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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