Jonathan Chait takes issue with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s assertion that Paul Ryan’s rhetoric about “culture of work” and “inner-city men” isn’t any different than President Obama’s admonishing of young black men and blaming the lack of fathers in the home for their perceived failures. He says:
Ryan’s analysis—or, at least, the analysis that follows consistently from his remarks and his policy agenda—is that culture now represents the entirety of the problem with the black poor. He attributes that culture to incentives put in place by the government not to work, and believes that removing those harmful incentives, in the form of cutting benefit programs, would teach poor black people to fend for themselves.
Figures like Obama, [Bill] Clinton, and (I think) [Bill] Cosby make a very different argument. They share the view that cultural problems contribute to black poverty, but they don’t equate them with the entirety of it. Clinton combined welfare reform with a more generous Earned Income Tax Credit, higher minimum wage, and other direct benefits. Obama has done the same.
While it’s true that the Obama administration has taken on certain aspects of institutional racism, most notably drug policy and voting rights, it’s also the case that Obama’s rhetoric around black youth and the inequities they face always circle back to issues of “culture,” the willingness to name and deconstruct structural racism in explicit terms is absent. We can discuss the explosion of the prison population under Clinton’s presidency some other time.
But Chait’s biggest misfire is here:
Coates is committing a fallacy by assuming that Obama’s exhortations to the black community amount to a belief that personal responsibility accounts for a major share of the blame. A person worries about the things that he can control. If I’m watching a basketball game in which the officials are systematically favoring one team over another (let’s call them Team A and Team Duke) as an analyst, the officiating bias may be my central concern. But if I’m coaching Team A, I’d tell my players to ignore the biased officiating. Indeed, I’d be concerned the bias would either discourage them or make them lash out, and would urge them to overcome it. That’s not the same as denying bias. It’s a sensible practice of encouraging people to concentrate on the things they can control.
Dress it up in all the sports metaphors you want, but I know respectability politics when I see it, and Chait commits the fallacy of lending it any credibility.
Yes, people like to feel in control of their own lives, and thus a conservative response to structural racism has been to strive for achievement despite the odds. Go to school, dress well, speak articulately, work hard, be unflinchingly kind. And because that formula works for some people, it becomes the official playbook (to extend Chait’s metaphor) for dealing with racism in one’s personal life. These are the things people can control. They can comport themselves according to the rules of white supremacy and hope for the best.
Fine. If that helps one to preserve their sanity and survive in this rigged system, I’m not here to knock it (too much). But what Chait sees as rational, I see as an irrational response to an irrational problem. Racism doesn’t make sense. It is not rooted in logic. Its metrics shift with the times. It can go from claiming black men do not have the intellectual fortitude to participate in professional sports, to marveling at black athletes’ natural ability to excel. It can turn from hiring black women to perform all domestic duties, to admonishing them for being lazy “welfare queens.” It can say simultaneously that black people are naturally inferior to white people, while fearing that very existence of blackness is a threat to white people’s livelihoods.
There is no rational response to a system of oppression that refutes its own logic. And if there were, respectability politics would be the least rational. Because even if you win that one game against the shady refs by ignoring their imposition and playing your best, it’s just one game. It’s just one team. The rest of league still suffers.
Also, the basketball metaphor is utterly ridiculous.
Read Next: Melissa Harris-Perry on what Paul Ryan and Obama have in common