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Body Politics, Essays

Who is Responsible for Racial Inequality?

Yesterday, the United States celebrated both the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the second inauguration of Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president.  The opportunity to raise issues of racial justice was obvious.  Yet, as best I could tell, it was a wasted opportunity, and so continued what is, too often, a complete silence in public discussions on matters related to racial justice.  One might still hear the occasional, “There is a lot left to do,” on issues of race to qualify expressions of enthusiasm related to the election or re-election of a black president, but even these remaining issues often seem cast more as public policy hurdles, than as matters of racial justice.

In an effort to raise the volume regarding racial justice, I here present a rather concise argument for how we should be thinking about it.  Its central claim is that responsibility for eliminating racial injustice, and so racial inequality, lies entirely with “We the people” and that responsibility for the bad choices that cause and perpetuate poverty lies entirely with the individuals who make the choices.  I explicitly challenge the conclusion that achieving racial equality, and so racial justice, is a matter of both public and personal responsibility.

I have had some difficulty getting critical feedback on this argument, and would genuinely appreciate it if readers would comment on what they take to be its weakness and/or strengths.


Ever since the elimination of most public forms of racial discrimination, and as black women and men have found success in all areas of public life, there has been an assumption by many that the racial wounds of this country will soon heal.  Adding to this sense of inevitable racial justice is the notion that whatever racial inequality persists in our country is caused not by oppressive governments, but by the bad choices of those who experience the worst consequences of racial inequality: poor, urban black people.

According to the logic of this argument, while the black incarceration rate is over six times that of the white incarceration rate, responsibility is found to lie with those who choose a life of crime over honest living.  Similarly, while black children born into poverty are almost five times more likely to still be poor as adults than white poor children, the responsibility for this disparity is said to lie in dysfunctional black households that fail to stress education and to provide good role-models within two-parent homes.  As far as “we the people” are concerned, persistent racial inequality is no longer “our” problem; from now on, we will understand it to be “their” problem.

Some are uncomfortable with such conclusions.  Surely, they counter, the history of racial oppression in the United States still lingers mightily in the reality of present inequalities.  Surely, we cannot conclude that our public policies over the last four decades have been so racially enlightened as to absolve “we the people” of any responsibility to address persistent racial inequality.

Yet, most of those who would affirm a continuing role for government in reducing racial inequality would still grant that the choices of individuals of any skin color obviously have much to do with the presence or absence of opportunity in their lives.  When asked whether continuing racial inequality is a matter of public or personal responsibility they reply, “Both.”

While this answer may seem obviously true to many of those most concerned about racial inequality – even Barack Obama seems to affirm it – I think it is a confused answer.  More pointedly, I think that this answer masks an implicit and unintended affirmation of racial supremacy that is repugnant to just about everyone, and is also contrary to the highest ideals of our nation.  In the paragraphs that follow, my hope is to persuade the reader that “we the people” should accept complete responsibility for eliminating racial inequality in our country.

Debates about racial inequality are often unnecessarily contentious because different sides of the debate will start off with assumptions about justice and equality that are themselves controversial to others in the debate.  However, a commitment to racial equality has nothing to do with any particular notions of human equality or human justice.  Rather, it simply means that in a racially equal world, skin color, our visible proxy for race, has nothing to do with the various results of individual choices.  Statistically speaking, in a racially equal world, the virtues and vices, successes and failures, and all other variable outcomes of the human adventure, should occur in equal aggregate proportions when comparing two or more racial groups.  When the aggregate outcomes for racial groups are not the same, racial inequality is present.

If racial inequality is found in a society, especially inequality that persists over time, there are really only two possible explanations for this outcome.  Either the conditions of that society have in various ways (political, economic, social, etc.) created that inequality, or there must be a real relation of superiority and inferiority between the races.  If race A when compared to race B is persistently characterized by higher rates of poverty, crime, incarceration, low educational achievement, and other social “failures” than race B, then either the conditions of society are stacked against race A and in favor of race B, let us call this stacking racial injustice, or there is something really inferior (biologically, intellectually, culturally, etc.) about at least a statistically significant number of the members of race A when compared to the members of race B.

