Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Doing Not Talking

John McWhorter proposes A Better Way to Honor Dr. King's Dream:

Along these lines, the term "institutional racism," which the Black Power movement injected into the lexicon in the late 1960s, is more damaging to the black psyche than the n-word or any crude jokes about plantations or food stamps. The term encourages blacks to think of society—in which inequality, while real, is complex and faceless—as actively and reprehensibly racist in the same way that Archie Bunker was. The result is visceral bitterness toward something that can't feel or think.

Equally distracting is the notion that America needs a "conversation" about race, one in which whites submit to a lesson from blacks about so-called institutional racism. "Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening," King told us in his speech. What we awaken to now is the rudeness of idle talk, of those who blow off steam by demanding a "conversation" that will not bear fruit—look no further than President Clinton's national effort on that front in the late 1990s—and in any case wouldn't provide greater opportunity to any poor person.

The "conversation" idea is fundamentally passive because it assumes that what black people need most is for white people to think better of them and more about them. So why does it command such allegiance among blacks? Because it channels the idea that our most urgent task is to speak truth to power, rather than to help black people who need it. Too many suppose that the two tasks are still the same as they were in 1963, when the reality is now quite different.

Is there complete racial harmony in America today? Have we completely moved beyond race and entered some sort of mythic "post-racial" utopia? Of course not. But as McWhorter so aptly notes, neither of those goals is grounded in reality and the reality is that there has been significant progress over the last fifty years. Instead of more "conversations about race" we should-again as McWhorter proposes-be talking about concrete ways that we can help black people who need it.

Today's struggle should focus on three priorities. First, the war on drugs, a policy that unnecessarily tears apart black families and neighborhoods. Second, community colleges and vocational education, which are invaluable in helping black Americans get ahead. And third, the AIDS and obesity epidemics, which are ravaging black communities.

If I were to add a fourth it would be to seek ways to encourage marriage and discourage having children out of wedlock. Strengthening family structure would do more to improve matters than any conversation on race ever will.