The Limits of Radical Protest

Bayard Rustin was one of the towering figures in the American civil rights movement. A democratic socialist and a lead organizer of the March on Washington, Rustin was also among the most forceful and compelling advocates for a sweeping set of social and economic changes intended to bring about what he described as “full racial equality.”

In February 1965—a year and a half after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and just seven months after the passage of the Civil Rights Act—Rustin published an essay in Commentary titled “From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement.” This title captured a theme of Rustin’s work in the years to follow—he was a radical pragmatist who believed the campaign for civil rights was the starting point for a much larger struggle: the fight to build a fairer and more just society for all.

Taken August 28th, 1963, Washington D.C, United States (@libraryofcongress). Colorized by Jordan J. Lloyd. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Rustin had just witnessed tectonic legal and political changes in the United States when he urged his fellow Americans to embark on this project. As he put it at the beginning of his essay, the “elaborate legal structure of segregation and discrimination, particularly in relation to public accommodations, has virtually collapsed.” But he argued that this merely marked the transition from one phase of economic and social mobilization to the next: “What is the value of winning access to public accommodations for those who lack money to use them? The minute the movement faced this question, it was compelled to expand its vision beyond race relations to economic relations, including the role of education in modern society.”

Rustin believed this expanded vision would require a fundamental restructuring of the economic system in the United States, and the first step toward realizing this goal was the recognition that broad multiracial political mobilization was necessary. “The civil rights movement,” he explained, “is evolving from a protest movement into a full-fledged social movement—an evolution calling its very name into question.” He believed in the potential transformative power of “linking Negro demands to broader pressures for radical revision of existing policies.” The core theme throughout Rustin’s essay is that there’s only one way to make these reforms a reality: “How are these radical objectives to be achieved? The answer is simple, deceptively so: through political power.”

Taken August 28th, 1963, Washington D.C, United States (@libraryofcongress). Colorized by Jordan J. Lloyd. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

“The future of the Negro struggle,” according to Rustin, “depends on whether the contradictions of this society can be resolved by a coalition of progressive forces which becomes the effective political majority in the United States.” He believed this process could start with the formation of a new political coalition after President Lyndon B. Johnson’s landslide victory against Barry Goldwater in 1964—a coalition of “Negroes, trade unionists, liberals, and religious groups.” Rustin argued that Johnson would be making a mistake if he attempted to govern as a centrist—he would squander his huge popular mandate trying to maintain a coalition that was doomed to unravel anyway. If, on the other hand, Johnson used his mandate to “set fundamental changes in motion, then the basis can be laid for a new mandate, a new coalition including hitherto inert and dispossessed strata of the population.”

This was Rustin’s great political project after the passage of the Civil Rights Act: galvanizing as many Americans as possible around large-scale social and economic change (the vehicle for pursuing this change was the Freedom Budget for All Americans, which Rustin developed and advocated along with A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King Jr.). To accomplish these ambitious goals, Rustin argued that “motion must begin in the larger society, for there is a limit to what Negroes can do alone.” He observed that the national campaign for civil rights should evolve into a more inclusive and comprehensive political movement: “At issue, after all, is not civil rights, strictly speaking, but social and economic conditions.” And he wanted this movement to be driven by the belief that fundamental change was possible.

What would Rustin have to say about the state of the struggle for racial and economic equality today? We can’t possibly know the answer to this question, but anyone fighting for large-scale social change would do well to heed Rustin’s advice about how to build sustainable and effective political movements.

First, in keeping with the title of Rustin’s essay, protest shouldn’t displace politics. Despite the fact that Rustin was one of the main organizers responsible for the most important protest in American history, he was wary of the tendency for protest to become “an end in itself and not a means toward social change.” In a 1979 interview, Rustin said, “Protest is no substitute for the ballot box, which we have now.” While many view protesting as an indispensable form of political engagement, Rustin often counterposed the two: “What began as a protest movement,” he said in reference to the fight for civil rights, “is being challenged to translate itself into a political movement.”

In the same interview, Rustin explained that one of the reasons the civil rights movement succeeded was that its “objectives were very concrete and exceedingly limited. … It was limited to three things only: the right to vote, the right to use public accommodations, and the right to send your child to the school of your choice.” Contrast these aims with the platforms of more diffuse and less organized protest movements active today. A policy platform published by the Movement for Black Lives, for instance, calls for a dizzying array of radical reforms: an overhaul of the criminal justice system; comprehensive immigration reform; the abolition of the death penalty; an end to the war on drugs; the demilitarization of law enforcement; electoral reform; universal healthcare; and universal access to housing. Consider this single entry under the heading “End the War on Black Health and Black Disabled People”:

Universal health care is more than Medicare for All. Our entire health care system must be reorganized to ensure the physical, mental, and spiritual health, well-being, self-determination, agency, and autonomy of Black people, to eliminate profiteering insurance, pharmaceutical, and medical equipment industries, and to create conditions that will allow healing of our bodies, minds and spirits, and of the generational trauma which contributes to the war on Black health.

