Racial Stigma and the Persistence of White Supremacy: Transforming a Democracy that Never Was

Here is the link to a paper I have written titled, “Racial Stigma and the Persistence of White Supremacy: Transforming a Democracy that Never Was.”  I am presenting this paper in this Blog format because I am very interested in constructive feedback on the essay.  Please write your feedback in the comments section below, or email at the address provided on the paper.


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Do Blacks Have A Right Not To Be Stigmatized?

The application of rights language to questions of racial justice in a post-civil rights era has been problematic for at least three reasons. First, it has reduced questions of racial justice to the treatment of individuals at the expense of considering the massively disproportionate consequences of public policies on racial groups (e.g. the war on drugs; or housing/zoning policies). Second, this same individualistic focus has fueled arguments for “colorblind” public policies seeking to eliminate race as a relevant public policy consideration on the grounds that considerations of race in public policy are exactly what the civil rights movement sought to eliminate once and for all. Third, it is never clear exactly what rights might be relevant to questions of race and racial inequality once all forms of explicit discrimination by race in law and in economic life have been outlawed. Libertarian rights of noninterference do nothing to reduce racial inequality and if anything have become essential to supporting new de facto forms of segregation. Arguments for positive rights such as affordable housing or equal education are not widely supported and they are difficult to link explicitly to individuals based on their race.

If arguments about the effect of stigma on blacks are accurate (see Glenn Loury’s Anatomy of Racial Inequality, or my own efforts to make this case here (in long form) and here (in short form)), then one of the major problems facing blacks as a group in the United States is not first how they are treated, but more fundamentally how they are understood. I have argued that most of White America and even lots of Black America have divided blacks into two groups, the successful and the broken, and that, at least for most whites, black people are assumed to be broken until proven otherwise. That is, blacks as a group are still “suspect as such,” which ultimately amounts to still understanding them as inferior in general. White support for successful blacks is essential to white beliefs that racism has been dispelled from their minds even as whites fail to realize that thinking well of some black people has not required them to think well of black people as a group. Successful blacks are simply judged (for the moment at least) to be free of whatever forms of brokenness and inferiority are thought to lurk within blacks in general. The suspicion of brokenness, of some kind of inferiority, affects all blacks, but it is especially harmful to those struggling within low-income and low-opportunity communities. Their bad outcomes (educational, economic, interpersonal, or otherwise) are judged to be confirmations of their brokenness, not the consequences of racial injustice.

It would seem that stigma cannot be addressed through questions of rights. How one is treated (negative rights) or what one should receive (positive rights) do not speak to how one should be understood. Moreover, it certainly would seem impossible to enforce such rights as it would seem impossible to show that a given person has actually understood blacks as a stigmatized group. The effects of stigma are rarely explicitly admitted and the consequences of stigma manifest themselves in inaction (about matters of racial inequality) or in subtle forms (not believing that a black child can learn as well as nonblack children and so teaching that child differently) that often are really harmful only as they aggregate over time.

However, an understanding of rights as derived from a person’s worth (in a normative, not an economic sense) just might provide a way to understand a right to not being stigmatized. This idea of rights is developed in Nicholas Wolterstorff’s book Justice: Rights and Wrongs. I am just beginning to understand Wolterstorff’s argument, and it certainly will be a controversial argument for many people, as Wolterstorff argues that the fundamental worth of a person, and so the fundamental justification for rights, is derived from the worth of a person that results from that person being loved by God (the interesting problem for the non-theist who believes a person has intrinsic worth is figuring out where that worth comes from). For now, I only want to appeal to the general idea put forth by Wolterstorff that one has a right not to be treated in such as way that undervalues or “under-respects” one’s worth. It is the under-respecting part that has me excited. As Wolterstorff puts it, “one treats a human being with under-respect when the respect-disrespect import of one’s actions would only fit someone of lesser worth” (302). If blacks as a group are stigmatized, and if one is committed to a belief that one’s skin color is irrelevant to one’s worth (especially in terms of God’s love!), then those things that perpetuate stigma perpetuate an under-respecting of blacks as a group and of every black person in particular. This follows because the stigma attached to blacks results in the conclusion that blacks in general are of “lesser worth” than whites; they do not have the same claim to worth as whites.

Wolterstorff’s argument seems to open up a new kind of right that is both negative (no under-respect) and positive (full respect). Not only does one have rights to noninterference, one has rights to not being under-respected. Under-respecting wrongs blacks, and blacks, following Wolterstorff’s terms, have an “inherent” right not to be wronged in this way. [To be very clear, this application of Wolterstorff is my own.  I have no idea if he would endorse it.]

