Thursday, January 21, 2016

Racism Only One Factor In Opportunity Gap

Critical of Bernie Sanders, the Atlantic's Ta-Neheisi Coates has made a fine argument for the nomination, and election, of the Vermont senator.

Those familiar with the writing of Coates recognize him as a fervent advocate of reparations for African-Americans.  Sanders was asked last week at a forum in Iowa whether he supports "reparations for slavery" and according to Coates responded

No, I don’t think so. First of all, its likelihood of getting through Congress is nil. Second of all, I think it would be very divisive. The real issue is when we look at the poverty rate among the African American community, when we look at the high unemployment rate within the African American community, we have a lot of work to do.

So I think what we should be talking about is making massive investments in rebuilding our cities, in creating millions of decent paying jobs, in making public colleges and universities tuition-free, basically targeting our federal resources to the areas where it is needed the most and where it is needed the most is in impoverished communities, often African American and Latino.

This reply did not satisfy Coates, not in the least. He argues

This is the “class first” approach, originating in the myth that racism and socialism are necessarily incompatible. But raising the minimum wage doesn’t really address the fact that black men without criminal records have about the same shot at low-wage work as white men with them; nor can making college free address the wage gap between black and white graduates. Housing discrimination, historical and present, may well be the fulcrum of white supremacy. Affirmative action is one of the most disputed issues of the day. Neither are addressed in the “racial justice” section of Sanders platform.

Sanders’s anti-racist moderation points to a candidate who is not merely against reparations, but one who doesn’t actually understand the argument. To briefly restate it, from 1619 until at least the late 1960s, American institutions, businesses, associations, and governments—federal, state, and local—repeatedly plundered black communities. Their methods included everything from land-theft, to red-lining, to disenfranchisement, to convict-lease labor, to lynching, to enslavement, to the vending of children. So large was this plunder that America, as we know it today, is simply unimaginable without it. Its great universities were founded on it. Its early economy was built by it. Its suburbs were financed by it.Its deadliest war was the result of it.

Coates' argument fails on several accounts (not all of which will be addressed here) and begins with his assertion that the "class first" approach originates "in the myth that racism and socialism are necessarily incompatible."

Sanders, who has not denied nor embraced the "socialist" label, has never alleged that racism and socialism are necessarily incompatible. It is not an issue, nor should it be. Instead, he realizes that as someone's economic circumstances improve, her socio-economic class- or at least the perception of her socio-economic class- is elevated.  At that point, white people (presumably, hispanics and Asians also, though they are missing from an analysis which presumes all Americans are of either European or African descent) perceive the individual differently.

That is dramatically true of the perception of black people by white people. Some of that derives, unfortunately, from surprise that a black can make it so far. However, it may emanate also from a sincere appreciation of the individual's achievements or a recognition that the latter now is on the same (usually, middle class) level as the white person.  In either case, if the material aspects of a person's situation is improved, racism directed toward her diminishes.

It shouldn't be necessary to inform the author of that; but on planet Coates, it is. It shouldn't be necessary, either, to explain to Coates that not all white communities are extremely advantaged.  In fact, there is as much- nay, more- deviation among white communities as there is on average between white and black communities. Remind Coates that whites constitute a plurality of the poor people in the USA (table from U.S. Census via Institute for Policy Studies), and his narrative suffers further.

Efforts to reduce income inequality among all Americans, however, is of little interest to Coates, who contends "raising the minimum wage doesn’t really address the fact that black men without criminal records have about the same shot at low-wage work as white men with them; nor can making college free address the wage gap between black and white graduates."

Blacks comprise a disproportionate number of people being paid the minimum wage. It may not mean much to Ta-Nehisi Coates, but raising an individual's pay from $7.25 per hour- the federal minimum wage- to $15.00 an hour (as advocated by Sanders) would mean a great deal.  It would still be "low-wage work"; but low-wage work is a little more tolerable when the wage isn't so low.

Similarly, there are many blacks, especially young blacks, for whom college would be affordable only if free, or nearly so.    Not only would their employment and income prospects benefit, but as there are more, hence more successful, black graduates the good old boy white network would be eroded.  The wage gap thus is addressed, and far more effectively than blaming white racism.

Were "racism" as much a priority for Coates as he implies, his solution would not be reparations. Not only would it obviously be divisive- as Sanders recognizes- but would do little or nothing to address racism itself. Wage inequality and discrimination, in employment, housing, and elsewhere, are more important targets.  Sanctions against disparate treatment have a way of focusing the mind.

There is also an issue, a huge issue, of process with reparations.  Determining who gets what and when is a nearly insurmountable problem. It shouldn't escape our attention either that most of the victims of racism and/or discrimination are deceased, as are most of the perpetrators.  It's unfortunate that the latter cannot be held accountable. It's also unfortunate that quarterback Peyton Manning, before the decline in his throwing arm, never enjoyed the exceptional defense the Denver Broncos now possess.  Alas, sometimes the clock cannot be turned back.

Coates deserves credit, nonetheless, for being fair-minded. A more biased individual would not have quoted Bernie Sanders in full, which may have prevented wide distribution of a quote which demonstrates the importance of electing Bernard Sanders President.

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