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'Structural Inequality,' 'Barriers' to Equality, and the (Un)teachable Moment

Recently, Attorney General Eric Holder rapped America’s knuckles for being "a nation of cowards” because we “simply do not talk enough with each other about race.” Now, after the Gates-Crowley affair and the president’s foot-in-mouth “acting stupidly” remark created what the president himself called “a teachable moment,” we don’t know who is the teacher, who are the students, and what is the lesson.

Those like Lani Guinier, who believe Obama “is in a unique position to engage the country in a thorough vetting of the multiple ways that race still interacts with gender and class and power in our society as whole” are no doubt disappointed. “Given its worldwide resonance in the blogosphere and on the front pages of foreign as well as American newspapers,” Ms. Guinier continued, “the Cambridge porch encounter cries out for more than a simple politically opportune snapshot.” All we got, however, was a politically inopportune snapshot of the president turning his back and striding away from both Crowley and Gates. Moment lost, lesson untaught.

Coming hard on the heels of the national debate over “disparate impact” produced by Ricci v. DeStefano, the New Haven firefighter case, I believe there is a lesson about race to be taught here, but it’s not the one the president and attorney general want to teach. Attorney General Holder was wrong: our problem is not that we do not talk enough about race but that we talk past each other, and the words we use — “discrimination,” “equal opportunity,” etc. — no longer mean the same things to all those who use them. Consider, for example, that recent state initiatives to prohibit discrimination against or preferential treatment of individuals based on race or ethnicity have been denounced by civil rights organizations as designed “to eliminate equal opportunity initiatives in higher education, employment, and contracting.”

To illustrate the impasse we’ve reached, let me ask a simple question: how will we know if and when racial equality ever arrives?

I believe there are two equally simple but strikingly different answers to this question, answers that reflect fundamentally incompatible beliefs about the meaning of equality and hence about what “civil rights” laws should protect. One answer is that racial equality will have arrived when discrimination on the basis of race has disappeared; the other is that racial equality will have arrived when the races are equal or proportional in everything measurable.

The first answer -- let’s call it the traditional model of equality -- aims for equal opportunity and demands the removal of barriers and obstacles that impose burdens based on race. By contrast, the second answer -- let’s call it the “structural inequality” model -- aims for an equality of results and requires the eradication of all manifestations of “inequality,” whether or not the inequality was caused by discriminatory barriers. Both answers often rely on the “level playing field” metaphor, but the second one actually requires an equal score as well and handicaps (advantages) for the favored team to produce that equal score. One can readily see how the “disparate impact” theory of discrimination -- that statistical racial disparities alone are strong evidence or even proof of racial discrimination -- is a linchpin of the “structural inequality” model.

The “structural inequality” view was on grand display in President Obama’s recent address at the NAACP’s 100th anniversary convention. Obama’s speech, as Abigail Thernstrom has shrewdly noted, “was a segregated speech, one half appealing to whites, the other half appealing to blacks,” one half emphasizing that minorities need to take responsibility for their own fate and the other half emphasizing all the remaining “barriers” standing in their way (barriers that his policies, of course, are intended to remove).

What has been too little appreciated, however, is the “structural inequality” view articulated by the president and how truly radical that view really is.

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).