Hi! It’s me, Trivium, posting for the first time in a long while. I tried doing the song lyrics analysis thing here last year for a while and it was fun, but I know that mostly why people still come here is for the trenchant, often economical analysis of various topics that matter.
I’ve been wanting to do something on this for a while, since the Black Lives Matter movement exploded a year or two ago, but well, a) it seems like blogs have moved on a bit, and are now a bit 2008, and b) time, time time, which they are attempting to squeeze out of even professors now more than ever. I am resisting, but one can only resist one’s employer so much and still stay in the good books. Basically as my professional life has taken off, it’s meant so much less mental energy for blog posts. Today in fact, I should be organizing a conference and writing the intro to my latest edited volume, but…
So here’s a topic which interests me, the long-term economic historian, so much. And where I think I have a genuinely useful voice to add to the din, and perhaps help people to get over their own bigotry and prejudices, and get more into actually solving today’s most serious problems.
Ok, so the world has gone a bit crazy over ‘identity politics’ in the last year or so. This is a natural development of what has been going on in intellectual circles since about 1990, and in some ways, decades before that. It is the trend where identifiable minorities become the darling hero of progressives. So basically for progressives the more minority you are, the better. So if you’re gay, great: if you’re a gay pirate, better, if you’re a substance-abusing, sadomasochistic, gay pirate, even better~! I know a professor who got a coveted tenure job writing about these: no joke. And in progressive circles, i.e., around liberal arts departments, one can hardly get a job now unless one is a minority, or ‘at least’ a woman: a recent university of chicago ad said: we want 3 things from candidates: a list of publications, a list of teaching qualifications, and a statement of how you have contributed to campus diversity in the past. Wow. And yet, they tell you if you ask, that there is no ‘bias’ towards minority or women candidates. In fact, while women and minority progressives harp on about how they can’t get equal pay etc., in academia, the pendulum has demonstrably turned against white male new hires, at least. I know the old boy network is still white male, in many cases, but for new hires, you’re up shit’s creek without a paddle if you’re a white dude, who happens still to be the majority of applicants in topics like say, European philosophy. But if you’re black and do European history or literature, you have 10 job offers in one year, while if you’re white with a much better CV of publications, you have 1 offer in 10 years if you’re lucky. Now I exaggerate a bit, but I’ve been around and seen a lot, and this is the clear trend in academic hires.
Fine. My point is that the conservative movement does have a bit of real ammunition, when they argue that things have moved perhaps a bit towards the hysterical regarding ‘the nightmare it is to be black in America today’ as a recent slate article about a movie about black people put it. It assumes that at every moment, to be black in the US right now is to inhabit a special type of torture. And I’ve been following the police brutality thing: I am the very first to admit please note, that there are massive problems with police racism and that US cops in general are way way too aggressive: (a lot of this has to do with the fact that guns are legal and so they are always facing death: this might get people more on edge.) But what a lot of people forget is that the guy who was seen bleeding to death on national TV, is lauded in the progressive press as a noble victim, had been pulled over and actually fined for traffic violations and regulations violations (not having a sticker on his plate, not having tail lights), no fewer than 30 times in the 10 years prior to his being shot!!!! Ok: literally, and this is verifiable, 30 times, actually fined! And, cops very often let you off with a warning. So this guy was clearly driving around continually with tail lights out, and with expired registration, and expired plates, and other obvious problems with his car. heck, when I was in my early 20s and drove around without registration, I was pulled over a few times in the space of a few months, and I quickly learned to just get the damned paperwork done! So I did it. With virtually no money and certainly little help from my parents. So this guy is in many ways routinely flouting the law. And I know that in ghetto situations, this becomes the culture. And it becomes self reinforcing, and sooner or later, if, ahem, you carry a gun in your car which this guy did, and you get stopped scores of times, eventually something bad might happen (and note, there are very few people who actually get shot to death during a traffic stop, even if they have guns in their car.). Especially if you argue and escalate the situation with the armed police, which again a lot of these people who get stopped seem think it’s smart to do. If a cop stops me, btw, I am super polite and calm. That I think is the smart thing to do?
