In “Democrats’ Left Turn is Not an Illusion” [NYT 10/18], Thomas B. Edsall notes that white liberals are more likely than African Americans to blame racism for the difficulties that the latter face. What is striking about the Pew Survey question and contrasting responses which Edsall cites is that those polled were offered a choice between just two explanations for the persistent wealth and income gap – racism or a lack of initiative. Nevertheless, four times as many blacks responded that the causes might include both, neither, or other factors.
Indeed, there are other possibilities: One likely culprit is globalism. Fewer jobs and reduced wages in manufacturing due to off-shoring explains why a sizable number of the Midwest’s white working class abandoned Democrats in the last election cycle. But, according to a report last year by the Economic Policy Institute, the downward pressure on wages exerted by globalization and specifically trade agreements like NAFTA and the Most Favored Nation status accorded China have harmed people of color even more than whites.
Another (arguably non-racial) reason many blacks are doing worse than whites and Asians is multigenerational poverty. Jews are the wealthiest religious group in America – probably the world. But communities of Hasidic Jews in New York City have lived in poverty for generations. Is anti-semitism the cause?
So why would white liberals be more likely than African Americans to attribute to racism the bleak present and bleaker future facing so many? Liberals may be disposed to consider black neighborhoods beset by multigenerational poverty as victimized by societal racism rather than the paucity of meaningful opportunities to rise to middle-class status afforded poor people of any color. Of course, these are closely related factors with the latter arising from the former.
Another reason that African Americans apparently have a more nuanced view of their diminished circumstances is that they, in contrast to white liberals, are more liable to be aware of poor and working-class whites who are doing hardly better than they are. In the 1960s and 70s, blacks and whites worked side by side at manufacturing plants where they were paid a living wage, had good health insurance, and could look forward to a retirement secured by a defined pension plan.
Now their children and grandchildren are still working side-by-side but at Walmart (if they’re lucky) or McDonald’s or driving for Uber. They may eke out a barely tolerable existence toiling at three jobs. But they have no reason to hope for a better tomorrow and retirement in near-poverty or worse looms. Certainly, the inability of these folks to get ahead has nothing to do with a lack of initiative or industriousness. It’s hard to imagine anybody could work any harder. But it’s not manifestly caused by racism either since many of those struggling are white.
The white liberals who are so confident that black travails can be ascribed to racism tend to congregate on the coasts where the struggles facing the white working class are less evident. The poorest neighborhoods in or near liberal nirvanas like Manhattan’s upper westside, Washington, DC, and Berkeley are predominantly African American. High concentrations of down and out white people are usually a few hours away.
In addition, white liberals consciously enjoy what they consider to be the fruits of globalism. They may therefore be disinclined to ascribe poverty to it lest they lose the benefits in which they delight disproportionately. At my suggestion that we should impose tariffs in order to increase demand and therefore wages for American labor, several have whined “but what about my iPhone? If we impose tariffs, I’ll have to pay over a thousand dollars for it.” Another proud coastal liberal worried that the cost of French wine might go up if we tried to protect domestic industries. It’s probably a safe bet that struggling African Americans have more salient concerns than the price of a case of Montrachet. I’ve heard several self-described liberals proclaim their delight that Uber and Lyft are providing a cheaper and more convenient alternative to taxis.
White liberals are right, of course, in believing that racism plays a major role in keeping blacks down. But there are unsavory reasons that white liberals are satisfied with blaming racism too. By focusing on race, rather than class, successful white liberals can sidestep the question of whether their good fortune really does derive as much from their own hard work and intelligence as they would like to believe.
Perhaps more importantly, addressing racism — as opposed to fighting economic injustice — requires little or no sacrifice on the part of coastal liberals. There’s no need to pay more for the latest Android or iPhone. There’s no reason to forsake the case of Bordeaux for Russian River Cab or to pay more for a cab ride home. Higher taxes aren’t called for. If racism is the villain, all well-heeled liberals really need to do is wring their hands at the ignorance and malevolence of their good-for-nothing cousins in flyover territory.