If, as many of the religions of the world affirm, there is a profound equality of dignity and worth between all human beings by virtue of their humanity alone, then what are we to make of a nation and its citizens who allow an entire group of people, a people once brutally enslaved and still actively oppressed, to continue to be stigmatized in ways that implicitly affirm their inferiority as a group and so allow too many of them to experience the devastating consequences of entrenched racial inequality? That nation and its citizens would stand accused of the greatest of injustices. That nation and its citizens would have a divine duty to end that injustice. The United States and we its citizens stand so accused today. Until we understand the imperative to eliminate racial inequality as an obligation grounded in ultimate reality, we will fail to understand the magnitude of our responsibility.
Whether the issue is wealth, health, incarceration, employment, or education, blacks as a group experience significantly disproportionate negative outcomes compared to whites. What accounts for this difference? Only two options are available. Significant racial inequality over time is explained either by forces external to the lives of black individuals (e.g., economic, legal, and social forces), or by the aggregate consequences of choices made by these individuals. Unless one concludes that racial inequality is entirely explained by forces external to the lives of black people, one is forced to conclude that there is something inferior about blacks as a group that causes them persistently to make more bad life choices than whites as a group.
At this point, some will object that some black people do indeed make bad choices that lead to bad outcomes. But so do some white people. The question is what accounts for the differences in the proportion of bad outcomes? We cannot say that the bad outcomes are caused by a culture of poverty without explaining why a culture of poverty is disproportionately present in black communities. This culture is disproportionately present either due to external forces or to individual choices.
The conclusion that the choices of black individuals are even partially responsible for enduring racial inequality creates a stigma that infects the consciousness of many white people and even many black people. As a consequence, white people are assumed successful until proven otherwise, but black people are assumed to be somehow pathologically broken until proven otherwise. Even proofs of black success are only tentatively accepted by many, with a lingering suspicion of pathology remaining. Thus, every black person, young and old, rich and poor, wakes up every morning to a society that too often assumes her or his inferiority. Let us be clear about what this implies: every black person wakes up every day to a society characterized by white supremacy.
Most Americans will, no doubt, deny in the strongest terms that we live in society characterized by entrenched white supremacy. In fact, they will likely be offended by the characterization. What they fail to see is that while one may explicitly deny white superiority, one can implicitly believe in black inferiority. But this is impossible, many will then insist, because they have black friends, neighbors, and coworkers, none of whom they consider to be inferior. The error in this line of reasoning is that it is possible to think well of individual black people while thinking poorly of blacks as a group. This is what stigma does. It creates different standards for judging human beings, standards that could not be present if we truly believed in the equality of all people.
As a result of this stigma, there is little social or political urgency to eliminate racial inequality. If enough people conclude that racial inequality is caused by bad choices made by broken people, then efforts to change this state of affairs will be viewed by many as pointless. As a result of this stigma, the excessive use of force by police officers will be viewed by many as necessary to keep black pathology isolated from the rest of society. As a result of this stigma, shootings like those in Ferguson and elsewhere will continue.
We must not confuse holding individuals responsible for their actions with holding society and government responsible for conditions that render an entire group of people stigmatized as socially defective. In almost every situation, individuals are completely responsible for their actions, and so, too, society and government must be held completely responsible for racial inequality. Our failure to understand these two very different questions of responsibility lies at the heart of our failure to think clearly about racial justice.
Drawing attention to forms of white privilege is less helpful than it might seem. Appeals to white privilege suggest that white people are getting good things that are denied to black people. While this is certainly true, suggesting that this is the core of our racial problem masks, and so minimizes, the deeper problem of white supremacy. As caring people, we can nod our heads in recognition of the problem of some people getting things denied to others. But we will not stand accused before God and humanity of perpetuating a society based on white supremacy that fails to recognize and respect the full humanity of black people. We must understand the full horror of our failure before we will be sufficiently motivated to change.
Because we stand thus accused, we should not understand eliminating racial inequality as one problem among others that our country faces. We should not view it as something good to do if we ever get around to it. We should not even speak of the very real benefits to our country that would result from eliminating racial inequality. None of these characterizations of our task appreciates and respects the dignity that is being denied to black people in a country characterized by white supremacy. There will be no racial justice until racial inequality is no more. We have no greater obligation.
Joe Pettit is associate professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Morgan State University .