Tuesday, May 12, 2020

What Should We Do About "Racial Disparities?"

I once subbed in a Middle School classroom to which a public librarian had been invited that day, to talk about books in her library about the Vietnam War.  After she was finished, I asked, "Why were five out of six books you introduced less about Vietnam than about American racism and Vietnam?"  She looked surprised: she hadn't even noticed.  

Our friends on the Left talk a lot about race, even when the subject is war in Asia, or a pandemic from Asia that kills prejudicially by age, disability, lung condition, and sex, rather than race.  A wild-eyed article in the Atlantic a few days ago, for instance, claimed that Donald Trump and the Republicans don't care about Covid-19 much because it mostly kills black and brown people!  

So I recently jumped, perhaps foolishly, into a conversation with a honest liberal Christian named Joshua Waldecker, about a black gentleman from Georgia named Ahmaud Arbery, who had been shot by two white men.  The Atlantic article had taken that murder as emblematic of the general racist condition of the United States during a pandemic.  So I asked the poster why, out of the thousands of murders in America, he chose to focus on that one.  After all, the vast majority of murders in America are either of whites by whites, or of blacks by blacks.  And more than twice as many European-Americans are murdered by African-Americans in a given year (at least 2018, according to the FBI), as the other way around, some 500 to some 230.  So why focus on this particular case?  I added: 

"Do people on the Left ever get tired of being yanked around like a dog on a leash, like that? I'm curious."

Joshua offered four answers, the most interesting to me of which was: 

"This is a paradigmatic example of the sorts of racist terrorism people of color talk about all the time. By publicizing it, we get a chance at a national conversation about it."

As my opening anecdote indicates, it seems to me that the Left has "been having a (one-sided) national conversation" about racism for decades now.  That "conversation," or monologue, fills the education system and the media.  Many of us on the Right were hoping that one good thing that might come of Obama's presidency, bad as it was in general, was that America could finally change the subject to something more important and interesting than skin pigmentation. 

But wait!  Joshua responded.  What about all the "racial disparities" in America?  Shouldn't Christians care deeply about the welfare of others?  J confessed he felt dispirited to find so little sign of compassion among conservative (presumably white) Christians, for those of other races who are, presumably, suffering because of systematic racial inequalities in America.  

I asked Joshua to explain what he meant by "racial disparities," and what moral obligations he believed we have in regard to them.  I quote J's well-spoken, if I think misguided, explanation in blue below. 

As someone who has lived most of my adult life cross-culturally, which means multi-racially, perhaps my response will be helpful to J, and other Americans who think like him.  I hope J finds something of value in my response.  

JW: "Racial disparities are disparities in health, wealth, education, wages, housing, etc., that fall along racial lines. I think all parties to the discussion should agree that such disparities, in an ideal world, wouldn’t exist.
"What compels us to address them? Well, for starters I believe human beings, being the social animals we are, are responsible for one another in some capacity. There is no society without a social contract, and that contract compels us to care about others. Moreover, as Christians we’re compelled to care about others *as if they are ourselves* so the social contract Christians engage in is arguably even more extreme than the one embraced by many on the left. Yet Christians, at least white conservative evangelicals in the U.S., rarely want to talk about racial disparities and how to fix them. In fact, often times discussions like that are repudiated by conservative Evangelical leaders as some “Marxist-agenda.”
"Second, these disparities were caused by a long legacy of white supremacy. The history is rather clear on this and as a country we need to own up to that. The most common response to this is “that wasn’t me, why am I responsible?!” to which the answer is clear: the social contract and our countries legacy of white supremacy compels us. It doesn’t matter one iota if I am not personally responsible for Jim Crow or Red-Lining, my country is and therefore my country needs to right its wrongs.
"What’s perhaps less clear is what to do about it. This is where I would love to see more conversation, but frankly I don’t see Republicans talking about it much. Some, but not much. Mostly I see Republicans and conservatives complaining that Democrats use it as a means of polarization, propaganda, and attempts to secure the black vote. But it rarely seems to occur to them that Democrats tend to be the only ones saying we should address it, and often times Republicans are apathetic, dismissive, or even combative. So it’s no wonder black people by and large vote Democrats – they’re the only ones talking about how to solve racial disparities.
"As for saying conservatives don’t care, of course with anything like this nuance is important. I don’t mean to say they literally don’t care that people are suffering. Many of them do. But generally there is little to no attempt to do anything about it. Yes, conservatives give more to charity than liberals, generally. I’ve seen the stats on that. But bear in mind that giving to a church doesn’t entail one is giving to causes to fight against racial disparities. Caring about charity and donating tithes to one’s local church, or regularly donating to the red cross, or Samaritans purse, etc., isn’t the same as saying these conservatives care about racial disparities and desire to see them fixed asap. And observing the political and religious efforts made by white conservative evangelical organizations and churches shows that combatting racial disparities as barely even on their radar – and in many cases, efforts are being made to thwart the lefts attempt to combat them (see: "THAT'S A MARXIST AGENDA!".
"Look at the very comments I’m replying to. You’ve stated that you don’t really care to discuss racial motivations in crimes, you’ve asked what a racial disparity even is, and you’ve questioned why we should feel responsible for fixing them (by putting “fix” in air quotes). This is what I’m talking about. This is the general reaction white evangelical Christians have to racial disparities, and it’s disheartening. As Christians we are *especially* called to combat injustices and make right the wrongs of past generations. Yet the vast majority of what I see from white conservative evangelicals is either apathy, or direct opposition to efforts made to combat racial disparities."

