist sentiments? It’s easy to imagine that 50 years ago a tragically significant number of whites in some parts of the country secretly, or openly, believed whites and blacks should have separate bathrooms. The number of people who believe that today, even in secret, must be so small that they’re almost irrelevant.
Racism is still a significant problem that needs to be fought, but to believe that a diminishing cause (racism) is having an increasing effect, requires an explanation.
TIM WISE (1st rebuttal):
It seems to me that A.R., initially, is arguing the following:
“Blacks were making progress in the U.S. even before the civil rights revolution, and if anything, that progress has slowed or even reversed since. This means that something other than racism must be to blame for racial disparities between whites and blacks, especially since no one in their right mind could believe racism has gotten worse since the days of Jim Crow and the passage of anti-discrimination laws.”
I will take this a little bit at a time.
First, neither I, nor anyone I know on the left, or within the civil rights and antiracism community, believe that overt racism — the kind A.R. references, which leads people to believe in racially-separate bathrooms or blatant segregation — has increased since the 1960s. So, if A.R.’s argument is that ongoing racial disparities between whites and blacks cannot be explained by racism, since that kind of racism has obviously diminished, he is both right and wrong: right in the sense that that kind of racism certainly can’t explain the disparities, but wrong in the sense that that was never the argument in the first place, and in the sense that that kind of bigotry is hardly the sum total meaning of the concept of racism.
Racism is not merely manifested in blatant hatred, or a penchant for racial segregation. We must also consider lower-level and more subtle biases against African Americans, known in the literature as implicit biases, which years of research indicate are very prevalent. These kinds of biases can result in discrimination as well, and unlike the blatant kinds from the past, are often harder to get at, precisely because they are not “intentional” in the same way. Because they operate at a more subconscious level, these biases are the kinds of things people don’t even realize they’re influenced by. So even well-meaning people who do not wish to injure others, may fall into certain cognitive traps, laid by persistent racial stereotypes. I go into great detail about this research in my book Colorblind. Readers interested in that research can find a full explication of its findings there.
Beyond that, there actually is evidence that large numbers of whites do hold beliefs about the black community, even at the conscious level, which could easily be expected to translate into discriminatory treatment, civil rights laws notwithstanding. For instance, surveys in recent years have found about 60 percent or so of whites (sometimes more) are willing to admit to pollsters that they believe blacks are generally less hard-working than whites, lack the proper work ethic to get ahead, are not as committed to education, are more prone to violence, etc.
Now, to be sure, whites are not as likely as they would have been 50 years ago to ascribe those flaws to biological causes or inferiority, or a simple lack of capability. Rather, most would ascribe the problem to some kind of “cultural” flaw within the black community. But putting aside whether such a cultural argument is simply another form of racism, it certainly shouldn’t take a leap of faith to conclude that if many whites have this generally negative view of the black community, when individual black people are applying for jobs, sitting in a classroom with a white teacher, or interacting with law enforcement, whites in those situations might view the individual black person through the lens of that group defect. Indeed, how could we assume otherwise? How could we rationally believe that a white person could think those things about blacks generally, but somehow manage to put all that aside when asked to evaluate a given black person?
So whether because of conscious or subconscious bias, discrimination still happens quite often. Dozens of matched-pair audit studies (in which equally qualified, trained, and educated whites and blacks are sent to look for jobs) have found that inevitably, whites are more likely to be called back for interviews, more likely to be offered a job, more likely to be given information about additional opportunities, etc.
In addition, a massive study of more than 100,000 businesses across the nation, using a very restricted and conservative methodology to determine the existence of racial bias, found that about one-third of black job seekers are subject to discrimination each year, and that, overall, blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans experience well over a million instances of race-based discrimination annually. This study, though about a decade old, is not likely to have been truncated factually by some racial enlightenment since that time. I discuss it at length in Colorblind and readers can find more information about it there.
Likewise, we know that a large number of jobs are filled by word-of-mouth networks, and because of past and present racial isolation (most whites live around very few people of color and know very few people of color), this means highly qualified people of color can and will be shut out of opportunity, not because of overt bias, let alone hatred, but because of an indirect, institutionalized form of racial exclusion. They simply aren’t in the networks to the same degree. That may not be classic racism, in A.R.’s formulation, but it still signifies unequal opportunity, and a racialized labor market. And it still contributes to racial disparities in things like income.
So, for instance, if blacks with the same education and experience as whites, earn less than whites doing the same kind of job (and they do), it may not be because of blatant racism; rather, it could be because the whites have better “connections.” But if those connections themselves stem from a history of racial separation and isolation, or a history within which some people were more likely to be connected to opportunity structures than others, the result is the same: racial disparity and unqual opportunity.
Now, let me turn to A.R.’s suggestion that blacks were making progress even before civil rights, and that progress has slowed or even reversed in some areas since, and therefore, something other than racism must be to blame.
To begin, African Americans are, in most categories, progressing still. In most areas the disparities between whites and blacks have continued to diminish since the 60s, and not reversed. The two exceptions to this rule (wealth gaps and incarceration gaps) have very specific explanations that are directly tied to racism, and I’ll look at those in a minute. But in terms of occupational status, school graduation rates, rates of college matriculation and degree completion, etc. the progress has continued fairly steadily, albeit far too slowly.
That blacks progressed in the post-war era, even before civil rights protections, and that the pace of progress, in some categories, actually slowed after the civil rights revolution is true; but this certainly doesn’t suggest that those protections were trivial to black and brown advance, nor, as some on the right suggest — and as A.R. might in his next installment argue — that liberal policies in the post-1960s period were counterproductive.
The reasons for these trends (rapid advance even before civil rights and slowed advance afterward) owed mostly to macroeconomic factors. So, in the immediate post-war era and into the 1950s the growth of American manufacturing combined with the continued migration of blacks out of the South in search of manufacturing jobs, meant that the overall black economic picture was going to improve: industrial jobs very simply paid better than agricultural jobs, which were the types blacks were consigned to in the South.
Unfortunately, by the early 1970s, just a few years after civil rights laws had begun to open up opportunities for people of color (and only about 7-8 years after various social programs under the Great Society initiative had helped bring poverty rates down by about a third), the bottom began to fall out of the manufacturing sector. The decline in heavy industry, which has continued to this day, along with a decline in the real dollar value of various social insurance programs (AFDC, Food Stamps, housing assistance, etc. none of which kept pace with inflation after 1973), meant that the pace of progress for blacks slowed. Working class blacks began to have a harder time moving to the middle class, and poor African Americans were less likely to climb from poverty, because jobs were leaving the cities, and temporary benefit levels were eroding, trapping them well below the poverty level.
There was still some progress, of course, in part because of things like affirmative action. So whether it was public sector hiring, or the movement of black and brown folks into various skilled trades that had been largely blocked for them (but which were opened up because of civil rights and affirmative action laws), or even municipal contracting, the black middle class continued to grow, but because of larger economic patterns, at a slower pace to be sure.
So even though blatant racism declined, and even though laws were in place to address discrimination, the combination of ongoing subtle biases, some blatant biases that are nonetheless hard for the law to always stop, and institutional/structural factors (like old boy’s networks, the decline in manufacturing, eroding social program benefits, etc.), allowed racial disparities to persist over time.
Now, as for those areas in which disparities increased, a different analysis is needed. After all, it is one thing for subtle biases and the other factors mentioned above to allow for some kind of gaps to be maintained over time, but quite another for racial disparity to actually get worse. As A.R. would no doubt argue: certainly the subtle biases, ongoing blatant bias, and even those institutional factors like networks aren’t worse since the 60s, so how can racial disparities in a few categories actually grow, as opposed to merely persisting and shrinking more slowly than we’d like?
Well, let’s take the growing disparities one at a time.
When it comes to incarceration rates, there is very little mystery as to why racial gaps have increased. On the one hand, as manufacturing’s decline in urban areas progressed after the 60′s, urban areas that were increasingly black and brown, saw their economic base and the surrounding infrastructure erode rapidly. This was furthered by so-called “urban renewal,” which destroyed about one fifth of all black housing from the ’50s to 1969, to make way for interstates, office buildings, parking lots and shopping centers, which benefitted very few of those black folks living in the cities. The conditions of extreme poverty, like crowded housing, abandoned housing, etc. actually got worse in many places than they had been in previous years; and these are factors which have been found to highly correlate to crime in over thirty different countries, ours included.
So while whites were increasingly taking advantage of opportunity to move to the suburbs where many of the new jobs were being created (and which, because of housing discrimination, were still quite hard for people of color to penetrate), black folks were still city-bound, facing diminishing economic fortunes. So any increases in black crime rates (all of which occurred in the 70s and 80s and have dropped dramatically since) were due to some of those huge macroeconomic shifts that hit black space especially hard.
Also, of course, the War on Drugs can explain much of the growing racial disparity in incarceration rates between whites and African Americans. Blacks and whites use drugs at virtually identical rates, yet the rates of arrest, prosecution, and incarceration are hugely disparate, as I document fully in my books, Between Barack and a Hard Place, and Dear White America (again, folks wanting more information should check those sources for greater details: I’d rather not re-write entire sections of my books here).
Is this because of racism? Well, I suppose it depends on your understanding of that term. Am I saying that cops, D.A.s, judges and juries are all a bunch of bigots, who deliberately apply drug laws disparately? No. Certainly this would be true for some, but hardly all or even most. But the point is, that doesn’t matter. The fact is, those laws are applied in a racially-disparate and discriminatory fashion. Whether that is because of blatant racism (which of course, was the impetus for the nation’s early drug laws, actually), or because of persistent stereotypes, held by law enforcement officials and the public, regarding who uses drugs, the results are the same.
For instance, one study from a few years ago found that when asked to envision a typical drug user, over 90 percent of whites acknowledge envisioning a person of color, usually black. Yet, about 70 percent of users are non-Hispanic whites. Now, if people really believe blacks are the source of the drug problem, how might that translate into disparate enforcement of the law? Profiling? Selective prosecution? Harsher penalties from jurors? It’s not hard to imagine how the assumptions could lead to racist decision making.
And remember, over 80 percent of drug prosecutions are for simple possession, so it is indeed the user numbers that matter. In other words, it will not do for A.R. to come back with an argument about drug dealers being more likely to be black. First, the research says that isn’t true anyway: whites are roughly as likely as blacks and Latinos to sell drugs; and secondly, it isn’t trafficking prosecutions that explain the disparity in incarcerations, but rather incarcerations for possession alone.
So yes, racism is implicated directly in the rising incarceration gaps.
As for the other area where racial disparities have gotten worse — wealth and asset gaps — the story is very interesting, and also involves racism, though in a longer-term, more institutionalized way.
So, even before the recent economic collapse, net worth and wealth holding gaps between whites and blacks were about 11:1. Even among middle class blacks (in terms of income, occupational status and education), most had about 1/3 to 1/5 the net worth of their white counterparts. Young black couples, with the same education and income as their white couple counterparts, were starting out, on average, with about $20,000 less in net worth, or about 1/5 the net worth of whites with the same education and income. This has gotten even worse since the collapse, for reasons I’ll discuss in a minute, but for now, just focus on the huge gaps that existed even before 2007/2008, and which had indeed grown over a thirty year period.
Why would asset and net worth gaps have grown, even after the passage of civil rights laws? Simple: those laws did nothing to address the cumulative impact of the historic denial of housing ownership opportunities to blacks, nor the cumulative impact of subsidized housing opportunities for whites.
So, for instance, we know that beginning in the 1930s, government programs like the FHA loan program, and later the VA loan program, helped underwrite, on very favorable terms, about $120 billion in home equity for whites by the early 1960s. Blacks were almost entirely excluded from these government efforts due to blatant racism in underwriting criteria. By 1960, about forty percent of all white families or persons with mortgages, had those mortgages because of these preferential lending programs from which blacks were largely excluded. Half of white housing in suburbs was financed this way. Indeed, the white middle class was built by the FHA and VA loan programs, as well as the GI Bill, which, although open to all GIs in theory, operated in practice in a racially discriminatory way as well.
So by the time the Fair Housing Act was passed, in 1968, whites had had about 30 years of a blatant housing head start: accumulating equity while blacks by and large could not. Now, in theory, the new law would help prevent discrimination. But in practice, the law had no enforcement provisions to speak of until 1988. Not to mention, even if the law had stopped all new housing discrimination after 1968 (and no one seriously believes this happened), the effect of white families having accumulated all that “stuff” from the 30s to the 60s would have sedimented inequality into the asset and net worth picture.
First, beginning in the early 1970s there was a huge real estate boom, in which real estate values roughly tripled in a very short time. This price boom was caused in part by the rapid suburbanization of the previous two decades (which had been almost entirely available to whites only), and resulted in a huge windfall for those whites who were already in the housing pipeline, so to speak. Now their properties were worth a lot more money. So when they died and passed those properties down to their kids, there was a massive intergenerational transfer of wealth, to which whites had access, but few blacks did.
Also, what this meant, is that just as fair housing laws were coming into play, prices were skyrocketing, so now black folks were being priced out of the market, while white wealth was growing. Technically, if you’re priced out of the market, that’s a market issue, not racism. But if you’re priced out as a group, because you were denied access all those years, and whites were given access, and then as a result of supposedly non-racial factors like the real estate boom, whites clean up, that can’t really be considered independent of racism.
So growing wealth gaps stemmed directly from the sedimentation of inequity in housing markets, which over time have allowed whites to pass down equity, far more readily than blacks can. Literally trillions of dollars worth of property (mostly housing stock) is in the process of being handed down from the baby boom generation to their kids right now. And because the black baby boomers had very little opportunity to accumulate wealth to hand down, that intergenerational process results in the exponential increase in inequity — not merely its maintenance at a steady state — because wealth accumulates value exponentially, rather than income, which grows arithmetically.
So unless something is done to address the unfair head start received by whites in terms of assets, and the unfair disadvantage to which people of color were subjected, wealth gaps will almost certainly grow, with or without any blatant racism — solely because of the long term impact of institutionalized racism over many generations.
Since the economic collapse, of course, things have gotten worse. Now, the median net worth for white families is about 20 times that for blacks: about $100,000 difference in net worth between the typical white and typical black family. This increase in the wealth gap since the beginning of the economic collapse is due to several factors, first and foremost, the fact that throughout the 90s there had been a large increase in new black home ownership, most all of which was wiped out by the current decline. That newly acquired black wealth was more vulnerable than longer-held white wealth to the economic downturn: whereas white wealth had been initially about home ownership alone, by and large, over the past thirty years, whites had been able to diversify their holdings into stocks and other investment instruments. But black wealth was almost entirely wrapped up in housing. So when the housing bubble burst, black sources of wealth were hit more directly and completely.
Also, beginning in the 90s, lenders had taken advantage of black borrowers, charging them more interest than similar whites, so as to reap additional profits. So the net worth of blacks, even who were able to keep their homes, was going to grow far less rapidly, if at all, than the net worth for whites. Between the pre-existing intergenerational disadvantages, and the current predatory lending extracting value from black property, African Americans were poised to be especially hit by the downturn.
So again, racism is implicated: first, in terms of the long term impact of historically embedded racism; and secondly, by more modern forms, like predatory lending, which hit peoples of color especially hard.
A.R. WARD (first rebuttal):
To be clear, I never thought overt racism was the sum total meaning of the concept of racism, and I’m glad no one on the left believes overt racism has increased. Sometimes it’s hard to tell when very popular books are published making comparisons between Jim Crow/slavery to modern institutions like our justice/education system or when you wrote that the US government “engaged in ethnic cleansing” during Katrina. I not only mentioned overt racism, but covert racism, and went on to say that I find it hard to believe there is more deep-seated racist sentiments, more discrimination in housing, law enforcement, and employment, and you can add to the list the things you mentioned: implicit biases, unintentional racism, racial stereotypes, and negative views towards culture. I find it hard to believe any of these things have stayed anywhere near the same level of occurrence or severity, and it would seem you agree, or at least you didn’t argue otherwise.
