Saturday, December 5, 2015
There is No White Debt
The New York Times Sunday Magazine this weekend carries an article so intellectually abominable I need to demonstrate its idiocy. Entitled “White Debt”, and studded with quotes from the likes of Ta-Nehisi Coates, it consists of a personal narrative, devoid of anything one might call “journalism”, in which the author expounds upon the guilt she feels for being a white person in America. Because slavery. Although largely written in the first person singular, the author seems to deem herself, by virtue of her whiteness, a spokesperson for all white people and thus shifts, as the essay nears the end, into a first person singular as in “Collusion is written onto our way of life, and nearly every interaction among white people is an invitation to collusion.” And “What is the condition of white life? We are moral debtors …. Our banks make bad loans. Our police act out their power on black bodies.”
The article reminds me of the way a creationist might express his or her moral certainty about the way in which the world as we know it came into being. I would analogize the article also to the “Big Lie” technique of misleading the public, because pretty much every one of the generalities and abstractions the author invokes is pretty much false or at best, omits massive amounts of contrary information needed to make the picture she paints not misleading. But it is clear the author sincerely, almost religiously, believes the nonsense she utters is true. So it’s not a lie, it’s more like creationism, a religious assertion that is palpably contrary to fact.
The article reminds me of religion in another way. It resembles the emphasis on sin and guilt that has captivated the attention of various Christian denominations throughout Western history. With a few subtle changes, like replacing Ta-Nehisi Coates and Nietzsche quotes with a passage from St Paul or the Old Testament it could probably pass for an unpleasant sermon on a Sunday morning in the not too distant past. Flagellate yourselves, white people! Flagellate yourselves!
It’s a free country at least nominally, and if a person wants to sit around and mope about being white and read Nietzche while doing so, hey, feel free. But when that someone starts advancing that perspective as the one to which others must subscribe, and a major media outlet implicitly makes the same call in publishing that perspective, those of us with brains need to speak out lest the Big Lie spread any further.
There is no “white debt”. Not just because all the slave owners and slaves are dead, and their children are dead, and their grandchildren are dead, but for a handful of unusually long-lived descendants of long-lived ancestors. Not just because it was white soldiers (like my ancestor who suffered for 13 years from wounds he sustained as a Union soldier at the battle of White Oak until the pain drove him to kill himself in 1875) who freed the slaves, white judges who led the fight against Jim Crow, white legislators and a white President who passed the Civil Rights laws of 1964, white doctors and nurses who treat far more black bodies than white cops kill or imprison, white professors who teach black students, predominantly white donors who fund financial aid for higher education that assists people of color, or predominantly white taxpayers and bondholders who fund the welfare state that disproportionately pays out for the benefit of people of color. And it’s not even because much of the white population today is descended mostly or entirely from people who first entered the US after slavery was abolished and who settled in ethnically homogenous enclaves outside of the South where they rarely had occasion to compete with, let alone oppress, black people.
No, it’s because the status of virtually every white American in the United States of America in 2015 is completely independent of any meaningful tie to slavery or Jim Crow or any legacy thereof or any racism of any kind whatsoever.
First, until the current generation, the US population has been almost entirely white. When I was born it was almost 90% white. So, at any point in the 20th century, when a white person got a job or made a sale or took a seat in a school or bought a house, it was extremely, nearly 90%, certain that the white person did not displace a black person; said white person would have gotten that job, made that sale, gone to that school and lived in that house in a perfectly racially distributed nation. Which in turn means that their children would have been in the same neighborhood, gone to the same school, met and married the same spouse, and had the same life outcomes, without impinging on any black person at any point along the way. So hardly any white people got where they are today at the expense of a black person or by "being white".
But it’s even more than that. Because white people have made up so much of the nation, the good of the nation is primarily attributable to them as well. There is this folk tale character of accounts of race in America where whites show up only as oppressors or ignorant and blacks are savvy and persevering. But the technology and the infrastructure and transportation alternatives and medical treatment and the national defense and environmental protection and market regulation and the media and the sports and the educational options that a black person can benefit from in America in 2015 have been developed and distributed and funded almost entirely by white people. That's neither oppression nor ignorance.
