Stepping In the Race Trap

One treads a minefield in discussing race in America, although it’s something we should do often and at length, particularly with people who are a different race.

When race is discussed in the US, what that really means is “The Negro Problem”, or it’s 21st century equivalent. There are, of course, the full range of races here, and problems in them all, but the social problems that descended from the centuries of black slavery and white perceptions of inferiority that accompanied it are unique, and are the most intractable.

“Race” in the US really means
“The Negro Problem”

To begin, a scientific definition of race is not possible, because no characteristic is unique to any group of people, and many people exhibit characteristics of more than one race. A new book, “Dreadful Deceit”, by Jacqueline Jones, tells us that much of our national history is based on the concept of something that does not exist. We cannot assign a race to a blond Asian from the middle of the Eurasian continent, for example. Every modern human except Africans carries genes from Neanderthals, for that matter. We’re quite a mix.

The “deceit” is beside the point, in my mind, because “race” is really a shorthand way of referring to most people in a cultural group. It refers not only to outward appearance, but to a number of social and cultural characteristics we all recognize, and there are common DNA features to race. We can readily assign most African-Americans to the “African” group. (Recently, many were amused when a white supremacist on national TV was shown to have African-American genes in his DNA.) Likewise, typical Asians and Europeans are easily recognized. But increasing numbers of people fall in between these groups. Our generalizations about race are just as true and untrue as other generalizations.

“Race” is not a scientific term. 
It is a convenient shorthand.

A recent New York Times series featured a lively and attractive young African-American girl fighting to achieve normality in the face of great difficulties. It is both inspiring and exasperating, because 11-year-old Dasani has talents, but both her parents have made bad choices that left them struggling, not always successfully. Namely, both of them have been addicts, but as the series ends, both are keeping clean and managing their lives better, and life is improving for Dasani and her seven siblings and quasi-siblings.

Those outside this kind of community climate usually underestimate how difficult it is to find any sense of what we would call normal life. Drugs, crime, and poverty are everywhere, and jobs are not. Children change schools and even families frequently, often involuntarily. Money, public and private, always seems to be inadequate. Dasani’s family seemed always days away from their next income when the food ran out, a condition that can easily lead to arrest for shoplifting. Success in such a setting is elusive, and can be quickly lost because of factors beyond anyone’s control.

Success in poor urban settings
is elusive.

Adequate government funding does not guarantee success in social repair efforts, but the lack of it virtually guarantees failure. Moreover, significant social changes do not happen quickly. The 1980s campaign to rid the environment of lead, especially in poor areas where it was most heavily concentrated, was hugely successful, but in unexpected ways. Crime plummeted. But it took two decades for the generations of babies who would have been permanently damaged in the womb or by environmental lead to instead grow up normally. The previous waves of crime that had resulted from brain damage vanished, and this success was most apparent in the African-American community. Note that this was crime created by fetal insult and by lead poisoning and its consequences, and not by weakness of character in the African-American population.

Cities are plagued by violent gangs, which are often present among minority populations. Gangs don’t have the excuse of lead poisoning, and they seem to be self-perpetuating. Older gang members prey on insecure teens eager to prove their manhood. The gang, like the Mafia, quickly becomes all but impossible to quit. Worse, it prevents young men and women from getting the education and skills they need for the adult working world.

People caught in social traps
are often judged harshly
by those who have never
faced such difficulties.

People caught in social traps, regardless of race, are often judged harshly by those who have never faced such difficulties. Sometimes the judgment is proper, many times it is not. Doing the right thing doesn’t necessarily lead to the right outcome, and every element of the surroundings conspires to lead to bad decisions. All such people live from Day One without the benefit of what the rest of us consider normal family and community conditions, let alone the advantages that come with affluence.

My impression is that the desire for improvements in the urban black world—a world characterized by underachievement in school, gangs, drugs, prostitution, theft, and all the rest—is greatest in the African-American community itself. Nobody wants to be surrounded by all those things that endanger their children. But it seems clear that personal and family efforts will not be enough to force the necessary changes. The cost of lead abatement is $10,000 in a single home, well out of the reach of most of us. But the cost of each serial killer is up to $800M, so even averting a few serial killers pays for it all. It seems to me that it will require a good deal more public money than has been provided, and a significantly more prolonged and coordinated effort within the urban black community itself, and maybe the latter is the more important of the two.

African-Americans who become
lawyers, doctors, scholars, artists,
are not newsworthy.

We see headlines about gangs and criminals, but African-Americans who become lawyers, doctors, scholars, artists, and so on are mostly not newsworthy, as is also true for other races. This makes it too easy to conclude that there are no success stories.

Where you really step in it is in discussing the issue of racial superiority and inferiority. Most liberal people would deny that there is any such thing. But consider the world of the jazz musician. There are many fine jazz musicians of all races, but the real giants are almost all African-American. Look at professional athletes. All the major sports are dominated by black athletes. Where do the best marathoners come from? Kenya.

The issue of racial superiority
and inferiority is explosive.

But can we conclude from these examples that blacks demonstrate racial superiority in these instances? Careful, because if you think the answer is yes, you have just endorsed the idea of racial superiority and inferiority. What does that mean for intelligence? Are whites smarter than blacks? After all, there’s an enduring gap between the scholastic accomplishments of American whites and blacks.

But the conclusion is not so simple. At the most it might eventually be shown there is a statistically significant difference of no particular importance. But that seems unlikely, because the groups of people who are superior in any specific field keep changing, depending on many factors. Currently, Asians are supposed to be the math and science whizzes (so are Scandinavians), but that could change because of a shift of national priorities, or of education budgets, or of a gradual evolution of public goals. And not all Asians are good at math—or kung fu. It’s even said that at one time Jews were considered naturally superior basketball players.

American students these days are judged to be deficient in math, but that could change quickly. Remember the movie (or the book) “Stand And Deliver”. At-risk Latino high school students taught by Jaime Escalante scored so highly on an advanced math test that the testing agency believed they must have cheated. Latino kids from el barrio aren’t supposed to be brilliant mathematicians; it is assumed they are naturally inferior.

Racial strengths and weaknesses
are cultural and historic,
not racial.

No claim of racial superiority or inferiority is supported by science. Racial strengths and weaknesses are cultural and historic, not racial. It is statistically impossible to tease out group differences that result from cultural norms, wealth, or a number of other conditions, not to mention that race itself is not a scientific term. Remember the Guatemala pygmies? No, you don’t, because their “natural” shortness vanished in one generation when their diet improved. Similarly, strengths and weaknesses of all human groups wax and wane over time, and “natural” characteristics during one century may be absent the next. Wave after wave of European and Asian immigrants to the US were adjudged inferior when they first arrived, but not in subsequent generations.

But none of them came as slaves, and none of them faced the ugly and enduring prejudice after Emancipation, and that has made all the difference.

Only African immigrants came as slaves,
and only they have endured
such persistent prejudice.

My personal take on differences between the races is that, given equal conditions, it is highly unlikely that there are any. But we don’t have equal conditions, and never will. Economic equality of opportunity is part and parcel of the American ideal, but complete racial equality is not only highly unlikely, but not even desirable. There are traits in all races and cultures that are points of great pride, and deserve careful preservation.

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