Not So Deep Thoughts


The Triumph of White Supremacy:

Racial Inequality and the Logic of Responsibility

Written by Joe Pettit

If white supremacy was going to survive, it would have to be clever.  No longer were displays of bigotry in mixed company an acceptable means of promoting the cause.  Public indications of white supremacist inclinations had become taboo.  Politicians, business leaders, radio and television personalities were all finding their careers threatened for uttering only a single word or phrase that suggested even a hint of anti-black sentiment.  It was even becoming hard to tell racial jokes at work or at the neighborhood block party.  No longer could local, state, and federal governments be counted on to pass laws and pursue policies that were explicitly designed to promote the white cause.  In fact, such things had been illegal for more than forty years.  To be sure, there were still numerous laws on the books that had devastating consequences on black lives and communities, but these laws were only able to survive under the guise of racial neutrality.  It was, of course, a delicious irony that black demands for a colorblind society had made it almost impossible to think clearly about the wildly disproportionate color of those experiencing the worst outcomes of life in the United States.  The United States, it seemed, had learned its moral lessons on matters of race.  But clever white supremacy had discovered an unwitting ally in all of this moral confidence.

   For centuries, white supremacy had been insisting that the inferiority of blacks was on display for all to see in the bad and immoral choices made by black individuals.  Today, however, while it was no longer possible to affirm explicitly that bad choices were a sign of racial inferiority, white supremacy discovered that it was possible to send the same message subversively by insisting not only that black individuals were responsible for their bad choices, but also that these same bad choices were to blame for the disparities in bad outcomes between black and white society.  So long as white and even much of black society failed to notice that responsibility for individual choices and responsibility for racial inequality were two different issues of responsibility, and so long as white and black society failed to realize that conflating these two different matters of responsibility inevitably brought the mind over to white supremacist conclusions, there was hope that the cause would endure.  White supremacy realized that it could lose the battle of public acceptance but still emerge triumphant in the war over what state of mind would guide life and law in the United States.

Racial Justice

The thesis of this essay rests on a basic premise: responsibility for individual actions and responsibility for racial inequality are two different questions of responsibility.  This premise will be defended below, and with this premise in place, the thesis of this essay is straightforward: responsibility for individual choices lies exclusively with the individual who makes the choices and responsibility for racial inequality lies exclusively with “We the People” and through us with our governments.  To clarify the second half of the thesis, I mean to reject explicitly the idea that the individuals who bear the greatest burdens of racial inequality have any responsibility at all for eliminating that inequality except insofar as they are, like the rest of us, members of “We the People.”  Racial inequality is a political problem exclusively, and not the personal problem of poor black people.

   Before getting any further into debates about responsibility, let us clarify the magnitude of racial inequality.  Consider the following conditions of racial inequality, all presented by the Urban League in The State of Black America 2009:

                                                                                       Black          White

      Median wealth (2005 dollars)                                          $10,000      $109,000

      Poverty rate %                                                             24.5          8.2

      Child poverty rate %                                                      33.0          9.5

      Homicide rate (per 100,000)                                            20.6          3.3

      Homicide rate – male (per 100,000)                                  39.7           5.4

      Incarceration rate (prisoners per 100,000)                         2,142         332

      Incarceration rate – male (prisoners per 100,000)               3,138         481

      Firearm deaths – Ages 15-24 (per 100,000)                       90.4           13.9

      Firearm deaths – Ages 25-34 (per 100,000)                       92.8           17.0

      AIDS cases – males (per 100,000)                                   82.9           11.2

      AIDS cases – female (per 100,000)                                  40.4           1.9

      Maternal mortality (per 100,000 live births)                       31.7           9.6

