'Structural Inequality,' 'Barriers' to Equality, and the (Un)teachable Moment
First, it’s worth noting that the traditional model of equality still holds such sway in the hearts and minds of most people that it remains necessary for those who reject it to talk in terms of “barriers” even when they are hard to discern or define. Thus the president’s speech mentioned “barriers” to equality nine times, stressing that “too many barriers still remain.”
The president recognized that “the barriers of our time” are “very different from the barriers faced by earlier generations.” He knows, that is, “that prejudice and discrimination are not ... the steepest barriers to opportunity today.”
What then are the “steepest barriers”? You guessed it:
The most difficult barriers include structural inequalities that our nation’s legacy of discrimination has left behind; inequalities still plaguing too many communities and too often the object of national neglect.
The “structural inequalities” specifically mentioned by the president were
• an unemployment gap;
• a health and health insurance gap;
• a prison incarceration gap;
• an HIV/AIDS gap.
He could, of course, have listed more “structural inequalities,” such as various academic achievement gaps (reading and math scores, SAT scores, high school and college graduation rates, etc.), but his list is sufficient to confirm that “civil rights” today has nothing to do with eliminating discriminatory “barriers” that treat people differently because of their race.
If they reflect discrimination, it is discrimination without any discriminators.
One does not have to deconstruct the president’s speech -- one has only to read it -- to see that he believes the “steepest barriers” holding down blacks are nothing less than the very nature and performance of modern American capitalism itself. The current downturn, in his view, did not result from correctable flaws in the system but from the system itself, a system “built on sand,” a system not in need of reform but of transformation. As he said:
Our task of reducing these structural inequalities has been made more difficult by the state, and structure, of the broader economy; an economy fueled by a cycle of boom and bust; an economy built not on a rock, but sand.
To Obama and the structural inegalitarians, neither “civil rights” nor racism no longer has anything to do with discrimination, understood as treating people differently because of their race. As Kelefa Sanneth argued in the August 10 New Yorker:
[Racism] should not be thought of as a personal failing; it’s a social system, with a specific history. Discrimination against whites, however unfair, isn’t part of that system, and therefore is not analogous to discrimination against blacks.
As Lani Guinier put it in the article linked above regarding the Gates affair, the Gates affair teaches us that:
Race and racism are today more like passive smoke. We all inhale the toxic fumes even if we are not the one lighting up the cigarette. And if we take the time to lift the curtain that post-racialists insist on pulling over our eyes, we might begin to realize that a porch encounter ostensibly about racial profiling is nevertheless a sign of larger and more systemwide injustices.
What passes for “civil rights” today, then, sees itself confronting pervasive discrimination with no discriminators, systemic racism with no racists.
Whatever the president and Ms. Guinier are smoking, it it clear that in their view “structural inequalities” will never be reduced, the playing field will never be level, until our capitalist economy, built as it is “not on a rock, but sand,” has been replaced with one more to their liking.
Some wags used to joke (it was a joke, wasn’t it?) that nuclear war should be outlawed as discriminatory because it would have a disparate impact on women and children. I don’t think Barack Obama is joking when he argues, as he did to the NAACP, that capitalism must be fundamentally transformed because it’s bad for blacks (and, oh yes, for everybody else, too).