The myth of black inferiority

Many, now including the president and vice-president, have sought to co-opt a protest of racial injustice by turning it into a one-sided showdown regarding patriotism, the flag and one’s support of the military. While such efforts are clearly designed to change the subject, they do provide an opportunity to consider racial inequality in America.

There are only two possible sides: Either one thinks massive racial inequality is an ongoing national disaster that requires a far, far greater response from “we the people” so as to eliminate that inequality. Or one thinks that massive racial inequality is the normal consequence of deficiencies in character and ability in black people as a group, in which case no response from “we the people” is required at all.

These are the sides. There is no middle ground.

The ongoing acceptance of racial inequality has made clear on which side most in our country stand. How else to explain that, by one recent measure, median white household wealth was 68 times higher than black household wealth in 2013, yet there is only silence from most citizens and legislators? How else to explain that in the 2015 National Assessment of Education Progress the average black 12th-grader scored in the 19th percentile in math and the 22nd percentile in reading, yet there is there is no nationwide demand to reform education for black students?

Statistics such as these have been produced for decades, and their reception is always the same. Instead of being understood as signs of an emergency, they are barely even noticed. Instead of galvanizing a national commitment to racial justice, they are merely accepted as the way things are.

The normalization of racial inequality is the clearest expression of the racial caste system that has characterized our country from its beginning. In a country that assumes her or his inferiority until proven otherwise, no black person can expect to receive equal treatment under the law. No black person can look to the political process with any hope that it will commit to the elimination of racial inequality. Instead, black people must assume that the law and those who enforce it will act to contain and constrain them, even when it can no longer do so explicitly.

Given the absence of a widely accepted movement for racial justice, one is forced to conclude that the majority of our country has implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, taken the side that explains racial inequality in terms of the failures of blacks as a group. In short, our country has sided with a belief in black inferiority, otherwise known as white supremacy.

Many will immediately object that they have not sided with white supremacists because they think highly of individual black people and may even have voted for one to be president. But it is both logically and psychologically possible to think well of individual black people while thinking poorly of blacks as a group. Those one thinks well of are merely exceptions to the rule of black inferiority.

Others will point to black people behaving badly as the cause of racial inequality. But this confuses the issue of taking responsibility for individual choices with accepting responsibility for inequality. Bad choices made by some black people certainly lead to bad outcomes. So, too, do criminal punishment policies and laws that disproportionately target black people. So, too, does a history of isolating black communities. Unless one assumes that black people are supposed to experience bad outcomes more than white people, it would be wrong to explain racial inequality in terms of the choices made by black people.

Nothing in a commitment to racial equality absolves individuals, black, white or otherwise, from accepting responsibility for their actions. However, it does demand that our nation accept responsibility for the actions and inaction that have entrenched racial inequality.

The causes of racial inequality are not a mystery. Our country began with the plundering of black lives to create white wealth. It then used terror and the force of law to deny blacks opportunity. The same laws that created unimaginable white wealth in suburban homes produced the contours of black neighborhoods experiencing so many difficulties today. The schools located in these very different communities unsurprisingly have produced very different outcomes.

While these causes are no mystery, it is indeed a mystery why so many are content to conclude that black people today deserve what they are getting.

Joe Pettit (joseph.pettit@morgan.edu) is associate professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Morgan State University.

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