Cutting The Racial Gordian Knot: What Are The Ethical Implications Of The Terrible Economic Disparity Between Black And White In America?

Gordian Knot

The question raises the ethical implications to all American citizens and our shared obligation to our nation and its society of a disastrous, crippling problem that poisons our culture. and society: the persistent plight of Black America.

Back when I was a senior in college majoring in American Government and the U.S. Presidency, I took a course  from Professor Thomas Pettigrew, then as now one of the foremost scholars on race, prejudice and public policy. It was about the challenges facing blacks as they tried then to benefit from new legislation and opportunities created by the Civil Rights Act and other policies, such as school busing. I was very impressed by Pettigrew’s even-handed, objective and non-political approach, even though, at my college, political teaching was the rule, not the exception.

I have never left a course so discouraged. Pettigrew, himself a pretty optimistic man, led us into one dead-end after another: black families, education, neighborhoods, political behavior, crime and more, all dysfunctional or suffering. All areas of black society interfered with or blocked improvements, progress, remedies and policy initiatives that showed promise to address racial inequality in other areas.

Late in the course I asked him if he saw any hope that in 50 years, black America would be approaching parity with white America. “I have hope,” he said. “But I honestly don’t see how we get there from here. There is a path, but we haven’t found it.”

It appears that my discouragement then was an accurate reading of the problems ahead.

Last week, these charts from the Brookings Institution’s Social Mobility Memos blog were posted to the web by other sources. They show how deeply the problems I was warned about have failed to improve in 50 years. Here is what they show:

1. Upward mobility is much more unlikely  for black than white Americans. 51% of the black Americans born into the lowest fifth of the earnings distribution remain there at age 40:

2. The black middle class is deteriorating.

Seven out of ten black Americans born into the middle class fall into into the lower classes as adults.

3. Black  family wealth is now minimal.

The 2008 recession and housing market scandal devastated black family wealth. The median wealth of white households is now 13 times greater than the media wealth of black households.

4. Black children are usually raised by only one parent, handicapping their prospects of success from the beginning.

Black leaders, teachers, schools and cultural leaders have failed spectacularly to reverse the destructive black cultural trend of single parent households. 

5. Education achievement disparities

The average black student also attends a school at the 37th percentile for test score results whereas the average white student attends a school in the 60th percentile. You can start an argument over whether this is cause or effect: Brookings, being in the liberal mainstream, assumes that this means that blacks go to worse schools, but it also could mean that black kids perform worse in school than Asians, whites and Hispanics. Political correctness today precludes even discussing that possibility.

There are some equally revealing charts here.


1. The United States cannot ethically continue to follow a series of policies that have not sufficiently improved the lot of black Americans.

2. It should be self-evident that this persistent languishing state of inequality for a large group of Americans is a national anchor, impeding the nation in many ways, causing division, wasting resources, wasting lives and human capital.

3. Why did the first black President fail to make this national crisis a major priority? He was perfectly situated to do so. Instead, he concentrated on health care insurance, undermining immigration policy, and speculative climate change policies.

4. Why has the black community refused to demand accountability from the President and Democrats? Obama’s popularity is still near 90%.

5. Why has the issue of lack of black economic and social progress been ignored in the campaign so far? The Democratic theme is income inequality, which is purely class warfare. The racial inequality is right there to see, and nobody’s talking about it. It isn’t all racism, as Pettigrew made clear decades ago. The orientation of the civil rights activists is exactly backwards,  for example focusing on “mass incarceration” as if the stalled social and economic progress of black society does not contribute to  the fact that a disproportionate number of black men end up in prison.

6. Similarly, the tactic of blaming whites for all the intransigent problems of the black population interferes with productive discussions and practical policy options. Relative white (and Asian, and soon, Hispanic) success is not the sole or even the greatest reason for black failure, though it is comforting and popular to claim so. Moreover, the “white privilege” approach is just blame-shifting, causing anger and resentment and straining what needs to be a biracial alliance for the long term best interests of the nation.

7. This is a Gordian Knot, and that means that it needs to be cut, not untied. Here is what I believe is the germ of a radical policy approach that might lead to more progress in the next 50 years…

I believe that the disadvantages that black citizens have had to overcome were too serious and too extensive, from the end of slavery to this moment, for any group to overcome. All the billions spent at all levels of government in welfare and assistance programs, government grants and training, affirmative action and racial preferences, have been at best band-aids, and at worse have incentivized destructive cultural norms and individual conduct.

I am not an admirer of Ta-Nehisi Coates, an intellectual anti-white racist who is currently a rock star to progressives, but he has pointed the way to a solution while framing it so badly that he guarantees its rejection. Coates sees no way to fix the disparities between white and black in the U.S. except reparations. Well, to be blunt, the hell with that. He hates and distrusts whites, and wants to punish all of them for the sins of slavery committed by their ancestors by arranging a massive transfer of wealth based on principles of tort law and damages. This has always been a pipe dream of civil rights extremists, couched in the language of revenge, as if the nation and the nation’s white citizens have made no efforts, sacrificed nothing, expended no resources or wealth, to try to undo the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow. Reparations are not going to happen, as the concept itself is unjust.

However, I believe he is right that the deep hole black America is mired in cannot be overcome unless there is significant narrowing of the racial wealth disparity. Addressing that isn’t reparations, it is social policy to fix a problem that undermines all of us, not just African-Americans. It would require a careful and difficult compromise: ending most of the programs that constitute those leaky bureaucratic, bloated, inefficient band-aids on the cultural maladies in the black community, and redirecting that money for a one time, five-figure grant to every black man, woman and child, regardless of prominence or class. The amount of the grants would depend upon how much could be accumulated from cuts elsewhere.

The objective of the program would be to close gaps that now appear too great to overcome, with the understanding that black citizens, in the true spirit of the nation, now had resources to control their fate. Now they would need to take advantage of a unique opportunity, making good choices and using the grants productively. I know, I know—how black is black? How can people who have no idea how to manage wealth get guidance and be protected from predators? There are lots and lots of problems to be solved to make this approach work, and good luck on solving them. That’s not my job.

This program still might cut the Gordian Knot, and it is worth trying; indeed, there is an ethical obligation to try it, unless someone finds something better.  Nothing else has worked, and the current situation is unconscionable.


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