Despair over disparities: systemic racism or systemic dysfunction?
Growing up, I experienced the welfare system when my family spent time using food stamps. We also received charity from our church and relied on free health clinics (except that time my dad used my mom’s needle and thread to sew up the back of my head rather than spend the family’s Christmas money to take me to the ER after I gashed my head open against the corner of a wall). Our family lived in tents—including one tent where my mother gave birth to my older brother while our family lived in Greenbelt Park, a campground in Maryland. We also lived in sheds, motor homes (favorite overnight spot: Wal-Mart parking lots), and sometimes houses. My seven siblings and I had a transient childhood—I attended seventeen public schools plus homeschool in rural, suburban, and urban settings across America. Despite this educational instability, I worked hard and landed a full-tuition scholarship for a master’s degree at Harvard.
During my middle school years, I attended two very well-funded, inner-city schools in Kansas City, Missouri. But these schools were so horrible that, in 2000, Kansas City Public Schools became the first district in the nation to lose accreditation. I was one of only a few white students in my classrooms, and I saw firsthand the violence, drug abuse, and shoddy education that many black students in America are made to endure.
This harrowing experience taught me how much, from a racial justice standpoint, we must improve in the realms of school choice and educator accountability. It showed me how children in majority-black environments are neglected by systems created and maintained primarily by the same bureaucrats and politicians who claim to have the needs of black children atop their list of priorities. Fueled by campaign donations from teachers’ unions, they pay lip service to racial justice while keeping black children trapped in toxic public schools. Sadly, Kansas City is far from alone in its education stranglehold. Nationwide, there is a fight to stop the flow of taxpayer dollars to more worthy educators at public charter and private schools.
As a young adult, I paid for college partially through janitorial work, fast-food jobs, and Pell Grants, which I got only after being declared legally estranged from my parents. They disowned me due to my father’s controlling abuse—he didn’t want me moving away for college because he said it disrupted his prophetic calling. During my freshman year, I used Medicaid for shots that I couldn’t afford out-of-pocket after a potentially rabid dog bit my hand. After graduating, I lived in housing under government income restrictions.
I’m not saying there’s no place for a social safety net—I’ve benefited from that safety net myself, and have gone on to pay much more back into the system. After graduating with a bachelor’s and master’s degree, I worked in finance at Goldman Sachs and Moody’s Investors Service, and for influential policy think tanks like The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and for a scholar at The American Enterprise Institute.
But sadly, my success is becoming more the exception than the rule because of a growing culture that fetishizes victimization rather than triumph over adversity. Yes my skin is white, but I had substantial obstacles in my path—far more than the average American child of any skin color. This includes no consistent running water until I hit college, two abusive schizophrenic older brothers (including one who sexually assaulted me) along with PTSD, depression, and near-fatal hyponatremia.
The scourge of poverty cuts across racial lines in America, and we must work together to fight it. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1967:
Some forty million of our brothers and sisters are poverty-stricken, unable to gain the basic necessities of life. And so often we allow them to become invisible because our society’s so affluent that we don’t see the poor. Some of them are Mexican Americans. Some of them are Indians. Some are Puerto Ricans. Some are Appalachian whites. The vast majority are Negroes in proportion to their size in the population.
I reject the notion of legalized, codified “white privilege”; to believe that is to reject the enormous sacrifices of Dr. King and other civil rights giants. I also reject the notion that interpersonal racism doesn’t exist in America, or that it doesn’t negatively affect non-white Americans. Yet racial discrimination has been outlawed in America since the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Today, in competitive high schools and colleges nationwide, white and Asian students must outscore black and Latino students to earn a coveted admissions slot. Black and Latino graduates earn more money than white and Asian-Americans who scored similarly on standardized testing and GPAs. A 2021 survey by college admissions firm Intelligent found 34 percent of white students falsely claimed they were a racial minority. They found “Three fourths of people who faked being a racial minority on their applications were accepted by the colleges to which they lied.”
