The Divided Society and the Democratic Idea
by Glenn C. Loury

University Lecture
Boston University
October 7, 1996

 

 

1. Race and the Problem of Civic Inclusion

We, the faculty of this great university, are all specialists of one kind or another--economists, physicists, historians, philosophers, poets. Necessarily then, we are the masters of rarefied techniques of inquiry and expression peculiar to our disciplines. But if we were no more than that, we should have failed our students, and ourselves. We are also intellectuals, and citizens. We bear the citizen's duty to engage the problems of this society, and the intellectual's responsibility to speak what truth he is given to know about them.

If truth is not unproblematic, then neither is it inaccessible. And, telling the truth is decidedly a political act. "From the viewpoint of politics, truth has a despotic character," declared Hannah Arendt, in her essay, "Truth and Politics." "Unwelcome opinion can be argued with, rejected, or compromised upon," she goes on, "but unwelcome facts possess an infuriating stubbornness that nothing can move except plain lies." Moreover, at this late date in the twentieth century, we know that social justice is impossible unless intellectuals tell the truth. This is a lesson which Vaclav Havel, the Czech playwright turned politician, teaches as well as anyone. In "The Power of the Powerless," his classic essay on the intellectual's role in opposing totalitarianism, he observes that: "Under the orderly surface of the life of lies... there slumbers the hidden sphere of life in its real aims, of its hidden openness to truth."

It is the intellectual's job to tap into this hidden sphere. Thus, while I come to the subject of this lecture as an economist, I come also as a citizen and, most pointedly, as an intellectual. Though the study of race relations in the United States has been a scholarly preoccupation of mine for many years now, it is much more than that. (Can I be forgiven this inter-mingling of the personal and professional, of the head and the heart?) When I speak of the "Divided Society", therefore, I have principally in mind our own great and troubled nation. And, when I refer to the "Democratic Idea," I mean to invoke the principles of the American Founding--Jefferson's self-evident truths--those noble ideals which, of necessity, have been only imperfectly realized in practice.

America was a slave society at the Founding. This fact, I suggest, is of no small significance today. It would take another four score years before the nation which had been, in Lincoln's immortal words, "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal," would, through the seismic convulsion of a great civil war, finally rid itself of that most undemocratic of institutions. But, the abolition of slavery did not resolve the conflict between the democratic idea and the reality of social division. There remained the need to achieve an estate of equal citizenship for the descendants of African slaves, not just in theory but as a matter of political fact. Nearly a century more would pass before significant progress toward this objective could occur. Even today this process of democratization, though well advanced, remains incomplete.

We have no need for a litany of statistics here. The plain fact is that Blacks are vastly over-represented among those who suffer the maladies and afflictions of social marginality in America, however measured. Some districts in the middle of our great cities, occupied almost exclusively by Blacks, are among the most miserable, violent, and despairing places in the modern, industrial world. The prisons are filled to overflowing with black men, and the welfare rolls are crowded with black women and children. Rates of infection with the AIDS virus run five to ten times higher among black than white populations. Black Americans as a group experience lower life expectancies, higher infant mortality rates, lower levels of academic achievement, higher poverty rates, greater unemployment, and a higher incidence of mental illness than do white Americans. Historical trends give us no reason to anticipate that these disparities will attenuate in the foreseeable future.

Nor is the racial divide discernible only in terms of the conditions of the poor. The psychological and political rift separating Blacks and Whites cuts across class lines. It is evidenced by divided public reaction to events such as the O.J. Simpson trial and the Million Man March, and by widely read books on the race issue which have appeared in recent years under titles like The Scar of Race, Two Nations: Separate, Hostile and Unequal and The Rage of a Privileged Class (the black middle class, that is.) Weariness is discernible in the public conversations we Americans now endure across the chasm of race. The idealists of an earlier era who preached the interracial gospel of "the beloved community" look in hindsight to have been naive dreamers.

Thus, when we speak of racial matters in the United States, the words dilemma, paradox, and tragedy abound. For, despite the civil rights revolution in our law and politics which occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, the poisonous legacy of slavery remains with us, as do many of the doubts about the future of our political order to which that legacy has given rise. These doubts have troubled every generation since the Founding. In the early 19th century Alexis De Tocqueville, assaying the future prospects for race relations in the United States, prophesied that "the presence of a black population upon its territory" would become "the most formidable of all the ills that threaten the future of the Union." He was particularly struck by how "the prejudice which repels the Negroes (causes) inequality (to be) sanctioned by the manners while it is effaced from the laws of the country." A century later, Gunnar Myrdal rediscovered this fundamental conflict between the high ideals of our political culture and those social customs which relegated Negroes to a status of second class citizenship. His book, called simply An American Dilemma came to define America's race problem in the post-WWII era.

