Wednesday, June 03, 2020

Does History Doom African Americans?

A Facebook friend (JW) offered the following argument about the impact of history upon African-Americans.  He argues that even if America is not overtly racist today, the evils of the past are bound to continue adversely impacting the black community.  This sounds reasonable, at first glance, though I think the argument needs to be made more clear, and ultimately I don't think it explains America's social and ideological problems very well.  

I'll try to clarify six points in JW's comments first, then briefly consider whether historical injustices really do explain modern problems in the African-American community.

If you ask me what right I have to offer my opinion about this subject, well it is my country being trashed right now in the name of racial justice.  So the question is forced upon us all, even if we are not sociologists or African-Americans.  Plus some of these questions are related to the fields of history and inter-cultural understanding on which I may have insights.  The present climate of hysteria and hate in America certain demands critical and fair thinking, especially from Christians.  But I'll try to recognize my limits. 

I. JW's Thought-Experiment

"This is an unsettling thought to consider: some would like to think that the United States doesn't (anymore) have a systemic problem of racism.(1) That is, there may still be some (many?) individuals with racist tendencies or beliefs, (2) but society as a whole is color-blind and each person has the same opportunities and protections as everyone else. (3) 
"But when you consider that racism has been part of American society from the very beginning, when you consider that economics (from the lucrative slave trade to redlining), law (from slave ownership to Jim Crow) and culture (the Lost Cause narrative, public commemoration of slave-holders and Confederate officers,(4) etc.) have all actively created and sustained racism for centuries,(5) you have to ask how likely it is that the systemic problems we face today do not have racist dimensions. (6)
"History leaves its mark. Society today is the product of institutions and events of the past. And in the American case, those institutions and events heavily involved slavery and racism."

II.  Preliminary Problems  

1. Biases.  Let me first question the premise that this line of reasoning is "unsettling."  I suspect it supports rather than upsets the political worldview of the person making this argument.  It also tends to support, for instance, those demanding reparations for slavery, the protesters, the Democratic Party establishment, and even moderate conservatives like George W. Bush.  

The point behind calling this line of reasoning "unsettling" seems to be rhetorical, to predispose the reader to boldly consider the point the writer wishes him to believe.  It is also seems to be implied that opposition to that argument may be emotional and self-serving.  

Which, indeed, it might be.  But biases may lie on both sides, and should be recognized where they lie.   

See the source image
"Who is My Neighbor?"
2. Racism vs. Love.  I also question the assumption, so common that it is not even questioned, that "racism" should be the sole or primary criterion of justice.  (And, perhaps, that racism is how white people see blacks, not how blacks may see Koreans, Irish, or some other group.)  

The present American obsession with the sin of racism strikes me simplistic, dangerous, and sub-Christian.  Jesus told us to "Love God, and love your neighbor as yourself."  It is true, to explain what that meant he gave the example of the Good Samaritan, a person who cared for a stranger of another nation along the side of the road.  

But while it had a racial component, the conflict between Jews and Samaritans seems to have been primarily ideological and cultural rather than racial per se.  One could convert to the God of Israel, have a minor operation (as a male), and become a Jew.  The two groups (related in blood) were at odds, as human groups often are, whether divided by grade, sex, race, neighborhood, natiosn, football team, clan, philosophical school, political party, or any of the hundreds of other ways in which human beings team up and face off.  Jesus' point was clearly broader than any one of those divisions: your neighbor is whoever you meet, regardless how different in any category.  

In addition, "love" here is a concrete act to an individual one meets.  It is not a post on Facebook.  For all we know, at home this Samaritan insulted Jews like Archie Bunker.  Maybe those scornful words were wrong, even "racist," but Jesus didn't talk about them, he talked about how the Samaritan acted.  His point is that his followers are to love those we meet.  While the word "racism" is useful in a few narrow contexts, the term is broad, underdefined, and is most often used much like a brick through a storefront window, to attack the "Other," rather than to think clearly about degrees of good and evil.  

