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What Hope?

This book is depressing because it is so persuasive. There is a school of thought in America which argues that the government must be the main force that provides help to the black community. This shibboleth is predicated upon another one: that such government efforts will make a serious difference in disparities between blacks and whites. Amy Wax not only argues that such efforts have failed, she also suggests that such efforts cannot bring equality, and therefore must be abandoned. Wax identifies the illusion that mars American thinking on this subject as the myth of reverse causation—that if racism was the cause of a problem, then eliminating racism will solve it. If only this were true. But it isn’t true: racism can set in motion cultural patterns that take on a life of their own.

Wax appeals to a parable in which a pedestrian is run over by a truck and must learn to walk again. The truck driver pays the pedestrian’s medical bills, but the only way the pedestrian will walk again is through his own efforts. The pedestrian may insist that the driver do more, that justice has not occurred until the driver has himself made the pedestrian learn to walk again. But the sad fact is that justice, under this analysis, is impossible. The legal theory about remedies, Wax points out, grapples with this inconvenience—and the history of the descendants of African slaves, no matter how horrific, cannot upend its implacable logic. As she puts it, “That blacks did not, in an important sense, cause their current predicament does not preclude charging them with alleviating it if nothing else will work.”

Wax is well aware that past discrimination created black-white disparities in education, wealth, and employment. Still, she argues that discrimination today is no longer the “brick wall” obstacle it once was, and that the main problems for poor and working-class blacks today are cultural ones that they alone can fix. Not that they alone should fix—Wax is making no moral argument—but that they alone can fix.         

A typical take on race has no room for stories such as this one. In 1987, a rich philanthropist in Philadelphia “adopted” 112 inner-city sixth-graders, most of them from broken homes. He guaranteed them a fully-funded education through college if the kids would refrain from drugs, unwed parenthood, and crime. He even provided tutors, workshops, after-school programs, summer programs, and counselors when trouble arose. Forty-five of the kids never made it through high school. Thirteen years later, of the sixty-seven boys, nineteen were felons; the forty-five girls had sixty-three total children, and more than half had their babies before the age of eighteen. Crucially, this was not surprising: The reason was culture. These children had been nurtured in communities with different norms than those that reign in Scarsdale.

What this means, Wax points out, is that scrupulous recountings of the historical reasons for black problems are of no significant use in finding solutions. She notes:

The black family was far more stable 50 years ago, when conditions for blacks were far worse than they are today. Black out-of-wedlock births started to climb and marriage rates to fall around 1960, long after slavery was abolished and just as the civil rights movement gained momentum. Perhaps a more nuanced explanation for the recent deterioration is that the legacy of slavery made the black family more vulnerable to the cultural subversions of the 1960s. But what does this tell us that is useful today? The answer is: nothing.

One of the most sobering observations made by Wax comes in the form of a disarmingly simple calculus presented first by Isabel Sawhill and Christopher Jencks. If you finish high school and keep a job without having children before marriage, you will almost certainly not be poor. Period. I have repeatedly felt the air go out of the room upon putting this to black audiences. No one of any political stripe can deny it. It is human truth on view. In 2004, the poverty rate among blacks who followed that formula was less than 6 percent, as opposed to the overall rate of 24.7 percent. Even after hearing the earnest musings about employers who are less interested in people with names like Tomika, no one can gainsay the simple truth of that advice. Crucially, neither bigotry nor even structural racism can explain why an individual does not live up to it.

There are those who would beg to differ, but Wax is especially good at showing the flaws in their arguments. The Implicit Association Test (which tests split-second mental associations) does show that people subtly associate black people with negative adjectives—but also that people with those biases do not necessarily act on them and sometimes even favor blacks in their actions. Moreover, a study by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas showed that poor women (many of them black) decided not to marry their children’s fathers not because the men didn’t have jobs, but because of their undependable behavior.

The weakness—and sadness—of this fine book is that it has no prescription. Wax makes a series of arguments—stop focusing on the past, think about culture rather than structure, criticize failure and emulate success—but she does not tell us how to accomplish these goals. The task is certainly huge. The focus on culture that Wax champions would be one in which a black family would be deeply ashamed of the man with two “baby mamas” who works only “odd jobs” and largely gets by selling drugs. But the implacable present-day fact is that in his actually existing community today that man is considered less than ideal but still quite normal. He is loved and accepted, not least as a consequence of the latent meme that only so much can be expected of black people because of the oppressiveness of The System. Hence as Wax notes, Tavis Smiley could produce a whole volume called The Covenant With Black America, urging blacks to “hold leaders to account” and include a mere two lines about out-of-wedlock child-rearing. The black radical is considered, even if “a little crazy,” as “having something to say.” Many black church audiences are now eager to get an earful of Jeremiah Wright.

Wax stipulates that the government should do all that it can to ensure equal opportunity, which includes providing decent education and enforcing civil rights laws. I would say that there is somewhat more that the government can do, given the historical circumstances. Programs to ease ex-cons back into society could do infinitely more for black inner-cities than suing car companies over small differences in loan deals. Those who think that Obama has no “black agenda” are unaware of how many black people attend the community colleges to which he has given extra (if insufficient) funding.

Still, at the end of day, as Wax puts it:

The government cannot make people watch less television, talk to their children, or read more books. It cannot ordain domestic order, harmony, tranquility, stability, or other conditions conducive to academic success and the development of sound character. Nor can it determine how families structure their interactions and routines or how family resources—including time and money—are expended. Large-scale programs are especially ineffective in changing attitudes and values toward learning, work, and marriage.

It would have been rather callous if anyone wrote this a few years past the Great Society heyday, when little could be known as to whether a New New Deal was going to turn black America upside down. But now these truths must be stated.

The typical way of having one’s cake and eating it too here is to say that we need to think about both government help and self-help. But in practice this too often becomes a handy way to focus on the comforts of underdoggism while genuflecting to the obvious but undramatic logic of self-direction. Wax usefully asks: “Is it possible to pursue an arduous program of self-improvement while simultaneously thinking of oneself as a victim of grievous mistreatment and of one’s shortcomings as a product of external forces?” To the extent that our ideology on race is more about studied radicalism than about a healthy brand of what Wax calls an internal locus of control, her book provokes, at least in this reader, a certain hopelessness. If she is right, then the bulk of today’s discussion of black America is performance art. Tragically, and for the most part, she is right.

John McWhorter is the author of Our Magnificant Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English and teaches at Columbia University.