Now, as a new century dawns with the way forward toward racial reconciliation decidedly unclear, we Americans will have to entertain the possibility that the civil rights revolution, so welcome and so long overdue, did not fully vindicate the legitimacy and virtue of our democratic traditions. If this divided society is to realize its democratic ideals, a great deal of work remains to be done. Responsibility for doing this work falls upon Blacks and Whites alike. This is the work of civic inclusion--incorporating the descendants of African slaves more fully into the commonwealth, completing the process begun by the Emancipation. (Of course, America is not only black and white; but, the alienation of Blacks from the body politic constitutes a unique challenge to our democratic aspirations.)

The fact is that, despite the historic achievements of the civil rights movement, there remains a fundamental dualism at the heart of public ideals about race in America. We harbor a glaring contradiction between the conviction that a person's race is an irrelevancy, and the reflexive social practice of attending assiduously to racial identity. We say people should be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin; yet, we sort, count, respond to, cavort with, and assess one another on the basis of race.

My writing has addressed both aspects of this dualism. I have argued that explicit attention to inequality between Blacks and Whites, as distinct from a purely color-blind concern about inequality among individuals, is essential to the attainment of social justice. But I have also sought to understand--in both economic and political terms--the limits of race-conscious public policy, ultimately arguing for the moral imperative of racial transcendence. I see this as the central dilemma raised by the problem of civic inclusion in American public life: We cannot ignore race, but must not define ourselves mainly in racial terms. This dilemma is similar to that which the Founding Fathers confronted regarding religion. Their resolution, codified in the First Amendment to the Constitution, was to protect religion's "free exercise" while prohibiting its "establishment" by government. I will argue here that the moral complexities of race in contemporary American life require comparably subtle and flexible treatment.

There is, however, reason to doubt that such subtlety will be forthcoming. It is a tragic irony that, although realizing democratic ideals requires effective civic dialogue across group lines, the very fact of social division can profoundly undermine a polity's capacity for public deliberation. Arguably, this is now the case in the American context. Debate on questions of race in our society has been, by turns, hysterical, demagogic, angry, guilt-ridden or simply inane. Our "race-talk" is too often freighted with symbolic significance, laced with code words, devoid of candor, or full of wishful thinking. Racial polarization has led many a politician either to abandon straight talk altogether, or to pander to base sentiments. And, the need of academic critics ever to stand "on the right side of history" has deprived much of their reflection in this area of its force and objectivity.

Thus, a public lecture on this subject is never a straightforward exercise. I engage here, of necessity, in two connected but distinct discourses, practicing a kind of "double speak," if you will. On the one hand, I speak as a public man, an American, to the whole nation, offering advice on how "we"--that is, all of us--should approach questions of race. But, as a Black I will be seen (by Whites and Blacks) to be addressing "my people" about how "we" should endeavor to make progress. This dual role limits what I can say without risk of misunderstanding by one or another audience. Both audiences may extend to me a certain license because of race but, for the same reason, may also demand a certain fealty: Each will search for evidence of disloyalty to cherished values and for confirmation of strongly held convictions. Yet, if I am true to my higher calling--as an intellectual, passionately engaged with the most compelling social problem of my day--it is inevitable, and entirely proper, that some of you will be disappointed.

2. Social Segmentation and Economic Inequality

But, then, what can one say as an economist about matters such as these?

My scholarly work on the problem of race relations began with a more general inquiry into the theory of economic inequality. Specifically, my 1981 paper, "Intergenerational Transfers and the Distribution of Earnings," which appeared in the journal Econometrica introduced a model of economic achievement in which a person's earnings depended on a random endowment of innate ability, and on skills acquired from formal training. The key feature of this theory was that individuals had to rely on their families to pay for their training. In this way, a person's economic opportunities were influenced by his inherited social position. I showed how, under these circumstances, the distribution of income in each generation could be determined from that which had obtained in the previous generation. My objective with the model was to illustrate how in the long run, when people depend on resources available within families to finance their acquisition of skills, economic inequality would come to reflect the inherited advantages of birth. A disparity among persons in economic attainment would bear no necessary connection to differences in their innate abilities.

