Today’s epidemic of resentment is as dangerous as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Two things are clear in America today.
First, politicians, pundits, business people, academics and others talk a lot about equity and fairness.
Second, despite massive public attention to equity, the US is in an upheaval because millions of Americans believe the country is unfair to them or to the people they care about.
Inter-group resentments and violence are at an unprecedented level. The Black Lives Matter movement and community violence in response to police killings of blacks are just the latest manifestations.
What are Demands for Equity All About?
The dictionary defines equity as “fairness, impartiality; justice.” But what do equity advocates really mean by equity? They generally mean “equality of outcomes.” Those who advocate this version of equity, object to the demonstrable fact that people of color earn less than whites, have lower levels of home ownership, lower levels of educational achievement, and so on.
A related idea is that all of society’s institutions “should look like America.” Every social characteristic should be distributed in proportion to each identity group’s representation in the population. That is why equity advocates complain that, although less than 13% of the US population, blacks are 40% of the prison population. The black incarceration rate is over five times that of whites.
There are many other racial disparities. For example, black college students have higher dropout and lower six-year completion rates than students from other racial groups. Blacks are under-represented among CEOs of the nation’s largest corporations.
During my entire academic career at universities, I heard constant demands for recruiting minority students as well as minority and women faculty.
As a graduate student I interviewed for a job. The interviewer admitted I was the most qualified applicant, but that she was going to hire a black student—-because he was a minority. But most of the time this sort of preference is more subtle. For example, in my chosen field of social work, hiring committees ensured the success of minority applicants by creating positions such as “instructor in our cross cultural curriculum” or “instructor of feminist social work.”
I saw first-hand how the student admission process was stacked in favor of women and minority applicants and against white, and especially religious, Christian students (factors revealed by applicants’ biographical statements). With the exception of occasional private comments by faculty, no one spoke openly about this bias.
Hiring committees and deans investigated every level of the institution for potential inequities. This hunt for statistics by race, ethnicity and gender was made obligatory by the requirements of accrediting bodies. In my discipline, most faculty were women, but they were at times “under-represented at the top professorial ranks.” This led to intense pressure to correct the disparity.
Equity advocates argue that the mere existence of these disparities is proof of “institutional” racism or sexism, that is, a violation of the idea of equity. Group discrepancies are to be rooted out by means of a cultural revolution that promises to deliver an egalitarian and utopian society.
A Hint That Things Are Not What They Seem
Anyone who has observed the demands of equity advocates must notice an inconvenient truth.
No one, to my knowledge, has objected that nearly 80% of basketball players in the National Basketball Association are black males, even though they are only 6% of the population. No one has advocated Affirmative Action programs to “correct this problem” by advantaging white players.
When I was growing up in the 1960s, men of Italian descent were the most popular singers—people like Perry Como and Dean Martin. No one thought to make an issue of this. To this day, blacks play a large role as entertainers. Think of rap music, where most performers are black men.
More than half of women who work in nail salons are of Vietnamese ancestry and most of the rest are also Asian. Has anyone complained?
Have advocates weaponized equity demands because they resent the success of groups they do not belong to?
The bottom line is that equity advocates have decided that some groups are more deserving of equity efforts. So what they pursue is not equity. It is the advancement of favored groups.
Conservative economist Thomas Sowell has written extensively about societal discrimination and disparities. According to Sowell, although these disparities are often attributed to discrimination, that is often not the case.
Sowell notes that every society in history has been characterized by disparities in achievement among societal groups.
Disparities are inevitable because groups vary widely in natural talent, values and historical experience. Those differences in historical experience often date back many centuries. As an example, Sowell notes that most of today’s major beer companies were founded by people of German ancestry. This has everything to do with the German experience of beer making that dates back to Roman times.
Jews have predominated in the garment industry, not just in the US, but also across the world. Historically, Jewish communities in Eastern Europe were excluded from almost every occupation. Thus, they became proprietors of small businesses. The garment industry was a logical development—-all that was needed was a sewing machine and a small shop. When European Jews immigrated to other parts of the world they brought their expertise with them.
The German sociologist and economist Max Weber explained that the Protestant Reformation was intimately tied to the development of capitalism. The Protestant ethic of hard work, thrift and ability to delay gratification encouraged trade and the accumulation of wealth. This aided the formation and investment of capital and a market economy. Thus, Protestant countries reached a higher standard of living and greater wealth than other countries.
Today’s epidemic of resentment is as dangerous as the COVID-19 pandemic. The US has become unstable and violent because many societal groups believe they have been treated unfairly. Every disparity in social and economic outcomes is taken as evidence of this malfeasance.
Societal leaders harvest these resentments to further their own aggrandizement and political careers. Congresswoman Maxine Waters is one example. Her advice to followers is to “get a crowd together” and go after people who have exploited you, wherever you see them. Race baiters like Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan have built entire careers by arousing resentful masses with simplistic narratives that are largely or wholly false.
These minority demagogues are following the path of earlier white demagogues who also fed and exploited mass resentment of groups different from those of today.
During the late 1930s and early 1940s, Roman Catholic priest Father Charles Coughlin used his popular radio program to broadcast hateful anti-Semitic propaganda. (In an echo of today’s political scene, Coughlin named his anti-Semitic magazine Social Justice.)
Huey Long, a populist Louisiana governor and US Senator in the 1920s and 1930s, advocated a wealth tax and mass wealth redistribution.
US Senator Joseph McCarthy ushered in a dark era of political repression. He used Congressional investigative committees, with widely broadcast radio hearings, to convince the American public of a phony Communist conspiracy to take over the US. With often false or exaggerated accusations of disloyalty he destroyed the careers of many innocent people. He damaged the cause of free speech by creating a climate of fear.
In every case these demagogues built their careers by stirring up public resentment. Like today’s demagogues they convinced their followers that others had achieved success by taking unfair advantage of them. Although the claims of these demagogues were false, they nevertheless succeeded in dividing the country, much as it is divided today.
The future looks dark. Alienation and group resentment grow. Demagogues promise that government will repair group disparities. But no amount of government expenditure and no affirmative action policies will make discrepancies disappear. Blaming white people will not solve the problem.
The diagnosis is in error. It is a good idea to tackle discrimination and to ensure that societal policies are fair to all groups. But as long as we ignore individual contributions to social and economic disparities, they will not disappear.
Conservatives have frequently discussed individual contributions to social problems. These include things such as children without fathers in the home, low value placed on education, drug abuse, criminal culture, an unearned sense of entitlement, and refusal to accept individual responsibility.
Government programs will not make the disparities go away. Leaders would do better to encourage self-responsibility, individual achievement, a work ethic, thrift, dedication to education, and devotion to the family.
Time will tell if we are up to the task.