Clarence Thomas’s Black Nationalist Jurisprudence

I don’t know a lot about the role of Anita Hill in Clarence Thomas’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings. I was just a bit too young to understand what was happening, and so I’m looking forward to watching the new HBO movie on that topic. Thomas himself famously called it a “high tech lynching.” My suspicion is that Thomas probably was guilty of sexual harassment, but that there was almost certainly a concerted effort to link it to his race in ways that we should find abhorrent. On the other side of the aisle, Bill Clinton certainly seems to have been guilty of similar activities.

In the spirit of preparing for that viewing, I’m revisiting an old post of mine on Clarence Thomas’s Counterrevolution wherein Corey Robin (of The Reactionary Mind fame) discusses the intellectual legacy of Justice Clarence Thomas:

“The first time Clarence Thomas went to Washington, DC, it was to protest the Vietnam War. The last time that Clarence Thomas attended a protest, as far as I can tell, it was to free Bobby Seale and Erikah Huggins.”

Reading Robin’s efforts to make Thomas intelligible always has me worrying about why African-Americans don’t take anti-statist positions more often (libertarianism, anarchism, localism.) After all, you can think that there is a government harm without thinking there is a government solution.

That’s basically the heart of the Black Panthers’ ideology: the white police can terrorize Black communities, but they can’t fix them. On the Black Panther view, only Black people can fix their own communities, because when white people try to do it it’s just as cover for more colonialism. Which is why their most powerful and dangerous program wasn’t the guns, it was the Free Breakfast for School Children program.

Tally up the affirmative action and racialized mass incarceration; the public housing and the brutal policing; the food stamps and the white social workers; the Black Presidency and the decades of shame and racism in every government office; integrated schools and two-hour bus rides that made accountability impossible; racial gerrymandering and the destruction of most of the neighborhood non-religious institutions in African-American communities.

Now ask yourself: did African-Americans come out ahead?

Becky Pettit did the math, and she says no. Lots of African-Americans are skeptical that a white supremacist government will ever offer solutions, simple or complex, that are actually tailored to the needs of their community. Perhaps the skeptics are wrong. Perhaps we can do better. But we haven’t so far. We’re again talking about a New Deal for whites, without ever having had a new deal for Blacks.

Many white conservatives (and more than a few white liberals) think these disparate outcomes can be explained because Blacks are inferior. A lot of movement conservatives follow either Charles Murray or Amy Wax on this: it’s either a natural inferiority (Murray) or a cultural one (Wax.) But Black conservatives like Thomas seem to think it’s something else: they think we white liberals just keep making the situation worse, and that we don’t care so long as we can assure ourselves that we’re well-intentioned.

And our treatment of Thomas is part of the problem: we ignore or disdain him, or worse, insinuate that he’s a race traitor who can’t recognize a simple self-contradiction. How could he come out against affirmative action given that he benefited from it? Consider the Parents v. Seattle concurrence and the Zelman concurrence. These are serious acts of jurisprudence: among other things, Justice Thomas points out that integration destroyed centers of Black excellence, took excellent Black teachers out of Black classrooms and put them in White classrooms, leaving majority Black classrooms with substandard instruction, frequently by whites who didn’t understand the culture and harbored unconscious racism.

On Thomas’s view, the 14th amendment isn’t race blind; it proscribes race consciousness except when responding to state discrimination. In Zelman, Thomas says that the history of poor performing minority schools DOES count as state discrimination in need of remedy; and in Seattle he says that the kinds of remedies that can be used should never include the individual racial classification of elementary school children. Lots of other remedies are still possible, but don’t go creating huge bureaucracies of racial classification, because that hasn’t tended to be a good thing in US history. Thomas’s point is that it’s not enough to say “this time it’s different,” because that’s what whites always say.

