Race: Asking the Right Questions, Avoiding the “Wrong” Answers

Robert Putnam, the Harvard political scientist who became famous 20 years ago for his “bowling alone” hypothesis about the erosion of social capital in the U.S., is out with a new co-authored book (with Shaylyn Romney Garrett) on racial disparities, The Upswing. Although a liberal, Putnam has not shrunk in the past from reporting data findings uncongenial to liberals, such as his careful work concluding that “diversity” and high rates of immigration actually lead to the erosion of social trust.

A long excerpt from the book appears today in the New York Times under the title “Why Did Racial Progress Stall?“, and it does not shrink from observing some uncongenial facts about racial progress (and the lack of it in recent decades):

In terms of material well-being, Black Americans were moving toward parity with white Americans well before the victories of the civil rights era. What’s more, after the passage of civil rights legislation, those trends toward racial parity slowed, stopped and even reversed. . . In measure after measure, positive change for Black Americans was actually faster in the decades before the civil rights revolution than in the decades after.

Some examples:

  • The Black/white ratio of high school completion improved dramatically between the 1940s and the early 1970s, after which it slowed, never reaching parity. College completion followed the same trajectory until 1970, then sharply reversed.

These data reveal a too-slow but unmistakable climb toward racial parity throughout most of the century that begins to flatline around 1970 — a picture quite unlike the hockey stick of historical shorthand.

Social scientists such as the recently deceased Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell, Charles Murray, and others have pointed out these facts for decades now, and have been asking whether the Great Society social programs backfired. This hypothesis remains forbidden to liberals still—it is an answer so “wrong” that you aren’t even allowed to ask it in polite liberal company, and sure enough, Putnam and his co-author propose that the cause of the halting of black progress after the mid-1960s is attributable to two possible causes far removed from any effects of the welfare state.

The first is “white backlash,” which is hardly new, though strangely neither Putnam nor the legions of other thinkers who make this charge ever demonstrate any significant contraction in social welfare programs, civil rights enforcement, or “affirmative action” efforts to assist blacks and other minorities. Nor do the proponents of “white backlash” ever entertain reasons why whites might have thought the Great Society made a cascade of mistakes.

The second explanation runs toward the bizarre. Putnam and Garrett say the reversal of black progress owes to what they call “a single meta-trend that we have come to call the “I-we-I” curve: An inverted U charting America’s gradual climb from self-centeredness to a sense of shared values, followed by a steep descent back into egoism over the next half century.”

I thought I’d heard of everything, but I’ve never heard of the “I-we-I” curve, though upon further exploration it appears to be nothing more original that another familiar idea usually applied more generally—namely, that modern times have over-encouraged hyper-individualism (and hence selfishness). You can find a conservative version of this argument in Patrick Deneen’s book Why Liberalism Failed.

I guess I’ll have to read the whole book as the Times excerpt doesn’t make much of a case that we can attribute the halt in black progress to increasing individualism. There is something strange about the idea that black progress flourished relatively in the face of harsh legal barriers, socially sanctioned racism, and a meager share of public resources, but faltered when all three of those factors were finally and decisively changed. And yet liberals accuse conservatives of “epistemic closure.”