What Happened?

I wanted to comment about David Brooks’s most recent New York Times column before it disappeared into the memory hole. Most of the column is devoted to a lament over what has happened to our “educated elite” in recent years:

I went to an elite university and have taught at them. I find them wonderful in most ways and deeply screwed up in a few ways. But over the decades and especially recently, I’ve found the elite, educated-class progressivism a lot less attractive than the working-class progressivism of Frances Perkins that I read about when I was young. Like a lot of people, I’ve looked on with a kind of dismay as elite university dynamics have spread across national life and politics, making America worse in all sorts of ways. Let me try to be more specific about these dynamics.

The first is false consciousness. To be progressive is to be against privilege. But today progressives dominate elite institutions like the exclusive universities, the big foundations and the top cultural institutions. American adults who identify as very progressive skew white, well educated and urban and hail from relatively advantaged backgrounds.

This is the contradiction of the educated class. Virtue is defined by being anti-elite. But today’s educated class constitutes the elite, or at least a big part of it. Many of the curiosities of our culture flow as highly educated people try to resolve the contradiction between their identity as an enemy of privilege, and the fact that, at least educationally and culturally, and often economically, they are privileged.

But the one passage to which I wanted to draw attention was this:

I really can’t tell what al-Gharbi’s politics are — some mixture of positions from across the spectrum maybe. He does note that he is writing from the tradition of Black thinkers — stretching back to W.E.B. Du Bois — who argue that white liberals use social justice issues to build status and make themselves feel good while ultimately offering up “little more than symbolic gestures and platitudes to redress the material harms they decry (and often exacerbate).”

He observes that today’s educated-class activists are conveniently content to restrict their political action to the realm of symbols. In his telling, land acknowledgments — when people open public events by naming the Indigenous peoples who had their land stolen from them — are the quintessential progressive gesture.

It’s often non-Indigenous people signaling their virtue to other non-Indigenous people while doing little or nothing for the descendants of those who were actually displaced. Educated elites rename this or that school to erase the names of disfavored historical figures, but they don’t improve the education that goes on within them. Student activists stage messy protests on campus but don’t even see the custodial staff who will clean up afterward.

Al-Gharbi notes that Black people made most of their progress between the late 1940s and the mid-1960s, before the rise of the educated class in the late 1960s, and that the educated class may have derailed that progress. He notes that gaps in wealth and homeownership between white and Black Americans have grown larger since 1968.

The emphasis is mine.

The question that passage raised for me is why? Some of the potential explanations that occurred to me were:

  1. It’s not true.
  2. On a percentage basis you make greater gains when you start from a lower basis. It’s that last gap that’s hard to fill (according to the Census Bureau the median income for black Americans is about 80% of the median income of white Americans).
  3. Whatever its intentions the Great Society program was a flop. It had an adverse effect if any.
  4. Black nationalism. When race became more important than making progress progress stopped.
  5. The mass immigration from Latin American that began with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 ended black economic progress, reversed it even.
  6. De-industrialization. Good paying jobs making things have been vanishing for 50 years. The low end service jobs we have been creating don’t produce economic progress (at least not in the United States).

It could be all of the above but I think the most important factors are the last two.

BTW the “elite overproduction” Mr. Brooks mentions is something I’ve been writing about here for the last 20 years. Example: according to the BLS there 58,500 jobs in journalism in the United States. Every year nearly 14,000 journalism majors are produced by our institutions of higher learning.

7 comments… add one
  • steve Link

    Mostly 2 and 6, maybe bits of others. There are many studies showing the importance of human capital. Once degraded over a sufficiently long period it’s very hard to get back. So you get some easy catch up growth once you wave your hands and say “we are all equal now” but it takes a long time to get over that loss of human capital, to say noting of lack of resource capital.


  • Drew Link

    I think 5 and 6 are obvious. Only hyper-partisans would disagree.

    I happen to think 3 is right there in “the big 3.” The rate of progress of blacks may have disappointed some, but it was absolutely a monotonic process. Further, the black family 2 parent/divorce statistics trumped other ethnicities. Blacks, probably because of religious heritage, had very stable family structures. Indeed, they were a model to be admired.

    Then came liberalism. As you say, perhaps well intentioned, but bird brained. Make the government your paymaster, your landlord. Its like crack. The black family went to shit. Chicago’s west and south sides are all you need as empirical evidence.

    Blacks who can, are doing just fine. Just like others. Of course they are. Expect anything different? Those on the government prescription, not so much. That’s evil. The steves and the zachs of the world? Evil. They know the score but they vote for it as a matter political expediency. Beholden votes. Power. Cruel.

    I know you included 1 for completeness. 2 is just statistical masturbation; real events intervene. And black nationalism? Well, its destructive, and provides economic gains for horrible people, but I don’t think that is black America’s real problem.

  • Zachriel Link

    Drew: The steves and the zachs of the world? Evil.

    The Drews of the world? {Insert your own diversionary adjective.}

    Drew: The rate of progress of blacks may have disappointed some, but it was absolutely a monotonic process.

    Black median income over time has largely mirrored that of white, but at a lower level.

  • Zachriel Link

    Moderation help please.

  • I don’t see anything waiting for moderation, sorry.

  • Zachriel Link

    Hi Dave, I re-posted the comment, but it disappeared too. Here it is without the html:

    Black median net worth; however, the difference is striking.

  • That’s an important issue—I’ve posted on it in the past.

    I believe it is a multi-factorial issue with systemic and behavioral components, just to single out a couple. So, for example, it’s harder for blacks to get home mortgage loans, an important aspect in building net worth.

    Many years ago I attended a financial planning seminar in which the individual giving it (who was black herself) noted that black families consume more as a proportion of income than whites, Asians, or Hispanics at EVERY income level. I would characterize that as behavioral rather than systemic.

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