Has race-conscious hiring through affirmative action helped African-Americans? Certainly in some cases! And yet at every income level, Blacks have higher levels of educational attainment than whites, while they also have higher unemployment for their educational attainment than whites. Their unemployment rates reflect longer searches, with less success, even with equal or better qualifications. These are facts that should make us blush with shame, and panic that our worldviews and preferred remedies are inadequate.

It’s no better in universities, but here is where I begin to part ways with Thomas. We’ve gotten to such a weird place on the court’s race decisions that we’re forced to debate the benefit to white people of having African-Americans and other racial minorities in the classroom instead of remembering the serious racism that infects all of our institutions.

Cribbing from Elizabeth Anderson here, Fisher and the university-level affirmative action cases are a total muddle for advocating diversity for its own sake. The liberal justices have been backed into a corner and it seems that they know it. The real problem the court faces in cases like Fisher, Zelman, Seattle, etc. is justifying affirmative action or individual racial classification or school choice in the absence of de jure discrimination. Which is dumb, because we had a whole lot of that de jure discrimination not so long ago, and it clearly still echoes into the present.

The long history of de jure discrimination implicates every US institution, regardless of particulars, but the whole of the Supreme Court has disagreed with that reading. Thus, they’re having a pretty silly argument in cases like Fisher: instead of saying, “Hey, remember slavery, segregation, and the KKK? They’re still relevant here!” the court says, “Well, forget about slavery, segregation, and the KKK: wouldn’t it be nice if we had more skin colors and ethnic groups in Freshman composition?” The real problem is that everyone on the court accepts that “Forget about it!” rubric for thinking through racial remedies. That problem goes back to Milliken v. Bradley and the refusal to enforce interdistrict busing.

Yet Thomas is the one Justice who doesn’t forget about that history and continually brings it up. And what he says in cases like Seattle and Zelman is: as a Justice, it’s my job to keep my eye on the de jure. De jure justifications at the SCOTUS level affect national policy for centuries, and we can’t afford to make exceptions for racialized classifications just because the individuals involved think they’re doing the right thing. After all, that’s how we got segregation and internment camps in the first place.

And here’s where I think Thomas is offering a powerfully Black Nationalist perspective: he seems to me to be saying that as a matter of policy we should remember that we live in a white supremacist society, that Blacks are in the minority and the political institutions will usually be controlled by white politicians and white voters. So always be careful of the tools and remedies you make available to those white racists, because they’ll use the rubric of the white man’s burden to justify all sorts of evils. They’ll use well-meaning liberals as the tip of the spear, like colonial powers used missionaries or US neo-imperialism uses the Peace Corps.

I mean, as a white liberal, I find myself worried about the ways good intentions and reform get twisted into such terrible institutions for non-whites, as they’ve been twisted over and over and over again. We’re often told that when we tally up the costs and benefits of government we should ignore the effects of the police and prisons because they’re not justified in terms of helping African-Americans. But of course they are: law and order rhetoric is popularly justified by pointing to Black victims and support without noting that shock-and-awe policing and mass incarceration are a poor remedy that creates as many victims as it avenges.


Rachel Maddow: “Activism is a very specific and technocratic thing.”

Rachel Maddow’s interview with Ezra Klein on her life and HIV/AIDs activism for prisoners has this amazing extended riff starting around minute 53:

“What I tried to do as an activist was to approach each thing I wanted to get as a math problem.

So, here’s a thing that I think should be different in the world: I want people who are dying of AIDS in prisons to be allowed to die in secure hospices rather than dying in jail infirmaries. That’s what I want. Me just saying that and expressing the moral righteousness of that is not enough.

Who is the person who can decide to make that happen? The hospices need to be good with it, so, okay, let’s go to the hospices. Who is the person who makes the decision about who goes to the hospices? Well, there’s a category of decision-making here that is for people who do not have life sentences; they’re susceptible to these kinds of decision-makers. And then there’s a whole another category of decision-makers who say as a matter of policy … so let’s change the local decision-makers; now let’s change the law.

