What’s a White Guy to Do? Thoughts on Racial Nonfeasance

From time to time I get mail informing me that blacks are being mistreated, as for example by not being sufficiently represented among the ranks of athletic coaches, and implying that I should oppose such inequity. Regarding which:

First, I do not oppose racial discrimination against blacks. In 1965, I did. My view then, as now, was that the law should be racially neutral. But inasmuch as racial discrimination against me, as a white, is today mandated by federal law, the government acting as agent for blacks, I am hardly going to worry about discrimination against them. I think it serves to level the playing field.

Second, if I were dedicated to improving the lot of blacks–which, the laws being what they are, I am not–what would I do? As an individual in Mexico of course I couldn’t do anything. But suppose I were president, or even dictator. What could I do? What would blacks want me to do? They seem to be unhappy because whites are not doing the right thing. What is the right thing?

Many blacks are functionally illiterate. Most cannot compete academically on equal terms with whites. Clearly (to me, at any rate) people who cannot read well, who have at best a rudimentary education, cannot hope to succeed on their own in a modern country. If I were trying do everything in my power to help blacks, an emphasis on schooling would seem to me vital. Am I wrong? Do blacks disagree?

But what could I do? Here I mean practical things that might actually produce results. If children are to learn, they have to do their homework. I can’t make black children study, nor can I make their parents see that they do. It is not obvious how I, or any other whites, can get somebody else’s children to read, study, and flourish.

It isn’t that I don’t want black children to do well. It’s that I can’t achieve the result.

Nor is it that I’m unwilling to spend tax dollars to school black children. I would happily do it–if I knew how to get results. I can’t offhand think of anything more important domestically. But nothing has worked. The country tried Head Start. It was a reasonable idea, well-intentioned, and worth trying. It didn’t work. We tried compulsory integration. It didn’t work.

What would work? Being white, when I think of improving schools I think of raising standards, hiring better teachers, adding advanced courses. Do blacks want this? The answer of course will be that some do and some don’t. Most seem not to. With all the good intentions in the world, as dictator, president, or queen of the May, I couldn’t make blacks want to study.

The illuminating question is: If blacks were entirely in charge of the schools, what would they do?

In many cities, as for example Washington, DC, blacks are in charge of the schools, which are terrible. Why? It isn’t lack of money. Whites do not forbid blacks the purchase of textbooks, do not insist that they hire poor teachers. The schools just don’t work well.

I derive no pleasure from this stagnant disaster, but neither do I see what whites can do about it. If blacks complained about potholes in the street, I would know what to do: Fill the potholes. If black kids were contracting polio, I’d know what to do: Vaccinate them. I simply do not know what to do about the schools.

A question that I have never seen asked, much less answered, is What do blacks want their children to study in school? As a white father, I want my offspring to study English grammar and literature, mathematics, chiefly European history with considerable attention to other parts of the world, languages, and the sciences. This is what educated white people do. It’s how we are.

If blacks want the same, no one will discourage them. But do they? I don’t know. Blacks are not European and may have no interest in Europe, or mathematics, or French. I have only passing interest in Uganda, so blacks may have only passing interest in Germany. If my children were required to study Swahili and Shaka Zulu for twelve years, I would object. Perhaps blacks object to today’s curriculum. Were I in their place, I might also.

The question then becomes: What, specifically, do blacks want their children to study? Different blacks will want different things, yes; but what are the main currents? And how could I, if I had any influence, effect their desires? If black parents want a curriculum greatly different from that desired by whites (and I don’t know that they do), I see no way to provide it other than separate classes or separate schools.

For that matter, do blacks parents want their children to go to school with whites? Do black children? I don’t know.

Going beyond schooling, what could I do about conditions in the sprawling socially isolated slums of the cities? Curiously, I’ve probably seen more of the blasted urban heath than many blacks. Working as a police reporter has, if not its advantages, at least its revelations. The slums are ugly. Illiteracy is very high, unemployment the rule, crime a way of life, and existence without obvious point. I wish it on nobody.

But what am I supposed to do about it? From a black point of view, what is the answer? Here I’m talking about specific, concrete answers conducing to results as distinct from votes. What exactly could I, or any white, or all whites, do to turn huge largely illiterate populations into productive and happy members of society?

I just don’t know.

It may be that there are some problems people have to solve for themselves, because no one else can. I’m not sure that picketing about the Confederate flag is the solution. It may also be, though I’m not sure, that today’s free lunch of racial discrimination, though in the short term profitable for blacks, will in the long run be less so. The price of dependency is more of it.

Prices, like termites, are not always visible. Does president Bush, by his policy of racial favoritism, gain more votes from blacks than he loses in abstentions from whites? How would he know? Do blacks help themselves by deliberately antagonizing whites instead of requiring that their children study? How many whites are quietly sick of what has become not a quest for fairness but a racial spoils system?

I’m not sure. Nor, except as a freelance social pathologist, do I any longer much care.

A couple of week’s back I wrote of the Washington Post‘s attack on a friend of mine, Jack McGeorge, as being unqualified to be an inspector for weapons in Iraq. A few days later the inspectors found the much-reported chem-warfare apparatus. Guess who found them?

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