Contributor Post Created with Sketch. The Trouble with Racial Stereotypes

 

Liberals are furious with conservatives for “blaming the victim” in the discussion of events in Ferguson. The left and right are assuming their usual positions, with liberals emphasizing that African-Americans are disadvantaged in America today, and conservatives emphasizing that they are suffering from deeper problems within their own culture.

Actually, it’s both. American society is not systematically structured to keep the black man down. Cultural breakdown is a much bigger problem. That breakdown may be rooted to a significant extent in historical injustice; in fact, I think it is. (Of course, misguided Great Society attempts at do-gooding are also part of the problem, but why was the black community in particular so devastated by that? Mainly, I would argue, because it was especially vulnerable and lacking in resources following centuries of slavery, segregation and racial oppression.)

Insofar as racial minorities do face “structural challenges” in our time, these are mostly themselves a byproduct of cultural decline. That’s why conservatives are so anxious to talk about “black on black” violence, and so forth. It’s not just about blame-shifting. It’s centrally relevant to our society’s growing problem with racial resentment.

To put the point simply: the problem with negative racial stereotypes in this country is that, owing to the cultural breakdown that conservatives lament, they’re too often justified. Racial minorities are not systematically torpedoed in their efforts to achieve. In general, the elite class is thrilled by ethnic-minority success stories. But African-Americans in particular can truly be subject to demoralizing negative judgments, just in the course of their day to day lives. They start feeling that they are mistrusted and expected to fail just based on their racial background.

It’s a painful situation. It’s even more painful to realize that the main reason this happens is that, too often, those snap judgments are justified. No amount of “awareness raising” will stop people from embracing stereotypes that turn out, as stereotypes go, to be fairly useful.

What do I mean by “useful”? Some months back, I wrote a piece on this for The Federalist, explaining why the ideal of “colorblindness” is unrealistic for daily life. You can find the long form here. But the short version is that stereotyping is a regular part of day-to-day living. We can’t get away from it just for the sake of political correctness, because it’s too important to our survival.

To be sure, stereotypes are often unfair to particular individuals. That’s why fair-minded people try to be tactful about them, and also to be open to recognizing when particular people break with general trends. But forming snap judgments on the basis of superficial characteristics is sometimes (often!) necessary in life, for the simple reason that superficial characteristics are readily observable, whereas the depths of the soul are not. Quite frequently, we have to deal with people we don’t know intimately. Stereotypes enable us to do that.

An African-American friend of mine once opined bitterly that race is practically the only totally “non-voluntary” basis on which people can be negatively judged. He granted that people are often judged on the basis of their dress or manner of speech, in ways that are not completely fair. (Any kid who was forced to wear K-Mart jeans to a school filled with yuppie kids could testify to the unfairness of the judgments that are often formed on the basis of dress.) Nevertheless, people do generally have some control over the way they dress or talk. They can’t control their racial background.

I sympathized with my friend’s feelings, but I have to say that he isn’t 100% correct. Age and sex are other clear examples of non-voluntary characteristics that factor into stereotypes. Other things matter too, like body type or physical attractiveness (both of which are only very partially under our control). We all have to live with an external “profile” that affects how people treat us, and the material we work with (our physical body) isn’t infinitely malleable. Sometimes you’re just stuck with it, and by extension, with the stereotypes that are foisted on you in virtue of your physical form.

Now we get to the rub. Because race is connected to culture and identity, individuals can be negatively affected if their ethnic background ties them (in a readily identifiable way) with an unhealthy or dysfunctional culture. In a sense this really is unfair, because a given individual might be viewed with suspicion when he himself is a model of virtue and upstanding character. But it’s the sort of minor injustice that can’t entirely be avoided in an imperfect world, and we should at least recognize that stereotyping is not precisely the same as racism. It isn’t rooted in bigotry. It’s rooted in common sense.