While the numbers indicating racial inequality remain staggering, the explanation for them has changed.  No longer are these outcomes blamed on the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, or ongoing discrimination; rather, they are blamed either exclusively or primarily on the life choices of individual black people.  This shift in public attitudes about the cause of racial inequality represents the triumph of white supremacy.  It is a triumph for white supremacy because once the possible non-personal causes of racial inequality (legal, institutional, social, interpersonal, etc.) are no longer understood as responsible for racial inequality, there remains a need to explain not merely the actions of certain black individuals, but the cause of the persistence of the inequality itself.  If the causes of racial inequality are now to be found exclusively within black individuals, then the inescapable question arises: What is it about so many black people that causes them to make choices with such negative outcomes?  The answer is unavoidable.  Some kind of flaw must be thought to exist in these individuals that causes them persistently to make so many bad choices over time.  However flawed white people may be, then, their flaws are not such as to produce negative outcomes at the rate that appears among blacks.  Collectively speaking then, whites must be understood as superior to blacks.  White supremacy then is the implicit conclusion that must be reached if the responsibility for racial inequality lies exclusively, or as I will argue shortly, even partially, with black individuals.  This implicit conclusion is unavoidable, even if it is emphatically denied by those who claim that racial inequality is caused by bad individual choices.  The logic of the conclusion is inescapable.

   The same argument can be presented in a general and almost mathematical form.  If racial inequality is found in a society, especially inequality that persists over time, there are really only two possible explanations for this outcome.  Either the conditions of that society have in various ways (political, economic, social, etc.) created that inequality, or there must be a real relation of superiority and inferiority between the races.  If race A when compared to race B is persistently characterized by higher rates of poverty, crime, incarceration, low educational achievement, and other social “failures” than race B, then either the conditions of society are stacked against race A and in favor of race B, let us call this stacking racial injustice, or there is something really inferior (biologically, intellectually, culturally, etc.) about at least a statistically significant number of the members of race A when compared to the members of race B.  In a racially equal world, skin color, our visible proxy for race, would have nothing to do with the various results of individual choices.  Statistically speaking, in a racially equal world, the virtues and vices, successes and failures, and all other variable outcomes of the human adventure, should occur in equal aggregate proportions when comparing two or more racial groups.  When the aggregate outcomes for racial groups are not the same, racial injustice is present.

   If we try to explain some, but not all, of the inequality between races A and B as the result of something other than racial injustice, we are left with only the inferiority of at least some members of group A to explain the outcome.  While such inferiority is implied by any effort to absolve societal conditions of full responsibility for the unequal outcomes, notions of inferiority and superiority become even harder to resist the more it is believed that racial injustice has become a thing of the past.

   So long as there was no consensus that the causes of racial inequality between races A and B were the result of societal conditions and so of racial injustice, there would be a stigma attached to members of race A.  Even if members of race B thought that lots of those who belonged to race A were not the cause or source of the inequalities between the races, there would be uncertainty as to which members of race A were actually the cause of the inequality.  Race A might be divided into two groups – A(equal) and A(inferior) – since such a division would explain that portion of the inequality that was not caused by racial injustice.  But members of race B might not be certain in which category a given individual from race A belonged.  Members of race A would likely become guilty (inferior) until proven innocent (equal), and even many verdicts of innocence would be tentative, waiting for any signs of lurking inferiority to expose themselves.

   One further outcome of assigning at least some responsibility for racial inequality to the actions of individuals from race A would be that political energy for responding to any societal forces that were still understood as contributing to racial inequality would almost certainly decrease over time.  So long as it was impossible to clarify which dimensions of racial inequality were really caused by injustice, so long as at least some of the inequality was the result of a believed inferiority that no amount of political effort could change, then it would become increasingly likely that political efforts to reduce racial inequality would be perceived as a waste of time.

   This outcome in the worlds of races A and B reveals the most likely and unfortunate reason for the decreasing interest in government responses to racial inequality in our country.  We do not demand public responses to racial inequality because we do not find the present realities and inequalities related to black poverty, crime, family dysfunction, educational failure, and unemployment to be abnormal or unexpected.  A sense that some portion of blacks is comparatively inferior, or at least “damaged goods,” has silenced much public outcry over racial inequality.  While we may condemn the choices of those in this group, when such choices are made we raise no voices of alarm that something is very wrong in our wider society.  The source of the problem is in “them” not in “us.”

