Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Poverty, Race and the Role of Government

"People don't change because the government intervenes with a social program. It never happens. They change when they become exhausted with their suffering. The civil rights movement was the greatest of reform, certainly in my lifetime. It happened when people said, 'That's it. Kill us if you want, but we're not going to live the segregated life anymore. We're exhausted with this. Enough. And then change happens.'" - Shelby Steele (around 4:45-5:30 in part 5/5 of his interview with Peter Robinson)

In some ways, I'm conflicted about the above quote (and certainly disagree with many other things throughout the interview). I certainly think that people don't overcome pathologies like illegitimacy that keep people poor through great society programs, but I think Mr. Steele is perhaps discounting the role of the government in instituting policies that make it possible for people to overcome their poverty. Child labor laws and general support of good education is essential to families overcoming poverty. Children need to be at school and not at work if their family is to ever overcome poverty. Also, education needs to matter. An embedded racism that looks at the color of one's skin instead of one's qualifications keeps people in poverty. Racism wasn't a part of my upbringing. There are several biracial marriages among my extended family and friends, and nobody thinks twice about it. However, I'm not sure that is as common as one would hope, and I have met some racist (and otherwise seemingly respectable) people over the last 30 years who would never marry or hire a person with a different skin color.

So, how far has America come and what remains to be done in eliminating racial inequity? What role do you think the government has to play in the change that still needs to happen? What is the role of individuals?


1 comment:

Kevin said...

Hey MB! Sorry for the delay. Good posts -- I'm slowly making my way through them.

Shelby Steele's statement is overly broad and confusing as to what constitutes a "social program" (child labor laws? education?), as well as the ultimate source of change in people since there may be a feedback in a democracy that makes such a determination difficult. Clearly, the government does effect change in our environment and behavior.

But I suspect that Steele's intended point concerns the significance of personal responsibility. There is a narrow category of problems that we should expect the government to address. When we venture outside that category, the government can certainly still change people and things, but it tends to make problems worse or multiply them in the long run.

It's sad that he just wrote a book on why Obama can't win. :) I wonder if a subtitle change or addendum will be enough to redirect its thrust.

Steele's concern over the GOP sacrificing fairness to get "back in the game" was interesting. They make the point that the majority of whites voted for McCain and that the GOP is a white party, but is it more a sign of racism that 55% of whites voted for McCain or that 95% of blacks voted for Obama?

On the one hand, it is good and significant that Obama is the first black President. On the other hand, it is a shame that we make it significant -- that we praise it and engender a need for role models of our own race or color or other arbitrary type.

I also think it is easy to confuse culture with race. Or even skin color with race. Or stereotypes with racism. And the imprecision of our semantics leads to confusion and enmity.

As to what the government and individuals can do, color blindness makes sense to me. Focusing upon the present over the past makes sense to me. Respectfulness and allowing individuals opportunities to surprise you makes sense to me.