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Blacks and whites agree on the problem, but not on the solution

By ERIC MOUNT

Contributing columnist

Black Americans and white Americans are in overwhelming agreement that our economic future as a nation depends on helping minority children be successful, but the differences are deep on how to address the problem. What would have to happen to close that gap? 

The Public Religion Research Institute has caught sight of a critical issue with its surveys. One of its 2017 surveys was titled “Attitudes on Children and Family Well-Being: National and Southeast/Southwest Perspectives.” It posed the issue this way: “As the number of black and other minority children grows, our economic future depends on helping these children be successful.” 82 percent of black Americans agreed with that statement, and so did 76 percent of white Americans polled. But PRRI has recently pinpointed large disparities concerning explanations and priorities.

Asked whether certain issues are critical to them personally, children living in poverty was cited by 79 percent of African-Americans, but only 56 percent of white Americans. When ensuring that all have an equal possibility of success is listed as a priority, 74 percent of blacks agree, but only 48 percent of whites. Race relations are critical to 59 percent of blacks and only 32 percent of whites.

When the survey offers the observation that it is not that big a problem if some people have a better chance in life than others, 37 percent of white respondents agree, but only 16 percent of black respondents.

On the statement that the only way to be sure that children have a chance is to help parents, black agreement hits 78 percent, but white agreement only 48 percent. 42 Percent of blacks and only 10 percent of whites are in “complete agreement” with the statement; 51 percent of whites mostly or completely disagree with the statement in contrast to 22 percent of blacks.

From an earlier survey, we can add that 87 percent of African-Americans say they have “experienced substantial discrimination.” Only 49 percent of white respondents believed African-Americans experience such discrimination.

57 percent of the white respondents believed that discrimination against whites is as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. (If plenty of contrary statistics don’t convince them, how about a walk in some others’ shoes?) 

When asked whether they have a moral obligation to make sure that children have an opportunity to succeed, respondents illustrate both the agreement and the gap with which we began.  87 percent of whites nearly match the 93 percent of blacks that agree about the obligation, but the intensity level is different. 69 percent of blacks and 42 percent of whites “completely agree.”

A consortium of researchers from Stanford, Harvard and the U.S. Census Bureau has provided a context for PRRI’s study of “Black Anxiety and Intergenerational Inequality.” The consortium’s study was entitled “Race and Economic Opportunity in the United States: An Intergenerational Perspective.” It found that even when African-American males start from the wealthiest families and the poshest neighborhoods, they are more likely to live in poverty as adults than are white kids from similar backgrounds. They are more likely to slip to a lower economic level if they do not live in neighborhoods with low rates of poverty and racial bias and had a high rate of father presence.  If they lived in more advantageous circumstances, they were more likely to earn more and less likely to end up incarcerated.

If we connect this look at the probable success or failure of young black males to the question about a moral obligation to help minority children to succeed, what seems to be the clincher for a person’s commitment to help the next generation of minority children succeed? The PRRI study homes in on the crux of the matter: “Progress depends on seeing these inequalities as a shared affliction rather than a problem relegated to an isolated segment of society.”

When we look at disparities in our educational system among the more and less advantaged; at heightened racial tensions; at growing residential and educational resegregation; at the mass incarceration of black males; and at the disparate futures awaiting minority children depending on the poverty and racial bias of their neighborhoods and parental presence, it makes all the difference whether we think in terms of “their problem” as opposed to “our problem.” 

When we make no effort to empathize with the dilemmas of others and have no recognition of our complicity in structural inequalities and institutional injustices, we can easily excuse ourselves from any moral obligation toward others’ children. We can even regard programs to help “them” as benefits taken away from “us.”

Any form of affirmative action can be regarded as our loss: Offering to be a mentor or tutor in the public schools is not something we need to consider; we should be able to live with, associate with and go to school with our own kind of people; the privileges we enjoy are our just deserts, and we may even say that those who are struggling to keep their heads above water are getting theirs too.

John Winthrop set the strongly social or communal tone for New England political thought when he spoke to the early Massachusetts settlers about “making others’ Condicians our own

” and being members of the same body. His vision was not good enough to  incorporate native Americans in that body, but he did make the point that simply looking out for our own interests without any sense that we all share the same boat as Americans does not bode well for the common good that should connect us all.