Critics calling for fundamental change in the American system—those who profess the ideology and policies of “systemic racism,” identity politics, and cancel culture—focus on serious disparities between whites and blacks in terms of income, education, employment, and a variety of other life opportunities. It would be absurd to deny this situation categorically in these and other facets of life, but the conclusions these critics draw are not the only possible understanding of the situation, nor are they justified by the nation’s history.
For decades, black youth unemployment has been far higher than that of white youths. The finger is pointed, with the immediate accusation of racism behind the failure of young blacks to find gainful employment. It should be noted that white youth unemployment rates have long been above adult unemployment rates, as well.
The reason for this, as many economic studies have explained, is primarily due to minimum wage laws. The young have fewer skills, less on-the-job work experience, and generally lower levels of education as a starting point for entry-level employment. This means the productive value of the young, in general and on average, is less than that of older members of the workforce with more time on the job.
As a result, if someone in this category is worth, say, $5 or $6 an hour in terms of their value to a private employer’s efforts to produce a good or supply a service consumers will be willing to pay for, it should not be surprising that mandating a legal minimum wage of $7.50 or $15 an hour has the effect of pricing many such young hopefuls out of the chance for a job.
Why does this impact young blacks more than whites? May it be due partly to remaining racial biases in American society? Of course, it might. But it is also the case that far too many young black men and women live in neighborhoods with public schools that too frequently pass them on to the next grade with fewer of the writing, reading, speaking, and math skills necessary to qualify for starting employment.
It is not as if government spending on schooling has been suffering from severe “austerity.” Tax-funded per-pupil expenditures have increased over the last 50 years by nearly 300 percent, from $4,720 in 1966 to more than $13,847 in 2016 (in constant 2018 dollars). They have increased by 32 percent just since the beginning of the 21st century, from $10,458 in 2000 to $13,847 in 2016 (both figures in constant 2018 dollars).
Due to federal educational funding, studies have shown that disparities in school spending per pupil are fairly equalized in many cases, regardless of local property and other revenue levels for public schools. In Baltimore, Maryland, for instance, with a black majority population of more than 61 percent, per-pupil spending in the school system in 2016 was $15,161—9 percent above the national average.
What is lacking is not the funding, but the pedagogy and the content of what is taught. If the right knowledge is not being conveyed and presented in attractive ways to inspire learning; if too many students end up dropping out before high school graduation; and if educational competition in the form of private or charter schools is fought by teachers’ unions and public school administrators who are afraid of rivalry in the pursuit of teaching excellence, don’t expect those entering the workforce to do so with the essential skills to obtain a job, especially when, at the same time, they’re being priced out of the labor market by minimum wage laws. (See my article, “Freedom and the Minimum Wage”.)
Some Universals of Human Betterment
In addition to being stuck in bad schools, many American blacks grow up in a social environment in which learning and self-sacrifice are not always accorded the greatest respect. When I was growing up, my parents and grandparents faced anti-Semitic prejudice and discrimination. My mother’s father wanted to go to medical school and had the grades, but there were implicit quotas for Jewish applications in many places at that time. So, instead, he went to pharmacy school and ended up owning his own small, neighborhood drugstore in Brooklyn. My mother told me about want ads in New York City newspapers in the late 1930s, when she was looking for her first job, that still had phrases to the effect that Jews need not apply.
I grew up with my grandmother drumming two things into my head over and over again: First, get an education, and then you have a skill to get ahead, and if it is a skill that the gentiles may need, you have a better chance they won’t kill you! The other one was, the world doesn’t owe you a living; you are on your own and you need to be both a free and responsible individual making your way. Yes, be charitable, and think of others and empathize with their misfortunes, because your Jewish ancestors have known enough of those. But you shouldn’t expect a handout, and you should think it an embarrassment to put your hand out for one.
