by James A. Bacon
The editorial board of The Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press is committed to the proposition that the United States is afflicted by “systemic inequalities” between the races. The publication’s analysis is more nuanced, however, than much of what we read and hear. Opining on the role of credit scores in building wealth in America, the Pilot wrote in a column yesterday, “Race plays a role, but is not in itself the determining factor.”
It’s refreshing to see the Pilot’s pundits not using racism as the universal explanation for all social ills besetting minorities today. But they still have a bit to learn.
African Americans have lower credit scores on average than the general population, the Pilot notes, drawing from research conducted by The Washington Post. The reason isn’t overt racism or even bias in the credit-reporting systems, it appears, but the fact that credit scores are lower in Southern states… and the African-American population is concentrated in the South. Why are credit scores lower in the South? Because of medical debt. Says the Pilot: “The South has a lot more unpaid medical bills than other regions.”
Unpaid medical bills may not sound like institutional racism, but the Pilot’s pontificators imply that it really is.
For starters the South has more than our share of unhealthy people. Much of that poor health is a result of systemic inequalities that lead to poverty and related problems such as food “deserts” where inner-city people have limited access to healthy foods.
Plus, the South was slower to expand Medicaid than other regions of the country.
Thus, in the worldview of the Pilot’s editorial writers, the chain of causality runs like this: (1) Racism created food deserts; (2) which made people overweight; (3) which put more people in the hospital; (4) which resulted in bigger medical bills; which people could not always repay until Medicaid came along; (5) which hurt credit scores; (6) which contributed to a wealth gap.
As Rube Goldberg-esque as this logic chain is, it represents intellectual progress of sorts because the editorial writers do not attribute inequality to vague, amorphous concepts such as “racism” or “bias.” They are at least trying to identify the mechanisms by which “systematic inequality “arises.
However, it escapes the notice of the Pilot’s pontificators that the challenges afflicting poor African Americans are pretty much the same as the challenges afflicting poor Whites — or the poor of any ethnicity. People born into poor families inherit no financial resources from their parents. They start out life accumulating debt. They have higher rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. They incur medical debts they have trouble paying off. And they have lower credit scores as a result.
That schema leaves out a lot, as I’ll get to in a moment. The point worth stressing is that low credit scores are a symptom of poverty, not of “systemic racism,” “systemic inequality,” or whatever other phrase the Pilot chooses to use.
But causality is even more complex than the Pilot lets on.
Poverty is hardly unique to African Americans. How do we explain the persistence of poverty among large numbers of White people, who never experienced racism and segregation?
How do we explain the fact that Hispanics, a disadvantaged group, have higher life expectancies than Whites, a supposedly privileged group? Do Hispanics have less bad medical debt? Do they have better credit scores?
How does the Pilot explain the ability of waves of immigrants, from Cubans to Vietnamese boat people, who arrive penniless in the U.S., face similar challenges as poor Whites and Blacks, and lift themselves out of poverty?
The Pilot pundits cannot yet bring themselves to admit that an individual’s behavior affects his social mobility. Americans (and immigrants) who hew to the old-fashioned values — emphasizing strong, two-parent families; stressing educational achievement; insisting that young people complete their education, get jobs, and get married before having children; teaching impulse control, anger management, and respect for the law; prioritizing savings over consumption; and eschewing debt — tend to be more successful than people who don’t.
It is true that poverty constrains the options available to individuals born into that condition. Their struggle is harder. But it is also true that millions of Americans still manage to overcome economic disadvantage and climb into the middle class.
The problem with tying all inequality to racism is that it deprives people of agency. The poor — especially poor minorities — are taught that the system is stacked against them, that their efforts at self-improvement are pointless, that only political activism can change their lives for the better. Indeed, it is common today to denounce the old-fashioned virtues as attributes of “whiteness” and the product of “white supremacy,” which minority students should spurn.
Values matter. Personal virtue matters. That’s not to say that values and virtues are the only things that matter, but any critique of society that ignores them is doomed to failure. The Pilot editorial writers deserve credit for rejecting strict racial determinism. But their understanding of social dynamics still has a long way to go.