Second, of the wealth that exists today, again, virtually all of it has been created since slavery and Jim Crow ended and in places other than the ones where those systems operated. The principal sources of private wealth in the US are homes, commercial real estate, farmland, loans secured by the same, equities and government bonds. In the case of the intangible asset classes – stocks and bonds -- it is blindingly obvious that well over 95% of their aggregate value has come into being in the past 50 years. And what existed before was not 100% attributable to slavery and Jim Crow. It came from an economy that was 85-90% white. As for farmland, the most valuable farmland is outside the Deep South, in the Plains States and California, where slavery never penetrated. Its value comes from a variety of factors, but principally post-war leaps in efficiency, not inherited from an earlier era. Plus, let’s face it: land is land. It’s there regardless of any legal rules. It’s not as if there was a void reaching down to the center of the Earth and the slaves filled it up with dirt. As for other real estate values, the most valuable housing stock and the most valuable office and other commercial properties are the most recent. Buildings erected in the 19th and first half of the 20th century, while still in existence, are a small part of the developed real estate in the US and, given the distribution of population in the US - even in the Civil War era, the South was less than 1/3 of the population -- most of those were erected outside the zones of slavery and Jim Crow. Further, among those that retain value today, much of that has to be attributed to maintenance and capital investments made in recent decades. Any building that was built in the South prior to the Civil Rights Act and hasn’t been maintained since then isn’t worth a whole lot today. The value of residential real estate today is the result of postwar demographics and home ownership subsidies the government has extended over the past several decades, and events preceding the Civil Rights laws of 1964 have very little to do with the value of residential real estate owned by white people. This is not to say that blacks weren’t excluded from many suburbs, etc., decades ago. The point is that very little value in the hands of white people today resulted from those exclusions. Because most homebuyers back then were white, many blacks weren’t looking in those neighborhoods, and because so much of current housing stock value has arisen since that era.
There is a sophomoric retort to these facts that usually involves emphasizing how important the slave economy was to the early United States and then making the argument “but for” the slave economy carrying the nation along, it never would have made it to where it was today, so everything you see today owes a debt to that fact. This is sophomoric because, like sophomores, it knows a little and thinks that little is all it needs to know.
First, “but for” arguments are always insufficient as explanations of any phenomenon. This is because every situation in a complex society has millions, billions, trillions of “but for” causes. For any real world situation X, the number of propositions “but for ___, X would not have happened” is limited only by one’s patience. Yet the sum of causes of a phenomenon cannot exceed 100%; you don’t make sense if you claim to have identified 237% of the causes of a phenomenon. This is the problem of “but for” thinking: it doesn’t add up. All of the causes of a phenomenon have to be identified and their relative weight acknowledged to explain it, yet the sum of all causes can’t go past 100% or the explanation turns into nonsense.
Secondly, the antebellum US economy was more than the slave trade and the products of slave labor. There was a whole lot of white labor too. So, third, once you start to take into account all the factors that have contributed to the current status of white Americans in the US, and not just myopically look at the ones that support the preferred thesis, you have to recognize that more than millions and billions and trillions of phenomena, but probably trillions of trillions of phenomena have occurred in relation to the US economy since the slave trade ended nearly 200 years ago. So there are almost 200 years of intervening causes. Just mathematically, the number of subsequent factors has to confine the “but for” causes from 200 years ago to an infinitesimally small fraction of the overall roster of causes of 2015 America.
Last, what this kind of argument overlooks is that value depreciates and gets destroyed, by the creative destruction of capitalism over time, by financial crises that occurred regularly throughout the Jim Crow era, and by real physical destruction like General Sherman’s march through the Deep South. It’s awfully unlikely that the profits of a slave trade or the export of products of slave labor in, say, 1845, survived the Civil War, the various financial panics and recessions of the following 60 years, and the Great Depression, and the application of multiple generations of estate taxes, and the high marginal tax rates that prevailed for decades of the 20th century, and somehow just kept accruing interest right up to the present. More likely, some got reinvested in buildings that are no longer standing, or businesses that ultimately failed or closed down for one reason or another, or deposited in banks that went bust, or taxed away, or dispersed among widows and other descendants who spent them to survive, leaving nothing for the current generation. It’s all gone What wealth you see today has been created other than on the backs of black people.
The last resort of the progressive activist community in debates like these is to play the “denial card” as the author herself does in this ridiculous article, listing for example several “crazy” things that “white people do when they feel guilty” and then letting us know that “I’m not sure any of that is worse than what white people do in denial. Especially when that denial depends on a constant erasure of both the past and the present.” This is of course, exactly what the author herself is guilty of, myopically focusing on negative events in black-white relations in America and never lifting her gaze to see the entire picture of how the people who are alive today got where we are, most of which has nothing to do with exploiting black people, nor does she see any of the good that white people have done in ways that benefit and enrich black lives in America. That is he most important thing intelligent people can do in this context, combat the arrogant claim of people like this author to control the truth when in fact their portrayal of truth is an ideologically myopic distortion of the world we have made.