There are serious problems with the figures you cite for persistent racism (for anyone interested in a detailed critique of studies like these please visit my website’s evidence page), but that isn’t what intrigues me most, and I think our time would be better spent on other issues. You said, “The reasons for these trends (rapid advance even before civil rights and slowed advance afterward) owed mostly to macroeconomic factors.” We agree that there was rapid growth up until the 60s/70s followed by slowed progress or regress in some areas, all while racism was making a sharp decline. If racism were the main driving force one would expect an opposite outcome (regress or slow progress up until the 60s/70s followed by more rapid growth). So racism either isn’t the primary explanation, or policies or other factors created a situation where even milder racism had a worse effect, either way the discussion should be about these other factors.
These factors, primarily certain policies (some of which you touched on that I will get to in a moment), need to be the focus of any discussion that seeks a solution to racial disparity for two reasons: first, because they are among the principal reasons for disparity (dwarfing things like apparent implicit biases); and secondly, because they can be changed a lot easier than the ghostly subconscious of whites.
You said that the decline/stagnation of the working class Black American was due to the decline in industry and the real dollar value of social programs. It’s true that some of the economic hardship of black working class Americans was due to the overall slowing of the economy, which was caused by very specific reasons, but you’re wrong in saying there was a decline in social programs. First, these social programs didn’t really exist during the post-war rapid growth, thus limiting its positive correlation, and second generally they didn’t decline, they skyrocketed.
You mention the AFDC, Food Stamps, and housing assistance which you say didn’t keep pace with inflation therefore slowing Black American progress. While it’s true that the AFDC slightly decreased after 1980, the social programs in general aimed at the poor did nothing of the sort. When one accounts for the spending for over 185 programs (food, housing, medical care, and social services for the poor) it actually increased 17-fold since 1964 adjusted for inflation. Simply put, believing that a decrease in social programs has been a factor in the slowing of black progress makes no sense.
You also claimed The Great Society was an area of progress despite economic declines. One only needs to look at the “demonstration cities” of The Great Society which include Detroit, Newark, Camden, and Oakland, to recognize the folly of that belief. I don’t think I need to go into the details, but these cities aren’t doing so well, and have been primarily under the control of progressives since the 60’s receiving an astonishing amount of federal aid.
You said: “That blacks progressed in the post-war era…and that the pace of progress, in some categories, actually slowed after the civil rights revolution is true; but this certainly doesn’t suggest…that liberal policies in the post-1960s period were counterproductive.” Of course it would suggest that.
Generally speaking the areas of the world that are the most successful and rise from poverty the fastest, are the places that become the most appealing for businesses. A liberal run city can still be appealing to businesses, but it is most likely in spite of the liberal policies in place. The Great Society was well intentioned in trying to help workers, but the higher cost of labor, and the higher taxes on corporations, caused the decline and relocation of a lot of American businesses. Sure, a lot of manufacturing jobs dropped out for other reasons, like technology, but a lot of them dropped out because they became too costly for employers. There are some jobs (like ushers at movie theaters for example) that have almost completely disappeared simply because they are no longer worth their increasing costs. These jobs aren’t trivial. These types of jobs, primarily for the youth, are especially helpful for poor and disadvantaged families that could use any extra cash. They taught kids responsibility from a young age, and were often the start of longer careers. There are more areas than the two you mentioned where disparities between races have grown. Black youth unemployment used to be basically tied or even lower than it was for the white youth. Now black youth unemployment is more than double the white youth unemployment.
It’s not that companies like GM ran out of good ideas, they just had thousands of dollars in additional costs added to each car in order to meet union demands. It’s important to understand that labor unions can only get improved wages and benefits at the expense of others. It was wonderful for the workers who forced GM to give them longer vacations, but GM couldn’t afford to hire nearly as many people as Detroit had to offer, and they couldn’t compete with other car companies, ultimately resulting in huge layoffs. Through the programs of the Great Society, more and more restrictions were placed on those who employ others, for programs to help the unemployed. It’s no wonder great cities can decline so rapidly when the problem is confused with the solution.
Or take the incredible strength of teachers unions in these cities, have they been a net benefit? A large part of education relies on good teachers, but unions would protect even horrible teachers. So even if a teacher was found to be racist, there is very little anyone can do if the teacher has tenure. Overall education for Black Americans has been progressing, but not everywhere, notably in the cities previously mentioned as well as many others. One issue that we probably agree on is that policies like tracking should be eliminated. It’s an example of a policy that makes any form of bias have a harsher effect in modern society.
I know you probably think this is all silly, blaming unions, and noble liberal taxation policies, but when it comes to places like the demonstration cities for The Great Society, with 50 years of progressive control, there isn’t a whole lot of wiggle room to push the blame around. The Great Society policies you mentioned as reasons for progress despite economic declines, are much more likely to be the cause of the economic declines.
But onto the areas that you acknowledged have shown not just slower progress, but actual decline.
The first was incarceration rates.
You accurately described some of the effects of “Urban Renewal” projects, which was another massive federal policy instituted by progressives to help the poor. I agree that policies like this can be related to higher crime rates.
I think we also agree that the War on Drugs can explain much of the growing racial disparity in incarceration rates between whites and African Americans. What isn’t true is your explanation of the role racism played in the creation and application of the War on Drugs. I don’t buy that cops, D.A.s, judges and juries have more frequent or harsher negative stereotypes or implicit biases (and of course there is much less blatant racism). In fact I find it misleading to mention the disproportionate incarceration rates without mentioning that most of this can be attributed to the discrepancy in punishments for powder cocaine and crack cocaine (the former being popular with white drug users and the latter being popular with black drug users), of which I’m sure you are aware.
There are many people who would like to believe the crack/powder discrepancy was devised by racists, but evidence suggests otherwise. The explanation of the crack/powder discrepancy was said to be that crack was more dangerous. However, evidence was later produced that this was not the case, leading many to believe that racism must therefore be the reason people made that original claim. The truth is, yes, people did want to target poor communities of color. They saw these areas as needing the full attention of law enforcement in order to improve the situation more so than the white suburban powder cocaine users.
The crack culture in some of these poor areas created horrible violence and was destroying communities. This is why members of the Congressional Black Caucus supported so much of the War on Drugs. They supported investing large amounts of law enforcement funds and resources to specifically black neighborhoods, and they supported the 1986 “100-to-1” crack/powder discrepancy (and some even pushed for a wider discrepancy). Many people thought that it was racist for the police to sit by and let these black communities destroy themselves. Now people think it’s racist for the police to fight hard to make these communities less dependant on drugs. Racism seems to be the explanation no matter what.
Now onto the wealth gap.
Using your analysis, about $120 billion was spent between 1934 and 1968 subsidizing mainly white housing, and this in your view began a perpetual housing and wealth gap during a period of, as you previously mentioned, “rapid advance” for Black Americans. Absent from your analysis is the trillions upon trillions since 1968 spent on urban housing development during the “slowed advance afterward” as you put it.
The FHA programs were of course in response to an unprecedented amount of foreclosures during the depression. Black home ownership still increased during this period but as you would agree, in spite of FDR’s policies not because of them (on a side note, it is always good to hear agreement from the left on the destructiveness of FDR’s policies). While Black Americans didn’t get anything close to a fair shake between 1934 and 1968 when it comes to federal intervention in the housing market (which have always caused more problems than solutions), the subsequent post-1968 well-meaning housing interventions have made it far worse.
The Index for Dependence on Government is a calculation used to determine the amount of Americans who are dependent on a given government program in relation to the number who have previously been dependent on, in this case, housing. Dependency on government housing increased during the 1960’s from 1 to 2, during the 1970’s from 3 to 30, and since 1980 from 33 to 77. This means that a shocking number of Americans, especially in urban areas, rely on government for housing and are therefore building little to no equity year by year. This explosion in federal intervention in housing dwarfs the modest, by comparison, $120 billion spent to counter-act depression era home foreclosures. To ignore this phenomenon is destructive, especially when trying to forge a solution to the housing/wealth gap. The gap in home ownership was primarily a product of federal intervention from the start, and continues to be.
You paint a picture of housing being accessible to whites from the 30’s to the 60’s and in the 1970’s there was a real estate boom creating a windfall for whites. This is an incredibly simplistic and flawed analysis of the 20th century housing market. Most notably you ignore the effect of the depression and the various housing busts along the way. Put simply, a single depression era federal program did not create an everlasting white middle class resulting in an omnipresent wealth. Suggesting such a phenomenon provides very little correlation especially compared to the realities of the government dependency index.
To believe the narrative that $120 billion spent over a 30 year period has driven both the wealth of white America and the wealth inequality of America means you will believe just about anything. This is especially apparent when understanding how entities like Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae went trillions and trillions of dollars into debt (certainly not making ‘profits’ as you suggest). Freddie and Fannie spent this money providing government backed financing of medium to low-income home ownership just in the 1990s and early 2000s, desperately trying to increase home ownership. Creating artificial housing bubbles never ends well. One doesn’t need to take my word for it, financial writers for The New York Times regarding the economic crises of 2007/2008 put it simply: “The housing market’s epic boom early this decade has turned into an epic bust whose effects may take years to shake off.”
It is imperative that readers not blindly follow studies that contain such damning claims and call for disastrous policy as a result. A perfect example of this is when you mentioned the effect of predatory lending in the housing market against Black Americans, and have for many years. This is not the ideal time to dismantle some of your other unreliable citations, all I ask is that readers think critically when being fed a statistic. As you, and many others, have for years cited a 1992 Boston Federal Reserve study that suggest widespread discrimination in loan approval rates, you even went so far as to say in the past that this study is “The most comprehensive study of mortgage bias” that has been done. But, it must be understood and explored that there are convincing criticisms of this study and other studies you have cited that rely on it. Most notably from Nobel Prize winning economist Gary Becker regarded as the pioneer of the economics of discrimination, who reacted to this very study in the following manner, “The study’s authors presented no evidence to support their implications. All the circumstantial evidence, and some more concrete evidence, showed just the opposite” he also says the study had “serious methodological flaws” that “make them of dubious value in formulating social policy.” Even the Federal Reserve Board of Washington using the exact same data as Boston’s found that Boston’s conclusions were “difficult to justify”. I ask no one to ignore data and evidence, but a certain level of skepticism is essential, especially when it has an effect on policy. In fact, this same study called for a massive increase in mortgages through Freddie and Fannie (like previously mentioned) to low-income families, ones that ultimately they couldn’t pay for.
When it comes to real issues like welfare and government dependency resulting in racial disparity, you and others choose to focus on things like the Charles Murray bogey man (like when you compared him to Joseph Goebells), others have focused on reducing a real problem. The Urban Institute, one of your favorite “sources” said in 1996 that the coming welfare reform bills would force 1.1 million children into poverty therefore strongly opposing it. But in the 10 years that followed, 1.6 million children rose out of poverty as a result of reform.
It’s worthy of note that when you were asked to give the explanations for black regress and slowed progress, you almost entirely gave liberal backed policies as your examples. So I am pleased to read that we agree on the major question of our topic, as you have argued that the biggest reason for racial disparity can be owed to macroeconomic factors and the failed progressive policies of the 20th century. The specific problems you identified as explanations for continuing disparities (alongside racism) are: lack of social programs, macroeconomic factors, War on Drugs, “Urban Renewal,” and unfair home loans. What are your solutions to these five problems?
TIM WISE (second rebuttal):
There is much to say here, and I intend to say pretty much all of it. But before getting into the substantive discussion of the topics engaged thus far, I must address your swipe (however gratuitous and snide) made against me and (though unnamed) Michelle Alexander. Your off-hand remarks about what we have said (she regarding the justice system and me regarding the racial impact of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath) are so deliciously indicative of your intellectual dishonesty as to merit special attention. They stand as metaphors for the larger way you deal (or rather, fail to deal) with the matter of race and racism in America.
The New Jim Crow and Post-Katrina New Orleans
Suggesting that there are elements of the criminal justice system that indeed operate much like Jim Crow, or that ethnic cleansing occurred (or was attempted) in the wake of Katrina, is not tantamount to arguing that overt racism has increased, or remained the same as in the past, and to argue that those positions rely on the notion of overt and unchanging bigotry from the ‘50s and ‘60s is intellectually lazy. You know full well that is not the argument.
Although Michelle Alexander can defend herself, I will just say this: her primary argument regarding what she calls “The New Jim Crow” is pretty straightforward, and not particularly debatable. Namely, she notes that because of the disproportionate targeting of black men by the justice system (especially within the so-called War on Drugs, which targeting is obvious and which I will address more below), black folks are today subject to forms of social control quite similar to what existed under Jim Crow segregation. Aside from incarceration itself, laws prohibit persons with criminal records from voting in many states (especially old South states, where these laws were passed 100+ years ago for explicitly racist reasons), and also sanction discrimination in housing, education, public benefits of various types (financial aid for college, etc), and exclusion from jury service, as well as contribute to difficulties in finding employment.
Now, you may say that this is different than Jim Crow, because with Jim Crow, all blacks were subjected to this treatment just because they were black, whereas with the examples above, only black folks who have committed a crime are subjected to the negative treatment, but that argument fails to satisfy. Fact is, that same argument could have been made (and was) with regard to many of the old-school forms of racist mistreatment. So, for instance, debt peonage, or vagrancy laws were used to control black labor mobility under segregation, by arresting any black person without gainful employment. They would then be sent back to work on plantations (sometimes the very ones from which they had been emancipated), and those who defended these laws claimed the treatment was because they were criminals, not because they were black. But if the facially-race-neutral laws were being deployed in a selective and racist manner, that designation of blacks as “criminals” was itself the outgrowth of racial targeting. That is what Michelle is arguing here, and it is perfectly legitimate.
If black people are being arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned, disproportionate to the rates at which they commit various crimes (and they are, especially for drug related offenses), then the fact that they “did something” to theoretically “deserve” the mistreatment they suffer later in the form of not being able to vote, receive financial aid etc. is merely a technicality. Whites did and do the same things and were (and are) not punished in the same way, thereby creating a two tiered system of voting rights, public benefit eligibility, and even employment, where employers openly admit they are less likely to hire an ex-offender. (Of course, interestingly there is a racial twist to this too, given the previously referenced Pager study, which you naturally ignored, and which found that whites with criminal records are actually slightly more likely to be called back for a job interview than blacks without records, even when all other qualifications, credentials, education, and personal demeanor are indistinguishable. And blacks with records are only half as likely as whites with records, for the same offense, to get a shot at an interview, even when all qualifications are the same).
To ban ex-offenders from voting for life, even after they have paid their debt to society (one of Michelle’s key points in her work) is blatantly unjust. Why should such people suffer permanent civic death? And considering the racist origins of these laws (and seriously, if you research the history of them there is simply no doubt that racism was the principal motivation for them), I find it incomprehensible that you cannot see the way in which such laws have in fact operated as racist impediments to black voting, and were intended to do just that. By disenfranchising millions of voters (of color, disproportionately), these laws serve to replicate the kinds of impediments to civic life that existed under Jim Crow. Their effect is hardly different, and even the intent of those laws hearken back to Jim Crow. That is Michelle’s argument, and your smug dismissal of it does not constitute a rebuttal. It merely reveals your own craven and arrogant tendency to see yourself as intellectually and academically superior to someone with far more expertise in the area than you yourself possess, while nonetheless failing miserably to actually answer her charges in a comprehensive manner.
As for my statement regarding ethnic cleansing, one would hope that at long last you would represent honestly what my position was and is, but I suppose that is asking for too much. So let me make it clear: I did not argue that the U.S. government engaged in ethnic cleansing after Katrina. My argument, and it is incontrovertible, and admitted by various civic leaders in the city of New Orleans (or at least was at the time), is that various elites in that city — corporate elites in particular and old money, white New Orleans — did seek to use the catastrophe to change the racial demographic of the town. They admitted it, and even said that if New Orleans’ demographic went back to being what it was before (largely working class and black), they (meaning the elites) were going to leave.
