When the three languages of US politics get in the way

By Lorenzo

Economist Arnold Kling, who blogs here, has provided a useful framing of American political debate as divided into three languages of politics. He discusses his framing with economist Russ Roberts here, and his analysis is usefully discussed here. The three languages are:

  • the conservative barbarism-civilisation axis,
  • the progressive oppressors-oppressed axis, and
  • the libertarian freedom-coercion axis.

None of them provide a useful way of thinking about the overall situation of African-Americans in the US. Certainly there are elements of the experiences and circumstances of African-Americans which the various languages can get some hold of; but that is actually a negative, because it invites conflation of that one element into becoming the entire perspective on the overall situation of African-Americans.

One-frame progressives

Starting with the typical progressive approach (since it tends to be the noisiest), the issue is racism–oppression of African-Americans, the oppressed–it is always racism and if you don’t see that it is always racism then you are probably a closet (or not so closet) racist yourself. For if you are disagreeing with the analysis that it is all about racism–which it so “clearly” is–then you are condoning racism.

Since racism explains remarkably little about the current overall patterns and dilemmas of African-Americans (however much to do with how we got here–not the same thing) yelling “racism!” constantly is mostly enormously unhelpful for any other purpose than signalling Virtue. But since it is very, very useful for that, there is no sign it is going to stop any time soon.

I have previously argued that slavery and its legacies explain much more about the present situation of African-Americans than racism–especially as American racism itself is very much part of the legacy of slavery. And slavery is, of course, a system of (profound) oppression. That there is a long history of oppression of, and racism against, African-Americans does provide a clear oppressor-oppression narrative about African-Americans. Alas, it really does not actually explain nearly as much as its propounders believe. The legacy of past oppression can be, and is, a lot broader than the current, remarkably pale, shadows of the same. Nor is oppression the only theme or factor in African-American history: still less in their current circumstances.

There is a sub-version of the progressive position which adds in “culture of poverty”–African-Americans are oppressed by a culture of poverty which is a legacy of racism and slavery. This approach goes back at least to the (later Senator) Daniel Patrick Moynihan‘s 1965 report The Negro Family: the Case for National Action (pdf): though his report is rather more specific and empirically grounded.

Now, as I have previously posted, I am not keen on the culture of poverty explanation either as it appears to answer the question before asking and because, like racism, it is analytical “silly putty”–it can be shoved into any shape to cover the required analytical hole. Besides, it is largely rejected as an explanation among progressives in place of, you guessed it, racism.

One-frame conservatives

Conservatism have their own answer to the situation of African-Americans–more civilisation, less barbarism. Now, there is variance between those who think essentially all African-Americans are barbarians who have to be kept in line (a widespread view once upon a time, rather less so now: it was strongly part of the rhetoric justifying Jim Crow and segregation) and those who think the African-Americans community suffers from too many barbarians, which more civilisation would keep in line.

A sophisticated version of this would be that African-Americans have not fully been through sociologist Norbert Elias‘s civilising process. Which may well have something to it, particularly regarding the high levels of violence (and that it is much the same among African-Americans and jurisdictions of majority African slave descent as the African west coast source population). Especially so, given that African-Americans have hardly experienced American history and the American state as have other Americans–a point conservatives (and quite a few libertarians) tend to be very poor at grasping. As the (later Justice) Clarence Thomas pointed out to the Cato Institute: that freedom had been eroding since the Revolution was not how history had been experienced by African-Americans.

If we consider African-Americans as a particular ethnicity, shaped by common experiences–which is analytically much more fruitful than thinking of them as a racial group (especially given the rising migration of people of African descent who do not share those experiences)–then applying Elias’s analysis is well worth considering. Especially as current African-American homicide rates are positively sedate by medieval European standards and unremarkable by C16th and C17th European or North American colonial standards.

Returning to current conservative views, a very clear manifestation of this civilisation-versus-barbarism outlook is this discussion (pdf) of what it is like to teach black kids. It is massively stereotypical in its language–full of whites do this and blacks do that–but it is pervaded by the language of civilisation (white) versus barbarism (blacks). (If one gets past it being far too black-and-white, it is also a rather depressing testimony.) Another former teacher reacts to the article by talking more neutrally of the difficulty in teaching black kids while a selection of comments to the original piece is here.

So, just as with the the problem is racism response, there are certainly things to point to give the civilisation versus barbarism response some legs. But not nearly as much as proponents think. Consider this example of successful reduction of gang violence in California. It is much more a process of broad civic engagement than imposing civilisation or “being tough” with the barbarians. (A version of which was previous LAPD policy, and a comprehensive failure it was too.)

The biggest single problem with this approach is the same as that with the oppression-oppressor axis; it excludes consideration of alternative factors. Such as, for example, that the African-American experience of American history and the American state has been very different from that of other Americans.

When there is yet another problematic incident with police in the US, the standard conservative response to the claims of racism! will be a “soft on crime” response: police have to impose order, you are getting in the way of that, you are being “soft on crime”, risking the lives, person and property of the wider society. Having decided that racism is not a factor, then any invoking of the same will be labelled “race-baiting”. The possibility that the US might have a broader problem with feral law enforcement gets excluded (as it also does, of course, with cries of “its racism!”). Which is surely the take-away point about those incidents which also involve black police officers or white civilians.

