I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard liberals call for “a national conversation about race.” It’s wearyingly cliché at this point, so we get some variations in the language. Let’s “do some soul-searching” about America’s racial dynamics. Or perhaps we should have “a national reckoning leading to spiritual renewal”?
It’s a political “safe place” for liberals: spinning their wheels with righteous reminders of the value of dialogue. Such rhetoric is useless, of course, but don’t expect it to stop. Race is one of the few live issues liberals have left to make noise about, and every pundit and politician knows that, in this arena, it’s safest to “stay meta.” Affirming the value of bridge-building and conscience-examining is fairly painless. Actually discussing racial issues in any detail is sure to get people hot and bothered—as Jonathan Chait occasionally discovers to his discomfiture.
It’s Getting Lonely On This ‘National Conversation’ Train
I’m in. I’m willing to participate in this glorious national dialogue. It’s kind of surprising, though, how little is actually happening on the much-ballyhooed bandwagon.
As I understand it, a discussion involves one person saying something relevant, and another person saying something different (but ideally also relevant). It allows for probing questions designed to fill out our appreciation of complicated realities. It definitely entails more than witch hunts and pious proclamations.
So how come most liberals seem interested only in the latter? They’re outraged by actual discussions of racial dynamics, which inevitably have potential to be unflattering to multiple parties. Liberals talk about systemic racism, which ostensibly asks us to look beyond the attitudes of specific individuals, considering instead the general ways in which social, economic, and political factors might work to the disadvantage of particular minority groups. It sounds compelling. Don’t make the mistake of thinking, though, that most liberals actually want to discuss these things.
Last week, I angered several writers at Slate by raising some questions about racial dynamics in Ferguson, Missouri, inspired by the U.S. Department of Justice’s report on the Ferguson Police Department. My critics seemed to think I was a de facto PR rep for the FPD. It’s a good thing I’m not, because I’d have lost that job in a New York minute.
Anyone Want to Do More than Use Ferguson as a Talking Point?
I’m definitely concerned about the racial dynamics of Ferguson. It seems reasonable to think, based on DOJ’s reports, that residents may have suffered from abuses of police authority. I think an honest reader would clearly see these concerns in Friday’s piece, and also in my previous writings on the subject.
Here’s what I’m wondering, though. Do we care about anything other than delivering a verdict on the FPD? Any interest, perhaps, in understanding what’s really going on in Ferguson, and other similar neighborhoods across America? Or is our scope of concern purely limited to determining whether future speechwriters may justifiably toss Ferguson into their orations in the same breath as Rodney King?
Personally, I want more than platitudes and ritual ablutions. I hate racism, and I hate even more the fact that so many children in this country (very disproportionately African-American) are born with slim odds of ever leading productive and happy lives. I’d like to think America can do better. But I also have to note that, in the past, many efforts to achieve social justice really haven’t made things better.
Race Relations Are Complicated
So, yes, morally indignant Slate writers. We should ask what it’s like to be a cop in Ferguson. It’s appropriate to wonder whether Ferguson’s black residents are the only ones who feel threatened and angry, or whether whites (or other ethnic groups) also feel mistreated or marginalized on account of their race. Although several commentators regarded these questions as “mortifying,” it’s irresponsible to make sweeping moral pronouncements based on a deliberately targeted picture of a single tree in a large forest.
As noted in my previous piece, one problem with the DOJ report is its reliance on “disparate impact” to make its point. A disparate impact study, as Thomas Sowell explained this week in National Review Online, is always hard to interpret because there are many extraneous factors that can explain why one segment of the population is more affected than another by (in this case) law enforcement. In America today, for example, significantly more men are convicted of felonies than women. Is that proof that the justice system is sexist? Surely not. We need more information to make that determination, most obviously about who is committing crimes.
Even without providing definitive proof of anything, however, a disparate impact study can reasonably raise questions (or eyebrows). I think this one does, even recognizing that the Department of Justice surely had political motivations to find a blameworthy party in Ferguson, particularly in light of its exoneration of Officer Darren Wilson. Reading through it, one finds quite a lot of numbers in the nineties (as in, 94 percent of municipal court citations?) and it would be interesting to hear experienced police officers discuss this. Are there good reasons why non-contraband-carrying black drivers are more likely to be stopped than white ones? Is it true that “bully cops” are harassing certain demographics much more than others?
