By Mike Koetting July 12,2017
Today’s post continues a series of posts on inequality, the environment, and the nature of work—my list of the most serious problems facing society. This post looks at the issue of race and inequality in America. It is most explicitly about economic inequality, but, of course, economic impacts radiate more broadly.
It is very difficult to write about race in America without someone getting upset. It is truly a between hell and high water issue. But no survey of inequality in America would be complete without addressing this element. It is a specific factor that influences all the other dynamics. Whatever inequality there is in the country, it is hard to find a dimension on which African Americans, as a group, don’t do worse. To be sure: There are pockets of poor white communities that live in terrible conditions. And Asians and Latinos have been subject to execrable discriminations in specific times and places. And while these should not be ignored, they are not the same as the conditions to which African Americans have been subjected. And, even though some African Americans have achieved middle class incomes, and beyond, the overall record—starting with slavery and continuing—is embarrassing.
There are two major “explanations” of the reasons for social inequity, particularly impacting African Americans. One maintains the inequality is as a result of bad choices or insufficient effort made by individuals. The other posits that the economically and socially disadvantaged situation is a direct result of white discrimination. (Actually, there is a third that maintains that the position of African Americans is an inevitable result of their inherent inferiority. While this retains some political and social influence, it carries zero intellectual or moral weight.)
The problem with the first “explanation” is that it is so incomplete as to be misleading. Certainly there are some bad choices in the lives of people living in concentrated poverty. In part, these are simply consequences of concentrated poverty. The same “decisions” show up in pockets of poor white poverty. (See Hillbilly Elegy.) But more fundamentally, the situation of African Americans is a consequence of a combination of active and historic discrimination that resulted in tilting the odds towards limited and sometimes bad choices by some individuals, which in turn buttressed stereotypical expectations for the entire group. While it’s true that some people escape these bad odds, any policy designed around assuming a lot of people will somehow overcome bad odds is, by definition, unlikely to work.
It is hard to avoid the central validity of the second explanation. Whatever problems exist, it doesn’t make any sense to consider them except in the context of many generations of institutional discrimination. But this focus does seem to dampen the political appeal. Which is a problem because I believe major amelioration of the inequality suffered by African Americans requires concerted, committed government intervention at a scale to make a significant difference. Per above, expecting a significant number of people to beat bad odds is a lousy bet. I don’t find acceptance of the status quo morally acceptable, particularly given the causes of the current level of inequality. Nor, frankly, do I believe most people do.
But, if it is so palpable that African Americans have been treated inequitably in America and there is fairly widespread acceptance of the ideas that the concentrated poverty in many African American communities makes it brutally hard to break out, why can’t we generate a sufficient majority to take bold action?
There are three obstacles, American ideology, explicit efforts by Republicans to exploit that, and the inherent difficulties of creating programs of scale to make major social change.
Ideologically, the American psyche is so wrapped around the idea that individuals rise and fall on their own merits, the country has a hard time admitting the obvious holes in that line of thought. This “rugged individualism” has also led to an aversion to government solutions that is unique among developed nations. I would speculate this is because America developed in a situation so rich in resources that the idea that government was necessary to set priorities and allocate resources accordingly seemed superfluous. Over time, the idea that the lack of necessity for government intervention was a result of the resource abundance became replaced by the notion that the lack of government intervention was the cause of this resource abundance. Now, even though the country is fully populated and resources become less abundant, the myth remains.
Once this myth starts to unravel, it opens the door to some very uncomfortable questions about how people get privilege in this society and whether that is really the result of their merit, as opposed to the social circumstances with which they were blessed. Republicans can hardly afford that. There is no way they can hold a majority without retaining the white working class vote and they can’t retain the white working class vote without obscuring the fact that working class interests are not remotely compatible with the Koch-fed element of the Republican party.
Accordingly, Republicans have put a lot of effort into fueling resentment and anxiety. Think Welfare Queens driving Cadillacs. Or the idea, supported by many Republicans in a 2014 Pew study, that “poor people have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.”
Unfortunately, the white working class is a fertile audience. A family with median income cannot in today’s society feel particularly comfortable, let alone secure. They would like government help too, but, in many cases don’t perceive they are getting it. In fact, as their tax bills go up, they start to believe they are paying for the programs for people just a little poorer than them. Moreover, the working class is wary of many programs offered by the Democrats. They fear that if things go wrong– problems from desegregating schools, a sudden decrease in property values or an increase in crime—they will be the ones who feel the impact. They are particularly hostile to “liberals,” who are perceived as promoting programs that put the working class at risk without really risking anything themselves as their neighborhoods aren’t impacted.
Finally, it is just doggone hard to enact programs to make major progress. It is not simply that you need to guess what programs will work with a minimum of unexpected side effects. Getting programs to scale is even more complicated because partial solutions probably don’t have proportionate payoff, so you need to sell the whole program at once. And there is a real issue that material change will take a longer time than the political cycle. The problems here are remedying multiple centuries of discrimination; fixing that takes time. Remember, in the late Sixties Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty was a bold attempt to take programs to scale. But the programs didn’t show the desired results immediately and got short-circuited before there was even a chance to know how well they might have worked. Subsequently, they have been held up as examples that such programs don’t work—even though the correct moral was that starting big programs and then dropping them is a poor use of resources.
I don’t know where it goes from here. Most people in our society realize that the deck is horribly stacked against poor African Americans. If Democrats can win a working majority and offer enough real support for poor and working class families of all colors, perhaps it will be possible to enact some of the programs that will make a major difference. If not, it will be a long slog and we will have a huge moral deficit hanging over our heads.