Friday, July 13, 2018

Bogus Logjam

The four-mile log jam at Taylors Falls on the St. Croix River, "so spectacular that excursion trains traveled from Duluth to see it," 13 June 1886, via Minnesota Historical Society.

Shorter David Brooks, "The Quiet Death of Racial Progress", New York Times, 13 July 2018:
I was planning to write a column about all the tremendous progress that has been made in achieving racial equality in the United States since 1960, with black unemployment at historically low levels, but the more research I did the more I learned something totally unexpected, which is that the progress mostly stopped in around 1980 and nobody seems to have noticed. So I'll take twelve paragraphs to lay out these shocking facts, which will leave me four paragraphs to give my prescriptions. I'd say, if anybody asked me, that we should go with all the experts I know who feel that we have two basic problems, structural and cultural. Only unfortunately those people don't exist, we only have leftists who blame society in general for  the structural racism of society in general and rightists who blame black people for not adopting the bourgeois norms of serving in the military, getting married, and going to church, and therefore we are clearly in need of compromising on this because both sides are right because oops I'm out of space again.
Yes, it looks like David Brooks has been making a lot of progress himself in his understanding of the issues, and he's now ready after 30 years of denial to admit that systemic societal racism, including residential and educational segregation and the starkly different treatment of black people, especially men, by the criminal justice system from the beat cop to mass incarceration, holds black people, especially men, in a disadvantaged position relative to people of other races—but only if we'll admit that it's their fault because why won't they be more bourgeois?

No, I'm not buying it, if only because I know what started happening around 1980. It's not that black people all suddenly went Bohemian and stopped going to church or getting married (the steep decline in black marriage rates started around 1950, maybe we should blame it on that modern jazz). It's the dismantling of public efforts to decrease the factors of societal racism, the abandonment of affirmative action and positive programs to integrate through school busing and the like, the increasingly punitive administration of benefits like cash assistance and food stamps, and the law-and-order craze for police harassment and promiscuous jailing of black men. (And the lead poisoning issue as well, with the climax of diagnosed poisoning in 1976-80, but let that pass.)
I’d say the correct response to all this is an attitude I encounter a lot among people who are working in these communities, which you might call left on structural racism and right on cultural accountability.
It's as much a tell when Brooks starts off a paragraph with "I'd say" as when Donald Trump says "Many people are saying" that he's about to say something he hasn't thought about at all. I imagine he does know a couple of 1990s holdovers with that economically kindly but morally judgmental perspective, the "people who are working" being clearly white people, rich white friends of Brooks running private charities, but he can't sustain talking about them as if they were some kind of force.
That is to say, the left-wingers have it correct when they point to the systems of oppression that pervade society: the legacy of residential segregation; the racist attitudes in the workplace that demonstrably make it much harder for African-American men to get jobs; the prejudices — in the schools, in the streets and in the judicial system — that make it much more likely that African-American males will be punished, incarcerated and marginalized.
But conservatives are right to point to the importance of bourgeois norms. Three institutions do an impressive job of reducing racial disparity: the military, marriage and church. As the A.E.I. study shows, black men who served in the military are more likely to be in the middle class than those who did not. Black men who attended religious services are 76 percent more likely to attain at least middle-class status than those who did not. As Chetty’s research shows, the general presence of fathers — not just one’s own — in the community is a powerful determinant of whether young men will be able to rise and thrive.
But why don't white people have to join the military and attend church regularly? Black people enlist (especially women, especially in the Army) at considerably higher rates as it is, and attend church far more as a group. If that's the difference, why aren't white people doing worse?

I have a thought about the military, that it's the most durably integrated institution in American society, as everybody knows, and a corollary thought about the black church, that (as Sunday morning remains the most segregated hour in the American week, as the saying goes) it's the American institution (alongside historically black colleges) in which black people have the most community autonomy, are the most free from being dominated by whites.

That is, maybe it's not "bourgeois values" that help black people to thrive through these institutions, it's the relative freedom from factors of structural racism, of white dominance and segregation forced from outside. The US Army and the AME Zion Church aren't examples of bourgeois virtue, they're examples of how racism can be overcome, in two different ways, both of which are needed: many more neighborhoods and schools that are thoroughly integrated, but also more neighborhoods and schools that may not be so integrated but are decisively run by black folk.
We’ve fallen into a bogus logjam in which progressives emphasize systems of oppression and conservatives emphasize cultural norms. Both critiques are correct. If we’re going to do something about this appalling retrogression on race, we probably need to be radical on both ends.
The classic Brooksian compromise solution, proposal for replacing action with perpetual who-started-it debate, a recipe for "radical" stalemate, the turning of a bogus logjam into a genuine one. Give me a break, please.

And Driftglass gives us (not much of) a break.

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