Monday, August 20, 2007

Live in the now, man

Last week, Roger Clegg of the Center for Economic Opportunity spoke to the Milwaukee Lawyers' Chapter of the Federalist Society. Roger is a long time critic of racial preferences (and blogs at NRO Online, although his talk on Thursday was on immigration and assimilation. (He is for both.)I had the pleasure of having breakfast with Roger with a few other lawyers. He's a charming and engaging fellow.

One of my questions for him was whether we can ever expect meaningful dialogue on race as long as the conversation is dominated by baby boomers? Maybe we - or at least our older brothers and sisters - need to shuffle off to the Early Bird before we can make any more headway on this issue.

More evidence for this over the weekend in the discussion of the Governor's Commission on racial disparities in the criminal justice system. Responding to my reflection on his critique of John McAdams, Bill Christofferson says that the reasons for the higher incarceration rate of blacks - whether racism or some "systemic problem" - really doesn't matter. Whatever the cause, the disparity is "unacceptable." We have to bring those numbers in line.

That's a boomer notion. We grew up - not without good reason - to believe that discrimination of the majority against "the other" was the dominant evil. But what if the higher incarceration rate of blacks really reflects - at least to a substantial degree - real differences in rates of crime? Even if those differences are the result of poverty or a legacy of discrimination, focusing on the incarceration rate and not the crimes has a price that must be paid by the criminals' victims who, in this case, are also overwhelmingly black.

Eugene Kane's column in yesterday's paper tries to wave the issue away. To suggest that the difference in incarceration rates reflects something other than racial mistreatment is racism:

When black people make up only 6% of the Wisconsin population but 45% of the prison population, the only people who actually believe African-Americans are the only ones using illegal drugs, stealing property, driving drunk or committing violent crimes must be convinced black folks are truly a demon spawn.

But if you reject the racist position that blacks are more criminally inclined than other people, the numbers do suggest the criminal justice system somehow finds it much easier to send black guys to prison, which is essentially what many speakers at a series of community forums have told the commission members all over the state.

That's a boomer argument. It's a shut up line. It still works although it also breeds animosity and distrust. McAdams and others are not saying that African-Americans are the "only ones" committing crimes, only that there are differences in rates of criminality between racial groups. (The most law abiding racial group, incidentally, is not whites; it's asians.)They are not saying that blacks are more "inclined" to commit crimes. My own belief is that blacks are more likely to be raised and live in circumstances that correlate with criminality.

But, again, if you rule out the possibility that something other than discrimination is the culprit, you won't solve the problem and the price of your ride on the moral high horse will be paid by people who "look like" (I hate that phrase) Eugene Kane.

Kane, as he sometimes does, actually winds up closer to the truth when he suggests talking to inmates at the state's prisons. He suggests that they won't make excuses for themselves. They have paid a price too, but just why they have paid it remains the critical question and I still have no confidence that the Governor's commission will make much progress on that.


James Rowen said...

I think that Boomers got their anti-discrimination perspective from their ethical and religions Judeo-Christian upbringings.

James Rowen said...

Make that "ethical and religious upbringings."