Once again, we can hope that people will be fair-minded, and not draw on stereotypes any more than immediate circumstances require. We can insist that some baseline of rights and courtesies be guaranteed to everyone regardless of background. And individuals can sometimes be coached so as to better project the persona they would like to have. When it comes to stereotyping, context is enormously important. A well-groomed, well-dressed person strolling into the symphony is unlikely to be viewed with suspicion, regardless of other features or observable characteristics. Sometimes there are things you can do to improve your image, and I do think it’s possible for a person from any background to win respect, status and opportunity in this country.

Even so, people are understandably liable to get resentful when they feel like they’re regularly viewed with suspicion, just in virtue of external characteristics that they can’t control. In that sense, I think it can be unpleasant to be (say) young, black and male in America today. You’re a lot more likely to get police officers asking you in sharp tones why you’re loitering on a corner. Gas station attendants get jumpy when you come in at 11 pm to buy a Coke. And then you read about incidents like this one in Ferguson, and you think, huh, am I in danger of being summarily shot just for walking down a dark street wearing a hoodie? What kind of country is this?

It’s a real problem. I don’t believe in “white privilege” per se, but I do believe that people can be regrettably burdened by stereotypes which are, however, basically rational and not rooted in bigotry. We should have some sympathy for people who are in this situation. But it’s also important to see that the problem isn’t really soluble through “dialogue” or “awareness campaigns” or the like. The only real way to cure negative stereotypes is to attack the foundation that justifies them in the first place. And that brings us right back to the issue of cultural breakdown. Over to you, Ta-Nehisi Coates.

There are 31 comments.

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  1. namlliT noD Member

    I’ll claim that issues like this make a lot more sense when one considers the difference between “stereotype” and “archetype”, making sure they don’t get confused.

    • #1
    • August 20, 2014, at 2:54 PM PST
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  2. AIG Inactive
    AIG

    The only way to deal with stereotypes is to realize that there’s usually a good reason why those stereotypes exist, and if there’s anyone to blame for them, its the people of your “kind” that created them. And the only way to combat the stereotypes, is to change your own people, not other’s perceptions. 

    Speaking as someone who comes from an E.European society that has plenty of negative stereotypes associated with it throughout Europe, I have come to the realization that…they are mostly true…and are mostly caused by people of my own society who do in fact behave in that way. I don’t need to blame W.Europeans for viewing “us” in that way. I need to blame the ones from my own “kind” who led to this. Once one embraces this reality, then the solution becomes more obvious: change the behavior in your own “community”.

    Blacks need to do the same in the US, not blame others for having stereotypes. 

    We all operate on stereotypes. Its human nature.

    • #2
    • August 20, 2014, at 3:00 PM PST
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  3. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu Post author

    Assigning moral responsibility for cultural decline is always incredibly complicated. As mentioned in the OP, I do think there are strong connections between historical injustice and present cultural decline, but that doesn’t change the basic reality that treating whole sub-cultures as a victim class will only worsen the problem.

    • #3
    • August 20, 2014, at 3:08 PM PST
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  4. Mark Wilson Member

    I’ve thought along similar lines for a long time. “Stereotypes” are just specific instances of our ability to form generalizations — which is one of the basic functions of intelligence. Without generalizations we couldn’t function in life. Every experience would be new, unique, unknown, and potentially dangerous. The ability to draw similarities between the present moment and past experience in order to make inferences about our surroundings is what keeps us from living like frightened squirrels.

    • #4
    • August 20, 2014, at 3:18 PM PST
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  5. Ontheleftcoast Inactive

    Rachel Lu:

    Assigning moral responsibility for cultural decline is always incredibly complicated. As mentioned in the OP, I do think there are strong connections between historical injustice and present cultural decline, but that doesn’t change the basic reality that treating whole sub-cultures as a victim class will only worsen the problem.

     If the problem is how to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, you’re absolutely right.

    If the problem is how to secure a permanent hegemony for the Progressive agenda in all three branches of government, treating whole subcultures as victim classes, creating a permanent underclass, regulating small businesses out of existence where riots haven’t wrecked them, and promoting rent seeking and crony “capitalism” seems to be working pretty well so far.

    • #5
    • August 20, 2014, at 3:29 PM PST
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  6. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu Post author

    Fair enough, Left Coast. I’m more a fan of the former though.