This is what I was discussing in the passage you reference. Just to make sure everyone knows that you are lying, here is the place where I use that term, and its context. It is in my essay, “Of Chocolate Cities and Vanilla Indignation.” I was discussing the anger of conservative whites when Ray Nagin (the black Mayor at the time, and a lifelong Republican I should note, who only changed parties to run for Mayor, and even then was only elected because of white support), said NOLA would once again be a “chocolate city,” and how whites said that was racist. I explained why the racism charge was absurd throughout the piece, and then added this:
“Funny how Nagin’s comments simply calling for the retention of a chocolate New Orleans bring down calls of racism upon his head, while the very real and active planning of the city’s white elite — people like Joe Cannizaro and Jimmy Reiss — to actually change it to a majority white town, elicits no attention or condemnation whatsoever from white folks. In other words, talking about blacks being able to come back and make up the majority is racist, while actually engaging in ethnic cleansing — by demolishing black neighborhoods like the lower ninth ward, the Treme, or New Orleans East as many want to do — is seen as legitimate economic development policy.”
There were open discussions about bulldozing black neighborhoods (including solidly middle class ones), and especially the Lower 9th Ward (which had the highest rate of black home ownership of any census tract in the country), and letting them revert to wetlands, or making them public parks, apparently with those advocating such things totally unconcerned about what that would mean for the mostly black people who lived there. Meanwhile, there was no discussion about doing the same with the only white neighborhood hit hard and devastated — Lakeview — even though an argument could be made that it was just as vulnerable to re-flooding as the black spaces. So, if that wasn’t about race A.R., please enlighten us as to what it was. Seriously, do this in your next installment. Do not ignore it. Do not try to change the subject. Answer the question.
Likewise, neighboring St. Bernard Parish — right next door to the 9th Ward — (where neo-Nazi David Duke received over 70 percent of the white vote in the 1991 Governor’s race), tried to block black people from moving to their parish altogether, by passing a “blood relative renter law” as soon as they were able to get back to town and back in session. That law said that thereafter no one could rent property in the Parish unless they were the blood relative of the landlord from whom they were renting. That this was only a thinly veiled effort to keep blacks out (since it was a good bet few blacks could meet the blood relative requirement there) was so obvious that, thanks to a lawsuit brought by civil rights activists (none of them, surprise, surprise, conservatives), it was stopped. But once again, it was an attempt to further racially “cleanse” and whiten the region. What are your thoughts on that? Seriously. It is not a rhetorical question. I want an answer. I want you to go on record, right now, as to your views about people, and a community that does this kind of thing, or which votes for a Nazi in such overwhelming numbers. Answer it. Now.
Open race and class bias was on display in that area after the flooding and has persisted to this day, affecting who has been able to return and who hasn’t. Public housing was all but destroyed, including many “projects” with a long history of community pride, development, entrepreneurship, civic engagement and private initiatives around issues like teen pregnancy, youth violence, and AIDS. So too, schools were hijacked and turned into charters, with no accountability to the communities they ostensibly serve. Black students with learning disabilities, or emotional disturbances, are being shuttled into “regular” schools, blocked from the best charters, and counseled out of “good” schools (to keep the school’s test scores up), and in some cases, schools were altogether taken over in a way that made it virtually impossible for black families to return to them. So, for instance, Tulane University took over Fortier High after Katrina, renamed it, and made it a school that would prioritize admission for the children of Tulane faculty, staff, etc. If you were black and your kid had gone to Fortier before Katrina (and it was 98% black then), you were out of luck, and would have to “earn” your way back into the school by way of a test score, and/or wait until all the “important” people had received placement for their kids, before you might return to your neighborhood school. That too is a form of ethnic cleansing.
And although the larger “cleansing” desired by some did not materialize, this was only because of the protests of many members of the community (mostly black), and the actions of various political leaders to reject the plans of the economic elites there. But the attempt was surely made in earnest, and it received no condemnation from conservatives, and sadly not enough from white liberals either, many of whom collaborated with it (in the name of environmental sustainability, narrowly defined). If there was no massive “cleansing” in the end, that is because black folks stopped it. It surely wasn’t because the effort wasn’t made. Please enlighten us as to your views on the matter.
On the Prevalence of Biases, Overt and Implicit
As for saying we agree that biases — overt or covert — couldn’t possibly have remained anywhere near where they were, say, 40 years ago or 50, no, we do not agree and you are misstating my position. Not to mention you are giving no reasons as to why you are so sure that those biases must have substantially declined. You just assert it. That is not an argument. Feel free to try again. You have one more chance before we’re done, so, ya’ know, good luck with that.
I said I did not believe overt biases were as prevalent as in the past. However, they are still prevalent enough to cause real problems, and remain a significant contributor to ongoing racial gaps in well-being, which is, after all, the subject of this discussion. So, while you completely ignore my argument about the negative views so many whites have towards black culture, work ethic, etc., and what that would, by definition mean for the opportunity structure, that is a real discussion that we must have in order to truly address these issues. How can such large numbers of white people feel that way towards blacks — and you show no evidence to suggest they do not feel that way, and every survey taken says they do — and still be expected to treat individual black people equitably in the job market, schools, etc? How can three-fourths of whites, at least, demonstrate substantial implicit racial biases against blacks, and not be expected to engage in discriminatory treatment? Answer this. Seriously.
And if the 1 million-plus cases of overt bias a year, uncovered by the Blumrosen study, using an incredibly conservative methodology for determining bias — and which looked at over 160,000 businesses nationwide — is not enough to convince you that racial discrimination continues to cause serious distortions in the opportunity structure, well then, I don’t know what you would consider proof to be.
Just so readers know a bit about this study, here’s the thumbnail sketch:
Alfred and Ruth Blumrosen (of Rutgers University) examined businesses all across the nation, in hundreds of different industries. They set out to determine the degree of racial discrimination, by comparing employers in specific communities and industries, and seeing if there were some companies that significantly underutilized persons of color (black, Latino or Asian), or women, relative to other companies in their same community and industry, and relative to the numbers of available and qualified possible workers in those racial/gender categories. In other words, they weren’t just saying, “oh, so-and-so-company doesn’t hire blacks in proportion to their numbers in the population, and thus, the cause must be racism.” Rather, they were taking a much more limited and conservative approach. So, let’s say as they examined construction firms in Des Moines, perhaps they discovered that companies in that industry were typically hiring black folks at a rate of, say, 10 percent of their workforce (as a median). Now, obviously, not every company is going to hire blacks at exactly a rate of 10 percent (indeed, medians suggest half above and half below that), but there is very little reason that we should see vast disparities between companies in the same locale and industry. So if the research determined that there were some companies in the locale and industry that were substantially below the median (1-2 standard deviations or more), the Blumrosens concluded, quite reasonably, that there were likely barriers to entry for blacks (or members of the other groups) operating. After all, if your competitors seem able to attract and willing to hire blacks at a rate of 10 percent, there’s very little reason (other than some form of bias) that you shouldn’t be able to do so as well or at least get close: obviously the workers are there, with the qualifications, and available for that labor.
The good news of the study (and there was some), was that most establishments (at least using this methodology) are not discriminating against people of color or women. However, the research indicated that there were still tens of thousands of employers whose underutilization of people of color was so severe as to suggest up to 1.3 million likely cases of racial discrimination annually, affecting blacks, Latinos and Asian Americans in as many as 1 in 3 job searches. After conducting their statistical regressions, the Blumrosens were able to conclude that for about 90 percent of the estimated cases of discrimination (estimated because of the substantial underutilization), the evidence was so strong (i.e., the underutilization was so severe) that the odds of the outcomes being due to anything other than racial bias were only about 1 percent. That’s significant A.R. And although you seem to think every study ever done on racism (in employment, housing, the justice system etc.) is flawed and proves nothing, it should be noted that neither you yourself, nor any other conservative who seeks to indict these studies ever manages to construct an alternative study that debunks the evidence of the ones you claim are so flawed. I mean, if all this research (literally hundreds of studies over the years, all of which trend in the same direction) is so bogus, then how easy would it be for you or some conservative researcher to set up a study — maybe a matched pair study for job seekers, or a housing audit study — where you controlled for all the relevant factors, and then, when all was said and done, you could reveal the results: voila! No evidence of discrimination at all. But you don’t do these studies. And we all know why.
Apparently only if whites don’t want blacks to use the same bathrooms — tellingly, the only thing you have actually called racism since this discussion began, and even then only in the South, where you seem to believe racism was unique relative to the rest of the country — will you actually believe racism is a real and persistent problem. Of course, let us not forget that back in those days, whites didn’t think that was racism either, when compared, say, to slavery. They always talked about how much better things were, and how much progress had been made, even as they collaborated with evil every day, so white perceptions about white racism have always been a bit infantile. Some things don’t change.
Let’s remember, even in the early 1960s, before civil rights laws, the vast majority of whites believed, according to Gallup polls, that blacks had just as good a chance as they did to get a good job, a nice home or a good education. Nearly two-thirds said this in 1963, and in 1962, nearly 90 percent of whites thought educational opportunity was equal between whites and blacks. Now A.R., I would like to hear you say, right now, in this discussion, that those whites were delusional. Not just wrong, but delusional, in utter denial, ignorant as to the world around them. And then, I would like for you to ruminate upon what it means that whites were so wrong about black and brown reality. What does it mean for us today? Do we really think that white folks, who have never perceived racism accurately, have suddenly become clear-eyed on the subject? And that blacks, who always knew exactly what was going on, have suddenly lost their minds and can’t see straight when it comes to their own experiences? This is not a rhetorical question. Answer it, seriously.
Now, back to the question of whether biases have increased or decreased over time: As for the matter of subtle biases, there is no way to know how they have changed over time, because we didn’t have measures for those things 50 years ago. However, given the findings that subtle biases tend to be marginally higher in people who test low for overt bias, one could make the inference, quite reasonably, that as overt bias decreased, these beliefs went more underground and have essentially supplanted the overt, but not decreased over time. They may well be as high or even higher than before, even as overt bias has dropped.
But the point is, regardless of increase, decrease, or stability over time, the real issue is that subtle and implicit/subconscious bias is capable of doing the same damage as overt bias, and it is especially hard to get at through traditional means, precisely because it, a) isn’t something we even realize we’re doing or that we’re engaged in, and b) there are no legal standards that attempt to address it. The law only addresses bias that can be demonstrated, usually as an intentional act (or one that, despite lack of intent has a large and demonstrable disparate impact), but the social psychology research and advances in cognitive science over the past two decades tell us that the subtle biases are far more problematic. So the law is trying to solve one problem, while the bigger problem may well be one that the law is not currently situated to handle.
So, for instance, the research finds that subtle biases lead whites to genuinely perceive job applicants who are white as more qualified than their counterparts of color, even when there is no objective evidence for that conclusion, and even evidence suggesting that the opposite is true. But because the whites who perceive black applicants as less qualified, thanks to their implicit biases, honestly believe their evaluation process to be fair, and don’t mean to engage in racism, they are beyond the scope of the law, and if they took a lie detector test, in which they said racism had played no role in their decision, they would pass. Not because it had played no role, but simply because the way in which it affected their judgment remained largely subconscious. By the way, the same phenomenon can be observed with regard to gender or other categories.
In other words, racism in the modern era seems to be mostly manifested in the application of deeply ingrained stereotypes and negative associations to specific situations, not by people who are classic racists, or ill-intended, but by people who seem to believe (against all evidence and logic to the contrary) that they can be exposed to negative racial stereotypes their entire lives (as we all have been, by media, politicians, maybe even family), and yet, somehow remain above the fray and not have that influence their thinking or behavior.
Advertising works — which is why, after all, businesses spend billions to get us to buy their products — and this is a principle that we should recognize as applying in the case of race bias as well. If one is exposed to enough commercials for a given brand of toothpaste, for instance, research finds that they will be much more likely to purchase it. If that notion works for consumer products, surely we would expect it to work for racial stereotypes, to which we have been exposed far more often than ads for, say, Charmin toilet paper or Taco Bell. Literally everyone knows those stereotypes, even if they believe that they consciously reject them. So I can do a workshop in which I ask people to tell me what they were taught (by parents, the media indirectly, or others) about blacks, Asians, Latinos, indigenous people, Arabs, Muslims, Jews, LGBT folks, women, etc. and never do people fail to rattle off a litany of stereotypes to which they have been exposed.
So consider this: I have conducted “bogus pipeline” experiments, where people believe they are being electronically monitored for deception, and in which I ask people to honestly note on a piece of paper what image they get in their mind when they hear certain “negative” words or phrases, or various “positive” words or phrases. For instance, I will throw out words like “criminal,” “drug user,” “teenage mother,” “recipient of government assistance,” “terrorist,” “single mom,” or any of several others. And I ask participants in the workshop to place a check mark on the left side of the page, under a “W” for white person, if they envision a white person; and, alternately, a check mark under “POC” on the right side, if they envision a person of color.
When I have done this, without the “bogus pipeline” (the implied lie detector — really just a regular pen, but which I’ve told them contains a microchip that detects deception based on pressure changes, heat and sweat, and which is used by law enforcement to detect false confessions), answers vary. Most still admit, even though they have no reason to assume I would know if they lied, that they “see” black and brown faces in their heads at the mention of the “negative” words or phrases. And this they do, even though the “average” representative of all those groups is not a person of color but white (even for “terrorist,” since, in this country there have been literally hundreds of cases of politically motivated anti-abortion violence against clinics since the 1980s, all committed by white “Christians”). But when I do it with the implied lie detector, and people worry that they may be caught in a lie, it is almost unanimous: whites and people of color almost always mark POC for the “bad” words.
And when I throw out “good” words and phrases, like “all-American girl” or “all-American boy,” both whites and people of color tend to admit they “saw” a white person. When I say “God,” the same thing happens. Interestingly, even people who identify themselves as atheists, say they envision a white man when the word God is mentioned! How bizarre is that? It’s like saying, “I don’t believe in God, but by God the God I don’t believe in is white!” When I say “hard worker,” or “good parent,” or “natural leader,” or “good neighbor,” the whites (though not the people of color as often) tend to see white people.
In other words, the conditioning is real and ubiquitous. Now, does this equate to fire hoses, weekly lynchings, the beating of Freedom Riders, etc? Well of course not, and no one has said it does. But does it suggest a significant ongoing problem with racism, however subtle, and the likelihood that people who have been so conditioned might well act on those ingrained biases on the job, in the schools, etc? Of course it does, and to argue otherwise is stunningly ignorant.
Additionally, of course, there is the matter of the old boy’s network for hiring, which produces significant racial disparities in opportunity, access, income, etc. Given the history of racial isolation that most people experience — which is of course a direct result of past racism, even if you think present racism is minimal — these networks will be institutionally racist, in that they operate in such a way as to perpetuate racial inequity, irrespective of merit, ability, talent, etc. That matters, and of course you ignore it, though I discussed it in detail before.
You say there are problems with my figures on persistent racism but then proceed to point out none of them here. How odd. To say, “go read my website” is not an argument to be taken seriously. At least when I told people to check out my books about one or another item, it was only after at least explaining the basic argument I was making, and which they could then choose to explore more fully therein by examining the footnotes. I wasn’t just ducking the issue and telling folks to “go read why A.R. is wrong” somewhere else. This is the place for these arguments, A.R., and it is why I agreed to this exercise. Seriously, you had two weeks or so. Make an argument with evidence claims and direct rebuttals of whatever it is about which you think I’m wrong. In the last round I mentioned several studies to suggest widespread ongoing discrimination in the job market for instance (the Pager study on black versus white job applicants with similar qualifications, and with/without criminal records; the Blumrosen study, the Vanderbilt University study on pay scales for immigrants based on skin color, when all productivity and qualification indicators are the same, etc). You ignored them all. Please address them here.
As for your argument — that if racism were the driving force behind racial inequities, we would, by necessity, have seen sharp declines (and certainly no increases) in those disparities after the passage of civil rights laws — this is wrong for a few important reasons.
First, racism could be the driving force behind historic disparities (and their lingering effects) even if all racism had ended the day after the civil rights laws were passed. And if that were so — because of the inequities that, by that time, had become sedimented in job markets, housing markets, etc. — we could not deny that racism had been the driving force and could still be a driving force, even though gaps had not decreased commensurate with new civil rights protections.