After reading about this news, Ibram X. Kendi, a professor and historian who believes deeply in “white privilege,” posted a tweet promoting an article about the Intelligent study, but deleted it after users pointed out that the article contradicted his theories.
It’s undeniable that anti-black racism was sanctioned, legalized, and codified for centuries by U.S. federal, state, and local governments, and those impacts can to some extent still be seen today. But empirically-robust research by men like Dr. Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, and Jason L. Riley show that despite centuries of systemic racism, current racism is not even close to the main reason for black-white disparities. Their research also shows black Americans were making rapid strides and closing racial gaps before the advent of the New Deal welfare policies and the 1960s drug and sexual revolution pushed fathers out of homes and children into drugs and gangs.
The research of Sowell, Williams, Riley, and other conservative social scientists illuminates pervasive, systemic dysfunction rather than systemic racism. This dysfunction cuts across people of all backgrounds. Poverty hits people regardless of their skin color, but it’s more pronounced within black America because that’s where the effects of bad policies have been most concentrated.
In Please Stop Helping Us: How Liberals Make It Harder for Blacks to Succeed, Riley points out that even during the era of Jim Crow (i.e., legalized racism) black families were more intact, and black Americans committed far less violent crime, decades before Americans twice elected the first black president. Something else besides racism is going on, and many don’t want to investigate.
To be sure, there are some evil white supremacist individuals in America. We must publicly reject their views and, of course, punish any of their illegal behaviors. But the fact that nearly 160 million people—including millions of black, brown, and Asian people outside the U.S. wish to immigrate to our country—many of them risking their lives to get here—is compelling evidence that, relative to anywhere else on the planet, America is a shining example of racial equality.
Rather than white supremacy, there must be a more complex set of answers (including policy, culture, family structure, and personal decisions) that can explain Pew's findings comparing black immigrants vs. native-born black Americans. Black immigrants have higher educational attainment, make more money, have a lower poverty rate, are more likely to be married (unmarried parenting is the crucial variable associated with poverty and criminality), and are much closer to parity with non-black Americans overall than with native-born black Americans.
This suggests these disparities are too complex and multifaceted to be explained by the simple narratives that are forwarded by many progressives. We cannot ignore the brokenness of the world, but oversimplification of the issues only breaks it further.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and deep soul-searching is needed to stop these injustices.
Many claim to be at the forefront of fighting systemic racism, yet welfare policies, which were sold as tools to mitigate the residual effects of America’s past institutional racism, ultimately created a culture of dependency that has led to the destruction of black families. These policies have caused increased rates of drug use in black communities (and encourage their illicit flow across our borders), rising rates of violent crime and gang activity, and a greater prevalence of teenage pregnancies and fatherless homes. They keep black Americans trapped in what Dr. King called “a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.”
American Exceptionalism rewards perseverance, resourcefulness, and self-determination. Because of the strength of our nation’s educational, religious, and commercial institutions, people of all backgrounds and creeds flourish here like no place else. America is a place like no other in rewarding personal responsibility, industry, and civic participation. Sadly, these rewards are imperiled by voices seeking to rewrite history with a myopic racialist narrative that ignores both basic principles of economics and America’s painful, centuries-long march toward “a more perfect union.”
I’m a firm believer that the truth will set us free, and I believe we should relentlessly pursue it. That's why I left Mormonism—even though my family had practiced it for ten generations before me—and my family shunned and disowned me for nearly five years because of my dad's cult-like Mormon fundamentalism. But the freedom I gained from challenging what I believe are false beliefs has been exhilarating and rewarding. To achieve different and better outcomes for black America, we must think and act differently.
Dr. King called on us to “be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort from the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice.”
We need more battering rams to crush the broken societal designs that have immiserated black Americans. We need to empower black Americans to rebuild strong, healthy, vibrant, and durable communities; and this starts with policies that support, not disassemble, vulnerable families of all skin colors. This is how we truly promote social justice.
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