When it Comes to Race, Why Worry About Facts?

Since the 1960s and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, Washington has spent some $22 trillion on 80 programs attempting to uplift the bottom rungs of American society. We can argue over the details, but widespread failure is abundantly clear. Just visit Detroit, Newark, East St. Louis, and Gary, Indiana and vast stretches of Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, DC among countless other cities to observe the chronic poverty first hand.

The reasons for the lack of progress are many, but let me suggest one impediment that has drawn scant attention: a clear-eyed scientific analysis of the problem is off-limits lest inquiry somehow “offend” powerful political interests. Imagine if modern medicine functioned this way -- doctors would be outlawed from explaining one’s illness by criticizing personal habits or hygiene. 

A perfect illustration of this stifling recently occurred when Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) in a town hall meeting opined that inner-city poverty might have something to do with men there not valuing the culture of work (a similar ruckus occurred in 2012 when Newt Gingrich criticized the work habits of young blacks). Ryan’s claim is certainly plausible given the mixed result of federal programs to build job skills among the poor.

Nevertheless, Ryan was immediately challenged by an African American constituent (Alfonso Gardner) who asserted that not only was Ryan’s explanation false but the entire argument was, implicitly, anti-black. Mr. Gardner offered no evidence for his assertion and it appears that nobody thought that he should supply any -- hiswas “knowledge” by acclamation and accepted as such.

Whether Ryan was factually correct or not was beside the point (but see here for evidence). What made the incident newsworthy was that Ryan had violated a powerful taboo -- when analyzing ineffective government programs, never criticize those who unsuccessfully respond to government help, especially if African Americans are involved. In today’s political environment, only programs fail; peoplenever screw up. Given that Ryan was tentatively considering a 2016 presidential run, this gaff could be toxic. You could almost smell the panic.

The congressman then did what every public figure does when caught violating a taboo -- he tried to weasel out. He quickly claimed that he really didn’t mean what he said and what appeared to be an implicit criticism of blacks was misconstrued. He even claimed that his statement had nothing to do with race, technically true but hardly credible given the reference to “inner-city” men.

This limp defense only encouraged a feeding frenzy of outrage. Rep. Barbara Lee, (D-CA) called the remarks "a thinly veiled racial attack" and Ryan agreed to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus (who called his statement “highly offensive”) to further “clarify” his statement. He followed up by characterizing his words as “inarticulate” and adding that he was not singling out a specific race but rather "society as a whole." He further backtracked with, “I was not implicating the culture of one community -- but of society as a whole. We have allowed our society to isolate or quarantine the poor rather than integrate people into our communities. The predictable result has been multi-generational poverty and little opportunity. I also believe the government’s response has inadvertently created a poverty trap that builds barriers to work. A stable, good-paying job is the best bridge out of poverty. The broader point I was trying to make is that we cannot settle for this status quo and that government and families have to do more and rethink our approach to fighting poverty.”

Others soon piled on. Jonathan Capehart, a columnist at the Washington Post and commentator on MSNBC blithely claimed that Ryan totally misunderstood the reasons for black poverty. According to Capehart, the culprits were not a culture tolerating indolent work habits but red-lining and restrictive covenants, the departure of manufacturing and commerce, underfunded minority schools, racial profiling, discriminatory drug enforcement laws, and the debilitating effects of a “cycle of incarceration.” Most important, according to Capehart, was that all of these policies were imposed by government itself (“no accident”) with the implication that the inner-city unemployed are victims of a well-concealed nefarious plot. 

This is a bizarre laundry list of factual errors and non-sequiturs. Yes, some minority schools receive below average funding, but many like those in Newark, NJ, and Washington DC, have long been lavishly funded, and all this generosity does not boost academic performance (and see here). Redlining and restrictive covenants have been illegal for decades, and what does racial profiling or biased drug laws have to do with getting up in the morning and going to work? Perhaps manufacturing and construction jobs departed the city because of the local labor pool’s indifferent work habits but how do you explain why many businesses still remain thanks to the arrival of hard-working immigrant s? Does Capehart really want to let convicted criminals roam free so they might get a job? And how would Capehart explain continued black unemployment despite decades of government imposed affirmative action, de facto quotas and disparate impact litigation? 

