J. Pharoah Doss: Racial disparities without injustice?

by J. Pharoah Doss, For New Pittsburgh Courier

It’s difficult to have an honest conversation about racial disparities. Especially when it’s suggested there are aspects of “Black culture” that contribute to racial disparities more than systemic factors.

Too many Black thinkers dismiss the “cultural argument.”

For these thinkers, the “cultural argument” blames Black victims for outcomes that are not their fault. These Black thinkers want historical, political, social, and structural factors to get the blame they deserve. 

With that said, it’s necessary to state that a disparity is just a significant difference or dissimilarity. Therefore, disparities are not negative in themselves.  But when you add the word “racial” to the word “disparities,” the term automatically becomes negative because it is thought that all “racial disparities” are caused by injustice.

Popular public intellectual Ibram X. Kendi has said, “Individual behaviors can shape the success of individuals.  But policies determine the success of groups.  And it is racist power that creates the policies that cause racial inequities.”

Kendi’s rhetoric is crafted to avoid the “cultural argument,” but he inadvertently pointed out that culture is a key variable in his first sentence. Kendi said individual behaviors shape success. The next logical question is: What shapes an individual’s behavior?

The answer is culture.

Right-wing thinkers have labeled negative aspects of Black culture “Black pathologies.” The term pathology implies these negative aspects are caused by some cultural defect or disease. This has reinforced racist stereotypes that Black people are intrinsically lazy, have lower IQs, and are prone to criminality.

It’s natural for Black thinkers to defend Black culture from this type of assault.

All cultures have aspects that produce undesirable outcomes without those aspects being pathological. Kendi said there is nothing wrong or right—inferior or superior—with any of the racial groups. He also said, “Culture is defined as a group tradition that a particular racial group might share but is not shared among all individuals in that racial group or among all racial groups.”

Kendi is defending “Black culture” from the moral judgment of those who hold “traditional values.” Kendi’s defense is understandable, but too many Black thinkers reduce the “cultural argument” to right-wing political talk about traditional values, personal responsibility, and “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.”

Once the “cultural argument” is seen as right-wing nonsense, it’s easy to ignore it and say that all racial differences are caused by systemic problems.

However, culture is more than just group traditions, as Kendi defined it.

Culture is the totality of social factors that cultivate individuals at each stage of cognitive development from birth to adulthood. At each stage of development, there are so many things that can go wrong or right that it’s impossible to list all of the possible combinations that can lead to good or bad results.

The complexity of the “cultural argument” means it has to be made without judgment, or, as Kendi stated, without viewing a racial group’s behavior as right or wrong.

For example, there have been studies about delayed gratification. Children had a choice of having one snack immediately or waiting 20 minutes for two snacks. The majority of the Black children chose one snack or immediate gratification. One of the studies followed up on the non-Black children who waited 20 minutes for two snacks and discovered their early ability to control impulses and delay gratification was associated with success in many areas of adult life. These children even scored 200 points higher on their SAT.

There is nothing wrong with Black children who want immediate gratification. But it should be acknowledged as one of the many complexities of the “cultural argument.” Suppose these same children grow up and choose career paths that require less schooling in order to receive the fruits of their labor faster. This will result in racial disparities in income that have nothing to do with injustice.

Why then does Kendi claim that racist policies are to blame for all racial disparities?

Could it be because it’s easier than dealing with the problems that the cultural argument brings up?

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