Second, the laws passed in the 1960s did not address all types of disparities. They did not even try to address wealth disparities, or justice system disparities (more on those below), and did not do very much to rectify disparities elsewhere. They only sought to stop further acts of discrimination, but left the head start that whites had built up for hundreds of years going back to the colonies — and often with the help of government — in place.
In other words, if we envision an 8-lap race, it was like saying, after whites had built up a 5-lap lead, “OK, now blacks can run too without ankle weights, so good luck with that,” taking no note of the built up disparities and advantages accumulated by whites because of systemic injustice, let alone seeking to close those gaps. Even if black runners in that race closed the gap to 4.5 laps by the end of the race (which would mean they were much better runners), the gaps themselves would remain significant, because of past racism and its ongoing effects. And if even just a few barriers were suddenly thrown up in the way of the runners (like, for instance, occasionally making some of the black folks jump high hurdles every 100 yards), the gap might actually increase in some ways. When it comes to something like wealth, because it expands exponentially, when some are able to accumulate and others are not, those who can are able to hand down assets and head starts to their children, which causes large initial gaps to become larger over time, rather than smaller or stable. I’ll say more about this below.
Third, no force operates in a vacuum. So, for instance, the racism that was undoubtedly (and I assume even you would agree with this) the driving force behind inequities in the pre-civil rights era, produced a number of outcomes that interacted with other forces, and which combined, helped to generate even larger disparities than the one factor could have alone. So, because of white supremacy, historically, blacks were relegated mostly to the agricultural south. The agricultural south had lower wages (in part because of racial exploitation of course, and in part because it simply produced less profit than the industrial north), and worse working conditions. Thus, because blacks were consigned to that lower-wage region (because of racism), black aggregate income, educational levels, wealth accumulation, and even health, all suffered relative to that of whites.
Now, here’s where conservatives and those of us on the left often part ways on how to understand this.
For conservatives, the fact that blacks have been largely southern-based, is a factor independent of racism for why their wages are lower than those of other groups, on average. Thomas Sowell has made this argument for years, for instance, as if to suggest that it is a coincidence (or perhaps because of a preference for warm weather) that blacks are mostly in the south. But we on the left would argue — and it is a far more intellectually honest position — that regional concentration is not independent of racism and the history of white supremacy and apartheid. So when we look at wage disparities, is racism the “driving force?” Well, it certainly could be — both past and present — but as with all social phenomena, it interacts with other factors to produce even bigger impacts. But those impacts are not independent of racism, and absent racism, would not have existed (unless you believe that the group in question is actually inferior, of course). Feel free to make this argument. It would save us all a lot of time.
Finally, if two countervailing trends operate at once, the effects that could have happened, absent the second of the trends, may be blunted, owing nothing to the importance (or lack of importance) of that first trend. What I mean is this: to argue that racism couldn’t be the big force behind disparities because they didn’t drop after civil rights as much as they had before, ignores the various other things going on. As I mentioned previously, even under apartheid, the shift to manufacturing and the migration by some blacks to the North meant that aggregate black wages were going to rise and gaps with whites would close, say, in the 1950s, even before civil rights. OK. But still, the key to those gaps that existed was racism. If opportunity had been equal, and that trend had existed towards manufacturing, the gaps would have ended more or less entirely (unless, again, one believes in different group potentials/abilities, in which case one is a racist, by definition). This is of course the position of some prominent conservatives (Charles Murray and John Derbyshire come to mind, the latter of whom was on a panel at CPAC this week), but you appear not to agree with them, though I’m sure you will inform us if I’ve been too generous here.
Likewise, after civil rights laws, when opportunity is theoretically supposed to be equal, if suddenly the economy changes, largely due to global trends, and the economic base of that growing black middle class is eroded, the gaps will not continue to close as fast. They’ll still close (as they have, in large part because of equal opportunity laws and even affirmative action efforts in various trades, public employment, public contracting, etc.), but less quickly to be sure. And there too, the gaps that remain could be entirely about racism, since, in the absence of racism (past and/or present), the manufacturing collapse wouldn’t have had the disparate impact that it had on blacks. They could have just as easily transitioned to the growing service sector in the private economy, which though it paid less, paid less for everyone, and would have allowed the racial gaps to still close over time.
But they couldn’t as easily transition to that sector, for various reasons, related to racism. First, the service jobs were increasingly in suburbs, from which they had largely been excluded as residents. Second, to access those jobs, while living in the cities, would require transportation which many urban black folks didn’t have (especially if they were lower income), and since many employers are reluctant to hire workers who have to come by bus, over long distances, because of concerns over reliability, this means that many folks of color, despite their desire for such jobs, would be locked out of them. And finally, of course, there is the overt (and for that matter, subtle and subconscious) bias that is especially likely to manifest in service type jobs, even more so than manufacturing.
Think about it, AR: at least with manufacturing there is a specific set of skills, which folks can all learn, and which no one is thought to possess before they receive some kind of training, or, back in the old days, perhaps a union apprenticeship or something. But with service jobs, the qualifications are far more subjective: things like “communication style,” or what are called soft skills, which every study finds are far more susceptible to biased interpretation than something more tangible like “can this person lift 100 pounds,” or “can they attach a hinge to this door frame” quickly enough? So as the economy changed to a lower wage model, some of the progress would slow — still continue, but slow — and the gaps might grow, again because of racism, since employers in the service sector were perceiving (often without evidence) that blacks, Latinos, etc. lacked certain “soft skills” needed to relate to their (mostly) white customer base. Note, I am not saying that racism was the only factor here, but it could be, despite the presence of civil rights laws, thanks to countervailing trends that are not impacted by those laws directly. I am merely testing your hypothesis regarding what we “know” would happen in the wake of civil rights laws if racism had been the major culprit for inequity, and on multiple levels then, your hypothesis fails.
As for whether various “non-racial” macroeconomic factors are bigger causes for racial disparities than things like implicit bias — which you seem to believe whole-heartedly — again, these cannot be disentangled so easily as you would like and obviously believe. Those trends did not take place in a vacuum, in which all else was equal. They transpired in a nation that had just recently stopped being a system of formal white supremacy, an apartheid state, a system of racial fascism. I know you won’t like these terms, but they are historically honest, and much more so than the bilge conservatives like Glenn Beck spew about how America has “had her problems.” No, oppression is not a problem, it is a first order evil and those who stood silent in the face of it are equally as evil, which would mean most all conservatives during the civil rights era, in both parties, and in all conservative media of the time without exception. You will look long and hard before you find any movement conservatives of that era who were actively involved in the civil rights struggle. The sit-ins, the freedom rides, Freedom Summer, voter registration, all of it, was done by leftists, A.R. Not even liberals in most cases: straight up leftists. It was communists who were fighting for black rights as early as the 1920s and 1930s, and continued to do so into the ‘60s, while the right fought integration, fought civil rights, every step of the way. That is your side’s legacy. Feel free to let us know how you feel about it.
And to suggest that it is easier to change these ostensibly non-racial macroeconomic factors than to change the “ghostly subconscious” of whites, indicates not only your arrogant dismissiveness of the research on implicit bias and its real impact, but also your ignorance about the good news that that research has uncovered: namely, that when white folks are aware of our ingrained conditioning, our biases, our racialized frame, and our implicit prejudices, we actually can challenge them quite easily, and often do. In other words, raising consciousness about implicit bias is an incredibly effective (and I should note, very inexpensive) way to interrupt discrimination. As I note in Colorblind, and again, with copious notes, research in the realms of employment evaluations, educator evaluations of students, and even jury deliberations, all have found that whites can and do take special care to avoid prejudicial decisions — and are more likely to make non-biased decisions — when they are aware of how easily they might inadvertently fall into old cognitive patterns.
What this means is that a concerted effort to raise awareness about how we are all conditioned (around race, gender, class, sexuality, etc) might actually be an incredibly important way to reduce discrimination, and a method that could avoid relying solely on courts to do the work. One would think that would be a solution that even a conservative would love. But no, because it still relies on a recognition of the problem of bias and discrimination. So even though the solution to which it points is not so much a “big government” solution as one we could inculcate individually and collectively, as teachers, employers, etc., the right still rejects it, because it interrupts the “everything is OK, and everyone has equal opportunity” narrative, to which they are so slavishly wedded.
So it’s not hard to interrupt subconscious processes. It’s relatively easy, if we bring the subconscious into the conscious and grapple with it openly. Most people are good people, and made aware of how easily they might screw up, actually try really hard to do the right thing. But you can’t interrupt a process you don’t know is happening, and therein lies the problem.
Welfare Programs, the Great Society and Racial Inequity
As for the discussion about various social welfare efforts, which you seek to claim were a bigger impediment to black progress, and more destructive, I suppose, than racism, your claims are thoroughly disingenuous.
First, most black people never received benefits from most of these programs, and even when large numbers did they didn’t do so for long periods of time. So whereas all black people had been subject to discrimination in the pre-civil rights era (and many still were, even after the laws were passed, and still are), only a small share of the black population at any given time, and even the black poor, received (or receive) the benefits of various welfare programs that are thought to be so destructive in the eyes of people like yourself. Even at their height, programs like AFDC/TANF never reached more than perhaps 8 percent of black Americans at any given time (now it’s about 4 percent).
Even food stamps — for which some near-poor families are also eligible, in addition to the officially poor — were never being received by more than 1 in 4 blacks at a given time (now it’s about 18 percent).
Even though large percentages of African Americans have received benefits from some form of social program at some time in their lives (mostly temporary support from food stamps), most do so for very short periods (6-8 months, on average, for cash, food or housing assistance), and so it can hardly be claimed that such programs could inculcate some type of cultural dysfunction or damage to blacks more broadly. And to the extent caseloads for programs like AFDC/TANF have dropped dramatically in the last 15 years, even as the economy has soured, one would think — if your argument were true, that the program is uniquely responsible for black folks’ problems and racial gaps with whites — that black folks’ situation would have improved because they were less likely to be on the program than in the ‘90s, and that racial gaps would have closed for the same reason. Of course, that isn’t the case: the opposite, actually is true.
As of 2006, there were approximately 426,000 black adults in the entire nation receiving cash welfare benefits under TANF, out of something like 25 million black adults in all. How can such a paltry percentage of black folks receiving these benefits signify a major social impediment to overall black progress? Please explain how this can contribute significantly to racial gaps in well-being when compared to whites?
And no, before you say it, it is not the case that TANF recipients are also receiving a cartload of other benefits, which, combined, make them overly reliant on the state for their support. This is a common argument made by the right, but it presumes (falsely) that the typical welfare recipient receives multiple program benefits, when they do not. Although most TANF recipients do receive SNAP benefits (food stamps) — and even then, both combined leave them below 70 percent of the the poverty line in every state and at about half the poverty line in most states — only 13 percent of SNAP recipients also receive TANF (cash).
Likewise, most TANF recipients do not receive public housing or Section 8 housing voucher benefits. And only 17 percent of persons receiving some form of housing assistance (either public housing or Section 8 vouchers) also receive cash benefits from TANF. A few more points about housing: 1) contrary to popular belief, people who receive housing benefits do not live for free, off the government. Families must pay 1/3 of their incomes to rent (either a public housing authority, or a landlord accepting a Section 8 voucher). So if a family qualifies for housing support, because their incomes are so low as to leave them below either 50% or 80% of the median income in the given geographic area (the first number for Section 8 eligibility and the latter for public housing), then they can potentially receive a benefit from one of those programs. But they will pay one-third of whatever they earn in rent. 2) Section 8 vouchers go not to the poor families but directly to landlords, helping to prop up rental markets and providing property owners with additional income that they would not otherwise have. If anyone is getting a handout, then, from that program, it is the property owner (not poor and usually not black), rather than the poor person or family.
With regard to other programs, as just one example, only 18 percent of families receiving child care vouchers (under the Child Care Development Block Grants) are also receiving cash benefits under TANF (and even then, these families have parents who are either working or in school, so they are not what we would consider “dependent” per se). Likewise, most persons receiving benefits from school lunch or breakfast programs are not also on TANF, or in public housing. Most people receiving Medicaid benefits are not receiving benefits from any other program (more on Medicaid below), etc.
Second, in order to carry forward the apparent argument you’re making — that “welfare” programs have been the cause of racial disparities between whites and blacks, more than racism — you would have to completely ignore (as you do) the substantial gaps that exist between whites and blacks who are not poor. If the black middle class is far worse off than the white middle class, or if even affluent blacks are far worse off than affluent (or for that matter, even many middle-income) whites in terms of assets, net worth, the quality of their kids’ schools, unemployment, income, etc (and they are, in every instance), then you can hardly blame anti-poverty efforts for that. You would like to change the subject to poverty, but that is a largely separate issue. I’m OK with discussing it, and how incredibly wrong you are about the matter, and its causes — and I’m about to, so by all means, keep reading — but you must still explain the massive disparities in well-being that exist between whites and blacks, even after controlling for poverty and its associated problems, and only comparing the non-poor in each group. That is where racism can be seen as an especially independent factor. Which means that even if I were to grant you every single point you make about poverty, poor people, welfare programs, etc. (and of course I will grant none of them because they are all utterly absurd), none of those points would be the least bit responsive to the topic we agreed to discuss, because they cannot explain the racial gaps that so often (and mostly) manifest among the non-poor.
Third, in order to successfully carry forward the conservative argument that welfare spending contributes to some kind of dysfunctional “culture of poverty” among blacks (which appears to be your argument, though you are oddly coy about committing to this position, perhaps because you sense how implicitly racist it sounds), you will need to explain how this can be so in the U.S., and specifically with African Americans, but strangely not the case in various Scandinavian countries which have much higher rates of social spending, as a share of their GDP, as a share of all income earned, and by every other measure. Why does welfare not cause Nordic types such trouble? I wait with baited breath for your answer on this one, and specifically, how you manage to answer it without making an argument that is, by definition, racist. Good luck with that.
Fourth, AFDC stopped keeping pace with inflation from 1973 on, and between that year and 1996 (the year that welfare reform was passed and signed), the real dollar value of benefits had dropped 43%. That was a significant erosion, and it matters, since it is supremely dishonest to blame programs that are declining in purchasing power for failing to lift poor people from poverty, or for “not working.” Currently, median monthly benefits from TANF come to only about one third of the poverty line nationally (down from half in 1981), while in some states, like Mississippi, benefits reach only 12 percent of the poverty line.
Your claim that social program spending aimed at the poor — looked at in over 185 programs — exploded 17-fold, adjusted for inflation since 1964 is a stunning distortion. First of all, it is beyond me where Peter Ferrara (your source for this claim, though you don’t name him, but I looked it up) got this number. The source he cites to justify the claim is the Heritage Foundation, and yet when you look at the most recent Heritage report on the subject, there are not 185 means-tested programs, but rather, 71. And then, most of these programs are not truly anti-poverty programs per se, and were not aimed at the black poor, so they have no relevance to our discussion of black well being or racial well being gaps.
Your claim of 185 programs relies on an interpretation of “welfare programs” that includes such things which even Heritage does not claim as “welfare” per se, like Social Security, Medicare for the elderly, and other programs for which many Americans are eligible based not on poverty, but other factors. The absurdity of this kind of over-classification will be discussed below, regarding the Index of Government Dependence that you reference. It is dishonest in the extreme to claim these as anti-poverty efforts that foster government dependence or contribute to racial gaps in well-being. But that’s what you’d did. Why A.R.? Were you deliberately trying to deceive, or did you not actually read the Heritage report from which this silly claim emanates?
