boy, why are some people so pessimistic about race?

Some emailers to the Dish think that Ta-Nehisi Coates is too negative about all this race stuff. And I mean, really! What reason might we have to be pessimistic about race in America?

I guess some people just have a bad attitude.

33 thoughts on “boy, why are some people so pessimistic about race?

  1. Was hoping for a more lengthy comment from you on the whole Coates/Chait/Sullivan conversation, particularly in light of your recent posts on the culture of the left. Surely it’s not as simple as whether Coates is justified in being pessimistic or not; there are all sorts of meaty issues involved in these posts.

  2. Right. But what of this:

    Chait thinks this view is “fatalistic.” I think God is fatalistic. In the end, we all die. As do most societies. As do most states. As do most planets. If America is fatally flawed, if white supremacy does truly dog us until we are no more, all that means is that we were unexceptional, that we were not favored by God, that we were flawed—as are all things conceived by mortal man.

    I find great peace in that. And I find great meaning in this struggle that was gifted to me by my people, that was gifted to me by culture.

    Although I can understand this attitude, I cannot subscribe to it. More importantly, we should not subscribe to it. The last Dish commenter’s point about Charles Murray and TNC is worth considering. Who would really stand to benefit the most if we embrace this kind of thinking?

    1. In some ways, it’s empowering. If you don’t believe that history is determined by Great Movements and deterministic pathways, then it’s ultimately on people to fight for change.

      1. I confess that I am confused by your reply. You find TNC’s point of view “empowering” and conclude from it that “it’s ultimately on people to fight for change”? Again, TNC recently:

        I am often asked for solutions to many of the problems I raise. Almost as often I demur. That is because I am increasingly convinced that my particular great problems don’t actually have solutions, that the ultimate answer is “Game Over: You Lose” or more specifically “Race War: Whites Win. Again.”

        This is not an inducement to anarchy. If I am not convinced that there is a “solution,” I am even less convinced that the only reason to live one’s life honorably is to contribute to a “solution.” I will not determine my ultimate worth by the direction of people whom I do not know. Whatever happens to my people, whom I hope rise, prosper and then promptly disappear into America, whatever happens to white supremacy, which I hope falls, perishes and then is ever etched as a warning to the world, these explorations and efforts were worth it because they were mine.

        I was improved. I hope the world was too. But that was never really up to me.

        Again, I respect TNC’s right to hold this view as an individual, but it provides no positive guidance to “fight for change.”

  3. Some of those seem like good improvements for African-Americans. The race gap in per capita income only slightly closed, but black per capita income more than doubled. Black wealth also went up a great deal, although it was far less than White Wealth because the latter were much more likely to own homes. Life expectancy is converging, firearms mortality rates were converging until 2001, and so forth.

    Nothing was going to change very quickly after the 1960s Civil Rights victories, especially since the government didn’t do much more than create a patchy safety net and remove the more obvious legal laws and restrictions enforcing segregation. It would have taken a massive GI bill equivalent just for African-Americans in the 1960s to get the wealth and education gaps closed, and those weren’t in the cards.

  4. ‘Who would really stand to benefit the most if we embrace this kind of thinking?’

    Canadians?
    Seriously, I do think it is time for us (Americans of all races) to slough off the kind of exceptionalism that assures us we are on a royal road to universal happiness and fairness. It is possible — and I think essential for us — to be patriotic without believing that we are on the inside track to positive outcomes.

    1. There is still a distinction from “a royal road to universal happiness and fairness” / “the inside track to positive outcomes” and “America is fatally flawed.” I agree that America is flawed. Very flawed, even. Extremely flawed, perhaps. But fatally flawed is the difference between “we have a long road ahead of us” and “there is no path forward.” Perhaps, in the end, TNC will be proven right, but for all of us to assume he is correct, and therefore rationally cease any efforts at rectifying the situation, is a highly undesirable outcome.

  5. Coates is too boring to read, but one thing I can never understand is why one would even want to do a breakdown by race. Some people are poor, other rich; the distribution of income, wealth, education is highly unequal, the distribution of incarceration follows. There is, of course, a clear correlation with race, but still, why would you want to address this in racial terms? It’s not like should the concept of race suddenly disappear everyone would become a happy bourgeois pig. There would still be ghettos and mansions, glamorous CEOs and miserable unemployed: this is a characteristic of the economic system. The concept of race is secondary. So are the specifics of culture, as they are reproduced inside each socioeconomic class.

