Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Racism and Economism—Cozy Bedmates

            A talk with colleagues recently sent me back to the book by Michael K. Brown and several colleagues, Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society (University of California Press, 2003). The Introduction to their volume is an excellent discussion of the phenomenon of what scholars call “whiteness,” the privileges that whites enjoy by living in our present American society, which is invisible to the whites because they don’t see how it is built on systemic discrimination aimed at nonwhites. What I want to talk about in this blog post is how closely the conservative response to the challenge of “whiteness” relies on economism as its fundamental ideology.
            Brown and colleagues spend most of their Introduction addressing what they call “racial realism,” the position advocated primarily by conservative opponents of affirmative action and similar government programs. Racial realism, they say, claims three things:
·         Contrary to the liberal myth that America is basically racist, the country has made great strides in rectifying racial inequality in recent years, so the problem has been solved and we really need to move on.
·         Any persistent inequalities in income, employment, housing, health care, etc. can no longer be explained by white racism and must be due to unwise, irresponsible choices made by individual people of color.
·         Current failures of the civil rights movement are caused by the self-serving behavior of its leaders, who don’t serve the interests of their constituents and merely want to keep themselves in power.
Brown et al’s book is basically a set of essays designed to refute all these claims, and they briefly go over the evidence against each in their Introduction. In the process of refuting the claims, they make clear how much those making the conservative case rely on the belief system of economism.
            A central tenet of economism is that if you’re poor, you got that way through your own individual actions and not because of any institutional or systemic factors; and if you’re rich, you got that way because of your own hard work and responsible behavior. So the most threatening thing to say to any economism true believer is that a person might be hardworking and deserving and still end up poor, or vice versa. Therefore, any suggestion that our society remains racist, so that blacks have an automatic disadvantage that’s outside of any individual’s control, has to be fought off with everything in the economism arsenal (like assembling all the evidence of progress toward racial inequality, and ignoring the mountains of evidence on how much inequality still exists).
            The second major belief of economism is that the free market is the solution for all human problems, and government regulation always makes a problem worse. If despite some recent progress (which Brown and company hardly deny), America today remains rife with institutional racial prejudice, it seems pretty clear that the marketplace has not fixed it and that the only way to level the playing field is through some form of government policies. But such a conclusion is simply not acceptable to this group of thinkers, so they need to deny the problem rather than admit the possible need for solution (just as they have done with climate change).
            Brown and colleagues, in passing, tell a story that I think goes to the heart of the claims of “racial realism.” Prof. Andrew Hacker, in his book Two Nations (Ballantine, 1992), describes an experiment he performed with his white college students. He asked them how much money they would demand as fair compensation if they were to be changed from white to black; and they replied that they’d consider it a fair deal if they received $1 million a year.
            I assume that as part of this experiment, the students took for granted that they’d stay the same people in all other aspects of life other than skin color. That is, if they had succeeded in college thus far by hard work and responsible behavior, they’d continue to act that way after the color change. So if racial realism was a true description of U.S. society, they might see the level of disadvantage they’d face as something easily compensated for by much less than a cool million a year.
            Obviously, these students, based on their own up close and personal view of how society works (and perhaps also informed by looking into the secret recesses of their own racial thinking) were having none of this. They knew how little all their individual good behavior, and positive upbringing in white schools and white homes, would count as soon as they could be found guilty of “driving while black,” or went out on the job market as a black person, or went to see a doctor or got admitted to a hospital.
            The Hacker experiment should be especially persuasive to believers in economism, because it’s a free market answer. He got a free-market estimate from his students as to the actual cost of being black in America.

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