So…who IS the fairest of us all?

I’ve been in a number of conversations recently that presume race and racism as the proper context for the discussion. It isn’t always. Sometimes it is culture; sometimes it is class; sometimes it is religious practice.

And on some of those occasions, I have said, “You know, race isn’t really the best category to use in exploring this topic.” And sometimes—fairly frequently, actually—the response has been, “No, no. Race is the right thing to talk about!” And if I say that the best topic is one that distinguishes effective childrearing practices from ineffective ones, I have sometimes been called a racist.

That doesn’t affect me as much as the accusers, inevitably friends of mine, think it will because I was brought up in a culture where “sin” was invariably relevant. There was no getting away from it. The most honorable self-control still falls under the scythe of “thought, word, and deed.” [1] So “racist” isn’t quite that moral blow my friends think it ought to be.

I have two ideas I would like to take out for a walk this morning. The first is that, as important as race is, there are other things we need to talk about, too. One way to approach the question—not the question of racism, but the question of talking about racism—is to ask when we will be done. The best answers, I think, vary with the reasons for talking about it. Here are some.

American history: Race has been a huge part of American history. I think it should be part of every school curriculum every year. I think racial guilt should not. And if you think it should, I would like for you to say what good outcome you are trying to achieve by making school children feel awful about things their great-grandmothers did. [2] I can see the teaching that “the savages” ought to be denied human dignity as a wrong teaching. I can see acts of cruelty and theft of property [3] as part of the account of American history. I can see the decisions and acts of particular individuals and groups as deserving the adjective “racist.” But in our schools and in our teaching generally, I think there ought to be a reason for teaching what we teach.

The defense I most often hear is that it ought to be taught because it is true. But that’s an awful answer. It ought not be taught if it isn’t true, but among the zillions of true things, some are relevant to the narrative and some (most) are not. And narratives themselves are not true or false, but rather useful or not. Facts that are alleged in support of the narratives can, of course, be true or false, but the narrative itself cannot.

Social Equity: Let’s start with the idea that the economic and political system we have developed have very positive effects on people who are resource rich [I define that notion broadly enough to include having good parents] and very poor effects on people who are resource poor. As Anatole France puts it, “’The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”

There are three kinds of reasons commonly given in support of social equity—“equity” remember means “fairness” not necessarily equality. The achievement of social equity will need to have some way to deal with those disadvantages that are principally caused by racial discrimination, but racial equality and social equity aren’t the same kinds of things at all. The first of the reasons is that it—achieving a fair society—is the right thing to do. I think that is important for many kinds of reasons, but it is not, by itself, going to solve the problem.

Another kind of reason is that social equity is cheaper. When a population is treated fairly and believes it is being treated fairly, governing them is not at all expensive. Frances Fukuyama, writing about trust, says that in low trust societies, there is a tax levied on every human transaction. That’s why inegalitarian and authoritarian societies are so expensive. It is a commonplace to say that if we spent more money on schools, we wouldn’t have to spend so much on jails. I have some quibbles about that, mostly having to do with measurement, but the idea that prevention is cheaper than treatment ought to be relatively uncontroversial.

Although you wouldn’t necessarily presume it, it is true that having a small favored population to whom the best of the society flows means that you have to do something to keep those goods and services from the large disfavored population. Keeping the good schools separate from the poor schools and the good neighborhoods separate from the poor ones requires monitoring and enforcement. It requires laws and regulations and inspectors and punitive sanctions and somebody has to pay for all that. In a lot of cases, exclusion just costs more than inclusion.

This is not an argument for inclusion, please remember, on the grounds that it is right. This argument is based on how much less expensive it is.

Third, social equity gives us the kind of society we would genuinely prefer to live in. This argument doesn’t take the route of arguing how best to achieve it, only that it is the common preference. An equitable society is not one where there are no losers; it is one where the losers are where they are because of their choices. [4] Winners and losers are not toxic categories in an equitable society, particularly if it is a snapshot taken today rather than a fate forced in the long run onto whole populations. It is also a help if “being a loser” is not a disaster. A society that helps its losers gives them a chance to not always be losers.

This is really the simplest of the arguments. A society where you can live freely only when the walls are high and the gates are locked is not a good place. A society where you are allowed to go wherever you want provided you are willing to step over the bodies on the sidewalk or fend off the mendicants is not a good place. People would choose something better than that if given the chance.

In the paragraphs above, I have argued that you can say a lot of important things about equity without ever introducing the effects of our racial history. But now I would like to talk about race and especially about racial stereotypes. This isn’t “race” the way biologists look at it. These are the different flavors of “them” that show up in conversations that get out of hand.

I hear that there is increasing concern that “whites” are going to become a minority in this country. That’s where the demographers see the trends to be headed. I think it is worth asking, “minority of what?” Any answer to that will be required to invent the category of “non-whites” and to treat it as if it were a coherent cultural or political entity. You would have to be willing to say things like: this is how nonwhites think, this is how they relate to each other, this is how they vote, and this is why. Those are ridiculous because they require attributing commonalities to a population that actually have in common only that they don’t look like you. That’s not common enough to say sensible things. “Non-white” in this formulation is only another way of saying “them.”

Let’s start at another place and wrap this exploration up. Using “race” as described above, it is reasonable to say that every “race” has characteristics—things they characteristically prefer, things they are normally good at or poor at, patterns of childrearing. “Characteristically,” I said. Now let’s imagine a circle of chairs on a stage. In each chair is a representative of each “race.” The question the moderator asks is this: what characteristic of your “race” are you proudest of?”

There ought to be something to say no matter what group you are representing. It doesn’t sound that hard. But when we get the the white representative—you see now why I started with the fantasy about the majority of minorities—what will the white person say? Whatever it is, it will be called “racist” by nearly all the people I know. Good things about white people are “racism.” End of discussion.

I have three criticisms to make of that sorry state of affairs. The first is that it is silly. The second is that it is patently unfair. The third is that it will not help us get to where we want to be.

There is a lot of talk today about “anti-racism.” That’s my position. I think race should be the focal point when it helps us all move in the direction we want to go. Where there are other concepts that are more helpful, let’s use those.

[1] One of my favorite Whoopi Goldberg lines comes from early in her career. As she relates it, someone said the was a sinner. “No, no, she said, I’m a surfer.” As if she was talking about one pronunciation or another and the accuser’s misunderstanding was completely benign.
[2] Probably it was their great-grandfathers, but I am grandfathering the current gender equity discussion into the old racial guilt discussion
[3] Complicated without a common definition of what constitutes “property” but we could have gotten over that if we had really wanted to.
[4] It is not hard to think of exceptions, like people who were born with debilitating mental or physical handicaps. I grant them as exceptions to the general rule and ask that you do that too.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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