   The economist Glenn Loury, whose writings have inspired much of my thinking on this topic, offers an analogy to help think about inequalities and individual or group responsibility for them.  If a gap were shown to exist in test scores between girls and boys, with boys scoring higher than girls, we would insist that something is wrong in our education system because we reject the notion that there is any inherent difference in intelligence between boys and girls.  Yet, we would still insist that every girl is responsible for any bad choices or bad habits connected to her studies.  However, when considering racial inequality, we seem content to explain that inequality in terms of the aggregation of bad choices by individual black persons.  The only difference between the two inequalities is in our expectations.  The actions of many poor black people do not run contrary to what we expect from them, and that is precisely what it means to think of someone as inferior.

Two Separate Questions of Responsibility

   If my analysis is correct, then there are only two options available for thinking about racial inequality.  Either racial inequality is exclusively a political problem, or one must affirm some form of white superiority and black inferiority.  Obviously, lots of people are going to disagree with this conclusion and some might even get offended by the suggestion that merely holding some black individuals partially responsible for racial inequality makes one a closet white supremacist.  To be clear, I think that the overwhelming majority of those who hold that the bad choices of certain black individuals are at least partially to blame for racial inequality have never entertained white supremacist notions and would, to a person, strongly reject white supremacy.  But the triumph of white supremacy, as I understand it, lies exactly in getting those who explicitly reject white supremacy entirely to implicitly affirm white supremacist conclusions.  The success of my argument depends on clarifying the different questions of responsibility that emerge in debates about racial inequality.  Let us begin with the question of responsibility for individual choices.

   That adult individuals should be held responsible for their actions should be uncontroversial; after all, they are the ones who make the choices.  Those who resist this conclusion often suggest that the conditions that some people live in are such that the making of bad choices is all but inevitable and thus those responsible for the conditions bear at least partial responsibility for the bad choices of the individuals who live within those conditions.  However, holding society or governments even partially responsible for the bad choices made by individuals is confused on at least three levels.  First, affirming such a claim turns statistical probability into moral determinism.  While it may be true that the likelihood of people making certain bad choices increases when they live in low opportunity areas (remembering, of course, that living in high opportunity areas may increase the likelihood of other kinds of bad choices), only very rarely should we say that individuals are strictly coerced into making bad choices.  The options available even to very poor people almost always range, as they do for everyone else, from those that can build and protect opportunity to those that reduce opportunities for those who make the choices and those around them.  Second, the claim erodes appreciation for moral agency which is at the heart of human dignity.  Much has been written about the psychological dangers of promoting a sense of victimization in individuals (even when they really are victims), especially the tendency toward a fatalistic outlook on one’s life and future.  However, at a deeper level, when we take even partial responsibility for actions away from a person and ascribe it to some outside force, whether it is society, employers, or governments, we take away a portion of that which makes us most human – the ability to place our own stamp of purpose on our future, and so, to some extent, define what that future will be.  Even if our choices are limited, and even if external forces intervene to thwart our intentions for our future, we define ourselves by the efforts we make as a result of our choices.  Because of the stigma that is produced by persistent racial inequality, poor black people must already confront the contention that they represent a broken, or inferior, version of humanity.  To reduce their humanity even further by partially eliminating their moral agency does nothing to lift them up, no matter how well intentioned that abrogation of agency is.  Third, efforts to hold society even partially responsible for the choices of individuals confuse the responsibility for choices with our ethical evaluation of those choices.  We may with good reason be more understanding of and less judgmental sometimes toward the bad choices of individuals who lack positive role models, who grow up within an environment that makes bad choices seem good by glorifying those who make them, and we may understand the reality of temptation when the immediate rewards of bad choices seem to far outweigh the immediate rewards of better choices, especially when one has little reason to look beyond the present moment.  However, the sometimes sympathetic evaluation of bad choices is irrelevant to the question of who is responsible for those choices, and we do nothing to better our understanding of racial inequality if we allow genuine sympathy to confuse our thinking about the difference between responsibility for individual actions and responsibility for racial inequality.

   One final reason to reject the conclusion that society somehow bears some responsibility for the bad choices of some black individuals is that it undermines the credibility of those who seek to hold society and governments responsible for reducing racial inequality.  Even people who might be inclined to support the latter position, and certainly those predisposed to oppose it, may very well doubt the validity of any argument that denies the obvious: if I pull a gun on you, that is my responsibility; if I father children and do not care for them, that is my responsibility; if I do not work hard in school, that is my responsibility; if I do not seek out legal employment that enables me to build a resume of work experience, that is my responsibility.  There is, therefore, in any argument regarding responsibility for racial inequality at least a rhetorical advantage in conceding that individuals are entirely responsible for the choices they make.  Doing so eliminates a significant hurdle to getting the argument started.

