Joe Pettit is Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Morgan State University in Baltimore. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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11 Easy Mistakes to Make When Thinking About Racial Inequality in the U.S.
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.
Racial Justice: Our Divine Duty
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?