Universal healthcare is one of the longest-standing progressive policy priorities in the United States, and anyone who recalls the bitter fight over the Affordable Care Act will recognize how difficult the passage of a Medicare for All bill would be. Today’s activists don’t just have long and quixotic wish-lists—they also pursue policies that are anathema to the majority of Americans (including black Americans). A year after demands to “defund/abolish the police” swept the country when George Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer in May 2020, a poll of voters in the city found that the majority were opposed to reducing the size of the police force. While 51 percent of white voters expressed opposition to a smaller police force, this proportion surged to 75 percent among black voters. Yet Black Lives Matter still lists “Defund the police” as one of its core demands. As Rustin put it, the “world of black Americans is full of divisions.” One major problem with identity politics is that the assumption of ideological uniformity among any demographic group is unstable.

George Floyd protests in Uptown Charlotte, May 2020. Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Rustin didn’t have much patience for protesters who were unwilling to compromise on their cherished beliefs to get things accomplished. He observed that “there is a strong moralistic strain in the civil rights movement which would remind us that power corrupts, forgetting that the absence of power also corrupts.” When social movements succeed in gaining power, they’re often forced to forge coalitions, strike deals, and appeal to larger constituencies. When they lack power, they’re more vulnerable to the corruptions of groupthink, ideological zealotry, and utopian thinking.

This brings us to Rustin’s second warning: if you seek transformative social and economic change, you have to build large, organized, and multiracial political coalitions: “In arriving at a political decision,” he wrote, “numbers and organizations are crucial, especially for the economically disenfranchised.” While Rustin attributed the success of the civil rights movement to its limited concrete goals, it’s also true that the movement was about much more than the rights he mentioned—it was a demand for basic freedom and dignity which urged all Americans to fundamentally rethink their attitudes toward race. And the political project Rustin pursued after the “legal foundations of racism in America were destroyed” between 1954 and 1964 was anything but modest: “We need to propose alternatives to technological unemployment, urban decay, and the rest. We need to be calling for public works and training, for national economic planning, for federal aid to education, for attractive public housing—all this on a sufficiently massive scale to make a difference.”

Rustin attacked moderates who “do not even envision radical changes.” He argued that “their admonitions of moderation are, for all practical purposes, admonitions to the Negro to adjust to the status quo, and are therefore immoral.” But Rustin was also critical of the “tendency within the civil rights movement which, despite its militancy, pursues what I call a ‘no-win’ policy.” Rustin went on to explain what motivated this faction:

Sharing with many moderates a recognition of the magnitude of the obstacles to freedom, spokesmen for this tendency survey the American scene and find no forces prepared to move toward radical solutions. From this they conclude that the only viable strategy is shock; above all, the hypocrisy of white liberals must be exposed. These spokesmen are often described as the radicals of the movement, but they are really its moralists. They seek to change white hearts—by traumatizing them. Frequently abetted by white self-flagellants, they may gleefully applaud (though not really agreeing with) Malcolm X because, while they admit he has no program, they think he can frighten white people into doing the right thing.

Recall the antiracist fervor that spread across the United States after the murder of George Floyd. Many of these protests took a strange turn when white liberals tried to outdo one another in their quest to demonstrate their antiracist credentials with increasingly cringeworthy displays of masochistic contrition. In an article for Reason, the linguist and social critic John McWhorter (author of the 2021 book Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America) summarized a few of the stranger instances of public self-abnegation:

In Bethesda … protesters kneeled on the pavement in droves, chanting allegiance with upraised hands to a series of anti-white privilege tenets incanted by what a naïve anthropologist would recognize as a flock’s pastor. On a similar occasion, white protesters bowed down in front of black people standing in attendance. In Cary, North Carolina, whites washed black protesters’ feet as a symbol of subservience and sympathy. Elsewhere, when a group of white activists painted whip scars upon themselves in sympathy with black America’s past, many black protesters found it a bit much.

White self-flagellants, indeed. These spectacles weren’t harmless—at a time when Americans were more focused on racism and inequality than they had been in many years, creepy images of foot-washing and fake whip scars angered and alienated people. But there’s a more foundational problem with the argument that the way to address racial inequality is a society-wide influx of antiracist training and unsparing introspection (the project of prominent antiracism campaigners like Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi). As McWhorter puts it: “The idea that political work must be preceded by a massive mental overhaul of the nation is not self-standingly obvious.” If antiracist campaigners really had a political program, McWhorter argued, “it would focus much more readily on making change from the grassroots on up; the psychological cleansing would feel like a prelude cherished by a few but best gotten past as quickly as possible.”

