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The title of this post is shamelessly cribbed from the title of an article by Coleman Hughes, of the Manhattan Institute (and contributor to Quillette.com). Among his concerns is “mass incarceration,” and the way black students are alleged to be in a so-called “school to prison pipeline.” The size of America’s prison population, where blacks are over-represented, is of great concern for Hughes. When countering reparations propagandist Ta-Nehisi Coates, Hughes complained to a House of Representatives panel that the talk of slavery reparations ignored the more pressing problem of the high number of blacks in prison. Despite his concerns, Hughes is eager to point out the good news on the issue. In The Case for Black Optimism, published a few months later, he writes:
To put the speed and size of the trend in perspective, between my first day of Kindergarten in 2001 and my first legal drink in 2017, the incarceration rate for black men aged 25–29, 20–24, and 18–19 declined, respectively, by 56 percent, 60 percent, and 72 percent.
The black prison population will not only continue to shrink, but will shrink at an accelerating rate. To paraphrase the economist Rick Nevin, our prison system may be overflowing today, but the “pipeline” to prison is already starting to run dry.
There is more good news. Black life expectancy in the U.S. has increased, as far fewer black Americans are dying from cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. The numbers of black students earning college degrees are way up, as black women are now more likely to attend college than white men. Those black women have slightly higher incomes than white women from similar backgrounds, and a higher percentage of blacks than whites say they are doing better financially than their parents did at their age. In another article, Hughes tells of how research led him to realize that police in America today are no more likely to shoot an unarmed black man than a white man. The article is worth reading if only for the list of whites shot or killed by police in circumstances similar to the shootings Black Lives Matter protests.
A valuable insight Hughes brings out is that the same data can reveal progress or apparent regress depending on what two numbers are compared. Hughes speaks of the two approaches as looking through the “past-lens” vs the “gap-lens.” If we compare black successes today to the same data for blacks 20 years ago, we see progress. Looking at the same numbers through the gap-lens, if whites have improved much more than blacks, we will see that the gap has widened, leaving blacks behind. But just as the bugbear of income inequality tells us nothing about how much money the less-affluent actually have, this gap-gazing doesn’t tell us how well black America is actually doing.
When we ask whether white Americans have made progress, we compare whites not against some other group but against themselves at an earlier point in time. Why, then, do we treat the analysis of black America differently?
The gap-lens also relies on the dubious presumption that white outcomes are the best benchmark against which to measure black outcomes. One reason this presumption fails is that the median white American is a full decade older than the median black American. Thus, comparing all blacks to all whites on any outcome that varies with age—for instance, incarceration or wealth—is comparing apples to oranges.
Ignorance of how much progress blacks have made in recent years leads many to mistakenly believe American institutions are so racist that nothing short of complete overhaul would suffice to repair them. The fact that those very same institutions have allowed for, if not ushered in, huge amounts of progress for black people in recent years suggests a more sober-minded approach. We should not burn the system down. We should reform it one increment at a time.
Good news, and a messenger that’s worth listening to. I only hope Americans will put the mob violence and left-wing racial division in the rearview mirror, and continue to build on the gains we’ve made thus far.Published in