Ponderables From The Economist

Charlottesville, Virginia

July 28, 2020

Thanks to my sister, Jacquie, for making me aware that "The Economist" July 9th issue had several articles addressing racism. And thanks to my son (alias "Clucian") for sharing his subscription with me.

I enjoy "The Economist" because its writers provide in-depth analysis. They don't assume you didn't finish high school, and they write articles that make me think. (You've perhaps noticed that a recurring theme of mine.). There were three article in the July 9th issue that did just that. I haven't fully digested them yet; the limits of my non-liberal arts education forced me to do some "additional reading." Perhaps in the end they aren't all that important?

I keep thinking of the scene in Indiana Jones when Indy faces the sword-wielding gentleman; he pauses for a moment and then shoots the swordsman. Right to the point. Maybe all these words get in the way of what it is really all about - Rodney King.

Nah. Yes, it is important that we get along. But that can be superficial (although terribly helpful!). I hope to develop a deeper understanding of the issues and the many (divergent?) perspectives on them. All the while keeping some Philly Soul playing in my head. 😎

Here are copies of the three articles:

First Article

America’s problem with racism can be divided into two parts. One contains all the myriad injustices that still blight African-American lives a century and a half after the end of slavery. The other is the way that factions on the right exploit racial division as a political tool. An example of the first occurred on May 25th on a shabby street corner in Minneapolis, when George Floyd was killed by a white policeman. An example of the second occurred on July 3rd, at Mount Rushmore, against the monumental backdrop of the country’s greatest presidents, when Donald Trump sought to inflame a culture war centred on race to boost his chances of a second term. To be successful, a campaign for racial justice needs to deal with both.

Leaders like Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King used vigorous protest and relentless argument to push society towards their vision of equality of opportunity and equality before the law. Most Americans still hew to that classical liberal ideal as do many of those who marched with justified anger over the killing of Mr Floyd. But a dangerous rival approach has emerged from American universities (see article). It rejects the liberal notion of progress. It defines everyone by their race, and every action as racist or anti-racist. It is not yet dominant, but it is dynamic and it is spreading out of the academy into everyday life. If it supplants liberal values, then intimidation will chill open debate and sow division to the disadvantage of all, black and white.

The premise underpinning this ideology is correct: that racial inequality is shockingly persistent. Even though attitudes to race have improved, the quality of African-American lives has not kept pace. A third of black boys born in 2001 will probably spend time locked up, compared with one in 17 white boys. In 1968 black households earned around 60% as much as white households, and owned assets that were less than 10% of those of a typical white family. They still do.

This ideology also has some valid insights. Racism is sustained by unjust institutions and practices. Sometimes, as in policing, this is overt. More often, in countless small put-downs and biases, it is subtle but widespread and harmful.

But then the ideology takes a wrong turn, by seeking to impose itself through intimidation and power. Not the power that comes from persuasion and elections, but from silencing your critics, insisting that those who are not with you are against you, and shutting out those who are deemed privileged or disloyal to their race. It is a worldview where everything and everyone is seen through the prism of ideology—who is published, who gets jobs, who can say what to whom; one in which in-groups obsess over orthodoxy in education, culture and heritage; one that enforces absolute equality of outcome, policy by policy, paragraph by paragraph, if society is to count as just.

It is tempting to see such ideas as nothing more than overheated campus radicalism. And, true enough, they have not yet taken over a political party. When people speak of ending white privilege, most of them have good things in mind like inclusion and justice. But ideas are important, and the spread of campus terminology into newsrooms and boardrooms invites in ideologues. Their approach is already taking a toll. In universities research agendas are being warped. Outside them, public shaming and intimidation have been curbing debate.

The pity is that these ideas will not solve America’s problems with race. They will not eliminate inequality because they are a poor way to bring about beneficial change. Unless you can freely analyse causes and question orthodoxies you will not be able to solve problems. And unless you can criticise people and practices without fear of being called out, you will not be able to design effective policies and then go on to refine them.