McWhorter criticized the “focus on individual psychology as opposed to national social and political structures.” Rustin shared this view: “It is institutions—social, political, and economic institutions—which are the ultimate molders of collective sentiments. Let these institutions be reconstructed today, and let the ineluctable gradualism of history govern the formation of a new psychology.” Reforming institutions requires cooperation from many different segments of society, and high-decibel accusations of racism aren’t the way to build these coalitions. Rustin urged his political allies to remain focused on the real threat rather than lecturing liberals about their racism: “…the objective fact is that [Democratic Senator for Mississippi, James] Eastland and Goldwater are the main enemies—they and the opponents of civil rights, of the war on poverty, of medicare, of social security, of federal aid to education, of unions, and so forth.” The same argument applies today: the main enemies are Trumpist Republicans who want to ban books in public schools and prevent black Georgians from voting. Crowds of kneeling liberals aren’t going to stop these people—if anything, they’ll empower the most demagogic forces on the Right by allowing those forces to present all their opponents as bizarre and extreme.

Finally, Rustin was a relentless critic of the kind of identity politics that sought to divide rather than unify. “If there is one common theme uniting the various demands for Black Power,” Rustin wrote in a 1970 essay, “it is simply that blacks must be guided in their actions by a consciousness of themselves as a separate race.” This led to calls for a distinct black economy, the establishment and maintenance of autonomous black communities, and black educational programs. Rustin was critical of all these initiatives, arguing that they were more focused on “emotional release” than “economic and political advancement.” Consider his criticism of autonomous communities (a priority for the Movement for Black Lives today): “…in a complex technological society there is no such thing as an autonomous community within a large metropolitan area. Neighborhoods, particularly poor neighborhoods, will remain dependent upon outside suppliers for manufactured goods, transportation, utilities, and other services.”

Rustin observed that the case for community control amounted to little more than a “demand for a change in the racial composition of the personnel who administer community institutions”—a demand less concerned with the policies these administrators enacted than with the color of their skin. When Rustin witnessed the emergence of radical black studies programs at universities, he expressed a similar concern—that “faculty members will be chosen on the basis of race, ideological purity, and political commitment—not academic competence.” This concern is just as relevant today, if not more so. In July 2020 (months after Floyd was killed), 300 Princeton faculty sent administrators a list of demands which included “immediately and exponentially … hiring more faculty of color,” the elevation of “more faculty of color to prominent leadership positions within divisions and across the University,” and the creation of a “committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty.”

Rustin wasn’t just suspicious of certain trends within black studies programs—he also opposed any Affirmative Action policies that imposed racial quotas. While Rustin acknowledged that the demand for “larger university enrollment of minority students” is “entirely legitimate,” he was always suspicious of preferential treatment in place of fundamental social, educational, and economic changes that would increase the number of black students and skilled workers naturally. This is why he opposed reparations, which he derided as a “ridiculous idea” and an insult to black Americans: “I don’t believe that any black man in this country wants to be given a thing—just the opportunity to work, to work and take care of his family.” Because the call for reparations is a “purely racial demand,” he argued, “its effect must be to isolate blacks from the white poor with whom they have common economic interests.”

A central theme of Rustin’s work in the late 1960s and ’70s was that one period of the fight for equality in the United States had ended and another had begun. In the first period, which culminated in the March on Washington and the passage of the Civil Rights Act, black Americans fought against discriminatory laws and policies which prevented them from voting, sending their children to certain schools, and using public services. In the second period, he argued, “…we are dealing with practically no fundamental question in the minds of Negroes which are Negro problems. For what Negroes are now interested in is decent housing, decent jobs, decent education, and the right of participation in decision-making. They are the four great demands of the Negro people today. But those demands are the result of basic contradictions in our society, and not demands to brutalize the Negro.”

Rustin didn’t say that racism had disappeared—he said the removal of the major legal barriers to racial equality meant black Americans had to focus their activism on issues that blighted the entire society: poverty, health and educational disparities, etc. But this didn’t mean he suddenly ignored the unique problems faced by black Americans: “It is not that I do not know that Negroes are most brutalized by poverty, for they are. But I also know that 67 percent of the poor are white.” Despite Rustin’s tactical reasons for appealing to all Americans, his opposition to racial tribalism went deeper than that: “No economic or social order has ever been developed on the basis of color,” he said. If the most prominent campaigners for racial equality in the United States today could rediscover the powerful ethical and practical implications of this argument, they would take a significant step from protest to politics.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/08/05/the-limits-of-radical-protest/

Good essay. Very informative.

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The earlier Civil Rights movement benefitted hugely from being led by decent people fighting for a noble and worthy cause. Whilst many who support BLM (I’m sure) do so for noble and worthy reasons, I fear they are being duped, because those who are driving these movements are not in the Equality business, they are in the Grievance business.

I think the vast majority of those individuals who marched for BLM, who donated and who promised to do better, were doing so with the best intentions. Sadly, I fear they were duped. I often called these well-intentioned youngsters the ‘Children of the Quorn’.

As I’ve written previously, I have a good deal of sympathy with the young in all this - not the activists who are pushing this agenda, but those who’ve grown up in this atmosphere. They’ve been fed a constant diet of woke totems and “progressive” thought (actually horribly regressive thought) throughout their education and now must navigate a thought-crime minefield – where the slightest miss-step can blow up in their faces.