Furthermore, when it comes even to the 71 “means-tested” programs claimed by Heritage, these include things that very few people would consider “welfare,” and which, again, were not mostly used by black people, and which most black people have never benefitted from, making it once again disingenuous to blame the programs for black folks’ problems or racial well-being gaps. Among the programs that Heritage throws into the mix when bashing “welfare” programs for the poor, and which are part of their critique of such programs, one finds not only things like cash assistance, food stamps and housing programs, but also:
– Adoption assistance (paid typically to middle class families who adopt);
– Foster care assistance (same thing);
– Weatherization and energy bill assistance for low-income persons so as to lower their utility bills in winter (often
paid to utility companies directly, not the poor families who are receiving the subsidy)
– Disability payments for disabled children (where less than 1 in 4 beneficiaries are black);
– Emergency food and shelter assistance;
– Community health centers (where payments are made to the providers, not the poor);
– The nutritional program for the elderly;
– Rural housing insurance;
– The Title XX Block Grant (intended mostly to prevent child abuse);
– The Social Service Program for Refugees;
– Legal Services spending (which money goes to attorneys for low-income people who otherwise would do without, not to the poor themselves);
– Head Start (a program proven to pay real educational dividends);
– Job training programs (intended to reduce welfare dependence for goodness’ sakes);
– Pell Grants for college (also intended to boost future employability and wages, and reduce welfare dependence, and in which program only about 1 in 5 beneficiaries is black, and most are not officially poor);
– Americorps and other volunteer initiatives (most of whose participants are not poor or black); and,
– The Earned Income Tax Credit (also intended to reward work by subsidizing earned income with tax refunds at low incomes, and which you can’t receive if you don’t work and don’t earn anything, and the vast majority of whose beneficiaries are white and not receiving any other government program benefit)!
So again, given these programs, who benefits from them, and how few black folks do as a percentage of all black folks, how is it even theoretically possible to blame them for the condition of black America, and especially racial gaps between white and black well-being? I mean, you can argue that we shouldn’t be spending all this money on people (especially those who aren’t even poor), but that is another argument for an entirely different discussion about competing philosophies of the scope of government. It has nothing to do with the issue of racial gaps. Nothing.
And of course, the bulk of the “massive” increase in welfare spending about which Heritage is so animated (and which corresponds to your claim above, regarding inflation-adjusted increases) is in Medicaid. Yet most Medicaid recipients are not black, and most dollars spent in the program are not spent on black people. Likewise, most black people are not on Medicaid. So to blame Medicaid for welfare dependence is obscene, let alone black dependence, let alone racial well-being gaps. About two-thirds of all Medicaid spending is spent on elderly people or the disabled, neither of whom, I presume, even you would expect to be out there working and “earning” their own way in the health care market. Only 3.4 percent of all Medicaid dollars are spent on care for able-bodied adults who are neither elderly nor caring for children.
Not to mention, Medicaid was not intended to end poverty. It was intended to address health care insecurity and lack of coverage. It has done that. We can debate whether it has been the best mechanism for doing so. But this is not the place for that debate. We are debating racial gaps in well being and it would be nice if you would not continually try to change the subject and obfuscate that issue.
Oh, and one more thing: the notion that government health care expenditures (like those for Medicaid) should be counted as welfare benefits is inherently of questionable validity. It’s not as if having such coverage actually frees up substantial income for the poor who use it, because in the absence of such programs, they would likely not have care (or they would rely on charity care or the good graces of doctors who were willing to forgive debts, for everything from treating the common cold to chemotherapy — good luck with that last one!). It’s not as if poor people were paying for their own health care happily prior to 1964, and then when Medicaid came in they all jumped for joy now that they could save all that money they had been socking away for their next heart attack, and now go spend it on booze and cigarettes.
So if Medicaid didn’t actually boost disposable income, it shouldn’t be counted as if it were the same as income. It isn’t. Yet when Heritage goes and figures how much the nation spends on welfare “per poor person,” that is what they do: they make a dollar claim, as if poor people actually get tons of money, rather than realizing that if lots is being spent on poor people’s health care, it’s because they’re sick. They didn’t get sick on purpose, so as to scam the system and boost their pay levels. They got sick because that happens to poor people a lot. Because they’re poor, and too often lack access to good nutrition (ever tried to shop in a poor neighborhood?), good preventative care, good information about how to stay healthy, and incomes sufficient to provide for a healthier living environment (not to mention they are far more likely to be exposed to toxic chemicals, waste facilities, lead paint, etc. than middle class folks, and blacks are far more likely to be so exposed than whites). Oh, and the money from Medicaid gets paid to the doctors who treat them, not to the poor people themselves. How you can, in effect, consider that welfare for the poor, and claim that it fosters pathology among the poor, when the money goes to wealthy (or at least well-off) professionals, and not the poor is beyond rational comprehension.
As for the Great Society programs (which I claimed were beginning to work before budgets were cut and the economy began to shift from manufacturing, and which you claim were failures), again you are totally misinformed. The data is clear: in the years between 1965 and 1973, poverty rates plummeted, and especially in urban areas, by about 38 percent. Now, I’m not suggesting that the Great Society programs were the only force there — the economy was strong too — but they played a part, to be sure. As for the “demonstration cities” (they were actually called Model Cities), the Model Cities program was scrapped less than a decade after its launch. During its heyday, conditions actually were improving in those communities. But once they were eliminated, obviously they cannot continue to benefit those areas, nor can those areas’ subsequent problems be blamed on the programs, since the programs no longer functioned.
Sadly, by the mid-1970s, virtually all the innovative programs of the Great Society had been cut or eliminated, leaving only cash assistance (which began to decline relative to inflation and was never sufficient to pull folks from poverty), food stamps and limited housing support as the main props of the so-called welfare state. In the case of food assistance, its goal was not to end poverty, but far more narrowly, to reduce food insecurity. And it did that. Without those benefits, millions would have been even more desperately poor. To point to such programs and say “they didn’t work — there’s still poverty” is to hold such programs accountable for a goal that they were never intended to meet. Our welfare programs have been aimed at specific needs (medical, food, housing), rather than ending poverty (this is one of the limitations of our model), and can only be judged relative to the goals to which they were pointed. So, food stamp benefits must be judged in terms of reducing food insecurity, Medicaid must be judged in terms of whether it made health care services more available to more people. On these terms, the programs worked, though not nearly as well as we might like (and not nearly as well as more thoroughgoing programs would have perhaps).
Business Climate, Taxes, Unions and Lots of Other Things With Little Relevance to this Discussion
Now, as for your ruminations on how cities progress or don’t, and the importance of making places “attractive for businesses.”
What does it mean to be made “attractive for businesses?” If that means a low or no tax burden, low or no regulations on the treatment of labor, environmental protections, etc., then places like Haiti or Somalia should be bustling with commercial investment. But they are not. Indeed, the U.S., in the 1950s and ‘60s, when the tax rate was much higher than it is now (both on individuals and companies), had far higher rates of investment than any country in the so-called “third world,” despite costs. What makes an area attractive to investment is not just the cost of labor in the abstract or taxes: it involves the productivity of workers (which, if it’s high enough can justify investment even if costs are higher, because unit labor costs drop), the educational levels of the community, etc. Not to mention, businesses do better when workers do better. So Henry Ford, for instance (who, God knows, was no racial liberal — quite the opposite), understood that in order for his company to prosper, his workers had to be able to buy the products they produced. So he paid far higher wages than most other companies at the time. People thought he was crazy, but the demand-side nature of economics proved him right, and led to significant economic output, growth, productivity gains and the booming gains by labor in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s, when wages were constantly rising (Fordism having won the day throughout the manufacturing sector).
Fact is, the Great Society programs did not cause higher labor costs or higher taxes on businesses. Business taxes did not grow during the period in question (and as a percentage of profits — and of the economy — actually fell), and worker costs only grew in relation to the easily exploited labor of impoverished persons in the rest of the world. I mean, sure, I suppose you can argue that American businesses should have been allowed to slash wages down to the levels of Sri Lanka or something, in order to remain competitive, but if you are comfortable with the moral or practical implications of such a thing, this only suggests that you know damned good and well that it would never have been you or your family forced to work for such starvation wages. Good luck selling the morality of such a scheme to the public. Meanwhile, Japanese businesses flourished, while nonetheless paying workers far more, relative to profits and executive pay, than American companies did. So what you consider “good for business” is only one way of looking at the matter, and only through the lens of the owning class.
As for the reason movie theatre ushers are obsolete, it is preposterous for you to raise this example as a presumed consequence of liberalism. It is the consequence of people coming to realize, “holy shit, I can actually find the seat on my own, who knew?” and the fact that it makes no sense for a movie theatre to provide a service that is superfluous to the consumer experience. What kind of argument is this? Lots of jobs become obsolete but have nothing to do with liberalism, conservatism or any political ideology, and it is crazy to blame the left for the decline of movie ushers. Not to mention, if you think being a movie usher was a way to get a start on a long career, you are fooling yourself. This is just nonsensical. Such jobs are great for summer work for teens I suppose — I sacked groceries, which is a similar gig, I guess — but the idea that one goes from sacking groceries to owning the grocery store is pretty absurd. And I should note, the job I got sacking groceries, was one I procured because my grandmother knew the boss. A little more white privilege and the operation of the old boy’s network at play: these “starter” jobs you mention are still ones that were available to very few people of color.
Same thing with jobs as waiters: they are hardly prestigious in most cases, but there are any number of studies that demonstrate a marked tendency for restaurants to hire white wait staff and limit people of color to busboy jobs, and “back of the house” positions (like cooking, etc), because of their mostly white customer base. So while I agree, plenty of lower-end jobs would be great for helping people get a taste of the work experience, those jobs are simply not open to all on anything remotely resembling an equitable level. And if the only way to make them equally available is to allow employers to pay people next-to-nothing, then the “solution” is worse than the disease. A decent society neither allows such wage deflation, nor widespread unemployment.
If the argument you are making here (and sometimes it’s hard to tell) is that things like minimum wage laws have somehow harmed black youth, because such laws require employers to pay black youth more than they are worth (and so, therefore, they just hire white youth instead), realize that you are making a racist argument. You are saying that black youth are not as good, not as productive, as white youth, and not even worth 7-bucks and some change per hour! Yet how can you believe that the productivity of a white youth in a low wage job (like sacking groceries, flipping fries, etc) could really be that much higher than the productivity of a black youth? Such a claim is silly: the marginal differences between two employees in low-wage jobs are minimal at best. So it’s one thing to argue that minimum wage laws contribute to unemployment generally (because employers can’t afford to hire more people if wages have a floor), but it is quite another to suggest that such laws contribute to racial inequity. Why would these laws result in a preference for white youth? There is no reason, except if the employers have the fundamentally racist view that black youth are not as good as white youth. In other words, if your claim here were true about the effect of minimum wages, it would actually prove my argument about racial bias.
By the way, the argument that minimum wage laws actually contribute to unemployment generally, among youth or anyone else, is disproved by years of research. But this isn’t the place to argue that point, as it is not the subject of our discussion. The only thing that is relevant is whether such laws have a uniquely debilitating impact on black folks, and you present no evidence or logic for why they would (and the only logic that could be deployed for such a purpose is, by definition, confirmatory of the racism hypothesis, as I explain above).
Oh, and finally on this point: if you are suggesting that perhaps getting rid of minimum wage laws would allow employers to hire lots of black youth (thereby reducing racial gaps in unemployment between them and white youth), understand the implications of what you’re saying. This means you are saying it would be a good thing for employers to be able to hyper-exploit the labor of black young people, by replacing white youth in low wage jobs! So you would then be advocating the firing of white teens and their replacement with black teens who could (and would) be paid less than the white teens had been previously. But this would not reduce racial gaps in income (unless those white teens remained unemployed permanently). If they got bumped up to higher wage jobs, the gaps would remain the same. Or, alternately, if the ending of minimum wage laws resulted in downward wage pressure (the theory behind your argument) then presumably, white youth as “rational actors” would just lower their expectations too and go to work for hyper-exploitative wages, in which case they would just keep their jobs, the black youth would still be on the sidelines, and nothing would change about black well-being, relative to white well-being.
Not to mention, if white youth were replaced by black youth (the best case scenario under your apparent argument, and which would be necessary if racial gaps in well being were to diminish), we would all get to be treated to yet another chorus of white whining, in which white people (now teens) would be running around talking about how black people were “taking their jobs.” Which is to say, that white racial resentment would increase if what you seem to be recommending were actually done, and thus, racism would increase, and thus, once again, my thesis would be proven correct and we’d be back to square one.
When you argue that black youth unemployment used to be tied with white youth unemployment, or even lower, you take intellectual mendacity to an entirely new level. First, I’m not sure what data suggests this is true, since naturally you don’t reference it. But assuming you have reported it accurately, did it ever occur to you how venal the comparison is? I mean, one could argue (because it was certainly true) that black folks had full employment under the system of enslavement, and were less likely to be unemployed than whites. So what? Would you contend that black youth were better off then than white youth, or that their parents were? Surely not.
Black teen unemployment is not higher than its white equivalent because of liberal social policy. It is higher because employers believe — thanks to their own biases, unsupported by evidence — that black youth will make worse employees. Even William Julius Wilson, who has spent the better part of his career preening about the “declining significance of race,” found, to his surprise, that employers openly voice their biases towards young blacks seeking employment; and other studies have found that on the basis of no objective evidence, employers are more favorable to white youth than black youth, again, based on these internalized assumptions. Bias is not the only reason of course. Obviously, there is also the issue of spatial mismatch between certain jobs (especially suburban service jobs) and where black youth live. But to the extent that mismatch is directly connected to a history of racial segregation, separation and isolation, it can’t be abstracted from race and viewed as an independent variable.
As for your diagnosis of Detroit’s problems — and the laying of blame at the feet of the UAW — though it is a well-worn soundbyte, it bears little resemblance to the truth. Companies have been busting unions and weakening union strength (including in the auto industry) for years. In over a third of all union election efforts, company bosses target perceived union organizers for harassment, threats and various types of pressure. Protections have diminished, give-backs have accelerated, and a far smaller share of the labor force is unionized today than at any time in recent memory. But unlike the ‘50s and ‘60s, when unions were riding high, the economy is growing more slowly, wages are stagnant or very slow to rise, and corporate profits are through the roof. So owners are doing better than ever, but workers are doing worse, and so is the economy. In other words, Ford was right: unless the workers did well, no one did. But supply-siders get it all wrong, assuming what’s good for the rich is good for all. Obviously not. Worker productivity has grown substantially over the past 40 years, but wages have not kept pace, in large part because of weakened union protections, non-enforcement of laws governing the rights of workers to organize, threats by bosses to close down if workers unionize, which intimidate employees, etc.
As for education, I will agree enthusiastically with the notion that teacher’s unions have been too quick to protect bad teachers, including racist ones, and not move to train their members on issues of race, class, etc. Indeed, I have said before that teacher’s unions and police unions are less actual unions than protection rackets in some cases. And I say that despite being pro-union, and believing that such entities could be run differently. I am merely commenting on their current operations. However, to blame the teachers’ unions for the state of urban education, or black educational progress generally, is ridiculous.
To blame unions for the problems of education is lazy and requires ignoring almost everything else in play. As for racial disparities, perhaps it’s just me, but history seems to bear out pretty clearly that Jim Crow education and massive disparities in well-being within schools, between whites and blacks, were quite large (larger in fact than now) back before teacher’s unions. It has never taken unions to protect bad teachers. A system that is not dedicated to racial equity is capable of doing that, with or without the AFT or NEA, and did for years. Secondly, states with weaker unions in schools produce no better (and often worse) results in terms of racial outcomes. Mississippi and South Carolina stand out as good examples. Their unions are weak, but of course, they also rank near the bottom in terms of education quality (for all students), and if racial gaps happen to be smaller in those places in some instances, it’s only because white folks are getting such shitty educations there too, that the gaps with blacks end up being smaller. It certainly isn’t because black kids in Jackson, or the Delta, or Greenville, or Columbia are receiving great educations compared to their counterparts in more union-powerful places like New York, L.A. or Chicago. So-called blue states tend to have far better educational outcomes on average than so-called red states, in terms of test scores on things like the NAEP, or any other measure of educational outcomes, even though those blue states are far more union-friendly and union-dominated in schools than the red states. Go figure.
