Friday, June 07, 2002

A black thing-or is it? Send this entry to: Spurl Ma.gnolia Digg Newsvine Reddit

A black thing-or is it? First Things is a "journal of ideas" on the model of Commentary. It is moderately conservative and religious (more or less Catholic) in orientation. I tend to find it rich in fodder for my thoughts and ruminations on issues of politics and culture, and I'm not conservative (by some definitions) or religious (by any definition). The May issue had some interesting articles, but the dialogue over Glenn Loury's new book Anatomy of Racial Inequalities between J. L. A. Garcia, Loury and John McWhorter caught my eye. For those of you that don't know-Glenn Loury was once an enfant terrible of the black conservative movement. But in the 1990s Loury turned his back to some extent on the black Right that he helped define, and gravitated to a more mainstream position (liberal) on racial issues that elicited praise from individuals that he had once vilified such as Jesse Jackson. But old mentors such as Norman Podhortez of Commentary attacked Loury, and fellow black conservatives such as Shelby Steele were saddened by his apostasy and he quickly found himself a de facto outcaste. In addition, throughout the late 80s, unbeknownst to his socially conservative allies, Loury was leading a lifestyle of drugs & sex that was perilously mirroring the irresponsibility of the underclass that he regularly castigated. In truth, the lot of a black conservative is double-sided, cutting toward fame and prominence by the fact that there are only a few notable black intellectuals on the Right (Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Shelby Steele and perhaps John McWhorter are a few that come to mind). The right-wing think tanks coddle them and fund their research, because no matter how much they deny it, the quota mindset has become entrenched enough that even the "race-netural" Right feels it needs its tokens to insulate itself from charges of racism. Not that the aforementioned authors don't produce good work-in fact, Sowell's books like Race and Culture, don't give that much attention to the black experience and take a broad view. In other words, Sowell need not be a black intellectual, but an intellectual concerned with issues of culture and geography like David S. Lande or Samuel Huntington. Like Sowell, Glenn Loury is an economist by training, but he is a far different beast altogether and his life has followed a different path. Loury's book, titled Anatomy of Racial Inequalities, is illustrative of one problem that I see in the discourse on the "race issue" in America-and one that might sketch out a big contrast with Sowell. I haven't read the book, but reviews and Loury's own rebuttal to Garcia's pointed critiques and McWhorter's more scathing barbs indicate that it isn't about racial inequalities, but black-white inequalities. The New York Times series How Race is Lived in America would better be titled How black people and white people interact with each other. There are other races in this country, and according to the latest numbers there are more "Hispanics" (of various races) than blacks in the United States. In my part of the country, the maritime West, there are many more Hispanics (I hear the politically correct term in California is Latino) than blacks. Even Asian-Americans are more numerous than blacks in most of the Pacific coastal region. Now, there are parts of the country where the racial division is still black-white, such as the south, but this is becoming a regional peculiarity rather than reflective of the national scene. A key problem with "mainstream" thinking on American race relations is that it tends to be based on this dialogue between two races, rather than a conversation involving us all (I being a member of the old "Other" category) and blind to the insights that examination of multiple intersections (for instance, black-white-Hispanic) may bring. I recently watched the movie The Brothers. It was pretty entertaining-and for me at least, very informative about the part of black culture that isn't soaked in the pathos of the underclass existence. There are some particular scenes in the movie that highlighted the tunnel vision that blacks have in their assumption that their relationship to whites is special somehow (perhaps by virtue of slavery). In one scene, a mother accuses her son's father of leaving her for a "white woman." The son responds that the woman in question was Hawaiian, to which the mother responds, "That's white." The sons asks if Latino women or Asian women are white, and the mother responds that they are respectively "white women that eat