Some, believing what they’ve been taught – and with the best intentions - try to stick to all the latest approved attitudes and mantras and find themselves saying and doing things that (I can only hope) will make them shudder with embarrassment when they look back on them in years to come.

I’m still optimistic that they’ll be young enough to have the chance of an awakening (from their awokening?), though it is a shame that realising they’ve been manipulated will hasten the wariness (and cynicism) that comes with experience, at the expense of the idealism of youth.

BLM have noisy activists, but no actual leaders. This pretty much tells you that they are not committed to a virtuous cause – that the “fight” is more important than achieving progress. Those who were nominally the driving forces behind the movement seemed more driven by profit than principle. They, along with much fêted race hustlers like Ibram X Kendi and Robin Di Angelo, are little more than arms dealers in the culture wars.

I’ve heard these activists proudly claim to be ‘a leaderless movement’. Great. Let’s say you’re the President or the Prime Minister - you’ve seen the protests, you’re persuaded that a change in policy is worth discussing and so you agree to a meeting – but with whom should you meet?

Do you just step out onto the balcony and address the throng below? Do you agree to “Welease Woger” only to have the crowd taunt you?

Movements need leaders. They need someone who can hone and deliver the message, they need someone who can articulate the problem and proffer a solution, they need someone who can negotiate, they need someone behind whom the crowd can coalesce.

A movement without a leader is just a rabble. If a movement doesn’t have a leader then the rabble will get a rabble rouser, someone who fires up the more volatile elements among the crowd and before you know it windows are broken, cars are on fire and any legitimate concerns of the movement are lost in a cloud of tear gas.

Leaderless movements have no chance of success …. they can only lead to mob action. If you support that you are merely a nihilist. A rebel without a clue, and without a chance of bringing about whatever change your protest was hoping to achieve.

We, in the UK, have imported not only a hopelessly skewed and divisive message from America, but a movement that has no hope of achieving equality – because at heart that was never what it was about.

Yet the media seem terrified of calling this out – thus we saw almost universally positive reporting of a dangerous and divisive movement, in whose name US cities burned in “Mostly peaceful protests”.

When it comes to the vast majority of those who supported the BLM agenda, I’m sure it came from a good place. Many seemed unaware of the malignant and divisive undertones of the BLM movement, and bought into the simple idea that ‘Black Lives Matter’. Of course Black Lives do Matter, but that is so obvious as to be almost a banality.

How, though, do the well-intentioned justify to themselves calling for the cancellation of anyone who dared to counter the BLM slogan with ‘All Lives Matter’ ?

I’m not paranoid enough (yet) to believe that the majority of those who reflexively supported BLM following the death of George Floyd actually wanted to see society more divided - but I cannot fathom how they think the divisive, separatist attitudes of the movement could possibly bring us together. It seemed so obviously self-defeating.

Just a few years ago we were exhorted as a society to be colour-blind, to accept people simply as people, whatever their background, their lifestyle, their “differences”.

What the hell happened to that idea?

For many years I lived in London and worked in an industry (Broadcast TV) that was as diverse as one could possibly find anywhere. As far as I was concerned the arguments of Race, Gender, Creed, Orientation had been fought and largely won. We seemed at the time - perhaps naively - to be enjoying the peace.

Maybe those who are inclined to be activists feel they have to keep picking at the scab and reopening old wounds or there is no point to their existence, but it seems incredible that we’ve gone so far backwards and quite so quickly.

Most have been sold a lie, based on wildly inaccurate information put about by a media that failed to do its job. Read this for a terrifying tale of what happens if an insider tries to use facts to push back against the lies -
https://disq.us/url?url=https%3A%2F%2Fbariweiss.substack.com%2Fp%2Fi-criticized-blm-then-i-was-fired%3Fs%3Dr%3AUZcPwR5q4C-V5FVVncRwyLwMNbU&cuid=5975138

The liberal-left decries inequality of opportunity and income disparity as the two main evils that are fracturing society. But I’d suggest this Identity politics agenda is a far more pernicious way to separate us.

Identity politics is the very antithesis of the principles of universalism – it suggests what differentiates us is more important than what we have in common. Surely we should treasure more what we share as members of a diverse community rather than seek to silo people and segregate that community into ghettos based on our racial identities, sexual orientation, age, gender or creed?

How do those people who claim to speak for racial equality justify shifting the argument from Martin Luther King’s dream of a future where people are judged according to their character rather than the colour of their skin to the point where these activists are calling for PRECISELY THE OPPOSITE? That you are defined as a person, solely by the groups to which you belong. To abandon that call for universalism in favour of separatism is surely a retrograde step? That point seems so incontestable to me that I am utterly baffled how “progressives” can think their present strategy is advancing the cause of equality.

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Thought provoking and interesting article, which got me thinking in a direction unintended by the author.

We have an undeniable problem in that the Black community has underperformed on the world economic stage just about everywhere. This cannot be due to minority status, Chinese, Indian, Jewish and European communities have prospered as minorities in virtually all corners of the globe. Black communities have not done well even in the heart of Sub Saharan Africa where they are clearly in the majority and have the political power claimed to be essential to economic prosperity.

