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apparently the solution to racial inequality is a cool 10k. or not.

I’m not sure if Ross Douthat intended his suggestion to be ridiculous, but I’m assuming, out of intellectual charity if nothing else, that he did: that saying a cool 10,000 dollars to every black descendant of the slave trade might be more effective than contemporary efforts at targeted inclusion was just a satirical what-you-will to get us thinking about, I don’t know, something.

If this is really the rhetorical equivalent of let-them-eat-babies, it’s not clear to me what the punchline is.  For Swift, it was obviously that the English are, you know, eating the Irish.  But what’s Douthat trying to do here?  It’s a provocation, sure, and probably not a satirical one.  But like all provocations, at least it gives us a chance to gain some analytic clarity on the question at hand, in this case, race in America. Here’s the take-away that Douthat really doesn’t seem to get. We have a race problem not because of particular inequalities that can be fixed with a once-over.  It’s an ongoing system of *racism*.  If you’re a sociologist who already gets this, what’s below might be stuff you already know, but I think it’s worth working through as a means of understanding how a lot of whites still seem to think about race.

So: to Douthat. We get the typical complaints about affirmative action: that it rewards middle-class African-Americans and immigrants from Africa or the African diaspora over those descendants of North American slavery for whom the work is really intended.  Let’s just bracket for a second that racism (not to mention global white supremacy) affects those folks too.  And we can also bracket that affirmative action is a complex problem even for people who recognize systemic oppression, as Ibram X. Kendi lays out in Stamped From the Beginning.

As Dan Hirschman put out pretty well in a recent interview in Vox (with basically all the links you could want as well), the big problem isn’t where black people are relative to whites; it’s the processes of power that keep things that way.  This is not a story about black people needing to catch up; this is a story about white people needing to stop pushing down, and just as importantly, needing to recognize how their seemingly neutral and “race-blind” actions are, in fact, pushing down.

If that’s the case (and there’s ample sociological evidence it is), then Douthat’s account is strangely post-hoc, which is something sensible white conservatives have been doing forever: okay, sure, fine, things have been really bad up until, I don’t know, last Tuesday, but now, finally, let’s just settle this once and for all.  Hell, we’ll even give you some money!  Here’s 10k, which should, cover, oh, half a semester of college. Or what about a job! How’s that then?

The shift allows certain kinds of white intellectuals or policy makers to do two things: first an ability to claim past whites acted poorly but “we” have done nothing wrong and continue to do nothing wrong and, second, despite that, a chance to square things up by this one last fix.  Contemporary white responsibility is limited to settling our parents debts. That inability to see ongoing racism is either shocking naïve or actually outright cynical: we’ll pay you now and then you’ll have no right to make us feel bad anymore. Guilt money might be part of reconciliation, but it’s not the same thing.

Yet the reality is obviously much more difficult. I say all the time that religion provides helpful metaphors for sociology if sociologists would get over their secularist fears, and a good one here presents itself: original sin. In the Christian conception of the term, you’re a sinner because of Adam’s action, and you continue to participate in it, regardless of your intentions or desire or even the fact you, unlike Adam, never took the damn fruit. It’s a frustrating metaphor as an explanation for human suffering, but it’s a helpful way to understand how evil maintains itself through what liberation theologians call “structural sin” (though you get something somewhat similar in Karl Rahner’s take on original sin).

Tons of sociological work—from audit studies to surveys, ethnographies to interviews—show how these maintain themselves in institution after institution. White people benefit from racial hierarchies and its in their interests to maintain them or, at best, be apathetic or ignorant about what it might take to change them.  It’s not enough not to be racist: whites have to be actively anti-racist, and that’s often a tough sell for a people who are convinced they’re just pure, or that racism is really a matter of individual prejudice rather than structural constraint.

That last bit gets annoying to anyone who’s aware that actively hostile prejudice never went away, not to mention the many audit studies that show how very subtle racial markers can lead to radically different results. But the broader point remains: Until we’re truly committed to anti-racism in every institution and individual, no amount of money (or preference, or what have you) is going to shake these inequalities.

Now what such anti-racism would actually look like, and how it would coexist with so many other intersecting oppressions is a whole separate set of complex questions.  None of this is going to be easy to work out, at least on the normative level of where we go from here.  But on the empirical level of agreeing this is where we are, I don’t think it’s actually that complicated.  Just look at Amanda Lewis and John Diamond’s recent book on how well-meaning white parents can still reproduce racial inequality, Despite the Best Intentions.  In their introduction, they describe how the kind of neutrality in which Douthat seems to believes his vouchers would operate still reproduce inequality:

Race still operates on multiple levels—shaping how we think about and interact with one another, shaping the resources we have available as we move through the world, and shaping how institutions like school reward those resources. Many of the hourly and daily practices and processes that are the substance of what we think of as “school” are racially inflected. What is different is that even as these school policies and practices are operating to create advantages for some groups and put others at a disadvantage [e.g. tracking, A.P., I.B., honors], they simultaneously appear to be “race-neutral.” Their apparent “nonracialness” is crucial; at the same time that their enactment contributes to inequities, their surface “neutrality” helps to provide legitimacy to the differential outcomes they help to produce. To be sure, today they are generally not designed to or even intended to produce discrepant outcomes. Yet good intentions do not mitigate the results. However intended, these patterns still reinforce racial hierarchies and dominant racial belief systems. It is, we argue, in the daily interaction among school policy, everyday practice, racial ideology, and structural inequality that contradictions emerge between good intentions and bad outcomes (xix).

Look: I’m not saying some form of reparations are a bad idea. I happen to think they’re a great idea.  But as Coates himself acknowledges in the piece to which Douthat refers, what those reparations look like would be quite complicated and unclear.  And I know that even what I I just outlined gets messy.  Certain whites (like me, living in Santa Monica) have to give up less than other whites in most of the sorts of anti-racist systems we talk about.  And the problem of good intentions Lewis and Diamond warn about could affect sociologists’ stuff as much as anything else: the difference is that at least the sociologists recognize what it is we’re fighting.

Perhaps most importantly, focusing too much on anti-racism can put all of the agency in white saviors rather than the marginalized people they’ve kept out or, you know, people actually working together (though I think it’s a misreading or anti-racist literature to assume it’s only white people who work against racism!).  So, fine, even the empirical stuff is tricky and much debated.  But, well, I’m pretty sure this is right: you can’t understand race until you actually understand racism.

(There obviously could be a billion more links above: I’m happy to add more as people suggest them in the comments or feel free to e-mail me at guhin@soc.ucla.edu)

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Written by jeffguhin

March 6, 2017 at 4:01 pm

Posted in sociology

Tagged with , , ,

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