   I will assume from this point forward that the first half of my thesis has been established; namely, that individuals are exclusively responsible for their choices.  However, the second half of the thesis – that racial inequality is exclusively a political problem and not the responsibility of disadvantaged black Americans– will be far more difficult to defend.  This second part, if my experience with making this argument is any guide, will be strongly resisted by those who insist that responsibility for racial inequality lies both with society and its governments, and also in part with the individuals who make bad choices.  Logically speaking, this conclusion is one of three possible explanations regarding responsibility for racial inequality.  First, some will hold that all responsibility for racial inequality lies with the individuals who make bad choices.  This position is likely gaining more and more supporters with each decade that passes after the elimination of legal discrimination.  However, even forty-five years after the passage of civil rights legislation, this position can still be dispatched with rather quickly.  Second, the arguments of this essay, and those who find themselves in agreement with its central thesis, will contend that poor black individuals have no responsibility for racial inequality beyond the responsibility that they bear as part of “we the people.”  Most readers, at least initially I suspect, will find themselves affirming the third possibility; namely, that society and its governments, as well as individuals making bad choices each bear some responsibility for racial inequality.  For shorthand purposes, I will refer to this position from now on as the “Both Argument.”  Despite its popularity, I will argue that this position is flawed because it fails to separate responsibility for individual choices from responsibility for racial inequality.

   There are two likely reasons for affirming the Both Argument.  First, the outcomes of racial inequality and the outcomes of bad choices of individuals are at times identical and it thus seems uncontroversial that the totality of bad outcomes that characterize specific conditions of racial inequality certainly have some connection to the bad choices of black individuals, and, therefore, these individuals bear some responsibility for the racial inequality.  This argument leaves open the possibility that there are causes for disproportionate bad outcomes beyond the actions of individuals, causes external to the individuals, and this would be the conclusion of those who affirm the “Both Argument.”  At face value, this may seem an intuitively correct argument.  However, in this case, intuition is wrong.

   The second argument points to the self-reinforcing nature of what some call the “culture of poverty.”  In a sense, this is just another version of the first argument, only extended over time, pointing not simply to bad choices as a partial cause of racial inequality, but to bad lifestyles and bad habits, as well.  Lifestyles that contribute to bad outcomes include living with regular unemployment or underemployment, low educational goals, criminal activity, and single-parent households.  If persistent bad outcomes within a group are connected not just to specific choices but to certain lifestyles, and if individuals are even partially responsible for following these lifestyles, then this culture of poverty version of the Both Argument concludes that the individuals must be at least partially responsible for the persistent bad outcomes that result from the lifestyles, and so they must be at least partially responsible for persistent racial inequality.

   Before continuing, I want to grant the most obvious dimensions of these two arguments.  That is, bad choices do often have bad outcomes and these bad outcomes can in turn make other bad choices more likely such that these choices create over time bad habits in many individuals.  These bad habits can be passed on to others, especially to children, and the cumulative effects of these bad habits over time are such that they reinforce and entrench poverty and isolation, creating what might well be called a culture of poverty.  In other words, what is rhetorically powerful about the above arguments is their descriptive accuracy.  There is something very right in what these arguments describe.  However, the weakness in both arguments lies in the normative conclusion that is said to follow from the descriptive premises; namely, individuals who make bad choices or who act in ways that reinforce a culture of poverty are at least partially responsible for racial inequality.

