Moral Uplift

A question I am always asking myself is how much personal responsibility we should assign to individuals when it comes to success in terms of finances, relationships, careers, and life in general. The society that we live within is complicated swirling atmosphere that lifts some to the highest levels and buffers across the ground. Recently I have been writing about the challenges that minorities face in the United States, and the relative advantages experienced by our country’s white majority. At the same time, I have been listening to Tyler Cowen and thinking about his most recent book which I have not read, The Complacent Class. Several of the authors that I have read who focus on race in the United States, Ta-Nehisi Coats, Michelle Alexander, and Michael Tesler, have emphasized the ways in which factors beyond an individual’s control, such as race, shape the opportunities and futures that we have. Other authors that I have read or listened to extensively in podcasts, Cowen, Ryan Holiday, and Richard Wiseman, seem to suggest that mindset matters a great deal, and that we can adopt better thought patterns to achieve great success. These two views are not mutually exclusive, but are tied together in a complex set of interactions by personal responsibility.

 

About personal responsibility and society in The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes, “Urging the urban poor—or anyone—to live up to their highest ideals and values is a good thing, as it demonstrates confidence in the ability of all people to stretch, grow, and evolve. Even in the most dire circumstances, we all have power and agency, the ability to choose what we think and how we respond to the circumstances of our lives.” Alexander’s quote puts the idea of mindset to action in this quote, highlighting the importance of believing that anyone at anytime can find success. She emphasizes the importance of self-efficacy, believing that one has the ability to reach beyond their current situation and to make the most of who they are and where they find themselves. Alexander continues, “The intuition underlying moral-uplift strategies is fundamentally sound: out communities will never thrive if we fail to respect ourselves and one another.”

 

I believe that Alexander is correct that we have to respect ourselves and believe that we can make changes and advance in our own lives if we are to be successful and if we are to contribute to society. At the same time, I think it is important that we recognize that our personal responsibility also extends to how we interact with society and with those who are also facing obstacles of their own. The challenges that middle and upper class white people face are real, but so is the ability for them to recover, receive coaching and mentoring, and to get a second chance. For our low income populations and our minority populations, the personal responsibility piece holds true, but the ability to recover and find a second chance is not related to personal responsibility and is not always available.

 

Alexander looks deeper at personal responsibility and our reactions to ideas of personal responsibility writing, “As a liberation strategy, however, the politics of responsibility is doomed to fail—not because there is something especially wrong with those locked in ghettos or prisons today, but because there is nothing special about them. They are merely human.”

 

Malcom Gladwell in episode 4, Carlos Doesn’t Remember, from his podcast Revisionist History, explains the ways in which even our top performing youth from low income families can be derailed from a path of success. The consequence, he explains, of failing to overcome a single obstacle for a child born to the lowest SES families are overwhelmingly large, and the second chances or ability to recover from a stumble that is afforded to middle and upper class children is non-existent.

 

Somewhere tied between all of these factors lies personal responsibility. We are responsible for how we choose to react to the world around us. Our mind is the only thing we control and can be a tool for overcoming obstacles and not just a camera that reacts to what it sees around itself. At the same time, we cannot control the windfalls of success or adversity that we will face. And all the while we must remember that it is our personal responsibility to be there for others and guide and mentor those who are also facing challenging times. Where we draw the line of personal responsibility matters. It determines how we analyze the future potential of ourselves and others, and it determines how much assistance we receive and give to those around us. The problem is that it is invisible, connected to social responsibility, and entangled with all the things that drag our nation down that we want to forget.

Our Vision of Criminals and Drug Users

In the United States we have a habit of conflating racial minorities with criminality, drug use, and poverty. When we think about the poor areas of our town, when we think about welfare beneficiaries, and when we think about the people in our jails and prisons we mostly imagine minority individuals and groups. This is not a vision that happened by chance and it is not exactly representative of the populations that live in poverty, have been incarcerated, or use drugs. Our nation built this vision slowly but surely over time starting with the Reagan administration’s war on drugs and rhetoric that established an us versus them mentality in regard to welfare, drug use, and poverty. Very deliberately, the administration and media in the 1980s and 1990s portrayed poor blacks as “them” while suburban whites were cast as the threatened “us”.

Michelle Alexander explains how this started and was fueled in her book The New Jim Crow. She discusses the ways in which incarceration became our answer for drug use, poverty, and growing minority populations. Casting minorities as bad and dangerous people was necessary to build support for greater government control over minority populations. Over time, with continued rhetoric and continued attacks from political elites, race and criminality became entwined so closely that “colorblind” individuals could discuss race and champion policies that would lead to disparate impacts for racial groups without having the appearance of ever discussing race. Alexander shares examples in her book.

