Is America really racist?

America certainly isn’t the racist dystopia its critics describe, but is it the land of opportunity where hard work leads to success? Op-ed.

David Rosenberg ,

University students
University students

At the heart of the protests, riots, and acts of vandalism which have devastated American cities over the past two weeks lies a firm conviction, one which fueled a movement that is shocking both in the intensity of the violence it has embraced, as well as in the breadth of support across the population nationwide.

That conviction is that America remains a firmly racist country, with the many disparities in outcomes between races being propped up by political, economic, legal, and social systems, which, it is believed, were built to do quietly what Jim Crow did loudly.

A newly invigorated Black Lives Matter movement convinces Middle America’s young to hate their parents, hate their national patrimony, and, ultimately, hate themselves.
With one fell swoop it seems, and almost overnight, acceptance of this narrative has gone from being a growing trend on the Progressive Left to becoming a new American dogma, one that is mainstream and part of the canon of beliefs required for social acceptance.

The Silent Majority – if they are still a majority, as they were when Nixon popularized the term 51 years ago – remain firm in their belief that America isn’t the racist nightmare which the proponents of the racial gospel claim it is.

Yet the Silent Majority has remained consistently on the defensive, watching as American cities burn, and as a newly invigorated Black Lives Matter movement convinces Middle America’s young to hate their parents, hate their national patrimony, and, ultimately, hate themselves.

Race has once again, almost in the blink of an eye, become the defining political fault line in American politics, with the Left and Right lining up around opposing narratives.

America is either a land of limitless opportunity where a person who works hard and goes through the system can succeed – or it’s a rigged game, where whites benefit from a regime of stealth racism, allowing them to live easier lives at the expense of people of color in a zero-sum world.

But which narrative is right?

Racist America – or the Land of Opportunity?

Well, strictly speaking, neither is. And that’s usually the case when dealing with complex social questions.

America certainly isn’t the racist dystopia its critics portray it as – masses of innocent, unarmed young black men are not, contrary to popular opinion, gunned down ruthlessly by police.

Last year ten unarmed blacks – nine men and one woman – were killed during altercations with police. That’s for the entire year, during which a total of some 10 million arrests were carried out.

Of those, 10 deaths, five were justified as the suspect was physically assaulting or threatening an officer’s life, while one of the 10 was recognized as an accident. In other words, you could count on one hand the number of unjustified police killings of black men in the US in an entire year. Compare that to the 89 police officers killed in the line of duty that year.

Blacks are arrested more often than whites, and are jailed more frequently too.

But blacks are also more likely to commit crimes, and are significantly more likely to commit violent crimes, and much like the gender difference in incarceration rates, the racial disparity reflects differences in crime rates.

Despite claims of systemic economic racism, local, state, and federal government agencies benefits to black-owned companies, and the federal government for years leaned heavily on banks to lower their lending requirements to increase the number of private loans to black families.
Thirty-seven-and-a-half percent of violent crimes were committed by blacks in 2017, according to the FBI, along with 29.3% of property crimes – closely mirroring the number of blacks imprisoned in the US.

Despite claims of systemic economic racism against blacks, local, state, and federal government agencies offer special loans and other financial benefits to black-owned companies, and the federal government for years leaned heavily on banks to lower their lending requirements in order to increase the number of private loans to black families.

Educationally, an entire array of affirmative action programs ranging from increased outreach to blacks, to quotas and lowering standards for black applicants have been adopted over the past half century to increase the number of black students on college campuses. While the actual effects of affirmative action on black students are questionable at best, it is difficult to fit these policies into a narrative of anti-black racism by the educational establishment.

But what of the countervailing argument, that America is the land of opportunity for all, where hard work and respect for the rules guarantee success?

‘Systemic Racism’ – and the lack of a conservative counter-argument

This narrative is a bit of a straw man, since it is impossible to guarantee anyone’s success.

I raise it, nevertheless, because it is so often touted by conservative critics of the ‘systematic racism’ narrative.

What of the enormous disparities in outcomes in a whole plethora of metrics, from home-ownership and joblessness to loan request rejections, academic performance, drug addiction rates, and poverty?

These massive disparities between racial groups – and they are significant – form the most conspicuous evidence for a Left claiming systemic racism is alive and well deep under the surface.

For too many on the Right, these disparities are either simply ignored, or may be intuitively understood to be the result of something bigger, but without an alternative explanation being articulated.

Inferiority or Discrimination?

