Not John McWhorter. In his review of Amy Wax’s book, Race, Wrongs, and Remedies, McWhorter waxes (ho ho) poetic about the persuasiveness of the argument, but completely fails to relate just what it is that makes it persuasive. The review begins, as such things so often do, with a complete strawman:
There is a school of thought in America which argues that the government must be the main force that provides help to the black community.
Notice the unspoken assumptions smuggled into this sentence. First, it is simply assumed that such a “school of thought” exists, although none of its representatives are even identified, much less given a voice. The second assumption is that this school (whatever it is, if it even exists) believes that government must be the “main force,” in helping the black community; is there even a metric that allows one to compare who or what is a “main” force and what is an auxillary? I would suppose that if one actually spoke to people who study issues of this sort, one would discover a much more nuanced view on the role of government in bringing about racial equality.
The review, and, I must assume from the text, Wax’s book itself, contains one of those horrible appeals to analogy which is neither illuminating nor valid. McWhorter paraphrases it thus:
Wax appeals to a parable in which a pedestrian is run over by a truck and must learn to walk again. The truck driver pays the pedestrian’s medical bills, but the only way the pedestrian will walk again is through his own efforts. The pedestrian may insist that the driver do more, that justice has not occurred until the driver has himself made the pedestrian learn to walk again. But the sad fact is that justice, under this analysis, is impossible.
How this is supposed to teach us anything about the history of African-Americans is unclear. Justice is “impossible,” under this analysis because the framework of the “parable” is structured to prevent it from being possible. Even internally the example isn’t particularly coherent; we might well ask what happens if the truck driver has paralyzed the pedestrian, which would seem to be a reasonable question given the analogy. Now, the pedestrian can’t learn to walk, no matter how hard he tries! What kind of justice does the pedestrian, now crippled for life, deserve in this case?
Of course, to even begin to make this counter-argument is already a problem because it implies the acceptance of the analogy, which is in no way legitimate. Collisions between truck drivers and pedestrians are individual processes; the condition of blacks in America is not an individual process but a historic one. Truck drivers didn’t create structural conditions that continuously result in pedestrians being run over, whereas white America unquestionably did create (and continues to perpetuate) structural conditions that leave blacks at a disadvantage.
McWhorter goes on:
The legal theory about remedies, Wax points out, grapples with this inconvenience—and the history of the descendants of African slaves, no matter how horrific, cannot upend its implacable logic. As she puts it, “That blacks did not, in an important sense, cause their current predicament does not preclude charging them with alleviating it if nothing else will work.”
The italics in the quotation are mine. Let me first object to the use of the word “implacable” here as a mean rhetorical trick designed to move the faulty analogy out of the realm of debate. In fact, as is clear after minimal reflection, nothing about this logic is implacable at all; it’s actually quite faulty and not at all applicable to the situation in question, which in any case ought to be treated on its own merits. But even granting this false analogy, I still have to wonder by what mechanism of elimination Wax has concluded that “nothing else will work.” Does Wax’s book contain a thorough examination of various social programs together with an analysis of their performance? I don’t have the book, but I suspect that it’s not something you can do in 190 pages (and anyway, Wax is a lawyer, not a sociologist, so likely such an analysis would be beyond her expertise anyway). In fact, one might suppose that there are lots of things we haven’t tried that could certainly alleviate the difficulties that blacks face in America; for example, we could end the ludicrous and patently racist “war on drugs,” which locks up young black men at unprecedented rates. I doubt that this would solve every problem ever, but it sure would help. In the next paragraph, McWhorter’s argument (really, Wax’s argument, but McWhorter seems to agree with it) gets downright weird:
Wax is well aware that past discrimination created black-white disparities in education, wealth, and employment. Still, she argues that discrimination today is no longer the “brick wall” obstacle it once was, and that the main problems for poor and working-class blacks today are cultural ones that they alone can fix. Not that they alone should fix—Wax is making no moral argument—but that they alone can fix.