    • #6
    • August 20, 2014, at 3:37 PM PST
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  7. KC Mulville Inactive

    A racial stereotype is just another pattern.

    Over the last few months, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about, reading up on, and paying attention to the connection between “knowledge” and patterns. I used to study philosophy, now I work with databases… I’d argue they’re similar exercises, so although it’s an academic topic, it actually comes in handy for me. Analyzing data (using cubes, pivots, etc.) is a skill grounded in pattern recognition. This (x) looks like that (x). That’s half the skill requirement right there.

    Reality is fractal, in other words.

    The short version is that our concept of knowledge is shaped by pattern recognition. Pattern recognition is what allows us to “manage” and shape our experience. When some sensory perception or mental concept follows a familiar pattern, we respond to it according to (or deliberately varying from) the pattern we’ve used in the past. 

    We live in a time when everyone wants to stop the old pattern and create a new one – we admit that the old one was unfair. But patterns don’t change instantly. 

    • #7
    • August 20, 2014, at 3:38 PM PST
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  8. Paul A. Rahe Contributor

    Rachel Lu: Assigning moral responsibility for cultural decline is always incredibly complicated. As mentioned in the OP, I do think there are strong connections between historical injustice and present cultural decline, but that doesn’t change the basic reality that treating whole sub-cultures as a victim class will only worsen the problem.

    Amen. Let me add that that, if we are to be forward-looking, assigning moral responsibility for cultural decline is of little or no practical use. The question to be asked is: “What can we do about the situation that we find ourselves in? How can we improve that situation?” African-Americans in this country face a real moral challenge. It is not just that they have to face such a challenge. But the facts are dispositive.

    • #8
    • August 20, 2014, at 3:43 PM PST
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  9. Probable Cause Inactive

    They have a program now that helps young people to overcome harmful stereotypes.

    The program is called “fathers.”

    • #9
    • August 20, 2014, at 3:55 PM PST
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  10. John Walker Contributor

    The original post contained 1128 words (wc -w). Let me see if I can condense it to less than 100.

    Group outcomes in U.S. society are not due to structural discrimination, but due to the extent a group’s culture is functional or dysfunctional. Black society was disproportionately damaged by Great Society programs because of slavery and subsequent discrimination. Blacks are distrusted because of cultural stereotypes which are grounded in fact. Blacks who do not conform to this stereotype are rightfully offended by it.

    That’s the content, as I see it, in 63 words. I do not, by writing this précis, endorse it.

    • #10
    • August 20, 2014, at 4:39 PM PST
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  11. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu Post author

    I actually don’t think I would quite 100% agree with any sentence in that summary, John Walker.

    • #11
    • August 20, 2014, at 5:05 PM PST
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  12. Valiuth Member

    Rachel Lu:

    It’s a real problem. I don’t believe in “white privilege” per se, but I do believe that people can be regrettably burdened by stereotypes which are, however, basically rational and not rooted in bigotry. We should have some sympathy for people who are in this situation. But it’s also important to see that the problem isn’t really soluble through “dialogue” or “awareness campaigns” or the like. The only real way to cure negative stereotypes is to attack the foundation that justifies them in the first place. And that brings us right back to the issue of cultural breakdown. Over to you, Ta-Nehisi Coates.

    You know I have had “white privilege” described to me by a good and rather lefty friend of mine in the following manner. If you thought of life as a video game being white is like playing the game on easy. I found his analogy interesting, if not entirely satisfying. I still have many reservations about the concept, but I can see his point. I can definitely see how it plays out in the statistics.

    • #12
    • August 20, 2014, at 5:43 PM PST
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  13. iWe Reagan
    iWe

    Valiuth: If you thought of life as a video game being white is like playing the game on easy.

     It all depends on what one is trying to achieve. I am doing what others consider impossible. 

    • #13
    • August 20, 2014, at 6:12 PM PST
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  14. Zafar Member

    Valiuth:

    I have had “white privilege” described to me by a good and rather lefty friend of mine in the following manner. If you thought of life as a video game being white is like playing the game on easy. I found his analogy interesting, if not entirely satisfying. 