tacos" and "white women that can't speak English." This is funny as hell, but also shows an inability to process race relations outside of the boundaries of the bipolar black-white world (more accurately, perhaps a refusal). Later, one of the protagonist's ex-girlfriends shows up at a dance club with a man of dubious ethnicity (he could have been South Asian or or a dark-skinned Latino or a mixed-race individual), and the protagonists ask skeptically, "Is he supposed to be white?". What I am trying to get at here is that while whites have a well defined role in black racial mythology-the master, the oppressor, even the liberator, non-blacks of color simply don't fit within this paradigm, and are the class of "Other" that is best ignored, and at worst detracts from the special relationship that blacks and whites traditionally had in this country. I personally had an experience with this when looking for apartments in Baton Rouge a few years ago. One of the prospective landlords told me matter of factly that the house was in a black area and wondered if I would be comfortable as a white man in such as an environment (we were talking on the phone). I responded that my brown skin would allow me to fit in pretty easily compared to a white man-to which the woman laughed and commented that I sounded awfully white for a black man. When I explained I was technically neither white or black, the woman really didn't know how to respond. When I added that my family came from India (Bangladesh actually-but I thought India would be a good approximation for this woman) she still didn't say anything. Needless to say, I didn't call her back later about the apartment. This preoccupation with the black-white chasm neglects avenues of exploration that might be fruitful toward helping resolve the race problem by engaging those of us who bring a different racial experience and sensibility-perhaps some problems that black Americans have can be discerned in the experiences of other minorities, who could point to some resolution of the situation. In one of the most ironic scenes for me in the above film, one of the protagonist's younger sisters gives a long diatribe about how black women should go outside their race to find partners if that's what's needed-that she's tired of waiting on black men who date outside their race in any case. The actress, Tatyana Ali is actually biracial, her father being an East Indian from Trinidad, and her mother a black Panamanian. Now, back to the dialogue between our chastened black conservative and his former fellow travellers. Loury's new idea in Anatomy of Racial Inequalities is stigma. He says:
This brings me to the topic of racial stigma—the central innovative concept in my book ... Racial stigma is not a bludgeon with which I hope to beat “whitey” into political submission. It does not refer to “sinister” thoughts in the heads of white people. Nor is it an invitation to passivity for blacks. Rather, what I am doing with this concept is trying to move from the fact that people take note of racial classification in the course of their interactions with one another to some understanding of how this affects their perceptions of the phenomena they observe in the social world around them, and how it shapes their explanations of those phenomena. Given the evident sensitivity of racial discourse, it is perhaps best if I make the point with a nonracial example. So consider gender inequality, disparity in social outcomes for boys and girls, in two different venues—schools and jails. Suppose that, when compared to girls, boys are overrepresented among those doing well in math and science in the schools, and also among those doing poorly in society at large by ending up in jail. There is some evidence to support both suppositions, but only the first is widely perceived to be a problem for public policy. Why? My answer is that it offends our basic intuition about the propriety of underlying social processes that boys and girls do differentially well in the technical curriculum. Although we may not be able to put our fingers on exactly why this outcome occurs, we instinctively know that it is not right. In the face of the disparity we are inclined to interrogate our institutions—to search the record of our social practice and examine myriad possibilities in order to see where things might have gone wrong. Our baseline expectation is that equality should prevail here. Our moral sensibility is offended when it does not. And so, an impetus to reform is spurred. We cannot easily envision a wholly legitimate sequence of events that would produce the disparity, so we set ourselves the task of solving a problem.