Oh, and keep in mind, if anything, kids of color are being increasingly exposed to teachers who are not professionally beholden to the unions, thanks to the explosion of programs like Teach for America, and the placement of largely un-trained, non-traditionally-certified, and much less experienced teachers in poor urban schools, or in various charter schools, which operate largely without union guidelines in most places. But their educational outcomes are not improving. Indeed, after nearly a decade of such efforts massively expanding in urban areas, black student outcomes on the NAEP recently dropped a bit, relative to whites. I’m not saying that’s because of the weakening of the unions (it’s mostly because of increasing poverty in black communities, I’m quite sure), but it definitely suggests that weakening of union strength in the schools attended by these kids is hardly of any real benefit either.
Far more relevant than unions to the problems in schools (in terms of racial inequities) have been the following:
1) Local control of funding, which means that census tracts with higher property values will typically have more money, per pupil, to spend on direct instruction (which means, typically, whiter areas will have more available monies);
2) Unstandardized curricula and training for teachers, which leaves students subject to the whim of their district, and which, when it comes time for standardized testing, leaves them behind other students;
3) An educational system that is premised on generating inequality, quite deliberately. So, for instance, the use of norm-referenced tests (to determine student progress, school progress or district progress under NCLB) produces massive inequities on purpose. Norm referenced tests are, by definition, intended to produce scores within which 10 percent of test takers will score in the top 10 percent, 50 percent in the top half, etc., regardless of actual mastery. This means that, by definition, the system is intended to “fail” half or more of its students. And in a system with unstandardized curricula, and greater enrichment opportunities for middle class and affluent kids (who will be disproportionately white), guess what happens? Greater racial inequity of course.
4) Tracking, which results in less exposure to high-quality instruction for lower income kids, especially kids of color (glad to see we agree on this);
5) A tendency for the most experienced teachers to be placed in schools serving mostly white students, and even within a given school location, for the most experienced and effective teachers to be assigned to the most successful students (advanced classes, etc), while the least experienced and least effective teachers are placed disproportionately with the least successful students, who need additional support. This is less because of union rules, and more because of the preferences of white and affluent parents (who pressure administrators to get the best teachers in the rooms where their kids are to be found), and the preferences of principals themselves, who appear to have their own biases at play in this regard. Several books have been written on this subject (like Ellen Brantlinger’s Dividing Classes, most recently), and two recent reports, which I cite in my recent book, Dear White America, also go into detail about how this process plays out. Along these same lines, research has found that students of color at high-poverty schools are twice as likely as other students to be taught by an “out of field” teacher (i.e., a teacher who is teaching a subject in which they are not certified.
6) Unequal discipline, under which black kids (and to a lesser degree Latinos) are anywhere from 2-3 times more likely than whites to be suspended or expelled, despite the fact that there are no substantial differences in the rates at which kids from different racial groups break serious school rules. The unequal discipline sends a message to students of color that they are “problems” to be managed or controlled, rather than minds to be nurtured, and ultimately increases the likelihood of students dropping out, getting into legal trouble later in life, and having a hard time maintaining steady employment; and finally,
7) The fetishizing of magnet schools and their proliferation throughout the public school infrastructure in state after state. Magnet programs — initially justified as a way to “keep white middle class parents in the public schools” by giving their kids enriched opportunities (and better than the opportunities given to kids in “regular” schools) — have proven very successful for parents and kids who are able to access them. But by siphoning off middle-class parents (white and of color) from their zoned schools, they have also contributed to a resegregation of those zoned schools (and an increased concentration of poverty therein), and sent a message to the teachers, administrators, and even parents of the zoned schools that the students there are the “leftovers,” the less-capable, those who “couldn’t get in” to the magnets, etc. That attitude, transmitted by the magnet system, ends up affecting the culture of the public school system. It creates a two-tiered system, both ostensibly “public”, but within which “some are more equal than others.” Because of the disproportionate rate at which middle class and white students attend such schools, this trend also contributes directly to racial gaps in educational outcomes.
In short, until we create a school system that is intended to produce equity and “leave no child behind” we ought not be surprised when we get inequity and leave millions behind. That is what the system, as structured, was intended to do, sadly.
Now, let us turn to those areas where we both agree that there have been actual increases in racial disparities, as opposed to simply slowed degrees of progress: incarceration rates and wealth disparities.
Criminal Justice and Wealth Disparities (Revisited)
As for the forces that led to greater incarceration, well that was a nice try, but “urban renewal” was not a left scheme, and was only “progressive” using a very limited and dishonest definition of the term. I’m sure Robert Moses (not the civil rights activist but the urban planner), who was the grandfather of urban renewal (what was once called “slum clearance”) thought of himself as progressive and thought that what he and others were proposing would help the poor. But no one on the real left at that time would have agreed, and certainly very few people who lived in those communities did. Knocking down people’s homes and businesses to make way for interstates or office parks could not possibly be seen as helping poor people. As for the interstate program, which propelled so much of the so-called “renewal,” this was done less for blacks in the cities than for whites who were moving to the suburbs. It made their lives easier, facilitated their commute, etc. In other words, it was done for white people and the middle class, not the poor or people of color. It was supported by Republicans and Democrats alike, sadly, and crossed ideological lines substantially.
As for the war on drugs, your attempt to shift blame for the drug incarceration disparities to the Black Caucus is typical right-wing boilerplate, and every bit as dishonest as when the Rush Limbaughs of the world do it. I’ll discuss it more in a second, but first, the crack/powder cocaine disparity cannot explain disparate rates of arrest or prosecution. It can only explain, at best, disparate sentencing lengths. But the disparities arise early on, at the point of being searched, arrested, etc., which is not about the 100:1 gaps for sentences based on the rock versus powder form of cocaine, but rather, about who is suspected of possessing drugs, and who is therefore searched and caught. If drug use rates are roughly identical (and they are), and yet blacks and Latinos are being stopped, searched, and arrested more often, that is because of biases, stereotypes, etc. which either lead police to over-suspect them, relative to their share of offenders (and under-suspect whites relative to our share), or to over-police certain communities, relative to their rates of these crimes (and under-police others: I’ll say more on this below re: New York City).
Regardless of intent however, the effect of these policies is racist: they result in the disproportionate punishment of people of color, relative to whites, when whites are just as likely to be guilty of the crime in question. Not to mention, the 100:1 sentencing disparity was only for cocaine, but most drug arrests, prosecutions and incarcerations are not for cocaine. Most drug busts are for marijuana, when you consider that most arrests are possession arrests and not trafficking at all. So the crack/powder argument you’re making only effects, at most, a subset of the larger drug war. It is not an argument that is responsive to my claims at all.
I never said the biases of cops or D.A.s have grown. I have no idea if they have gotten worse, gotten better, or stayed the same (and neither do you). But what I do know is that law enforcement personnel are no less likely than anyone else to possess various implicit and subconscious biases. And I also know what the outcome of their actions is: if biases aren’t causing them to produce such wildly disparate results, what is? Why are black youth who are arrested for a first time drug offense, nearly 50 times more likely than comparable whites to be incarcerated, even when other factors surrounding the crime (type of drug, whether weapons were present, whether violence was involved, etc) are the same?
And I also know what police have told me, on those occasions when I’ve had a chance to conduct trainings with them, and ask them about this subject. So, for instance, I have asked officers:
“What is the first thing you think when you see a young black or Latino male, driving a nice car, in your community?”
And inevitably, the answer that comes back from almost everyone, is “probably a drug dealer.”
Then I ask:
“What is the first thing you think when you see a young white male, same age, driving a nice car, in your community?”
And inevitably, the answer that comes back from almost everyone, is, “spoiled little rich kid; daddy probably bought him a car.”
If that is what otherwise decent cops are thinking, based on skin color differences alone, how can we not assume that that would influence the way they do their jobs? If they are inferring criminality in one case but not the other — and especially given that the data says the white youth are just as likely as the black youth to have drugs on them — then how is that not evidence of racial bias?
As for the crack/powder discrepancy, your comments about its origin are misleading in the extreme. No one ever said that its origins were about overt racial bias or racism. Its origins were due to a mass hysteria over crack that manifested in the early to mid ‘80s, due to an increase in gang violence in a few specific urban areas (believed to be, and to some extent fueled by the crack trade), and by the high-profile death of college basketball star, Len Bias. “Experts” started saying (and the media ate it up) that crack was more addictive than powder, and more pharmacologically dangerous (even though we now know this wasn’t really true). Major media started running scare stories about crack, all of which portrayed the problem as a black, inner city epidemic. This, despite the fact that most crack users were still white (and are today, contrary to popular belief). Into this breach, stepped various lawmakers, who instructed the sentencing commission to come up with recommendations for addressing drug sentencing, in light of the new fears around crack.
There is little doubt that the fears about black inner city youth and crack, animated much of the public hysteria and even lawmaker hysteria about the drug and its users. For some members of the Congressional Black Caucus, immediate action was called for to stave off a presumed epidemic in black neighborhoods. However, a few things should be noted: First, none of the CBC members who called for such action were actually advocating the 100:1 ratio between crack and powder (if anything they supported much harsher penalties for all drugs, thereby addressing the crack fears but not leading to greater gaps between whites and blacks); and second, when the final crime bill was voted on that contained the 100:1 disparity, half of the Caucus voted against it. So it is dishonest to place the blame for the gaps on the CBC. Literally, 11 black congresspersons voted for it. Blaming 11 black people for a bill that couldn’t have passed without the support of hundreds of white conservatives is both lousy math and a form of anti-intellectual mendacity so staggering as to boggle the rational imagination.
Finally of course, it is the outcome that needs to be judged for racism here, not merely the intent. Even if the old poll taxes for voting had not been intended to disenfranchise blacks, and had been intended to disenfranchise all poor people who couldn’t pay them, would anyone really have denied that they were racist, given the disproportionate impact they had, and the disparate way in which they were applied? Surely not. Neither should we only concern ourselves with provable intent here. And if a policy has such a disparate and negative impact on people of color, the fact that there were some black people who supported it (as in the case of the 11 CBC members) does not acquit the policy of the charge of racism. If we assume otherwise, then the fact that some black people owned other human beings under the system of chattel slavery (other blacks, to be sure) would somehow “prove” that the slave system wasn’t racist. But of course, that’s absurd. It was and we know it, because of the social system and structure it reproduced. So too with the drug war.
What is known, A.R., and cannot be finessed, no matter your valiant efforts to do so is this: Although whites and blacks use and sell drugs at roughly the same rates, African Americans are anywhere from 2.8 to 5.5 times more likely than whites to be arrested for a drug offense, depending on the year. In nine states, blacks are arrested at more than seven times the rate of whites, and in Minnesota and Iowa at rates that are more than eleven times greater than white arrest rates for drugs. Blacks are more than 10 times as likely as whites to be sent to prison for drug offenses, despite relatively equivalent rates of drug crimes. And a majority of persons admitted to prison for drug offenses are black, even though there are about six times more white users nationwide. I cannot wait to hear your explanation for those outcomes, other than the obvious one: namely, the war on drugs is not a war on drugs; it is, either in effect or by intent, a war on black people. There is no other logical explanation for these outcomes, and a decent society would not tolerate them.
But beyond incarceration rate differences, just to get a sense of how racial biases creep into the justice system early — at the level of policing itself, long before sentencing or incarceration — consider the evidence from New York City. From 2004-2009, the NYPD made 2.8 million stops under their “stop and frisk” policy, 85 percent of whom were persons of color. Fewer than 6 percent of these resulted in any kind of arrest (because in the other 94 percent of cases, there was no evidence that the person had committed any kind of crime). Indeed, blacks and Latinos were less likely to be found with evidence of crime commission than whites when stopped. These stops are being made for incredibly vague reasons, all of which suggest the application of stereotypes and biased hunches by police. A disproportionate share of all stops are justified on police incident forms on the basis of entirely subjective reasons, such as an individual making “furtive movements,” being in a “high crime area,” or for other unspecified reasons. In those cases, which represent roughly half of all stops made, the hit rates are even worse than in the larger sample. In other words, as a crime-control tactic, stop-and-frisk is inefficient at best, downright irrational at worst. Officers are apparently suspecting people of criminal activity on the basis of clues and signals that are proving to be ill-informed. Yet rather than rethink their assumptions, they continue to use the same reasons for their racially-disparate stops year after year.
And the stop disparities cannot be justified by differential crime rates. For violent crime, there is no significant correlation between reports of crime and the number or racial distribution of stops made, and the racial composition of a precinct alone actually predicts stops three times better than reported crimes. In other words, the fact that people of color commit the lion’s share of violent crime in New York cannot possibly justify the level of racial disproportionality in stops-and-frisks.
Of course, this makes sense when you consider that stops of this nature are a pretty inefficient tool for catching violent criminals. In those kinds of cases, police have more precise information to go on, and utilize more sophisticated methods of investigation than simply stopping people on the streets because of “furtive movements,” in the hopes of, let’s say, turning up last night’s liquor store holdup man. This is likely why only about 15 percent of stops by police since 2004 have been for the purpose of investigating violent crime, and why the fact that people of color commit a disproportionate share of violent crime in New York is irrelevant when it comes to understanding the disproportionality of police stops.
Rather than violent crime, large numbers of stops are written up as being related to a search for weapons or drugs (about 800,000 of the 2.8 million incidents), trespassing (another 325,000 or so stops), or for “unknown or unclassified” offenses (another half-million of the stops from 2004-2009). That blacks and Latinos commit violent crime at much higher rates than whites in New York, cannot possibly explain such wildly disparate rates of racial stops by police, as those stops (and indeed 85 percent of all stops) had nothing to do with the person stopped being suspected of a violent offense.
As for trespassing, the correlation between stops and reports of this offense is only one-tenth as strong as the correlation between stops and the racial composition of the community alone. And as for drugs and weapons, stop rates are significantly but negatively correlated with reported drug or gun possession offenses in a given precinct. In other words, the rationale offered by conservatives (that people of color are committing more crimes and thus, racial disparity should naturally result in the stop rates) is exactly the opposite of reality when it comes to drug and gun possession offenses.
Overall, even when you control for the various non-racial variables that could explain the disproportionate stopping of blacks and Latinos by the NYPD (such as local crime levels, the demographics of the community, or the level of police saturation due to higher crime, all of which could logically explain some portion of the higher levels of contact and stops, even if there were no racial bias operating), police are still far more likely to stop people of color than would be expected. For some categories of suspected crime, simply being black or Latino will make one more than twice as likely as whites to be stopped and frisked, even after these other factors have been taken into consideration. Indeed, even in mostly white neighborhoods, people of color are disproportionately stopped and searched, especially for suspected weapons possession or “trespassing.”
So again, there is substantial evidence of racially-biased policing. The fact that you find it “hard to believe” that police might be racist (either overtly or implicitly) is nice, and quaint, and very sweet of you. The fact that you provide no evidence to discount the clear demonstration of their biases, however, renders your feelings quite meaningless in this discussion. The fact that you utterly ignore the research that found over 90 percent of whites envisioning a black person when being asked to envision a drug user — and what that kind of bias would mean, by definition, for outcomes in the justice system (either because of police assumptions, or the assumptions of white jurors possibly in criminal cases) — suggests you are simply unwilling to see racism anywhere, anytime, in any guise whatsoever.
Now, on to the discussion about wealth disparities and housing.
Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough, or perhaps you are intentionally misinterpreting my prior claims, but whatever the case, I certainly did not mean to suggest that the only thing contributing to the massive gaps in net worth between whites and blacks was the FHA loan program, and its $120 billion head start for whites, distributed between 1934 and 1962. It was important, to be sure, and signifies the extent to which whites have benefitted from government intervention on their behalf in ways they often overlook (a form of affirmative action if you will), but of course there are other things too.
Obviously, there were also additional hundreds of billions in loans made through conventional channels, outside the scope of FHA — which were every bit as discriminatory in how they were made, and from which blacks were also largely excluded (perhaps even worse than with FHA, frankly) — not to mention hundreds of billions in business loans made discriminatorily to whites during this time; not to mention a job structure that was so racist as to allow whites to save money while people of color largely lacked surplus income with which to do so; not to mention retirement funds, either procured through private pensions (available to almost no black people, given their jobs in the nation during most of the first 50 years of the 20th century, while many whites were able to access them), and Social Security, from which 80-90 percent of blacks were excluded for the first 20 years thanks to restrictions on agricultural and domestic labor.