The new race theory blocks progress in another way, too. The barriers to racism can be dismantled only when they are exposed—and so they must be, however painful. But the false idea that ingrained racism will forever block African-Americans at every turn is a barrier in its own right.

And, by focusing on power and division, this ideology only creates more space for some on the right to exploit race as a tool. A fundamental belief in power above persuasion frustrates coalition-building. Essential allies are not carried along, but forced along. When every transaction at work, at home, or at the school gate is seen through a prism of racial power, no encounter between different races can be innocent.

The new ideology of race is not just wrong and dangerous, it is also unnecessary. Liberalism can offer a fairer, more promising route to reform. It asserts the dignity of the individual and the legal, civil and moral equality of all people, whatever the colour of their skin. It believes in progress through argument and debate, in which reason and empathy lift truthful ideas and marginalise bigotry and falsehood.

Liberalism thrives on a marketplace of ideas, so diversity has a vital role. New voices and experiences enrich the debate. Liberalism does not fight power with power, which risks replacing one abusive regime with another. Instead it uses facts and evidence, tested in debate, to help the weak take on the strong.

Liberalism is all about progress, including about putting right its mistakes—and there have been many, especially over race, including finding reasons to accommodate imperialism and slavery. That is one reason why, in the 250 years in which it has been influential, humanity has seen unprecedented material, scientific and political gains, as well as a vast extension of social and political rights. Progress on racial inequities has been part of this—as in South Africa, where liberals joined forces with the trade unions and communists to sink apartheid.

Liberals can help in America, too. Much of the material gulf between African-Americans and whites can be bridged with economic policies that improve opportunity. You do not need to build a state based on identity. Nor do you need tools like reparations, which come with practical difficulties and have unintended consequences. Economic policies that are race-neutral, which people qualify for because of poverty, not the colour of their skin, can make a big difference. They have a chance of uniting Americans, not dividing them. If the mood now really is for change, they would be politically sellable and socially cohesive.

Our Briefing lays out what some of these policies might look like. Top of the list is tackling the housing segregation that is central to America’s racial economic inequality. The reform of zoning laws and the grant of rent-assistance vouchers are the chief ingredients. That would bring many benefits, improving public services and lessening violence. More integrated housing would integrate schools too and, given America’s locally financed education, mean that more would be spent on black children. Affordable measures, including advice and modest cash grants, have been shown to boost graduation from college. A third tool is the tax system. The earned-income tax credit tops up wages of working adults. A child allowance would cut poverty. A baby bond would help shrink the wealth gap.

In the past liberals have helped bring about change when society faced a challenge to the status quo, as when reforms limited child labour and won women the vote. If America has reached such a moment today, it must not resort to identity politics—and suffer intolerance, intimidation and division. Instead, for reform on race that works, it must look to liberalism.

Second Article

“If something isn’t done, and done in a hurry, to bring the coloured peoples of the world out of their long years of poverty, their long years of hurt and neglect, the whole world is doomed,” Martin Luther King Jr told striking workers the day before he was shot dead in Memphis, Tennessee. In 1968 black Americans had only just realised formal legal equality after two centuries of slavery and one of Jim Crow, indentured servitude, lynchings and enforced residential segregation. They had been deliberately excluded from economic supports such as Social Security, mortgage guarantees and subsidised college for veterans. As a result, black American households earned around 60% of what white households did, and the typical black family had less than 10% of the assets of a typical white family.

The past half century has seen visible progress. The ceiling white society once imposed on black opportunity and ambition has started to lift. Barack Obama became president. Yet systemic prejudice persists. Unarmed citizens killed by American police forces are disproportionately black. That most brutal of injustices explains much of the power, the extent and the focus of the protests spurred by the killing of George Floyd, protests that have drawn a level of attention to race relations unseen since the 1970s.

The criminal-justice system is a baleful presence in black lives. The incarceration rate for black men and women more than tripled from 1960 to 2010. One in three African-American men born in 2001 can expect to be imprisoned at some point in his life, compared with one in 17 white boys. The sons of black families in the top 1% of America’s income distribution are as likely to go to prison as white sons from the bottom third. If today’s protests achieve real reform in the criminal-justice system, it will be welcome.