In both cases, the proponents cry their equivalent of “wolf!” way too often and way too loudly, which gets in the way of being more broadly persuasive when they do have a point: sometimes it really is racism, sometimes there really is a threat to civilised order.

The libertarian half-answer

One group who are more likely to approach the performance of law enforcement in the US with precisely such broad scepticism are libertarians. When they do pay attention to the situation of African-Americans (it is not exactly a hot topic among libertarians) their response is likely to be along the lines of too much state coercion: in particular, that the “war on drugs” is much of the problem.

Well, yes, the war on drugs has particularly adverse effects on the African-American community. But pointing to the war on drugs hardly explains why. Talking about African-Americans as living in more vulnerable communities just raises the question of why this is so: which the war on drugs point provides no basis for. Given that slavery was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment (1865), and Jim Crow overturned by the Civil Rights Acts, talking about African-Americans as victims of past state coercion (while certainly true) is not much help in tackling present problems.

Indeed, as David Boaz points out, that history is often something of an embarrassment to US libertarians, who have their own heroic narrative of American history: though their’s is typically one of decline from a more gloriously free past which, for African-Americans (and lots of other folk) just ain’t so.

No way in

So, the preferred framings of progressives, conservatives and libertarians in the US are each quite poor at providing a full picture of the social patterns and dilemmas of African-Americans. Worse, they tend to be used to blot out what parts of other framings do have value and to wildly exaggerate the coverage of their own. No wonder public debate in the US is both so polarised and keeps “circling the drain” when it comes to the problems and prospects of African-Americans.

From here: uses median household income rather than average income. African-Americans tend to have smaller households than Hispanics.

From here: uses median household income rather than average income. African-Americans tend to have smaller households than Hispanics.

But it is worse than that, because African-Americans are not merely seriously badly served by public debate in the US, they are also seriously badly served by the political process in the US. Part of the problem is obvious: they essentially have a monopoly political provider–the Democratic Party. They overwhelmingly vote Democratic, and seem to be thoroughly “rusted on” Democrats: indeed, appear to be the most thoroughly “rusted on” group. (With Southern whites the next most “rusted on” group–but to the Republicans.) So Republicans have little or no incentive to seriously consider African-American issues.

But it is worse than that. Not only do African-Americans effectively have only one political provider, they tend to live in one-Party jurisdictions: that is, metropolitan areas where the Republicans are not competitive. Ironically, the decline in overall levels of crime have helped make the Republicans less competitive. So Democrats also do not have much incentive to seriously consider African-American issues–they get their votes anyway, with only concerns about turnout to provide some edge to that.

Republicans may be competitive (even dominant) at a State level, but have little incentive to apply themselves to urban issues of the large metropolises. Precisely the places where African-Americans tend to live. With teacher and other public service unions key providers of money and activists to the Democratic Party, there is even less incentive from the political class of large metropolises to look critically at the supply of public services to, and the effects of policy on, African-Americans. Especially as blaming racism at every opportunity provides splendid displacement and cover.

So, dominant frameworks of public debate which narrow what is considered and by whom; having an effective monopoly political provider across all levels of politics; and living in one-Party jurisdictions at a metropolitan level. There are not much grounds for optimism that public policy will start working better for African-Americans.

Wanted: a discovery process

Surely the most impressive political mobilisation in C20th US politics was the (overwhelmingly black-led and organised) civil rights movement. But it had a clear focus and plenty of entirely righteous passion to back it up.

What is needed now is not that single-minded focus, but a discovery process where different policies, efforts and means are experimented with, to see what works and what does not. There is always some of that going on–the US is a large and diverse country. But discovery cannot happen if choices are constrained by monopoly-interest politics and closed cognitive frameworks.

 

[Cross-posted from Thinking-Out-Aloud.]

2 Comments

  1. Simon
    Posted July 14, 2015 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    I know this is going to be a bit controversial but ask yourself why Africans worldwide are considered hopeless and helpless? They have never created a literate state or state apparatus anywhere throughout history. If it isn’t genetic then it’s a fundamental software issue that predates European/American slavery. In brief, they have excellent hardware but the operating system is archaic and cannot perform the newer tasks needed to improve the individuals life because it is still prioritizing survivability. Low average ages and high non nucleic birth rates continue to feed into this confirmation loop. It’s not a matter of just offering a healthy modern alternative either, you have to eradicate almost the entirety of their culture and identity remove those key undesirable traits that are holding them back. It’s surgery that’s both to complicated and dangerous attempt with our current knowledge and tools. Until it is black people worldwide are going to have to get used to the fact that they are predominantly purveyors of skills and traits that aren’t valued in modern economies.

  2. Herding cats
    Posted July 14, 2015 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    What is needed now is not that single-minded focus, but a discovery process where different policies, efforts and means are experimented with, to see what works and what does not. There is always some of that going on–the US is a large and diverse country. But discovery cannot happen if choices are constrained by monopoly-interest politics and closed cognitive frameworks.

    So; does that mean that the rest of this fragile planet has to suffer MORE of the American “experiments”???

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