Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Murderous Fires of Race and Class

The facts are grim for black America. As Ralph Reiland highlights in his column yesterday, they are very grim indeed. Each year more blacks are killed in this country than soldiers have been killed in Iraq in over five years. While blacks make up only 12% of the country's population, they committed 52% of the murders and were victims of 47% of the murders in America. As the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education finds, blacks are three times more likely to live in prison than live in a college dorm.

Sobering facts all.

Reiland then follows this up with a bit of a non-sequiter. He says that this is all evidence that Barack Obama shouldn't have been listening to the sermons of Jeremiah Wright. That's the best lesson you can draw from this?

While I think Wright's comments were reprehensible and I agree that Obama probably shouldn't have tied himself so closely to the guy, this argument doesn't make sense. Reiland writes that the "murderous fires in the black community were being stoked from the pulpits of black churches." Murderous fires? Really? This strikes me as kind of like blaming the sinking of the Titanic on the people who said the ship was unsinkable. Yeah, you can probably make some sort of case for it. And yes, the remarks certainly didn't help matters very much. But the ship still had to hit an iceberg for it to go down.

So what's the iceberg that black America has hit?

Despite the apparent national imperative to talk about race, I can't help but think that race may be beside the point. At least, I don't think it's the main point right now. For that we have to look at class.

Forgive me a brief digression. Bill Cosby, after becoming famous as a great comedian, became infamous for excoriating the black community for spending money on flashy, big ticket items rather than investing in the future. Never mind that this really shouldn't have been controversial (investing in the future is obviously better than having $500 sneakers). What Cosby missed was that this wasn't a black problem. As this article from Slate points out, the issue is one of economics rather than race. It's not that black people spend more on conspicuous consumption, it's that poor people, economically segregated, spend more on conspicuous consumption.

So now back to murder. The question becomes, is this a black problem or is it a poor urban ghetto problem? Clearly, there is likely to be a significant amount of overlap between these fields. But drawing a distinct line between the two is still important if we want to find a solution. If the issue is poverty, that dictates a path of increased education, social services, and similar approaches. If the issue is race and only race, then, well, we may have a bigger problem on our hands than anyone realizes.

Where I'm going with this is that focusing on these problems as problems of race when they are actually problems of class is like taking pepto bismal of appendicitis. You might feel like you're taking strong action, but nothing's actually getting done. It's time to look at class in America. If we fix that, I think the racial issues will start to work themselves out. I don't see it happening the other way.

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