She quotes an interview with Jerome Miller, the former executive director of the National Center for Institutions and Alternatives, “There are certain code words that allow you to never have to say ‘race,’ but everybody knows that’s what you mean and ‘crime’ is one of those… so when we talk about locking up more and more people, what we’re really talking about is locking up more and more black men.” Alexander also quotes Melissa Hickman Barlow from Time and Newsweek in 1989, “It is unnecessary to speak directly of race [today] because speaking about crime is talking about race.” And finally, Alexander cites a journal article from 1995 written by Betty Watson Burston, Dionne Jones, and Pat Robertson-Saunders in the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Abuse to describe the way that America had come to see black people and drug use. Alexander writes, “A survey was conducted in 1995 asking the following question: ‘Would you close your eyes for a second, envision a drug user, and describe that person to me?’ The startling results were published in the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education. Ninety-five percent of respondents pictured a black drug user, while only 5 percent imagined other racial groups.”

What the examples above show is that our country views racial groups very differently. Black people in our minds are associated with poverty, drug use, and criminality. White people are associated with success and money. It is important to recognize how we view different racial groups so that we understand the subtext of our politicians, friends, neighbors, and Facebook-ranting relatives when they talk about harsh sentences for drug users or about policies to be tough of crime. What they really mean in these situations, based on our shared vision of who uses drugs and who commits crime, is that they will be tough on black people. We must understand also how these visions shape our implicit biases and how these expectations of different races impact the children growing up in communities across the country. White children grow up learning that black people are poor criminals and that they need to be controlled, and black children grow up learning that they themselves are dangerous, violent, and prone to drug use. This shapes how our children approach the world and find their place in society. In a very real way then, the rhetoric we use and the language we share begins to impact the way people understand their role and identity in society, and shapes the outcomes as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecys.

The Responsibility of Those Affected

About a one or two years ago I remember hearing an interesting fact. There are more white people living in poverty in the United States than there are black people. But when you ask someone to picture a person living in poverty, most people vision a black person struggling to get by. In her book The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander gives us some background of how racial attitudes developed in our country, particularly in how race was used as a political tool to shape ideas and thoughts regarding low income black people. She explains the ways in which black people were framed as dangerous, flawed, and undeserving and how these descriptions were used politically to establish political attitudes based on race within the United States. Overtime, these attitudes have persisted, and have been intentionally used to split low socioeconomic status white people in our country from black people and minority populations.

Alexander writes, “by 1972, attitudes on racial issues rather than socioeconomic status were the primary determinant of voters’ political self-identification. The late 1960s and early 1970s marked the dramatic erosion in the belief among working-class whites that the condition of the poor, or those who fail to prosper, was the result of a faulty economic system that needed to be challenged. As the Edsalls explain, ‘the pitting of whites and blacks at the low end of the income distribution against each other intensified the view among many whites that the condition of life for the disadvantaged—particularly for disadvantaged blacks—is the responsibility of those affected, and not the responsibility of the larger society.’”

The quote from Alexander shows us that race, racial attitudes, and the systems of support we develop in our country are flexible and open to manipulation. There is no reality behind race, but racial ideas have been used for political purposes throughout our countries history. Alexander argues (and her argument has been supported by other researchers) that bottom-up movements that placed lower classes against upper classes in the United States have been countered and broken up with the use of racial prejudices and attitudes. In the 1970’s President Nixon pushed the idea that black people were dangerous, and that the state needed to crack down on black crime. From these ideas and from this desire to break up a coalition of low socioeconomic status black and white people came racial exploitation and discrimination, leading to the start of a mass incarceration system in the United States.

What I have found particularly interesting in our country is the belief that people hold about becoming rich. We like to believe that we will all somehow reach the top socioeconomic status groups, and we tend to believe that hard work and smart decisions are all that are needed to reach those upper echelons.  While it is certainly true that hard work and smart decision making is necessary to be materially and financially successful, we should not over inflate the importance of those factors and decrease the importance of luck, familial income level at birth, and of social attitudes and thoughts about you and people who share your identities.  We must recognize that financial and material success are not solely the responsibility of the individual, and by the same logic failure and poverty are not inherently the responsibility of the individual poor. How we structure society, how we allow or bar individuals from participating in the economy, and how we treat certain groups and individuals matters in terms of who succeeds and who does not. Aspiring to become successful does not mean that we should treat the highest socioeconomic status groups differently, simply because we believe we will somehow be there and will somehow benefit from policies that clearly disadvantage us and the rest of society.