In other work, I applied this mode of reasoning to the problem of group, as distinct from individual, inequality. That analysis began with two observations. First, all societies exhibit significant social segmentation. People make choices about whom to befriend, whom to marry, where to live, to which schools to send their children, and so on. Factors like race, ethnicity, social class and religious affiliation influence these associational choices. Second, the processes through which individuals develop their productive capacities are shaped by custom, convention and social norms, and are not fully responsive to market forces, or reflective of the innate abilities of persons. Networks of social affiliation are not usually the results of calculated economic decisions. They nevertheless help determine how resources important to the development of the productive capacities of human beings are made available to various persons.

More concretely, one can say that an adult worker with a given degree of personal efficacy has been "produced" from the "inputs" of education, parenting skills, acculturation, nutrition, and socialization to which he was exposed in his formative years. While some of these "inputs" can be bought and sold, some of the most crucial "factors of production" are only available as byproducts from activities of social affiliation. Parenting services are not to be had for purchase on the market, but accrue as the consequence of the social relations that obtain between the custodial parents, and with the child. The allocation of parenting services among a prospective generation of adults is thus the indirect consequence of social activities undertaken by members of the preceding generation. An adolescent's peer group is similarly a derivative consequence of some complex processes of social networking.

I concede that this is an artificial way of thinking about human development, but the artifice is quite useful. For, it calls attention to the critical role played by inalienable, non-marketed, social and cultural resources in the production and reproduction of economic inequality. The relevance of such factors, as an empirical matter, is beyond doubt. The importance of networks, contacts, social background, family connections, and informal associations of all kinds has been amply documented by students of social stratification. In addition, values, attitudes, and beliefs of central import for the attainment of success in life are shaped by the cultural milieu in which a person develops. Whom one knows affects what one comes to know and, ultimately, what one can do with one's God-given talents.

While all of this may seem obvious, the fact is that, prior to my work, formal theories of economic inequality had said little about the role of social background. I was the first economist to use the term "social capital" in reference to these processes by which the social relationships that occur among persons promote or retard their acquisition of traits valued in the market place. A large and growing literature has since emerged in which allowance is taken of the myriad ways that a person's opportunities to develop his natural gifts depend upon the economic achievements of those with whom he is socially affiliated. This literature suggests that unqualified confidence in the equity and efficiency of the income distribution produced by the market is not justified.

In particular, this analysis has an important ethical implication: Because the creation of a skilled workforce is a social process, the meritocratic ideal--that in a free society individuals should be allowed to rise to the level justified by their competence--should be tempered with the observation that no one travels that road alone. The facts that generations overlap, that much of social life lies outside the reach of public regulation, and that prevailing social affiliations influence the development of the intellectual and personal skills of the young, imply that present patterns of inequality--among individuals and between groups--must embody, to some degree, social and economic disparities which have existed in the past. To the extent that past disparities are illegitimate, the propriety of the contemporary order is called into question.

I have employed this framework to explore the legitimacy question in regards to inequality between Blacks and Whites in America. In a theoretical example I showed that, notwithstanding the establishment of a legal regime of equal opportunity, historically engendered economic differences between racial groups could well persist into the indefinite future. I concluded that the pronounced racial disparities to be observed in American cities are particularly problematic, since they are, at least in part, the product of an unjust history, propagated across the generations by the segmented social structures of our race-conscious society.

Thus, I would argue as a matter of social ethics that there should be some governmental policy whose effect is to mitigate the economic marginality of those languishing in the ghettos of America. I stress that this is not a reparations argument. When the developmental prospects of an individual depend on the circumstances of those with whom he is socially affiliated, even a minimal commitment to equality of opportunity requires such a policy. In our divided society, given our tragic past, this implies that public efforts intended to counter the effects of historical disadvantage among Blacks are not only consistent with, but indeed are required by, widely embraced democratic ideals.

3. The Affirmative Action Problem

This argument leads naturally to the question of whether affirmative action policies are necessary and justified. To emphasize that racial group disparities can be transmitted across generations through subtle and complex social processes is not necessarily to endorse employment or educational preferences based on race. (I will offer in due course a number of reasons to think that these policies should be curtailed.) But recognizing the importance of social segmentation does cause one to doubt the ethical viability, and indeed the logical coherence, of "color-blind absolutism"--the notion now abroad in the land that the Constitution requires government agents to ignore the racial identity of citizens. Ironically, recent claims by some conservatives to this effect bear an eerie resemblance, in form and in substance, to the similarly absolute claims of some card-carrying civil libertarians on behalf of a "wall of separation" between church and state.