Additionally, white/black wealth gaps can be connected to tax policies, which have tended to treat capital gains and investment income more favorably than earned income from labor. Because whites have been in a position to have greater capital gains income (because of greater assets to begin with, and because black income is overwhelmingly from their own work and not the money that their pre-existing money makes for them), this means whites get to “keep more of their money” as conservatives like to say, than blacks do. Even at the upper levels of income, whites are 3-5 times more likely than income-comparable African Americans to make income from assets and capital gains. This is not because too many black people have been siphoned off into the so-called welfare state (after all, those who are economically marginal enough to need public assistance are not typically the same people as those who, in the absence of public assistance, would suddenly make millions in the stock market), but rather, because even black folks who have good jobs, occupational status, educations, etc. still inherit substantial disadvantages from a history of racism and white supremacy.
Also, of course there is the way urban renewal knocked down 20 percent of all black housing in the nation (literally hundreds of thousands of housing units), as well as businesses, thereby destroying economic stability in such places, at the very time that same government was subsidizing interstates, thereby facilitating white flight, and indirectly subsidizing white housing (by way of the previously mentioned FHA loans, as well as suburban low-cost construction open only to whites, in places like Levittown or other “planned communities.”). In places like New Orleans, black middle class and stable communities like the 7th Ward or Treme were economically devastated by the construction of Interstate 10 right through their communities (at the same time that elites in the city fought and defeated plans to build an interstate off-ramp through the heart of the mostly white French Quarter). That process was repeated in city after city throughout the nation.
And finally, there is the way in which white racial bias itself helped undermine black net worth in the country when it came to housing patterns. So, for instance, studies going back fifty years have found a clear pattern, whereby whites begin to move from communities when the percentage of blacks gets above a certain point (often as low as 8 percent, certainly no higher than 25-30%). This white flight was not in response to increases in crime, or a decline in the quality of schools, or, as is often claimed, because of a decline in property values. The flight actually preceded crime spikes and school declines in almost every instance, and as for property values, it was the flight that actually caused the decline.
When middle class blacks were moving into previously white middle class neighborhoods, by definition there would be no reason for values to drop: the families moving in were of a similar financial profile, so it would have made no difference on its own. But when whites begin to leave, because of their racial biases, it sets off a chain reaction, where other whites start to worry about the neighborhood “tipping” and becoming “too black.” So then whites started to leave who weren’t necessarily biased themselves (they were just responding to fears about property values as sell-offs begin), and this is what caused values to stagnate or drop, then allowing lower income families to afford homes in the area, which then facilitates more “tipping.” The point being: a) were it not for white racism leading to the initial flight, the other whites who lost property value (and blamed blacks for it) wouldn’t have lost value; and b) the black middle class folks who were moving in wouldn’t have lost value; rather they would have built it rapidly, thereby closing racial asset gaps. So white flight actually helped contribute to the racial wealth gaps we see today. Black America would literally have billions of additional dollars in wealth today had it not been for white racism — as manifested in the process of white flight — kicking the legs out from under them. And when you consider the way blacks lost out on FHA loans, conventional housing loans, or business loans, or what they lost because of the way urban renewal operated, we’re talking tens of billions in lost assets they would otherwise have possessed. That matters.
Sadly, all that conservatives have to offer in the face of that historic injustice and its consequences is a shrug, and admonitions to “go out there and work harder.” Not even an apology comes from this group for what has happened, let alone substantive policies to repair the damage and close the gaps: gaps that were created by government policy and which have operated to the relative benefit of white Americans. So even though white America has what it has (relative to people of color) only because of centuries of preferential treatment, and even though black America lacks what it lacks only because of centuries of oppression (and to deny this requires you to concede that black people are simply inferior and would be in the same position no matter what, as would whites be), the right’s response to this truth is a smug and self-interested “oh well.” This is why people of color reject the kinds of politics offered by folks like yourself, and why your side gets left with black people like Jesse Lee Peterson, who recently said that blacks should be “sent back to the plantation” so as to learn the “value of hard work.” Injustice matters to just people, and it matters not to the unjust. Simple.
Back to the wealth issue, Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro note in their comprehensive analysis of white/black wealth disparities, Black Wealth/White Wealth: A New Perspective on Racial Inequality, that 70 percent of the growth in wealth during the 1980s — the lion’s share of which went to white people — was due to the appreciation of existing assets, while only 30 percent was due to wealth created by new endeavors, ideas, innovations or mere savings. As of the mid-1990s, it was estimated that between 1987-2011, around $7 trillion in assets were already passing down or set to pass down to the baby-boom generation or their children, from either parents or grandparents. Now obviously, given the stock market downturn beginning in 2007, that number may have declined a bit (or, given the gains in the market between the estimate made in the ‘90s, based on value then, and 2007, when things went south, perhaps it increased, or remained roughly the same), but even still, literally trillions have been passed down in the last 25 years. And almost all of it has passed from white person to white person. At the time of that $7 trillion estimate, it should be noted that that amount was actually greater than the value of all outstanding mortgage debt, all outstanding credit card debt, all savings account assets, all the money in IRAs and 401k retirement plans, all the annual profits for U.S. manufacturers, and our entire merchandise trade deficit combined. That is an insanely large head start for whites, owing nothing to their own hard work, abilities or efforts, but due merely to their ancestry and the institutional apartheid from which their ancestry was able to benefit, relative to people of color.
Overall, Oliver and Shapiro run multiple regression analyses on the various contributors to racial wealth gaps, and demonstrate conclusively that only about 30 percent of those racial wealth gaps can be explained by “non-racial” factors like human capital differences, income differences, regional/geographic factors, age differences, family structure, savings rate differences, etc. (which, to be honest are not truly independent of racism in all cases, as I explained previously), while 70 percent of the gaps are left after these factors are controlled for, leaving only two real factors to consider: ongoing current racial bias in housing access, and the cumulative effects of past inequities, tied directly to racism in housing access.
One thing is for sure, you can’t blame anti-poverty efforts for wealth gaps: those gaps are huge even at middle income and above levels, for people not ever on welfare; indeed, over the years, wealth gaps have increased even as income gaps have fallen, suggesting that work-related gaps are headed in the right direction, but asset gaps are not, because of prior inequities. And since people who are working, earning decent livings, and closing income gaps with whites are not likely to be receiving various welfare benefits, that they continue to lag so far behind whites in terms of wealth and assets cannot conceivably be due to their over-dependence on the state. What you seem to not understand, or willfully choose to ignore, is that as black income increases (and thus, presumed welfare dependency drops), the gaps in wealth and assets between them and comparable whites remain huge, thus, the condition of the very poor (or welfare dependent poor) can’t be what’s driving the overall wealth gaps.
As for your gratuitous slam on FDR, it is insane to think that FDR’s policies regarding housing caused the housing crisis. Those policies literally created the white middle class. Without the FHA and HOLC — as well as later government programs like the GI Bill — there would have been no middle class to speak of, white or otherwise. Perhaps you think it was fine for private banks to require half the mortgage up front and a 10-year pay off time in order to buy a home (which was standard before FHA), because you are mostly concerned about affluent people and catering to their needs, as is typical for all conservatives. But most decent people — including a lot of the working class white folks who have rallied under the conservative banner as of late — would probably beg to differ that those prior policies were preferable to government intervention in the housing markets.
But no matter any of that, we are not really here to debate the merits of the New Deal. We are only here to debate the cause(s), proximate or otherwise, of racial disparities. And your attempt to pawn the blame off to the welfare state is amateurish, indicating a total misunderstanding of American history as well as basic economics, not to mention a wholesale abandonment of a little common sense.
Oh and I love this by the way, in your last installment:
“While Black Americans didn’t get anything close to a fair shake between 1934 and 1968 when it comes to federal intervention in the housing market (which have always caused more problems than solutions), the subsequent post-1968 well-meaning housing interventions have made it far worse.”
That is really amazing. Rather than calling it what it was — oppression, racism, apartheid, evil — you, like all conservatives it seems, insist on soft-pedaling our history by simply saying that it wasn’t “anything close to a fair shake.” Have you ever thought about what your bloodless, dispassionate, dry, rather unenthusiastic way of describing horrific injustice says about you? About conservatism generally and its inability to feel anything? To feel and respond to pain? To feel and respond to injustice? I mean, it’s seriously pathological, almost to the point of being the political equivalent of sociopathy.
Then, to try and shift the subject to post-1968 federal housing programs like public housing and Section 8 (the two main government-sponsored housing efforts), and to say those have done more harm to blacks than that historic freezing-out from conventional and FHA loans, is an intellectual obscenity. FHA loans made up approximately half of all loans to white families for housing from the 30s to the 60s. They benefitted approximately 35 million white people directly. That’s 35 million white people who were able to get something black people could not. Then add to that the other 50 million or so who got the benefits of conventional loans of one kind or another when blacks by and large couldn’t. By comparison, there are only 35 million black people in the entire country today, only a small share of which have ever received government housing benefits, let alone been reliant on them for long periods of time. To suggest that hundreds of years of oppression — during which blacks were not allowed to accumulate assets the same way whites were, and during which whites were literally given those assets (think the Homestead Act), or subsidized in the getting of them — is less important to the picture than forty-four years of programs that reached only a statistical handful of black people at best, is just so searingly vapid that it would be laughable if it weren’t so painfully sad.
Your recitation of the numbers from the “Index for Dependence on Government” is hilarious, as you clearly don’t know how to read the data tables. This isn’t entirely your fault, as they are confusing as hell: Heritage is not known for particularly air-tight methodology, nor explanations of the way they calculate things, or what these randomly chosen index scores even mean. Suffice it to say, the table does not say that large numbers of Americans (let alone 77 percent, as you seem to imply) rely on government housing, in general or in urban areas. Did you even think about that when you wrote it? That Index is a score relative to a baseline figure, arbitrarily set at 1980, and which Heritage then decided (again totally arbitrarily) to assign different weights for different elements of the so-called welfare state. So in 1980 they set the housing portion of the dependency index at 30 out of a total of 100 — their baseline. Why? Who knows? They don’t explain it. They are literally pulling numbers out of their asses.
All we can ascertain from the tables they provide is that somewhere along the way, housing “dependence” (which means, in their terms, how much spending is allocated, relative to the size of the population, to public housing, Section 8 rent vouchers or Community Development Block Grants, the latter of which typically don’t go directly to poor people, by the way), went from an index of 30 in 1980 to 77 in 2010. What does that mean? Who knows? They don’t say. What we know it doesn’t mean, however, is that 77 percent of persons now rely on a government housing program. The share of all poor people who receive benefits from such programs is a distinct minority, and the share of black people, for instance, who do, is typically less than 10 percent.
For instance, in New Orleans prior to Katrina — which was one of the poorest cities in America, and in which there was a well-established public housing system (indeed, the St. Thomas development was the first public housing project in America, back in the 1930s) — poverty was widespread: about a third of the population was poor, and probably closer to 40 percent of the black population was. And yet, out of roughly 435,000 black people in the city, and 175,000 poor black people, only 15,000, approximately, were receiving the benefits of government housing programs at the time of the flooding, according to readily available Census data at the time. So, this represents maybe 8 percent of the black poor, and less than 4 percent of all blacks in the city at the time. I doubt seriously that was unique. In most large urban areas, the numbers were likely similar (or at least the percentages were). How anyone with even a modicum of intellectual integrity could believe that programs reaching such small percentages of the population, the black population, and the black poor population, could somehow, a) come close to the benefits given to whites because of preferential treatment in housing markets, b) do more harm to black people than their prior almost total exclusion from housing opportunity, or c) foster a culture of dependence in a community, 90 percent of whose members don’t benefit from the programs, is once again, beyond the rational mind to comprehend. It is stupid. It is venal. It is cruel. And it could only be said by someone who has literally no experience in the communities about which you are speaking. You don’t know these people, yet you presume to know them based on what the Heritage Foundation says, in a report written by people who also don’t know a thing about the poor people about whom they speak. You should be ashamed. But you won’t be.
What we also know about the Index of Government Dependence, is that it utterly fails to actually demonstrate anything about how these programs have impacted self-reliance (one of its primary claims, sans evidence). So, consider that labor force participation has increased steadily since the mid-1960s, when welfare spending ostensibly “exploded.” Labor market participation was markedly lower in 1965 — when Heritage’s dependency index was only 22 — than it was by 2000, at which point the index had shot up to 179. So too today, the index is higher but so is the labor force participation rate. So to whatever extent people are becoming more dependent, they appear to also be working more, which means they are subsequently becoming more independent too. Go figure.
Overall, the Index of Government Dependence is a laughable report, and I really hope readers of this dialogue will go and read it for themselves. While I was composing this reply, a newer 2012 edition was released (I think you had been referencing the 2010 edition), but all versions are equally as absurd. For instance, this report (unlike the previous one dealing with means-tested anti-poverty programs) basically considers all government programs other than the military and perhaps K-12 education to be fair game for accusations of dependence-inducement. So the Index authors include even Social Security and Medicare for the elderly as programs that foster dependence. They are basically bashing old people for relying on government, even though policies like Social Security and Medicare have brought elderly poverty down from a third in 1960 to under 10 percent today. The authors romanticize the days when poor people (including, one assumes, the elderly) just relied on their families to care for them, or churches, or “mutual aid societies.” That such channels clearly weren’t sufficient — after all, a third or more of old folks were poor in those days they remember so fondly — doesn’t seem to phase them.
Same thing with housing: they argue that the old days of private and religious groups providing housing (like orphanages, or Boy’s Town perhaps) were better than government provided housing benefits. This is the vision the right offers to poor people: relying on some priest and his group home (forget whether you’re Catholic, or even Christian, or religious at all) to take care of you; and if for whatever reason they can’t manage it, oh well. They also argue that government provided health care (under Medicare and Medicaid) have destroyed the wonderful private institutions that used to provide for people in need. But what evidence is there that such institutions ever covered the cost of high-dollar treatments like chemotherapy, radiation, organ transplants, etc? Of course they never did. Heritage seems to think people only get colds or the flu, or chickenpox, and that kindly old family doctors will gladly, out of the goodness of their hearts, provide the care to them for free. But even if that were true for many, how would that address more long-term and costly care for serious conditions? The answer is, it wouldn’t, and what would happen is that private providers would end up serving like, yes, death panels, refusing expensive care to those who couldn’t afford it. It would be rationed care, based on ability to pay. But the right never cares about that rationing, of course.
The Index authors also consider government-backed loans for college to be “dependence-inducing,” which will likely come as a shock to the many millions (including many white working class folks), who’ve relied on them. How can reasonable people claim that student loans foster government dependence or some type of social pathology? Listen to what you are endorsing, A.R. In the world of Heritage, people who can’t afford college should either not go, or lower their sights to community college, or go into hock to some private bank, at a higher interest rate. Likewise, they include farm subsidies (few of which go to black people, or inner city folks, I’m guessing). And of course, again, none of this stuff (about Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, student loans, farm loans, or most of the other programs in this silly Index) has anything to do with black/white racial well being gaps, nor do you anywhere explain even theoretically the mechanism by which they could be implicated in them.
Overall, the Index is calculated by throwing in pretty much every kind of government program imaginable: even consumer and occupational safety spending, disease control funding, children and family services spending, all job training programs, disability insurance, agricultural research, and disaster relief. Any measure of “Dependence on Government” that includes these things, as well as Social Security, Medicare, and student loans cannot be taken seriously, even by those who seek to bash means-tested programs like TANF, public housing or SNAP. This is political insanity by truly disturbed people, who hope no one will actually read the tripe they produce, and thereby see the glaring flaws.
Anyway, enough of that. It’s embarrassing. Moving on now.