Sure, we can blame corruption, racism and slavery all we want, but then how come the result is pretty much universal?

What if it is due to the unthinkable? Black culture and/or genetics has positioned the Black community to be inherently unsuccessful in a global economy suited to White and Asians.

I think of it as analogous to woman’s participation in physical activates and sport. Woman are just never going to be able to compete with men on a global stage in many of these activities. We can deny this and blame it on sexism, the patriarchy or preferential funding by large corporations favoring men and resort to using affirmative action to increase the participation of woman in men’s sports, insist on parity funding, and put woman in charge of all the key recruitment positions, but in the end, woman will still not be able to compete.

So, what did we do? We created a parallel community in which only woman could compete. We don’t need to repeat the mistakes of the past and exclude woman from traditional male pursuits, but we do need to exclude men from events specifically created for woman.

In reality Jewish and Asian minorities survive by favoring their own in what might be seen as racial prejudice. It clearly has worked in the past, so why not create preferential Black communities and stop trying to force integration when it is destined to fail? This is not to exclude Black participation in the broader economy, or some kind of forced segregation. We appeared to have survived fairly well on recognizing these fundamental differences between men and woman and created “safe spaces” (until recently, which we are destined to regret).

Is there some way that one can do this for race? Equal participation in the economy and society, but a recognition of the need for “save spaces” for Black folk? I guess it needs to be driven from within the Black community (modelled on the Jewish and Chinese experience) and not imposed from the outside (like Apartheid or the creation of Native American reservations).

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Black Fathers Matter. BFM

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It’s a shame that white liberals can write about black people in America while carefully, frightfully avoiding any of the salient issues facing black people in America. The article is deliberately vague about what the issues really are that should mobilize activist forces. If you can’t (or refuse to) identify the problem(s) then the consolidation of political power will have as its only guiding ambition the consolidation of more political power. And you’ll end up with a Detroit or Chicago: places where black politicians and activists have been the dominant political force for decades at the same time as they have become the worst places to be black. The article was a nice refresher on Bayard Rustin and the Civil Rights movement. But mostly Mr. Johnson sounds like one of those effete, brown-cardiganed academics who can write 5000 words without saying much.

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It’s been two generations since the civil rights era. Today, American Blacks are much wealthier than their grandparents were in 1964, but by many sociological measures they are not doing as well. With Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society legislation, Bayard Rustin got much (though less than all) of what he wanted. One wonders what would have happened if the civil rights movement had stopped with ‘the right to vote, the right to use public accommodations, and the right to send your child to the school of your choice.’

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It’s rather more of a shame when you immediately zero in on the idea that you don’t like white liberals opining about matters of race. That seems an intellectual capitulation to the distressingly intellectually-bereft dogma of current Identity politics.

It is sadly true of much current political discussion that those taking part must first decide what sort of discussion they wish to have – one that sits comfortably within current moral fashion, or an honest one that deals with actual facts (however uncomfortable they may be).

It is also sadly true that the identity of the messenger is often as consequential as the message itself. The matter of one’s race, gender, age or creed should not add a jot or subtract a tittle from the validity of one’s argument – but we know that it does in today’s marketplace of ideas. Writing as a middle-aged, middle-class, British white man, I am on thinner ice discussing contentious issues such as race than if I were black, or younger, or any of half a dozen other differentiators. Because according to Critical Race Theory it is the very fact of my ‘Whiteness’ that supposedly stops me from being able to discern systemic racism - and thus I can be safely ignored.

But that really is a very weak position on which to make your counter-argument.

I ask this in all sincerity - why always focus on race, when there are myriad other factors that correlate?

With, say, earning potential, educational attainment, or evem life-chances in general, you can break the numbers down by using differing metrics, to create stats to back up just about any argument you like.

But having done so - often to bolster an emotive polemic - you still have to remember that “inequality of outcome is not proof of inequity” and “correlation does not equal causation.” Yet everyday we see articles throughout the media that wilfully ignore those two truths.

Just as a “for instance” - There’s reams of research to “prove” that attractive people are given better jobs at the starts of their careers and find it easier to gain promotion and pay rises. Who is manning the barricades to fight that battle? ‘#uglylivesmatter

Plenty of research has been done into why tall people out-earn the short - yet I don’t see much being done to tackle that issue. #teardownthetall

Research has also suggested Redheads find it harder to get employed #gingersmatter … though, once on the career ladder, they advance faster than their colleagues #endgingerprivilege

Try to start a campaign to tackle those injustices and it would appear absurd - and rightly so.

When it comes to educational attainment, to career prospects, to poverty, to crime, to incarceration, to life expectancy, there are countless competing factors that play a part. But just because things “correlate” it does not follow that one “causes” the other.

So, why do so many bien pensants ALWAYS focus on colour?