So how might a black person’s right not to be stigmatized create any kind of obligation for me? It certainly will be very difficult to enforce an obligation for people not think in ways that stigmatize blacks. But it should be possible to argue that people not publicly affirm ways of thinking about racial inequality that stigmatize blacks. That is, blacks can insist that all people are obligated not to perpetuate stigma and obligated to repudiate such stigmatized thinking whenever it is affirmed (this need not mean that governments would be obligated to prevent such public articulations of stigmatized understandings of blacks; that is, governments need not be understood as the guarantors of every right a person has).

If it can be shown that some ways of understanding racial inequality inherently perpetuate notions of white supremacy and black inferiority (as I suggest that any understanding of racial inequality does when it includes claims of even partial responsibility for that inequality on the part of (usually poor) black people making bad choices) then we could conclude that blacks have a right to expect the repudiation of these perpetuations of white supremacy.

If I am correct that racial inequality is exclusively a matter of public and especially political concern, then it should follow that blacks a right to public articulations of this conclusion, especially by political leaders. The failure of such leaders to affirm this conclusion is an implicit participation in a way of thinking that stigmatizes blacks, and as such wrongs all black people. Blacks have a right to live in a political order that does not stigmatize them.

If the mere existence of racial inequality perpetuates stigma in a world not fully committed to public and political responsibility for eliminating that inequality, then blacks as a group and to a person have a right to demand the elimination of that racial inequality.  If, as Wolterstorff argues, justice is respect for inherent rights, then working for justice in society requires working to eliminate all sources of racial stigma, and so working to eliminate all sources of racial inequality.

Maybe all of this is just to say that blacks have a right not to endure racist thinking and a racist political order. But even if it only does argue for these rather obvious conclusions, I think, the argument still might clarify in part what it means to endure racist thinking and to live in a racist political order.  Living a life free of racism would then mean not enduring under-respect due to race in personal and public interactions, and it would also mean demanding that the public narrative about racial inequality not entrench such under-respect in social and political life.

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The Triumph of White Supremacy (Short Version)

For the inaugural post on my new blog, I would like to present a condensed version of the argument found in “The Triumph of White Supremacy,” a working paper on my website.  In this presentation, I will go slightly beyond the working paper as I consider some objections that have already come my way. However, I hope that this blog post can stay up for the long haul because I hope someday to make this argument in a more formal and traditional way. Any constructive feedback that I can get in the comments section below is thus greatly appreciated. So here is the argument:

1) If skin color, or any other placeholder we might use for designating race, is irrelevant to human capability, then the various outcomes of the human adventure should be proportionately present within different racial groups. That is, there should be a proportionately equal number of black geniuses, scoundrels, average folk, etc. as there are white members of these various human types. Similarly, relevant social outcomes should be proportionately equal. Thus, there should be proportionately equal amounts of black and white poverty, incarceration, unemployment, educational success and failure, etc. This argument would apply to all other racial groups as well. I am limiting myself here to a comparison of blacks and whites. The presence of disproportionate outcomes is racial inequality.

2) The possible causes of racial inequality are either external or internal to the group experiencing the inequality. There are either some kinds of public (political, social, economic, etc.) stacking of the deck against the group that experiences disproportionately bad outcomes and in favor of the group experiencing disproportionately good outcomes, and/or, there are some kinds of failure, fault, or “problem” (cultural, intellectual, moral, biological, etc) within one group, aggregately considered, relative to the other. Let us call the first explanation racial injustice, and the second outcome racial inferiority and superiority.

3) There are only three possible general explanations for racial inequality: 1) caused exclusively by external causes; 2) caused exclusively by internal causes; or 3) caused by a combination of external and internal causes (Both Argument). The first explanation posits that racial inequality is exclusively a public and political problem. I consider this to be the correct explanation and seek to defend it in the paper. The second explanation is a blatant assertion of white supremacy and must be rejected in all its forms. The third option is by far the most popular explanation. From now on, I will refer to this third position as the “Both Argument.” Its popularity is a result of a willingness to grant that some public and political causes of racial inequality continue to be a partial explanation for racial inequality, but also of the belief that bad personal choices by some black individuals are a partial cause of racial inequality, as well. This latter conclusion has an intuitive plausibility given that racial inequality is characterized by disproportionate bad outcomes and bad individual choices can create the same kind of bad outcomes. However, the plausibility of this position does not stand up to scrutiny.