But those are not the only reforms needed to put right the hurt and neglect Dr King spoke of. The economic disadvantage that black America labours under is, in many ways, as stark now as it was 50 years ago. The household income gap is the same as it was in 1968. So is the wealth gap (see chart 1). Crime and the criminal justice system are part of that story of stagnation, as is persistent, if lessened, racism. Changes in individual behaviour and in the economy at large have also played a role. The most important factor is the degree to which the concentrated poverty in largely segregated black communities shuts their members off from opportunity.

“We got rid of ‘whites only’ signs and legal segregation is no longer possible. But why are we at this moment? There’s a lot of things that didn’t change and probably won’t change with only focus on police brutality and reforming the police,” says Clayborne Carson, a historian at Stanford who edited Dr King’s letters and papers. “Yes, that should be done. But don’t expect that to have any impact on the race problem. It’s the tip of the iceberg. You can have polite police—that would be wonderful. You can have social workers. But unless people have the ability to basically change the opportunity structure, the changes are not going to be apparent.”

Children who grow up poor—as 32% of African-American children do, a rate nearly three times that of white children—all tend to do badly by various measures. But children who do so in communities where over 20% of the population is poor do very badly indeed. Whatever their race, such children face increased risks of dropping out of school, getting pregnant while still teenagers, being incarcerated, experiencing poverty in adulthood and dying early.

And for black children in America, as for Native American children, concentrated poverty has been the norm. Only 6% of white children born between 1985 and 2000 spent part of their childhood in neighbourhoods with at least a 20% poverty rate. For black children the figure was 66%, according to Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at Princeton; experience of such neighbourhoods was normal for middle-class black families. Today’s generation is in a similar position. Twenty-six per cent of black children currently live in neighbourhoods where the poverty rate is higher than 30%. Only 4% of white children do.

Jammed in

Poor neighbourhoods impose environmental costs, as well as social ones. Black families are 70% likelier than the rest of the population to live in substandard housing, and black children are nearly three times as likely to have high levels of lead in their blood, which stunts intelligence and leads to greater violence in adulthood. Compared with white children they are almost one and a half times as likely to have asthma—and five times likelier to die from it. Greater exposure to fine particulate matter—the sort of pollution which most damages lungs—and delays in treatment brought on by a lack of good health insurance may explain why covid-19 now seems to be killing African-Americans at twice the rate of it does white Americans.

This concentrated poverty is the legacy of enforced segregation. When, in the Great Migration of the early and mid 20th century, millions of African-Americans moved to the cities of the north, a mixture of law and prejudice required that they live in neighbourhoods that became almost exclusively black. In 1970 American cities were almost completely segregated, in that 93% of black residents would have needed to move to ensure complete integration. At the time of the most recent census, in 2010, this number was 70%, an improvement that is hardly worth cheering (see chart 2 ).

Zoning rules which keep the cost of housing high by restricting supply make it very hard for poor black families to move to better neighbourhoods. As income inequality has risen, well-to-do families have bid up the price of homes near good schools, further concentrating poverty. Public-housing programmes, which could break up these patterns, do little. Continuing discrimination makes matters worse. A recent investigation into rentals in Boston showed that in situations where a white applicant secured a viewing 80% of the time a black applicant with identical financial credentials would get a viewing just 48% of the time.

In the absence of integrated neighbourhoods, it might be possible at least to try to integrate education—a cornerstone of the civil-rights movement since racial segregation in schools was deemed unconstitutional in 1954. Attempts to reduce school segregation by busing black students into white neighbourhoods began in the 1960s and were extended in the early 1970s. By the mid-1970s, though, such efforts had fizzled in the face of massive resistance from white parents. School segregation has not changed since the 1980s.

Rucker Johnson, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, studied the outcomes of black children who attended integrated schools during the peak of efforts to end educational segregation. He found they had enormous effects on adult life. Integrated schooling increased wages by 30% and reduced the chance of incarceration by 22 percentage points. Other studies estimate a 68% increase in the chance of attending a four-year college. “There’s nothing magic about sitting next to white children,” says Francis Pearman, a professor of education at Stanford. “But one thing that’s consistent in the history of American schooling is that resources follow white children.”

