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On David French on Structural Racism

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David French writes much with which I agree. And I agree with many particular points that he makes in his recent essay titled “Structural Racism Isn’t Wokeness, It’s Reality. [2]” But I disagree with some other particular points, as well as with his overall theme and conclusion.

Not the least of French’s errors here is his using Biblical text to justify intergenerational guilt. Immediately after quoting some Old Testament passages that justify intergenerational guilt, French writes

The reason for this obligation [of charging later generations with the responsibility of making amends for the sins of earlier ones] of repentance and atonement is obvious. The death of the offending party does not remove the consequences of their sin. Those who’ve been victimized still suffer loss, and if the loss isn’t ameliorated in their lifetimes, that loss can linger for generations.

This statement by French is both ethically dubious and factually questionable.

The notion of intergenerational guilt – the unatoned sins of the parents are rightly passed on to the children who become responsible for atoning for these sins – is profoundly at odds with liberalism. That the collectivism implied by the concept of intergenerational guilt is part of the Bible does not salvage its validity.

Also, French should read more of the works of Thomas Sowell, for at least two reasons. One of these reasons is Sowell’s wise warning against what he calls “the quest for cosmic justice [3].” The attempt to atone for all sins, especially ones committed long ago, is itself a source of a far larger quantity of what Christians would surely identify as sins – and what liberals identify as tyranny.

The other reason to read Sowell is for his documentation of many historical instances of ethnic groups overcoming, often surprisingly quickly, past injustices, including enslavement. Especially relevant here is Sowell’s 1981 book Ethnic America [4]. Also on point is another of his 1981 books, Markets and Minorities [5].

The notion that blacks’ continuing failure in the 21st century, as a group, to progress in the U.S. as much as other groups have progressed, and are progressing, (for example, various Asian groups, and even now my people, the Irish) is attributable to slavery and to Jim Crow simply won’t wash. Sowell documents that, along many dimensions in the late 19th and early and mid-20th centuries, blacks were progressing in the U.S. – progress that was slowed, and in some dimensions reversed, starting only 100 years after the guns of the U.S. Civil War fell silent.

David French is, of course, correct that there are in place today many government-erected obstacles to black progress. Some of these were originally instituted with racist motives; others not. By all means, let’s get rid of these. But almost none of these obstacles, even the ones originally motivated by racial bigotry, remain in place today because of racism.

The most obvious example of a legislatively created obstacle to black progress is minimum-wage legislation. With racism at its roots [6], minimum-wage legislation continues to have a disproportionately negative impact on blacks [7]. Yet most blacks [8] – including most black politicians and other “leaders” – support not only the maintenance of, but also increases in, minimum wages. Thus, despite minimum-wages’ disproportionate negative effect on blacks, widespread support among blacks – as well as among many non-blacks who are emphatically not racists – alone would render as inaccurate the identification of minimum-wage legislation today as an instance of “structural racism.”

The word “racism” implies motives. And the term “structural racism” implies an invidious and insidious intent to harm members of one racial group – or, at least, to treat members of that group less favorably than another group or groups. If such a motive is no longer operative in maintaining the ‘structure’ that has disproportionate racial impact, the root of the problem is misdiagnosed. Proposed ‘solutions’ thus are less likely to work and might well backfire.

What’s true of minimum-wage legislation is true also of many other regulations and interventions the impacts of which would certainly delight racists who understood the full impact of these policies. (In point of fact, however, I’m sure that most racists are too stupid to trace out the full impact of these policies.) I have in mind here such policies as occupational licensing, mandated paid leave, government “schooling,” the so-called “war on drugs,” and many land-use restrictions. No doubt there is a tiny handful of self-consciously racist Americans who support such policies because of the resulting negative impact on blacks. But because all such policies find great support today among blacks and Progressives – who cannot legitimately be accused of harboring racist hatred of blacks – identifying such policies as evidence of “structural racism” is simply inaccurate.

The real problem is structural hubris and structural economic ignorance.