A Thought on Black American Culture and the Racial Wealth Gap

I listened to this conversation between Dr. Glenn Loury and Coleman Hughes with great interest.  I found it to be at times thoughtful, challenging, frustrating, and maddeningly incomplete.  One example of the incompleteness, if not flawed nature of the conversation was the discussion of correlation between blood lead levels and levels of crime.  Hughes cited a book titled Lucifer Curves on this subject, but there is additional scholarship that seems to support lead-crime hypothesis (with lead as a contributing, but not the only factor in crime increasing and decreasing).  The incompleteness and the frustration I had with the argument was how quickly Hughes tossed off the assertion that “we’ve already removed lead from fuel”.  Absent from this throwaway line are factors like:

  • Sources of lead well beyond just fuel, including pipes, paint, dust, toys, pottery, imported canned goods, industrial waste, and batteries.
  • In addition to being highly-toxic, there isn’t really a “safe” level of lead exposure.  Damage from lead exposure is cumulative.

There are thousands of communities (not just Flint, Michigan) with lead in older housing stock (in paint dust or other sources).  Fairly often, these homes are where poor people live.  Fairly often, these poor people are black and brown.  And despite Dr. Loury’s stated desire for social remedies to be implemented on individual terms instead of racial ones, arguments about culture have been (and still are) used to stigmatize black and brown people who are poor as lazy and morally inferior in terms rarely applied to white people who are poor.  This “deserving poor” framing makes it that much easier to deny social remedies (and the government funds that enable them) to such communities–including remedies like lead abatement.  It also makes it easier to police such communities disproportionately compared to others, as seen in the case of Freddie Gray (who came from a community in Baltimore with a much higher prevalence of lead poisoning than elsewhere in my home state).  It’s also worth noting that in a previous episode of The Glenn Show, his guest  (Thomas Chatterton Williams) made a point about the history of arguments for class-based social remedies being undermined by racism.

The Virtue Signalers Won’t Change the World

A piece well-worth the time to read, regardless of your ideology.  I disagree with Dr. McWhorter’s characterization of anti-racism as religion (a critique made far more eloquently and convincingly by Dr. Glenn Loury) as overly simplistic.  As the eldest child of immigrants who came to the U.S. from Jamaica in 1969, my chief objection to the piece is my parents’ generation being held up as examples that anti-black racism wasn’t sufficiently onerous to prevent their success.  I see these examples held up often in conservative circles and they never seem to go beneath the surface.

McWhorter (and others) severely underestimate the degree to which having immigrant parents is an advantage–not just in terms of different expectations, worldview, and culture, but because of the absence of baggage tied to the country’s history. The mantra he blithely refers to in the beginning of that paragraph is one I only recall hearing once or twice in the 24 years I lived at home before moving out–and only in jest, not seriously.  Black people whose parents and grandparents were born in the United States almost certainly remember a time when that mantra was also a lived experience.  Interestingly enough, the very piece McWhorter links to says the following:

“While U.S. born blacks have had to battle generations of institutional racism, such as predatory lending, that has put them at a socioeconomic and psychological disadvantage that some immigrants have not experienced in this country.“

That shortcoming aside, McWhorter is making a good faith argument.  His desire is for meaningful action on the part of progressives to improve the lives of black Americans.  While I’m not a fan of the term “virtue signaling” (it’s a pejorative often found in the mouths of conservatives making bad-faith arguments), McWhorter is right in describing what one might call “performative activism” as a dead end.

Thoughts on America’s Need for a Healthy Conservatism


The link above is Andrew Sullivan’s latest diary entry for New York Magazine (his regular gig since “unretiring” from blogging).  Any analysis of this piece must begin with the picture that precedes the first word.  Behind Trump stand Mike Pence, the current vice president, and Paul Ryan, the current speaker of the House and 2012 vice presidential candidate on Mitt Romney’s ticket.  Any column that purports to discuss the need for a healthy conservatism and fails to even name two of Trump’s key enablers–both long-time members of the mainstream conservative movement–is already falling short of its purported goal.  There is no mention of either man in Sullivan’s column.

