Why Does Racial Inequality Persist?
An address to the American Enterprise Institute World Forum
Last month, I delivered an address to the American Enterprise Institute’s World Forum. In the speech, I laid out what I take to be some hard truths about race in America. I state that an obsession with race in the media, academia and in social justice circles distracts us from more pressing economic concerns. I state police violence against black people is not nearly the problem it’s made out to be. I state that the United States offers opportunities to African-descended people unparalleled anywhere else in the world.
These themes will all be familiar to regular readers of this newsletter and viewers of The Glenn Show. So why, then, do I revisit them? Because they remain, in my opinion, some of the most vitally important issues we face today. Every day, more people are waking up to the fact that “antiracist” rhetoric is often little more than a hustle, one that undermines the very cause—the elimination of racial disparities—it purports to pursue. But there is still a long road ahead for those of us who want to get past the rhetoric and effect real change for black people in this country and for the country as a whole. As long as the problems I enumerate below remain problems, I will continue to inveigh against them.
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Why Does Racial Inequality Persist?
Delivered March 12, 2022 at the American Enterprise Institute World Forum, Sea Island, Georgia
There is a specter haunting the domestic political landscape in America today. It is the specter of racial conflict growing out of the anger and alienation of too many black Americans. This estrangement of intellectuals, politicians, journalists, and activists derives, in turn, from the fact of persisting black disadvantage across so many fronts in our country’s economic and social life. The reality here is too familiar, too widely known to require elaborate recitation. Whether talking about health or wealth, education or income, imprisonment or criminal victimization—the relative disadvantage experienced by those of our fellow citizens who descend from slaves is palpable here in the third decade of the 21st century, more than 150 years after the Emancipation.
So, I stand before you this morning as a black American academic in an age of persisting racial inequality in my country. I am an Ivy League college professor and a descendant of slaves. I am a beneficiary of a civil rights revolution—now over a half-century in the past—which made possible for me a life that my forbears could only have dreamed of. I am a patriot who loves his country. I am a man of the West, an inheritor of its great traditions. I feel compelled to represent the interests of “my people” here and now.
But that reference is not unambiguous! Anyone who was paying attention during the summer of 2020 knows that, in one way or another, we are living in a period of “racial reckoning” in America. Racial conflict suffuses our politics—from school committee elections to national political contests. So then, what are my responsibilities? I declare right here and right now, for all the world to hear, that—no matter the political turmoil that may envelope us, and regardless of my racial or ethnic identification—my fundamental responsibility is to stay in touch with reality, and to insist that others do as well. That is what I am about, and that, I believe, is what this historic moment requires of all of us. So, brace yourselves.
Here is my primary truth: We Americans, of all stripes, have a great deal in common, and those commonalities can and should be the means of building bridges undergirded by patriotism between black Americans and the nation as a whole. At bottom, all Americans want the same things: a legitimate shot at achieving the American Dream, where each generation can do better than the one that came before. We all want to feel secure in our persons and our property. We all want clean and orderly communities with good services. We want a government that works for us and not the other way around. We want fair and equal treatment in the broader society and by our institutions. Connections between various groups in America could be stronger if we focused more on the things that we have in common instead of things that divide us. And, left to their own devices, that is what I believe most Americans of all races would be inclined to pursue.
The fact, however, is that there are those who make their living by focusing on our differences and by claiming that there's something fundamentally wrong with America. These people are wrong. In their error, they threaten to tear us apart. They must be opposed forthrightly, and I intend to do so in these brief remarks. It is far too easy to overstate the problems and to understate what has been achieved. The right idea I maintain, for black people and for the country at large, is to emphasize our common American interests and to de-emphasize our superficial racial differences. This is an old idea, not anything original to me. Nevertheless, it bears reiteration.
Racial disparities are real, of course. But inequality in America is not solely or even mainly a racial issue. There are many poor and marginalized white people. They deserve our concern too. Just how important is race? Is it an undeniable difference between people, or is it a social construct? The rate of interracial marriages has grown dramatically. An increasing number of people view themselves as “multiracial,” including the first black President and Vice President of this country, for instance. We talk incessantly about racial identity. But what about culture and values? Don’t these transcend race? How, then, are we to understand the alienation that afflicts so many prosperous black Americans?
I believe this is the result of false narratives that folks are being told by demagogues and ideologues—narratives about how “white supremacy” threatens them; about how we have, in effect, reverted to the era of Jim Crow. Black votes are now being routinely sought by grossly distorting legitimate concerns (over voting rights, for instance.) Black multi-millionaires seem really to think that they are being hunted down like rabid dogs by rogue cops. The country is alleged to have its metaphorical knee on our necks; it is said to be “Open Season” on black people. Demonstrable facts seem insufficient to stop such false narratives.