Several lessons can be drawn from Ryan’s tribulations. First, forget about an honest, science-based discussion of a policy that touches on race. As these “conversations” demonstrate, patently inaccurate “facts” are just improvised to suit an ideological agenda and, worse, nobody seems to care. Capehart suffered zero harm for making wildly erroneous statements. Tellingly, Congressman Ryan certainly could have offered a factual rejoinder but instead just immediately wilted and shifted into the denial mode. Perhaps he believed that defending himself with hard evidence would only compound his misfortune and he is probably correct.

Going a step further, there seems to be little interest in publicly discussing the work ethic as a source of chronic unemployment (and in academic achievement, as well). The very possibility that some Americans are habitually lazy and prefer the dole immediately kills inquiry. Who wants to hear such slander? Actually, such a study would not be especially difficult. Just compare native-born black males with, say, foreign-born black males and Asian and Indian urban males on such measures as employment history, education, willingness to delay gratification, impulse control, self-discipline, plus other factors related to the work ethic. Who knows, perhaps Ryan is wrong and Mr. Gardner is correct, but only a serious investigation, not cries of insensitivity, can settle the matter.

Keep in mind that if the results confirmed Ryan’s hypothesis the study might provide inner-city males a pathway out of chronic unemployment. Conceivably, the data, unflattering as it might be, could suggest possible interventions, for example, teaching the long-term unemployed about navigating the unfamiliar workplace environment. This would also be a far more productive strategy than, as per Mr. Capehart’s suggestion, end racial profiling and stop incarcerating criminals.

Congressman Ryan’s tribulations also convey an indisputable message to others -- avoid frankness on racial matters if being forthright can be judged offensive to anyone who owns a public soapbox. And being well-intentioned is no defense. If asked why blacks academically lag behind whites and Asians, just reaffirm the orthodoxy -- the legacy of slavery, bad teachers, dilapidated schools,  and, most of all, white racism. Hard to imagine any public figure getting into trouble for making this flimsy, unscientific argument.

This flight from open, objective inquiry is obviously a recipe for ever more debt-generating spending on doomed-to-fail ventures.One only has to look at a half century’s worth of failed early intervention schemes to witness this addiction. Shielding egos trumps solutions to our problems and we will spare no expense to shield inflated self-images. That those who have the most to gain from a clear-eyed, science-based understanding are the most inclined to banish honesty is particularly disturbing.

Since the 1960s and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, Washington has spent some $22 trillion on 80 programs attempting to uplift the bottom rungs of American society. We can argue over the details, but widespread failure is abundantly clear. Just visit Detroit, Newark, East St. Louis, and Gary, Indiana and vast stretches of Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, DC among countless other cities to observe the chronic poverty first hand.

The reasons for the lack of progress are many, but let me suggest one impediment that has drawn scant attention: a clear-eyed scientific analysis of the problem is off-limits lest inquiry somehow “offend” powerful political interests. Imagine if modern medicine functioned this way -- doctors would be outlawed from explaining one’s illness by criticizing personal habits or hygiene. 

A perfect illustration of this stifling recently occurred when Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) in a town hall meeting opined that inner-city poverty might have something to do with men there not valuing the culture of work (a similar ruckus occurred in 2012 when Newt Gingrich criticized the work habits of young blacks). Ryan’s claim is certainly plausible given the mixed result of federal programs to build job skills among the poor.

Nevertheless, Ryan was immediately challenged by an African American constituent (Alfonso Gardner) who asserted that not only was Ryan’s explanation false but the entire argument was, implicitly, anti-black. Mr. Gardner offered no evidence for his assertion and it appears that nobody thought that he should supply any -- hiswas “knowledge” by acclamation and accepted as such.

Whether Ryan was factually correct or not was beside the point (but see here for evidence). What made the incident newsworthy was that Ryan had violated a powerful taboo -- when analyzing ineffective government programs, never criticize those who unsuccessfully respond to government help, especially if African Americans are involved. In today’s political environment, only programs fail; peoplenever screw up. Given that Ryan was tentatively considering a 2016 presidential run, this gaff could be toxic. You could almost smell the panic.

The congressman then did what every public figure does when caught violating a taboo -- he tried to weasel out. He quickly claimed that he really didn’t mean what he said and what appeared to be an implicit criticism of blacks was misconstrued. He even claimed that his statement had nothing to do with race, technically true but hardly credible given the reference to “inner-city” men.