For instance: Growing up poor in an urban environment, in a single parent family, with no significant male role model figure is a far, FAR better predictor of a criminal future than skin colour. A young white boy growing up in that environment is many times more likely to drift into crime than a young black boy growing up in the suburbs with two working parents in the home.

The correlation with ethnicity only exists because there are distinct cultural differences that lead to absent fathers being more prevalent in one community than another.

These figures are from the UK’s Office of National Statistics:

The statistics in the UK show that 59% of black Caribbean children live in lone-parent households compared with 22% of white children.

Fathers from Asian backgrounds (Indian, Bangladeshi and Pakistani) are the least likely to be non-resident whereas Black Caribbean, mixed race and Black African fathers are the most likely. Whereas just 6% of Pakistani fathers and 7% of Bangladeshi fathers are non-resident, 32% of Black Caribbean, 21% of mixed race and 19% of Black African fathers have non-resident children.

But rather than tackle absentee fathers it appears much simpler just to blame everything on institutional and systemic racism. It is not an honest assessment of reality.

Though blaming the majority for the outcomes faced by a minority seems the simpler, and more popular way to go. It helps no one.

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Sigh, I have to stick up for my hometown of Chicago. Chicago has not been run by black politicians or activists for decades, and its nothing like Detroit. The Daley dynasty ran this town with an iron fist for most of the second half of last century. Old school, no holes barred machine politics. Rahm Emanuel picked up where Richie left off, favoring business interests and central core development. Yeah, Harold Washington gave the black vote a real voice for the first time briefly. But he didn’t last long enough to really have much impact good or bad (other than being a cultural icon, RIP Harold). Sawyer was a placeholder. Yes, Lightfoot is an unmitigated disaster, but that’s true of most progressive mayors of big cities across the country nowadays, black or white (DiBlasio, Garcetti and whoever is calling the shots in places like Portland and Seattle are just as awful as Lori is).

Chicago has gotten worse for black people, but not because of black leadership directly. De-industrialization, failure of the drug war, public unions strangling city finances, housing policies and other myriad social causes all playing a role.

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Nice comeback. I tend to buy into the ‘black disaster’ trope, but it’s nice to be corrected so powerfully. At least partially. Black led governments might not do well on average, but as you say, there are white governments who can match any disaster you care to name.

Great comment.

Well, a large part of the complaint there stems from a popular misconception as to the ethnic make-up of the UK. The actual percentage of the Black British component of the UK population is 3.3%. Surveys show that the average Brit imagines the figure is seven times higher.

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The actual figures for polygenic GWAS suggest that this not the case. Ancestry group accounts for only 10% of the variance which is weak correlation for general intelligence (r=0.32). This may account for a very small proportion of proposed gap, but it’s not much (although tail effects have an outsized impact). Likewise Big 5 Personality tests show that there is no difference in conscientiousness between Blacks and Whites- in fact the only group which shows a marked difference at the population level are Asian immigrants and the their children (after which the effect disappears)- their conscientiousness shows up as the equivalent of 15 points worth of IQ in improved educational and life outcomes.

So we need to look elsewhere:

  1. Peer group. Specifically peer group sabotage amongst children. All children try to derail activities in which they are disfavoured, and universally less bright children within a peer group will try to sabotage play activities which are intellectually stimulating, because they have a lower chance of succeeding in competition in these types of play. The problem is that if you have an activity which is perceived as ‘white’, then this provides a far stronger argument for derailing these activities. Over time, this will have an effect on cognitive development.

  2. In a similar vein, ingroup and access to green spaces in urban areas. A recent twin study showed a 2.6 IQ difference between twin who grew up in urban areas, but where one grew up with less access to green spaces and where, crucially, all the other obvious multivariate factors like income and school quality had been eliminated. The pandemic lockdowns showed us just how important play mechanism really are to early cognitive development, with early studies showing the equivalent of a 22 IQ point drop in cognitive development, although there were probably a number of more minor factors other than play involved. Crime and neighbourhood safety may play a role in this- if parents are cautious about letting their child outside to play with other kids, this is likely to have a profound effect in later life. Sweden actually has a Right to Play written into their guidelines for education.

  3. White liberal teachers in K-12 education. Recent work has shown that white liberals lower their vocabulary in America around Blacks. In education, this is the soft bigotry of low expectations at work and there is a well-established literature of white teachers both underestimating Black ability and undervaluing the effect of hard work, whilst Black teachers do neither, leading to improved outcomes for Black kids under a Black teacher for any length of time. Most believe this is implicit bias at work, but this theory doesn’t hold water for the simple reason that white liberal have low ingroup and negligible implicit bias. Instead, it’s feedback- because they are never hard on Black kids and challenge them to succeed, and undervalue the effect of hard work (which as previously show can amount to 15 points of raised IQ) they don’t believe that hard work can pay off (plus white mothers in particular are notorious for lying to their kids about how smart they are- the old lie about the daughter just not having found her forte). Ironically, this neglect of high standards and failing to punish Black kids for the identical behaviour which White kids are punished for, is interpreted by children as simply not caring- who often acting up is a cry for attention.