A Thought Experiment

   We can expose the error in these arguments with a thought experiment.  Consider two hypothetical towns – Town A and Town B.  Both towns are demographically identical and the geographic characteristics of the towns and surrounding areas are also identical.  There is only one difference between the two towns: Town A lies just downwind from a power plant that emits considerable pollution into the air.  Studies show that the incidence of lung disease in Town A, especially lung cancer, is higher than in Town B.  In other words, the power plant appears to be producing bad outcomes for the citizens of Town A.  Now consider a woman in Town A who has been a heavy smoker for forty years and who now has lung cancer.  Although she lives in Town A, because of her history of heavy smoking she has no compelling reason to conclude that the power plant is the cause of her lung cancer.  After all, heavy smokers in Town B also often get lung cancer and other lung diseases.  Her heavy smoking, we have good reason to believe, has also produced a bad outcome.  Do we thus have a convergence of bad outcomes establishing that both the power plant and the choices of individuals in Town A are each partially responsible for the higher incidence of lung disease in Town A?  Not at all.  Although the heavy smoking of this individual woman likely explains her lung cancer, it does not begin to explain the difference in lung cancer rates between Town A and Town B because the number of heavy smokers in the two towns is assumed to be equal.  Therefore, at least in this hypothetical scenario, we have shown that a convergence of bad outcomes does not by itself establish shared responsibility for inequality.  In other words, the mere convergence of bad outcomes does not support the conclusion that individuals who make bad choices leading to bad outcomes necessarily bear some responsibility for the inequality in bad outcomes.  I think this is an important step in our ability to look beyond the intuitive plausibility of the Both Argument in order to consider alternative accounts of responsibility for racial inequality.

   The two towns argument also provides a clear indication that the assumption informing my thesis – that responsibility for individual actions and responsibility for racial inequality are separate matters– is correct.  In order to establish that these are two different questions of responsibility, one need only provide a single plausible scenario in which bad choices and inequality might have different causes.  That is, unless it must always be the case that bad individual choices are the cause of inequality, a very implausible assumption, then establishing the responsibility for inequality must be a separate question.

   While the Both Argument has been weakened, it has not been entirely defeated.  If we change the terms of each to indicate that the actions of individuals “might be” rather than “are” responsible for part of the disproportionate outcomes and thus for part of the inequality, the argument may gain some new life.  The Both Argument, even if no longer obviously true, is still a possible explanation for racial inequality.  However, I think such a change in the language of the argument establishes an important shift in presumption.  If one now wishes to affirm the Both Argument, one cannot simply point to the bad outcomes of the choices of individuals to establish the soundness of the argument.  Having now to concede that the mere convergence of bad outcomes does not establish shared responsibility, one who wishes to defend the Both Argument needs to provide reasons beyond the bad choices and their bad outcomes to establish even partial responsibility for the inequality.

   Allow me to pause at this point to note that, despite my efforts to clarify the logical status of different claims regarding racial inequality, I am not entirely naïve regarding social and political realities.  No matter how convincing one might find the logical status of a presumption shift away from simply linking the bad choices of certain black individuals to racial inequality, not matter how true it is that one linking these bad choices to inequality should now have to provide reasons beyond the bad choices themselves for doing so, I realize that publicly and politically the jury has long ago rendered its verdict on this matter.  I doubt there has ever been a time in the history of the United States when whites have not held the actions of black individuals to be at least partially responsible for racial inequality, and I doubt that most whites ever have even thought twice about the soundness of this conclusion.  Unfortunately, the ease with which white individuals, and even many blacks themselves, have reached this conclusion has little to do with sloppy thinking.  The cause lies in the much more pernicious reality of our reduced expectations for outcomes in black lives.

   To be blunt, I think the central reason why most people in American society do not see a crisis in persistent racial inequality is that they have concluded that a certain portion of black American is somehow “broken,” or at least less capable of success than the average American.  Given this brokenness, persistent racial inequality is understood as the natural course of affairs, not the greatest social injustice of our day.  One reason that this conclusion about a certain portion of black America has been allowed to endure unchallenged in our individual minds and our collective national consciousness is that most of us have concluded that another portion of black America is not broken.  The old-fashioned collective racism that captures all blacks into one category of spoiled identities is explicitly rejected by most Americans.  Ironically, then, overcoming one form of racist thinking has contributed to the entrenchment of another form of racist thinking.  Most whites are able to convince themselves that they no longer harbor racist convictions because they have (at least one or two) black neighbors, friends, colleagues, etc. with whom they get along quite well.  How can they possibly be racists, they conclude, if they just had a black couple over to an open house, or if they coached or cheered for a black kid on a local T-Ball team?  But of course, thinking well of some black people does not require one to think well of all black people.