But just look at what has happened in the last seventy-five years. A huge black middle class has developed. There are black billionaires. The influence of black people on American culture is stunning and has worldwide resonance. In global comparative terms, black Americans are rich and powerful. For some perspective, consider that there are 200 million Nigerians, and the gross national product of Nigeria is just about $1 trillion per year. America’s GNP is over $20 trillion a year, and we forty million African Americans have claim to roughly 10 percent of it. That is, we have access to ten times the income of a typical Nigerian.
What is more, it is a fact that the cultural barons and elites of America—who run the New York Times and the Washington Post, who give out Pulitzer Prizes and National Book Awards, who make MacArthur Foundation grants, who run the human resource departments of corporate America, the universities and the movie studios—have bought into the woke racial sensibility hook, line, and sinker gives the lie to the premise that the American Dream does not apply to black people. It most certainly does.
To dismiss this reality is to tell our children a lie about their country. It is a crippling lie which, when taken as gospel, robs black people of agency and a sense of control over our fate. It is a patronizing lie which betrays a profound lack of faith in the capacities of us black Americans to rise to the challenges, to face-up to the responsibilities, and to bear the burdens of freedom. It is time to clear the air and to tell some more unpalatable truths about racial inequality in America. So, here goes.
On Racial Disparity
Bearing the burdens of black freedom in America means acknowledging that socially mediated behavioral issues lie at the root of today’s racial inequality problem. This is my second fundamental truth. These behavioral problems are real and must be faced squarely to grasp why racial disparities persist. These are American problems, not merely matters of communal concern to black people. Nevertheless, downplaying these behavioral problems is a bluff. Activists on the Left claim “white supremacy,” “implicit bias,” and old-fashioned “anti-black racism” are sufficient to account for black disadvantage. When making such arguments they are, in effect, daring you to disagree with them. You must be a “racist,” they say, one who thinks something is intrinsically wrong with black people, if you fail to attribute pathological behaviors to systemic injustice. You must think blacks are inferior, for how else could one explain the disparities? To call their bluff is to risk being convicted of the offense of “blaming the victim.”
But this is a dare, a debater’s trick. At the end of the day, what are those folks saying when they declare that “mass incarceration” is “racism”—that the high number of blacks in jails is a self-evident sign of racial antipathy? They are daring you to respond, “No. It’s mainly a sign of anti-social behavior by criminals who happen to be black.” To do so is to risk being dismissed as a moral reprobate. This is so even if the speaker is black. Just ask Justice Clarence Thomas. Nobody wants to be canceled.
But we should all want to stay in touch with reality. The evidence suggests that those in prison are mainly those who have hurt someone, stolen something, or have otherwise violated the basic behavioral norms that make civil society possible. Those taking lives on the mean streets of St. Louis, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Chicago are, to a person, behaving despicably. An ideology that ascribes this violent behavior to racism is simply not credible. Why have so many been getting away with espousing it for so long?
Neither could any sensible person believe that 70 percent of African American babies being born to a woman without a husband is either a good thing or is due to anti-black racism. People may say this, but they don’t believe it. They are bluffing, daring you to observe this truth: that the twenty-first century failures of many African Americans to take full advantage of the opportunities created by the twentieth century’s revolution of civil rights are palpable and damning. These failures are being denied at every turn.
But this position is simply not tenable. The end of Jim Crow segregation and the advent of the era of equal rights were transformative for blacks. And now—a half-century down the line—we still have significant disparities. This is a shameful blight on American society, I agree. But the plain fact of the matter is that some considerable responsibility for this sorry state of affairs lies with black people, ourselves. Dare we Americans acknowledge this? Dare we black Americans accept responsibility for it?
On the Racialization of Police Violence
Here is another unspeakable truth: We need to put the police killings of black Americans into perspective. There are about 1,200 fatal shootings of people by the police in the United States each year. About one-fourth of those killed in this way are African Americans, while blacks are about 13 percent of the population. That is an overrepresentation relative to population numbers, but not relative to the numbers committing violent crimes. Even so, there are twice as many whites as blacks being shot dead by police in this country every year. You wouldn’t know that from the activists’ rhetoric.
Now, 1,200 may be too many. I am prepared to entertain that idea. I would be happy to discuss the training and recruitment of police, their rules of engagement with citizens, and the accountability that they should face in the event they overstep their authority. These are all legitimate questions. And there is a racial disparity—although, there is also a huge disparity in blacks’ rate of participation in violent criminal activity. I am making no claims here, one way or the other, about the existence of discrimination against blacks in the police use of force.
But, in terms of police killings, we are talking about some 300 black victims per year. Very few of these are unarmed innocents. Most are engaged in violent conflict with police officers. Some are instances like George Floyd—unquestionably problematic and deserving of scrutiny. Still, we need to bear in mind that this is a country of more than 300 million people with scores of concentrated urban areas where police regularly interact with citizens. Tens of thousands of arrests occur daily in the United States. So, these events—which are extremely regrettable and sometimes do not reflect well on the police—are, nevertheless, quite rare.
