So Who Are the Real Progressives Here?

There’s something off-putting about a movement labeling itself Progressive—then denying progress is actually possible.

Sally KohnSo I’d never heard of Sally Kohn before yesterday. Ran across a Daily Beast piece of hers yesterday in which she set us all straight on the nature, extent, and—evidently—permanency of bigotry in this country.

Sally Kohn, Daily Beast: Eight Things Every White Person Should Know About White Privilege

White folks went to great lengths in the last weeks to denounce the overt racism of figures like Cliven Bundy and Donald Sterling. At the same time, a lot of white folks—especially conservatives—continue to deny there is implicit or structural racial bias in America. One example surfaced just days later on Time magazine’s website, an essay by a young white male college student who not only denies racial bias, and thus white privilege in America, but also basically accuses those pointing out such bias of being racist.

According to my experience (and my Twitter feed), this young man’s perspective is not unique. It’s also not correct. So I offer some (hopefully helpful) clarifying thoughts for my fellow white folks, especially those struggling to come to terms with the idea of persistent, implicit racial bias in America today.

I really like points 2 and 3:

2.  Racial bias is baked into America’s past. 

Until 1865—less than 150 years ago—it was legal under the United States Constitution to own black people as chattel. Until 1964—just 50 years ago—racial segregation in schools and housing and public accommodations was legal in the United States. As recently as the 1980s—just a few decades ago—journalists documented that banks were lending to low-income white Americans but not middle or upper-income blacks. It’s not just that we had individual racists with ugly slurs and violent hands—though there was far too much of that throughout our history as well—but that racial hierarchy and unequal treatment was systematically incorporated into and reinforced by our country’s laws and rules.

3.  Implicit racial bias persists in America’s present. 

For every dollar of wealth owned by white folks in the United States today, black folks on average own less than a nickel. The unemployment rate for African Americans is around 13.2 percent, almost twice the rate for white Americans. Per pupil spending in public schools with 90 percent or more students of color is 18 percent less, or $733 less per student on average, than for schools with 90 percent or more white students. There are five white people using drugs in America for every one African American using drugs, and yet African Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate of whites. And for convictions of the same crime, black men receive sentences that are 20 percent longer than white men.

There are only two ways to account for these discrepancies in society. You can believe that black folks and people of color in general are inherently inferior—a sort of soft but nonetheless dangerous endorsement of racial bias often coded as“cultural” differences. Or you can believe that there are still patterns of racial inequity and bias playing out in our society and leading to unfairly disparate outcomes.

It never occurs to “progressives” like Sally Kohn to wonder if she’s reversing cause and effect.

Libertarian-conservatives like me believe these tragic numbers (I think you and I can agree these numbers are tragic), are caused by the very programs people like Sally Kohn insist a just and compassionate society must enact.

I guess it never comes up in their conversations.

And it should, because Point Number 8 is truly ironic:

8.  Your (false) sense of solidarity in denying racial bias isn’t serving you well at all. What I’m most vexed by is what any whites, except those at the very top 1 percent of power and privilege, think they get from denying that racial bias and discrimination exist. Presumably, it comes from a very manufactured and misleading sense that policies and programs to redress racial inequality will somehow unfairly disadvantage average white folks. We know this isn’t true. Affirmative action in college admissions has helped white women even more than people of color. Public benefits programs like food stamps and Medicaid, although mistakenly seen as mostly helping black folks, actually disproportionately help white folks in need. Fixing inequities in public school financing would help poor white students in the South as much as poor black students. Closing the wage gap and addressing yawning economic inequality in America would help people of all races.

Many of us who deny the permanency of pervasive prejudice believe that the notion that racial prejudice is “baked in the cake” of America isn’t serving racial minorities well in any way. For two reasons:

  1. When an entire subset of America is convinced that the other subsets have it in for them, large numbers of them will stop trying to succeed. You might call this a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  2. When we structure the social safety net in a way that traps groups instead of propelling them forward, we create a permanent underclass which becomes ever more dependent upon economic and political largesse.

In other words, we are forcing people to regress. How do progressives like Sally Kohn call this progress?


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