Friday, June 19, 2020

Moderately Woke

Drawing by David Levine, 27 October 1983.

I'm not annoyed by the main idea of David Brooks's contribution to the Juneteenth commemorations, ("How Moderates Failed Black America"), indirectly evoking Dr. King's frequently quoted castigation of the white moderate in the 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail:
I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
But that isn't the sort of thing Brooks is talking about at all; 57 years and practically all of his own life later, it still hasn't occurred to him that African Americans might wish to act in their own behalf instead of waiting for the gentry to take care of them. What he's sort of apologizing for is the failure of white moderates to come up with a working plan for liberating black people, unaware that they could find it preferable to get some cooperation in the project of liberating themselves:
We Americans believe in education. We tend to assume that if you help a young person get a good education and the right skills, then she’ll be able to make her way in American society. Opportunity will be bountiful. Social harmony will reign.
This formula has not worked for many African-Americans.
Slipping into the comfortable garb, shorts and pith helmet, of the nicer sort of colonialist, the British in 20th-century Africa, cheerfully supplying the natives with railroads and legal codes and above all the schools they'll need to get those good jobs "we" think they'd probably like to have sometime when they've grown up.

Only it doesn't seem to have worked out the way "we" expected it to, it now turns out. Taking a brief tour of the statistical landscape, Brooks finds that the African American has been presented with lots of good education—92% have a high school diploma today, as opposed to 54% in 1968, and 23% have college degrees, as opposed to 9% then! 

And yet they're still making a lot less money! (This may have something to do with the fact that the comparable numbers for white Americans on the college count are something like 12% in 1968 and 36% in 2015, i.e. their numbers are up 200% and those of blacks 150%, so the latter have in fact made quite a lot less progress accompanied by very large increases in educational inequality, but you wouldn't expect Brooks to notice that.)


Moreover—and this seems to be the part that has Brooks freaked out the most—those African Americans who have seen the biggest gains in educational attainment may have incomes closer to those of whites (77 cents on the dollar for college graduates compared to 57 cents overall)—
The median income for a white head of household with a college degree is $106,600. The median income for a comparable black college graduate is only $82,300. As my colleagues on the editorial page noted in 2017, black college graduates earned about 21 percent less per hour than white college graduates. Over all, black families earn $57.30 for every $100 white families earn. These pay gaps have been widening since 1979, not shrinking.
—they've acquired even less wealth, they're more likely to be hobbled by debt, and they experience more racism from day to day:
Minority students who graduated college were supposed to enter a less racist America. They have not. Seventeen percent of college-educated blacks say they face discrimination “regularly,” compared with 9 percent of high school-educated blacks. Half of all black Americans with at least some college said they’ve feared for their personal safety because of their race, compared with roughly a third of those with less education.
And that's the worst, because you see Brooks was expecting better education would end racism, and this doesn't seem to have happened! Even among the elite of the elite, as you can read in
Chris Lebron’s Times Op-Ed this week. Lebron has taught at the University of Virginia and Yale and now teaches philosophy at Johns Hopkins. A great American success story....
Critical Race Theory, which started at elite law schools....
Ta-Nehisi Coates, the most celebrated American writer right now...
Ibram X. Kendi, one of the best-selling authors right now, who has lost faith in the way schooling is done...
“Afropessimism,” by Frank B. Wilderson III, of UC Irvine, who argues that anti-black violence is intrinsic to world history
What is Brooks trying to say here? Conservatives make a sudden peek-a-boo appearance:
Many conservatives and moderates say these ideas come from campus culture. People read Foucault and develop an alienated view of the world. The blunt facts, however, suggest that, overstated or not, these writers are responding to something real in the world, something real in the world both of the less educated and of the highly educated.
Or, turning it upside down, that there's something really wrong although it's probably overstated, under the influence of dread postmodernism, which makes people discontented and ill-mannered and ungrateful:

Je suis pas comme il faut,
C'est la faute à Foucault!

Whatever it is, he doesn't have any suggestions as to what to do about it either, and that's pretty much where the column ends:

But I guess there are a couple more things to say, and Dr. King said them:
In a 1960 speech to an interracial audience of the Urban League, he identified “a pressing need for a liberalism in the North that is truly liberal, that firmly believes in integration in its own community as well as in the deep South … who not only rises up with righteous indignation when a Negro is lynched in Mississippi, but will be equally incensed when a Negro is denied the right to live in his neighborhood… or secure a top position in his business.”...
In his 1967 book “Where Do We Go From Here,” Dr. King noted the limits of Northern liberalism: “Negroes have proceeded from a premise that equality means what it says.” “But most whites in America, including many of good will,” he wrote “proceed from a premise that equality is a loose expression for improvement. White America is not even psychologically organized to close the gap.”
The pattern, instantiated in Brooks's data here, has been that "we" are happy to see the situation of African Americans improving as long as "we" remain comfortably ahead, and generally in a different neighborhood, and that's not good enough. Equality was the promise, and only equality can keep it. The failure of moderation is that it's too moderate.

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