As for Ferguson Itself, It’s Complicated, Too
Very likely, the reality would be murky and complicated. Ferguson’s story really is quite interesting, as Walter Russell Mead explained at The American Interest. It’s a suburban area that has seen a large influx of African American residents over the last 25 years. Most of them came from impoverished urban areas, so for some of its newer residents, Ferguson represents a step up in the world. It really isn’t a slum; only about 20 percent of its residents live below the poverty line. But demographic shifts have created an uneasy cultural brew, which has surely been exacerbated by the same unhappy trends that have dimmed the prospects of lower-middle-class Americans everywhere. People worry about “what’s happening to the neighborhood,” and about their children’s future prospects.
There’s definitely a racial component. A quarter-century ago, Ferguson was mostly white, and that older demographic picture is still reflected in the city’s civil services and political structures. Mead primarily cites unions as the reason for this, although it’s also worth noting that Ferguson’s black residents don’t vote in large numbers. (According to ThinkProgress, only 6 percent of black residents voted in their 2013 municipal elections.) Those factors might help to explain some soft, wagon-circling corruption in the bureaucracy and the police force. Unions are supposed to look out for their own; it’s their primary purpose. But that kind of in-grouping naturally breeds cronyism and give an edge to the neighborhood’s more-established families and sub-groups. For newcomers, that might be the sort of disadvantage which can foment civil unrest.
White civil servants, representing Ferguson’s new minority, may feel defensive and disoriented by changes in their neighborhood. The new black majority, for their part, are frustrated by a lack of opportunities in general, and especially by a sense that the political and civil structures are less open to them. It’s especially infuriating (as conservatives readily understand) to feel that one’s tax dollars are supporting people who are working for someone else’s agenda. (And, as Mead astutely notes, this frustration is likely to grow as union-negotiated pensions start placing larger and larger burdens on ordinary taxpayers.)
That’s quite a messy brew of interests and influences. It would be a little short-sighted to read the arrest-warrant statistics and stop there.
So You’re Saying the Whole Town Is Racist?
That’s what many have concluded by the “whiteness” of Ferguson’s political structure and of its civil servants. Again, race overlaps with many other factors, so it can be hard to isolate. But these numbers also raise questions about the ethics of ethnic solidarity. Is it always equivalent to racism? Once again, I think the issue is a bit more complicated than that. I suspect most of us, if we’re honest, already know that from experience.
I presently live in a safe, upper-middle-class neighborhood ringed by universities. A solid 69 percent of my ZIP-code residents graduated from college. It’s certainly not the sort of place where anyone notices or cares that my husband and I are (as one elderly relative put it) “an interracial couple.”
That sort of cosmopolitanism is generally born of a broad base of shared experiences (educational, professional, etc.), and also out of the basic fact that most people are established enough not to need an extensive neighborhood safety net. The whole world is not like this, nor, I expect, will it ever be.
I witnessed a very different dynamic one memorable summer 14 years ago, when my fresh-faced undergraduate self volunteered for eight weeks at an outreach organization in a Chicago slum. The area was overwhelmingly black. I lived with Catholic nuns on the top floor of a well-secured building, and my days were spent working with children, helping in a childcare center for working parents, and tutoring individual kids who were failing out of school. It was a certainly a new experience to drill phonics and basic arithmetic with pre-teens whom, I realized one day in a gut-wrenching moment of culture shock, might never learn these things if someone didn’t reach them very soon.
In my first week on the job, several people at the center warned me not to walk the streets by myself, even in the daytime. It wouldn’t be safe “for me.” If I got into trouble it was hard to say whether anyone would help. This reasoning generally wasn’t spelled out to the letter, but I got the drift.
