The Limitations of Black Conservative Thought

Originally published at: The Limitations of Black Conservative Thought – Quillette

I. Can we choose to be optimistic or pessimistic about our future prospects? Can we choose our appetite for risk or our attitude toward conformity? Can we choose to bolster our self-esteem if we know that low self-esteem is causing us grief? Few of us believe we are entirely free to conduct a sober, sophisticated…

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Great essay. A thoughtful peace which clearly articulates the failures of both of the main political ideologies to address persisting racial disparities. A conventional take might suggest that the two ideologies compete out each others main virtues through partisan warfare and rightly categorise the issues you deal with as ‘thorny’ problems.

But I think it goes deeper than that. The conservative rightly sees personal responsibility as the path to salvation- but if they do acknowledge that context in the formative years is key, then it is to morally rebuke or condemn those who raise kids in situations which show a lack of personal judgement. Meanwhile, progressives desperately want to help- and are willing to throw in everything but the kitchen sink- but they also seem congenitally incapable of seeing the terrible harms their own programs have caused over the decades.

Despite my many conservative friends made through Quillette, I would argue that the liberal has the right idea, but completely the wrong approach, whilst the conservative’s instinct for limited government is not a catch all- there are some circumstances where it fails at a fundamentally moral level. Instead, I might try using a parable from the Bible and then a little recent history.

Jesus gave us the parable of the Sower of the Seeds, and although it doesn’t entirely fit in these circumstances we could equate those who grow up in adverse circumstances as falling on stony ground, or beset by weeds. Shouldn’t we do our best to remediate these issues, instead of waiting for the Day of Judgement to provide the solution? I think the key distinction is whether or not government intervention is the appropriate agent of change.

At the same time, Reagan later admitted that the withdrawal of welfare programs was his biggest mistake. He and his coterie of influential thinkers honestly believed that if the welfare was withdrawn, people would naturally re-enter the workforce of necessity, and begin their moral improvement through work of their own accord. Of course, it fell flat- and later Tony Blair would incorporate this lesson in the UK, where, when adding an imperative that welfare recipients should ‘actively be seeking work’ in most instances, he was willing to spend a significant amount of money providing private sector trainers and motivators, to get people back into work.

I think we need to understand that the flaw in progressive thinking is to want government to intervene directly, whilst conservatives tend to believe that the market will fix all ills. Instead, the better approach has to be a radical reformist approach which sweeps away or reforms the most harmful aspects of government intervention whilst redeploying those precious resources towards more productive ends.

The key is community. It doesn’t matter how well you raise your kids, if their peer group is beset by parents with socio-economic problems and deficits in personal responsibility which, on occasion, border on neglectful. The social mobility data from Dr Raj Chetty’s ground-breaking work proves that it is productive fathers in the community in which a child grows up is the decisive factor- not fathers in the home. Other than to say that it is every parents worst nightmare that their teen falls in the with the wrong crowd- and something which anyone can understand- we need to recognise that individual parenting is a weak force when compared with peer group, and it only through parents, and most particularly fathers, acting as a community that they can ensure their children’s peer groups are healthy influences.

Where the liberal goes wrong is through failing to understand that in medicinally treating poverty as a social ill which requires fixing, they need to treat two problems not one. First, there is the actual poverty, and then there is the moral atrophy which occurs as a result of poverty as a persistent intergenerational problem. By refraining from the exercise of moral judgement towards those less fortunate than themselves, the liberal dooms their good works to failure.

Instead, liberals and conservatives need to make common cause, and incorporate the best of both approaches into one successful formula. Government intervention is necessary, but it needs to happen indirectly- by sponsoring those forces which are proven to be socially benign and beneficial within society, instead of through the mandate of mandarins and bureaucratic apparatchik. This is the lesson from Northern Ireland- where Catholics once faced problems almost as insurmountable (excepting skin tone) as African Americans. Anti-discrimination laws were necessary, and opting out from the more egregious aspects of progressive educational theory was helpful- but they surpassed their Protestant counterparts in almost every metric through the agency of strong families, strong communities, parents invested in the educational enterprise and a strong Church as a hub of the community.