Consider that, as a practical matter, the government cannot enforce laws against employment discrimination without taking note of a gross demographic imbalance in an employer's workforce. Yet, requiring that employment data be reported by race is already a departure from pure color-blind behavior. So too is the practice, nearly universal in the public and private sectors, of targeted outreach efforts designed to increase the representation of Blacks in the pool of persons considered for an employment opportunity. Accordingly, the more intellectually consistent of the color-blind absolutists now recommend, as logic would require, that we repeal the civil rights laws, and abandon even those efforts to achieve racial diversity which do not involve preferential treatment. But, is that stance consistent with justice?

More subtly, how can a college educator convey to students the lesson that "not all Blacks think alike," with too few Blacks on campus for this truth to become evident? Were an American president to assemble a cabinet devoid or racial minority representation, would not the legitimacy of his administration rightly be called into question? What prison warden could afford to ignore the possibility that racial friction among his inmates might threaten the maintenance of order within his institution. Perhaps this is why presidents, prison wardens, and college educators do not behave in a purely color-blind fashion in our divided society.

Manufacturing hard cases which challenge the absolutist claim is a trivial exercise. Can the police consider race when making undercover assignments? Can a black public employee use health insurance benefits to choose a black therapist with whom to discuss race-related anxieties? Can units in a public housing project be let with an eye to sustaining a racially integrated environment? What about a National Science Foundation effort that encourages gifted Blacks to pursue careers in fields where few now study? Clearly, there is no general rule which can resolve all of these cases reasonably.

I would venture to say that the study of affirmative action has been too much the preserve of lawyers and philosophers, and has too little engaged the interests of economist, and other social scientists. It is as if, for this policy unlike all others, we could determine a prior the wisdom of its application--as if its practice were always either "right" or "wrong", never simply "prudent" or "unwise." I want to argue that, although departures from color-blind absolutism are both legitimate and desirable in some circumstances, there are compelling reasons to question the wisdom of relying as heavily as we now do on racial preferences to bring about civic inclusion for black Americans.

One such reason is that the widespread use of preferences can logically be expected to erode the perception of black competence. This point is often misunderstood, so it is worth spelling-out in some detail. The argument is not a speculation about the feelings of persons who may or may not be the beneficiaries of affirmative action. Rather, it turns on the rational, statistical inferences which neutral observers are entitled to make about the unknown qualifications of persons who may have been preferred, or dispreferred, in a selection process.

The main insight is not difficult to grasp. Let some employer use a lower threshold of assessed productivity for the hiring of Blacks than Whites. The preferential hiring policy defines three categories of individuals within each of the two racial groups, which I will call marginals, successes and failures Marginals are those whose hiring status is altered by the policy--either Whites not hired who otherwise would have been, or Blacks hired who otherwise would not have been. Successes are those who would be hired with our without the policy, and failures are those who would be passed-over with or without the preferential policy. Let us consider how an outsider who can observe the hiring decision, but not the employer's productivity assessment, would estimate the productivity of those subject to this hiring process.

Notice that a lower hiring threshold for Blacks causes the outside market to reduce its estimate of the productivity of black successes, since on average less is required to achieve that status. In addition, black failures, seen to have been passed-over despite a lower hiring threshold, are thereby revealed as especially unproductive. On the other hand, a hiring process favoring Blacks must enhance the reputations of white failures, as seen by outsiders, since they may have been artificially held-back. And, white successes, who are hired despite being disfavored in selection, have thereby been shown to be especially productive.

We have thus reached the result that among Blacks, only marginals gain in reputation from the establishment of a preferential hiring program; both failures and successes are harmed by it. Moreover, among Whites only marginals are harmed by the program; failures and successes must gain from it! In practical terms, since marginals are typically a minority of all workers, I am asserting that the outside reputations of most Blacks will be lowered, and that of most Whites enhanced, by preferential hiring. The inferential logic which leads to this arresting conclusion is particularly insidious, in that it can serve to legitimate otherwise indefensible negative stereotypes about Blacks.

Another set of reasons for being skeptical about the practice of affirmative action is that it can undercut the incentives which Blacks have to develop their competitive abilities. For instance, preferential treatment can lead to the patronization of black workers and students. By "patronization" I mean the setting of a lower standard of expected accomplishment for Blacks than for Whites, because of the belief that Blacks are not as capable of meeting a higher, common standard. In the 1993 paper, "Will Affirmative Action Eliminate Negative Stereotypes," which appeared in The American Economic Review, Stephen Coate and I show how behavior of this kind can be based on a self-fulfilling prophesy. That is, observed performance among Blacks may be lower precisely because Blacks are being patronized, while the patronization is undertaken because of the need for an employer or admissions officer to meet affirmative action guidelines.