The racial achievement gap on test scores between black and white students has narrowed in the past four decades, but remains at roughly two to four years of learning. Mr Pearman’s research has documented that poor neighbourhoods adversely affect students’ maths scores even if their schools are good. Black students who get to college are less likely than others to complete their courses; black men have an especially poor chance of making it to graduation. In 2016 only 29% of black adults above the age of 25 had an associate degree or higher, compared with 44% of white adults. At a time when the premium that a degree adds to lifetime earnings has increased a lot, this disparity is a big economic disadvantage.

There are aspects of black American private life that exacerbate these gaps. Well-intentioned, left-leaning commentators in America shy away from discussing the role that the increasingly unstable families play in passing black disadvantage down the generations. Seven in 10 African-American babies are born out of wedlock; their parents are overwhelmingly likely to have broken up five years after birth. Those rates are significantly higher than for other ethnic groups, even after controlling for education and income.

Spreading out

The rate of joblessness and the number of out-of-wedlock births in black communities both increased after the 1960s, notes William Julius Wilson, a sociologist at Harvard. The ravages urban deindustrialisation and mass incarceration inflicted on black men permanently reduced the pool of eligible partners for black women, he argues. Kathryn Edin, of Princeton, and Maria Kefalas, of St Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, two sociologists, note the sense of self-worth poor women with little social capital get from early child-rearing, whether in the presence of a father or not

Behaviour, policy, present-day discrimination and the unfair initial conditions seeded by centuries of historical discrimination are tied together in a complicated knot of pathology. Some of the tangled factors—persistent racism, or family breakdown—make it easy to develop a narrative which apportions blame. Looking at it in the whole, though, the threads which will yield the most if tugged at are fairly obvious. The priorities are segregation, education and childhood poverty.

Addressing segregation is paramount. Most of the other problems—exposure to violence, a paucity of public services, segregated schooling and the persistence of stereotyping—can be traced back to it. The most obvious starting-point is stripping away the zoning rules that ban apartments in high-cost cities. They deny opportunity to poor families of all colours even as they drag down economic productivity.

Rental assistance from the federal government could help more than it does. Currently it is, quite literally, a lottery. Winners get most of their housing costs paid for; losers whose claim may be equally sound—and who outnumber the winners three to one—get nothing at all. And most of the poor households lucky enough to receive subsidised housing still live in places of concentrated poverty; the typical recipient lives in an area with a poverty rate of 26.3%.

A promising randomised experiment in Seattle recently showed how this might be changed, at least in some cases. A modest amount of help in terms of finding properties and dealing with prospective landlords increased the share of families with rental vouchers living in high-opportunity areas (those with a history of greater upwards mobility for children born into poverty) from 15% to 53%.

Obviously not everyone can move to the most promising places. But the Seattle experiment strongly suggests that today’s government spending could get better results, thus strengthening the case for more tomorrow. Abolishing the mortgage-interest tax deduction, which subsidises the home-buying of the already wealthy and well-capitalised, would allow the federal government to double the size of its housing-assistance programmes for the poor.

Increasing integration of neighbourhoods will in time produce more integrated schools. Until that happens, however, there are more immediate solutions to present-day educational disparities. Higher spending helps performance. An influential study by Kirabo Jackson, Rucker Johnson and Claudia Persico, three economists, found that boosting schools’ spending per pupil by 10% reduced poor children’s chances of poverty in adulthood by 6.8 percentage points.

Schools in poor neighbourhoods need particularly good teachers. But the schools that require the greatest talent often receive the most inexperienced instructors, in part because there is little financial encouragement for the best to work in them. Care in recruitment and the pairing of new instructors with experienced ones goes some way to explaining why charter schools often deliver enormous educational returns for poor black and brown children stuck in otherwise-failing urban schools. For all that teachers’ unions and many on the left dislike them, charter schools that prove to be engines of opportunity should be expanded. Those that do not should have their charters revoked.