Jesus' vocabulary -- Love God, love your neighbor as yourself -- is far more challenging, covers everyone and every situation, and cannot so easily be used as an excuse for exploiting others or to excuse one's own wrong actions.  I think as Christians we should prefer this richer vocabulary and deeper moral philosophy -- and so should everyone else.  

3.  Color-blind society?  Is it true that "Society as a whole is color-blind and each person has the same opportunities and protections as everyone else?"

I don't think it is.  It seems rather that European and Asian Americans need higher SAT scores to get into top universities, for instance.  That doesn't sound color-blind.  I suspect the same justified racial discrimination occurs in many woke capitalist companies and in Democratic administrations.  

This is a racial injustice which I think America does presently accept, but should not.  

4. Should we remember George Washington?  Thomas Jefferson?  Robert E. Lee?  Plato?  JW appears to think that they should all resign in disgrace from their pedestals in our collective minds, with his comments about "public commemoration of slave-holders and Confederate officers."

I do agree that we should not commemorate anyone who is famous for slave-trading.  And heroes like William Wilberforce and Harriot Beecher Stowe, like those I recognize here, should be remembered warmly for their contributions against slavery.  But it strikes me as fanatical to use this one yardstick alone to measure everyone in the past.  George Washington was a man of his time, nor ours.  He is beloved as the "father of our nation," who led America in war against the world's most powerful nation and won, then helped establish America as a democracy by serving as president for two terms.  If JW thinks we should take his face off the quarter because he owns slaves, that is sad indeed.  Socrates, too, deserves his status in our memories.  The Union armies were not so narrow-minded as to fail to recognize the valor of Robert E Lee, despite his faults, and I see no reason why we should be more narrow-minded than the generation that shed its blood to liberate the slaves.  I fear JW will find few heroes from the past to remember, since aside from Jesus Christ, they were all sinners in one way or another.  And that would be a loss, not only for their memory, but for the assumption that to be heroic, a person needs to be perfect.  

5. Begging the question?  I challenge the word "have" in this sentence, which implies that racism against African-Americans is still a serious problem in America.  That is the matter yet to be proven.  

6. What?  "You have to ask how likely it is that the systemic problems we face today do not have racist dimensions."  I am not sure what it means for a problem to "have racist dimensions."  If it means, "People must be racist today because of past racism," I don't think that follows.  Habits change.  Nations of cannibals do not need to continue eating people.  Nations with slaves can set them free.  

If it means, "America is impacted by the racism of the past," that is no doubt true, but vague and tautological.  All major events of the past impact us in some ways, but often in surprising ways. The British Empire led to the colonization England by Pakistanis, for instance,  

So I am not entirely sure what JW means, still less what he thinks we should do about it.  But whatever we do, we should certainly be moved by the spirit of the Good Samaritan, in seeking the well-being of all whom we are given the chance to help.  On that I'm sure we agree.  

Let's look at the overall question, now.   

II.  Does History Doom African Americans?  

Really there are two or three questions here: sociological, anthropological, and historical. 

First, what problems are African-Americans presently experiencing?  (A)

Second, what would the "natural" state of any given cultural group be, aside from outside oppression?  Can the problems in (A) be explained apart from said historical oppression, in part or in whole? (B)

Third, does past oppression by itself necessarily create such pathologies in a given culture? (C)

Any of these questions could serve as the basis for a dozen quarrelsome doctoral dissertations. I shall be simpler, more obvious, and brief.

A. What problems do African-American experience?  I am not black, so some readers may find it presumptuous of me to try to answer this question.  And, after all, many African-Americans live happy lives, succeeding in their businesses, families, and maybe even finding and expressing the love of God.

Still, this question is assumed in JW's comments, and must be addressed.

While murder rates have come down, there is a high rate of violent crime among young black males, still.  About half the murders in America are committed by blacks, mostly young black males, mostly on other black males.  A lot of this, of course, is what is called "gang-related."

Some 70% of African-American children are born to unwed mothers, last I checked.  Since I believe marriage is vitally important for society, and because lack of a father in the family is terribly harmful to mothers and children, also to fathers themselves, I think that may be the most serious problem in modern African-American (and, increasingly, European-American and Hispanic) societies.