To illustrate, consider a workplace in which a supervisor operating under some affirmative action guidelines must recommend subordinate workers for promotion. Suppose he is keen to promote Blacks where possible, monitors his subordinates' performance, and bases his recommendations on these observations. Pressure to promote Blacks might lead him to de-emphasize deficiencies in the performance of black subordinates, recommending them for promotion when he would not have done so for Whites. But, this behavior on his part could undermine the ability for black workers to identify and correct their deficiencies. They are denied honest feedback from their supervisor on their performance, and are encouraged to think that one can get ahead without attaining the same degree of proficiency as Whites are taught they must attain.

Alternatively, consider a population of students applying to professional schools for admissions. The schools, due to affirmative actions concerns, are eager to admit a certain percentage of Blacks. They believe that to do so they must accept black applicants with test scores and grades below those of some Whites whom they reject. If most schools follow this policy, the message sent out to black students is that the level of performance needed to gain admission is lower than that which white students know they must attain. If students are responsive to these incentive differences, the result could be a difference between black and white students in the actual level of grades and test scores obtained. In this way, the schools' belief that different admissions standards are necessary becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The common theme in these two examples is that the desire to see greater black representation is pursued by using different criteria for the promotion or admission of black and white candidates. But the use of different criteria reduces the incentives which Blacks have for developing needed skills. This argument does not presume that Blacks are less capable than Whites; it is based on the fact that an individual's need to make use of his abilities is undermined when that individual is patronized by the employer, or the admissions committee.

This problem could be avoided if, instead of using different criteria of selection, the employers and schools in question sought to meet their desired level of black participation through a concerted effort to enhance performance, while maintaining common standards of evaluation. Such a targeted effort at performance enhancement among black employees or students is definitely not color-blind behavior. It presumes a direct concern about racial inequality, and involves allocating benefits to people on the basis of race. What distinguishes it from preferential treatment, though, is that it takes seriously the fact of differential performance and seeks to reverse it directly, rather than trying to hide from that fact by setting a different threshold of expectation for the performance of Blacks.

Unfortunately, economists seem to be the only people persuaded by, or even interested in, this kind of technical argument about affirmative action. Therefore, I turn now, in my capacity as an intellectual and a citizen, to a range of moral and political considerations which may be of broader interest, but which point in the same direction. Begin with an obvious point: the plight of the inner-city underclass, the most intractable aspect of the racial inequality problem today, is not mitigated by affirmative action policies. Defenders of racial preferences answer by claiming this was never the intent of such policies; but, this only leads to my second point: The persistent demand for preferential treatment as necessary to Black achievement amounts, over a period of time, to a concession of defeat by middle class Blacks in our struggle for civic equality.

The political discourse over affirmative action harbors a paradoxical subtext: Middle class Blacks seek equality of status with Whites by calling attention to their own limited achievements, thereby establishing the need for preferential policies. At the same time, sympathetic white elites, by granting black demands, thereby acknowledge that without their patronage black penetration of the upper reaches of American society would be impossible. The paradox is that, although equality is the goal of the enterprise, this manifestly is not an exchange among equals and it never can be.

Members of the black middle class who stress that without some special dispensation they cannot compete with Whites are really flattering those Whites, while exhibiting their own weakness. And Whites who think that, because of societal wrongs, Blacks are owed the benefit of the doubt about their qualifications are exercising a noblesse oblige available only to the powerful. This exchange between black weakness and white power has become a basic paradigm for "progressive" race relations in contemporary America. Blacks from privileged backgrounds now routinely engage in a kind of exhibitionism of non-achievement, mournfully citing the higher success rates of Whites in one endeavor or another in order to gain leverage for their advocacy on behalf of preferential treatment. That Asians from more modest backgrounds often achieve even higher rates of success is not mentioned. But the limited ability of these more fortunate Blacks to make inroads on their own can hardly go unnoticed.

It is morally unjustified--and to this African-American, humiliating--that preferential treatment based on race should become institutionalized for those of us now enjoying all of the advantages of middle class life. The thought that my sons would come to see themselves as presumptively disadvantaged because of their race is unbearable to me. They are in fact among the richest young people of African descent anywhere on the globe. There is no achievement to which they cannot legitimately aspire. And whatever degree of success they may attain in life, the fact that some of their ancestors were slaves and others faced outrageous bigotry will have little to do with it.

