Babbling Brooks

[Preface: The title of this post was originally “David Brooks.” A good friend thought that was unimaginative, and suggested “Babbling Brooks,” which as you can see I’ve accepted. It’s good to have smart, imaginative friends.]

Something about David Brooks, or maybe about me, has changed. Either he used to be smart but now isn’t, or I’ve just changed my mind. (I’m ruling out the theoretical possibility that I’ve gotten smarter.) Take his New York Times column today, “The Quiet Death of Racial Progress.” It’s almost a parody of, well, a New York Times column.

Brooks begins by saying that he intended to write “a comforting column” arguing “that even though Donald Trump is doing his best to inflame racial division, we are still making gradual progress against racism and racial disparities.” Although Brooks is obviously inflamed, he didn’t mention any examples of Trump’s racist efforts. But let that go; it’s a column, after all, not a book.

He then offered a parade of actual evidence indicating racial progress: high school completion rates, record low unemployment, record high movement into the middle class, black women out-earning white women, etc. But the deeper he dub the more he came to doubt the progress that this evidence indicates. He found evidence of “stagnation or even decay.” The decline in poverty? Not so much recently. “A steady societal wind pushing against African-American men.” No progress toward “integration.” Etc.

The progress evidence he had presented strikes me as stronger than the “quiet death” evidence he offered to justify his pessimism, but leave that aside as well.

But then came this revelatory bombshell: “As a nation we seem to have lost all enthusiasm for racial integration. A culture of individualism has led people to focus more on individual outcomes and less on the components of each community.”

So, our problem is that Americans are too individualistic! We are concerned more with “individual outcomes” than “components of each community,” whatever that means. Why, just look at our “civil rights” laws, he could have written but didn’t. They are written to protect individuals from being discriminated against because of their race, not to guarantee “community” outcomes. In any event Brooks is in good company for ignoring that troubling (to him) feature of those laws, since courts have given that language short shrift as well, when they’ve given it any shrift at all.

As for additional evidence of decline, Brooks says the left is correct when it points to “the systems of oppression that pervade society: the legacy of residential segregation; the racist attitudes in the workplace that demonstrably make it much harder for African-American men to get jobs; the prejudices — in the schools, in the streets and in the judicial system — that make it much more likely that African-American males will be punished, incarcerated and marginalized.”

That’s bombastic rhetoric, not evidence. Could it be, for example, that African-American males are disproportionately punished and incarcerated because they commit more crimes?

To his credit, Brooks also recognizes that “conservatives” are right to point out that black men who are or have been in the military, who were brought up in two parent families, and who attend church are much less likely to be held down by the “systems of oppression” that affect others, but he then concludes that “the left” and “conservatives” are both right, not that the conservative “bourgeois norms” evidence calls into question the left’s pervasive “systems of oppression” explanation for everything.

But what do you expect from the New York Times, or these days from David Brooks?



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