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.