Racism in America is an emotionally explosive subject not well-disposed to cool, rational discussion. Nonetheless, it seems like there is no more urgent time to reasonably discuss such issues.
Nearly two years ago, the tragic shooting of a young man in Florida named Trayvon Martin gave rise to passionate calls for massive protests by civil rights activists. Sadly, those familiar cries for justice rang out again in response to the unfortunate shooting of Ferguson youth Michael Brown and the harrowing death of a father named Eric Garner, who passed away after an altercation with New York City police.
The nationally recognizable “Hands Up, Don't Shoot” and “I Can't Breathe” rallying cries have spoken to many disaffected citizens who are weary of the racial divide and frustrated not to be making more progress.
Even the skilled community organizer Barack Obama, especially entitled to speak on such issues as the first African-American president, was not able to curb the damage done by the conflagrations that erupted after subsequent unsatisfactory grand jury hearings when he called for peace. Earlier, his remarks, reportedly relayed by Al Sharpton, suggested solidarity with the protesters.
This week, the President revisited the open wounds and talked about the nation's “deeply rooted” racism and bias. Yet, according to a Bloomberg poll, a 53% majority of Americans say that race relations have gotten worse under his presidency. Even more starkly, only 9% of people from all racial backgrounds say such relations have “gotten better.” A combined 15% of African-Americans say race relations have gotten “a little” or “a lot” better.
As a compendium Bloomberg article notes, the President himself has addressed race only on rare occasions: the Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner cases being among the most visible and sensitive racial matters he has commented on.
But the President's relatively detached posture on race relations is belied by his selection of advisers and associates; most particularly, Eric Holder. The Attorney General has been at the forefront of such high-profile racially sensitive cases. Holder has called for civil rights investigations in response to such cases, and has pursued numerous probes into “biased policing.”
Holder has assertively used his powers as Attorney General to prosecute his activist vision of civil rights, from suing states over voter ID laws (which purportedly suppress the votes of the underprivileged) to reducing the impact of drug laws that disproportionately harm young African-Americans.
Beyond this legacy, however, is the “deeply rooted” cause of much racial tension in the United States; that is the poverty and ensuing hopelessness that results from it.
Earlier this year, NAACP CEO Ben Jealous said bluntly that black Americans “are doing far worse” under Barack Obama. In late 2013, Tavis Smiley noted that, “The data is going to indicate sadly that when the Obama administration is over, black people will have lost ground in every single leading economic indicator category.”
Unfortunately, that prognostication is continuing to hold true. The recent Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers show a black unemployment rate of 11.1 percent, compared to a white unemployment rate of 4.9 percent. Let us also note here that the labor participation rate continues to be very near a 36-year-low of 62.8 percent (it was 62.7 percent in September of this year).
It is not economic “inequality” that plagues the inner cities and rural communities, where it is most likely to be considered the main problem; indeed, perennially Democrat-run states and cities tend to be among the most unequal places in the nation. It's a lack of economic opportunity.
The Democratic Party that is the main beneficiary of African-American support also happens to have an egregious track record of being hostile to businesses. Multiple surveys show that blue states overwhelmingly tend to have worse business climates, and red states are generally rated to be better.
Simply put, it's not capitalism that is exploiting poor African-American communities, it's a lack of capitalism that is leading to more poverty and unemployment. As an example, Asians are even wealthier than whites as a group, and certainly, the capitalism system did not “exploit” them.
While America attempted to turn the page on its bleak past of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and racism with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, one thing prevented this change from fully occurring during the decade of the 1960s: The emancipatory power of economic freedom was taken away and replaced with elusive promises of a “Great Society” and the initiation of a feckless “War on Poverty.”
It is often difficult to appreciate this point in the media-generated “fog of war” of constant racism accusations. Indeed, the public is so saturated with such assertions, that 78% of Americans say that politicians raise racial issues just to get re-elected.
But there is also an opportunity here: 68% of African-Americans agree that politicians engage in such divisive tactics. So let us address the underlying issue of poverty and what drives it (while footnoting that the capitalism-driven wealth of the 1990s dropped poverty rates for both whites and blacks).
As the economist Thomas Sowell wrote: “The poverty rate among black families fell from 87 percent in 1940 to 47 percent in 1960, during an era of virtually no major civil rights legislation or anti-poverty programs. It dropped another 17 percentage points during the decade of the 1960s and one percentage point during the 1970s, but this continuation of the previous trend was neither unprecedented nor something to be arbitrarily attributed to the programs like the War on Poverty.”
Indeed, one wonders what is “progressive” about a past that clings to counter-productive notions about wealth redistribution, and pervades them rather than those of wealth creation. Simply put, we need to close the “opportunity gap.”
If we are to truly heal the wounds of racial resentment in this country and turn the page on its ignoble past, African-Americans need to back a movement that calls for economic opportunity. This can best be accomplished by embracing the economy that led America to grow one of the most thriving middle classes in the world over the last century.
We don't need to level the playing field for all Americans to be equal. But we do need to give each other a hand up and move forwards together towards prosperity and real progress.