Friday, June 7, 2013

Equality, Rights, Privileges

Ta-Nehisi Coates continues his critique of President Obama's way of speaking to black audiences:
I would argue that the current black predicament did not arise because black people lacked sufficient moral will. I would argue that we recognize this in other communities and their own predicaments. It would not be productive for the president to go before a white working-class Appalachian audience and say, "We know that economic unfairness exists, and has long existed, but government programs won't keep your kids off meth and painkillers." The fact that meth and painkiller addiction is higher in those communities, that one in ten kids born in Appalachia was born addicted to drugs, would not be seen as relevant to, say, a jobs program.

Nor would it be productive or wise for the president to go before a primarily Hispanic audience and say "We know that the DREAM Act is the right thing to do, but what you really need to do is keep your babies from having more babies." The fact that the Hispanic community has the highest teen pregnancy rate in the country would not be seen as relevant to, say, immigration reform.

And it would not be productive or wise for the president to go before an audience of Native Americans and say, "Yes, this country stole your land and prosecuted a ruthless war against you, but what would really help now is if you stopped your kids from drinking so much." The high rate of alcoholism among Native Americans would not be seen as relevant. And as I've said, it would not be wise for the president to go to Newtown and point to the absence of active fatherhood in the life of Adam Lanza.

But for some reason all of these kinds of statements are appropriate in the black community. Not because of higher rates of anything, and it not even because the president is black. They're seen as appropriate because there a deep belief -- even among black people -- that morality lies at the seat of our troubles...
I can (and have) marshaled numerous statistics to show that morality is not the real issue here, but the trouble is that statistics are subject to varying interpretations. Whether you believe the problems of black Americans are rooted primarily within or without, in black culture or in external discrimination, is less a question of evidence than of a priori assumptions.

Part of examining those basic assumptions involves stepping back, as Coates does here, and asking why this discussion so often seems particular to black people. All groups have unique problems, but in the case of African Americans there is a tendency to say that external conditions reveal the essential nature of a supposed black "morality" or "culture."

One of the reasons I'm so skeptical of these moralizing and cultural arguments is that the pattern we see across civilizations and throughout time is of dominant social groups attributing the behavior of disadvantaged groups to their essential nature. Thus Aristotle looked at slaves and instead of concluding that their degradation resulted from being enslaved, he got it backwards and said that some people are natural slaves. Thus the English poor of the 17th century were not desperate landless peasants amid rising demographic pressures and unjust economic systems, they were natural thieves.

The American context ought to make this all the more clear. For most of our history, to put it in blunt and simple terms, the white elite has been carrying on this conversation around the question, "What is wrong with black people?" The basic contours of the answer to that query have remained remarkably stable, because the question mostly answers itself. To ask it is to implicitly absolve the dominant society of any wrongdoing or responsibility.

During the height of slavery, the question was answered with the assumption that blacks were biologically inferior. By the middle of the twentieth century, even among many segregationists this scientific racism shaded into arguments that were more cultural and civilizational. Someone like John Stennis might be agnostic on the question of biological inferiority, while claiming that black culture was degraded.

This is part of the reason why the civil rights laws were so offensive to many whites. Civil rights inscribed equality in law that, in the view of segregationists, had not been earned. Black civilization was not equal, they said, and to treat it as such invited harm to white civilization. By relentlessly focusing on the state of black behavior, whites obscured their complicity in the creation of an oppressed class.

Much of segregationist rhetoric took on an Orwellian double-speak character because it started from these presuppositions of black cultural inferiority. Many whites could say with a straight face that blacks were not being discriminated against when their schools were funded at a fourth of white funding levels, because they were being provided with education adequate to their level of cultural development. Equal treatment is wasted on groups that are not equal. This was the segregationist mind, but it also bleeds into the broader white American mindset both then and now.

By merely asking what is wrong with black people, we play into a narrative that elides what is wrong with America. This is a country in which black people have had to earn what whites possess as a right. And when they do set out to claim those rights, they're seen as seeking after special privileges. As TNC sums it up:
The neighborhoods where black people shoot at each other are the work of racist social engineering. We know this. But we do not say it, because there is almost no political upside. Instead we hand-wave at racism and pretend that individual black morality might overcome many centuries of wrong.

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