So, are self-responsibility and self-control good and right for some ethnic and cultural groups but not for others? Are pursuing an education and planning for the future in reasonable and disciplined ways a cultural attribute that might be the right thing for one segment of the society but not another? Taking family seriously and trying to be a good role model for your children is right and proper for some, but does it really not apply to other ethnic and social groups?
Essential Keys: Education, Planning for the Future, and Self-Control
There are universal truths and verities that we all share in common. They are not the “white man’s” truth or verities; they are the discoverable insights for all human beings to understand and follow if we are interested in certain types of improvements in our condition.
If you don’t think about tomorrow; if you are unwilling to make a variety of sacrifices in the present for desirable gains in the future; if the value and importance of an education—“book learning”—are not cultivated and fostered within the family and the household; if certain fundamental truths about ethical behavior are not highlighted and insisted upon when growing up—if these practices and rules of life are not taught, learned, and followed, no one should be overly surprised when those brought up in such social environments do less well than others who are raised in families and communities that have emphasized and insisted upon them.
Have we really “outgrown” the practical and universal educational wisdom that the educator and thinker Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), himself a former slave, shared with the young incoming black students to his Tuskegee Institute more than a hundred years ago? Consider Washington’s words:
“I do not believe it is possible for a student to accomplish very much, certainly not the most, while he is in school, unless he learns to be happy in all his relations in school life. . . . The Bible teaches over and over again that freedom, without which happiness is impossible, is self-imposed restraint, that to be really free we must live within the law. He who lives outside the law is a slave. The freeman is the man who lives within the law, whether that law be the physical or the divine. All life is governed by law, and the student must acquire freedom by obedience to law.
“The ability to do hard methodical work is one of the prizes which every school worthy of the name offers to its students. The years at school not infrequently give bent to the whole life. The student who does slipshod work at school is more than likely to lack direction in his subsequent career. . . . No one gets much out of life who does not make his education a real, vital part of himself.
“The student who leaves undone immediate duties because of bodily laziness is leaving happiness far behind him. Sins of commission and sins of omission alike tend to weakness. Our ability to make the world better depends entirely upon our ability to use every opportunity to make ourselves better. A largeness of life, a variety of interests and breadth of view are among the prizes which a school offers to its students. These qualities the ignorant man does not possess. Largeness of life and breadth of vision give faith in the future; that largeness makes one person take the long view when the other is taking the short view; that largeness lifts the educated person far above the temptation to gossip about little things, above the temptation to get down into the mud and slime with which weaker individuals are smeared” (Booker T. Washington, Putting the Most into Life, 1906, pp. 5-8).
Prejudice Costs the Bigot
In a free market, the only color that ultimately ends up mattering is the color of your money; that is, can you offer someone a better product at a more attractive price than a rival also interested in gaining the same consumer’s business? And as a potential employee, can you contribute to an enterprise’s economic success better than another also looking for gainful employment?
Prejudice hurts those who hold those attitudes. The consumer who refuses to buy from the lower-pricing and better quality-providing seller because he has, say, the “wrong” color of hair, sees his hard-earned income bring a lower overall standard of living than that of his neighbor who is more interested in color-blind “value for his money.” The employer who chooses to not hire the better-skilled worker because he does not like the color of his eyes loses out on a competitive advantage to a side rival who has no such prejudice or assigns it less importance than the more cost-efficient production he can undertake with more-skilled employees.
Yes, in a free society, bigots could practice their prejudices, but they cannot escape the costs of doing so: higher prices paid for some consumer goods, less-productive workers employed, with the loss of a larger profit opportunity. As time goes by, the cost in real income and foregone profits will become evident, and fewer and fewer people will indulge such biases.
Slavery and Jim Crow Needed Government to Survive
Certainly “America” and Americans have not always lived up to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and other founding documents, but that does not invalidate those ideals. It is important to notice that the most egregious manifestations of prejudice were made possible precisely because a segment of the population was kept in bondage through the use of political power for the benefit of those who claimed ownership over their “human property.” Similarly, racial segregation could persist in its most visible forms after the American Civil War only because the Southern states, when free of Northern occupation, legalized compulsory separation among whites and blacks through Jim Crow laws. This was prejudice powered by government.