   The division of people into broken and not broken categories is not exclusively a habit of white minds when considering black individuals.  White people divide white people into the same categories, and black people do so as well when considering both whites and blacks.  The important difference between these different forms of categorization lies in the assumption that informs them.  Because of the stigma that is created by persistent racial inequality, black people are assumed to be broken until proven otherwise, whereas white people are assumed successful, or at least capable of success, until proven otherwise.  The first sign of trouble in a black life raises suspicions that the trouble confirms a pre-existing brokenness, whereas multiple signs of trouble in a white life are considered lapses from an assumed capacity for success.

   A return to towns A and B will allow us to explore what we might call the “logic of inferiority.”   Suppose that the rate of smoking in Town A increased over that in Town B.  In such a situation, we would seem to have a clear example of how the “Both Argument” can be true.  In this case, the factory would still be the cause of some of the difference in lung disease outcomes between the towns, but now we would also need to add the higher smoking rates of individuals in Town A as a partial cause of the inequality in health outcomes.  Yet, while this would represent a hypothetical instance of the “Both Argument” being true, the plausibility of the scenario requires us to conclude that the citizens of Town A are in some way inferior to those in Town B.  One would need to explain how it came to pass that the smoking rate in Town A went up.  Given their exposure to the pollution from the power plant and its known consequences, the citizens of Town A have greater reason to care about issues of lung health than the citizens of Town B, and so an increase in the smoking rate is initially implausible.  Absent any other explanation then, only either the ignorance of health dangers, or irresponsibility on matters of health, could explain why the citizens of Town A would increase their rate of smoking.  The success of the “Both Argument” in this case would require a negative evaluation of the intellect and/or the character of those in Town A.  Somehow they would need to be found inferior to the citizens of Town B.

   This second visit to our two hypothetical towns has given us the “Inferiority Principle,” which affirms that any inequality of bad outcomes between two groups that cannot be attributed to external causes requires an affirmation of some kind of collective inferiority (cultural, intellectual, etc.) of the members of that group experiencing the higher rate of bad outcomes.  If this principle does not hold, then the second half of the thesis of this essay falls.

   One who wished to avoid conclusions about the inferiority of those in Town A, and therefore of the supremacy of those in Town B, might counter at this point that the increased smoking rate in Town A was caused by a particularly effective cigarette advertising campaign.  This campaign could then be said to have produced a pro-smoking culture in Town A.  This culture might be unfortunate because it causes more lung disease in Town A, but the existence of the culture itself would be an accident of history, not an indication of the some inferiority in the citizens of Town A; or so it might be assumed.  The difficulty with such an explanation is that it fails to explain why the citizens of Town B did not have their behavior changed by such an advertising campaign.  Presumably, the cigarette maker would not limit its campaign to one town, so why did it work in Town A but not in Town B?  Again, we are led to back to the conclusion that there must be something wrong with those in Town A, something that made them easier targets for a cigarette advertising campaign that produced the culture of smoking in Town A.  Implicit suggestions of inferiority and supremacy still linger.

   At this point, even a patient reader might be getting rather tired of these hypothetical discussions of our two towns, but, if I may indulge your patience for two more iterations of the hypothetical scenario, I promise to translate the perhaps obvious conclusions of these explorations shortly into their relevance to debates about racial inequality.

   Still wishing to avoid conclusions about the inferiority of those in Town A to those in Town B, a person of good will might suggest that certain actions taken by the schools or the governments in the two respective towns might explain the difference between the two towns in their receptiveness to the cigarette advertising campaign.  Perhaps the children in Town B received health education that made clear the effects of cigarette smoking and the students in Town A received no such education.  Perhaps the government of Town B required that packs of cigarettes include warnings about the dangers of cigarette smoking and maybe even pictures of healthy lungs compared to the blackened lungs of smokers.  These governmental actions might then explain the resistance of those in Town B to the advertising campaign, and the absence of such actions would explain the success of the campaign in Town A.  But what, exactly, has this indication of different public and political actions taken by the two towns demonstrated?  Without much controversy, we can claim that the citizens of Town B benefited from these public interventions.  But can we in turn blame the culture of smoking that emerged in Town A solely on the cigarette advertising campaign?  This does not seem plausible.  It would be wrong to think of the citizens of Town A as helpless (and mindless) victims of cigarette advertising.  The individuals in Town A who bought the cigarettes as a result of the advertising campaign are still responsible for their choices, and so they would seem at least partially responsible for creating the culture of smoking which has increased the difference in lung disease between the two towns.