     Stereotypes are based on human perceptions, which are flawed or limited by their very nature, and in which ego plays as great a part as observation. We automatically tend to favour explanations for our experiences that affirm what we like to believe about ourselves (that we’re good, hardworking, honest, fair minded, talented, likable, intelligent, usually right) and consequently about the factors which cause the outcomes we’re dealing with (it’s the system/there are no advantages to being of any ethnicity/I built it myself, bigotry/an unhealthy subculture/hatred).

    I believe the truth is murkier, and unfortunately probably less complimentary to all of us : – ( Our stereotypes are hard for others to shift by just disproving them to us with actions because they are not just about how we see other people but (mostly, even?) about how we see ourselves. Hard for someone else to shift that, I reckon.

    • #14
    • August 20, 2014, at 10:28 PM PST
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  15. Ontheleftcoast Inactive

    Thomas Sowell made the case that the real problem is what he referred to in Black Rednecks & White Liberals as “cracker culture” which he traces to the Scots Border Country which, by the time its inhabitants emigrated to America, had been the scene of centuries of war, banditry and rapine and had a culture with a number of characteristics including a particular mode of religious style and expression, certain social mores including an honor/shame dynamic and readiness to fight, scorn for education, etc.

    Sowell wrote that cracker culture was adopted by Southern blacks as well as whites, that both black and white had to leave it in order to advance in life, and that the dysfunctional lifestyle which today is thought of as “black culture” (I had a high school English teacher who considered herself a daughter of the Harlem Renaissance, and whose exasperation with the poverty of todays concept I can easily envision) is actually cracker culture.

    [continued below]

    • #15
    • August 21, 2014, at 1:27 AM PST
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  16. Ontheleftcoast Inactive

    Sowell asserted that in order to become, well, civilized, both black and white had to leave cracker culture behind. David Goldman makes a similar point which he begins this way:

    An uncanny parallel links the fate of young African-Americans today and that of the young white men of the slave-holding South in 1865. Both cohorts have lost a terrifying proportion of their number to violence. One third of black Americans between the ages of 20 and 30 passed through the criminal justice system in 1995, according to the Sentencing Project, a prisoners’ advocacy group. Nearly a third of military-age Southern men military age were killed or wounded during America’s Civil War.

    • #16
    • August 21, 2014, at 1:31 AM PST
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  17. Amy Schley Moderator

    Rachel Lu: Because race is connected to culture and identity, individuals can be negatively affected if their ethnic background ties them (in a readily identifiable way) with an unhealthy or dysfunctional culture.

     To this, I respond — there is nothing, *nothing* about being black that requires one to wear one’s pants below the curve of one’s butt, or wear oversized hoodies in all weather, or to walk around like a cock in a chicken coop.

    Black men in khakis and polo shirts with middle class manners aren’t unfairly discriminated against by anyone but other blacks who call them Oreos. My sister’s godfather is one.

    • #17
    • August 21, 2014, at 6:18 AM PST
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  18. Kim K. Member

    And then you read about incidents like this one in Ferguson, and you think, huh, am I in danger of being summarily shot just for walking down a dark street wearing a hoodie?

    You don’t mean to imply that this is what happened in Ferguson, do you?

    • #18
    • August 21, 2014, at 6:35 AM PST
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  19. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu Post author

    Kim K.:

    And then you read about incidents like this one in Ferguson, and you think, huh, am I in danger of being summarily shot just for walking down a dark street wearing a hoodie?

    You don’t mean to imply that this is what happened in Ferguson, do you?

    Sorry, no, I’m not saying that’s what really happened. But that’s the liberal narrative of course. And you might be more likely to buy into it if you’ve had lots of firsthand experiences of jumpy gas station attendants etc.

    • #19
    • August 21, 2014, at 7:39 AM PST
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  20. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu Post author

    Amy Schley:

    Rachel Lu: Because race is connected to culture and identity, individuals can be negatively affected if their ethnic background ties them (in a readily identifiable way) with an unhealthy or dysfunctional culture.

    Black men in khakis and polo shirts with middle class manners aren’t unfairly discriminated against by anyone but other blacks who call them Oreos. My sister’s godfather is one.