Indeed, those ancestors, with only a fraction of the opportunity and with much of the power structure of the society arrayed against them, managed to educate their children, acquire land, found communal institutions, and mount a successful struggle for equal rights. The generation coming of age during the 1960s, now ensconced in the burgeoning black middle class, enjoy our status primarily because our parents and grandparents faithfully discharged their responsibilities. The benefits of affirmative action, whatever they may have been, pale in comparison to this inheritance.

My grandparents, with their siblings and cousins, left rural Mississippi for Chicago's mean streets in the years after World War I. Facing incredible racial hostility, they nevertheless carved-out a place for their children, who went on to acquire property and gain a toe-hold in the professions. For most middle class Blacks this is a familiar story. Our forebears, from slavery onward, performed magnificently under harsh circumstances. It is time now that we and our children begin to do the same. It desecrates the memory of our enslaved ancestors to assert that with our far greater freedoms we middle class Blacks should now look to Whites, of whatever political persuasion, to ensure that our dreams are realized.

The children of today's black middle class will live their lives in an era of equal opportunity. I recognize that merely by stating this simple fact I will enrage many people; and I do not mean to assert that racial discrimination has disappeared. But I insist that the historic barriers to black participation in the political, social and economic life of the nation have been lowered dramatically over the past four decades, especially for the wealthiest 20% of the black population. Arguably, the time has now come for us to let go of the ready-made excuse which racism provides, and to accept responsibility for what we and our children do, and do not, achieve.

4. Transracial Humanism and the Black Underclass

The same cannot be said, at least not in the same way, for the black lower class, but even here much conventional, liberal rhetoric about racial victimization is anachronistic and unproductive. As a matter of social causation, the collapse of family life among the urban black poor and the spread of behavioral pathologies of various kinds among them are far more important than outright racial discrimination in creating and perpetuating the black underclass.

Moreover, an assertion of racial injury in the face of the underclass crisis leads many into a political cull de sac. There are two points to make in this regard. First, there are no politically feasible, racially based solutions to the problems of the urban black poor. Indeed, it is quite unclear how these marginalized, suffering masses might yet be integrated into the commonwealth. Anyone professing to have the answer is either a fool, or a liar. Every conceivable response to this social dilemma--be it education and welfare reform, tax abatements, greater private philanthropy, improved law enforcement, or massive public works--requires significant public (if not always governmental) involvement, a major infusion of resources, and a fair amount of time. Progress depends on the creation of political majorities willing to support some such undertakings. And, if recent American electoral history teaches us anything, it is that such majorities cannot be built in an explicitly racial manner.

Second, discussing social dysfunction in racial terms plays right into the hands of society's most reactionary forces, inviting the view that "those people" in the ghettos are fundamentally different, that "they" are, whether for biological or deep cultural reasons, beyond hope of redemption. Arguably, some of the ugliest (and most sophisticated) recent assaults on the proposition that "all men are created equal" can be understood as conservative reactions to the efforts of racial egalitarians to legislate their way out of the fact of lagging black achievement. The era of jujitsu politics--when blacks tried to use the relative strength of whites against them, by holding up black under-achievement as proof that whites had failed to extend equal rights--has definitely run its course. The typical response to such advocacy nowadays is the baldly stated "refutation" that, evidently, blacks do not have what it takes to succeed in America, as so many non-white immigrants have done and continue to do.

Recalling the moral foundations of the original civil rights revolution suggests a way out of this impasse. Martin Luther King, Jr. was fond of saying that "every man is heir to a legacy of worthiness." If the black inner-city poor do not now enjoy the basic human inheritance of dignity and worthiness of which King (and Jefferson) spoke, this is not primarily because they descend from slaves. Advocacy on their behalf grounded solely in that historical fact will fail. Are they not better served by invoking a trans-racial humanism, by urging a commitment--universally applied--to engage the intractable problems of the socially marginalized? Is it not wiser, ultimately, to present the problems of the black underclass in their essential human terms, rather than on narrow racial ground?

These questions give rise to the following argument: The fundamental challenges any person faces in life arise not from his racial condition, but from our common human condition. The social contingency of race is, in itself, but one piece of the raw material from which an individual must yet construct a life. For all of us, it is the engagement with this project of construction that brings about our development as human beings and the expression of our individual personalities. And, because we share this existential problem--identical in essentials, different only in details, we can hope to transcend racial difference, to gain a genuine, mutual understanding of our respective experiences and travails, and ultimately, to empathize with one another. As Jean-Paul Sartre might have said, Because we all confront the challenge of discovering how to live in "good faith," we are able to share love across the tribal boundaries.