Instead, Sullivan puts forward the things he is for as a conservative, and references a book by Roger Scruton that he feels defines conservatism well.  While he references a few of the ideals and people I typically hear from other conservative thinkers, what Sullivan ultimately describes as conservatism is ideal mostly disconnected from both history and its current political expression.  He attempts to separate the Republican Party from conservatism as well, as if a philosophy of how a state should function can realistically be separated from a party in power claiming to hold its ideals dear. But the most telling omission from Sullivan’s hagiographic treatment of conservatism is Barry Goldwater.  Only by not mentioning Goldwater at all can Sullivan allow his false equivalency instinct to take over and blame “the left” for putting his (false) ideal of conservatism under siege and resort to the same tired, pejorative use of the term “social justice” too common among conservatives to describe the advocacy efforts of the left for those who are neither white nor male.

After getting in his requisite dig at the left regarding their attacks on conservatism, I find it especially puzzling that Sullivan’s conservatism is supposedly “anguished when the criminal justice system loses legitimacy, because of embedded racism.”  I’ve seen precious little evidence that mainstream conservatism sees the criminal justice system as somehow illegitimate because of its disparate treatment of people of color.  Other conservatives, like Sohrab AhmariErin Dunne, and David French have publicly rethought certain positions regarding the criminal justice system in the aftermath of Botham Shem Jean’s senseless death at the hands of the police.  Sullivan doesn’t do that here.  Meanwhile, New Yorkers of color alone can point to the abuse of Abner Louima by the police (in 1997), the wrongful death of Patrick Dorismond at the hands of police (in 2000), the conditions of Rikers Island, and other aspects of the criminal justice system to question its legitimacy.

So-called mainstream conservatism is deathly ill precisely because it lacks sufficient diversity of race, class, gender, and faith both among its most high-profile advocates and its rank-and-file.  The small number of its advocates who are neither white nor male are given prominence only because they speak in favor of the status quo–not for a genuine equality.

Sullivan is correct in describing the degree to which the GOP is actively destroying what he sees as the tradition of mainstream conservatism.  They believe in tax cuts to the exclusion of all else–including fiscal solvency.  Their deregulatory fervor will result in an environment that will put our health at risk.  Their unstinting support of Trump lays bare the contempt the GOP has for the rule of law–unless it applies to those they dislike.  Which makes it all the more jarring when he writes: “I also believe we need to slow the pace of demographic and cultural change.”  Whether he intends the statement to do so or not, Sullivan gives aid and comfort not just to the immigration restrictionist, but to Stephen Miller and those like him who seek not to slow the pace of immigration but to reverse it.  When Sullivan writes that “the foreign-born population is at a proportion last seen in 1910″, he effectively endorses the arguments of Jeff Sessions, who spoke glowingly of a 1924 immigration law with the express purpose of keeping Asians, Africans, southern Europeans, and eastern Europeans out of the United States.  He can insist all he wants that seeking to slow the pace of immigration “is not inherently racist”, but when his arguments can’t be meaningfully distinguished from those of Jeff Sessions, he ought not be surprised when he’s not treated as arguing in good faith.

There might be something to the Sullivan argument regarding “elite indifference to mass immigration”, were it not for the fact of a Senate immigration passed with 68 votes in the recent past that didn’t become law because the GOP-controlled House refused to take it up (perhaps fearing it would pass).  No doubt some in the GOP want cheap, exploitable labor.  The Democrats may indeed encourage it because they think it will get them votes.  Neither of this changes the necessity of immigrants to our labor force.  There are plenty of difficult jobs Americans don’t want to do that immigrants will do.

The following passage of Sullivan’s latest diary is a fairly tight summary of straw man arguments and falsehoods:

“A nation has to mean something; to survive, it needs a conservative weaving of past, present, and future, as Burke saw it. And you cannot do that if you see this country as a blight on the face of the earth and an instrument of eternal oppression; or if you replace a healthy, self-critical patriotism with an ugly, racist nationalism that aims to restore the very worst of this country’s past, rather than preserve its extraordinary and near-unique achievements.”

There may be some that see the United States of America as a blight and an instrument of “eternal oppression”, but I have my doubts that the majority of the left believes this as he infers.  The idea that this country ever widely believed in a healthy, self-critical patriotism is laughable.  You need only look at school board battles of what to teach our children as history to know that many would prefer to teach them propaganda than the truth. The ugly, racist nationalism to which he refers was never truly past.  It may have retreated into the shadows or underground, but was never entirely gone.  The continuing battle over Confederate monuments and the endurance of the Lost Cause myth should be sufficient evidence of that.

Sullivan’s idea that somehow a healthy conservatism would rescue the United States from the position it finds itself in is wishful thinking.  Without an honest reckoning with Barry Goldwater’s role in shaping what conservatism has become, and how easily the purported conservative party was taken over by Trump, mainstream conservatism will be fully and deservedly discredited.