    1. “There is, of course, a clear correlation with race, but still, why would you want to address this in racial terms?” Um, if there’s a clear connection which is borne out by an actual history of hundreds of years of brutal and violent racial discrimination, then addressing the racial issue seems like a pretty straightforward move rather than assuming that race is mystically subsumed by class.

      1. We all know that the correlation comes from history. But I find it odd and a bit tasteless that so many people spend so much energy proving that impoverished blacks in particular don’t deserve to be impoverished, as if poverty itself is perfectly acceptable and the impoverished non-blacks do deserve their fate. The post complains that The Racial Wealth Gap Is Not Improving; why should I care about the ‘racial wealth gap’, as opposed to simply ‘wealth gap': that some are billionaires and other homeless?

        1. You’re not required to accept that poor non-black people deserve their fate and that poverty is acceptable. You can walk and chew gum at the same time, caring about everyone who is poor and trying to do something about it while also recognizing that African-American poverty is a pretty egregious and inexcusably unjust form of it. It’s a simple point, and why you seem to resent any focus at all on race escapes me.

  6. “There would still be ghettos” No there wouldn’t. The concentration by segregation of poor people in extremely poor neighborhoods is not a necessary outcome of inequality, and it makes life much harder for those who live there, both the poor and the not-so-poor. Virtually no white people, no matter how poor, live in neighborhoods with 30% or higher poverty rates.

  7. “segregation of poor people in extremely poor neighborhoods is not a necessary outcome of inequality”

    What??

    Anyway, this is from wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trailer_park :
    “Many stereotypes have developed regarding people who live in trailer parks, which are similar to stereotypes of the poor and the term trailer trash is often used as an adjective in the same vein as the derogatory American terms white trash or ghetto.”

  8. No white “trailer parks” are as poor as many black ghettos, measured by percent of poor residents.

    Take a not-very-wealthy state like Maine. It has a lot of poor people. Virtually none of these people live in neighborhoods with unemployment rates as bad, life expectancy as low, poverty rates as high, incarceration rates as high, or schools as dangerous as black ghettos. Segregation is a powerful policy lever.

  9. I like Coates on race because one of his larger points, which addresses race in America but goes beyond it as well, is that Americans aren’t going to get anywhere solving their social problems if they don’t come to grips with their own history. You can debate what we ought to do about it or how to address the legacies of injustice in this country, but pretending that they don’t exist or that they can solved by African Americans having better attitudes, initiative, etc. is just plain stupid and insulting. The fact that people supposedly on the more liberal end of the spectrum like Chait and Obama like to play footsie with Horatio Alger social-improvement fantasies is just embarrassing.

  10. Here’s a list of the poorest counties in the US, by median household income: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_lowest-income_counties_in_the_United_States#100_poorest_counties_by_median_household_income

    The first one is in Hawaii, the second is an Indian reservation, and the next two are in Appalachia, lily-white.

    But what’s the point of this Four Yorkshiremen routine? Racial/ethnic segregation, unfortunate as it is, is nevertheless self-imposed; income/wealth segregation is involuntary and probably the most prominent feature of American life.

  11. People find all kinds of things interesting, for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes even a trivial-seeming question turns out to be interesting. There are no real criteria for what kinds of questions are worth asking.

    But in fact, because of the realities of American history, there are very good reasons why the racial question should be asked. Legally enforced white supremacy enforced by murder only started to come to end during the 60s, and it didn’t disappear immediately.

    So you have to ask a few questions about Mao Cheng Ji. Is he a stupid, anti-intellectual buffoon who is offended by people who ask questions he doesn’t think are interesting? Or is he a troll, playing dumb and pretending not to understand something he understands very well.

    “One thing I can never understand is why one would even want to do a breakdown by race.” No one can be that stupid. It’s just not possible. He’s a troll and probably some kind of racist. He’s taunting you.

    It is sort of stupid of him if he thinks that he’s making a serious argument, but I doubt that he does. He objects to talk about race for other reasons, and he’s just flicking you shit and presuming on your civility. Winger goons think that liberals are weenies, and they love it when you politely try to treat them as people of good will when they evidently aren’t. If you do that they just lay the BS on thicker until you lose your temper, and then they taunt you about that.

    There are ways to deal with these guys. My way is pretty good, but the superior method is to delete them on sight so they don’t stink up your comments.

  12. He says “We believe the ghetto is manifestation of individual will and amorphous culture values because that is what we would prefer to think.” But that’s not what I believe. I believe that the ghetto is a manifestation of the economic system, and the cultural values are the consequence of growing up and living in the ghetto.