To say the gap in homeownership is the fault of government intervention is dishonest. This is only true to the extent that that government intervention was racially-selective. If the FHA policies, for instance, had been racially equitable, things would look very different today. Racial gaps would be very different than they are today. If the government had intervened to pass the Fair Housing Act 20 years earlier (and actually enforced it), or even if the Act had contained real enforcement mechanisms before 1988, things would have looked different. If housing availability had been left entirely to the private market there is nothing — absolutely nothing — that suggests things would have gotten better for black people. There was never anything preventing banks from lending to black people if they had wanted to, but they didn’t want to, because they were run by racists. They were perfectly happy overlooking possible customers in the name of racial solidarity. I know this doesn’t make sense in your simplistic, libertarian, “everyone is a rational economic actor” world. But that world is not the one in which reality transpires. In the real world, things like tribal racism, sexism, and just plain stupidity trump “rational economics.” The fact that Hayek didn’t understand this, that Becker doesn’t, that Sowell doesn’t, and that you don’t is not surprising in the least. None of you can step out of your textbook classical economics to actually observe the way people truly behave, which has more to do with social conditioning than anything remotely approaching economic rationality.
And of course, government intervention post-1965 in terms of HUD-administered programs have touched so few black folks, percentage wise, that it cannot seriously be blamed for keeping black people from building equity. It’s not as if the people who are low-income enough to get public housing benefits would — were it not for these benefits — have been the same people likely to have made out in the private housing market, by snapping up rental properties and flipping them to make a profit. The people benefitting from government housing programs are people who, by and large, would have been — in the best of all possible worlds — renters in the private market (assuming under a best case scenario they could have found privately affordable housing at all), which is to say, the net effect of their “dependence” on government would have been pretty minimal. If the two possible scenarios are, a) rent and government subsidy under a public housing or Section 8 arrangement, or b) rent, privately, with no subsidy, though you may prefer the latter philosophically, you can hardly argue that the latter would have allowed folks to build equity relative the former. Neither scenario results in the building of equity, obviously, so the point is moot.
The only possible contribution to the racial well-being gap, in terms of housing availability, that might be laid at the feet of government (other than its failure to include blacks in programs like FHA), would be the application of zoning laws in ways that all but guaranteed minimal racial integration for most of the past 60 years. Exclusionary zoning practices have included requirements that houses be of a particular size and value in order to be built in a community, or have imposed strict limits on apartments and rental units within a community (thereby blocking entry for people who might start out as renters but build up to ownership in middle class spaces). These were common throughout the period when suburbia was expanding beyond the cities, and served to block mobility for millions of lower income folks, and especially people of color. To the extent zoning ordinances are passed by local governments and regulatory boards, one could certainly say that these zoning actions were government policies that exacerbated the problem. But somehow, I figure those kinds of things don’t bother you. After all, most market-worshippers believe in the right of local communities (if not through a zoning commission per se, then through private restrictive covenants) to limit housing to whomever the residents do and don’t want living in their community. So in a libertarian/market utopia, these kind of things would have happened as well, only done by private “neighborhood improvement associations,” but with the exact same impact on black people.
Housing Discrimination and Predatory Lending
As for current housing discrimination, though you naturally dismiss it as a problem, the evidence is rather overwhelming.
Although the most common forms of modern housing discrimination look very different from the old kinds, their impacts are still substantial. So, although blatantly refusing to rent or sell to people of color is, from all available research, far less common than it was even twenty — let alone forty — years ago, there are still any number of ways in which people of color are denied truly equitable housing access.
There have been a number of studies on apartment rental units, which find that white landlords often tell prospective renters who are black that they have no units to rent, even though they have advertised units, and even though they are continuing to tell white rental prospects that there are apartments to be rented.
Of course, perhaps the biggest issue in terms of its impact on black/white racial gaps in well-being (in terms of housing and assets) is the process of charging black mortgage applicants more for loans than white applicants, even when all visible and important indicators of creditworthiness, income, etc are similar. The evidence on this score is overwhelming, and hardly relies on the one 1991 study you seek to indict, which I don’t think I’ve even cited in probably 7 years, because there have been many newer, more comprehensive studies that have found the same as that study, and with stronger methodologies than the Boston Fed used. By the way, the Boston Fed study was not really a study about predatory lending (charging higher rates to blacks than comparable whites). It was looking at the percentages of blacks, versus whites, who at various income levels, were being rejected for loans altogether. That’s a separate issue, and it is not an issue I raised here at all, nor one that I have raised in my last three books. On the other hand, I’ve cited at least a half dozen studies in those books, all of which show the same thing: black, Latino and Asian folks too often receive higher interest rates than whites, despite virtually indistinguishable loan qualifications. Indeed, some of those studies actually show blacks with better credit and higher income than whites being stuck with higher interest rates anyway.
The recent massive settlement reached between the Justice Department and Bank of America (because of the predatory actions of Countrywide, which roped over 200,000 black and Latino borrowers into high-cost instruments who should have qualified for regular loan terms), addressed just one example of a practice that has been rampant for years. According to the Wall Street Journal, about half of borrowers who ended up with sub-prime loans (disproportionately people of color) should have qualified for loans at normal rates given their credit histories, FICO scores, debt-to-income ratio, adjusted gross income and other relevant factors. And a recent study by the Center for Responsible Lending, which examined 27 million matched loans — about 2/3 of all HMDA loans made during the period of the study — found that even when folks of color had comparable credit scores as whites, massive gaps in sub-prime loans persisted. Indeed, the gaps were highest at the upper end of credit scores. Among unqualified borrowers, there wasn’t much difference, but among those with high scores and good credit profiles, Black and Latino borrowers were 3 times more likely than comparable whites to be steered to a subprime instrument.
It is also incredibly dishonest — though entirely typical as it constitutes the right’s main talking point around the housing crisis — to bash Fannie and Freddie and to blame them (or the Community Reinvestment Act as others have done) for causing the housing crisis, and wiping out so much wealth, by putting folks in houses they couldn’t afford (and especially low income people of color). The fact that this utter fabrication has been resurrected time and again by the folks at FOX, despite the evidence that it is without any merit, only suggests how easily conservatives can be led to shift the blame for the economic crisis from rich people on Wall Street to poor people in lower income communities, “living beyond their means,” and the liberals who supposedly enabled them. Not that facts will likely dissuade you from repeating this silly, Sean-Hannity endorsed analysis, but for the sake of others reading this dialogue, maybe they will.
First, let’s consider the persistent attempt by the right to blame legislation like the Community Reinvestment Act for ostensibly “forcing” lenders to give loans to unqualified borrowers in the name of promoting affordable housing. Fact is, the biggest players in the subprime market were mortgage brokers, independent mortgage companies and Wall Street investment banks, none of which are even covered by laws like the CRA. As it turns out, only 6 percent of the high-price, high-risk loans made during the housing boom (and which ultimately went bad) were made by CRA-covered lenders to lower income borrowers (of any color), in neighborhoods where lending is even subject to CRA assessment. And interestingly, loans made to low and moderate income homebuyers as part of an attempt to meet CRA obligations actually performed better than the rest of the subprime market over the years of the housing meltdown. In California, for instance, according to a study conducted by the San Francisco Federal Reserve Bank, loans made in the state during the subprime boom that were eligible to count towards satisfying CRA goals were half as likely to enter foreclosure as those offered by non-covered independent mortgage brokers. Oh, and interestingly, of all loans made during the housing boom that could count towards CRA compliance, only 12 percent of them actually went to black families, while roughly 7 in 10 of those loans went to whites.
As for Fannie and Freddie — your specified targets — it is simply false to suggest that they created subprime mortgage backed securities, or were responsible for these pernicious investment instruments. They did not and were not; rather they were created by Wall Street firms because they were expected to be (and were for a while) highly profitable. Fannie and Freddie did not lose trillions by “providing government backed financing” so as to desperately increase home ownership. They lost that money because they — like tons of wealthy speculators — purchased subprime backed securities as investments (and again, because they were seen as a way to return huge profits to investors — that was the motivation), but they didn’t do it because it would help poor people get houses. Although they occasionally got affordable housing credit for those purchases, their share of purchases was a fraction of that in the private sector (and it declined over time), so it wasn’t Fannie and Freddie that drove the market. Private investors were gobbling these up at a much faster clip than the government entities and for the same reason: expected mega-profits. To suggest that the GSE’s motivations for purchasing those securities was any different than that of rich investors is nonsensical. Everyone thought this was a good deal, and everyone was wrong, but not because they were focused on getting low income black people into housing.
Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, most of Fannie and Freddie’s mortgage losses were not from affordable housing loans but from loans that went to higher income families. Between 2005 and 2008, purchases that were targeted to affordable housing totaled less than 8 percent of Fannie and Freddie’s 90-day delinquent portfolio, and only a small share of their overall troubled assets. Most losses were tied to Alt-A mortgages (mostly stated income, or “liar” loans), which did not count toward affordable housing targets and actually diluted them. These kinds of loans were almost never given to low income borrowers, let alone poor and working class folks of color. In all, of mortgages purchased by Fannie and Freddie between 2004 and 2009, 84 percent were made to whites, 8 percent to Latinos and only 5 percent were made to black borrowers.
In all, your efforts to blame welfare and government “dependency” for the nation’s racial gaps is completely and utterly illogical. It’s as if you believe that hundreds of years of oppression and head starts for whites meant nothing. That in the absence of government anti-poverty efforts, all the effects of that history would have been wiped clean by the passage of civil rights laws; that 45 years of social spending can uniquely debilitate millions of black people, in ways that eclipse what enslavement and segregation did. Have you really ever thought logically about the implications of what you’re saying? That a people who could survive the daily terrors of white depravity and brutality for hundreds of years going back to the colonies could be laid low by four decades of housing vouchers and AFDC (which most of them never received anyway)? And that somehow these debilitating effects of welfare policies only seem to adhere to black and brown folks in the U.S., but not, say, white folks in Scandinavian countries whose welfare states are far more extensive?
Debating the proper role of government in addressing things like poverty is a perfectly legitimate endeavor, of course. And honest, decent people can certainly disagree as to what that proper role might be. But that debate is not the same as this debate. It is not the same as a debate over racial disparities, because it is not even remotely rational to blame those policies for creating a gap that had been embedded 300+ years before there was any welfare state to speak of, and 325 or so before Lyndon Johnson became president.
And when you try and dismiss my prior criticism of Charles Murray as a “bogeyman,” as if he had not played a substantial role in the very thinking you are putting forward here, you only indicate your own defensiveness around a subject you know is problematic: namely, the way that Murray, who used to push the same “culture of poverty” stuff you are suggesting here, in books like Losing Ground, ultimately shifted his thinking in the 1990s to embrace the notion of black biological and genetic inferiority, relative to whites and Asians, in The Bell Curve. You can act like that didn’t happen. You can act like it doesn’t matter. You can pretend that it’s irrelevant that not one prominent conservative in America condemned Murray when that latter book came out (and Newt Gingrich actually invited him to address the GOP delegation in 1995, right after they had won the House and only 5 months after the book was released). But it matters, A.R. It indicates the kind of thinking that is the end point of all conservative thinking: namely, that those on the bottom of the social structure are there because there’s something wrong with them. They are inferior in some way. Their morals or culture are bad. Maybe their genes are defective. And we all know where this kind of thinking — beliefs in superior and inferior people — leads, and it isn’t pretty.
Murray is no bogeyman. He is a well-respected figure in conservative and libertarian circles. And you must answer for him. You must explain why your side continues to embrace someone who has served as a de facto propaganda minister, like Goebbels indeed, for racist thinkers. Does it not bother you? Do you not care? Will you condemn him and all who think like him, right now? Of course you will not. You will punt on the matter of the Bell Curve. That’s what people like you always do. Because you know how it sounds, and frankly you are glad that that book is out there, tweaking those who believe in equity and justice, even if you won’t openly praise it yourself. So be it.
Finally, I would much appreciate if you would not suggest agreement between us when there is none. Your closing paragraph, in which you say that when asked to give explanations for black regress and slowed progress, I “almost entirely have liberal backed policies” as my examples, and that “we agree” that the biggest reason for racial disparities “can be owed to macroeconomic factors and the failed progressive policies of the 20th century,” is flatly dishonest. We do not agree remotely.
I have been clear that in my estimation, the principal reasons for those disparities are:
1. The cumulative and still unaddressed legacy of centuries of racial oppression, and
2. The ongoing problem of discrimination today, which is caused by overt bias, and even more so because of implicit and subtle biases still held by large numbers of white Americans.
Certainly, there are a number of macroeconomic factors that have combined with those factors to intensify the impact of discrimination — past and present — but they are not remotely independent of racism, past or present.
And it is apparent that you still do not remotely grasp the basic elements of this discussion or the subject of racism. So, for instance, you end by saying that, “The specific problems you identified as explanations for continuing disparities (alongside racism) are: lack of social programs, macroeconomic factors, War on Drugs, ‘Urban Renewal,’ and unfair home loans.” But my argument is that the lack of adequate (or equitable) social programs, the war on drugs, urban renewal and the unfair home loans, are all because of racism. They are not, in your words, “alongside” it, or separate issues. And even the macroeconomic factors (like suburbanization and spatial mismatch, the collapse of manufacturing, etc) did not take place in a vacuum, separate and apart from racism.
This is the heart of your problem, A.R. When you think of racism, you think only of hatred, the Klan perhaps, lynchings, separate bathrooms, or the like. Anything else you simply rename, even if it is deeply connected to racism. So the old boy’s network, no matter how it operates in practice isn’t racism, it’s just nepotism. The war on drugs, no matter how it operates in practice, isn’t racism, it’s just crime control. The desire to shift the demographics of New Orleans and make it whiter isn’t racism, it’s just economic development. The hiring of whites even when their qualifications are no more impressive (and even less so) than blacks isn’t racism, it’s just an impartial and coincidental employer preference. Blacks getting higher interest rates than comparable whites isn’t racism, but rather, just rational calculation of risk by lenders.
It’s all rather fascinating, A.R., albeit disturbing.
As for my “solutions” to the various problems that you identify as non-racial, no, I won’t play that game. We agreed to debate the causes of racial disparity, not broader economic policy. I will merely say this much with regard to the things you mentioned: We should certainly end the war on drugs and illegalize all forms of racial profiling that have played such an important role in it; we should seek to reverse the effects of urban “renewal” and urban decline by creating the kinds of programs identified by Oliver and Shapiro in their book, Black Wealth/White Wealth, which seek to create asset formation and stability in such communities (these are too detailed to sketch out here, but interested folks should read their book); we should intensify, rather than end various types of affirmative action efforts; we should ban school tracking; we should spend significant sums of money to provide the necessary training to teachers when it comes to avoiding biased treatment of students, and truly reaching all kids; we should ban companies found guilty of discrimination from receiving public contracts of any kind; we should pass inclusive zoning ordinances, requiring a certain percentage of affordable housing units for all new subdivisions and developments, and we should target investment dollars in person of color-majority communities (and all majority poor communities) with something akin to a domestic Marshall Plan.
But beyond that (and there are a few other ideas I discuss in Colorblind), much of what we can do to address racism and discrimination, can be done by individuals and institutions privately, without having to wait around for a government program to do it. I go into details about those things to in Colorblind, and am actually most hopeful about those efforts. What I have discovered as I travel the country and talk to folks about these matters is that the social psychology research is right: most people are good people who, when it comes to racism, want to do the right thing. The problem is, we too often don’t realize how much we’ve been conditioned to accept biases, prejudices and stereotypes, and how those can derail us from our better natures, and lead us to discriminate, even when we seek to be fair and equitable to all. But if we take a color-conscious approach (which means not just understanding how color affects those with it, but how it also affects those of us without, so to speak, in terms of our thinking, perceptions and experiences around race), we can interrupt those biases. We can keep biased thoughts from becoming discriminatory deeds. We can create, on our own, a more conscious and deliberate approach to hiring, evaluations of employees, evaluation of students, college admissions, jury deliberations, and other settings where racial bias might otherwise come into play. All it takes is the will to self-examine, to be honest, to stop playing games and denying that we are social creatures who have been conditioned to have all kinds of biased assumptions about others.
In other words, honesty is the best policy. Sadly, the right believes in lies, and always has when it comes to these matters. And so here we are.