  4. The disastrous absence of phonics and more broadly a failure to insist upon a lack of vernacular and slang in the class. In my area, kids routinely misspelled ‘our’ as ‘are’- as in ‘are Kevin’. Although many or most Americans kids are not taught phonics, their parents were. And this hands more affluent and educated parents a steep structural advantage, because of the process of teaching phonics at bedtime. Many a parent has come a cropper of an angry progressive teacher incensed that they are handing their kid an inherent advantage my teaching them the ‘wrong way’. They have it exactly backwards- phonics in schools would and should be a levelling factor, at least by socio-economic background and in terms of parental education. I highly recommend anything by John McWhorter on this subject.

  5. Fathers in communities. This is an old hobby horse of mine, but the research that Raj Chetty has done on this subject is amazing. More recently his research has taken on a decided influence from the Racially Divisive Academic Left, but one cannot fault the man for not wanting to end up like Roland Fryer and it certainly doesn’t detract from his incredibly important econometric look at the life path of every child in America over a given period. Anyway, here is a really good article on the subject- the date revealing our changing times- but there are also plenty of good YouTube videos summing up his work, provided you are willing to go back to the appropriate time.

One of the worst aspects of this research is it shows that Black girls actually have slightly better social mobility than white girls- the problem being that their children experience what can only be described as a cruel intergenerational reset, because of the statistical disparities in ideal fathers for stable family formation by status and the known fact of hypergamy in mate selection.

  1. Old-fashioned prejudice and discrimination, particularly in customer facing roles. Most Americans drastically overestimate the prevalence of racism in America, and whilst mainly liberal managers may believe in diversity and inclusion they are not going to let it derail their career opportunities. This amounts to persistent structural racism in customer facing roles, because although they may believe that they will make it up when non-customer facing roles are available, they never do and these jobs can be quite effective steeping stones to better work. The best evidence shows that roughly 5% to 10% of Americans are racist, and the specific data of views on interracial marriage by Pew, shows that these views are rapidly dying out- two-third are over 65.

But perversely, the racism still persists in effect, because people still believe in it. The data on hiring for customer facing roles is quite convincing- it’s the strongest area where discrimination still exists, by a length. Liberals tend to overestimate racism for one simple reason- they see cultural prejudice against foreigners as racist. For a start, there is the issue of economic self-interest- wage destruction and labour displacement- both of which are proven. But apart from that, the only people who don’t have an ingroup preference for their own countrymen are white liberals! WEIRD (Western Educated Industrial Rich and Democratic) people are a tiny portion of the world’s population and a decided minority in their own countries. They are effectively saying everyone other than them is racist, including African Americans and Latinos.

Finally, they’ve fixed the problem in London, so it shows that there are solutions- contrary to the generally valid observation by Sowell that there are no solutions only trade-offs. But the London approach requires that schools become more disciplined, adopt a scientific approach to learning (cognitive load theory- look for good source) and finally that educational resources are specifically channelled into training for classroom practice, rather than spent on faddish white elephants, pay increases and pensions.

The obvious reasons, the chances of this happening in America for the foreseeable future are next to zero.

  1. Vocational training. In 2019, there were 7 million well-paid blue collar jobs vacant. Most of the were location specific and not susceptible to automation (the very last jobs to go will be as trade professionals). Middle class kids would rather work for a pittance as baristas than do these jobs. They are ideal for kids in the bottom two quintiles of the income spectrum. What few realise is that these jobs are also key to creating most of the jobs further up the economic spectrum. I have never been able to find any data on the multiplier effect in community made affluent by blue collar work, but I would be willing to bet that four out of five opportunities in the top 20% of the income spectrum are dependent on these jobs. Corporations tend to be trapezoids organisationally speaking, with huge numbers at the bottom and a tiny few at the top.

The key to this last point is that a blue collar revolution in vocational training is exactly what Blacks and Latinos need (Pew data on the income spectrum shows these two groups to be identical socio-economically speaking). History teaches us that every group in America has had to go through this incredibly benign stepping stone social transformation which removes disparity in the next generation. It’s why some migrant groups succeed and others don’t- because some have the mechanisms and cohesion- the chops- to insert themselves above the line, and other don’t. There is clear dichotomy. Irish Americans made the mistake of thinking a seat at the table would help them ascend to an economically equal position, and they languished as result more than any other White group in American history. It was only when they seized upon a surplus requirement for labour in the economy that their fortunes changed, radically for the better. I never thought that these conditions would appear again- but they have. It’s a historical opportunity. The shame is nobody in the political class in willing to look outside of the conventional narratives on the subject of race.

I have a theory that it’s the emotive which generates thorny or wicked problems. Issues which people don’t really care about that much are fixed quickly and easily. We are able to employ our empirical powers to their full effect. But the emotive robs us of our reason, it creates a dynamic which polarises the distributive network of human innovation and iterative solution rank ordering to the point that our genius for collaboration is disrupted. It’s not the only flaw with human distribution networks, but it’s a huge factor in making the things we care most about insoluble.

