Monday, December 29, 2014

Contra the "Individual Responsibility Trumps Racism" Shibboleth

I'm not a Redditor. I think I'm a tad too old or, at least, too old fashioned to utilize the medium as it is intended. However, I wanted to share a comment on a Reddit thread about poverty, racism, and individual responsibility that I think hits all the right notes. (I know the author but the comment was flagged for me by a mutual friend.)

An excerpt:
If you were to design a situation where I maximized my true utility of choices to leave poverty, I often made bad ones. But I was given two gifts without any effort: I have a high, high, high capability for analytic intelligence and my mother was a wonderfully stable human being. 
But lots of people didn't have those: people that worked harder, people that were kinder, people that made better choices. The gravity of the situation pulled them back, given all those attributes. I will always remember a coworker of mine a McDonalds: nice girl, kind, harder working than I ever was in school. She studied every day at after-school tutorials for two years to pass a Science TAKS test - she never did. I showed up hungover, I got perfect score. 
I have earned many things in life - my analytic intelligence was not one of those.
It's best taken in its entirety so please, go read it here.

The excerpt above reminds me of another one, written by Ta-Nehisi Coates, that is one of my favorites:
But the game *is* rigged. Let me tell you how I came here. I write for a major magazine and this is a privilege. I would say that it is earned, except that many people earn many things which they never receive. So I shall say that it was earned and I was lucky.(via The Atlantic)
Yes, individual responsibility is important for people to escape unfortunate circumstances. But that doesn't mean that those who failed to get out lacked it, nor that those who did were living up to the noble ideal that fits your public policy worldview.

Mia Love and others of the economic right would have you believe that the structurally protected racial inequalities that have been baked into the American system since jump are best defeated by hard work and determination in lieu of systemic analysis and reform.

Such is a recipe for a different kind of American exceptionalism--that the exceptional and lucky people who succeed in spite of the myriad obstacles placed before them are the aspirational normal. Further, the continued unfairness that makes life harder for millions of marginalized Americans should be dismissed and ignored because Jim Crow is dead therefore everything is fair (enough) now.

I don't know if this nonsense comes from resentment, naivete, or general ignorance, but it's nonsense nevertheless.

Entrenched poverty comes from a lot of sources: the effect of broader society and preexisting public policy being two prominent among them. That neither of these typically appear in right-of-center solutions to ongoing socio-economic problems (save antipathy to demonized social welfare programs) is a big reason why the right's base is primarily old, white, and increasingly out of touch. The GOP's short-term electoral success masks a shrinking social relevance and resonance that is a demographic nightmare in the longer term.

Since the days of slavery, there have been exceptions to the crushing social and economic power of the dominant American order. That didn't make any of those societies just or "good enough." That circumstances have improved over those years is not evidence that American society is fixed or has recovered from hundreds of years of prejudice, racism, and inequality.

Individual responsibility is a necessary but not nearly sufficient condition for widespread social betterment. The arguments about socio-economic progress cannot continue to be simply about individual responsibility OR institutional racism, because such arguments are valid only in a world divorced from current American reality.

bellum medicamenti delenda est

PS--in case you didn't click through before, read all of the Reddit post here.


Locke-n-Paine said...

With respect and reverence to your viewpoint, my friend, there is a faulty premise here that equates luck with fortunate happenstance when in truth they are not the same thing. We make our own luck with desire, determination and dedication to attaining excellence. The scenario with the gal who studied for years to pass the test and failed is presented as if her studying so hard meant that she'd done everything she could do -- I would argue that that is not as true as it may seem. She certainly did a lot, and the rewards of that are much deeper than just passing an arbitrary test, but the test and the trial are different things -- the real test was what she would do with the opportunity that her 'failure' presented -- the opportunity to transcend herself and realize that the rules and obstacles are self-imposed and imaginary. When faced with an obstacle you find a way through it; you expose it as an illusion and let it dissolve; you learn from your mistakes and take the exam again; you show the certifying body and the entrenched powers that their test can't define you and start your own company that outdoes them and exposes their dogma as obsolete; you stand confidently and steadily in front of the review board and let the depth of your faith and your steadfastness dissolve their resistance. If the strength of your belief can part seas and move mountains, it can certainly lift you out of poverty. LIFE is the test, and its nature is spiritual. You can have everything you want in life if you can learn to let it all go...things will fall into place if you can learn to release your resistance.

Anonymous brat said...

What seems lost in the conversation, and absent from the Redditor's perspective, is that the benefits of developing a strong character/work ethic won't necessarily accrue to you, but will make a difference for your kids' lives. If you plan on being a breeder, then age 25 or 30, you're not in it for yourself anymore (NB I'm guessing "Lock-n-Paine" is in his 20s, and definitely a 'he'). Everything you've made for yourself by then properly becomes for the benefit of your actual or potential children.

To use the Redditor's example, the McDonald's girl who studied diligently (so he says) for 2 years but still didn't pass is more likely to raise hard working, studious children than the guy who half-assed it and passed because he "has a high capacity for analytical intelligence" (but evidently not for brevity.) My point is that work ethic/personal responsibility shouldn't be discounted. It matters, and you have to acknowledge and respect it wherever you find it because it's easier today than ever to become discouraged.

Granted, Ms. McDonald's studious children are still more likely to be crushed under the system, while Mr. Reddit's kids will likely spend their adulthoods comfortable and full of weed and ennui. The left and right have stupidly split the demagogic baby on this issue, which means it'll take at least another generation to get it sorted out.