The Myth of the Common Good

Racial HarmonyI still haven’t gotten around to watching the much-vaunted Obama speech (I know, I know, for shame), but it’s been interesting to hear the conversations it has inspired among friends and in the media. I’ll be honest: some of the rhetoric concerns me. People seem eager to portray the U.S. struggle with racism using the narrative template of the American dream itself: overcoming ignoble, circumstantial origins (genocide, slavery) to rise to greatness through sheer will and hard work (Civil Rights Movement, enlightened public policy). As with the bootstrap fiction, there are winners without losers — or, as the moral of the story goes, a winner can achieve success without disadvantaging anyone else. It’s all a bunch of pareto improvements: making someone better off without making anyone else worse off.

You can probably tell where I’m going with this. It’s simply naïve to believe that we can rectify unjust inequalities at no cost to anyone. Even economists admit that the world does not work this way (though the neoclassicists argue it once did).

Those who do acknowledge the cost to justice, though, often paint it in the platitudes of undifferentiated, collective sacrifice. In the NYT today, pointing to research showing that “racial and ethnic diversity undermine support for public investment in social welfare,” Eduardo Porter resolves that “Americans must once again show their ability to transcend group interests for a common national cause.” Sure, okay. What gets lost in his insights, though, is the question of who must transcend which interests, and how this transcendence may differ among groups.

The studies he cites speak to a general American reluctance to pay for programs that would benefit a racially mixed populus. One study charts white communities specifically, finding that “all-white congregations become less charitably active as the share of black residents in the local community grows.” None of the research examines attitudes toward social spending among Black, Latin@, East Asian/South Asian/API, Native American, or other non-white groups in particular. While outlooks among these groups are certainly not monolithic (especially across class differences), isn’t it reasonable to assume that the people who stand to benefit from anti-racist social policies don’t need to “transcend” too much in order to support such reforms?

Two years ago, in an argument similar to Porter’s prescription, Michael Tomasky wanted to revive a common good credo:

This is the only justification leaders can make to citizens for liberal governance, really: That all are being asked to contribute to a project larger than themselves.

His eloquent, historically grounded manifesto is beautiful in many ways. But it falls prey to the same problem: glossing over inequalities and injustice in an effort to promote solidarity. It’s as if these stores from which each of us contribute simply materialized, like Rousseau’s natural man, ahistorically.

Here’s what I think. I think that when Tomasky, Porter, and Obama implore Americans to sacrifice for the common good, they’re really talking to white Americans. It’s an easier pill for whites to swallow if it’s candy-coated in collectivity: well, as long as we all have to give up something, I’m not being cheated — I’m just doing my part. But without addressing white supremacy, we cannot talk meaningfully about a “common good” waxing or waning with civic vicissitudes. It would be like levying taxes without acknowledging income disparities: a surefire recipe for regressive taxation. If you wouldn’t ask a billionaire and a welfare recipient to give $500 to national programs, then you shouldn’t ask a white person and a brown person to “sacrifice” the same amount for racial equality.

To push the point further, whereas you could plausibly argue that the billionaire amassed her riches fairly (maybe), the whole point of white privilege is that it is unearned. Not only that, but it comes at the expense of non-white people. Regardless of class, white Americans enjoy a higher likelihood that their neighborhoods will not be selected as locations for toxic waste dumps and other environmental hazards. Regardless of class, white Americans enjoy greater leniency when they commit crimes. Regardless of class, white Americans are more likely to be selected for promotions and top leadership positions in their jobs. These race-based material entitlements are what whites must sacrifice in the interest of justice. In a more equal version of this nation, at least initially, whites would be poorer, sicker, less well educated, and more frequently incarcerated.

Anyone want to break the news to them?

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