Monday, July 27, 2009

Arguing with Shelby Steele on Racial Inequality

Conservative author Shelby Steele in the Washington Post opinion section tackled the ever-controversial topic of affirmative action and persistent racial inequality in the article “Affirmative Action Is Just a Distraction.”

In a nutshell, he argues that persistent racial inequality today between whites and African Americans is primarily a result of black underdevelopment rather than racism.

Today's "black" problem is underdevelopment, not discrimination. Success in modernity will demand profound cultural changes -- changes in child-rearing, a restoration of marriage and family, a focus on academic rigor, a greater appreciation of entrepreneurialism and an embrace of individual development as the best road to group development.

Moreover, Steele asserts that:

“this underdevelopment is primarily a black responsibility. And yet it is -- as historically unfair as it may be, as much as it seems to blame the victim. In human affairs we are responsible not just for our "just" fate, but also for our existential fate.

But continuing black underdevelopment will flush both races out of their postures and make most discussions of race in America, outside a context of development, irrelevant.”

Let me break down where I think Steele makes a good point—and where he and traditionally, most American conservatives, miss the mark.

Shelby Steele makes a good point:
• I believe Steele is right when he argues that the problem—or rather, the cause of the problem of inequality—is underdevelopment rather than discrimination.

I think Steele might be onto something when he argues that the problem of racial inequality isn’t as simple and reducible to white racism anymore. In my own experience as an Asian-American and an immigrant, much of my own personal setbacks personally, professionally and academically were not a direct result or byproduct of white racism but primarily is a result of being in unfamiliar territory where I did not know the rules of the game and I did not have mentors to help guide me on strategies how to advance.

Being thrown in unfamiliar turf (such as college or the Washington, DC white-collar workforce) where many of the players were white, upper middle class and above, and American-born does put me at a disadvantage. But the fact is, I was able to gain entry into that turf and get a chance to play. I see some validity in Steele’s point that although a minority in the white, white-collar world, white racism did not hold me back from entry into that world. How far I could advance in that turf is a mixture of a function of my own personal drive, ambition, skills and network. And yes, racism may play a key role in determining who gets to break into the upper echelons of management. But right now, I don’t see white racism as a factor in determining how far I can advance in my field as much as I see social class and how well my early education, college and being middle class has prepared me to enter the professional workforce.

Shelby Steele misses the mark:

• I believe Steele misses the mark in his prescription on how best to tackle black (and other racial) underdevelopment. He argues that a change in culture among African Americans is the best road to development. A cultural change that leads to changes in behavior that deal with child-rearing, marriage and family, a focus on academic rigor, a greater appreciation of entrepreneurship, and a focus on individual development as the best road to group development.

This is where Steele’s argument gets a bit hazy. He posits certain factors as all missing from the culture of those who are underdeveloped—the prescription, therefore, is to inject these elements into the underdeveloped culture and watch family, entrepreneurship, and academic achievement grow. And oh yeah, it’s primarily blacks’ (and other marginalized groups) responsibility to change their culture. In one fell swoop, therefore, he absolves white America of having any role or responsibility in the uplift of their fellow Americans of color in the social and economic margins.

The problem I have with Steele’s culturally-based argument is that if you break it down to matters of public policy and how laws are implemented, government programs and resources are allocated, and the role of private citizens in making this happen all of Steele’s prescriptions boils down to a lot of feel good conservative rhetoric that lectures people on their supposed personal shortcomings—and not much else.

Furthermore, his singular focus on group responsibility to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps neglects the fact that persistent inequality is an American problem. In my opinion, Steele is far too eager in absolving white America of wrongdoing or moral culpability in matters of racial inequality and overlooks the idea that in a society we are all in the same boat.

The Persistence of Class

Where Steele and many pundits see racial inequality I actually see class. Historically, there have always been two schools of thought as to how an underclass should best to deal with the problem of inequality in capitalist economies: (1) for those at the bottom to learn how to play the capitalist game, to advance as individuals up the socioeconomic ladder and perhaps lead the way for other members of their group to advance as well; (2) for those at the bottom to challenge elite dominance through political activism, legislation and to transform capitalist society to be more equitable in distributing power, wealth and the rewards of society to the poor and working class.

Personally I do not see an inherent contradiction between these two strategies as methods to advance politically, socially and economically for marginalized groups. By that I mean an individual can be academically-inclined, aspire for professional success, and attain wealth in this society. At the same time, he or she can support political causes and activism whose aim is to advance class-based issues such as improving education for poor and working class students, providing meaningful healthcare to the uninsured, affordable housing, etc.

Steele and most conservative commentators see issues of inequality solely through the lens of individual effort and personal responsibility. They imply through their morally-laced arguments that if you are at the bottom of society and are not a member of the middle to upper class there must be something wrong with you and how you approach the problem of living in the complex, post-industrial America of the 21st century.

The way I see it, class is a natural byproduct of capitalist economies. There is a need for garbagemen, janitors, and service industry workers in this economy as there will be a need for doctors, lawyers, corporate executives and white collar professionals. The basic problem that Steele and other conservative commentators do not address is a question of fairness—is it fundamentally fair that the schools that service industry workers children go to, the housing and neighborhoods available to them, are inherently inferior and sub-standard in quality compared to the schools that the middle and upper classes’ children go to? Is it fair for the those who can afford to have excellent health and dental care while those who cannot afford have to do without? Is it fair for the children of professionals to have natural advantages in the quality of education they receive and preparation for life compared to the children of service industry and blue-collar workers?

Steele’s prescription is for minorities at the bottom to aspire to become middle and upper middle class, to take on the values and trappings of success as it is defined by those at the top. If your life sucks as a working class person, Steele and other conservatives argue that what you need to do is to aspire to be upper middle class where life sucks less.

I’m not saying there is anything wrong with that. What I am doing is to pose the question: why does life, opportunity, and other aspects of modern living have to suck for working class people? Wouldn’t a public policy and strategy that lifts all boats so it sucks less for marginalized groups make a lot more sense?

Where Does this Leave Affirmative Action?

By this time you probably would have guessed that although I come from quite the opposite political perspective from Shelby Steele, I actually agree with his assertion that the affirmative action debate in its current form is increasingly becoming irrelevant.

I am a proponent of injecting the notion of social and economic class and fairness in the equation of asking the question of what do we as a society do about inequality? I would argue that inequality is an American phenomenon – not just a black and white issue. If you actually look at the statistics, most poor and working class people in America are white. Addressing inequality has to do not just with ushering members of the poor and working class up the socioeconomic ladder without questioning the fundamental fairness of a social and economic structure where the fruits of society are only enjoyed by those at the top. I would argue that tackling inequality also has to do with how society allocates the rewards and resources at its disposal for the common good.

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