DM: Thanks, Joshua. I think you err from the very beginning of your answer, and err profoundly. The facts that you think your first paragraph should be morally uncontroversial, and that you only seem a little aware of conservative ideas about improving the condition of African-Americans, actually give me hope that our conversation might prove fruitful. After all, if you KNEW the answers I was likely to give and dismissed them, there might not be anything more for us to talk about.

I was not surprised to see, in your final paragraph, that you misread my questions a little.  I didn't ask what racial disparity is, for instance. I asked you what YOU MEAN by the term. In order to understand an argument, one needs to know what meaning the person making it attaches to terms he employs. As I explain to my students, that's a first step in real dialogue, often over-looked, resulting in people arguing past one another. (Read or reread the dialogues of Socrates.) But you've answered that question, so let's focus on substantial issues raised by your explanation.
I'll limit myself in this post to answering five preliminary questions, and save your main question, "What do conservatives think we should do?" for another day.  Apparently you've read Thomas Sowell, so you might have more ideas about that than you mentioned.   

1. Would racial disparities exist in an ideal world? 

"Racial disparities are disparities in health, wealth, education, wages, housing, etc., that fall along racial lines. I think all parties to the discussion should agree that such disparities, in an ideal world, wouldn’t exist.
See the source image
To be honest, it is hard for me to understand what an argument which talks about "racial housing disparities" in an "ideal world" even means, still less what that imaginary ideal should entail for those of us who inhabit this world.  

In C. S. Lewis' Out of the Silent Planet, three unfallen races coinhabit the Planet Mars.  None of them are fallen races.  But they have adapted to different niche environments.  Sorns live in caves, hrossa inhabit huts, I don't remember what sort of houses pfifletriggi live in.  Granted, these are different species.  But traveling through minority regions of China, I have also observed that different tribes live in a variety of homes.  Often people in poorer areas had bigger houses than the richer city-dwellers.
The Dais lived here; bigger than apartments in Tokyo.

To me, among humans, cultural differences are more important than racial differences.  I don't know why, in a perfect world, people of different cultures would all live in the same kinds of houses of the same sizes in the same neighborhoods.  That sounds more like a dystopic than a utopia to me.  Indeed, it sounds a lot like the huge apartment complexes in Chinese cities.   

Why do Tibetans get such big monasteries?
So whatever Joshua thinks we "should" all agree upon, I see no reason to agree with this fundamental assumption.  Except that in an ideal world no one might die at all, so everyone might be equal in health.