Anyway, so all of this aside, we come to our main topic, which is: why are black people in the US poor?
The progressive narrative runs like this. It is based on a cultural interpretation of the world, which holds that ‘identity’, marked by race, language, sexuality, gender, etc., is key to interpreting why the world is the way it is. It virtually ignores political and economic institutions, except to say that these things are basically determined by prejudice against the other.
In this progressive worldview, propounded mostly by Marxist historians and people influenced by Marxist readings, they took the old class struggle model, and substituted gender and race. This was done in the 1950s in a day when our understanding of the world was much simpler, but for some reason this is just now catching the public’s imagination and that of a lot of young naive intellectuals, and academics, who are all being hired by the progressive ‘guilt ridden’ elite, and so this is really catching on now, and taking over and drowning out any other views. And in this naive view, it becomes ‘sensible’ to assume that the system is simply rigged against you, as Marx thought it was for the working classes. So Marxists justify violence against the bourgeoisie, by saying the system is inherently, and inevitably, rigged. And so the new progressive identity politicans also assume that patriarchy is inherently and inevitably there, and that racism is also inherently and inevitably there. And the only way, according to the old Marxist model, to beat it, is to overthrow it violently. Note that for Marx, the possibility of democratic progressive change, was basically non existant. So what did Marxism create? A century of very very angry, violent, and essentially antidemocratic activists, who although they revolted in the name of enlightenment equality, rejected the obvious enlightenment democratic solution as being impossible.
And yet the sad thing is that democracy in the c20th has created more equal societies than ever before: black rights, women’s rights, have all come from democratic societies. So called Marxist societies may have given some women’s rights, but not really. Russia and China are as sexist as most non-democratic countries today. And yet now the beneficiaries of these major strides forward (and they are not perfect, but major improvements over any society in the 1930s or 50s), are rejecting these means of progress, and adopting, out of ignorance, a basically destructive, Marxist model of racism and gender issues. So I’m here in part to remind us that these Marxist models of race and gender are antidemocratic and self-destructive. This is why I get so disheartened when i see Beyonce jumping around in a black panther outfit, which basically says death to all whites, and the system is perpetually and inevitably rigged, and whites are invariably racist. All of these things are useless, they are highly counterproductive, since the real work is getting black people into congress, and into the presidency (ahem) and into the CEOship of major corporations, etc., and making our democracy work for black people and for all people equally well.
And this brings us to our main topic: why are black people, on the whole, poor? We’ll focus on the US though the answer works globally. In fact, there are many middle class and even wealthy blacks, in various parts of the US. But people don’t hear much about them. We’ll ignore this for the most part. Now we all know the progressive narrative: that systematic racism denies black people jobs, denies them good schools, denies them good houses, and so they are systematically kept down, and poor, and they are exploited. And so it’s not about class, it’s about race. And Bernie lost the 2016 primary to Hillary because more people believed that it was about race than about class, but that’s another post.
And yet the answer to why black people are poor has very little to do with race, says the economic historian.
The economic historian, if they are honest, will tell you a very different story, which I think comes much closer to the heart of the issues, and if black intellectuals would take this a bit on board, we might make much greater strides at getting black people, and poor people in general, less poor, and feeling like they had more opportunity and fulfillment in their lives.
So here’s our list of why black people in the US are actually poor:
1. They started out poor. 200 years ago, all black people were ‘poor’ i.e., they were hunter-gatherers, herders, and scratch-farmers. And generally in capitalism it takes capital to make capital. So if you start out with very little (and this made even worse by slavery, see below), it’s that much harder to make it to the middle, let alone the top.
2. The big one: they were mostly pre-agricultural, i.e., most black societies 200 years ago did not have permanent farming settlements. This meant, they had few permanent cities. In human history, you need an agricultural revolution before you have cities. And sub-Saharan Africa, which was the home of almost all black people 200-300 years ago and earlier, was one of the many places on earth which did not have permanent cities at that time. Note that central Asia, and most of South America, were also like this, and most of North America and most of Australia.
