By Yonoson Rosenblum | OCTOBER 12, 202
The result is to indelibly stamp every black student with a mark of inferiority
In A Conflict of Visions, Thomas Sowell, one of our preeminent public intellectuals, as well as the elder statesman of a diverse group of black intellectuals who decline to toe the line on "institutionalized racism," contrasts two visions of human and societal potential — what he terms the "unconstrained vision" and the "constrained vision." The unconstrained vision views man as essentially morally perfectible — moral perfection being chiefly defined by the intent to benefit others.
And because man is perfectible, so is human society. The perpetual evils of human life — poverty, war, and crime — in this view are aberrations, the product of foolish or immoral choices. Ibram X. Kendri's claim that any differences in outcomes between groups can only be explained by "systemic racism" is a classic example of unconstrained thinking.
The unconstrained vision, developed by Enlightenment thinkers, like William Godwin, assumes that indoctrinating people in the proper ethical principles, as determined by an elite already privy to those principles, will lead to justice, writes David Mikics in an excellent piece in Tablet Magazine on Sowell's thought, "The 'Noble Lies' of the New Race Politics."
Proponents of the constrained vision favor limited government and mechanisms that foster individual choice — e.g., free markets — as protection against the amassing of too much power in the hands of any individual or group. And the constrained vision of social progress is incremental rather than based on some model of perfect justice.
The unconstrained vision, by contrast, is impatient of limits on power once the right people have gained power. The French Enlightenment thinker Nicolas de Condorcet (who ended up as a victim of the Revolution), for instance, chafed at "counterweights" and "overcomplicated political machinery," such as the American federal system and the Constitution's system of checks and balances, designed to limit the accrual of power.
Confident of their ability to enunciate proper ethical principles and an ideal standard of social justice, proponents of the unconstrained vision are far more comfortable with the imposition of an intellectual orthodoxy. American campuses today serve as a prime example. MIT recently caved in to protests and canceled a prestigious science lecture by University of Chicago geophysicist Dorian Abbot, who fell afoul of the thought police for advocating judging individuals qua individuals, not as members of particular groups.
Perhaps most important for Sowell, those who subscribe to the unconstrained vision show precious little interest in what works and what does not, or in the consequences of various policies. They assume that once the populace has been imbued with the proper ethical views (and dissenters quashed), a just society will emerge on its own.
As Sowell always emphasizes in telling his life story, it was not exposure to Milton Friedman's free market economics, as a graduate student in economics at the University of Chicago, that caused him to shed his youthful Marxism, but rather a summer job at the Department of Labor, where he discovered how inefficient government often is. Marx's vision of a classless society, he still acknowledges, is an attractive one. The only problem is: It does not work and comes with enormous attendant costs.
So too the Black Lives Matters vision of an end to prisons and a world in which social workers replace police is attractive, if nothing besides imagination is required to bring it into effect and the real world consequences are ignored. Sowell has repeatedly expressed disdain for BLM's preference for symbolic victories, often abetted by virtue-signaling corporations, rather than real improvements in the lives of black Americans, and for being more interested in professions of white guilt than in black achievement. That virtue-signaling would seem to be a feature of unconstrained visions due to its proponents emphasis on proper moral intentions.
For his part, Sowell would rather focus on black behavior than white behavior, in contrast to the leading avatars of systemic racism, such as Kendi or Ta-Nehisi Coates. In education, for instance, that would involve understanding how Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., a segregated black magnet school, achieved academic results superior to the city's white schools by 1899 and sent almost all of its graduates to college between 1870 and 1955 (the year after the Supreme Court's landmark decision in Brown vs. Board of Education.)
Nowhere have the destructive consequences of the utopianism and misplaced priorities of the current proponents of an unconstrained racial vision been more evident than in murder statistics in the black community since the horrifying video of Derek Chauvin kneeling on George Floyd's neck went viral. That video was treated as emblematic of the continuing racism of American society and of the need for dramatic reformation of police departments.
According to the Washington Post database of police shootings, there were 18 police killings of unarmed blacks in 2020. Even if we were to assume that all those killings were unjustified — a far-fetched assumption — and that the killings were all at the hands of white police officers (highly unlikely given the high percentage of black officers in most big-city police departments), they hardly make out the case for endemic racism. Blacks were the victims in less than one-third of such cases, far lower than their percentage of perpetrators of serious crimes.
The principal result of the retreat from active neighborhood policing in the face of constant attacks on officers in the wake of George Floyd's death has been a dramatic upsurge in black murder victims. In 2015, there were 6,237 black murder victims in the United States. By 2020, that number had increased just short of 60 percent to 9,941 — 3,704 additional black lives lost per year. No wonder, as Sowell frequently notes, the majority of blacks favor an increased, not reduced, police presence in their neighborhoods.
The negative consequences of BLM's proscriptions in education are harder to quantify, but equally pernicious. Everywhere, standardized testing — SATs, ACTs — is under assault. The University of California at Berkeley, for instance, has dropped them from the application process. Why? Because the results fall far short of Kendi's prescribed rule that any differential of group results can only be explained by racism.
The result is to indelibly stamp every black student with a mark of inferiority — i.e., as incapable of succeeding on standardized exams — even those black applicants who would easily qualify on objective standards. Harvard Law professor Derrick Bell, often identified as the founding father of critical legal studies, wrote long ago that racial double standards in admission necessarily ends as a form of "benevolent paternalism" that produces "feelings of inferiority in the students' hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone."
The resegregation of American education — racially separated affinity groups at posh prep schools, separate black dorms and graduation ceremonies — reflects, in part, blacks' discomfort around non-blacks because of that stamp of inferiority. (Resegregation, incidentally, undermines the argument for affirmative action based on the educational benefits of exposure to those of different backgrounds.)
Racial preferences, especially in college admissions, to achieve Ibram Kendi's definition of "equity" benefit a very narrow stratum of the black population, while fueling racial animus. A first-generation Vietnamese immigrant, whose parents came to America not speaking English, has grounds to feel aggrieved when preference is given to the black child of two professionals, with lower test scores.
The beneficiaries (if, in fact, they do benefit) of racial preferences for admission to elite colleges and universities are overwhelming children of the middle class, and those preferences will do nothing to change the inferior education provided most black youth. One thing that does, however, are charter schools, which are supported by a majority of blacks (Sowell among them), but opposed by teachers unions, one of the most solid Democratic constituencies.
David Levin, the co-founder of KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program), a network of free, open-admission charter schools for low-income students, was recently pressured to denounce KIPP's slogan, "Work Hard, Be Nice," as a racist expression of "white supremacy and anti-blackness."
Now we are in loony-tune territory, a fact recognized by black parents from Dunbar High's heyday to the present, but denied by woke black theorists and their eager white adjuncts.