    Right, well, I did mention that there are a lot of ways to adjust one’s image to minimize the association. Still, as my above-mentioned friend used to point out, it’s fairly burdensome to feel like you have to go around all the time “proving” to people that you’re “not one of those black people”. For example, he was mostly a very good dresser, but used to feel like he couldn’t wear hoodies without raising unpleasant associations. “But what if I just see a hoodie that I like?”

    He could probably get away with it if it had a fancy-university name on the front, but you see his point. The association can still be burdensome, even if not quite the life-blighting curse some people make it out to be.

    • #20
    • August 21, 2014, at 7:47 AM PST
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  21. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu Post author

    Zafar:

    I believe the truth is murkier, and unfortunately probably less complimentary to all of us : – ( Our stereotypes are hard for others to shift by just disproving them to us with actions because they are not just about how we see other people but (mostly, even?) about how we see ourselves. Hard for someone else to shift that, I reckon.

     Yes, but it’s possible to train people to be fairer and more broad-minded, I think. I’m not saying we’ll become models of perfect justice, but there are degrees. I’ve lived in places where people seemed perfectly willing to say, “Oh, don’t talk to Armenians! They’re dirty and they steal.” (That was my Uzbek host mother’s response when I befriended an Armenian woman.) I’m not saying Americans don’t *ever* draw those kind of gross stereotypes, but unashamedly applying them to an individual, and even an individual who the person you’re addressing happens to like? I think that would be pretty rare.

    • #21
    • August 21, 2014, at 7:55 AM PST
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  22. Amy Schley Moderator

    Rachel Lu: For example, he was mostly a very good dresser, but used to feel like he couldn’t wear hoodies without raising unpleasant associations. “But what if I just see a hoodie that I like?”

     Because of my body shape, I must wear mammary support when I go out in public, or I will look like a hooker/slut/white trash. “But what if I just see a strapless dress that I like?” Well, tough. Clothes oft proclaim the man, as your least favorite advice giver says, and that means sometimes one doesn’t get to wear what one likes because one doesn’t want to send the wrong message. Why a black man thinks other demographics don’t have to deal with that problem is beyond me.

    • #22
    • August 21, 2014, at 7:58 AM PST
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  23. Zafar Member

    Rachel Lu:

    I’m not saying Americans don’t *ever* draw those kind of gross stereotypes, but unashamedly applying them to an individual, and even an individual who the person you’re addressing happens to like? I think that would be pretty rare.

    I agree that Americans are, on the whole, extremely civil. But stereotyping doesn’t have to be expressed rudely to have an impact – I can discriminate against whole groups because of their appearance or their names without being actively rude to any one individual, and if enough people do that the cumulative result can still be significant for that group. Being polite about it may make its expression less crude, but it doesn’t substantively ameliorate the most meaningful outcomes of negative stereotyping. [Edit: and it’s still likely to be more about me than about them.]

    • #23
    • August 21, 2014, at 8:53 AM PST
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  24. Mark Wilson Member

    Zafar: I agree that Americans are, on the whole, extremely civil. But stereotyping doesn’t have to be expressed rudely to have an impact – I can discriminate against whole groups because of their appearance or their names without being actively rude to any one individual, and if enough people do that the cumulative result can still be significant for that group.

    I agree. This is a subtle point and it can be very contentious. It’s very difficult to provide evidence for or against it, but it is accusatory by nature. It’s sort of like trying to assign blame for the general moral decline of our culture.

    • #24
    • August 21, 2014, at 10:00 AM PST
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  25. Kim K. Member

    Amy Schley:

    Rachel Lu: For example, he was mostly a very good dresser, but used to feel like he couldn’t wear hoodies without raising unpleasant associations. “But what if I just see a hoodie that I like?”

     Clothes oft proclaim the man, as your least favorite advice giver says, and that means sometimes one doesn’t get to wear what one likes because one doesn’t want to send the wrong message. Why a black man thinks other demographics don’t have to deal with that problem is beyond me.