3. So what I am saying is that people who come from pre-urban societies, tend to do less well in modern society, than people who come from urban societies. And let’s not forget that urban societies are credited by historians as having invented the specialization of labour, which leads to high achievement in different crafts (say, blacksmithing, or metallurgy).
4. Thus, Australian aborigines, North American natives who did not integrate (i.e., on reserves), and sub-Saharan peoples, have almost all had a more difficult time on the whole integrating into modern life. This makes sense. their skillsets were the most different from modern ‘civilized’ sedentary life. So, stereotypically, Australian aborigines and US native americans have big problems with alchoholism, and poverty, and incest, and drug use, and etc.: the main reason is that their skillsets were to roam, and wander, and hunt. And pre-agricultural peoples spent most of their time being lazy. Sitting on the ground. Read any account of what their lifestyles were like. They had occasional bursts of hunting or violence, or ceremony, but most of the time, they sat on their asses, and did nothing. Now this may have been fulfilling, but it doesn’t help in a capitalist society, which is patterned more on hard-working patterns of farmers and craftspeople–who for centuries have been exploited by landlords who basically forced them to work year-round, but that’s another story. And US blacks have a very long, strong tradition of this type of pre-urban background. So it’s a lot, as a race, to overcome.
5. Whereas, Asian, Indian (India Indian) and Islamic people are also visibly ‘different’–they are brown, or Asiatic or whatnot, and yet many of these people are successful in US society. And in the caribbean as well. I remember one caribbean writer ask the question: “why did we let all of the indian people come over and open all of the shops?” And the answer to this question is key, and it’s obvious to an economic historian: Because these people had the HUMAN CAPITAL to enable them to run shops, because in India, they have had permanent farming settlements, and permanent large cities, for millennia – and so there are many many indian people who have made a living for centuries as shopkeepers. So they can naturally not only teach their offspring how to run shops by having them grow up in shops, but…. they also have the MONEY CAPITAL to start shops – i.e., they can use their profits at home to set up their kids with the goods to run a shop. This is why there are virtual epidemics (even simpsons stereotypes) of Indian and Chinese people running stores, running small businesses, but very much less often do we see black entrepreneurs running shops. There was simply a major lack of cultural and human and money capital to do this. This point 5 basically solves the whole mystery of why black people are poor in the US.
6. And here’s where slavery comes in. Not so much as abstract racism (which of course is a huge, vile problem, but not the structural economic problem people think it is), but as a denier or skills and capital. So not only do most Africans come from pre-urban societies, but they are then transported over to the US and Caribbean as slaves. So they are given very little opportunity to educate themselves, or to build practical skills for running a farm, or a shop. So human capital is not built up. And of course, you don’t earn much, and learn the value of saving and how to work with money, as a slave. So slavery was cruel, and it did deny black people extremely important things!!! But I would argue these most important things are human capital, and money capital, and financial know-how.
7. And a related note: why was Africa pre-urban? Was it Africans’ fault, as racists would have it? Or, as the Marxist-inspired progressives would have it: was it the fault of European colonialists who exploited Africa from racist motives and wanted to keep the continent down? Neither is correct. Africa was pre-urban and poor, simply because it takes a very very long time for urbanization to spread over the globe. Historically, urbanization and the Agricultural Revolution which preceded it took 1000s of years to spread from the fertile crescent, to Egypt, to river valleys in India and China, where they were most likely to spread to. Urbanization then spread very slowly across the Mediterranean, and took 1000s of more years to spread to inland Europe, and North Africa, and inland India and CHina. But it stayed in pretty small enclaves. The rest of Europe and Asia remained barbarian, until well after the year 1000. And civilization was slowly spreading across the Saharah as well: it created civilizations in Africa in Timbuktu, through the spread of Islam, which brought with it civilization. And so sub-Saharan Africa was getting urbanized, only, it was not quite urbanized when the Europeans began exploiting native rivalries in Africa to buy slaves. And remember, the Americas were only sparsely urbanized, most American natives were not urbanized, when Colombus came over and began the rapid Spanish conquest, which killed most natives through smallpox, and then helped ‘integrate’ most of the rest into an urban society, which still is very poor today as a result of bad Spanish institutions (some of the less good ones in Europe, due to Catholicism and militarism brougt on by centuries of conflict with Islam). But Africans did not mostly die out when Europeans and Muslims arrived, because they were already part of the same Old World disease pool; and so there were very many Africans relatively speaking, for a pre-urban society.