Keeping students in college is also an area where a little money can do a lot if applied with good sense. In New York a system that gives students access to an adviser, subway tickets and modest cash grants has been shown to double graduation rates from community college, and to have particularly beneficial effects on black and Hispanic students.

Investing early

Then there is child poverty. Expanding the earned-income tax credit (eitc), which tops up the wages of working low-income adults, and a universal child tax credit could drastically reduce child poverty—and reduce the tremendous costs to be incurred decades from now in lower tax revenues and higher expenses on incarceration, homelessness services and health care.

A programme combining a $2,700 annual child allowance and a 40% expansion of the eitc would reduce child poverty by half, and cost $110bn a year, according to a report by the National Academies. Canada’s implementation of a similar programme in 2016 took just two years to reduce child poverty by a third.

Integration was never easy. A more radical idea is that all children should get government-funded trust accounts—“baby bonds”—with the funding for children born into poverty more generous than for the rest. A scheme in which the bonds were worth $50,000 by the time a child born into poverty turned 18 would reduce the wealth disparity between young white and black Americans from 16:1 to 1.4:1 even if it were strictly race neutral, according to calculations by Naomi Zewde of the City University of New York.

This proposal has a price tag close of about $80bn a year. This means that enacting a child tax credit, eitc expansion and baby-bond programme would still cost less than the $207bn the government will forgo this year by taxing dividends and long-term capital gains at lower levels than income. The idea of paying reparations to the descendants of slaves—a bill that might cost upwards of $4trn to settle—would be much costlier. Nor are they obvious cause for a white backlash, since unlike reparations—or, for that matter, affirmative-action policies at universities and elsewhere—they would be based purely on economic criteria, not racial ones.

Unfortunately, the fact that the benefits of such programmes would accrue disproportionately to African-Americans might make it hard to build broad political support. Safety-net programmes such as cash welfare or the expansion of health coverage for the poor, part of Mr Obama’s health-care reform, have been unpopular with some white Americans. That could make it politically expedient to concentrate on universal programmes. Social Security, which provides pensions, and Medicare, which provides health insurance for the elderly, have become close to politically untouchable in part because they are universal. Child tax allowances and baby bonds might aspire to similar standing.

“My parents literally had to get a white couple to pose as us in order to buy a home in an affluent area of suburban New Jersey with great public schools,” remembers Cory Booker, now a senator from that state. As well as promoting a bipartisan bill on criminal-justice reform, Mr Booker has also pushed a programme to remove lead pipes in schools; baby bonds formed a major plank in his run for the Democratic nomination.

“[Dr King] eloquently said that we have to repent in our day and age, not just for the vitriolic words and violent actions of the bad people, but the appalling silence and inaction of the good people,” Mr Booker says. “Well, I fear that we will have to repent in our generation, if more of us who are good people—and that is the overwhelming majority of Americans—let another generation go by where we don’t correct these persistent injustices.”■

Third Article

Liberalism—the Enlightenment philosophy, not the American left—starts with the assertion that all human beings have equal moral worth. From that stem equal rights for all. Libertarians see those principles as paramount. For left-leaning liberals, equal moral worth also brings an entitlement to the resources necessary for an individual to flourish.

Yet when it comes to race, many liberals have failed to live up to their own values. “We hold these truths to be self-evident,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in America’s Declaration of Independence in 1776, “that all men are created equal.” More than a decade later the Founding Fathers would write into the country’s constitution that a slave was in fact to be considered three-fifths of a person. In Europe many liberals opposed slavery but supported despotic imperial rule overseas. “Perhaps liberal theory and liberal history are ships passing in the night,” speculated Uday Singh Mehta of the City University of New York in 1999.

What lies behind this failure? That question is especially important today. Norms are shifting fast. The global protests that sprang up after the killing of George Floyd denounced racism throughout society. Companies, often pressed by their own employees, are in a panic about their lack of diversity, particularly at the top. Television stations and the press are rewriting the rules about how news should be covered and by whom. There is a fight over statuary and heritage, just as there is over people forced out of their jobs or publicly shamed for words or deeds deemed racist.

