10° 40' N, 61° 30' W

Friday, December 27, 2002

A troll through my blogroll of dismal scientists led me to this statement on the part of Daniel Davies, otherwise known as D-Squared:

[W]e can talk all day about why it is that Black Americans lack the "social capital" of, say Chinese Americans. Why do they not have strong extended family links and social and business networks? Because they were separated from their families by slave traders and shipped two thousand miles away from their social capital, in chains. They even lost their surnames, for God's sake.

Why is "black culture" so opposed to learning/advancement/success/anything except criminality and music? Why do black children seem to regard doing well in school as "white"? Because culture is history, and the history of black people in America is one which has given them no reason at all to trust white people.

The above is overly emotional, and I hope that I will not sound the same. What Davies writes, though, is untrue, as far as I know, and I fell compelled to respond to it.

European slave traders, to start with, never separated slaves from their families--no, that distinction goes to fellow Africans (albeit of other tribes) who were engaged in slave raiding and trading centuries before Europeans ever set foot in West Africa. To them, Europe was just another market, albeit a vastly larger and more lucrative one. One can repudiate the ethics of that trade, but it is nonsense to imply that the slave traders caused it.

Secondly, the changing of names. This is difficult to defend, but the practice was so widespread that is it difficult to see that this could have happened because of a generalised malice on the part of slave owners. Slavery is an inhumane system, but, as Nobel Laureate Robert Fogel showed, it was economically efficient. (At least in the United States--the debate about he profitability of British West Indian slavery, started by Eric Williams's classic Capitalism and Slavery, continues.) It can be construed that attempt to "westernise" the slaves, of which the renaming was a part, could have been done because of a widespread belief that it contributed to making the plantations more efficient.

Thirdly, about black people having no reason to trust white people. Is this a general or a specific statement? Not all Europeans were comfortable with slavery in the New World. Bartolome de las Casas, who had first advocated African slavery to relieve the condition of the native Americans, later recanted. In the UK antislavery movements started, and fought a successful campaign first for the abolition of the slave trade and, later, of slavery itself. America went so far as to fight a four-year war over the subject. Much debate continues as to the motives of the abolitionists--if they were sincere or pure of heart (William Wilberforce, it appears, was not a terribly nice man)of if they had something to gain by abolition. The point I am making is that the movement for abolition of itself gave black people reason to trust at least some whites, as did the civil rights movement a century later.

Davies goes on to state what the "negro problem" in the USA is: "It is nothing to do with 'racism'. It has everything to do with the fact that a large minority of the population are the ongoing victims of one of the most monstrous crimes in history." Slavery is wrong, but it is a mistake to characterise it as a crime -- it was not illegal until those same untrustworthy whites decided to make it so. This, to me, is the main reason why the call for reparations (which Davies supports) is misguided--there are no criminals, in any sense of the word, to pay the victims. Reparations arguments are directed towards governments, which, by implication, are eternally liable for what their constituents have done.

Losing faith in reparations, Davies advocates local government corruption, in the style of to the Irish and New York's Tammany Hall. He credits machine politics with the rise of Irish Americans into the mainstream. He may well be right, unlike the history of slavery, I have not read the history of he Irish in America. He is wrong, though, to suggest that it could work again--that Tammany Hall was not a product of particular time and circumstance, and that its practices, if legal (they're probably not now, in part because of he Voting Rights Act of 1965) would be effective now. He draws on the example of the Rev. Al Sharpton. Sharpton is god at one thing--publicity; there is little evidence that he has advanced the welfare of blacks in New York in any significant, long-lasting way. Washington DC provides terrible schools and social services for its majority-black residents, in spite of its (black) mayoral candidates getting 80 percent of the vote in some elections. Davies is also an economist, and a reading of public choice theory would show that a community's self-appointed leaders may not have their interests at heart.

The last thing is that Davies commits the same sin he decries by treating blacks as a group, rather than as individuals. Blacks need not have the same outlook, opinion, interest, ideology, or goal. To suggest that they do is misguided, especially for the United States, where conservatives and liberals argue a lot about the subject, as the recent furore over comments made by Senator Trent Lott indicates. The modern civil rights movement has been around for less than 50 years, and in that time the progress on blacks in the United States has been considerable, at least in absolute terms. There is still a huge gap between blacks and whites, though, in terms of life expectancy, morbidity, incomes, literacy and the incidence of violent crime, to name a few measures. On the incidence of poverty alone there is reason for action. That should not be reason, though, to decry or belittle the progress that has been made so far, to minimise the hard-fought struggles of the past.

UPDATE: Glenn Reynolds links to a Los Angeles Times story about the most segregated city in America, Milwaukee:

In Milwaukee, where 37% of the city's 600,000 residents are African American, the disparities between the races are among the greatest in the nation. The inequities are glaring in nearly every social index: income, child poverty, education, even access to home mortgage loans.

Blacks in metropolitan Milwaukee earn just 49 cents for every dollar that whites earn, far below the national average of 64 cents to the dollar.

As a result, 44% of the city's black children live in families scrambling to subsist on incomes below the poverty line. Only 10% of white children are equally poor.

It is saddening. Poverty is an issue I care about immensely, and it is a huge part of the reason why I'm studying economics. I must say that I care about poverty more than inequality, especially as a poverty strategy, in my opinion, does the greatest good for the greatest number, without substantial costs for everyone else. D-Squared is a true egalitarian, and I respect that. I, for one, don't expect to see equality in my lifetime, though I do foresee (with my limited abilties) substantive progress. Will we be happey with where we are in another 50 years? We'll see.