Not in a Vacuum

There’s a post by Ta-Nehisi Coates at The Atlantic that I think deserves more attention than it will probably receive. I find it troubling and largely true. The post is part of an ongoing dialogue between Mr. Coates and Jonathan Chaits on the prevailing progressive view of the pathologies that afflict the black community, epitomized in the president’s “My Brothers Keeper” initiative. The core of Mr. Coates’s argument is that none of the so-called pathologies to which people point arose in a vacuum:

And we do not find an era free of white supremacy in our times either, when the rising number of arrests for marijuana are mostly borne by African-Americans; when segregation drives a foreclosure crisis that helped expand the wealth gap; when big banks busy themselves baiting black people with “wealth-building seminars” and instead offering “ghetto loans” for “mud people”; when studies find that black low-wage applicants with no criminal record “fared no better than a white applicant just released from prison”; when, even after controlling for neighborhoods and crime rates, my son finds himself more likely to be stopped and frisked. Chait’s theory of independent black cultural pathologies sounds reasonable. But it can’t actually be demonstrated in the American record, and thus has no applicability.

I think that’s just the tip of the iceberg. IMO AFDC destroyed the black family in ways that slavery never could. Oppression evokes resistance in a way that responding to incentives does not. Without taking a breath, I could probably produce a dozen different ways that anti-black racism is operative today, not just in the form of overt racism but in the actions of the very nicest people.

That’s not to say that I don’t think there are actual cultural problems in the black community. I do agree with Mr. Coates that these problems didn’t arise in a vacuum and the context needs to considered as well as the consequences. It isn’t simply poverty—there are distinctive problems in the black community that aren’t factors among other ethnic or racial communities that are equally poor.

Perhaps we can start some discussion on this subject. What do you think of Mr. Coates’s post? We don’t have a time machine. How do we solve these problems on a day-forward basis?

7 comments… add one
  • TastyBits

    Until the economy get going again, I do not think much can get done.

    It should be recognized that most people born into the middle class will not pull themselves into the upper class. These people have substantial advantages, but they will spend their entire lives mired in the middle class. Obviously, the poor are going to have a more difficult task.

    I have also documented how it is difficult to just move out of a bad neighborhood, but this would also apply to a middle class newly divorced mother.

    It would probably also help if more white people got to know black people and learned about their problems. If Rep. Paul Ryan spent more time in poor black areas, he would learn about the real problems, and he may have some solutions to help them.

    You need to be willing to go outside your comfort zone, and you need the courage to toss out your cherished theories.

  • michael reynolds

    Didn’t the marriage rate among blacks mirror (in somewhat amplified degree) the decline among whites? When people lived on small farms marriage made compelling economic sense. It stopped making as much sense when both blacks and whites became more urban. (Bearing in mind that major social changes lag.) Families are smaller because children are no longer an economic asset (to put it mildly) and birth control makes it possible to determine how many children to have. If you control for economic class, how different are black families?

    I think studies that purport to link economic success with marriage as though marriage results in economic success have it backward. People avoid marriage because they see it as an expensive luxury and not a net economic plus.

    In short I don’t think we have a black pathology so much as sharp class differences. Blacks are poorer so we see more of them behaving as poor people do – not making long-term plans, not taking on obligations that extend far into an uncertain future like marriage and children. The problem is poverty, not culture per se.

    The question is why blacks are more likely to be poor and that’s not hard to figure out. When you begin the race a full lap behind whites, and are deliberately tripped every few hundred yards, it’s really kind of hard to catch up. Solve the problem of black poverty and the issues of family, criminality, etc… will go away over time. A lot of time, probably.

    Racism is tough to eradicate. It goes deep into the core friend/foe recognition functions of humans. It has to be educated out of people, a job made more difficult by whites who deny that the problem even exists.

  • jan

    The new racism is black deference and white guilt, which everyday causes equality to slip backwards as resentments and unease between races and classes builds.

  • michael reynolds


    No, the “new racism” is white racists pretending white racism has gone away.

  • In the 1920s the black urban illegitimacy rate was about the same as the that of whites. By the 1960s when Moynihan wrote his famous report the black urban illegitimacy rate was twice that of whites. I don’t think that can be considered in isolation from “Moynihan’s scissors”, the finding that around 1962 the black male unemployment rate began to diverge from welfare enrollment.

    IMO one of the factors in both was poorly constructed anti-poverty programs.

    While I think that racism is the most likely primary explanation for both phenomena, I think that Moynihan’s conclusion still holds true: that the various “social pathologies” of the black community had become capable of sustaining themselves without whites. Forty years after his famous report Moynihan remarked there may be a fundamental change occurring in all post-modern societies. I think the change has causes that are not implicit in “post-modern societies” which can and should be addressed.

    As I see it the “first end racism” strategy suffers from the problem that at best it won’t happen other than in geological time and at worst it won’t happen at all. Racism isn’t unique to our society. It’s a factor in all human societies other than very small ones.

  • Cstanley

    My impression is that Coates is blinded to the criticisms of black males as a demographic group because he himself is an exception.

    I did find one part of his piece persuasive, when he took apart Chait’s argument about the role that Obama should play as a black president. My inclination is to side with that Chait (and Bill Cosby) on the idea that racism is best overcome by turning the other cheek and working harder, for which Chait used the analogy of the coach of a basketball team where the refs are biased. Coates points out that Obama in this analogy is not the coach, he’s the commissioner of the league. That is an excellent point.

    I think he’s wrong though when he says that we can judge through history whether or not the historical figures who looked within the black community were correct in that approach. One would have to presume that those approaches have been completely successful in order to know whether they could achieve the intended result. In addition, Coates creates a false dichotomy, I think between a top down (political fight against institutionalized racism) and bottom up (attack social problems within the black community) approaches. Seems much more logical to presume that both have to work in tandem, and Coates doesn’t recognize that his black and white (pardon the pun) view makes it more difficult to balance the two.

  • Cstanley

    Michael Reynolds wrote:
    “I think studies that purport to link economic success with marriage as though marriage results in economic success have it backward. People avoid marriage because they see it as an expensive luxury and not a net economic plus.”

    I strongly disagree and don’t even understand this statement. If people were taking that approach while avoiding parenthood it might make sense, but no one could possibly believe that it makes more economic sense for single women to raise children without a father.

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