Empathy lies at the core of this trans-racial, humanistic argument. From this point of view, however closely race may correlate with social disability, citizens looking upon juvenile felons, welfare mothers or slow learners, should consider that, "there but for the grace of God go I, or my brother, or my child." In more practical terms, the attainment of true democracy in our divided society requires that the white middle class see the black underclass as consisting of people who, in essence, are not so very different from themselves--all of us having been created in the image of God. Rather than asking, "What manner of people are they who languish in that way?" the public question should become, "What manner of people are we who accept such degradation in our midst?"

5. The Existential Challenge of Black Self-Development

Unfortunately, we are a long way from achieving this democratic goal. Dramatic, persistent economic and social disparities between the races have, in the aftermath of the civil rights revolution, given rise to the (usually unspoken) question, in the minds of Blacks and Whites alike, as to whether Blacks are capable of gaining equal status, given equality of opportunity. It is a peculiar mind which fails, in light of American history, to fathom how poisonous a question this is. And, while I unequivocally believe that Blacks are, indeed, so capable, any such assertion is an hypothesis, or an axiom, not a fact. The fact is that Blacks have something to prove, to ourselves and to what W.E.B. DuBois once called "a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity." This is not fair or right; it is simply the way things are.

Things have been this way for quite some time now. In his treatise, Slavery and Social Death, sociologist Orlando Patterson argues persuasively that one cannot understand slavery without grasping the importance of the concept of honor. Slavery, he says, is not simply property-in-people; rather, it is "the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons." The ritualized, hierarchical relations of respect and standing between the owner and the one owned are what distinguish slavery from other systems of forced labor. As Patterson points out, this is a parasitic relationship: the owner derives honor from his power over the slave, who suffers an extreme marginality because he has no social existence except for what is mediated by his master.

But then, if slavery was not mainly a legal convention, but instead an institution of ritualized hierarchy, how could emancipation--the termination of the masters' legal claims--be sufficient in itself to make slaves (and their descendants) into genuinely equal citizens? Must not the historically generated, and culturally reinforced dishonor of the freedmen also be overcome? If the former slave, who just yesterday stood before the nation without honor or the possibility of honor, is to become a citizen--that is, a coequal participant in the national enterprise--then must not the deeply entrenched presumptions of inferiority, of intellectual and moral inadequacy, be extinguished? And, how is that to be done?

Perhaps it was the prompting of questions such as these which, over a century ago, led Booker T. Washington to observe:

It is a mistake to assume that the Negro, who had been a slave for two hundred and fifty years, gained his freedom by the signing, on a certain date, of a certain paper by the President of the United States. It is a mistake to assume that one man can, in any true sense, give freedom to another. Freedom, in the larger and higher sense every man must gain for himself.

This, in our current political discourse, is remembered as a conservative's statement; and my citing it is taken as an embrace of laissez faire. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. My point here has little to do with the transitory, partisan conflicts of our day, and everything to do with a timeless, existential challenge which Blacks have confronted--collectively, and not just as individuals--from the very beginning of our sojourn in America.

Jesse Jackson, Sr. (no Booker Washington, he!) teaches young Blacks the exhortation: "I am somebody," and this is certainly true. But the crucial question then becomes: "Just who are you?" Many of our fellow citizens now look down upon the carnage playing itself out on the streets of ghetto America and supply their own, dark answers. The youngster's response should be: Because I am somebody, I waste no opportunity to better myself. Because I am somebody, I respect my body by not polluting it with drugs or promiscuous sex. Because I am somebody--in my home, in my community, in my nation--I comport myself responsibly, I am accountable, I am available to serve others as well as myself. It is the doing of these fine things, not the saying of any fine words, which teaches oneself, and others, that one is somebody who has to be reckoned with.

6. The Ultimate Paradox

But, who will show the many hundreds of thousands of black youngsters now teetering on the brink of disaster how to be somebody? One finds a precedent for the huge task we face in the Old Testament Book of Nehemiah, which begins as follows:

Hanani, one of my brethren came, he and certain men of Judah; and I asked them concerning the Jews who had escaped, who were left of the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem. And they said unto me, The remnant that are left of the captivity there in the province are in great affliction and reproach; the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and its gates are burned with fire. And it came to pass when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. [1:2-4 AV]

"The wall is broken down and its gates are burned with fire." This metaphor of decay and assault is an apt one for our current ills. We are invited to think of a city without walls as one with no integrity, no structure, subject to the vagaries of any passing fad or fancy. We imagine the collapse of civil society; the absence of an internally derived sense of what a people stand for, of what they must and must not do. With the wall broken, and its gates burned, anything becomes possible.