8. So the idea that colonialism held down Africa is also basically false (just like the c19th idea that Africans as a race can’t do x or y, which is also patently false). This, while acknowledging the many vilenesses of colonialism. It was already poor, just like South America was poor before the Spanish got there. And the people had little in the way of capital, just like Australian natives.
9. In short, sub-Saharan Africa was only poor 200 years ago because of an accident of geography. Most Europeans were just as ‘primitive’ 2000 years ago when the Romans tried to force civilization on them (such as it was, quite barbaric in many ways), and many remained almost as primitive and poor until well into the modern period. And slavery did not help matters. But race doesn’t matter nearly as much in this regard as most people now believe.
So, what are the main solutions, that we recommend to black intellectuals and all others who wish to solve the problem of black poverty?
1. Remember that economic exploitation of poor people is the main enemy, not white people. (And feminists can learn the same thing. Yes men suck, but there is sexual dimorphism, and in the long run the only good solution is progressive coexistence.)
2. Get skillz. Help black people into good educational programmes. Create them.
3. Help the middle class. Remember: if there is no way for white middle class people to climb the ladder, there is no way for black middle class people either.
4. Get more skillz: remember that people become middle class if they learn basic enlightenment virtues:
– politeness, kindness, consciensciousness, concern for others,
-well-spokenness, the ability to articulate oneself
A lot of the black people I know and meet in the US have this as a challenge, because of their heritage of not having this. Black leaders need to teach people the skills that enable success in the modern world, that enable you to get and keep a good job and get into a good school, and the above skills are fundamental: any manager will tell you this. Read Deirdre McCloskey on this.
5. Learn to live in monogamous marriages. This was not necessarily normal in Africa 200 years ago. Tribal societies tend to have chiefdoms with polygamous chiefs who monopolize the women. This isn’t fair for most dudes, who learn to be casual about children, etc. Obama, and even Cosby before he became notorious, all told black men to be good fathers. Black women also need to think long and hard about only having children with dudes who are educated, who have good jobs, and who will stick around. Be picky!
Why do I say this? Because economists know that monogamous households with 2 or 1.5 incomes are way, way above average in terms of earning potential and therefore lifestyle, and opportunities for children, including university education.
6. Have a can-do attitude. Many poor people white and black come from backgrounds where everyone assumes you will be nothing, you will be a loser. Your family are losers, they are all keeping you down. They have health problems and drug problems, and you can’t find anywhere to study, or to iron your clothes to keep your new job. This is difficult!!! But it’s a universal problem that poor people face. And having a society which tries to teach people to have self respect, and to be kind, and polite, and non violent, and civilized, and to do the hard work of being boringly stable, every day, and saving money, and defering gratification, all of these things, will build a strong solid middle class, which can be equally shared and composed of people of all races.
7. Believe in democracy. Just listen to Obama on this. He gets it. It is key to you improving society. But you have to be realistic, and you have to expect setbacks and compromise. And you have to have vision, and idealism, but also a scientific attitude which comes from a good education.
Now that, to me, is a great vision of a progressive, ethnically diverse, idealistic and yet realistic future, which is very attainable. And it downplays guilt and, most importantly, the old stupid idiotic Marxist heritage, which leads to the conclusion that the only solution is a violent one. And that people of a certain type are ‘invariably’ and ‘inevitably’ out to get you, and part of a structural problem which is insolvable by human decency. (This is also the attitude that inspired the Islamic terrorist movement beginning in the 1950s, and the Latin American communists… and Fascism in Europe… yay!)
So huzzah for democracy, and the enlightenment, and idealism, and compromise, and scientific thought, and legalistic thought, and education, and progress the difficult, but ultimately, the only real, way!!!