To put it in perspective, there were roughly 20,000 homicides in the United States in the last year, nearly half of which involve black perpetrators. The vast majority of those had other blacks as victims. For every black killed by the police, more than twenty-five other black people meet their end because of homicides committed by other blacks. This is not to downplay the importance of holding police accountable for how they exercise their power vis-à-vis citizens. It is merely to notice how very easy it is to overstate that significance, and the extent of this phenomenon, precisely as the Black Lives Matter activists have done.
But there is an even more fundamental point here: There is a terrible threat to social cohesion in this country implicit in seeing police killings primarily through a racial lens. These events are regrettable regardless of the race of the people involved. Invoking race—emphasizing an officer’s whiteness and a victim’s blackness—tacitly presumes that the reason an officer acted as he did was because the dead or injured young man was black. This assumption is seldom tested against the facts. We do not necessarily know this to be so.
Moreover, once we get into the habit of racializing these events, we may not be able to contain that racialization merely to instances of white police officers killing black citizens. We may find ourselves soon enough in a world where instances of black criminals killing unarmed white victims come to be seen through a racial lens as well. This is a world no thoughtful person should welcome, since there are a great many such instances. Framing them as racial events is counterproductive in ways too obvious to detail.
When criminals harm people, they should be dealt with accordingly. But they do not represent others of their race when they act badly. White victims of crimes committed by blacks ought not to see themselves mainly in racial terms if someone steals their automobile, beats them up, takes their wallet, breaks into their home, or abuses them. These people are playing with fire by gratuitously bringing a racial sensibility to police-citizen interaction. They are playing their race cards from the bottom of the deck. They may find soon enough that theirs is not the last word in that story.
Racial Equality and the American Project
So, the narrative we black Americans settle upon is crucial. It is worth arguing about. Is this a good country, one that affords boundless opportunity to all who are fortunate enough to enjoy the privileges and to bear the responsibilities of American citizenship? Or—as latter-day historical revisionists would have it—is this a venal, rapacious bandit-society full of plundering racists, founded in genocide and slavery, propelled by capitalist greed and unrepentant anti-black antipathy? (I regret to report that this latter narrative is being taught to young people in schools and universities across the land.)
And yet, the weight of the evidence overwhelmingly favors the former. For the founding of the United States of America was a world-historic event by means of which Enlightenment era ideals about the rights and the dignity of persons and the legitimacy of state power came to be instantiated in real institutions. True enough, the Founding entailed a compromise with slavery. And yet, now, some forty million strong, we black Americans have become by far the richest and most powerful large population of African descent on this planet. The question, then, is this: Are we blacks going to look through the dark lens of the United States as a racist, genocidal, white supremacist, illegitimate force? Or are we to see our nation for what it has become over the course of these last three centuries: the greatest force for human liberty in world history? I wish, fervently, to urge the latter course.
The Civil War left 600,000 dead in a country of thirty million. The consequence of that war, together with the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments enacted just afterward, was to make the enslaved Africans and their descendants into citizens. In the fullness of time, we have become equal citizens. That should not have taken another hundred years. Nor should my ancestors have been enslaved in the first place.
But here’s the thing: Slavery was a commonplace human practice dating back to antiquity. Emancipation—freeing millions of enslaved persons as the result of a mass movement for abolition—that was a new idea, a Western idea, an American idea. It was the fruit of Enlightenment. It was an idea brought to fruition over a century and a half ago in our own United States of America, with the liberation of four million people. Such an achievement surely would not have been possible without the philosophical insights and moral commitments cultivated in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the West—ideas about the essential dignity and the God-given rights of human persons. That is, America’s Founding at the end of the eighteenth century brought something new into the world. Slavery was a holocaust out of which emerged an accomplishment that advanced the morality and the dignity of humankind—namely, Emancipation. The ultimate incorporation of African-descended people fully into the American body politic has been a monumental, unprecedented achievement for human freedom.
Freedom is one thing. Equality quite another. The former is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the latter. Here, then, is my final truth: It is both futile and dangerous for us black Americans to rely on others to shoulder our communal responsibilities. If we blacks want to walk with dignity—to enjoy truly equal standing within this diverse, prosperous, and dynamic society—then we must accept the fact that white America can never give us what we seek in response to our protests and remonstrations. Rather, we have to earn equal status by dint of our own efforts.
I take no pleasure in doing so, but I feel obliged to report this truth: equality of dignity, equality of standing, of honor, of security in one’s position within society, an ability to command the respect of others—such things cannot simply be handed over. They can’t be won by insurrection, violent uprising, or rebellion. Equality of this sort is something we must wrest with our bare hands from a cruel and indifferent world by means of our own effort, inspired by the example of our enslaved and newly freed ancestors. We must make ourselves equal. No one can do that for us. My fear is that, until we recognize and accept this inexorable fact about the human condition, these racial disparities will continue to persist.