Finally, economists and sociologists will say wages and earnings are lower, while crime, obesity, and early deaths are higher, in the African-American community.

Such is my glib outside overview.  I will not presume to say more, and am open to being educated on this subject by those who know this question from the inside better than I. 

B. What is the natural state of any given culture?  Can the problems in (A) be explained apart from past oppression?  

Cultures around the world vary widely in their attitudes towards violence, marriage, intoxication, pre-marital sex, cuisine (which also impacts health), and every other relevant issue.  Here, for instance, is the murder rate by nation.

The highest murder rates are in Latin America, for instance 52 per 100,000 per year in El Salvador.  Murder rates vary across the Americas, with Mexico at 29, Brazil is 27, the US 5, and Canada 1.76.  Most of these countries contain a mix of nationalities, but Mexico and El Salvador contain few blacks or, I think, historic slaves.  So it is unlikely that a past history of slavery explains those high murder rates. Though one could ascribe it to the later effects of imperialism, Asian countries with very low murder rates were also part of European empires.

Official murder rates in Africa vary wildly, from about one third of the US rate in Malawi and Cameroon, to twice the US rate in Nigeria, and seven times in South Africa.   But overall, the rate of murder in Africa is listed at 12.5 /100,000.   This is much higher than the US rate, but about half of the murder rate among African-Americans, and much lower also than that in Latin America.

Marriage has changed over time.  From 1890 to 1970, both black men and women were more likely to be married than white men and women.  And marriage has fallen out of favor for whites, as well. 

So the breakdown of the African-American family is a new development, evidently not caused by slavery or historical racism.

As for earnings, this, too, varies tremendously among cultures, specifically subcultures in the United States.  By far the richest demographic in America are Indian Americans, with a median household income of more than $132,000 in 2016.  Presumably this is due to an influx of tech engineers. Apparently having dark skin is not too much of a liability for them.  Number three is South Africans, who may be white or black, while 4th, 5th, and 8th are Taiwanese, Filipinos, and Singaporeans, 9th are Iranian-Americans, and tenth are people from Russia.  At the bottom come Somalis, Domincans, Iraqis, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Bahamans, Ethiopians, Burmese, and Afghan-Americans.  Family groups at the top earn 2-3 times those near the bottom.

Clearly, a history of slavery or even Jim Crow laws cannot explain these variations.  Even white tribes vary greatly, from Australian Americans at $90,000, to Pennsylania German Americans at little more than half that.   Some figures seem quite random.  But I think if you checked the history of immigration, you would find that, for instance, educated Taiwanese are more likely to immigrate, while Afghans come more often as refugees and are more likely to come from non-professional classes.

There is even a great deal of variety among Native American tribes, from some that are very poor, to others that are doing pretty well.

Look around the world, and you find similar variety in earnings between countries, and between ethnic groups within specific countries.

So it is hard to believe that even in the complete absence of racism, families belonging to different sub-cultures will all earn a closely similar amount of money.  Different cultures emphasize different goods (Ruth Benedict), constructing world views which entail quite different ways of relating to one another, to outsiders, to God, and to the pursuit of worldly goods.

C. Does past oppression by itself necessarily create such pathologies in a given culture?  

Clearly not.  And what appears to my outside perspective to be the chief problem in the African-American community, which arguably causes many of the others, the breakdown of the black family, has mostly occurred since the end of Jim Crow laws, and was clearly not caused by them, still less by slavery.

So yes, society is a product of past influences.  But it appears that the worst of those influences is far more recent than slavery, and was sponsored by the ideological Left which blames them on something  called "systemic racism."

I recognize that people of different races in America are not always kind to one another.  We do not always act like the Good Samaritan.  But I agree with Booker T. Washington, and even with Malcolm X, in thinking that in a generally free society (as America is), what we become chiefly depends on what we make of ourselves.  And that is the real challenge for America today.

Let me recommend interested parties read Mona Charen's marvelous and sometimes painful Sex Matters: How Modern Feminism Lost Touch with Science, Love, and Common Sense.  JW is right to look for past effects for the present causes: here, I think, is one of them.  Welfare policy might be another, along with the other patronizing attempts to "help" that really hurt.


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