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The media and creative industries are almost entirely based in large cities - predominantly London - where the racial and ethnic mix is much, much greater.

I now live in a small rural community on the coast and the ethnic mix that is depicted in drama, advertising and among presenters, in no way reflects the community in which I now live. It doesn’t bother me, though I know it irks a great many, but it is deliberate and almost seems like a challenge from the metro-left media class to the majority of their audience - if you dare to notice, or worse still complain, then you are marked as a bigot. It’s a very strange dynamic, and rather self-defeating.

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I hear you, and thanks for the good summary of all the aspects that could contribute to the observed disparity.

What concerns me is that at least since the 60’s we desperately don’t want there to be a genetic disparity, so we will do everything possible to find evidence that it is not the case. My understanding is that testing with larger and larger GWAS data and the inclusion of more and more complex dimensions tends to render interpretation pretty close to useless.

Ultimately when we have an incredibly large population size under an incredible range of conditions, the disparity persists. One can quote isolate and carefully constructed exceptions, but does this discredit the rule?

The alternative to the complex set of parameters you elude to, all perfectly plausible contributors to the disparity we observe, is that there is an inherent disparity.

What I hear consistantly is an insistence that the disparity is a social construct.
Substitute gender for race in all your arguments, and what result would you get?

The conclusion will be that gender is a social construct (if you ignore the basic differences of sexual organs (comparable to skin color)). So if you raise boys and girls under exactly the same conditions and with the same opportunities, you should get equitable outcomes. Same number of men and woman in the nursing profession, same number of men and woman in engineering. If this is not happening, it must be due to the factors you have listed.

To me it is becoming more and more evident that gender is more than genitalia and in spite of the fact that men and woman are more similar than they are different, in many ways they are hard wired differently. What if this is true for an entire race? One set of humans evolved under conditions approaching that of Siberia (Whites and Asians) and the other conditions approaching that of the Equator. We are 100% certain that the only impact has been the level of melanin in our skin?

One side of the political debate insists that gender is superficial, and merely a social construct, and another that race is superficial, and merely a social construct.

What if both are wrong?

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That’s a very interesting response. I pretty much agree with most of it. I’m not sure where to start.

It’s rather more of a shame when you immediately zero in on the idea that you don’t like white liberals opining about matters of race. That seems an intellectual capitulation to the distressingly intellectually-bereft dogma of current Identity politics.

It matters to me. The most shrill and unqualified preacher in the chorus of sermons about race in America is the white liberal Academic. Why? Because he is not grinding for a solution to the intractable social maladies facing minorities. No, sir. He’s building tenuously-coherent monuments to his own sensitivity while patiently waiting for the right time to repeat the aged leftist shibboleth that Republicans are racist. That’s what white liberal academics do. Would I much rather hear what John McWhorter, Roland Fryer, Juan Williams or Thomas Sowell have to say about race in America? Yes.

Another thing about the white liberal academic. So many of them preach from the whitest neighborhoods in the whitest cities. They sermonize about race from a place where all the black people were long-ago priced out or driven out of their gentrified neighborhoods. I’m from a medium-sized city in the American south. I’m about as likely to interact with white people as I am African-Americans, Hondurans, or Vietnamese. From my observations, most people are just trying to get by, living their lives. They’re not obsessed with race or race activism. They don’t have time for all that. You know who does have time for it? Over-educated white liberal dude traveling in his all-white orbit.

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Fair enough, Skeptic. Detroit and Chicago are very different places. Chicago has deservedly become a symbol of black-on-black violence for reasons more complex than my characterization. (Although, I do wonder what the racial make-up of the Chicago city council is.) Detroit is urban-decay porn for a hundred square miles.

Then why do the fathers take off? Whitey makes them? Great post tho, that’s another essay.

Exactly. Don’t look hard enough – I mean really try hard not to see something – and you can succeed in not seeing it. Only the little boy was willing to just say it: the emperor had no clothes. An entire civilization has devoted itself to the task of believing the races are identical and it has convinced itself. But the truth remains: folks living in ever-increasingly technological societies will be increasingly selected for intelligence. If that society is in northern lands, where energy keeps you alive and where oily fish are part of the diet, so much the better. Contrast the gene pool of slaves, where intelligence will literally get you killed and where survival comes from physical stamina, nothing else.

85% of American blacks have below average IQ, and that’s just the rotten truth of the matter. The higher up the IQ ladder you go, the lower the percentage of blacks you will find. Ironically, the more we refuse to see this fact, the worse it will get. If we had a program of producing genuine mental equality between the races, it could be achieved in some number of generations depending on how rigorous the program was.

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Woman and men are wired differently, IQ is not the only metric.

“Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun”. Locals in Africa and Latin America take a break during the height of summer.

I remember my first trip to Edmonton, Canada where I remarked “you guys must hate the long winters” to which the response was, no, we play in the winter and have to work our arses off on summer.

Over time this does not create the equivalence of a "nocturnal’ version of the same species?