Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Like Magic

I picked up Enough - The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America - and What We Can Do About It, by former NPR and Fox News personality Juan Williams, and read it. This was some time ago, considering the book was still new when I picked it up.

Mr. Williams' book strikes me as a fairly bod-standard example of modern Conservative writing, from the long-winded title to the simplistic remedies it offers to complex problems. For all, that, it's not a terrible book, and I enjoyed reading it. I'd written the following as sort of a book report on it, but never posted it here for some reason. I'm not sure why I'm bothering to remedy that now, more than a decade after the book was first published. Perhaps because I have nothing else better to write about at the moment. But I also think that the book, and my thoughts about it, help me to better understand why I spend a lot of time in the wilderness of American politics, never really landing with a political party.

Enough takes the famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint), "Pound Cake Speech" given by Bill Cosby on the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, and defends Cosby's position and criticisms. I like most of this book. I feel that it's well written, and, given that I have something of a small-government and respectability politics streak in me, it also happens to somewhat agree with many of my own views on the subject. Until, that is, the final chapter.

In typical Conservative fashion, Mr. Williams wraps up his book with the assertion that conservative family values are the simple and self-evident answer to all of the problems of black America. On the question of poverty, he claims that the "magical" (his word, not mine) formula to avoiding destitution is to 1) get at least a high school, but preferably a college education, 2) get a job after graduation (so far, so good), 3) get married, and 4) put off childbearing until steps 1 through 3 are completed. He goes on to say that the poverty rate for Blacks that follow the formula is only 6.4 percent. Which is all well and good, but he presents this as a causal relationship - as if otherwise poor people who follow the program are suddenly lifted out of poverty. But it's just as likely that people who followed the program weren't poor to begin with - the children of the well-off are likely to follow that pattern in any event.

It's difficult and, perhaps more relevantly, pointless to argue with the idea that education leads to more choices, and thus, better opportunities for wealth and advancement. The idea that better education leads to better outcomes is a given. Lost in this is that higher education costs money, but that's also a given, so Mr. Williams can be forgiven for not wanting to rain on his own parade by introducing a sour note into the proceedings.

The value of having a job is obvious enough that Mr. Williams simply skips over it, and jumps straight to step 3 - getting married. This is a somewhat muddier topic, and it takes a few re-readings of the space devoted to it for it to really make sense. Like most authors who are not statisticians, Mr. Williams isn't especially rigorous about consistently making apples-to-apples comparisons. For instance, he compares the 35% poverty rate among Black women who had children outside of marriage to a 17% poverty rate for married women. Since these two conditions are not mutually exclusive - single mothers are not barred from ever marrying - the same women could be counted twice. Accordingly, Mr. Williams avoids making the statement that marriage cuts poverty in half, even though its fairly clear that he wouldn't be disappointed if the reader came to that (perhaps incorrect) conclusion themselves.

And in the end, this is what makes for a weak closing to an otherwise interesting book. Mr. Williams is selling his magical four steps to a middle-class lifestyle as a package - and so he avoids breaking them out individually. He contrasts the poverty level of those who complete all four steps to only a general population - preventing the reader from making determinations as to which steps might be the most effective

The book is also not lacking in partisan cheap shots and motivated misreadings. One page 118, Mr. Williams makes a criticism of William Bennett that seems unfounded and almost deliberately calculated to deflect criticism of Mr. Williams himself as a conservative. While, taken in a vacuum, it is understandable to say that Mr. Bennett's comments on the abortion of Black fetuses to lower crime has "genocidal overtones," in the very next sentence, Mr. Bennett himself says: "That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down," but Mr. Williams chooses to ignore that follow-on. Mr. Bennett's entire point is that the idea that abortion could be a viable tool for reducing the crime rate is wrong-headed.

Two pages earlier, Mr. Williams himself had pointed out: "By 2004 federal data showed that Black Americans - 13 percent of the population - accounted for 37 percent of the violent crimes, 54 percent of arrests for robbery, and 51 percent of murders." He uses these statistics to illustrate "the need for Black Americans to take up their own war on drugs and on crime as a matter of personal responsibility," seemingly missing the fact that personal responsibility is just that - personal. Policing other people for criminality and drug use simply due to a shared skin tone has nothing to do with taking responsibility for one's own actions. And while Mr. Williams accuses Mr. Bennett of speaking "as if crime and blackness were genetically linked," there is nothing in Mr. Bennett's statement that implies this at all. Mr. Williams taking Mr. Bennett's comment out of context, or even ignoring the broader context of the statement, demonstrates some of the same knee-jerk defensiveness that he accuses the Black leadership and community of. And that leaves aside the fact that here again, Mr. Williams shows himself to not be a statistician. Federal data cannot show which groups account for what percentage of crimes unless there is both a 100% clearance rate, and a 100% accurate conviction rate.

Another hint of this can be seen on page 136, where Mr. Williams takes on the fashion statement of "sagging." (Letting one's pants ride very low on the body.) He says that the baggy pants "mimic the garb of black prisoners, who are forbidden to have belts." Why are "black prisoners" specified? Are non-black prisoners allowed to keep their belts?

In the end, my single primary quibble with the book is that while it takes pains to break down the idea that the Black community is helpless in the face of external pressures like poverty and White racism, it does seem to settle into the idea that Black individuals are helpless in the face of the negative social messages they receive from other Blacks, and can't be expected to reject or rise above them. This lends the book an air of fault-finding that may appeal to a White audience looking for absolution, but that does nothing to advance the understanding of a fix.

And when Mr. Williams speaks of White perceptions of Blacks, it's uncertain if he's referring to those people whose frame of reference on Blacks is almost entirely through the media, or if he's claiming that some of the negative images of Blacks that hip-hop and gangster culture have created are so corrosive as to be able to shout down people's face-to-face experiences, which seems unlikely.

In the end, it's kind of too bad. There is a point to be made that many of the problems that plague the Black community can be solved by the Black community. But breezy invocations of magical processes aren't a useful blueprint.

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