This analysis exposes the problem with assuming that racial inequality should be understood as both a matter of public and personal responsibility.  If we try to explain some, but not all, of the inequality between races A and B as the result of something other than racial injustice, we are left with only the inferiority of at least some members of group A to explain the outcome.  While such inferiority is implied by any effort to absolve societal conditions of full responsibility for the unequal outcomes, notions of inferiority and superiority become even harder to resist the more it is believed that racial injustice has become a thing of the past.

So long as there was no consensus that the causes of racial inequality between races A and B were the result of societal conditions and so of racial injustice, there would be a stigma attached to members of race A.  Even if members of race B thought that lots of those who belonged to race A were not the cause or source of the inequalities between the races, there would be uncertainty as to which members of race A were actually the cause of the inequality.  Race A might be divided into two groups – A(equal) and A(inferior) – since such a division would explain that portion of the inequality that was not caused by racial injustice.  But members of race B might not be certain in which category a given individual from race A belonged.  Members of race A would likely become guilty (inferior) until proven innocent (equal), and even many verdicts of innocence would be tentative, waiting for any signs of lurking inferiority to expose themselves.  What begins by doubting some members of a group logically ends up producing doubt about every member of the group.

One further outcome of assigning at least some responsibility for racial inequality to the actions of individuals from race A would be that political energy for responding to any societal forces that were still understood as contributing to racial inequality would almost certainly decrease over time.  So long as it was impossible to clarify which dimensions of racial inequality were really caused by injustice, so long as at least some of the inequality was the result of a believed inferiority that no amount of political effort could change, then it would become increasingly likely that political efforts to reduce racial inequality would be perceived as a waste of time.

This outcome in the worlds of races A and B reveals the most likely and unfortunate reason for the decreasing interest in government responses to racial inequality in our country.  We do not demand public responses to racial inequality because we do not find the present realities and inequalities related to black poverty, crime, family dysfunction, educational failure, and unemployment to be abnormal or unexpected.  A sense that some portion of blacks is comparatively inferior, or at least “damaged goods,” has silenced much public outcry over racial inequality.  While we may condemn the choices of those in this group, when such choices are made we raise no voices of alarm that something is very wrong in our wider society.  The source of the problem is in “them” not in “us.”

The economist Glenn Loury, whose writings have inspired much of my thinking on this topic, offers an analogy to help think about inequalities and individual or group responsibility for them.  If a gap were shown to exist in test scores between girls and boys, with boys scoring higher than girls, we would insist that something is wrong in our education system because we reject the notion that there is any inherent difference in intelligence between boys and girls.  Yet, we would still insist that every girl is responsible for any bad choices or bad habits connected to her studies.  However, when considering racial inequality, we seem content to explain that inequality in terms of the aggregation of bad choices by individual black persons.  The only difference between the two inequalities is in our expectations.  The actions of many poor black people do not run contrary to what we expect from them, and that is precisely what it means to think of someone as inferior.

When such conclusions are drawn, a social sense of racial absolution is impossible to resist.  But if this sense of absolution is purchased at the cost of dividing our society into those who are superior and inferior, and when the superior continue to be colored more white than otherwise, then we must immediately doubt the capacity of our nation to achieve racial justice.  Any commitment to racial equality and racial justice thus requires that we reject all roads that lead to conclusions of racial superiority and inferiority, and this means rejecting anything other than the conclusion that achieving racial equality, and so racial justice, is completely the responsibility of “we the people.”

But what about the “culture of poverty”?  There is no doubt that the bad choices of individuals can cause new poverty for themselves and for their children, such that negative cycles of poverty and dysfunction are created. While, we can certainly grant the reality of such a culture, the relevant question according to the argument I am proposing is, “Why is the culture of poverty so disproportionately present in black communities?”  If the answer is not racial injustice, then the conclusion must be racial inferiority.  The latter conclusion is simply unacceptable.  The former answer is required of us.  Action becomes imperative, and inaction becomes complicity.

Insisting that racial injustice is entirely to blame for racial inequality still allows us to hold individuals entirely responsible for the poor choices that they make in life.  Our mistake has been to unreflectively link matters of individual responsibility to a matter like racial inequality which is properly a matter of public and political responsibility.


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