And just doing it piece by piece by piece, why won’t this law change? Because the committee chairman who is responsible for this as an issue doesn’t care about this. What does he care about? He cares about golf. Okay, let’s find whoever he golfs with’s wife, and find who his pastor is and talk to her about this.

…Activism is a very specific and technocratic thing….

On a lot of the activist issues I worked on it was very important that we get no press. And I think, from the outside, one of the things people assume about activism is that you’re trying to consciousness-raise around an issue, and get public discussion and raise public awareness and raise the profile of an issue–not if you’re talking about the comfort of death row prisoners. You don’t actually want that subjected to a popular referendum, because that’s going to be a kneejerk, regressive response.

And so sometimes what you need for people to be brave is to limit their risk, and some of the ways you limit risk is by keeping things quiet. And that has ended up being an interesting thing to know and thing to believe in, given that I’m now a person who’s in the business of making national news of that stuff.”

Notes on an Auden Poem, “The More Loving One”

I’ve been an Auden fan probably since I first heard his mourning poem in 4 Weddings and a Funeral. (Recall my doggerel.) That he corresponded with Arendt mattered a great deal to my dissertation work; I also quite like the thematic connections between his “The Unknown Citizen” and another favorite poem, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” by Wendell Berry.

Searching online for a W. H. Auden poem to remember a line, I discovered that Rap Genius has a listing of many of his poems, annotated by users of the site. This was to be the original usage of the “hyper-text markup language” that we now abbreviate html: to connect and annotate texts. I’m glad to see the web returning that that usage, and under the auspices of a rap lyrics site, it seems particularly exciting.

Here is the poem I was looking for, “The More Loving One.” I usually remember the poem through its title lines, which occur midway through it:

If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.

There’s something pleasant about the sense of dutiful care in those lines. But perhaps a bit saccharine. And indeed, much of the poem pushes back against the self-abnegating nature of that desire to subordinate oneself to the beloved.

In many ways, the poem is a repudiation of the easy cliche that the line contains: we cannot and should not aim to be always giving more love than we receive. We are always a part of many relationships, not all of which involve “equal affection” and some of which are unequal in the other direction: I love my daughter more than she can love me, and I am loved by my parents more than I can love them.

We see Donald Trump’s current rhetoric around trade deficits making something like the same mistake: it’s not possible for every country to always export more than we import to every other country. One country’s trade surplus is another country’s trade deficit. Nor is it desireable for the US, a very rich country, to aim to be an industrial powerhouse at the expense of industries in poorer countries. Alongside Japan, Europe, the UK, and China, the US dollar is a reserve currency useful for future spending. Lowering the trade deficit paradoxically would make the US dollar more desirable by lowering the supply. (Ironically the US has lowered its trade deficits lately as other currencies like the euro and China’s yuan have grown in use as reserves.)

Auden’s poem doesn’t just correct the poor math of “the more loving one,” it makes a few interesting points. For instance, Auden begins with the claim that indifference is preferable to many other emotions that human beings offer to each other, like hatred. This seems almost obvious, but it’s worth noting that the celebrated writer Elie Wiesel has claimed that indifference is the opposite of love, recognizing that hatred also shares some of the attachment of loving.

But this can be taken too far. In a plea for action and a praise for the intervention in Kosovo, Wiesel even hyperbolically claimed that indifference to the suffering of victims was almost worse than perpetrating that suffering:

Rooted in our tradition, some of us felt that to be abandoned by humanity then was not the ultimate. We felt that to be abandoned by God was worse than to be punished by Him. Better an unjust God than an indifferent one. For us to be ignored by God was a harsher punishment than to be a victim of His anger. Man can live far from God — not outside God. God is wherever we are. Even in suffering? Even in suffering.

Auden points out quite simply that this is silly; being left alone is better than being persecuted.