Yes, personal bigotry and social pressures most certainly have their influences in any society, but the fact that racial segregation in the South needed the power of the state to ensure its preservation strongly suggests that if those laws had not been in place, social and economic racial divides would have been undermined, reduced, and put on a path to fuller racial harmony and integration. Governments kept that progress on hold for a century after the Civil War.
If people “naturally” want to separate themselves on racial lines, if they “naturally” do not want to associate or do business with each other or share common goals and visions simply as “Americans,” then why did the Southern legislatures have to impose the segregation laws in the first place? Why did they have to forcefully and sometimes brutally enforce them?
The answer is: without such laws and auxiliary “pressures,” the race-separating walls and biases would have come tumbling down. Overnight? Of course not. Human beings far too often can be stubborn creatures; but faster or slower, the traditional American preaching and practicing of individual liberty and freedom of association inside and outside the marketplace would have cured the racial wounds and attitudes that were able to persist for so long because of 100 years of government-mandated segregation in the South.
In Freedom, People Discover Their Common Humanity
But what about social bigotries and racist attitudes? How would communities be desegregated in terms of housing, employment, social life, and networks? Do any of us hear about “redlined” Irish neighborhoods, or Polish “ghettos,” or isolated “inner city” Italians? Those prejudices were certainly present in an earlier America. Do we belabor divergences in Irish-American relative income versus Italian-American or Polish-American relative incomes? No, though discrepancies in income and status did exist among Americans of differing European ancestries.
Freedom and enlightened thinking, at the end of the day, made more and more people reflect on and realize that “they” are really not very different from “us” in all the essential ways, regardless of the church they go to, the foods they eat, the customs they practice at home or with their neighbors, or even the way they look. Those things really do not matter. “Under the skin,” we are pretty much all the same.
After all, a blond-haired Swede can look very different from an olive-complexioned Italian from Sicily, let alone a practicing Jew from Russia or an “enlightened” French sophisticate originally from Paris, all of them living in New York. America was, has been, and still is a “melting pot,” and with amazingly good results compared to virtually anywhere else in the world. The same has been and can continue to be no less true between white and black Americans, regardless of history’s legacies.
This new notion of “systemic racism” is dangerous in insisting that people have not and cannot think about themselves and others other than in collective, tribal terms defined by the color of one’s skin. It may be considered rhetorically “impolite” to say it, but it is nonetheless the case that this is an attempt to impose Nazi-like thinking on America.
Systemic Racism Means Crude Tribalism
According to the theory of systemic racism, all a white person can be permitted to do is accept collective guilt and collective punishment by having their group “privilege” taken away by other races controlling the powers of government to redistribute what whites as a group do not deserve and should not have. This is a recipe for totalitarian government, and the most self-aware of those in the movement know that and embrace it. The state must be used to apportion new privileges and burdens among different tribal groups.
What is implicitly impossible in this mindset is a future society beyond race. Race is always with us; it’s just a matter of who oppresses who.
“Social justice” comes down to whether your tribe is politically in power rather than some other. Enter a world of war and conflict of tribe against tribe, race against race, collective against collective. Peace, harmony, mutual respect, and common betterment through free association? All a “white man’s trick” to get you to accept your inferior and oppressed place in society. It’s either his race or yours. Thus ends any sense and hope of a common humanity. The darkness descends, and humankind goes backwards.
If the ideology and policies of “systemic racism,” identity politics, and cancel culture win out in the arena of American politics and cultural acceptance, it will be the end of America. America has been and is a unique, special, and highly successful “experiment” in human freedom. A freedom not based on race, nationality, language, or religion, but on an idea of the unique and valued individual who is at liberty to live his own life, peacefully in voluntary mutual association with others. A society that, more than any other, has done more to do away with the tribe and liberate the person, and bring peace and prosperity along with it.