    It so happens that probably, I would say, about a third of the ghetto and its equivalents is comprised of blacks. And he is concerned about this third – and also about other blacks: middle-class and rich blacks who sometimes have a misfortune to be mistaken for ghetto people. That’s his schtick. Fine. But I don’t see why the rest of us should sympathize with this narrow interest.

    Yes, John Emerson, believe it or not, I think that I’m making a serious argument. And there’s nothing stupid or anti-intellectual about it: in France, for example, you wouldn’t be able to get this kind of statistics, because it’s forbidden to collect data about citizens’ race, ethnicity, or religion.

    Anyway, you need to be against the ghetto, not against some racial group being in the ghetto.

  13. This is the thing you’re not getting: the ghetto cannot be explained by the “economic system”, absent racist policy. How many blacks live in neighborhoods with 30% or higher poverty rates? About 30%. How many whites? About 0%. I’m other words, there are no white ghettos.

  14. I would be interested in seeing these charts separate people from my socio-economic background – poor, white people who live in mobile homes in the deep South. I’ve done too much research on racial disparities in the criminal justice system to suggest that institutional racism is only a small factor in that realm, but much of this looks consistent with increasing economic inequality.

    It’s difficult for me sometimes to discuss these issues because it doesn’t seem to be the case that every African-American lifted out of poverty will represent one fewer poorer person in the country. If 46 million people live in poverty in both Country A and Country B, but in Country B the underclass is more racially heterogeneous, what kind of success is that? It does seem like an improvement in some sort of meritocratic way. Perhaps though it’s not really progress in terms of happiness and suffering, except to the extent that it represents progress in the broader culture.

    1. Andrew: “…but in Country B the underclass is more racially heterogeneous … it represents progress in the broader culture.”

      I don’t think it would lead to any progress in the broader culture. Race is a social construct, and so the people at the bottom of this heterogeneous society will soon become easily identifiable by their accents, mannerisms, hairstyles, tattoos, forenames, etc. They won’t be the same as you and me; they will be perceived as new racial/ethnic groups (the ‘trailer trash’, the ‘crackers’, the ‘cockneys’, the ‘hippies’), and they will be despised, feared, and discriminated against just the same.

      1. I don’t really buy that. Race is a social construct in the sense that identities are formed through social interactions and people tend to group one another racially. But it’s a fact that a distinct racial group is over represented in America’s economic lower class. It would be possible to live in a racially diverse country in which race was non-predictive of economic outcome. I think this would be a better society. But sometimes I get hung up when I try to understand why it would be better for our 46 million poor to be racially diverse.

  15. Both of you guys are missing the point. It is not the case that racism merely skews the racial makeup of those at the bottom, and that the lives of those at the bottom will be the same in any case. The black poor and the white poor are not similarly situated. This isn’t hard to find out. (Compare life expectancy, incarceration rate, incidence of crime, etc.) Indeed, the black middle class and white middle class are not similarly situated. (The black middle class tends to live in much poorer, more dangerous neighborhoods, for example.) It’s not a matter of shuffling the deck.

    There are plenty of poor people in Maine. But there are no ghettos! (ie, neighborhoods with *concentrations* of poverty- and the stats that go along with those concentrations- that approach West Baltimore, North Philadelphia, etc) Once we end racism (ha!), we won’t be a perfectly just society. But white supremacy has made our society much worse than it has to be, even given our unjust version of competitive capitalism.

    1. Matt, ” The black poor and the white poor are not similarly situated. … Indeed, the black middle class and white middle class are not similarly situated.”

      So says you, without providing any proof. Meanwhile I posted a link above that demonstrates that the most impoverished counties in the US are not populated by blacks. Owsley County, Ky (44.5% of the population below the poverty line) is worse than West Baltimore (38.3%).

      But this is just a distraction. May I suggest Walter Benn Michaels; pretty much any book or article; this one, for example:http://newleftreview.org/II/52/walter-benn-michaels-against-diversity

    2. On everything you said about crime I agree. Clearly the racial disparities in the criminal justice system reflect institutional racism that if addressed would lead to fewer prisoners, rather than just an increase in the prison population’s diversity.

      But I really don’t think I’m missing the point of my own question. Assume that poverty for African Americans is identical to poverty for white Americans. If this was the case, is there anything intrinsically wrong with black (or Hispanic, or white, or Asian) overrepresentation in the lower class? Would eliminating racism cause there to be fewer poor people, or does our economic system sacrifice a class of people? If the latter is the case, why does it matter if people are there because of racism or just bad luck? And I’m not saying it doesn’t matter.

  16. I’ve been following social statistics closely since 1972. Remarkably little has changed in the relative standing of the four main racial groups other than their names.

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