I’ve frequently encountered the argument that any reference to the legacy of history, to continuing evidence of a racially differentiated distribution of wealth and opportunity, is irrelevant because: 1) “I’ve never owned any slaves;” 2) everyone has the opportunity to succeed in America today, and it’s entirely the fault of those who don’t succeed if they fail to take advantage of that opportunity; and 3) the statistical trends are a result of sub-cultural problems that are the fault of the people who are suffering from them. All three of these rationalizations contain errors that are easily demonstrated.
One commenter insisted that the past is remote and irrelevant, that it is full of discredited ideas and so why should we turn to it to understand anything about the present or future? My answer was that disredited past ideas and well-evidenced past realities are two distinct things, that I am not arguing that we should be bound by past beliefs —far from it— but rather that we should be informed, in part, by past realities.
I do not oppose developing state-of-the-art new ideas and insights. Indeed, that’s what I live for. I’m a student of the ever-evolving explosion of human consciousness and its products. But those are all part of a historical process. They do not just exist in the present; they emanate from the past.
Even aside from the persistence of racist attitudes, of actual prejudice and discrimination (which are far more prevalent than some are willing to admit), there are other mechanisms by which past prejudice and discrimination continue to have present consequences. Children inherit from their parents a variety of legacies which are differentiated by history, passed down through the generations, legacies which include material wealth, social and institutional connections and privileges, and habits of thought and action adapted to and conducive to the social and material context of previous generations. Those who inherit more material wealth, richer social and institutional connections and privileges (such as ivy school “legacies,” in which the children of alumni receive preferential treatment in admissions considerations), and are socialized into the patterns of thought and action incubated in and conducive to socio-economic success, are clearly advantaged over those who inherit less material wealth, poorer social and institutional connections and privileges, and are socialized into patterns of thought and action adapted to and reproductive of relative poverty.
Paradigms persist even when we are no longer invested in their persistence. It is not enough to eradicate racist laws, or even racists attitudes, to eradicate the effects of racism. It requires a social investment, based on a recognition of a social responsibility.
There is an economic concept called “path dependence,” which refers to the tendency to remain in sub-optimal paradigms due to the up-front costs of paradigm shifts. For example, if there is new physical plant that produces something far more efficiently than what had heretofore been used, any calculation of the benefits of replacing the old with the new includes the huge up-front costs involved, and, even if there are huge long-term benefits to be gained, if the up-front costs are onerous enough, those benefits might never be pursued.
This can take many forms, from changing physical plant, to changing forms of government or economic systems, to changing understandings of reality. All of these confront various kinds of path-dependent resistance.
Here’s a very simple (and trivial) example: The “QWERTY” computer keyboard arrangement (named for the first five letters, from upper left, on the computer keyboard). If, for some purpose, someone needed to know why computer keyboards, in the present, are arranged that way, they would not be able to discover the answer by limiting themselves to consideration of present reasons why it might be so. The reason, rather, lies in the past: It minimized the jamming of mechanical typewriter hammers. It is a present reality, determined by past circumstances.
There are limitless other examples, in limitless arenas: The human spine has its shape because we evolved from walking hunched over (from four-legged, going further back), to standing upright. The spine wasn’t designed from scratch, but rather took its form from successive developments that built on previous conditions. And it is a sub-optimal design, leading to a lower back that is weaker than structurally necessary. The past is present in the present.
The notion that meeting current and future challenges requires thinking in the present and in no way benefits from understanding the past relies on a false dichotomy: Acting in the present and understanding the past are not incompatible, and, in fact, to do the former well, you have to include the latter in your approach.
Those “vague events of the past that really have no bearing” (as one commenter put it) are not so vague, and not so irrelevant. Such assertions conveniently ignore the statistical fact that the two most historically oppressed racial groups in American history, African Americans and Native Americans, are far more represented among our impoverished than random chance would allow. Why? Surely those who deny the relevance of this fact aren’t explicitly arguing that those racial minorities just happen to have an excessive amount of non-meritorious people among them, that they are “inferior” races. But it’s hard to see how their argument can be based on anything other than an implicit assumption to that effect.
The argument that members of those races have individually failed to take advantage of the opportunities available to them doesn’t address the statistical reality that so many more individuals from those races have failed in this way than individuals in the race that historically oppressed them. What a coincidence that the descendants of those who were enslaved and conquered are, on average, so much “less meritorious” than the descendants of those who enslaved and conquered them. Just highly improbable random chance, no doubt, and in no way involving those vague and irrelevant facts of history.
And the argument that it is a subcultural phenomenon begs the question: Why these subcultures and not others? Will those arguing this position really stand by the claim that it’s just a coincidence that the subcultures burdened with these problems just happen to encompass the populations we massacred, enslaved, and oppressed for centuries? Or will they admit that, to the extent that a mediating cause of social problems borne by these populations is subcultural in nature, the development of such subcultural dysfunction has as a first cause the centuries of oppression in which it was incubated?
