Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Shortfalls of Colorblind Policy

Sometimes I just need to shamelessly share another person's work without adding any value at all. This is one of the those times. Commenting on the shortfalls of "colorblind" public policy in the Affordable Care Act, Ta-Nehisi Coates is marvelously succinct:
This is one reason why color-blind -- "lift all boats" -- policy so often falls short. When you have a country grappling with the deep vestiges of bigoted policy, you do not need "colored only" signs to get "colored mostly" effects.
Yes. A thousand times yes. I heard a conservative on the Diane Rehm show this morning literally refuse to answer a question about how Republican policies help women because he wanted to focus on what helps all Americans rather than dividing us into groups. The problem is that we are, as a factual matter, divided into groups! We do not all have the same interests, and the fact is that group identities such as race and gender provide rough approximation for very real differences in needs and life circumstances.

Refusing to acknowledge that when crafting public policy is not the noble gesture conservatives think it is.  Colorblind policy purports to be for all, but it is actually a front for policies that disproportionally help the white, rich, and male. The main reason people are uncomfortable with being "divided into groups" is because of all that it implies in terms of privilege and redistributive economic policies.

As we saw in the last election campaign, when Mitt Romney ran on a platform obviously tilted to most benefit the wealthy, retirees, whites, and business owners, he and his supporters denied he was doing any such thing. Yet when the Obama campaign did its own outreach to certain groups of voters, it was accused of dividing Americans. Colorblindness is not about trying to unite Americans. It is about denying the divisions that exist so that those on the privileged side of those divisions can go on profiting from them.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

What Does History Teach Us About Ourselves?

The biggest thing I've learned from studying history is that good and evil are rooted in the mundane stuff of life. Even the most barbaric atrocities can become, and indeed are often marked by, their routine banality in the hands of their perpetrators. There are not many monsters or saints. Most of us never get the chance to rise to the most momentous occasion or descend to the depths. But we need not face the intense pressures of war or starvation to find out a little about ourselves. If I'm the sort of person who curses a driver in traffic, or lies to get ahead, I'm probably the sort of person who would participate in genocide. If I think I could never kill, I'm probably quite dangerous.

We ought to think on those things for a minute.

There are two great mistakes people that are often considered by their societies to be "good" make. The very ubiquity of these mistakes can hide their destructive power. They become just another part of the landscape, what we expect of ourselves. In some respects they are mirror images of each other, yet they both produce hatred, war, slavery and genocide.

The first mistake that good people make is exemplified by the object of my thesis study, John Stennis. A segregationist senator from Mississippi, he appeared to be nearly universally loved and respected by those who knew him personally. But John Stennis wasted his life. He spent half a century fighting for white supremacy, with all the violence and suffering that entailed. He didn't do it because he was bad. He did it because the boundaries of his empathy were small. His circle of moral concern excluded millions of people with no good cause. Somehow, the man who was held up as a paragon of virtue and integrity, "the conscience of the Senate," has to be reconciled with the man who refused to even answer the letters of his black constituents for a quarter of a century. That makes people uncomfortable.

We have to come to grips with the fact that people of high personal moral character, whose word is reliable, who are faithful to their families, who are humble and hardworking, can at the same time promote death and destruction for millions of other people. They care about people even as they destroy society.

The second mistake is that of the idealist who cares about society but can't be faithful to the people right in front of him. In trying to change society, the individual becomes unimportant. This is part of the reason communism should be held in the same opprobrium as Nazism. Besides the fact that it has caused many millions more deaths than Nazism did, it is important to realize that those deaths were not innocent mistakes. They were acknowledged by communist leaders at the time, not as a bug but as a feature! They would pave the way to the utopia.

It doesn't really matter how much good I do in the world if I'm a distant father. Nor does it matter how good a father I am if my empathy for those unlike me is shallow. Genocide grows up in the soils of indifference and othering. It doesn't require any monsters to do its work.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Thoughts for Sunday

My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
    let the humble hear and be glad. --Psalm 34:2

I don't much like praising God. It doesn't seem to come naturally to me, and besides, I'd much rather wallow in self-pity. So I skim over verses like this. As a result, it didn't occur to me until recently that this is much more than just another way to praise God. It describes something that the vast majority of us don't do. The reason humble people are glad when they hear it is because they're the only ones who really get it.

You might boast in all sorts of things. Your looks, your money, who you know, your kids. Or more insidiously, you might boast in your moral behavior. If you'll allow a little semantic slippage here, I think of this as the thing you draw sustenance from, the thing that makes you alright with the world, that justifies you being here. For me, that's my recent track record. I can face the day because of late I have met my arbitrary definition of the appropriate amount of hard work, faithfulness, and kindness. 

There is no room for God in that scenario. My behavior determines whether I'm up or down on any given day. Getting my strength from this does not just set me up for a bumpy ride. It actually precludes the possibility of Christian living because "good" days inevitably lead to judgment and pride, while "bad" days produce self-absorption and pity. All the while God has not changed, nor has the way he feels about me.

