Monday, June 17, 2013

On (not) blaming the victim

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a nice post on the Moynihan Report and a recent update from the Urban Institute. Moynihan notoriously argued that many "current" (as of 1965) problems of African-Americans could be traced not only to active discrimination by whites, but also and perhaps moreso to the "tangle of pathology" associated with black family structure--in particular, single parenthood. That claim certainly smacked of blaming the victims, or at least the victims' culture, but as TNC points out, Moynihan was very clear about the historical roots of "negro" family structure in centuries of racial oppression, and therefore who was to blame.

Moynihan's emphasis on family structure remains controversial, but decades of research leave little doubt that pernicious feedback loops operating between racial discrimination and stigma, poverty, segregation, and family structure and function play a central role in the perpetuation of African-American disadvantage. In his recent posts, TNC has been emphasizing the role of concentration of poverty, segregation, and neighborhood effects, although my reading of recent research on the importance of neighborhood spillovers suggests that the evidence is mixed.

Race still matters, whether operating through present or historical oppression. But could the challenges of racial injustice nonetheless be confronted effectively with "color-blind" or "color-neutral" policy? The practical and political attractions of doing so are pretty obvious, and hence we observe the conversation often shifting from race to poverty, inequality, and class: e.g., class-based affirmative action plans, early childhood interventions, etc. TNC thinks the answer is No: "...liberals today are arguing that 300 years of immoral policy can be undone by changing the subject...."

I remain agnostic. Vicious cycles are vicious, but they offer the advantage that one can try to break the adverse feedback loop in multiple locations. Vigorous enforcement of "color-blind" anti-discrimination law, full-employment macro policy, generously supported universal early childhood development programs, sensible and race-neutral drug enforcement policy, and a stronger safety net... these could add up to a virtuous cycle for African-Americans, and many other disadvantaged Americans as well. A fella can dream, can't he?

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