   But now consider Town A and Town B to be two parts of one larger town.  A and B, we might say, are separated by railroad tracks.  While both A and B are now downwind from the power plant (or there is no power plant at all), it turns out that the government does not treat the two parts of town the same.  Imagine that the anti-smoking campaign and the cigarette warnings are put into effect on the B side of the tracks, but not the A side.  With little communication between the two sides of the tracks, over time there is a rise in smoking rates and so rates of lung disease for the residents on the A side of town.  Residents of the A side of town would still bear responsibility for being influenced by the advertising, but the responsibility for the culture of smoking being higher in the A side of town than in the B side of town would seem to lie exclusively with the government.  If we assume that the residents on both sides of town had equal numbers of individuals with a character type that was likely to resist the advertising and an equal number of people who had a character type that was prone to being influenced by the advertising (that is, the residents of neither side taken as a whole had better character types making them more likely to resist the lure of advertising), then the only thing left to explain the difference in outcome between the two sides is the actions of the government.  In other words, the actions and inactions of a government could create the conditions where a negative culture was more pervasive among one group of people than among another.  The greater presence of the negative culture itself would be a condition of inequality between the two groups for which something other than the individuals who chose to live by that culture would be responsible.

   If it is not obvious by now, the various ways in which A and B were said to be equal were designed to explore outcomes that should be analogous to different situations where two groups of people who are thought to be equal are placed.  In the case of racial inequality, the two groups are blacks and whites.  If we assume that as groups neither whites nor blacks are superior to the other, what did our explorations of A and B teach us?

1.   Power plant only difference.  This scenario demonstrates that the mere convergence of bad outcomes does not itself demonstrate that individuals who make bad choices are themselves partially responsible for the difference in bad outcomes; that is, for the inequality.  Thus, there mere fact that some black individuals can be said to make bad choices that would seem to contribute to bad outcomes that characterize conditions of racial inequality does not itself establish that the individuals are even in part responsible for the inequality.

2.   Higher smoking rates in Town A, no governmental intervention.  This scenario left us only with some kind of inferiority in the residents of Town A to explain either why they smoked more, or were more influenced by cigarette advertising, than the residents of Town B.  In this case, the increased inequality beyond the first scenario could only be explained if the residents of Town B were somehow superior to the residents of Town A.  This is the B supremacy conclusion, and the conclusion follows even if the power plant remains a partial cause of the inequality.  Thus, even those who would affirm that that the power plant is partially to blame for the inequality in lung disease would still be forced to affirm B supremacy to explain the increased lung disease caused by increased smoking in Town A.  The lesson for racial inequality is that even those who affirm that forces from society and governments explain some of the inequality between whites and blacks, if at least some of that inequality is not caused by forces other than the choices of black individuals, then one can only assume that some inferiority with at least some black people is the cause of that difference.  This scenario suggests that the Both Argument can still implicitly affirm white supremacy.

3.   Anti-smoking education and cigarette warnings.  This scenario indicates the hypothetical possibility that a negative culture producing bad outcomes can emerge within a group of people and those people are responsible for the emergence of this negative culture.  Although the residents of Town B could not take sole credit for resisting smoking, the residents of Town A alone could be responsible for the development of a pro-smoking culture.  In this scenario, the government of Town B had no ability to influence the residents of Town A.  While the residents of Town A might have cause to be angry with their government for not initiating efforts similar to those in Town B, and while it might still be possible that such interventions might reduce the culture of smoking in Town A, it would likely be unreasonable to blame the culture of smoking on the omissions of government in Town A.  Here, the Both Argument works, but only if the members of the two groups were meaningfully autonomous from each other.  In terms of racial inequality, this scenario suggests the theoretical plausibility of certain black individuals being responsible for the creation of a negative culture (some call this ghetto culture) that in turn produces greater inequality with whites, but the plausibility of the possibility requires a very, very implausible assumption; namely, that black individuals created this negative culture within conditions of autonomy from white society.  Absent this autonomy, the disproportionate presence of the negative culture among blacks is not necessarily something that the black individuals who live by this culture are responsible for.  So as not be misunderstood at this point, let me emphasize that all individuals remain responsible for the cultural norms by which they choose to live.  What remains to be explained is not why some black individuals follow a negative culture, but why that culture is disproportionately present within certain predominantly black communities.

