By Joe Pettit 11-12-2015

A movement for greater understanding around racial bias and racial injustice is moving across our country. The success of this movement will require lots of hard work and very clear thinking. The following are 11 easy but serious mistakes well-intentioned people may make when thinking and talking about racial justice.

Here are some things to know:

1. Don’t assume racial inequality is normal.

This shouldn’t be an easy mistake, but it is one of the most common and most consequential mistakes when thinking about racial inequality. The largely absent social and political urgency over racial injustices makes it clear that many have concluded deep and persistent racial inequality is normal, unsurprising, and not a social emergency.

Yet, how can one see racial injustice if racial inequalities are “supposed” to be as they are? How can our children believe us when we say skin color is irrelevant to one’s abilities if we accept as normal the racial inequality present in all areas of modern life, and teach them to do the same? How can black people as a group not be stigmatized if massive inequality is the expected reality?

When racial inequality is perceived to be normal, then it is obvious that an old, ugly rationale — that black people “get what they deserve” — is alive and well.

2. Don’t conflate the responsibility of individual choice with the responsibility of systemic inequality.

The two issues are logically separate. One may be entirely responsible for a crime, but assigning this individual responsibility for an action does not address who and what is responsible for disproportionate outcomes in criminal punishment. One may be entirely responsible for perpetuating poverty in one’s own family, but this has nothing to do with the question of why a culture of poverty is disproportionately present in one group of people.

To assume that individual actions have a direct connection to racial inequality is inherently stigmatizing. When we focus on the actions of individuals, we are not considering the question of who is responsible for racial inequality.

3. Don’t use the “both” argument.

Many who assign blame for racial inequality to historical and structural biases may still conclude that the bad choices of some black individuals are partially to blame for racial inequality. This is a “both” argument, and some might think they are being both progressive and realistic when they make it. But this argument produces an inherently stigmatizing logic. If skin color is irrelevant to outcomes, as it would be in a racially equal world, then the choices of individuals with different skin colors should have nothing to do with the relative outcomes of groups of people with different skin colors. There should be equal proportions of scoundrels, geniuses, slackers, hard workers, criminals, CEOs, saints, and sinners in each group.

To claim that responsibility for group outcomes can be assigned to the choices of individuals from those groups is immediately to imply that one group is relatively inferior to the other, and so also that one group is relatively superior to the other. As long as the “both” argument is made, white supremacy is still a logically necessary conclusion.

4. Don’t say racial inequality is just like economic inequality.

No matter how many structural causes of economic inequality exist, it cannot be denied that differences in ability and effort will have some influence on economic outcomes. Hardworking and talented individuals will, generally speaking, be rewarded for their effort and ability. Those who do not work hard and who do not have the skills for success will, generally, not be rewarded. Thus, responsibility for at least some portion of economic inequality can be assigned to individuals.

It might seem natural to then assume that racial inequality should be thought of this way, as well. But, again, this produces an inherently stigmatizing logic. If skin color is irrelevant to economic outcomes, then differences in effort and reward should be present in equal proportions in groups of people considered by skin color. Currently, however, black people disproportionately experience negative economic outcomes, such poverty, unemployment, household wealth, incarceration, and low educational achievement.

To suggest that a portion of these negative outcomes can be explained in terms of the effort and ability of black individuals is necessarily to imply that black people as a group are inferior, and necessarily to imply that other more reward-getting groups (namely, white people) as a group are superior.

5. Don’t assume similar, bad outcomes result from similar, bad causes.

Smoking cigarettes for decades can lead to a person getting lung disease. So, too, can a factory emitting lots of pollution in the air. If one imagines two towns that are demographically and environmentally identical in all respects, then the number of people getting lung disease in both towns should be equal. But if you change the environment of one town by adding a highly polluting factory just upwind of the town, then you should not try to explain a rise in lung disease in that town in terms of the smoking habits of individuals.

Similarly, black people getting arrested and sent to prison for crimes they commit leads to black people in prison. So, too, do criminal punishment policies and laws that disproportionately target black people. So, too, does the poverty and unemployment that are disproportionately present in black communities. Unless one assumes that black people are supposed to be in prison at a higher rate than white people, it would be wrong to explain inequalities in incarceration in terms of black individuals committing crime.

