Saturday, June 6, 2020


The headline is both straightforward and uncontroversial; "Racism Won’t Be Solved by Yet Another Blue-Ribbon Report." The subtitle is just as straightforward, and while I wouldn't suspect that it enjoys universal support, does seem to align with the conventional wisdom on the subject; "Elected officials instinctively turn to studying problems rather than solving them."

When I read that, I was reminded of something that former Senator Claire McCaskill said during her first term: "What gets you re-elected and what solves problems are sometimes like oil and water. And solving problems makes people mad. Nobody wants to make anybody mad because that's not how you get re-elected."

So if The Atlantic's headline writers point out to us that people in elected office appear to be unmotivated to solve problems, and former Senator McCaskill offers us a reason why that might be, perhaps we can look at what drives the whole thing. Because we can make an inference here: that solving the problem of racism will make people mad. And that's why there have been a century of "Blue-Ribbon" commissions, reports and recommendations, but no concrete actions. I understand that it might seem strange to state that if elected office holders in the United States manage to solve the problem of "racial inequities," as Senator Rob Portman describes them, that they'll wind up making their constituents angry with them.

In a vacuum, "racism" seems to be an obvious problem for everyone involved. The common presumption is that a society that labors under the impacts of poor relationships between its members, when those relationships have been soured mainly by factors of ancestry and/or ethnicity, is worse off than one where this is not the case. But if the benefits are so clear and present, why do societies leave them on the table? It's been more than a century and a half since the end of the American Civil War. Technological and social change have completely altered the face of the United States in that time frame. Given that, it seems reasonable to assume that if a solution was to be found, it would have been by now. So this is either a very difficult, and time consuming, problem to solve, and the timeline that people have set for it is too short. Or, as far as the overall society is concerned, it either isn't a problem or isn't the problem.

What Senator McCaskill had put her finger on is another facet of the idea that in many situations, there are no solutions, only trade-offs. Simply solving problems rarely makes anyone upset. Altering the balance of "winners" and "losers," however, does. It's one thing to say that "politicians have to act on the recommendations" that come out of the commissions they empanel. But if the costs of implementing those recommendations are immediate for one group of people, and the benefit are distant (and go to another), the people who pay the costs are going to mobilize to protect their interests.

In The Great Deranagement, Matt Taibbi makes the observation that: "The People aren't always victims in the historical narrative. Sometimes the People are preening, chest-puffing, ignorant assholes, too." But sometimes, they're simply insecure human beings looking out for their interests as best they can. When the two concepts are conflated, it's easy for people to become self-conscious about admitting to placing themselves and their in-groups first. But it doesn't prevent them from continuing to do so.

Right and left-leaning outlets alike have pointed out the links between police unions and the contracts that they are able to negotiate, and violence against civilians. There's been a petition to the King County Labor Council to expel the Seattle Police Officers Guild because of the perception that the Guild prevents the Council from speaking out (whatever good that would do) against racism. But it's likely that police unions will retain their influence, even when unions in general are in rough shape. And this is because the trade-off that the unions offer, indemnification of violence against people determined to be noncriminals in exchange for allowing the bulk of the public to feel safe, is attractive enough that it would make people mad if municipal officials rejected it. At the same time, a "wait and see" approach by the beneficiaries of such a change would mean that the reward for fighting for the change would likely be removal from office; in favor of people who would reverse the change.

Blue-Ribbon panels may not change the world. But they don't often jeopardize the careers of the persons who advocate for them, either. And if that's as close to a win-win as it comes, then that's what people will settle for.

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