Let’s grant for a moment Wax’s argument that discrimination today isn’t a “brick wall.” I don’t believe it’s true, but for the sake of argument I’ll allow it. It still remains true that the people alive today are the victims of actual discrimination from decades past. Since I assume that no one would make the argument that racism just disappeared abruptly, even if one believes it doesn’t really exist today, then certainly one must grant that blacks were, in fact, discriminated against in the past. What that means, for those of you who are adept at following causation, is that blacks today are living with the end product of that discrimination. Wax clearly acknowledges this, but wants to pretend that in this brave new world, that doesn’t really matter. I can’t see how this is a coherent position. Those structural deficiencies created by explicitly and implicitly discriminatory policies still exist. I’ve already mentioned the war on drugs, but you can just as easily look at the difference in funding between urban and suburban school districts. When I was a high school student in California, I was lucky enough to attend a very rich school whose tax base was La Jolla, one of the wealthiest communities in the state. But I also had the chance to see numerous other campuses, which were decrepit by comparison. So long as such stark and undisputed inequalities persist, it’s hard to see how Wax’s apparent belief that we have done all we can could possibly stand up under scrutiny.
McWhorter acknowledges these difficulties at the end of the article, though in a rather oblique manner. Before he gets there, he throws out a couple of studies without a lot of context: that completing high school and delaying having kids is conducive to success, that the IAT is not the best indicator of discriminatory behavior (this is asserted and nothing is cited in support, but let’s roll with it), and that poor women don’t marry the fathers of their children not because the fathers are unemployed but because they are not dependable. The obvious question that arises here is how those factors are disentangled; wouldn’t someone who is undependable be likely to be unemployed? Potshots are thrown at random “black radicals” (who, I’m guessing, are probably of little relevance to the overall struggles of day-to-day life in black communities anyway) for failing to address out-of-wedlock births and Jeremiah Wright is trotted out to complete the parade of horribles.
What’s disappointing about all of this is that at the end, it’s not like McWhorter doesn’t understand that government has a role to play. Having thrown out some pretty categorical statements early on, he effectively backtracks to admit that government can in fact do things like improve educational equality, ease the transition of felons back into society, and enforce civil rights violations. And that it should be doing those things. Still, he can’t help but sign on to this paragraph from Wax:
The government cannot make people watch less television, talk to their children, or read more books. It cannot ordain domestic order, harmony, tranquility, stability, or other conditions conducive to academic success and the development of sound character. Nor can it determine how families structure their interactions and routines or how family resources—including time and money—are expended. Large-scale programs are especially ineffective in changing attitudes and values toward learning, work, and marriage.
Government can certainly not do any of those things by fiat (although the last sentence seems of dubious validity). But it can, and should, try to create conditions in which those kinds of attitudes will flourish. Poverty, as I suspect McWhorter would acknowledge, has a logic of its own that has little to do intrinsically with whether one is black or white. For historical reasons, we have a black underclass in this country, but being black doesn’t somehow cause you to adopt the “wrong culture.” On the other hand, there is a clear causal connection between being black and finding yourself the persistent victim of structural inequalities predicated, in the not-too-distant past, on racial discrimination. Once you find yourself a member of that underclass, with the corresponding limited horizons and substantially greater day-to-day travails, you can’t just will yourself out of it. Well, maybe if you’re really good, you can, but the average person, black or white or anything in between, is going to struggle, and understandably so. To think otherwise is just fantasy. It’s especially bizarre for Wax to ask,
Is it possible to pursue an arduous program of self-improvement while simultaneously thinking of oneself as a victim of grievous mistreatment and of one’s shortcomings as a product of external forces?
Well, is it? It would seem that Wax believes the answer to this question is negative, though this isn’t stated anywhere. But more importantly, what if one really is a victim of grievous mistreatment and one’s shortcomings (a loaded term in and of itself) are actually a product of external forces?
McWhorter concludes his review with the suggestion that saying that government and personal choices both have a role to play is like having your cake and eating it too. But I would counter that such a statement is simply a truism, and that Wax is playing a dishonest shell game. On the one hand, it’s impossible to not acknowledge the great injustices perpetrated against blacks over the course of this country’s history; on the other hand, such an acknowledgment leads naturally to the conclusion that this isn’t just a private problem but a social problem that can and should be addressed in policy. And that’s not acceptable to Wax for whatever reason, so she quickly has to swap in the idea that we’ve already done all we can and the rest is the responsibility of the black community. Nevermind that this isn’t supported by any real evidence and that so much more can actually be done. And this is why discussions of culture never really get you anywhere; they simply serve to redirect the discourse from the actual, useful things we as a society can do to blaming black people for not being committed enough to not being poor. McWhorter is right when he says that “the bulk of today’s discussion of black America is performance art,” but not in the way he thinks.