Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Great Silence (On Race & Culture) Part I

When Eric Holder declared that the United States was "a nation of cowards" on matters of race, because "we, as average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race," he was largely correct. On one hand, from classrooms to newsrooms, we are bombarded with talk of diversity and discrimination. But, these "discussions" almost never take the form of open, honest exchanges of ideas, but rather of monologues, in which the unwritten rule is that the listener's only options are to affirm the prescribed narrative or to remain silent. To question the speaker or to departs from accepted orthodoxy, will elicit hostile censure. Even those who do not fear the social or professional consequences that accompany open dissent, usually remain silent. The reason being is that increasingly, common narratives do not convey the complex and often contradictory feelings that most Americans hold about issues of race, religion and culture. This is essential, because our primary means of understanding the world and communicating our sentiments, are popular narratives that reduce complex, number driven explanations of economic, social and political life to broad generalities and truisms. Not only do narratives give clarity and reason to our sentiments, but they allow us to work with others to achieve common goals. Without the Founding Father's eloquent, yet eminently understandable narrative on liberty and self government, few Americans would have fought for their independence. Without the disturbing, yet apparently compelling Jihadist Narrative, well educated, wealthy Saudis would not have been compelled to leave the comfort of their homes to fight in Afghanistan, first against the Soviets and later against the Americans.

Occurrences that contradict well worn narratives will cause cognitive dissonance for many individuals and will largely be ignored by the public. For example, a report indicated that in Los Angeles, 69% of hate crimes against African-Americans were committed by Latinos and in 61% of hate crimes against Latinos, the perpetrators were African-Americans. This is most significant, because African-Americans make up only 9.6% of the city's population, i.e. they are over-represented in hate crimes against Latinos by a factor of 6.
Yet, I can think of no civil rights leader who has called upon either group to address the racism present in their communities. Presumably this is because the dominant, liberal narrative presents "communities of color"
as potential victims of,  rather than the purveyors of hate and intolerance. When over time, a dominant explanation contradicts our common experience and fails to stand up the the scrutiny of the statistical minded, it looses it hold on the nation. And as ever greater portions of the nation withdraw from a real interchange, defenders of the rusting narrative, such as Mr. Holder, frantically raise their volume and accusations. A symptom of this decline in confidence is the growing divide between public rhetoric and actual behavior. In the last days of the Soviet Union, citizens publicly proclaimed their faith in socialism, while in private, they participated in the black market, in order to enjoy a glimmer of western consumerism and capitalism. In the United States, even the most outspoken proponents of multiculturalism practice segregation in their private affairs, straining their finances to ensure that their children do not have to live in a truly diverse community. And in the remaining areas of social life were integration is not mandated by the state; churches, friendship and marriage, even among self proclaimed liberals, segregation continues unabated. Perhaps, the disingenuous rhetoric and the silence masks sentiments that if publicly aired would add to social tension. But, democracy cannot function if broad swaths of society cannot express their true hopes and fears. For that reason, the growing divide between rhetoric and reality is more characteristic of an authoritarian society.

When we survey the narratives on race we encounter a divide. At one end we find liberal discourses that present diversity as a universal imperative and an unambiguous good. And it is an a priori truth that any differences in social or economic outputs between ethnic groups must stem from discrimination or privilege.
This is naturally appealing, because it appeals to the goodwill and optimism of most Americans. And most Americans rightly find racism morally repugnant. But, over time, this explanation has become increasingly less compelling, most notably to Americans who live in multicultural cities. The notion that white privilege is the primary determinant of economic outcomes fails to explain how the average household income of Indian-Americans ($90,525), Filipino-Americans ($79,336) and Taiwanese ($79,596) significantly exceeded the average American household income ($51,222). And Asian-Americans have more favorable outcomes than European-Americans in questions of: healtheducation, incarceration and out of wedlock births. Those who are aware of these trends cannot help but view culture, values and concrete behavior, not race and racism, as the primary determinants of success. It would be more accurate to say that cultural capital determine one's trajectory, rather than current status. Given that this success has not produced widespread envy and rancor, the notion that white supremacy is deeply entrenched in the American Psyche, does not seen credible. In fact, even supposed racists, such as Charles Murray have argued that Americans should emulate the beliefs and behaviors that have contributed to East Asian success. But, at least publicly, the culturalist narrative has not been widely adopted, because it departs from the face of the race centered explanations that have dominated public discourse for nearly half a century.

The question of diversity is more perplexing. Large segments of American Society enjoy the fruits of multiculturalism: Thai Food, French Film, Salsa Dancing and of course the numerous African-American originated musical forms: Blues, Jazz, Soul, Funk, Gospel, Reggae and Rap. They welcome the hard work and contributions of most immigrants, from revolutionary innovators like Sergey Brin, to migrant farm workers that put food our tables. And on a personal level, a growing number of Americans work with, live next to, love and marry people of different racial and cultural backgrounds, while at the same time experiencing unease about some aspects of diversity and demographic change. Most of these skeptics abhor racism and share the goals of multiculturalism; they truly want people of different races and cultures to get along, but they are aware of the serious challenges that multicultural societies face. They realize that while individuals of different backgrounds can thrive together, tension and conflict among groups is the norm in diverse societies. They understand that while differences do make life more interesting, heterogeneous societies that do not possess strong shared values and norms are harder to govern and more prone to conflict. Robert Putnam of Harvard University documented that the more diverse a community is, the less social trust, civic involvement and cooperation we find. Harvard Economist Alberto Alesina found that across the globe, in more diverse societies, individuals were less willing to invest in the common good. The implications of this research is that while we must strive to stamp out racism and discrimination against the diverse communities that already reside in the United States, policies that actively seek demographic transformation, undermine assimilation and promote ethno-identity politics are fraught with long term hazards, most notable increased communal conflict. The chance that the majority of the public will openly adopt this vision is slim, because for years the nation has been fed a dualistic narrative that presents our only options as either an unconditional embrace of multiculturalism or succumbing to racism and xenophobia. For this reason, it is much safer for the reasonable majority, who cannot accept either extreme, to remain silent or to parrot the party line.

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