Humble people get this. When God justifies our existence instead of us trying to do it there are no bad days, and good days come by without bringing a spirit of pride and judgment in their wake.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

How Networks Perpetuate Inequality

Nancy DiTomaso had a great piece in the Times a couple days ago distilling some of the information from her recent book, The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality Without Racism. One of the reasons unemployment is so high for African Americans is because access to jobs continues to be conditioned by social networks that are racially distinct.
Favoritism is almost universal in today’s job market. In interviews with hundreds of people on this topic, I found that all but a handful used the help of family and friends to find 70 percent of the jobs they held over their lifetimes; they all used personal networks and insider information if it was available to them.
In this context of widespread networking, the idea that there is a job “market” based solely on skills, qualifications and merit is false. Whenever possible, Americans seeking jobs try to avoid market competition: they look for unequal rather than equal opportunity. In fact, the last thing job seekers want to face is equal opportunity; they want an advantage. They want to find ways to cut in line and get ahead.
Despite the crucial role social networks play in employment, DiTomaso found that most whites are reluctant to acknowledge their good fortune.
When I asked my interviewees what most contributed to their level of career success, they usually discussed how hard they had worked and how uncertain were the outcomes — not the help they had received throughout their lives to gain most of their jobs. In fact, only 14 percent mentioned that they had received help of any kind from others.
The gulf between the 70% figure above and the 14% figure here represents the extent of our delusions. Part of what DiTomaso is trying to get across is that this failure to acknowledge reality has serious consequences. By pretending that there is some sort of level playing field in which everyone gets where their hard work will take them, whites position themselves to be offended by affirmative action. This taking of offense is opportunistic rather than principled, as Di Tomaso finds that "the real complaint is that affirmative action undermines long-established patterns of favoritism."

This ought to drive home the banality of racial injustice. We're not even talking about discrimination (though that occurs frequently too). In this case we're simply talking about people using their existing networks and showing favoritism in completely natural ways. But because of our unique circumstances, this produces horrible outcomes for minorities.  Many whites assume that drastically bad outcomes must have equally dramatic causes. Not at all. When networks are segregated and the bulk of wealth and power is concentrated in one of them, simply going about our business will perpetuate exclusion and inequality. It is made all the worse when those in the powerful network pretend that they are not privileged.

What this means is that if we are ever in a position of influence in hiring but have a segregated social network we need to consciously reach beyond our network in an attempt to break down privilege. To just go through the normal channels and whisper about job openings to friends and neighbors is not some sort neutral playing field. It is a proactive choice to advantage an already privileged group.

The most remarkable thing is how unwilling DiTomaso's respondents were to acknowledge the ways in which they succeeded due to factors beyond themselves. As I think about the nine jobs I've had in my lifetime, I can see that two were very clearly due to network effects. The other seven do not appear to have been, but I may be missing something. More importantly, I probably got some of my subsequent jobs because my resume and skills were dramatically bolstered by my network effect jobs. And I'll keep pounding away at this in a way that makes proud people uncomfortable: one of the big reasons I have achieved the success I have is because I'm white and middle class. I started out on third base. It is to be expected that many Americans would be reluctant to acknowledge their dependence; they often find their identity in their own individual effort. But it is a scandal that many Christians are unwilling to bring the spiritual truths of the gospel down to earth.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The Academic-Popular Divide

I apologize for the barren blogging landscape around here. My kids and my thesis are dominating my life. They're giving me a proper beating. The former is personal, and the most juicy details of the latter I want to save for a proper reveal. I will say, though, that the vast disconnect between academic debates and popular perceptions is astonishing.

But it makes me realize how little I know. When you begin to become something of an expert in a narrowly defined field of knowledge (the career of John C. Stennis and its implications) you realize how frequently you and everyone else are just - pardon the crude bluntness - talking out of their butt.

It is odd to see things being debated in the popular realm that are considered settled in the academic world. For example, historians and political scientists don't sit around going, "Gee, I wonder which party has been more racially progressive the last 50 years?" Yet the standard view of Republican partisans is that this is a profound question up for debate. Interestingly, the responses of Democratic partisans, while broadly correct, are also simplistic and self-serving. Or consider white Americans' racial attitudes.
I'm not aware of any historian who thinks the linking together of blacks with immigrant groups in the same category is a useful analytical tool. The African American experience and the ethnic immigrant experience have been two completely different things. By obscuring that fact, the average white American finds comfort for conservative racial views.

There is, too, a huge corpus of academic work on the ways American society and the federal government discriminated against black Americans after World War 2. Again, by ignoring and denying this history completely, white Americans pretend that questions of redistribution and affirmative action are just about slavery. It is remarkable that the federal government has paid reparations to Japanese Americans for their internment during World War 2, but has not paid reparations to black Americans for the systematic discrimination against them in federal housing, social security, veterans affairs, and welfare policies.

The disconnect is most striking in the area of colorblindness. The dominant racial ideology of white Americans, so accepted that people aren't even aware it is an ideology, so ingrained that people think it is "natural," has been ruthlessly deconstructed in academia and is widely seen as a means of hiding and preserving white privilege. This is downright shocking and confusing to average people.

This is fast taking on all the hallmarks of an elitist rant, but I only mean to say that in learning more about a few specific topics, I have become less certain on many other topics. I wish more white Americans would consider this dynamic before making their confident and ignorant pronouncements on race.