I found David Brooks’s most recent New York Times column, ruminating on this moment in American racial relations, aligned very closely with my own views in many ways although I would have phrased it differently:
One question lingers amid all the debates about critical race theory: How racist is this land? Anybody with eyes to see and ears to hear knows about the oppression of the Native Americans, about slavery and Jim Crow. But does that mean that America is even now a white supremacist nation, that whiteness is a cancer that leads to oppression for other groups? Or is racism mostly a part of America’s past, something we’ve largely overcome?
There are many ways to answer these questions. The most important is by having honest conversations with the people directly affected. But another is by asking: How high are the barriers to opportunity for different groups? Do different groups have a fair shot at the American dream? This approach isn’t perfect, but at least it points us to empirical data rather than just theory and supposition.
I think there’s another question to be considered: what can or cannot be mitigated? I believe that racism presently exists; I also believe that past slavery, prejudice, Jim Crow laws, etc. continue to have effects right down to the present day. What I think is missing from Mr. Brooks’s reckoning is black agency.
I’m glad he mentions a study I’ve mentioned in the past:
Research shows the role racism plays in perpetuating these disparities. When, in 2004, researchers sent equally qualified white and Black applicants to job interviews in New York City, dressed them similarly and gave them similar things to say, Black applicants got half as many callbacks or job offers as whites.
which I interpret as demonstrating that racism is not completely in the past. But he and I are not in complete agreement about this:
When you look at the data about African Americans, the legacies of slavery and segregation and the effects of racism are everywhere. The phrase “systemic racism” aptly fits the reality you see — a set of structures, like redlining, that have a devastating effect on Black wealth and opportunities. Racism is not something we are gently moving past; it’s pervasive. It seems obvious that this reality should be taught in every school.
I agree with the first sentence, disagree with the first clause of the second and have reservations about its second clause. I don’t agree that “systemic racism” fits the reality because I see more than one system involved and they must be disaggregated. And he never defines what he means by “redlining”. IMO redlining is an overused term. When insurance premiums are greater for higher risks than for lower ones, that’s not redlining—it’s insurance. When businesses don’t open in neighborhoods where they cannot be profitable that is not redlining, either. Redlining is when black real estate shoppers are directed to black neighborhoods because they’re black. Consequently, I don’t know whether I agree with the third sentence or not because I don’t know what “this reality” is. I agree that racism exists, is not a thing of the past, and is wrong. I don’t agree that everything that is called “racism” is racism and I don’t agree that children should be taught in schools that the only way to end racism is for the behavior of white people to change because I think the behaviors of both white and black people need to change.
And I believe that’s what Mr. Brooks’s next passage suggests:
Does this mean that America is white supremacist, a shameful nation, that the American dream is just white privilege? Well, let’s take a look at the data for different immigrant groups. When you turn your gaze here, the barriers don’t seem as high. For example, as Bloomberg’s Noah Smith pointed out recently on his Substack page, Hispanic American incomes rose faster in recent years than those of any other major group in America. Forty-five percent of Hispanics who grew up in poverty made it to the middle class or higher, comparable to the mobility rate for whites.
Hispanics have lately made astounding gains in education. In 2000, more than 30 percent of Hispanics dropped out of high school. By 2016, only 10 percent did. In 1999, a third of Hispanics age 18 to 24 were in college; now, nearly half are. Hispanic college enrollment rates surpassed white enrollment rates in 2012.
The Hispanic experience in America is beginning to look similar to the experience of Irish Americans or Italian Americans or other past immigrant groups — a period of struggle followed by integration into the middle class.
If you accept and learn Standard American English; if you work hard in school, you and your children can prosper. If you don’t follow those steps and, indeed, are subjected to social pressure for “acting white”, you won’t.
And this is what I have been saying for decades:
The researchers Richard Alba, Morris Levy and Dowell Myers suggest 52 percent of the people who self-categorize as nonwhite in the Census Bureau’s projections for America’s 2060 racial makeup will also think of themselves as white. Forty percent of those who self-categorized as white will also claim minority racial identity.
In an essay for The Atlantic, they conclude: “Speculating about whether America will have a white majority by the mid-21st century makes little sense, because the social meanings of white and nonwhite are rapidly shifting. The sharp distinction between these categories will apply to many fewer Americans.”
Here’s the one specific policy prescription offered by Mr. Brooks:
Over the last several years Raj Chetty and his team at Opportunity Insights have done much of the most celebrated work on income mobility. They find that, indeed, Black Americans and Native Americans have much lower rates of mobility because of historic discrimination.
But Chetty’s team emphasizes that these gaps are not immutable. If, for example, you use housing vouchers and other grants to help people move to high-opportunity neighborhoods with low poverty rates, low racial bias and more fathers in the neighborhoods, then you can help people of all races lead lives with higher incomes and lower rates of incarceration as adults.
It’s an interesting idea but there is an assumption built into that statement: that the individual will leave the old neighborhood behind. If the sort of “systemic racism” that is being complained about mostly just means that blacks are a minority in the U. S., that is unlikely to change. Neighborhoods have more fathers and lower incarceration rates in them because of behavior not because of something about the zip code.