Am I trivializing the poor health from which some minorities suffer?  In America, health is closely correlated to life-style choices: diet, smoking, drinking, family, and exercise.  These choices differ between ethnic groups.  If some people choose to eat fatty or sugary foods, or fail to exercise, while the Japanese, for instance, eat steamed vegetables and fish, what are outsiders supposed to do about that?  It's not my business to tell people of other ethnic groups what to eat or how often to work out.  Taxpayers already subsidize low-income health care, certainly in my state.  One might argue that people ought to keep in shape, for the good of their loved ones, and even for the financial well-being of the taxpayer.  But it seems unfair to first ding the taxpayer for his negligent neighbor's health bill, then criticize him for not just forking his income over wholesale.

2. In a just society, should we expect equality of outcome among people of different races?  

This is Joshua's fundamental assumption.  But I can see little warrant for it, and many reasons against it:

a. Equality is, at best, a rare phenomenon in Nature.  Stars aren't equal.  Planets aren't equal.  Mountains differ in minerals, shape, and size.  Animals are strikingly unequal.  Fish are a byword for inequality, and flowers for variety.  

b. As Steven Pinker points out, the conditions that normally create equality in human society are disasters like war, famine, tyranny, and economic collapse.  Thus you're more likely to find equality in North Korea than in San Francisco.  

c. Race is, as I implied, often a cipher for culture.  I am skeptical of claims that some races are smarter than others.  I find great variety among people of all races whom I meet, not only by some theoretical fixed and standard metric called "IQ," but by the many forms of intelligence, some of which I would claim myself, others of which I doubt I possess to any striking degree.  

But as Ruth Benedict shows so well in The Patterns of Culture, and as I have seen, living in many different cultures over the years, human beings collectively form worldviews which lay stress on different goods.  Some cultures are more hard-driving, others easy-going.  Some encourage strict celibacy, others allow for a good bit of sleeping around.  In some cultures, working 9-5 is bare minimum, while in others, such long hours seem crazy, quality time at the beach with one's family is far more important than a few numbers in one's bank account.  

This is one reason why China has become much wealthier per capita than Thailand, since I first when to Asia.  (Thailand was far wealthier, when I first arrived.)  Talk to either Chinese or Thais, and they will tell you the same thing: the Chinese culture is more hard-driving than the mellower Thai culture.  

The natural state of society is inequality.  Add in differing cultures, and variety is bound to increase.  Of course, as J points out, that one finds such a situation in Nature need not settle the matter for Christians.  But what it does settle is Joshua's third point: 

3.  Are disparities between races, or cultures, necessarily caused by the sin of the wealthier or more powerful group?  

J seems to assume this as an undeniable fact: 

"Second, these disparities were caused by a long legacy of white supremacy. The history is rather clear on this and as a country we need to own up to that."

I think Joshua is confusing three assertions here, which need to be kept distinct: 3a. Have European-Americans often oppressed African-Americans in the past? As J notes, the answer is unambiguous: "Of course they have." 3b. Was that oppression immoral? Again, "Of course it was." As was oppression by every group that oppressed - as every group has oppressed.

3c. Are present "racial disparities" necessarily caused by a particular pattern of past oppression?

That's our question. And there are many problems with an affirmative answer. I am troubled, indeed, that an ernest and intelligent Christian like J seems not to have considered any of them before.

First, as I pointed out above, one can expect disparities to arise between people of different cultures. Such differences are an empirical and almost universal fact, in every country on earth inhabited by people of more than one culture. I observed such disparities while living with the tribal peoples of Taiwan (and between people of different tribes, the Ami and the Taya, for instance), and among Native Americans, even between Hong Kong Chinese and Chinese in Taiwan.

Second, some of these disaparities are to the advantage of the minority: Chinese in Indonesia or Malaysia, Jews in Germany or New York, and so forth.

Third, oppression by the majority is often wielded not to keep a minority from becoming equal, but to make the majority more equal to a thriving and successful minority. Jews thriving economically despite centuries of often harsh oppression. Chinese suffered much in Malaysia and Indonesia where they became rich due to their cultural values of hard work, family, education, and saving money.

