Pundits tell us that we’re living in a period of “racial reckoning” in America. Racial dispute suffuses our public life—from school board elections to presidential campaigns. This estrangement of intellectuals, politicians, journalists, and activists derives, in turn, from the fact of persisting black disadvantage across so many fronts in our country’s economic and social life. The reality here is too familiar to require elaborate recitation. Whether talking about health or wealth, education or income, imprisonment or criminal victimization, the relatively disadvantaged status of those Americans who descend from slaves, more than 150 years after emancipation, is palpable.
What are we to make of this? That question has bedeviled me for decades—indeed, ever since I began graduate studies in economics at MIT a half-century ago. I am a black American economist in this era of racial discontent in my country; an Ivy League professor and a descendant of slaves; a beneficiary of a civil rights revolution, now over two generations in the past, which has made possible for me a life that my ancestors could only have dreamed of. More than all of these things, I am a patriot who loves his country. I am a man of the West, an inheritor of its great traditions. As such, I feel compelled to represent the interests of “my people.” But that reference is not unambiguous, invoking, as it does, both communal and civic antecedents.
Racial disparities are real, of course, but, at the end of the day, just how important is race, as such? Inequality in America is not mainly a racial issue. Many poor and marginalized white people deserve our concern, too. Is “race” an undeniable difference between people, or is it a social construct? Interracial marriage has grown dramatically, as has the number of people viewing themselves as “multiracial,” including the first black president and vice president of this country. We talk incessantly about racial identity. But what about culture and values—aspects of our humanity that transcend race? I have become convinced that the alienation that afflicts so many prosperous black Americans is the result of false narratives told by demagogues and ideologues about how “white supremacy” threatens them, or how we have, in effect, reverted to the era of Jim Crow.
We can rebut these departures from reality in part just by looking at what has happened over the past 75 years. A black middle class has emerged. There are black billionaires. Black influence on American culture is stunning and has worldwide resonance. In fact, when viewed in global comparative perspective, we black Americans are rich and powerful with, for example, ten times the per capita income of a typical Nigerian.
All of this disproves the premise that the American Dream does not apply to us black people. To say that it doesn’t apply is to tell a lie to our children about their country—a crippling lie which, when taken as gospel, robs our people of agency and a sense of control over our fate. It’s also a patronizing lie that betrays profound doubt about our ability to face up to the responsibilities and to bear the burdens of our freedom. For that is the existential challenge we black Americans now face in the twenty-first century: not to throw off the shackles of our supposed oppression but to take up the burdens of our freedom. To whom much has been given, of him much shall be required.
For this saga is not over. Freedom is one thing; equality, quite another. The former is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the latter. As such, it is both futile and dangerous for us black Americans to rely on others to shoulder our communal responsibilities. If we want to walk with dignity—to enjoy truly equal standing within this diverse, prosperous, and dynamic society—then we must accept the fact that “white America” can never give us what we seek in response to our protests and remonstrations.
I take no pleasure in doing so but feel obliged to report this reality: equality of dignity, equality of standing, of honor, of security in one’s position within society, an equal ability to command the respect of others—such things cannot simply be handed over. Nor will they be the fruit of insurrection, violent uprising, or rebellion. Equality of this sort is something we must wrest with our bare hands from a cruel and indifferent world by means of our own effort, inspired by the example of our enslaved and newly freed ancestors. We must make ourselves equal. No one can do that for us. My fear is that, until we recognize and accept this unlovely but inexorable fact about the human condition—until we disdain the rhetoric and embrace the realities about race in our country—the disparities that have so troubled our politics and so threatened our domestic tranquility will continue to persist.