In the biblical account Nehemiah heroically led the Jews of Jerusalem to renewal. He went to the Persian king whom he served as cup bearer, secured provisions, and returned to Jerusalem, where he rolled up his sleeves and went to work restoring the physical integrity of the environment, but also presiding over a spiritual revival amongst the citizenry. (Even an economist knows that "man does not live by bread alone.")

Now, let me relate this to my overarching theme, lest you think you are about to hear a sermon. (I am fully capable of sermonizing on this subject--that my second son's name is Nehemiah is no accident--but this is neither the time nor the place to begin a preaching career.) Nehemiah, a Jew, was specifically concerned about his people. His work, the reconstruction of civil society, could only be undertaken, as it were, "from the inside-out." He dealt in the specific and concrete circumstances confronting the Jews. He did not deal only in abstractions. He made himself present among those for whom he had a special affection, toward whom he felt a special loyalty. His is not so bad a model.

In the inner-city ghettos today "the remnant there are in great affliction and reproach." For the civic wound of black alienation to be fully and finally bound, a great deal of work must be done on the ground in these communities. We Blacks are connected--by bonds of history, family, conscience, and common perception in the eyes of outsiders--to those who languish in the urban slums. Black politicians, clergy, intellectuals, businessmen, and ordinary folk must therefore seek to create hope in these desolate young lives; we must work to rebuild these communities; we must become our brother's keeper.

We arrive, then, at the ultimate racial paradox: Self-development, an existential necessity for Blacks as an ethnic community, is in tension with the moral requirement for Americans as a democratic polity of achieving a humanism that transcends race. This tension is reflected in the dual meaning of "we" implicit in the question, "What manner of people are we who accept such degradation in our midst?" The two implied imperatives, despite their common appeals to human empathy, rest on very different grounds. One draws on ties of blood, shared history, and common faith. The other endeavors to achieve an integration of the most wretched, despised, and feared of our fellows along with the rest of us into a single political community of mutual concern. One takes the social fact of race as a given, even celebrating it. The other aims to move beyond race altogether.

This problem is closely related to an age-old conundrum in political theory--that of reconciling individual and social responsibilities. We humans, while undertaking our life projects, find ourselves constrained by social and cultural influences beyond our control. Yet if we are to live effective and dignified lives, we must behave as if we can indeed determine our fates. A long-term welfare mother must be seen as responsible for her plight and that of her children, even if it is also the case that she is being acted on by economic and social forces larger than herself. But, she is not an island; she does not have complete freedom to determine her future. So, we must help her--that is our responsibility. Similarly, Blacks as a group have been constrained by an ugly history of racism, some effects of which continue to manifest themselves into the current day. Yet seizing freedom "in the larger and higher sense" requires that Blacks accept responsibility for our own fate, and for the values embraced by our children, even though the effects of this immoral past remain with us.

But, this should not be an excuse for the rest of the nation to withdraw into a posture of indifference, looking on in "amused contempt and pity." It is a basic moral truth that "those people"--who now languish in the drug infested, economically depressed, crime ridden central cities--are "our" people, and "we" must be in relationship with them. America's democratic pretensions--to being "a city on a hill," a beacon of hope and freedom to all the world--seem fraudulent when set alongside the lives of haplessness and despair lived by so many of those Americans who descend from slaves. Thus, the citizens of this republic bear a responsibility to be actively engaged in changing the structures that constrain the black poor, in such a way that they can more effectively exercise their inherent and morally required capacity to choose. That "those people"--who now languish in the drug-infested, economically depressed, crime-ridden central cities--are "our" people, and that "we" must be in relationship with them, are moral truths which transcend politics.

Our situation resists pat, ideologically pure resolution. Those of us committed to seeking true democracy in this divided society shall have to engage in a fair amount of muddling-through. Our work will, however, be aided enormously if all concerned can proceed with patience, wisdom, and a spirit of generosity. Perhaps not every American is cut-out for the hard civic task of sustained engagement with this problem.

"The Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity," Martin Luther King said in 1963, in his prophetic "I Have a Dream" speech. This is still true, in far too great a measure; and while it is by no means the only truth, it is one that no political or intellectual movement aspiring to lead our country should be allowed to forget.

 

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