I'm supposed to be on vacation, but my self-employed husband is keeping us at home one more day while he responds to a client's last minute request for changes. A benefit of the delay is that it gave me the chance to read, listen to, and refer you to a recent blog from economist, Rajiv Sethi, about a conversation between economist, Glenn Loury, and linguist, John McWhorter. It is a frank and refreshing discussion about the public non-discourse about race.
I don't write or talk about race much because I have no idea what it is like not to be white. I have always had a firm conviction that anything I could say would be completely irrelevant to those for whom being on the receiving end of racism is a common experience. The closest I may ever have gotten to approximating something that felt like racial discrimination was the time a state policeman in a southern state pulled me over (I was going the speed limit) and proceeded to write me up for driving 14 miles per hour over the speed limit. I was told by my southern friends that he had probably profiled us because of the whitewater boats on our car and that when he realized I was a Yankee to boot, my goose was cooked. And you just try being a Yankee in a southern state...no, amend that to uppity Yankee woman in a southern state (I swear I was polite and pleasant at all times)...trying to find an attorney in a small southern town you happened to be passing through who will take your case. When I complained about the unfairness and the outrage that a law enforcement officer would outright lie and that attorneys would refuse to take my case, one of my friends looked me in the eye and said, "Well, I guess now you know what every black and Latino person in this state lives with, Maxine."
That shut me up and it made me think. I shut up because it was one incident in my life, not something I lived with every day. It made me think because it shook me to the foundations of my white privileged soul, it outraged my sense of fairness, and it made me wonder what this country looks like to people who aren't as lucky as I have been. I mean, I did eventually find a lawyer, and I did have the $400 the lawyer charged me. That's privilege. Yes, I had thought about injustice before. This was the first time I had felt it in my soul. Contrary to all those children's books, the policeman was not my friend and justice was not served. I still think about this incident whenever I read about racial or ethnic profiling and laws aimed at undocumented workers.
Now you think about it, too.
Rajiv's blog and the accompanying video also made me think that maybe it would be OK for a white person to say something about race and it got me thinking about whether or not there is anything useful I could say.
I could probably talk a little bit about the racism of white people because I have seen it from the "white" side. It's subtle and usually masquerades as an obsessive concern with "states rights" or "property rights." It seems to manifest more in the voting booth than in face-to-face encounters, at least when I've been around to observe it. That doesn't mean it doesn't happen one-on-one, it just means it's easier to be mean when no one whose opinion you might value is watching. I have encountered very few frank, outright white racists in my lifetime. Most of them have been older and southern, but even they seem to recognize on some level the unseemliness of their attitudes. I know that is no comfort to people systematically exposed to it.
As an economist (and ignoring the moral aspects of slavery) I have always been puzzled by the willingness of white farmers and tradesmen to fight an entire Civil War to support a borderline feudal system of slavery that can only have harmed them economically and in other ways. It provides a dramatic example of the way that race can be used to drive a wedge between what ought otherwise to be a large group of workers with fairly homogeneous ambitions and who will all lose nearly equally if they can be successfully divided politically, just as they would all gain nearly equally if only they could remain united. Loury says he's tired of the national non-conversation about race. Frankly, I'm tired of watching people who have more in common with each other than they do with the leaders of either political party (or investment bankers or CEO's) so easily divided by race (or gay marriage or abortion or undocumented workers).
As an economist, I also find myself thinking about Schelling's checkerboard model. Given weak individual preferences to live in neighborhoods and to socialize with people who are like us and in the absence of some sort of coordinating or "mixing" force, I suspect that we will not be a racially or ethnically homogeneous society for a very long time, even after most of us have ceased to be even mildly racist. But I don't know this. I base it on a long held suspicion that we underestimate the impact that small, but finite sentiments have on aggregate social outcomes.
As someone who grew up in predominantly white Appalachia and who was relatively privileged in an area where "privilege" is not the first word that comes to mind when contemplating the residents, I was sympathetic to James Webb's recent Wall Street journal editorial. Particularly this
Contrary to assumptions in the law, white America is hardly a monolith. And the journey of white American cultures is so diverse (yes) that one strains to find the logic that could lump them together for the purpose of public policy.
There are poor, white kids in West Virginia who, compared to poor, black kids, have an equally low chance of ever seeing the inside of Widener Library or even the inside of the West Virginia University Library. I would like to see them all have an equally high chance if they're willing to study hard. I'd like them to live in a world where education is valued and rewarded and within their reach if they want it.
I'll close by saying that I feel grateful daily for the advances we have made in this country, especially since 1965. It's not enough even from my "privileged" perspective. The fact that some of us are proposing to rewrite the 14th amendment; that some of us seem hellbent on creating yet another slave class, paid this time, but still outside the law; that we will not provide a road to citizenship or to legal working status seems clear evidence that we have a long way yet to go.
I have two nephews who are of Latino descent and a niece of Nepalese descent. One nephew is at basic training for the National Guard even as I type. All are beautifully brown skinned and would be stopped in any state that passes a law like that in Arizona. I want them to live in a country where race doesn't matter except in the sense that blue eyes or brown eyes matter. A physical trait among many, uncorrelated with work opportunities, income, or health.
The fact that I have so many colleagues, friends, and role-models who are of African or Native American or Indian or Chinese or you-name-it descent is a comfort to me and a source of hope that we are moving in the right direction. I know that I am a better person for it just as this nation is a better nation for it.