So what needs to happen? First, welfare needs to become a basic stipend which is gradually reduced from the first dollar you earn, instead of removed completely with said first dollar. There is plenty of incentive to work, if the $7,000 per welfare recipient spent on the three main American non-retirement or disability welfare programs is only removed at 25c per dollar.

Andrew Yang was wrong about UBI, because it’s too expensive, but a NIT which replaces welfare would not only contain the original anti-poverty motive of progressives, but also remove the disincentives to fatherhood and work which they unintentionally introduced. It would actually save taxpayer money, with only the existing system in place. But imagine if instead of having to periodically report to some demoralising public bureaucrat, the young were instead required to attend voluntary group sessions run by local Churches or Community Centers to show they were actively seeking work. Voluntary mentors might be a requirement or optional depending upon circumstances and what is proven to work. Small grants and funding mechanisms could be offered to the facilities which run such programs.

The other issue is education. Probably the single most important aspect of persisting disparities is what happens to kids who don’t do well at school? In any group other than the few extremely high performing demographics, then roughly 50% won’t do well. The persisting disparity stems from the fact that healthy communities operate something analogous to a communal social safety net. If virtually every man in your less affluent community is gainfully employed in a job which a boy who doesn’t do well at school might see himself in future, this represents an iterative roadmap of potential productive futures- as well as an inbuilt source of advice, support and potential for job referrals.

Contrary to expectations, Black women actually perform slightly better on social mobility scales than white women, yet still lag behind in terms of pay by around 11%. Why is this? Because they experience a form of intergenerational reset. Because fewer Black men have productive, reasonably well-paying jobs, this greatly reduces the chances of stable family formation- which in turn makes it all but impossible to build family wealth. It also makes it almost impossible, outside of Black Middle Class communities, to build the types of communities in which it is healthy for a child to grow up.

Talk of social mobility used to be verboten in the political classes- instead they chose to focus on ‘raising all boats’. The reason was because social mobility used to evoke fears of moving down the economic spectrum through competition. But I don’t think this the case anymore. Before the pandemic, there were 7 million well-paid blue collar jobs which were vacant in America. And this is before one considers the countless millions of jobs which existed with substandard pay and working conditions for no better reason than because illegal immigrations possess no legal voice or negotiating power with those unscrupulous enough to employ them in bulk.

The key here is twofold policy. First, technical vocation-based education at 13 or 14, for kids who don’t do well at school. To leave it any later invites the type of social dysfunction which leads to crime through demoralisation and disaffection, and to fundamentally disrupted schools, unable to fulfil their basic role. It’s what the Germans do- and it has proven highly successful in countering the socio-economic exercise in chromatography we have seen elsewhere. Perhaps the greatest benefit of their system is that it not only provides a blue collar workforce which is loaded for bear, but it represents in inherent universal male mentoring program, because boys self-select towards vocational options which are male dominated.

At the same time, there needs to be reform to both illegal and legal immigration. Historically, we know it is perfectly possible to run economies with labour participation rates which are roughly 90% of men. The key is tight labour markets, paired with education and training which points teenage boys with little interest in academics towards productive jobs, instead of relying upon a transient international serf class. The key is in understanding which jobs American blue collar boys will do well at, with decent pay. Construction is a fine example, but there are many others.

The Australian system has produced a society which is 30% foreign-born, but it possesses little of the tensions which exist in America or the UK with levels which are barely around 14%. Why? Because it is an aspirational system. They understand that just because you educate 50% of your children to go to university, there will still be huge gaps in the knowledge economy, with entrepreneurship and in relation to professions none of our kids want to do.

The changes required to fix the ailing economies of West and heal racial divisions need to be radical and decisive. They also need to be universalist in their approach- helping poor white boys won’t don’t do well as schools, just as much as they help poor African American boys who happen to experience these problems more frequently because of underlying poverty levels and communities which more frequently lack the resource of fathers who can help them. The key compromise both liberals and conservatives need to agree upon is that whilst government can help- by funding and empowering communities to fix their own problems themselves- government should probably only help at arm’s length and indirectly, given the atrocious history of direct government programs which have caused almost as much harm as the help they’ve provided.