At Mr Floyd’s funeral, the Rev Al Sharpton declared: “It’s time to stand up in George’s name and say, ‘Get your knee off our necks.’” At Mount Rushmore on July 3rd, President Donald Trump condemned “a new far-left fascism”. To understand all this, it is worth going back to the battle of ideas. In one corner is liberalism, with its tarnished record, and in the other the anti-liberal theories emerging from the campus to challenge it.

During the past two centuries life in the broadest terms has been transformed. Life expectancy, material wealth, poverty, literacy, civil rights and the rule of law have changed beyond recognition. Though that is not all thanks to Enlightenment liberals, obviously, liberalism has prospered as Marxism and fascism have failed.

But its poor record on race, especially with regard to African-Americans, stands out. Income, wealth, education and incarceration remain correlated with ethnicity to a staggering degree. True, great steps have been taken against overt racial animus. But the lack of progress means liberals must have either tried and failed to create a society in which people of all races can flourish, or failed to try at all.

America’s founding depended on two racist endeavours. One was slavery, which lasted for almost 250 years and was followed by nearly a century of institutionalised white supremacy. Of the seven most important Founding Fathers, only John Adams and Alexander Hamilton did not at some point own slaves. Nine early American presidents were slaveholders. And although slavery is a near-universal feature of pre-Enlightenment societies, the Atlantic slave trade is notable for having been tied to notions of racial superiority.

The other was imperialism, when British colonialists violently displaced existing people. Many 18th-century European liberals criticised the search for empire. Adam Smith viewed colonies as expensive failures of monopoly and mercantilism that benefited neither side, calling Britain’s East India Company “plunderers”. Edmund Burke (a liberal in the broadest sense) decried the “outrageous” injustices in British colonies, including “systematick iniquity and oppression” in India, which resulted from power that was unaccountable to those over whom it was exercised.

But, argues Jennifer Pitts of the University of Chicago in her book “A Turn to Empire”, in the 19th century the most famous European liberals gravitated towards “imperial liberalism”. The shift was grounded in the growing triumphalism of France and Britain, which saw themselves as qualified by virtue of their economic and technological success to disseminate universal moral and cultural values. John Stuart Mill abhorred slavery, writing during the American civil war in 1863 that “I cannot look forward with satisfaction to any settlement but complete emancipation.” But of empire he wrote that “Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting that end.” (Mill worked for the East India Company for 35 years.) Alexis de Tocqueville championed the French empire, in particular the violent conquest and settlement of Algeria.

A belief in the basic similarity of human beings, and of their march towards progress, led these thinkers to the belief that it was possible to accelerate development at the barrel of a gun. Even at the time, this paternalism should have been tempered by skepticism about whether it can be just for one people to impose government on another. Although Mill criticized the British empire’s atrocities, he did not see them, as Burke had, as the inevitable consequence of an unaccountable regime.

The turn in liberal thought was reflected in the pages of The Economist. From its founding in 1843 the newspaper opposed slavery, and early in its existence it criticized imperialism. But we later backed the Second Opium War against China, the brutal suppression of the 1857 Indian mutiny and even the invasion of Mexico by France in 1861. We wrote that Indians were “ restrain their own superstitions and their own passions”. Walter Bagehot, editor from 1861 to 1877, wrote that the British were “the most enterprising, the most successful, and in most respects the best, colonists on the face of the earth”. Although the newspaper never ceased to oppose slavery, it claimed, bizarrely, that abolition would be more likely were the Confederacy to win America’s civil war. It was not until the early 20th century that The Economist regained some of its skepticism regarding empire, as liberalism at home evolved into a force for social reform.

In America the big liberal shift took place in the mid-1960s. To deal with the legacy of slavery, liberals began to concede that you need to treat the descendants of slaves as members of a group, not only as individuals. Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court, argued that affirmative action, though a breach of liberal individualism that must eventually be dispensed with, had to stay until there was reasonable equality of opportunity between groups.