This limp defense only encouraged a feeding frenzy of outrage. Rep. Barbara Lee, (D-CA) called the remarks "a thinly veiled racial attack" and Ryan agreed to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus (who called his statement “highly offensive”) to further “clarify” his statement. He followed up by characterizing his words as “inarticulate” and adding that he was not singling out a specific race but rather "society as a whole." He further backtracked with, “I was not implicating the culture of one community -- but of society as a whole. We have allowed our society to isolate or quarantine the poor rather than integrate people into our communities. The predictable result has been multi-generational poverty and little opportunity. I also believe the government’s response has inadvertently created a poverty trap that builds barriers to work. A stable, good-paying job is the best bridge out of poverty. The broader point I was trying to make is that we cannot settle for this status quo and that government and families have to do more and rethink our approach to fighting poverty.”

Others soon piled on. Jonathan Capehart, a columnist at the Washington Post and commentator on MSNBC blithely claimed that Ryan totally misunderstood the reasons for black poverty. According to Capehart, the culprits were not a culture tolerating indolent work habits but red-lining and restrictive covenants, the departure of manufacturing and commerce, underfunded minority schools, racial profiling, discriminatory drug enforcement laws, and the debilitating effects of a “cycle of incarceration.” Most important, according to Capehart, was that all of these policies were imposed by government itself (“no accident”) with the implication that the inner-city unemployed are victims of a well-concealed nefarious plot. 

This is a bizarre laundry list of factual errors and non-sequiturs. Yes, some minority schools receive below average funding, but many like those in Newark, NJ, and Washington DC, have long been lavishly funded, and all this generosity does not boost academic performance (and see here). Redlining and restrictive covenants have been illegal for decades, and what does racial profiling or biased drug laws have to do with getting up in the morning and going to work? Perhaps manufacturing and construction jobs departed the city because of the local labor pool’s indifferent work habits but how do you explain why many businesses still remain thanks to the arrival of hard-working immigrant s? Does Capehart really want to let convicted criminals roam free so they might get a job? And how would Capehart explain continued black unemployment despite decades of government imposed affirmative action, de facto quotas and disparate impact litigation? 

Several lessons can be drawn from Ryan’s tribulations. First, forget about an honest, science-based discussion of a policy that touches on race. As these “conversations” demonstrate, patently inaccurate “facts” are just improvised to suit an ideological agenda and, worse, nobody seems to care. Capehart suffered zero harm for making wildly erroneous statements. Tellingly, Congressman Ryan certainly could have offered a factual rejoinder but instead just immediately wilted and shifted into the denial mode. Perhaps he believed that defending himself with hard evidence would only compound his misfortune and he is probably correct.

Going a step further, there seems to be little interest in publicly discussing the work ethic as a source of chronic unemployment (and in academic achievement, as well). The very possibility that some Americans are habitually lazy and prefer the dole immediately kills inquiry. Who wants to hear such slander? Actually, such a study would not be especially difficult. Just compare native-born black males with, say, foreign-born black males and Asian and Indian urban males on such measures as employment history, education, willingness to delay gratification, impulse control, self-discipline, plus other factors related to the work ethic. Who knows, perhaps Ryan is wrong and Mr. Gardner is correct, but only a serious investigation, not cries of insensitivity, can settle the matter.

Keep in mind that if the results confirmed Ryan’s hypothesis the study might provide inner-city males a pathway out of chronic unemployment. Conceivably, the data, unflattering as it might be, could suggest possible interventions, for example, teaching the long-term unemployed about navigating the unfamiliar workplace environment. This would also be a far more productive strategy than, as per Mr. Capehart’s suggestion, end racial profiling and stop incarcerating criminals.

Congressman Ryan’s tribulations also convey an indisputable message to others -- avoid frankness on racial matters if being forthright can be judged offensive to anyone who owns a public soapbox. And being well-intentioned is no defense. If asked why blacks academically lag behind whites and Asians, just reaffirm the orthodoxy -- the legacy of slavery, bad teachers, dilapidated schools,  and, most of all, white racism. Hard to imagine any public figure getting into trouble for making this flimsy, unscientific argument.

This flight from open, objective inquiry is obviously a recipe for ever more debt-generating spending on doomed-to-fail ventures.One only has to look at a half century’s worth of failed early intervention schemes to witness this addiction. Shielding egos trumps solutions to our problems and we will spare no expense to shield inflated self-images. That those who have the most to gain from a clear-eyed, science-based understanding are the most inclined to banish honesty is particularly disturbing.

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