Why race-based framings of social issues hurt us all
As a radical moderate, I identify as neither liberal nor conservative, Democrat nor Republican. I’m an independent who is suspicious of both sides of the political aisle, especially at their extremes. So, as partisan ideologues and opportunists use race as a political football, I shake my head in disgust.
The dominant narrative on the left is that racism is ubiquitous in American society. It dictates that white supremacy was not only a significant feature of our history, but that it accurately describes America today—evidenced, they claim, by social and economic disparities, and police brutality against unarmed persons racialized as “black.” On the right, racism is often perceived as overblown; an excuse for race hustlers to shake down institutions through cancel culture, Critical Race Theory, Black Lives Matter, and anti-racist JEDI workshops.
Conservatives will accurately point out that many leftists highlight police brutality while eliding the horrific rates of gun violence and murder in certain inner-city neighborhoods, which kills far more people annually than killings by cops. I wonder, though, how many of them care about “inner-city violence” as more than just a sharp tool in their ideological warfare against progressives.
Within the culture wars in the United States, with so-called liberals and so-called conservatives perpetually vying for political power through ideological combat, the image and reputation of black Americans are much too often caught in the crossfire. By “black American,” I mean persons of African descent native to the United States who share ancestry, nationality, ethnicity, and cultural history. I am not referring to a “racial” categorization; as you will see, this distinction is important.
I tire of my ethnic and cultural tribe being used like a ping pong ball in the culture wars. Today, even well-meaning political observers who defend classically liberal values can at times play into narratives that place black Americans at the short end of the analytical stick.
For instance, take an opinion piece titled “Despair over disparities: systemic racism or systemic dysfunction,” by columnist and senior policy analyst Carrie Sheffield. Sheffield’s personal story is inspiring. She survived a deeply unstable and neglectful upbringing and witnessed firsthand the horrible public schools in which too many students racialized as black suffer. She speaks about the need for a social safety net from her own personal experience on Welfare, using Medicaid, and living in government-subsidized housing after college.
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…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.
Without providing empirical evidence to substantiate the claim that success stories like hers are becoming less common, Sheffield rejects notions of legalized “white privilege” while acknowledging the reality of “interpersonal racism.” She cites the research of economists Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams, and journalist Jason Riley, to counter the claim that systemic racism is the primary cause of disparities between nominally “white” and “black” people. Instead, these disparities can be attributed to what she calls “systemic dysfunction,” which emerged from “New Deal welfare policies and the 1960s drug and sexual revolution [that] pushed fathers out of homes and children into drugs and gangs.”
Let’s say that this critique is at least partly true. Many liberals avoid accepting this argument because, to them, it constitutes “blaming the victim.” But this reasoning ignores two crucial factors. First, that personal and familial responsibility are still important in shaping outcomes, and second, that it is possible for a victim to overcome victimhood status. As the great artist, author, and philosopher Charles Johnson has said, just because we aren’t blind to racial injustices of the past (and present) doesn’t mean we have to be bound by them either.
Sheffield then steps into quicksand by comparing native-born black Americans to “black” immigrants:
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.
I agree that “white supremacy” is a simplistic explanation that neglects a complex causal landscape. And Sheffield is correct in her analysis of Pew’s findings from 2013, which show that 28 percent of native-born black Americans were living under the poverty line, whereas “black” immigrants from Africa and the West Indies were at 20 percent.
But why use Pew findings from 2013? The 2020 census revealed that the poverty rate for native-born black Americans dropped by nearly 10 percent, making it less than the “black” immigrant rate of 2013. My point is this: It’s not necessary to pit so-called “black immigrants” against native-born so-called “blacks” to prove that white supremacy isn't the sole causal factor of disparities. As a multi-generational black American citizen, I’m disturbed by the meme of pathology that often accompanies criticism of anti-racist ideologues who over-emphasize white supremacy.
Albert Murray, in his first book, The Omni-Americans, viewed what he called “the fakelore of black pathology” as the corollary of “the folklore of white supremacy,” often perpetuated by social scientists wielding statistics to demonstrate how screwed up black Americans supposedly were and are. Even if this wasn’t Sheffield’s intent, the meme itself is insidious, in large part because it places an overt emphasis on race.
Furthermore, it is dubious to compare self-selected “black” immigrants to the United States over the past forty years to native black Americans, who have contributed to American life and culture for hundreds of years. What if we compared the overall wealth of black Americans to people racialized as black in various nations? Might they not have less overall wealth than black Americans in part because of their unique colonial and postcolonial history? For instance, the annual purchasing power of nearly 47 million black Americans—$1.6 trillion—exceeds Nigeria’s gross national income. Nigeria contains over 200 million people.
