Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The new conversation on race

I've blogged before about John McWhorter's ridiculing of the perennial calls for a "national conversation on race." In this new Bloggingheads diavlog, McWhorter aptly describes the "national conversation on race" line as "theatrical." Of course, he does want us to have a national conversation on race, but he and Glenn Loury try to reframe that conversation. Though it's a very relaxed, rambling dialogue, they are announcing, as McWhorter says, "a sea change" -- especially on education. (If you'd rather listen to it as a podcast, here's the mp3.)

The diavlog is (perhaps misleadingly) called "The Post-Post Racial America," and here are the segment titles:

Glenn is weary of the national (non-)conversation on race
John calls attention to real race work that’s being done
The collapsing regime of political correctness
There’s more to diversity than is dreamt of in your philosophy
What should a modern education be?
John vs. Maureen Dowd on Obama, Sherrod, and race
McWhorter makes a powerful statement on the diversity rationale for affirmative action starting at about 21:30.

Here's the editorial by Senator Jim Webb to which they refer frequently throughout the diavlog. The editorial, entitled "Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege," argues that using affirmative action to try to help "people of color" is out of sync with the socioeconomic realities of America. McWhorter and Loury spend a lot of time talking about the "Myth of White Privilege" part of that headline; they think it's an overstatement to say that there's no such thing as white privilege just because there have always been a lot of poor whites. I agree with this, but it's not a very fair characterization of Webb's argument: the word "privilege" appears only in the headline, which Webb probably didn't write.

Rather than argue against affirmative action by saying that there is no white privilege, the better argument would be: white privilege or not, there's no question that poor people are underprivileged. In fact, much (though certainly not all) of the enduring concern about blacks all these decades after the civil rights movement has to do with the demographic reality that blacks are disproportionately poor, even though far from all (not even half) of them are poor. Well, here's the problem: race-based affirmative action doesn't seem to have been very effective at helping poor people get ahead. At best, it helps some racial minorities get ahead. (Even that point is a big question mark, but we can assume it for the sake of argument.) Minorities in the aggregate might be less affluent than whites, but it doesn't follow that giving some of them a boost will tend to help low-income people. If the people who do get that boost tend to be blacks and Hispanics who are pretty well-off, then affirmative action might only be perpetuating income stratification with a feel-good veneer of diversity.