Lil’ Barack

Gene Expression highlights Barack Obama’s response to “The Bell Curve,” Charles Murray’s infamous tome on IQ and race. The whole thing is well-worth reading, but two excerpts really jumped out at me. First, Obama’s aggressive take to the book’s central thesis (emphasis mine):

Now, it shouldn’t take a genius to figure out that with early intervention such problems can be prevented. But Mr. Murray isn’t interested in prevention. He’s interested in pushing a very particular policy agenda, specifically, the elimination of affirmative action and welfare programs aimed at the poor. With one finger out to the political wind, Mr. Murray has apparently decided that white America is ready for a return to good old-fashioned racism so long as it’s artfully packaged and can admit for exceptions like Colin Powell. It’s easy to see the basis for Mr. Murray’s calculations. After watching their income stagnate or decline over the past decade, the majority of Americans are in an ugly mood and deeply resent any advantages, real or perceived, that minorities may enjoy.

Second, Barack’s proposed solution to the racial achievement gap (again, emphasis mine):

I happen to think Mr. Murray’s wrong, not just in his estimation of black people, but in his estimation of the broader American public. But I do think Mr. Murray’s right about the growing distance between the races. The violence and despair of the inner city are real. So’s the problem of street crime. The longer we allow these problems to fester, the easier it becomes for white America to see all blacks as menacing and for black America to see all whites as racist. To close that gap, we’re going to have to do more than denounce Mr. Murray’s book. We’re going to have to take concrete and deliberate action. For blacks, that means taking greater responsibility for the state of our own communities. Too many of us use white racism as an excuse for self-defeating behavior. Too many of our young people think education is a white thing and that the values of hard work and discipline and self-respect are somehow outdated.

Obama may have refined his message since 1994, but his core themes haven’t changed much. He attributes residual racism to economic stagnation, which is extremely reminiscent of his comment earlier this year about how voters “cling” to guns and religion because politicians fail to address their economic concerns. His emphasis on personal responsibility also echoes his rhetorical nods to social problems within the black community in both his convention speech and his response to the Reverend Wright controversy. Here’s Obama on social responsibility in the wake of Wright:

For the African-American community, that path means embracing the burdens of our past without becoming victims of our past. It means continuing to insist on a full measure of justice in every aspect of American life. But it also means binding our particular grievances – for better health care, and better schools, and better jobs – to the larger aspirations of all Americans — the white woman struggling to break the glass ceiling, the white man whose been laid off, the immigrant trying to feed his family. And it means taking full responsibility for own lives – by demanding more from our fathers, and spending more time with our children, and reading to them, and teaching them that while they may face challenges and discrimination in their own lives, they must never succumb to despair or cynicism; they must always believe that they can write their own destiny.

Obama’s transactional view of politics – we give you social programs, you clean up your act – strikes me as both eminently reasonable and totally unrealistic. It’s an attractive rhetorical package, and it effectively co-opts the conservative message of personal responsibility (Obama admits as much in the Wright speech, calling it a “conservative notion”), but it’s basically wishful thinking. People don’t embark on a journey of self-improvement because they’re receiving goods and services from the government unless the assistance is conditions-based, and even then there’s no guarantee.

To be fair, one could argue that an African-American president wielding the bully pulpit to emphasize social responsibility would have some impact on cultural norms. That’s a lot more likely to work than government bribery, but I’m still not entirely convinced.

UPDATE: Ta-Nehisi Coates has some similar thoughts.

UPDATE II: For what it’s worth, Murray wrote one of the more thoughtful responses to Obama’s big race speech at National Review.

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Filed under Presidential Politics, Race

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