Thursday, March 22, 2018

external bias vs. internal self-fulfilling bias in the discussion of race in America

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Just fresh from the NY Times, a new study about racial disparities & social mobility, witten by Stanford Law professor Ralph Richard Banks.

Banks takes two points from this study (by Raj Chetty from Princeton & Nathaniel Hendren from Harvard):
One is that a child’s economic position is sticky: Children from affluent families are many times more likely to maintain their privileged status than children from poor families are to attain it. The other is that while economic mobility may be individual, the conditions that enable or retard it are social. Wealthy neighborhoods with good schools and strong social ties propel even poor children toward a brighter future.
Surprising! The gap between blacks and whites, as the study puts it, is driven by black men, not black women.

Here's Banks:
We know that African-American daughters tend to do well. They climb the socioeconomic ladder as high as their white peers, if not higher. It’s the boys who fail. Whether born to a rich family or a poor one, in an impoverished neighborhood or wealthy one, black boys lag behind their white peers as adults. Black boys who grow up rich are twice as likely as their white counterparts to end up poor. And of those black boys who start life poor, nearly half will remain so in adulthood, while more than 2 in 3 of their white peers will escape the poverty of their youth.

Banks points to a vicious cycle: Black women may surpass their white counterparts in individual income, but they lag in household income. The reason is that they don't get the help needed from their male counterparts. Why again? According to Banks: "The men who would be their husbands are missing — incarcerated, unemployed, unable to be the partners that women want. Or the parents that children need."

Banks rightly acknowledges that racial disparities in incarceration, unemployment, school failure, etc, fuel racial social bias. And this bias, as he puts it, "ensnares black boys, rich and poor alike." This is one important component. And yet, Banks ignores the "internalization" aspect of this external bias, that is to say, its self-fulfilling aspect. Unless we are strictly socially determined, how can a young black man properly fight social bias if he doesn't keep in check his internalization of such bias?

Society is made up of individuals and individuals exhibit desires and memories that express autonomy and meaningful projects. But the fight against bias should not be reduced to mere externality. If that was the case Spartacus would have never rebelled against the almighty Roman armies, nor blacks against their masters in Nineteenth Century America. It's almost automatic: If anyone is told she is no good all of her life, she would end up believing it, thus sabotaging her own opportunities.   

"I'm not what you think I am" needs to be internally checked along with "I won't become what you think I am."

True, society can impede an individual's life plans to a point, but unless we were totally determined by society, we can also find ways to express our best aspirations and bring forth positive change.  

It's this second aspect that Banks overlooks. We're dealing with a self-fulfillment of an external bias. Again, if  this was only a social problem, we'd be denying young blacks the very self-determination they need to end this vicious cycle. There's no negative stereotype to fulfill (i.e., the "socially unfit black male") unless there was an internal component that feeds off this pervasive external bias. This, as well, has to end.

Young blacks don't have to wait for society to change its biases about them. It's time to short-circuit the vicious cycle. The discourse has to shift from solely finding the problem outside, and addressing the plentiful reserves of African-american culture inside each young black person.