4) There are logical, ontological, and political problems with the “Both Argument.”

Logical: The mere coincidence of bad outcomes does not demonstrate responsibility for inequality. While individuals remain responsible for the bad outcomes of their choices (I hold that they are exclusively responsible for these outcomes) the mere fact that they have created bad outcomes similar to those that characterize inequality does not establish their responsibility for the inequality. In the paper, I give the example of a life-long smoker who gets lung cancer in a town that is downwind from an air polluting factory, a factory that is the only condition that differentiates the town from another town that has lower levels of lung cancer. Because the woman is a life-long smoker, she cannot blame the factory for her lung cancer, but neither can the factory blame the woman for contributing to the inequality. There are life-long smokers who get lung cancer in both towns. The issue at hand is the different rates of lung cancer between the towns. Thus, responsibility for bad outcomes caused by bad choices does not by itself establish responsibility for an inequality of those bad outcomes. These are two separate issues of responsibility.

Even appeals to a culture of poverty argument are logically flawed because they fail to explain the responsibility for inequality in the presence of this culture between the two groups. That is, what might be called cultures of poverty exist within both black and white communities. If a culture of poverty is used to explain racial inequality, it must be explained how it came to pass that the culture of poverty became disproportionately present among blacks. If blacks themselves are not responsible for the disproportionate presence of a culture of poverty (while still remaining individually responsible for seeking a way “out” of this culture), then an internal cause for racial inequality is not logically established by an appeal to a culture of poverty.

If external causes are responsible for the disproportionate presence of a culture of poverty in a group, then the external causes are responsible for the bad outcomes created by the disproportionate presence of the culture of poverty.

Ontological: This is the real rub of the argument. If the cause of racial inequality is even partially internal to blacks as a group it is impossible to avoid concluding that blacks as a group exhibit some kind of failure, fault, or personal “problem” that has created the inequality. Even if one concludes that this failure is not evenly distributed among blacks, a lingering suspicion is created that affects all blacks. It becomes necessary for blacks to prove that they do not have this problem, and even when they tentatively find approval in the wider society, a suspicious vigilance within that society will continue to look for signs that the “problem” is, in fact, found in an individual. While not inferior as such, blacks become suspect as such.

The flip side of this ontological problem is its relative absence among whites, thus implicitly requiring an affirmation of white supremacy. If the cause of racial inequality is even partially a matter of personal failures, then whites will take note either explicitly or implicitly of the relative absence of these personal failures among whites as a group.

If this argument is correct, then the Both Argument implicitly affirms white supremacy, even if those who defend the Both Argument vehemently deny that they are white supremacists. This conclusion, combined with the growing prevalence of the Both Argument as an explanation for racial inequality creates what I call the “Triumph of White Supremacy.” By making the Both Argument publicly and politically acceptable, a stronghold of support for white supremacy has been created in American minds and American politics.

The ontological suspicion of blacks becomes a significant obstacle to political and social change aimed at reducing racial inequality. If some blacks are damaged goods, citizens will wonder why political or public efforts should be made to change what are seen as natural outcomes of damaged individuals. Glenn Loury demonstrates how this work when noting that there is no great public and political outcry to very disproportionate rates of black incarceration, whereas there would be such an outcry if there existed very disproportionate educational outcomes between boys and girls. The high incarceration rates are understood to be created by damaged individuals, whereas very different educational outcomes between boys and girls would have to be the product of flaws in the educational system. Presumably, there is no reason to think boys and girls should have different educational outcomes; whereas, the suspicion of blacks creates reasons to believe that blacks and whites should have different incarceration rates.

Political: So long as it is accepted that black individuals remain at least partially responsible for racial inequality, political efforts to reduce racial inequality will confront at least two major problems. First, citizens will be unlikely to support political efforts to reduce inequality if they perceive that black individuals are not first doing their part to reduce inequality. This obstacle will become larger if it is perceived that traditional public causes of inequality have been reduced or eliminated. “We have done our part, now they must do theirs,” will be the attitude of most citizens. Second, given suspicions of ontological brokenness, citizens will increasingly think that political action is a waste of time.

5) Only the conclusion that racial inequality is exclusively a public and political problem avoids the implicit or explicit affirmation of white supremacy. If the above argument is correct, then this conclusion follows.

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