Ethnic Solidarity Versus Racism
I didn’t really take offense. Yes, it was mildly alarming that residents of the area seemed to think my race might affect even such matters as whether their neighbors would dial 911 if I were being mugged. Then again, I was the outsider, and although the “otherness” of whites was obvious in that weirdly self-contained world, it didn’t really rise to the level of personal hatred, at least in most instances. It was more an issue of black identity and solidarity. I noticed, for example, how the children were delighted to include me in their games (I pushed a lot of swings that summer), but still regularly teased each other in my presence for being “white” (which usually denoted cowardice). I found that an amusing little expression of ethnic pride. Given the troubled history of African Americans in this country, it would hardly be reasonable to get indignant when such neighborhoods develop a sense of solidarity.
But sometimes that can be problematic. Racial dynamics can run the gamut from beautiful to horrific, and sometimes the good and ugly are closely conjoined. In Central Asia, where I lived for two years, people will actually ask your “nationality,” which they regard as a separate issue from citizenship or country of residence. They’re effectively asking about race, and it amuses them that Americans find this an uncomfortable question when they have it written right into their passports.
Does that sort of ethnic identification cause problems? Certainly not always. I found ethnic identification to be a source of pride and community for most people, and in general the various “nationalities” seemed to bump along fairly peaceably. Then again, as recently as 2010, violent conflicts that the United Nations labeled “ethnic cleansing” broke out between the Uzbeks and Kyrgyz just a few miles from where I used to work, leaving almost 200 dead. When ethnic groups develop a sense of “family,” there’s also the potential for “family feuds.”
Let’s return to Ferguson. It is obviously a place in which ethnic identification and solidarity play a noteworthy role in community life. That’s inevitably going to make for a complex interplay of interests and associations and, sometimes, grievances. This has been true (again, with mixed results) throughout own country’s history as well, as for example in New York City, where the often-hated Irish population found a refuge in the police force, and the Jews came to dominate the financial sector.
Suppose the white population of Ferguson suddenly found itself outnumbered by newcomers who seemed to regard it as their primary duty to take care of one another and not their new white neighbors? Would it be surprising if a similar dynamic developed in the unions and perhaps police force?
I shouldn’t need to say it, but for the sake of complete crystal clarity I will anyway: of course it is not okay if historical-ethnic connections, perhaps reinforced by established unions and entrenched political structures, have made it especially difficult for African Americans to establish themselves and build decent lives. It’s definitely not okay if that is indeed affecting how the law is enforced. It’s the kind of thing that does happen when demographics shift, but it’s obviously still a legitimate source of concern. Still, we can’t address those problems responsibly if we’re not even permitted to diagnose them.
Finding A Real Way Forward
Why is it that so many liberals, ostensibly burning with zeal for racial justice, are strangely uncurious about the details? Are they just too naive to appreciate the real complexity of human affairs? Or is it even worse than that?
Here’s the most damning possibility. Perhaps elite liberals don’t actually want to achieve racial harmony. If we managed to build a society where everyone has a reasonable chance to thrive, where would they get their political leverage? And how would elite secularists capture that delicious feeling of righteousness and moral superiority? Diagnosing race-related psychological-spiritual maladies is easy and satisfying on both levels, and why stop? It’s not as though race-related tensions can ever entirely be cured.
Moreover, real solutions to minority problems may well be unpalatable to progressive liberals. They might involve, for example, declawing unions and cracking down on tyrannical bureaucrats (in Ferguson’s case, mostly Democrats) who’ve forgotten that a police force is supposed to secure public safety, not fill holes in the budget by issuing unnecessary citations.
Real solutions might involve prudent entitlement reform, of a sort that promotes healthy family structures instead of undermining them. Reforming our prison system (an issue conservatives have taken up with far more zeal than their liberal counterparts) could help ease some of these problems. And everyone in middle America (especially in downscale neighborhoods like Ferguson) could benefit from more opportunity, more economic growth, and a mobility-oriented agenda that gives people from all backgrounds a chance to better their and their families’ prospects.
In all likelihood, these are the measures that stand a real chance of easing the frustration that we see boiling over among struggling minority groups. If we have a real conversation about race, is that where we’ll end up? No wonder liberals don’t want the details.