That’s because to a large extent the Right suffers from the same fallacies as the Left: the animistic fallacy, and the false dichotomy between racism and discrimination.

Under the animistic fallacy, all social phenomena, good or ill, must be the result of some conscious effort by a person or persons in some place of power.

Someone must be at fault for every disaster, and someone must be to thank for every boon.

It’s the animistic fallacy that causes a multiplicity of conspiracy theories, even when simpler explanations exist. Many of the medieval libels against Jews exemplified this, with catastrophes (like the Bubonic Plague) blamed on the acts of some unseen cabal. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and other modern conspiracy theories of Jewish world domination are new variants of the same theme of the animistic fallacy.

In the US, the Left increasingly sees in the disparities between blacks and whites a malicious hand of racist whites, working behind the scenes to elevate one group at the other’s expense.

The Right, by contrast, has no boogeyman to point to fulfilling this need for some kind of institutional scapegoat, muting its response to accusations by the Left of systemic racism.

But nothing, perhaps, is as definitive in empowering the Left’s narrative – and muting the Right’s – as the false dichotomy on the cause of racial disparities.

A sort of mutated offspring of the animistic fallacy, racial disparities (of any kind, not simply between whites and blacks in the US) are assumed to be the result of one of two causes: either the racial inferiority of one group to the other, or the racist actions of a country’s institutions in propping up one group while tearing the other down.

In other words, you either must believe the US is deeply racist, or you must believe that blacks are inherently, genetically inferior.

It’s a powerful belief which many people on both sides quietly accept.

And if they were honest, it is the motivating force for more than a few on the Left, who deeply fear that they, too might be racist if they didn’t make themselves believe in the systematic racism argument.

Understanding Disparities: The Third Option

In reality, however, the answer as to why racial groups have disparate outcomes is far more complex than either of the two false answers offered.

While of course societies can be racist, with explicit persecution written into the laws, racism is neither a sufficient nor necessary explanation for ethnic disparities in general, and particularly not in the US.

Social outcomes, regardless of the metric you use to measure them, are part of complex, long-running processes which produce results that no one person or organization ever planned or could have even anticipated – in other words, they are akin to the unseen hand of Adam Smith.

Far more important that race, racism, or any other singular cause of outcomes is cultural capital: that protean catchall used by social scientists to denote the influence of behavioral patterns, social norms, folkways, traditions, manners of speech, and other acquired cultural assets which shape the way groups of people live.

The gap within races can be as large or larger than the gap between races.
Acquired over time, cultural capital explains why ethnic groups can rise or fall in their outcomes, and why those shifts can take long periods of time. A legal system can be changed overnight and an ethnic group emancipated, but cultural capital takes years to change.

It also explains why the gap within races can be as large or larger than the gap between races.

Various white ethnic groups vary greatly in terms of IQ, educational level, occupation, income, lifespan, and crime rate. Regionally, too, there are enormous disparities between whites – at times greater than the net disparity between whites as a whole and blacks as a whole.

It also explains the disparities between black groups, with immigrant black groups from the West Indies and Africa far outstripping African-Americans in income, going back at least half a century, when West Indian blacks’ median family income was just 6% below the national average, compared to an African-American median family income 38% below the national average.

Disparities always exist – and always have existed – between groups, including between cultural groups of the same race. That’s true not only in the US, but everywhere in the world.

What is noteworthy is that these disparities have changed over time.

Looking at the outcomes of various groups today only provides a single snapshot in time, ignoring the changes which they have undergone. Almost always, ethnic groups now considered to be at the “top” of a given social ladder in terms of social outcomes were once at the bottom.

Two thousand years ago the British were considered the most inferior race, Cicero wrote, citing Caesar: “They are the most ignorant people I have ever conquered. They cannot be taught music.” Cicero, later wrote that Britons were not even fit to serve as slaves since “they cannot be taught to read, and are the ugliest and most stupid race I ever saw.”

The British of Caesar’s day lived on the fringe of Europe, beyond the larger cultural universe which spanned multiple empires across three continents. Eighteen-hundred years later, however, Britain sat at the center of the expanding cultural universe, trading with countries as distant as India and China, and with access to goods and knowledge from societies across the globe. Those broadened horizons and intervening 1,800 years of accumulating cultural capital propelled the British – judged to be the lowliest people of Cicero’s day – to become a dominant world power.

David Rosenberg is deputy editor at Arutz Sheva - Israel National News English site. He made Aliyah from Oakland, California in 2003 and now lives in Samaria. He has an MA degree in Israel Studies from Hebrew University.