Fourth, look at this chart of income by racial group in the US from Wikipedia. Does "white supremacy" explain much of it?
  1. Indian American (2016) : $120,026 [2]
  2. Australian American (2016) : $90,930[3]
  3. South African American (2017) : $90,517[3]
  4. Taiwanese American (2016) : $90,221[2]
  5. Filipino American (2016) : $84,620[2]
  6. Austrian American (2016) : $80,717[3]
  7. British American (2016) : $79,872[3]
  8. Singaporean American (2016) $79,852[3]
  9. Iranian American (2017) : $78,005[3]
  10. Russian American (2016): $77,841[3]
  11. Japanese American (2016): $77,504[2]
  12. Bulgarian American (2016): $76,862[3]
  13. Lithuanian American (2016) : $76,694[3]
  14. Israeli American (2016) : $76,584 [3]
  15. Slovene American (2016) : $75,940[3]
  16. Malaysian American (2016): $72,827[2]
  17. Nigerian Americans (2016) : $75,864[3]
  18. Lebanese American (2016): $75,337[3]
  19. Chinese American (2016): $74,764[2]
  20. Croatian American (2016): $73,991[3]
  21. Sri Lankan American: $73,856[3]
  22. Scandinavian American (2016): $73,797[3]
  23. Belgian American (2016) : $73,443[3]
  24. Serbian American (2016) : $73,028[3]
  25. Swiss American (2016) : $72,823[3]
  26. Italian American (2016) : $72,586[3]
  27. Ukrainian American (2016): $72,449 [3]
  28. Romanian American (2016): $72,381[3]
  29. Greek American (2016): $72,291[3]
  30. Scottish American (2016): $71,925[3]
  31. Indonesian American : $71,616[3]
  32. Danish American (2016) : $71,550[3]
  33. Swedish American (2016): $71,217[3]
  34. Polish American (2016): $71,172[3]
  35. Slavic American (2016) : $71,163[3]
  36. Norwegian American (2016): $71,142[3]
  37. Canadian American (2016) : $70,809[3]
  38. Welsh American (2016): $70,351[3]
  39. Czech American (2016) : $70,454[3]
  40. Czechslovakian American (2016) : $70,084[3]
  41. Finnish American (2016) : $70,045[3]
  42. Hungarian American (2016): $69,515[3]
  43. French Canadian American (2016) : $68,075[3]
  44. Portuguese American (2016): $67,807[3]
  45. English American (2016) : $67,663[3]
  46. Thai American : $67,633[2]
  47. Slovak American (2016) : $67,471[3]
  48. Armenian American (2016): $67,450[3]
  49. German American (2016): $67,306[3]
  50. Irish American (2016) : $66,688[3]
  51. Ghanaian American (2016): $66,571[3]
  52. Turkish American (2016) : $66,566[3]
  53. Pakistani American (2016) : $65,389[2]
  54. Korean American (2016) : $65,186[2]
  55. Palestinian American (2016): $65,170[3]
  56. Egyptian American (2016) : $64,728[3]
  57. Vietnamese American : $64,191[2]
  58. Scotch-Irish American (2016) : $64,187[3]
  59. Yugoslavian American (2016) : $63,765[3]
  60. Dutch American (2016) : $63,597[3]
  61. French American (2016) : $63,471[3]
  62. Syrian American (2016): $63,096[3]
  63. Nepali American : $62,848[4][5]
  64. Albanian American (2016) : $62,624[3]
  65. Guyanese American (2016) : $60,968[3]
  66. Bahamian American (2016): $60,732[3]
  67. British West Indian American (2016): $60,407[3]
  68. Cambodian American : $60,192[3]
  69. Laotian American : $58,130[3]
  70. Cuban American : $57,000[6]
  71. West Indian American : $56,998[3]
  72. Brazilian American (2016): $56,151[3]
  73. Barbadian American : $56,078[3]
  74. Argentine American: $55,000[7]
  75. Cajun American : $52,886[3]
  76. Jamaican American (2016): $52,669[3]
  77. Trinidadian and Tobagonian American : $55,303[3]
  78. Moroccan American (2016) : $52,436[3]
  79. Peruvian Americans : $52,000[3]
  80. Unclassified Americans (2016): $51,601[3]
  81. Jordanian American (2016): $51,552[3]
  82. Pennsylvania German American (2016): $48,955[3]
  83. Ecuadorian American : $49,000[3]
  84. Colombian American : $48,000[7]
  85. Haitian American (2016): $47,990[3]
  86. Cape Verdean American (2016) : $47,281[3]
  87. Bangladeshi American : $47,252[3]
  88. Assyrian/Chaldean/Syriac American (2016): $44,733[3]
  89. Afghan American : $43,838[3]
  90. Ethiopian American:(2016) $42,000[3]
  91. Burmese American : $41,357[3]
  92. Puerto Rican American : $40,064[2]
  93. Mexican American: $40,000[7]
  94. Iraqi American : $38,000[7]
  95. Dominican American (2016) : $32,818[3]
  96. Somali American (2016): $18,756[3]