The argument that some once disadvantaged ethnic groups have prospered, so why don’t these, doesn’t cut it either: There are many variables in play, and they lead to a wide variety of outcomes. Two major factors come into play: 1) No other disadvantaged population was ever quite so extremely and enduringly disadvantaged as the two I’ve named, and 2) the fact that there are circumstances in which countervailing factors overcome the liabilities of prejudice and discrimination doesn’t negate the existence and salience of prejudice and discrimination. In the case of generally new waves of exploited and impoverished immigrant groups who then prosper later, combinations of economic factors, less entrenched discrimination, and cultural characteristics particularly conducive to success can all come into play.
Just as some formerly underprivileged groups prosper, so do some individuals from underprivileged backgrounds, not because all is well and everyone has an equal chance, but because other factors intervene to counterbalance the injustices that really do exist. An individual might have gotten lucky by having exceptional talents, or exceptional mentors, or other bits and pieces of countervailing good luck.
But these bits of greater good fortune overwhelming an unjust situation don’t excuse the perpetuation of the unjust situation. There were slaves that escaped and prospered as well; that doesn’t mean that slavery was just fine, because, after all, some born into it prospered. The injustice isn’t erased by some fraction of those who escape it. And the fact that our current distribution of wealth and opportunity is unjust is conclusively proven by statistically significant differences in average outcomes for large populations on the basis of race, ethnicity, or gender.
The purpose of understanding the past isn’t to change the past, or to apportion blame, or to cultivate a sense of guilt and a sense of victimhood, or to suggest that descendants of victims of injustices necessarily deserve reparations beyond a commitment to erasing the legacy of those injustices, or to suggest that any inequality itself is unacceptable. The ultimate goal isn’t to recognize the role of history in forming the present, but rather to mobilize that knowledge in service to humanity today and tomorrow.
Who cares why the keyboard is as it is, or the human spine is as it is, or the inequitable distribution of opportunity in America is as it is, unless there is some present use for that knowledge? In the former two, there really isn’t, because we are willing (or have no choice but to) accept the current state, and so how it became so is of little practical relevance. But, if there were a question of fundamental justice involved, of human rights and human dignity, then it would be relevant, as it is in the last mentioned case.
Letters on a keyboard aren’t conscious and don’t care where they’re located. Human beings are, and do. The “QWERTY” of the distribution of wealth and opportunity has a relevance that the “QWERTY” of the location of keys on a keyboard doesn’t. And the relevance of the history that created that distribution of wealth and opportunity is that it exists, that the injustices of history have not been erased by time, that they are still embedded in the chances of birth. A commitment to our most basic values compels us to face that fact and deal with it responsibly, rather than deny it and pretend that each person fares only according to his or her own merit and effort, despite the overwhelming evidence that that just isn’t so.
It is not merely, or even primarily, to demonstrate the relevance of past racial discrimination to current inequitable distributions of wealth and opportunity that we should be informed by this presence of history, but rather to demonstrate the existence of social and economic injustice itself. I might be inclined to argue that those who are impoverished in America, or struggling in circumstances characterized by poorer than average opportunities to thrive, regardless of their race, are by-and-large victims of ill-fortunes that were not their own making, and did not enjoy a true equality of opportunity such as we, as a people, should be striving to realize. I might be inclined to argue that our policies for addressing these injustices shouldn’t be racially targeted, or race-conscious, but rather address the problems themselves that are disproportionately borne by members of some formerly oppressed races, and by doing so address the injustices at their root, as they occur, rather than superficially by the categories in which they most prevalently occur.
But the people who deny that the injustices of the past have any relevance to the injustices of the present are doing so to argue that there are no injustices in the present, or at least no injustices of a kind that incur any social responsibility borne by us collectively as a people and a nation. They argue that those who are poor are poor because they lack merit, lack resolve, lack something that those others who are not poor have, in complete defiance of the evidence.
The number one predictor of future wealth is the wealth into which one is born: If you are born into a wealthy family, you are likely to become a wealthy adult; if you are born into a poor family, you are likely to become a poor adult. There is far less social mobility than our mythology pretends (indeed, less even than in the more liberal countries of Western Europe). When one’s fate is largely determined by the socioeconomic class into which they are born, there is less difference, in terms of social justice, between our current political economy, and the more unabashedly inequitable systems of the past. Obviously, the ideal of equality of opportunity is far from being a reality in this country.
One of the fundamental challenges facing us as a people is to recognize this, and continue to strive to remedy it. In America, too many people hide behind a political philosophy that allows them to “have their cake and eat it too,” to enjoy the benefits of living in a society without undertaking any of the moral responsibilities that that incurs (see The Catastrophic Marriage of Extreme Individualism and Ultra-Nationalism for a discussion of a different aspect of this overly-convenient and pernicious blend of individualism and nationalism). It is time we once again heeded John Donne’s famous admonition that
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as a manor of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.