The Politics of Race Bashing

By Buell, John | The Humanist, March-April 1995 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Race Bashing


Buell, John, The Humanist


Perhaps the oldest justification of a social order is that it is "natural." Aristotle argued that some men were slaves by nature. Late nineteenth century titans of industry suggested that their power and wealth represented the survival of the fittest. The Bell Curve by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein now joins this long tradition of grounding substantial inequalities in a nature which is beyond our control. Inequality in income between the races is a con sequence of differences in IQ which, if not genetically determined, are at least resistant to change.

Why do we want to confine citizens to these racial categories? Is it self evident that there are clearly distinct races? What racial designation do we give to the son of a white master and an African slave? Murray made his reputation in the early 1980s by arguing that liberal welfare state policies had failed to alleviate the poverty of the under class. Indeed, he explicitly debunked race as an explanation of poverty.

His preferred alternative--free enterprise capitalism--has, however, left the great majority of poor Americans of all backgrounds in even worse shape. How are we to justify the failure of Reaganism, both to its "white" and "African American" victims? One way to do so is to suggest that "race" is to blame. To achieve this end, Murray and Herrnstein engage in a series of dubious moves. Even accepting their claim that IQ tests are not culturally biased, one cannot attribute causality to correlation. The relative scores of specific groups on these tests says nothing as to the cause of those differences. Just like human height, human cognitive functioning along many dimensions is affected by a variety of factors: the food we eat, the paint in our homes, the air we breathe, among others.

Furthermore, one must wonder if differences in IQ however caused, really account for differences in income. It is well known that wage differentials with in the typical Japanese firm are far less than in comparable U.S. firms--even those whose workers are almost exclusively white. Do Japanese show less variation in IQ than other racial groups?

Differences in income distribution might be better understood as a reflection of the way firms and societies treat actual or perceived differences among workers and citizens. Some businesses manage to treat human beings as equal. By this I do not mean that they harbor the absurd belief that all of us possess the same skills and interests. Equality means that we believe all human beings have mental and physical skills which are capable of continuous development and a willingness to deploy these in the interest of larger causes. Because each person is capable of making significant contributions, each should be nurtured both in education and in opportunities on the job. Enterprises and organizations which make such assumptions have been not only more egalitarian in income distribution but more productive as well.

Neither Reaganomics nor its welfare state predecessors have done much to look at the question of the governance of firms. Nor has either been effective in creating good jobs--that is, those which seek to develop the talents and interests all workers have. Both Reaganism and the welfare state trusted corporate management to know best and to manage best, but those managers cared more about short term profits than long term investment, leaving this nation vulnerable to better-managed foreign competitors and cheap labor havens in the Third World. As a con sequence, unemployment grows, leaving marginal "African American" workers, who got into the labor market last, the most vulnerable. However, "white workers" also hold increasingly tenuous positions.

How does a society justify to itself and to its most disadvantaged the harms it will not redress? How does it cope even with the anxiety and travail of an increasingly marginalized working and middle class trapped in insecure, poorly paid, and menial jobs? …

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