4.   Two sides of the tracks.  This scenario removes the political autonomy between A and B that is present in the third scenario and shows that governments can themselves be responsible for the creation of a negative culture.  In this case, the difference in treatment by the government of the two groups can be said to be responsible for the emergence of the negative culture in group A.  Now, one might object that if individuals in Town A were responsible for the emergence of a negative culture despite the inaction of their government, then they should be responsible in the same way if the difference in treatment between the two groups is produced by similar government inaction.  But, while both scenarios involve inaction by government, in this scenario the government is responsible not only for how group B is treated, but also for how group A is not treated.  Such responsibility for Town A is not present in the third scenario.  Thus, in the third scenario, the members of Town A really have no one else to blame for the influence of the cigarette advertising.  Additionally, in this scenario, it is not even the presence of the negative culture in group A that the government is responsible for, but rather the difference in the pervasiveness of the negative culture between the two groups.  Members of both A and B are still responsible for their choice to live by the negative culture, but in this case, the government can be held responsible for the greater presence of negative culture in A than in B, and thus also responsible for the greater negative outcomes produced by this created cultural difference.  The only alternative explanation for the greater presence of the culture would be some inferiority present within group A as a whole.  The relevance of this scenario for debates about racial inequality is that the disproportionate presence within black neighborhoods of a negative culture producing bad choices with bad outcomes is something for which governments should be held responsible if it can be shown that differences in governmental treatment of blacks and whites can explain the disproportionate presence of that negative culture.  This is true even if the difference in treatment is not explicitly based on race, but instead is caused by any means whatsoever that creates a difference in treatment between the two groups that can credibly be linked to the emergence of a negative culture.

   All of these scenarios have been designed to consider issues of responsibility for inequality where it is granted that certain individuals are making bad choices that produce bad outcomes.  The purpose of the explorations was to analyze situations where it might seem at first glance that the bad choices of individuals might be at least partially responsible for racial inequality, thus giving support for the Both Argument.  It should be noted that the only scenario supporting the Both Argument is the third one, and even then the support requires an implausible assumption.  Missing entirely from these scenarios are causes of racial inequality that have nothing to do with individuals making bad choices but instead have everything to do with how individuals are treated by their governments and their society.   In the history of the United States, countless such scenarios have played out.  These are the various ways that society and government have stacked the deck both directly and indirectly against blacks in the United States.

   Debates about racial inequality are often unnecessarily contentious because different sides of the debate will start off with assumptions about justice and equality that are themselves controversial to others in the debate.  However, a commitment to racial equality has nothing to do with any particular notions of human equality or human justice.  Rather, it simply means that in a racially equal world, skin color, our visible proxy for race, has nothing to do with the various results of individual choices.  Statistically speaking, in a racially equal world, the virtues and vices, successes and failures, and all other variable outcomes of the human adventure, should occur in equal aggregate proportions when comparing two or more racial groups.  Strange as it may seem at first, if this conclusion is correct, then racial justice has a fundamentally mathematical character to it.  So long as the disproportionate negative outcomes are present, then racial injustice is present.  The only other explanation is the racial superiority of one group over the other, and this is now and always an unacceptable explanation.

   Insisting that racial injustice is entirely to blame for racial inequality still allows us to hold individuals entirely responsible for the poor choices they make in life.  Our mistake has been to unreflectively link matters of personal responsibility to a matter like racial inequality which is properly a matter of public and political responsibility.  We may still insist that an individual should accept responsibility for the outcomes in her or his life, but we must also insist on creating a world where the color of one’s skin has nothing to do with what those outcomes are.