Plenty of thinkers grappled with affirmative action, including Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a politician, sociologist and diplomat, and Ronald Dworkin, a philosopher and jurist. However, the most famous left-liberal work of the 20th century, written in 1971, was notably silent on race. The key idea of John Rawls’s “A Theory of Justice” is the “veil of ignorance”, behind which people are supposed to think about the design of a fair society without knowing their own talents, class, sex or indeed race. Detached from such arbitrary factors people would discover principles of justice. But what is the point, modern critics ask, of working out what a perfectly just society looks like without considering how the actual world is ravaged by injustice?

Liberalism as it is theorized “abstracts away from social oppression”, writes Charles Mills, also of the City University of New York. The “Cambridge Companion to Rawls”, a roughly 600-page book published in 2002, has no chapter, section or subsection dealing with race. “The central debates in the field as presented”, writes Mr Mills, “exclude any reference to the modern global history of racism versus anti-racism.”

As the gains of the civil-rights era failed to translate into sustained progress for African-Americans, dissatisfaction with liberalism set in. One of the first to respond was Derrick Bell, a legal scholar working at Harvard in the 1970s. “Critical race theory”, which fused French post-modernism with the insights of African-Americans like Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist and former slave, and W.E.B. Du Bois, a sociologist, then emerged. Critical race theory first focused on the material conditions of black Americans and on developing tools to help them win a fair hearing in the courtroom. One is “intersectionality”, set out in a defining paper in 1991 by Kimberlé Crenshaw, another legal scholar and civil-rights campaigner. A black woman could lose a case of discrimination against an employer who could show that he did not discriminate against black men or white women, she explains. The liberal, supposedly universalist, legal system failed to grasp the unique intersection of being both a woman and black.

In the three decades since that paper was written, critical race theory has flourished, spreading to education, political science, gender studies, history and beyond. HR departments use its terminology. Allusions to “white privilege” and “unconscious bias” are commonplace. Over 1,000 CEOs, including those of firms such as JPMorgan Chase, Pfizer and Walmart, have joined an anti-racism coalition and promised that their staff will undertake unconscious-bias training (the evidence on its efficacy is limited). Critical race theory informs the claim that the aim of journalism is not “objectivity” but “moral clarity”.

More than words can ever say

Yet as critical race theory has grown, a focus on discourse and power has tended to supersede the practicalities. That has made it illiberal, even revolutionary.

The philosophical mechanics that bolt together critical race theory can be obscure. But the approach is elegantly engineered into bestselling books such as “How To Be An Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi and “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo.

One thing that the popular synthesis preserves is its contempt for the liberal view of how to bring about social and moral progress. To understand why, you need to start with how ordinary words take on extraordinary meanings. “Racism” is not bigotry based on the color of your skin. Races, Mr Kendi writes, “are fundamentally power identities” and racism is the social and institutional system that sustains whites as the most powerful group. That is why “white supremacy” alludes not to skinheads and the Ku Klux Klan, but, as Ms DiAngelo explains, the centrality and superiority of whites in society.

Some acts also have an unfamiliar significance. Talking to someone becomes a question of power. The identity of the speaker matters because speech is not neutral. It is either bad (ie, asserting white supremacy, and thus shoring up today’s racist institutions), or it is good (ie, offering solidarity to victims of oppression or subverting white power). The techniques of subversion, called criticism, unpack speech to reveal how it is “problematic”—that is, the ways in which it is racist.

Speech is unfamiliar in another way, too. When you say something, what counts is not what you mean but how you are heard. A privileged person sees the world from their own viewpoint alone. Whites cannot fully understand the harm they cause. By contrast, the standpoint of someone who is oppressed gives them insight into both their own plight and the oppressor’s world-view, too. “To say that whiteness is a standpoint”, Ms DiAngelo writes, “is to say that a significant aspect of white identity is to see oneself as an individual, outside or innocent of race—‘just human’.”

