The bluffing equilibrium

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“When a black person says what's true but conveniently not spoken of on behalf of black dignity—faux dignity, by the way—it makes it a little bit more possible for white people to break this taboo too. And when everybody starts breaking it, then the jig is up, the bluff is called, and they don't have any cards.”


Hi. This is Glenn Loury.

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In a recent conversation with my friend John McWhorter, I proposed a theory, which I call “the bluffing equilibrium,” of why the race discussion is so dishonest in our country.

John had some things to add to my view. He also disagreed with one of my points—as is often the case, he sees the woke crowd as less cynical than I do.

Please see the exchange and a transcript of it below.

Glenn: Your question, "Well, why do we care—why do they, other black people, care—about what white people are thinking about black people?" is apt. It's the right question, I think. I have an idea. I'm not sure it's right. 

We're in an equilibrium, as economists might say—we’re in a stable, ongoing situation—where there are tacit agreements not to talk about certain things.

Not to talk about black-on-black crime as the scourge that it is. 

Not to talk about affirmative action as being necessary because of black mediocrity, not measuring up on the competitive edge at some of the most elite stuff. 

Not talking about the new Jim Crow as ridiculous. The idea that the 13th amendment, which abrogates involuntary servitude, was really a fraud because it has a backdoor trap in it called "except when they violate the law and you can put them in prison," which is then manifested, 150 years later, in the fact that the jail [is filled with black people]... It's a fraud! 

So we're in an equilibrium where there's fraud. This is my bluffing thing, we're in a bluffing equilibrium.

People don't want to talk about the black family. It's an absolute catastrophe that two thirds to three quarters of black kids are being raised in a home without a father present in a home, in terms of the social cohesion of the community. People don't want to say that. 

There's a whole lot of stuff that they don't want to say.

They don't want to say that the Latinos are actually overtaking the Blacks on one venue after another, after another, in terms of—you just look at the social statistics and how they rank out by ethnic groups and stuff like that. 

Talk about the failure of a community—this is African-Americans at a certain social strata—to incorporate themselves into the engine of prosperity which is the American political economy, to which tens of millions of immigrants have come and prospered. They don't want to talk about that. 

There's a lot of stuff that they want to talk about. There's fraud, there's lying, there's avoidance. Okay?

So we're in this equilibrium. That's what they're afraid of: they're afraid that the balloon is going to burst. They're afraid that the taboo is going to unravel. 

When a black person says what's true but conveniently not spoken of on behalf of black dignity—faux dignity, by the way, because it's not rooted in real stuff, it's rooted in a tacit agreement not to talk about it—when a black person breaks that, it makes it a little bit more possible for white people to break it too.

And when everybody starts breaking it… 

When everybody starts saying "nigger, nigger, nigger”—because when I turn on Sirius XM and I go to my hip-hop channel, that's all I hear;

And everybody starts saying "You can't tell me what words to say.” 

When everybody starts saying, "I can't believe the level of criminal violence amongst you people—every time I pick up the newspaper, it makes me afraid—of course I'm moving my family and my children away from you people!”

When everybody starts saying, "Will you please pull your own weight? It's a country where the streets are paved with gold! Look at what the West African immigrants are managing the make of their lives here, they're black too!” 

When everybody starts saying "You gotta be kidding me, the new Jim Crow;" 

When everybody starts saying "Ibram X. Kendi is an empty suit..."

Then the gig is up, the jig is up, the bluff is called, and they don't have any cards. 

So that's what they're afraid of. 

John: You know what, we're zeroing in on an area of agreement here. However, I lost you on "cards." 

Once again, you think these people are more cynical than I do. What they lose is their sense of significance and warm group membership. 

You're right, it's that dance that Shelby Steele talked about, it's that pact to not speak honestly. 

I would add something: to talk about diversity in university admissions, and at the same time applaud when a black university student complains about having to express their diverse view in classes and saying that that's racism to impose that expectation—doesn’t that cancel out the whole issue of diversity and affirmative action and suggests that we need to start looking at things in different ways? You're not supposed to say that. Any white person engaging those issues knows that they're just supposed to shut up. 

Once that kind of pact was broken, I think that it's not that black people would feel like they didn't have any cards. It's that the people in question would lose their sense of what makes them important as human beings. Because I think that that sense of the victimhood status is something available to black people because of the nature of our social history. 

It's something that's there. It's one of many things you might grab onto. And it's very tempting. And so it's not a surprise that a lot of black people grab onto that as a way of feeling good about themselves while other people have to come up with other ways of feeling good about themselves. It's just, it's always available. 

Yes, once we stop doing that little dance and we start having real conversations, for a lot of black people, they wouldn't know where to stand. And that must feel very threatening. 

There's a scientific study that came out recently that actually finally put science to something that, I think, both of us have always felt. I've always said it based on intuition: when you are not being truly victimized, when things are relatively okay, a sense of victimization—spiritual victimization—a sense that you are owed is a kind of euphoria. It actually lights up the same parts of the brain as happiness. There's a certain joy in what you might call the victim complex. That's always been very clear to me. 

And so it is very easy to grab for that kind of joy, if you are a 21st century black person. Your life is probably pretty much okay, but your sense of what makes you matter is that you're owed, that you are, on a certain level, this victim. 

To not do the dance means that you don't have that anymore. And that would be psychologically dislocating. 

And so, once again, I get it. Nobody wants that. And so people avoid it. They want to have that sense of being victims who—there’s a verb I couldn't get last time we talked about it—who negotiate their way through society as black people because it's such a minefield. If that's your conception of your life, then—especially if you don't have to actually empirically support exactly why your life is that much of a minefield—it makes you feel good. That's who you are. I get that. 

That's why we have such a dishonest race discussion. 

But it's a bad situation because it means that there's too much we can't do to make actual lives better for people who really need help.

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