    I have three black kids – teenagers – and they often wear hoodies, always with the hoods down (unless it’s raining). They also wear their pants pulled up normally, don’t wear shades indoors, carry themselves respectfully, and speak with the usual amount of teenage slang. Maybe when they are older the hoodies will be a problem for them, but for now it is a complete non-issue.

     

    • #25
    • August 21, 2014, at 10:26 AM PST
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  26. Rachel Lu Contributor
    Rachel Lu Post author

    Perhaps we should cross-apply Zafar’s point to the hoodie debate! Look, I’m really not set on this hoodie issue; it was just an example once given to me by a friend who happened to be a black man in his early twenties. And whether or not it’s a good one, I think it’s better to acknowledge that negative stereotypes exist and can burden people in various ways, than to defensively find ways to argue that they don’t, or that young black men don’t have to deal with any more social unpleasantness or inconvenience than thirty-something white women like Amy or me.

    But the larger point to emphasize is that being a victim isn’t good for anybody. And it’s least good for the person who adopts the victim mentality. We’re all burdened and blessed by our genes (and our heritage and our ethnic background and so forth), in a variety of ways. Some have more burdens, some more blessings, but either way the best thing you can do for yourself is find a way to spin your particular package into a decent life.

    • #26
    • August 21, 2014, at 10:46 AM PST
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  27. liberal jim Inactive

    I have heard from people who write for a living that the “Great Society” was a mis-guided attempt at do-gooding one time too many. It was nothing more than a cold calculated attempt by politicians who wanted to win poor people’s votes. They cared far more about themselves and their political careers than their lofty rhetoric implied. Ben Carson’s mother, a poor black women who could not read, knew the GS boondoggle would, in the end, enslave her. Most other people knew that the big government schemes would cause more harm than good. These, for the most part, where HS educated working people. Many poor people were still seduced and many more were eventually convinced by the government after it spent millions convincing them to take the free stuff. Strange that the college educate politicians couldn’t figure it out. Politicians for the most part are calculating, political animals, who care about power and “me and mine.” There I go stereotyping. LBJ a do-gooder? Give me a break. Why do you big government types persist in the myth that politicians are well meaning do gooders primarily interested in public service?

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    • August 21, 2014, at 10:50 AM PST
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  28. iWe Reagan
    iWe

    Rachel Lu: But the larger point to emphasize is that being a victim isn’t good for anybody.

    There are those few contrarians who leverage it into greatness. I know quite a few. But i agree that a passive mindset is always a loser.

    • #28
    • August 21, 2014, at 11:10 AM PST
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  29. Profile Photo Member

    Ontheleftcoast:

    Thomas Sowell made the case that the real problem is what he referred to in Black Rednecks & White Liberals as “cracker culture” which he traces to the Scots Border Country which, by the time its inhabitants emigrated to America, had been the scene of centuries of war, banditry and rapine and had a culture with a number of characteristics including a particular mode of religious style and expression, certain social mores including an honor/shame dynamic and readiness to fight, scorn for education, etc.

    Wouldn’t it make at least as much sense to look back to Africa, and not to the Scots Irish, as the ultimate source for many of these dysfunctions? Africans who lived in America were not a blank slate, any more than any other group..

    As for David Goldman’s point, I don’t see much of a connection between whites killed in battle and blacks killed in random impulsive mayhem in the hood. Perhaps I have misunderstood him

    • #29
    • August 21, 2014, at 12:01 PM PST
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  30. Ontheleftcoast Inactive

    wmartin:

    Wouldn’t it make at least as much sense to look back to Africa, and not to the Scots Irish….?

    Certainly a number of West African themes survive among African-Americans. Sowell thought things like toleration of out of wedlock birth, braggadocio and willingness to fight at the drop of a hat were reasonable social adaptations to centuries of living on a frontier under conditions of brigandage and low intensity warfare. I don’t know whether the conditions in the parts of West Africa from which a lot of the slaves came were similar to the Border Country. Maybe there was resonance between the two cultures…

    When a group clings to evil, be it slavery or gangsta culture (Goldman saw similarities,) the correction can be bloody. 

    Lincoln didn’t speak rhetorically:

     …if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

    • #30
    • August 21, 2014, at 4:38 PM PST
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