My thoughts and scribblings are free to view and comment on my substack:

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My god that was an excellent essay. Congratulations Aaron Hanna, well done.

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Sowell has assembled a great deal of evidence over the course of his career in support of the claim that inequality among different racial and ethnic groups is natural and widespread. And yet, this evidence doesn’t tell us anything about the cause of inequality in any particular case.

It is a good thing he does not try, as that would be impossible. When progressives attribute disparities to systemic racism they are doing the same thing because that explains nothing at all. It is not defined. It is not linked to any particular behavior. What exactly does a white person do to systemically oppress another black person?

I come from adverse circumstances myself and I recall in college and especially graduate school comparing backgrounds with other students who invariably came from stable two parent households, usually well-off. I didn’t meet many others like myself, who had to go into debt and work part time jobs. There certainly are barriers and there certainly are privileged people with advantages others lack, but this applies to all people.

Is it really that methodologically sound to compare immigrants to our country—people who generally make great efforts to come here, and who arrive with the expectation of making substantial personal sacrifices to ensure their children have better lives than they did—with a native population that endured centuries of slavery, and then a hundred years of a state-supported racial discrimination? The majority of African Americans, after all, were deprived of the very education and work experience that Sowell rightly argues enabled past immigrant groups to flourish.

I am quite familiar with Sowell’s writing. I don’t believe this is something he would contest. In fact, this is precisely the kind of cultural factor that would explain the disparity. What is critical and fully in line with his argument is that cultural factors and not racism explain the disparity. If one refers to the past history of slavery to explain the cultural differences between immigrants who are black and blacks whose ancestors were enslaved, this is still a cultural difference.

Why would a scholar interested in understanding the persistence of racial inequality in contemporary America insist for his mother-of-all explanatory variables on a clan-based honor culture that emerged on another continent in the late Middle Ages?

In his great essay Sowell is at pains to point out that bad cultural habits persist among white people and he explains many of the cultural aspects that defined large parts of the Southern states where blacks lived for generations. Once again, he is back to the theme of cultural as an explanation for differences. Is it so hard to believe that black Americans had a similar culture to white Americans of the same region? Didn’t black Americans all become Christians and adopt the English language? Why is it so implausible they learned the cultural habits of the region?

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Take a listen to most any Motown crooner (Dianna Ross, Marvin Gaye). Their English was excellent (grammar, enunciation, etc.). Now, listen to any modern rap singer. Or just walk through a housing project and take in the banter.

My point? Everything Mr. Hanna includes in his essay is meaningful. It is an extremely well written piece. But he omits the importance of language. I met a young man from Kenya not long ago. His English was perfect. I asked him how he had managed that. He said, “Language is a tool. It is my tool for achieving success.”

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As a first stab at it, I’d estimate that the failure of blacks is 50% culture, 30% race, and 20% residual discrimination. IOW the big problem is that their culture now values the gangsta and deprecates ‘acting white’ (trying to succeed honestly). But the fact that 85% of black Americans have below average intelligence cannot be made to go away no matter how hard we try. And yes there is some Racism too, but given that the stereotypes are mostly true, it is hard to make that racism go away either, but neither is it fair to those blacks who do not fit the stereotype.

As for welfare, it is like anesthsisa – we’re glad it’s there, OTOH there’s the opioid crisis.

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Nice article. I certainly learned some new things regarding the civil rights legislation from the 60’s and it’s effect on African Americans, Linking some of the recent hardships of the White working class (my people) with the same socio-economic changes that also hurt the urban AA community was enlightening.

I’m sorry to say that I don’t get how this shows the limitations of conservative thinking in particular though, seems like the title could have just as easily been The Limitations of Progressive Thought.

Like @Geary_Johansen2020 points out there’s probably some good ideas to be had from both sides of the political debate, but there’s also some hope that advances in psychology and sociology will produce some new insights into what might help close the performance gap between racial groups.