But his most damning recognition is that the lover’s love is in some ways selfish: Auden recognizes that for all his efforts, he doesn’t love the stars as much as his poetry would make it seem. He doesn’t miss them when they’re gone during the day, and even were they to be lost forever, he would still find something else loveable. The stars are just one of the beautiful and sublime ways that the world arises.  I suspect that he exercises his poetic will in order to love the world as such, in all its diversity, no matter how it presents itself to him.

Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.


What do Cuba and China tell us about Communism and Infant Mortality Reductions?

The first response to my last post was to point to Cuba’s low infant mortality rate; it is currently below the US’s rate. This seems like a refutation of the claim that competitive markets are a necessary condition for serious public health improvements.

There’s a propagandistic response to Cuba’s numbers, which I think is worth mentioning even if it’s still propagandistic: Cuba maintains its low infant mortality rate by strongly promoting abortions in any case of fetal abnormality. It’s really hard to establish the extent to which that is true, since only one researcher at the University of Oklahoma, Katherine Hirschfield, has claimed it while having her account sited in every case where Cuba’s infant mortality is discussed in the US media. But Cuba does have an abortion rate almost twice that of the US, so it may be a factor.

But Cuba’s pre-revolutionary infant mortality was already quite low: about 3.7% (37 under-five deaths per 1000 live births). These gains from the pre-industrial baseline were achieved under a pretty rotten colonialist capitalism. Thus, it seems to be the case the case that it’s possible to reduce infant mortality under a variety of economic systems. (Which is fine: we probably think too vaguely when we discuss these systems of communism and capitalism.)

I guess I’d add that Cuba does have free trade with everyone in the world who is not the US, so it doesn’t seem like a case of real protectionism. In fact, they actually export medical services in pretty significant ways, as well as benefiting from remittances.

The Chinese case is a more interesting one: the pre-revolutionary infant mortality rate was roughly equivalent to the background “natural evil” rate that I mentioned. Thus, the Maoist revolution drastically improved infant mortality! Through the training of midwives and later “barefoot doctors” rural infant mortality in China was brought from roughly pre-industrial levels (30% of live born children died before the age of 5) to roughly 70 in 1000 (7%) in 1978. That’s massive and worthy of serious praise. It’s also a serious challenge to the claim that only competitive markets can decrease infant mortality. The Chinese Revolution, in aggregate, was able to reduce infant mortality substantially: even including the Great Leap Famines which killed between 22 and 45 million people in three years (and likely increased fetal and infant mortality by similar levels), the gains are substantial.

Because I think capitalism is too highly specific, I often talk about competitive markets in the alternative. But the real key feature, it seems to me, is globalization: free trade with other countries. That is why I particularly balked at protectionism, without having much of a complaint about various ways to pay for medical services like single-payer plans or state-run hospitals.

Yet China reduced infant mortality significantly without free trade, and Cuba reduced it significantly with free trade. A long view obliterates any claim that infant health can be directly tied to any economic regime at all. On this, I was simply wrong, and glad to know it.

I started out to write a neoliberal theo-politics; rough and ready and trying to show where matters of relatively unchallenged beliefs about the world have led me. Challenges and data now force me to revise those beliefs. What could be more neoliberal and technocratic than that?

The Problem of Natural Evil, Charity, and Free Trade

I’ve recently been arguing for the comprehensible beauty of theological fatalism. The standard response to the problem of evil is that evil is the result of human willing: thus the Holocaust or American racism cannot be laid at the feet of an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly benevolent God. But I think this seriously ignores the problem of natural evil.

In a world that is literally full of unexplained and uncontrolled phenomena, there’s something sensible in taking the attitude that God’s will requires submission and respect in the face of suffering. If the best guess you’ve got about the fundamental truths of the universe is that nature (and Nature’s God) is capricious and inexplicable, then your attitude to that caprice is going to matter a lot. Can you love your fate without understanding it? Can you avoid telling just-so stories of desert and blaming the sufferer for her suffering? Non-karmic theological fatalism has the major theme that the world is love-able despite the fact that it is full of mysterious natural atrocities.