Black people can also find themselves in the wrong. What if two black people hear a white person differently and disagree over whether he was racist? Critical race theorists might point out that there are many sorts of oppression. In 1990 Angela Harris, a legal scholar, complained that feminism treated black and white women as if their experience were the same. By being straight and male, say, the listener belongs to groups that are dominant along some axis other than race. The way out of oppression is through the recognition and empowerment of these group identities, not their neglect. Or one of them may have failed to grasp the underlying truth of how racism is perpetuated by society. If so, that person needs to be educated out of their ignorance. “The heartbeat of racism is denial,” Mr Kendi writes, “the heartbeat of anti-racism is confession.”

These ideas have revolutionary implications. One result of seeing racism embedded all around you is a tendency towards a pessimistic attitude to progress. Bell concluded that reform happens only when it suits powerful white interests. In 1991 he wrote: “Even those Herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than temporary ‘peaks of progress’, short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as practical patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance.”

The second implication is that well-meaning white people are often enemies. Color-blind whites deny society’s structural racism. Ms DiAngelo complains that “White people’s moral objection to racism increases their resistance to acknowledging their complicity in it.” Integrationists—Mr Kendi’s term for those who want black culture and society to integrate with white—rob black people of the identity they need to fight racism. He accuses them of “lynching black cultures”.

Where does this leave liberalism? “Cynical Theories”, a forthcoming book by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, two writers, argues that the two systems of thought are incompatible. One reason is that the constellation of postmodern thinking dealing with race, gender, sexuality and disability, which they call “Theory”, disempowers the individual in favor of group identities, claiming that these alignments are necessary to end oppression. Another is Theorists’ belief that power is what forces out entrenched interests. But this carries the risk that the weak will not prevail, or that if they do, one dominant group will be replaced by another. By contrast, liberals rely on evidence, argument and the rule of law to arm the weak against the strong. A third reason is that Theory stalls liberal progress. Without the machinery of individual equality fired up by continual debate, the engine will not work.

No easy answers

But what will? The appeal of critical race theory—or at least its manifestation in popular writing—is partly that it confidently prescribes what should be done to fight injustice. It provides a degree of absolution for those who want to help. White people may never be able to rid themselves of their racism, but they can dedicate themselves to the cause of anti-racism.

Liberals have no such simple prescription. They have always struggled with the idea of power as a lens through which to view the world, notes Michael Freeden of Oxford University. They often deny that groups (rather than individuals) can be legitimate political entities. And so liberal responses to critical race theory can seem like conservative apathy, or even denial.

Tommie Shelby of Harvard University, who sees himself as both a critical race theorist and a liberal, argues that skepticism regarding liberalism’s power to redress racial inequality is “rooted in the mistaken idea that liberalism isn’t compatible with an egalitarian commitment to economic justice.” Mr Shelby has argued that the Rawlsian principle of “fair equality of opportunity” can mean taking great strides towards a racially just society. That includes not just making sure that formal procedures, such as hiring practices, are non-discriminatory. It also includes ensuring that people of equal talent who make comparable efforts end up with similar life prospects, eventually eradicating the legacy of past racial injustices.

This would be a huge program that might involve curbing housing segregation, making schooling more equal and giving tax credits (see Briefing). That is not enough for Mr Mills, another liberal and critical race theorist. He wants liberal thinkers to produce theories of “rectificatory justice”—say, a version of the veil of ignorance behind which people are aware of discrimination and the legacy of racial hierarchy. Liberals might then be more willing to tolerate compensation for past violations. They might also demand a reckoning with their past failures.

The problem is thorniest for libertarians who resist redistributive egalitarian schemes, regardless of the intention behind them. But even some of the most committed, such as Robert Nozick, concede that their elevation of property rights makes sense only if the initial conditions under which property was acquired were just. Countries in which the legacy of racial oppression lives on in the distribution of wealth patently fail to meet that test. Putting right that failure, Mr Mills says, “should be supported in principle by liberals across the spectrum”.

Plenty of people are trying to work out what that entails, but the practicalities are formidable. Having failed adequately to grapple with racial issues, liberals find themselves in a political moment that demands an agenda which is both practically and politically feasible. The risk is that they do not find one.

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