Thursday, March 20, 2014

Reflections on Charging Paul Ryan with Racism

Paul Ryan, Romney’s pick for vice president in 2012, has been castigated in my Facebook feed today.  The charge is racism.  Ryan spoke of how there’s a problem with “inner city culture:” people there lack the Protestant work ethic; if they would only apply themselves!  He was called out for this because “inner city culture” was an obvious reference to inner city Blacks.  His defense is, basically, “It’s a serious point, I’ve been making it for years, and it’s not race based.”

Is it racism? 

Ira Katznelson has a review in the current NYR of Gavin Wright’s book: Sharing the Prize: The Economics of the Civil Rights Revolution in the South.  Apparently in the late 1940’s and 1950’s prominent liberal economic scholars believed that racism in the South would decrease as the economy prospered. They did not think major federal legislation was needed to bring about change, or that it would help. They thought change had to come at the local level and that people in the South would follow their economic self-interest and liberalize. 

In hindsight, these liberal economists were correct about the economics:  the end of segregation, improvements in Black education, and improved economic opportunities resulted in economic improvement across the board—for Blacks, poor Whites, economic and social elites alike.  It’s clear in hindsight that broadening economic opportunities, wage equality, and social equality did not work to anyone’s disadvantage.  But these liberal economists were wrong about human nature.  The South Politicians and the poor White Man (Dylan) did not correctly perceive, nor follow their economic self-interest.

Southern Whites in the 50’s did not believe that desegregation, social justice, and giving up on racism would lift all boats.  Also, they truly were united in their racism.   They believed and preached, as Dylan put it: “You’re better than them, you’ve been born with white skin.” And they thought equality would hurt them economically.  Prejudice was morally justified, and prejudice trumped reason. They actively worked to keep Blacks in a subservient, segregated position, without opportunity or rights.  The civil rights revolution was imposed on the South top down, with Federal legislation, the courts, the Army, and Freedom Riders.  The result has been good for the South; they just didn’t know it.  And, of course, from a civil rights standpoint, we didn’t care. The point of Wright’s book is that without this outside pressure, nothing would have changed, ever.

But things have changed. Ryan and his Tea Party constituency are not racist in this old way.  For one, and this is important, they don’t attempt to justify holding “lazy inner city moochers” in their place based on racist arguments.  The argument is reversed:  these people are just like us, and they have no excuse not to apply themselves, pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Ryan and his cohorts are not actively working to keep Blacks, Hispanics, or any other minority from advancing with racist policies or arguments.  Nor do they seem to begrudge inner city Blacks success.  Ryan genuinely wants them to do better.   

So what accounts for the refusal to help?  Ryan and a broad constituency on the Right are against raising the minimum wage, against expanding early childhood education, against encouraging union power, against expanding healthcare rights, against doing something meaningful to make healthcare affordable, making a College Education universally affordable, and they want to cut food stamps, welfare, unemployment, and other social welfare programs. 

What’s that about?  They make arguments that we can’t afford it, and that it enables loafing and slacking, discourages work and moral fiber.  These arguments appear factually mistaken, just like the fear of the old White guard in the South that providing opportunities for Blacks would hurt them economically.  They were wrong then, and I think the Right is wrong about the effect of raising the minimum wage, making health care affordable, making a quality education free, and the rest.  But those are factual arguments and one should keep an open mind. 

The danger of yelling “racist” when Ryan says there is a problem with inner city culture, is that we stop listening to the arguments made.   We stop engaging. When we cease to engage, we are apt to misunderstand each other.  It’s true that we all have proclivities, preconceptions, inclinations, and prejudices we may not be fully aware of, and that we create and make arguments to fit those proclivities, preconceptions, inclinations, and prejudices.  But when someone is making an argument, it’s the quality of the argument that matters, it’s the evidence that matters…it’s not the proclivities, preconceptions, inclinations, and prejudices that matter. 

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