I was in the doctor’s office the other day and perused the June issue of Newsweek. I was actually looking for another article, but happened to come across George Will’s commentary on black militancy, dependency, and the soft bigotry of lowered expectations, based on a book by black writer Shelby Steele.
Will correctly hit upon a problem in American society in which people look for excuses to deflect personal responsibility (and guess what, white people do it all the time, not just those pesky minorities “looking for a hand out”).
But there is a lot wrong with this commentary. Identity politics does not hold that biology, or identity, is destiny because of a said groups’ inherent characteristics, but because of outward circumstances. It presumes that society can change, and so can the lives of those seeking more freedom, autonomy, or what have you. When it comes to race, assuming that it's a valid category and not just a social construct, biology can be destiny, a destiny of disempowerment. It doesn’t have to be. To be fair, identity politics can degenerate into a regressive psychology. (No matter how much is given, it’s not enough, society will always be wrong, because its purpose is to serve the needs of an infantile ego with unlimited wants.) If it’s true that black militants and white liberals polluted the civil rights movement by defining black people as a collective, then why do the same thing and put the onus on black people as a whole? Rather than saying that black people should be more responsible for their behavior, we should just say that individuals period should own behavior.
According to Will, Steele's book argues that racism in the life of a black person today is an event but not a condition. This means that the playing field is fair, even if there are unfair events (and life is unfair for everyone, in equal proportions). Granted, racism is not as bad now as it once was. There are still outright racists, who sometimes harass minorities or commit hate crimes, but these incidents happen randomly and are condemned by the mainstream, unlike the days of yore.
The problem is that there are events in the lives of minorities that happen so regularly they often go unnoticed. There are inconveniences, which individuals cope with in different ways, such as taxis passing black people by while these same cabs pull over immediately for a white person, or black people being followed around in stores. The reality show “Black. White.” (I generally hate reality shows, but this one was one of the few interesting sociological experiments) outlined this. For example, the only black couple in a bar was also the only one asked for pay upfront with a credit card. If you are going to say that if the majority of crime wasn’t done by blacks, they wouldn’t be subjected to these conditions, you are doing the same thing you just blamed liberals for – treating blacks as a collective rather than on an individual basis.
Discrimatory events, whether random or regular, don't necessarily cause an individual to commit a crime. It may or may not be a contributing factor, depending on the case. That doesn’t even matter; it’s wrong because no one should go through that.
Worse than this, though, is being discriminated against in the job market, in housing (good neighborhoods usually = good schools for children), and for other benefits. This is more than just a trifling inconvenience.
To say that this isn't structural because it's (usually) not done on purpose by those in power who discriminate, and not part of some deliberate plan to disempower minorities misses the point.
There is an unfair burden. In order to disprove a large standing assumption that a certain minority group is inherently inferior – morally, intellectually, spiritually – some take it upon themselves to be better just to be equal. Even though it's not PC to say outloud in American society today that a race is inferior, it's not a stretch to say that many Americans still believe it. Those in the majority might not want to believe that a race is inferior, but when they see certain behavior on the street or see criminals on the news they have enough evidence that, in their minds, lends truth to the stereotypes. Therefore, some minorities try to overachieve in order to overcompensate.
This can have two effects. One, it puts an extraordinary stress on the overachiever, maybe even causing that person to snap. To a racist, this is just more proof that the race is inferior, because even the good ones go bad. If he or she screws up, it can’t just be a person making a mistake, it’s a black person doing it. If a white person screws up, it might be because of other signifiers, but whiteness is not one of them. The second effect is that some of the overachievers might go out of their way to denounce others of their race in order to fit in.
Might Steele be an example of this? I don’t know. I wouldn’t say this is in the same vein of Bill Cosby’s criticism. I sense that Cosby really cares about the plight of black people, even if he views it as largely their fault. Steele is more focused on an ideology. Since he advocates individualism, this is less about the plight of black people as a whole, which, categorically, is considered dehumanizing anyway, and probably more about the author himself. He doesn’t want to be judged for being black, but on his individual merits.
I think that's fair, everyone has a right to be respected as an individual. The great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also believed in meritocracy. But Dr. King also pulled no punches when criticizing the realities of structural racism, poverty, and even American imperialism. He may have had ties to the Communist Party USA, and was considered a threat not only to racists but to the greater power structure. He was investigated by the FBI, and some members of his family even believe that they had a hand in his murder.
However, I think "guilt-politics" can only go so far. I happen to think reparations for slavery are a very bad idea, even if well-intended. It is true that many in power today got there because of a legacy of family advantages, benefitting from both racism and colonialism. Even some conservatives admit that much. But individuals today should not take credit or blame for the sins of their ancestors or the injustices experienced by them. Instead, the focus should be on real instances of systemic racism that still exists, whether de facto segregation, racial profiling, or voter fraud and intimidation. I’m on the fence with affirmative action. If universities are required to eliminate it, then I think they should also eliminate family legacies.
While Will's commentary makes some fair points, in the hands of some this line of reasoning serves another purpose. It’s like when white people say “I’m not racist because I have a black friend.” It’s easier to shame black people as a whole if you hide behind a black person who agrees with you.