The predominance of human-caused evils like genocide and slavery have only rivaled natural evils for a few centuries; the long human time span is overwhelmed with misfortunes that could not be understood or even effectively planned against, only endured. Today, it makes sense to try to give a different account, one that enables intervention and prevention. But that modern perspective is rooted in our relatively limited success in rendering explicable and changeable the tremendous amount of suffering that surrounds us.

And there’s still quite a lot of it. I usually only discuss global poverty in the context of utilitarian arguments for rich-world charity obligations. But in fact there’s good reason to think that these rich-world obligations extend infinitely further to an imnipotent and omniscient God. If I can and should save a child in Pakistan or Nepal by forgoing a cell phone upgrade, think how much greater the obligation would be for an omnipotent God.

In 1990, the global under-five mortality rate was 12.7 million annually. Today it is 6.3 million. Because it’s hard to think in terms of such large numbers, I often describe that change this way: every day in 1990, 34,000 children under five died, mostly from easily-treated poverty-related diseases; today it’s more like 17,000. Nearly half of these deaths are directly attributable to undernutrition; other causes include malaria, diarrhea (from unsanitary water,) and asthma (from dung-based indoor cooking fires.) This is pretty obviously evil.

It is probably the case that the contemporary rich could alleviate much of this through charitable action (although this is significantly less effective than we’d like.) In any case, these child deaths could be attributable to human willing, specifically the inaction of rich countries. Yet, even to the extent that that is true today, humanity has not been rich enough to afford to address poverty-related disease for the vast majority of human history.

While it’s hard to measure historical child mortality, estimates suggest something like 300 to 500 child deaths per 1000 live births in pre-industrial societies. That means the 1/3 to 1/2 of all children born would die before their fifth birthday; this even extends to newly industrializing societies: that’s the rate that was observed in Europe through the 19th Century. For every person born under modern conditions, it’s likely that about 15 were born and died in pre-modern times. So roughly 100 billion people have been born and died before the currently living 7 billion. Probably 30 to 50 billion of them died before their fifth birthday. (It’s somewhat surprising that anyone could believe that their God would deplore abortion, given God’s role in this mass infanticide.)

What’s more, it turns out that even if our newfound global wealth enables charitable alleviation of natural evil, these efforts are themselves quite difficult and expensive, and often have very bad unintended side-effects. Often it seems we are forced to respond to this tremendous evil with very imperfect efforts: gifts tend to be less effective than economic development, and competitive global trade has done more than anything else to reduce under-five mortality.

Here’s a sentence I think most of my readers will reject, but I’m never impressed by their reasons: we’ve never found a compassionate system that is as effective as competitive markets for alleviating the specific evil of child mortality, even if it comes with a host of other evils.

In 1969, China alone had 2.3 million deaths for children under-five. In 2012, only 0.2 million children under-five died. That’s directly attributable to US trade with China. Yet we are frequently reminded of how much disruption and inequality that has caused without celebrating the benefits. These policies are described as “off-shoring” or “exporting American jobs.” It’s almost certainly driven massive domestic inequalities that are currently disrupting our democracies. Yet the role of trade in reducing child mortality strikes me as often ignored in these debates.

This is supposed to be something upon which Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump agree: that we should massively reduce trade with countries like China, not to mention Pakistan, India, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Yet those five countries are the ones with the highest child mortality. India and Nigeria alone account for half of the 17,000 under-five deaths each year. Even newly-rich trade-enemy China is still the fifth largest source of child mortality, with twice the under-five mortality rate of most industrialized societies.

Thus, the problem of natural evil strikes me as good evidence that the omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent God does not exist; such a God would never force us to choose between the evils of capitalism and the evils of watching our children die. Yet if we truly live in such a tragic world, I doubt we should countenance trade protectionism until we can identify an alternate way to address child mortality.