6. Don’t mistake individuals for groups.

Many people do not realize that it is possible to think well of black individuals, and poorly of blacks as a group. Racial stigma leads people to think that black people in general are more likely to do things that lead to bad outcomes. These same people can think very highly of some black individuals, and they will conclude that doing so proves that they do not think and act in racist ways. But just because one thinks well of one’s black neighbor, black friend, black co-worker or boss, or of the black President of the United States does not mean that one will find deep and persistent racial inequality to be a national emergency rather than a normal state of affairs. It does not mean that one won’t wait until a black person proves that she or he is not one of “those” black people before one will place one’s trust and confidence in that person.

One way to describe white supremacy is carrying the assumption that black people are broken or inferior human beings until proven otherwise, and white people are assumed to be whole and successful human beings until proven otherwise. Thinking well of black individuals does not demonstrate that one has put such thinking behind oneself.

7. Don’t be overconfident in anti-discrimination laws.

The elimination of legal public racial discrimination was only a basic precondition for the pursuit of racial justice in the United States, but many now define racial justice entirely in terms of anti-discrimination laws. The focus on anti-discrimination promotes an individualistic analysis of racial justice that makes it easy to make the “individual vs. group” mistake above. It also discourages the mind from exploring all of the public policy choices in our history that have produced current inequalities, both those that disproportionately harmed blacks and those that disproportionately benefited whites.

All of these policies were ostensibly race-neutral, and would never be considered matters of discrimination. Yet they have done as much to create racial inequality as any legalized discrimination ever did. Thinking about racial justice in terms of anti-discrimination eliminates entirely the political imperative to change laws and policies to explicitly reduce racial inequality. It takes our eyes off of the real ball. We think we have achieved racial justice simply by not explicitly discriminating against people, when in fact we have barely begun to pursue it.

8. Don’t be overconfident in equal protection.

The problem of an individualistic focus extends to constitutional protections, as well. While the Constitution is capable of verbally affirming equal protection under the law for individuals, it cannot guarantee such protection for groups, and therefore cannot protect individual members of stigmatized groups.

If the primary result of stigmatization is the denial that those who are stigmatized are of equal worth as those who are not, equality under the law is impossible.

9. Don’t live in massive ignorance of the past.

Everyone knows a little something about slavery and Jim Crow. Few know how extensive the impact of slavery was on the economic fortunes of the United States. The U.S. would be unrecognizable from what it is today had there not been slavery. Few know that Jim Crow was not just about buses, water fountains, and restaurants, but also about an entire absence of legal security for blacks. More importantly, almost no one understands the history of housing and lending discrimination that has created so much white wealth and denied so much wealth to black households.

Not enough people understand the cascading and compounding consequences of 45 years of a failed war on drugs, or the consequences of decades of inferior education disproportionately received by black children. These are not just injustices of the past. They produce shockwaves of inequality that continue to be felt in the present and will continue far into the future.

10. Don’t underestimate the magnitude of the political problem.

If racial stigma is the primary consequence and cause of persistent and massive racial inequality, then there is little reason to believe a purely political solution is possible. Precisely because blacks as a group are suspected to be broken until proven otherwise, and precisely because racial inequality is thought to be normal, there is no reason to believe that it will be possible to secure enough political support to eliminate racial inequality.

It may be possible to secure some piecemeal reforms related to issues of police brutality or incarceration, but the underlying causes of racial inequality will go unaddressed by the political process unless it is widely acknowledged that the responsibility for eliminating racial inequality is entirely a public and political responsibility of “We the People.” This is not to say that non-political (e.g., violent) solutions are more plausible. It only means that the problem is much bigger than most people are willing to admit.

11. Don’t forget this simple rule — “If you broke it, you fix it.”

The United States has never admitted its responsibility for fixing the damage caused by past and present racial injustice. In failing to do so, it renders the entire notion of justice a farce. The existence of massive and persistent racial inequality is an obvious demonstration of public and political failure.

The United States must affirm that racial justice is not possible until racial inequality is no more. The only true reparations will be those that eliminate racial inequality. Only with the elimination of racial inequality can democracy begin to be born in our country.

Joe Pettit is Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Morgan State University in Baltimore. His email is joseph.pettit@morgan.edu.

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