People seriously need to try and sober up the conversation a bit. Get away from the shrill, emotionally driven reactions to every current event that involves any racial disparity.

We are doing so many things right, but only focusing on what’s wrong.

I suspect the solutions for the underachieving members of the Black community will likely be the same for the underachieving members of the working class of other ethnic groups as well.

There’s lots of ways this could go wrong, but plenty of ways it could just as easily go right, if people could get off their soapboxes and learn a little introspection and humility.

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Like the author suggested, let’s do a thought exercise: If you were attempting to learn about black struggle in America, would you listen to the millennial white professor, or a black professor who was raised in and overcame segregation in the south. The answer is obvious. In the “lived truth” department, Sowell has the receipts. This in no way makes what Sowell says gospel, but it does provide credibility to someone who experienced it, as to someone who just read about it after hacky-sack in the quad. So if I was hiring ideas based off experience and knowledge, again the pick is obvious.

The author attacks Sowell’s arguments in the parts, and not in the sum. Sowell does not believe that the sole reason for disparities between blacks and whites in America is because of “Scottish Highland immigrants”. This is ridiculous and condescending. The author attacking a PART of a Sowell theory, not the SUM. Thomas Sowell has written over 30 books, and has thousands of hours of lectures, so I assure you the basis of Sowell’s remedy for inequality isn’t based around goat farmers.

The author also thinks we should discount what the Sowell expresses due to his writing style. The author seems miffed that Sowell has flair in his writing, and writes in prose designed to catch the focus of the reader. The author obviously has something to learn from this. If the author could learn and benefit from any aspect of Sowell’s work, for the sake of readers, let it please be this aspect.

The main argument the author has against Sowell is the Sam Harris argument. Do we really have free will? This is the implication from the beginning, and also the purpose for all the annoying questions before every section. This is a philosophical argument.
Why would a methodologically sophisticated social scientist invest so heavily in such a speculative (and unfalsifiable) theory of interracial cultural transmission? No, we do not have a choice in much of our collective environment, but we do have a individual choice based on how we react, or better yet, adapt. Evolution is not new. It almost rhymes with “progressive”. That is why there is a difference in outcome from every individual, and individual action. Thomas Sowell, as well as I, believe the most effective and long lasting means of changing outcomes is not to focus on the collective environment, but to teach and incentivize the power of individual morality and lifestyle discipline, so consistency of outcomes is not based on the actions of the collective, but on values instilled in individuals. If you promote individual responsibility and personal morality, the collective takes care of itself, as the collective is the sum of its parts.

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I think what you, Joshua, are saying of Sowell, also applies to his criticism of Steele. Hanna complains that is a contradiction when Steele says that

black people have been mistakenly led to believe… [while also saying] that black people have exercised their “margin of choice” by choosing to believe…

No, this is not a contradiction – it is simply a tension. Steele is saying that, even when one is being misled, one still has the choice, and one is still responsible for one’s own choices. Glenn Loury speaks of the problem of the Narrative. One can still choose which narrative to believe. One doesn’t have to drink from the fire hose and drown in it.

And where Hanna in his conclusion writes

It is certainly possible for conservatives to argue that working-class whites in the 2020s share with working-class blacks in 1970s the great misfortune of living in a country with a welfare system that infantilizes its “beneficiaries” and perverts their culture, but doing so requires an almost willful disregard for the evidence.
Indeed Loury’s explanation also works: if the rust belt whites have chosen the narrative of despair and lack of agency, and if progressives are encouraging them to consider themselves as oppressed and dispossessed, then it should be no surprise that it leads to the same outcomes.

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The article was a good check on the limitations of two major black, conservative authors. What I love about Sowell is that, I don’t think his more questionable comments are/were intended to be THE answer but to force people to reconceptualize what might be IF they were. So Blacks inheriting Scotch Irish honor culture. What IF there’s truth in this? What would that do to your claims of ‘blackness’ of ‘ebonics’ etc? Now that there IS truth in this then causes a crack in the dam to reconsider a lot of what is just accepted. The author here tries to show that it isn’t the complete truth, but I don’t think Sowell makes that claim. If we accept that it is true without accepting it is the complete truth does it still help black people shake off the chains in their mind that limit them?