Despite all of the people within them having similar skin tones, the various African cultures and the cultures of the African diaspora are all importantly distinct from one another. Nigerian highlife music, Jamaican reggae, and black American jazz, for instance, are distinct in sound and range of musicianship. The African continent features a wide array of languages and cultural traditions based on region; likewise, people in Trinidad and Jamaica have distinct traditions.
Comparing statistical results between “black immigrants” and “native blacks” also evinces a racial double standard. When was the last time you heard about a comparison between immigrants from France, Germany, or Eastern Europe and white-identified persons from the deep South, Appalachia, or the Midwest in terms of wealth, educational attainment, or rates of marriage or violent crime in our everyday discourse? Such comparisons are rarely included in reports on group disparities, even though there’s no obvious reason why they are less relevant than those commonly made between different populations of “black” Americans. This double standard aligns with the definition of racism that Barbara and Karen Fields present in Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life: “Racism refers to the theory and the practice of applying a social, civic, or legal double standard based on ancestry, and to the ideology surrounding such a double standard.”
Imagine you’re at a conference, seated at a table of six. It’s a big table and each person is sitting six feet apart. Nobody at the table has met before, but everyone is being friendly and doing their best to break the ice. Now imagine that the speaker at the front of the room suddenly instructs everyone to stop what they’re doing and individually examine each of the other people seated at their table, and to specifically focus on the flaws they have.
You and your tablemates will probably laugh to relieve the awkwardness of this activity. But why is it awkward? It’s awkward because, who wishes to be reminded of what’s wrong with them? It could even be said that part of the reason why we crave social interaction is to distract ourselves from the pernicious feeling that something is wrong with us.
This conference scenario is an example of “deficit-framing,” which is at the heart of Carrie Sheffield’s argument, and other arguments that implicitly ask, “If those black immigrants can make it, then what’s wrong with native-born blacks?”
Race-based framing of problems in a segment of the American population results in narratives of pathology. Unfortunately, this is the default position of many academics, activists, and reporters who discuss Americans who self-identify as “black.” By instead framing issues in terms of the tangible assets and skills that people have, however, we can jump off the vicious wheel of racialization that keeps us in this mess.
Trabian Shorters, the CEO of the BMe Community, uses this practice of “asset-framing” in his public speeches, podcast appearances, and workshops. Shorters promotes asset-framing to flip the script on the positioning of black Americans as “marginalized,” “disadvantaged,” “at-risk,” and other popular descriptions that have now become stigmas. Stigma narratives, Shorters explained during a 2020 interview, frame people as threats, which taps into people’s fear. Once this occurs, fear likely results in the perceived threat being avoided, controlled, or even killed.
In contrast, Shorters says asset-framing involves “defining people by their aspirations and contributions before noting their challenges and investing in them for their continued benefit to society.” So, for example, rather than students of color in families who struggle financially being called “at-risk,” under asset-framing they would be described as students who desire to graduate and face obstacles doing so. In other words, all of the same information about the student and their family gets conveyed, but the asset-framing approach emphasizes the points that are meant to empower the student to overcome the challenges that they face and to gain support in this effort.
According to Shorters, asset-framing has three steps:
1. Recognize that asset-framing is not about what you say about people. Asset-framing is about what you think about the people.
2. Introduce and assess people based on their aspiration or contribution.
3. Think about what is obstructing those aspirations and contributions, and look for ways to remove those obstacles.
Imagine that you’re at that same conference table again. This time, rather than thinking about all that’s wrong with everyone else, you listen to each person share their hopes, dreams, aspirations, and contributions. Now imagine that this conference table is America, and the others sitting at the table are your fellow Americans. How much easier would it be for us to move forward together as a country, and to ameliorate the systemic issues that people actually face, if we took the asset-framing approach? We would all be able to share our visions of the good, and make what my partner in life and business, Jewel Kinch-Thomas, calls “relational grace” more evident.
That’s the power of flipping the script from narratives of rejection and liability to acceptance and assets. By my reckoning, the cognitive practice of reframing our thoughts and words towards a generative view of human potential can buck up our teetering democracy and strengthen the foundation of our liberal values.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism or its employees.
In keeping with our mission to promote a common culture of fairness, understanding, and humanity, we are committed to including a diversity of voices and encouraging compassionate and good-faith discourse.
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Journal of Free Black Thought – Erec Smith et al.
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Notes of an Omni-American – Thomas Chatterton-Williams