OK, enough quoting already. The analogy to the male/female divide is ingenious-but has a dubious assumption. Do we intuitively believe it is wrong for more men to be found in the technical professions? Historically, this hasn't elicited any objection form society, though with gender equity feminism there has been a concern about this situation. Even today-I suspect that the majority of the American population is apathetic to the choices that men and women make in their careers, though a vocal and active minority make it the center of their political lives. In fact, many simply believe that males and females have different strengths. This view can be found among the difference feminists on the Left and social conservatives on the Right-as well as the great mass of Americans imbued with common sense. If you then apply this to black Americans, one could perhaps intuit that they would have different strengths, and alas, weaknesses in comparison to the general population that is predominantly white. I don't know that Loury's ideas are even that innovative. The psychology of Americans blacks has been probed and projected more than any other racial group in America (insofar as the issue of race has been the central focus of the psychological studies). Claude Steele and others have argued that expectations of failure have led to black underperformance in standardized tests. The trauma of slavery is the great bugaboo that has scarred the psyche of the black man-so sayeth the powers that be. And yet, the American Association of University Women, the group that found that female self-esteem drops with adolescence, give us the statistic that black males have the highest self-esteem! I'm not a black American, so I don't know if tortured feelings of individual inferiority are endemic to their experience, but from all I see, blacks don't want to be like whites. They have their own culture, their own values and benchmarks. Yes, I'm sure that they would like to see more upward mobility and less social pathology, but the fact is that while the post Civil Rights era ushered in the era of relative black prosperity, social pathology in the form of out-of-wedlock births continued to rise. A complex problem like black economic success coupled with social squalor requires more than framing the debate in the old ways more suited to the 1950s than the 21st century. Blaming discrimination and pervasive racism is a relatively easy way out. By ignoring the existence of other races, black Americans can frankly discount their own shortcomings. The fact is that Asian-Americans have faced hardship in the United States. Many Asian-American activists still argue that they are discriminated against and have to work harder for their prosperity. As a Asian-American, I can attest to discrimination on the personal level. But so far in my life, I must admit that I believe its affect on my life has been rather mild, perhaps even trivial. When Asian-Americans came to the United States, they were not model minorities. Japanese and Chinese came to work as laborers on the plantations of Hawaii or in the mines of California. They suffered stigma and violence. And yet, they are a relative success today. By many measures, they are more well off than white Americans. Conservatives have used these facts to bludgeon blacks over the heads, and this has elicited a considerable amount of resentment. It is reasonable to argue that blacks have faced more discrimination, but let's not overplay this card, because western states like Califonria imposed laws that discriminated against Chinese and Japanese in a manner vey similar to the Jim Crow laws of the south. Black Americans will often assert that even the most prosperous blacks are at a disadvantage compared to more modestly situated whites. Lawrence Otis Graham, in his readable book Member of the Club, which tells the tale of his difficulties as an upper-middle class black male in America, and his moonlighting as a menial worker, has a chapter devoted to justifying affirmative action on economic grounds. This, after spending a considerable part of the book explaining that he was from a middle-class, even affluent, economic background, a man who later wrote a book Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class. Even though Graham himself could afford test prep courses and tutors-and got into Brown and Princeton, he argues that affirmative action is needed because whites have these advantages which blacks simply do not. Graham might be amused to know that the Kaplan test prep courses were created by a Jew bent on breaking into the previously WASP world of the Ivy Leagues-where connections rather than test scores determined admission. The stigma that Loury sees is only partially imposed from the outside. It is also something that blacks themselves impose upon themselves. By conflating the fact of racism into a society-wide quasi-conspiracy to oppress them, blacks have created a universe where success can only be attributed to some benevolence-government or corporate-and failure is also caused by the powers that be. Earlier in First Things, Father John Neuhaus notes that many Americans Jews wish there was more stigma, not less, so that their existence as a people could be assured. Loury finds it disturbing that only 2% of black women have white husbands. And yet why is there less stigma against black males marrying white women? If blacks as a group have a stigma-it seems from all the anthropology I have read, it should generally be easier for the females to marry up, not the males (this was the case before the 1960s). No, the problem is multifaceted. If it was one cause, or even a few causes, government might have solved the "race problem" by now. Like an under-developed medieval economy lacking in institutions that allow capital formation-a brute force socialism might be able to boot-strap black Americans beyond the stage where they are legally disenfranchised share-croppers, but equality must be earned, not given. The problems that bedevil black Americans defy easy diagnosis, and so sadly almost certainly will defy governments attempts to cure them. Only the collective actions of millions of individuals can change the situation of the black underclass or the rage of the black middle class. The hand of the social market will act, but you have to give it free reign.

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Statistical Methods in Molecular Evolution
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