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Very salient. Agency seems to be particularly key for boys during their teenage years. The older amongst us often forget just how terrible those years were- setting aside the lifelong friendships which are forged during this period. It is a particularly precarious period in terms of morale.

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I had a similar conversation with a young man from Congo on an airplane a few weeks ago. He’s working and going to school in Boston, and in his free time taking trips all over the US. (He was on his way from Iowa to Michigan)
He was confused by older black people he met here, who are shocked that he’d just hop a plane to hang out in Iowa for 3 days. “Everyone is so friendly in America, why are they afraid to travel?”

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How many people living in Boston, of whatever race, are flying to Iowa, just to hang out for 3 days?

You know modern rappers make a lot of money doing what they do, right?

Sadly, the supply of eager-to-be-zillionaire-rappers exceeds the demand. Maybe they’re right after all! Good to have a back-up plan.

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Great piece Aaron. I recently saw Sebastian Gorka being interviewed on Triggernometry, and they asked me what his counter-solution for the problem of, I think it was, racially-disparate intergenerational poverty, and he basically threw it all onto self-help: get married before you have kids, improve your skills, etc. I thought it was weak, especially when the Trump Administration did in fact have an anti-poverty strategy, highlighted by Opportunity Zones, which brought in tens of billions of dollars in economic development to distressed communities all across the country. The black poverty and unemployment rates both hit record, all-time lows in 2019. Why would a former Trump official not tout his own administration’s decent if not great record of achievement, and instead just start talking self-help? Makes no sense to me.

I think the conversative position does have public policy responses to racially-disparate, integenerational poverty. It looks something like:

  1. School choice: the ultimate goal is universal vouchers that are good at any school anywhere, public, private, charter, parochial, even home schooling.
  2. Law and order: doing what it takes to create safe streets in all communities
  3. Incentivizing private sector growth through lower taxes and regulations, generally and also focused on places where poverty and unemployment are highest
  4. Creating and/or reforming needs-based social support programs to incentivize work and family formation

These things have been tried to varying degrees here in the U.S. and elsewhere, and the track record is generally very good. No reason, IMHO, for conservatives not to be touting this program whenever and wherever the topic comes up, and while self-help is certainly what’s being ultimately promoted, it’s not in and of itself the public policy response.

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Great comment. It’s also worth bearing in mind just how much a sense of agency conveyed whilst young can have on future outcomes. An AEI study showed that it increased the chances of a Black man joining the middle classes by 8% later in life. So much of the oppressor and oppression narrative is harmful to African American boys in particular- teenage boys in general can easily become disheartened. We see this in the difference in social mobility rates between African American girls and boys- the woman actually perform slightly better than white women, but for the men the rates are truly dismal.

Of course, this also leads to a form of reset for the woman, because with a lower rate of family formation driven by a shortage of appropriate men, it creates a type of intergenerational penalty. African American women might have slightly higher rates of social mobility than white women, but there average pay lags behind by 11% because of a more difficult start in life.

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These days, rappers don’t have to ink traditional record deals to get paid; social media has changed the game significantly. All they need is a big enough following on various platforms and they can generate substantial income as influencers.

And rappers are quite capable of code-switching believe it or not. It shouldn’t be assumed that they don’t know how to speak standard English simply because they are fluent in the vernacular specific to their craft.

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You should check out Tom MacDonald @IAMTOMMACDONALD on Twitter. They tried to supress him. They loathed a message which highlighted the divisive nature of much of the Culture War. It didn’t work. Some of his more recent work has been less overtly anti-woke than ‘No Lives Matter’, but it is still very much worth a listen.

The anger economics which Matt Taibbi so clearly lays out in his book ‘Hate Inc.’ can only be resisted if there are clear examples of people making it without randomly picking one of the two polar opposites, as a means of making money. The incentives are simply too strong otherwise.

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Not sure I understand what two extremes you’re referring to, or is that covered in the Matt Taibbi book?

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