In my previous post, I discussed the three levels of accusation regarding the guilt of white people in white privilege, and how I find only the mildest of these of any merit. I also alluded to the fact that the problems of black community, which in many ways eclipse those of other minority and poor communities, do not merely have root in external social injustice. They also have root in internal values and hopelessness within the community.
Can white people bring up such criticisms and not be racist?
Let’s be clear here – I can not know what it is like to always have to look over my shoulder when the police are around, or be denied jobs because I have an ethnic name. I agree that I can’t really “know what it’s like.”
Let’s be clear, it may be morally and ethically superior to “take the log out of your own eye first,” and be sure to be self-critical before evaluating others, but criticizing those other than one’s self is part of being a responsible citizen when others have an adverse effect on you or society. Note that in the quote from Jesus above, he goes on to permit “judging others” after first being self-reflective – and notice that he expects us to view those we criticize as friends, not enemies – those we wish to help, not put down:
Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye. (Matthew 7:5)
This means that whites can and even should raise questions of responsibility, values, and other relevant topics regarding the black community, especially when that community is having a destructive effect on itself and society.
To deny that is like me saying “you’re not white, so you can’t talk about white privilege or know what it’s like to grow up not thinking about racism.” Not allowing criticism or commentary unless one is in the group is essentially engaging in the fallacy of poisoning the well, and not logical argument in any sense.
The Vicious Cycle of Injustice and Defeatism
Like many, I am sick of the polarization of our country, especially in cases where both sides carry one half of the story. This is nowhere more true than in the problem of black America. Is it true that blacks grow up under the specter of unfair treatment by police, the justice system, and employers? Yes. Are they entirely helpless to do anything until these ills are resolved and they have an even, if not favorable playing field? No.
I think this is my main beef with progressive approaches and accusations on this issue. They emphasize external factors (social injustice) without mentioning the other huge internal contributing factors of personal behavior and values in the black community. Now before you get on your high horse about my assailing the character of the black community, let me just make some statements to explain what I mean and don’t mean.
I don’t mean that
- there aren’t good, virtuous blacks in the ghettos, or black leaders trying to influence their communities to do good in spite of circumstances
- whites and the non-poor are somehow virtuous because they are not poor – we all know that greed, jealousy, and hatred live in those communities as well
I do mean that
- antisocial and negative values such as disregard for law, life, property, and kindness are rife in black culture, as easily witnessed in its embrace of prison/thug culture, misogyny and sexual objectification of women, glorification of drug use, and disregard for fatherhood
- such damaging behaviors as violence, drug use, promiscuity, absentee fathering and abortion are all personal decisions that have a negative impact and keep people in jails and poverty, and there is a disproportionate and sizable amount of this behavior in the black community, and all of these are choices people make, not foregone conclusions based on external circumstances
I also take issue with conservatives as well – they fail to acknowledge the sizable contribution of continuing systemic bias and racism experienced by blacks every day.
So in my mind, social injustice creates hopelessness which creates crime which creates a real need to punish offenders as well as a negative view of the black community, which results in more profiling which is experienced (and often practiced) as racism.
1. Social Injustice
There is no doubt in my mind that suffering social injustice leads many in the black community to give up, act out in antisocial and illegal ways, and to despise the authority of the state. In the face of hopeless odds, who would not embrace the only alternative of lawless thievery and thuggery in order to survive?
Based on this, progressives rightly attribute at least some of the cause of the problem to the significant impact of social injustice. However, there is another, arguably more important factor in this cycle, which they ignore.
2. Virtue and Self-Determination
Let me be frank – if I could assign relative proportions to the impact of these two factors (injustice and criminal responses), I’d go 60/40, with an emphasis on the black community’s responsibility, not the systems faults, in creating this problem. Or at least, I would argue that the primary solution MUST be to encourage personal virtue and hard work among blacks to fix the problem. Here’s why.
a. You can’t wait for perfect conditions
If you wait for perfect conditions before you act or take personal responsibility, you never will. All you do by acting out is hurt yourself, when you could be making a difference in an imperfect world rather than making it worse, even if you feel justified in complaining. As one of my mentors once told me (pay attention, this is really important):
Don’t complain, take positive action!
b. Telling people the primary problem is outside of them is dis-empowering
When we tell the poor that the real problem is something outside of them and their control, we take away their power of self-determination to overcome negative odds. This is a huge disservice to the poor, and the fact that many blacks have successfully worked their way out of the ghetto is testimony to the power that individuals do have to help themselves.
c. Trying to extract reparations is counterproductive and backwards looking
While there is some value to healing wounds of the past through forgiveness and repentance, there is a time for extracting reparations, and that time is probably limited to the time directly after the transgressions.
Most white people alive today had no part in slavery, the civil war, or Jim Crow laws. Now, perhaps as long as the baby boomers are with us, they have a responsibility to fix the errors of their parents, but us younger white folk look on in bewilderment at people dwelling in the distant past as if it was relevant to anyone.
You can’t spend all of your time looking in the rear view mirror, lest you crash. And those stuck on grievances of the past, ones that only indirectly affect them (compared to the huge affect of maintaining the helpless, angry victim stance) are creating MORE racism, hatred, and bitterness, not resolving it.
It is no wonder that conservatives often claim that the only place racism really lives is in the hearts of progressives who see a racist demon under every bush, when it’s really mostly in their heads.
Look, I get that the current trends have roots in history. I get that systemic racism still exists and needs addressing. But what I don’t get is people who focus on that to the exclusion of self-determination, personal virtue, and forward-looking actions.
What can all racists do?
White racists can
- Acknowledge that real systemic injustice is going on, and it is worthwhile for those who prioritize fixing this to do so
- Not attack other whites as racists for not getting on their bandwagons
Black racists can
- Engage in personal virtue, hard work, and sacrifice to make it instead of buying into the life of crime, victimization, and hate
- Not attack other blacks who don’t buy into the hatred of whites and blaming the system, but who are trying to make a positive difference
Other races can
- Do their best to represent their views and people through principled debate, personal virtue
Winning the Argument with An Honest, Balanced Approach
To my progressive and conservative friends, I implore you to make a two pronged argument every time you discuss this topic. Progressives, be sure to acknowledge that self-determination and personal virtue are a big part of the solution. Conservatives, be sure to acknowledge there is an ongoing, real, and significant problem with the justice system that creates unrest and hopelessness in the black community.
If we fail to affirm what our “opponents” know to be true, and only present our one side of the arguments, we are just imbalanced extremists from the other side. You think your side is the 60% of the 60/40 divide here? We all do, hence the side we align with.
I also have one other suggestion for my progressive friends who want me to join them – don’t suggest government programs or taxation to fix the problem. I’m fine with changing laws, but redistribution of funds is essentially what I call “coercive public policy,” and I don’t buy that from the left or the right (see more on this at Proportions for Public Policy, the Normal Curve).
I’m not sure if my approach is as balanced as I present, as you can see, I’m clearly on the conservative end of the spectrum. However, I’ve coined a phrase which to me captures the essence of this discussion:
Blaming the victim and playing the victim are two sides of the same coin.
Or to put it positively
Encouraging personal virtue and working for social justice are the best solutions to poverty.