By Native American tribe grouping[edit]

  1. Chickasaw : $49,963[8]
  2. Choctaw : $47,783[8]
  3. Alaska Natives : $47,401[8]
  4. Creek : $41,897[8]
  5. Iroquois : $40,471[8]
  6. Cherokee : $37,730[8]
  7. Blackfeet : $37,033[8]
  8. Chippewa : $34,463[8]
  9. Lumbee : $33,863[8]
  10. Navajo : $31,057[8]
  11. Sioux : $29,079[8]
  12. Apache : $28,745[8]
If "white oppression" is the explanation for why non-whites are poorer on average than whites, then what explains this complexity? Why do Nigerian Americans make four times as much as Somali Americans? Of course one might say that immigrants permitted into the US are more likely to have professional skills and be wealthy, and their children will inherit those advantages. But that's also a cultural explanation, which shows how marginally valuable "white oppression" has become as an explanation for "disparity" in modern America.

4. What moral implications should we draw from these disparities? 

I think we should avoid two simplistic extremes.  One would be to say income is a simple proxy for moral value.  People who learn such virtues as Max Weber praised, work hard, save, marry one person and stay married, raise children together within that relationship, will be far more likely to succeed in life than the children of "welfare queens."  But "getting ahead" in life is not the only value, and it is not irrational to stress other goals, such as enjoying a good party late at night with close friends, or relaxing on the beach, or being generous to family members in need.  

So there is a moral component to these differences, but the relationship is not simple.  It is a mistake both to ignore than moral component, and to forget Jesus' warning of the dangers of pursuing wealth.    

5.  Is it moral to level economic outcomes? 

Suppose Family A comes from a Confucian background which emphasizes education, hard work, and savings.  Books are read.  Suppose Family B is more laid-back, and some members imbibe in certain substances.  The TV is always on.

Suppose A gains a family income of $150,000, while B barely manages to bring in $50,000.  After taxes and government support, these numbers are $100,000 and $60,000.

Let me propose that at that point, to further redistribute taxes to make these two families exactly equal in outcome, would be grossly immoral.  It would also have four harmful effects: (a) it would take incentive away from A to work; (b) it would teach B to be lazy; (c) it would ruin the economy and make the whole nation much poorer; and (d) furthermore, I assert that it would contradict the teachings of the Bible (Proverbs, for instance), of Aesop, and be immoral.  

So no, I don't think it would be ethical to try to end "disparities" in income.  

However, as a typical conservative, I do believe in a modest safety net.  I don't object to A paying more taxes than B, or B receiving some subsidies from the government.  (Though I am deeply concerned about our federal deficit, but that's another issue.)  If B is handicapped, that's even more understandable.  And if B stands in real need, A would be right to voluntarily offer more help. 
But now we are beginning to edge towards a sixth question, which I do not plan to answer in detail today:  

(6) What do Christian conservatives propose, then, to help improve the lives of African_Americans and other ethnic groups which are poorer?  

This is Joshua's main question.  But since I have critiqued many of his underlying presuppositions, which he seemed to think unassailable, I'm not sure we're ready for that question, yet.  

I will say, though, that I admire Booker T. Washington (maybe even Malcolm X) more than Martin Luther King.  And I think the former two gentlemen would understand the conservative view of self-help better than King, or the Democratic Party which panders to those who too readily admires him.  I think the conservative approach is more effective as well as more moral than the approach which the Democratic Party has promoted for many years. 


Gretchen Joanna said...

I really enjoyed your discussion of Joshua's concerns and presuppositions. I don't remember adding your blog to my reader, but there it is. So glad!

David B Marshall said...

Thank you!