Communities of Fear

Our nation today faces challenges of concentrated poverty and dangerous neighborhoods that lead to stress, fear, and trauma for the families and children living within them. Senator Cory Booker looks at what life is like for people in these neighborhoods and how it impacts our nation’s well being in his book United. Booker served as mayor of Newark, New Jersey and shares a story about a concerned mother whose child was dealing with trauma and symptoms similar to post traumatic stress disorder after experiencing a gun fight in an impoverished neighborhood in Newark. Focusing on the dangers that these neighborhoods produce and the mental trauma facing those living in such neighborhoods, Booker writes,

“When fear becomes the norm, it stalks your life relentlessly, lurking and casting shadows over your daily routine. Fear changes you. Fear changes us. My parents worried about me, but they never had to deal with an ever present fear that violence could erupt at any moment and consume their child in an instant, affecting him or her in ways that no hug or loving assurance could heal.”

The fear that Booker describes is a result of concentrated poverty and unsafe neighborhoods. Our society has decided that the best way to organize people’s living spaces is to segregate individuals and families based on income. Honest concerns for property values and natural desires to be surrounded by similar people and nice things has pushed societies to split regions and housing based on income, creating wealthy neighborhoods and neighborhoods of intense poverty. The fear that Booker describes in the quote above is the result of living in a situation where poor people are pushed together and in some ways ignored. Regarding the trauma present in these neighborhoods Booker writes, “This is not normal, but somehow we behave as if it is. We accept it. If anything we think it is ‘their’ problem.”

I don’t have a perfect solution to end housing problems and neighborhood violence, but I think that Booker demonstrates that concentrated poverty and the problems it creates are unfairly faced by those with the fewest resources to overcome such challenges. Society often turns a blind eye to the ghettos we have designed to house our poor, and fail to see the choices society has made in establishing neighborhoods in the way we have. The fear and trauma that so many face makes it nearly impossible to overcome the obstacles present in such communities.

Political Advocacy

Political Advocacy is something I think of constantly. Personally, I am getting ready to return to school and I plan to study for a Masters in Public Policy.  What I find interesting is the idea of studying and understanding our problems and having a chance to truly consider what types of actions will benefit those who need help most. Often times the perception of our problems and the reality of our problems are not aligned, and we bemoan a particular policy even though it may not be as serious or have the negative consequences that our voices suggest. For Peter Singer in his book The Most Good You Can Do, political advocacy is presented in another light, as a way to make changes that impact those who live in the most profound poverty, and to provide the means for changing situations which drive so many into poverty.

 

“Political advocacy is an attractive option because it responds to critics who say that aid treats just the symptoms of global poverty, leaving its causes untouched” Singer writes to show that simply providing aid may not be  the most effective way to improve the lives of individuals. Organizations and groups that help develop fair trade, fight corruption, and advocate for the citizens of a country can shape the world for those living in poverty. Advocacy can help them find a more stable economic base, and it can provide for more clear paths out of extreme poverty.

 

Singer seems to be on the fence about the true impact of donations and efforts related to political advocacy. He argues for it but it is clear that he is concerned about how much anyone can claim that their lobbying impacted the decisions that were made.  He finds it a useful way to make donations or become involved to help others, but the difficulty of measuring ones true impact makes political advocacy seem to be a second tier form of difference making in Singer’s views of effective altruism.

How Effective Altruists Capitalize on Capitalism

In his book The Most Good You Can Do Peter Singer explains the way he thinks about economic objectives, equality, and how capitalism affects the American public.  Singer is globally focused on reducing the suffering of people in extreme poverty and what he explains in his book is that the levels of extreme poverty seen in the united states are far lower than levels seen in other countries. He also explores the idea that to be poor in the United States is better than to be poor in developing countries where there is not a structure of assistance and where there are not wealthy people who are able to make donations to help others.
Singer focuses on the idea of the wealthy helping those who are not as fortunate in his book, but his ideas of wealthy might not align with ours. With his global focus he sees ways in which the average American is vastly more wealthy than most people living throughout the world. Even though we may not consider ourselves wealthy, we are often much better off in the United States, and we often have a much greater opportunity to help others through doing good.
Capitalism in The Most Good You Can Do is explored as the source for both the great wealth in the United States even though it is also a source for great inequality within the our country and the global community. Interestingly, Singer views equality as a secondary goal or a useful byproduct of a society focused on doing good. He writes, “effective altruists typically value equality not for its own sake but only because of its consequences.” I would argue that Singer greatly values political equality and social equality since somewhere at the base of effective altruism one must believe that those who they are helping are equals because we are all human. However, the idea of everyone being on equal footing socially and economically is not a key aspect of effective altruism.  Effective altruists are not driving for more wealth and more things, but may drive toward greater salaries because it means they will have a chance to do more and provide more for those who are in the most unfortunate of situations.
“No doubt capitalism does drive some people into extreme poverty — it is such a vast system that it would be surprising if it did not — but it has also lifted hundreds of millions out of extreme poverty.  It would not be easy to demonstrate that capitalism has driven more people into extreme poverty than it has lifted out of it; indeed there are good grounds for thinking that the opposite is the case.”
Singer’s quote shows that our economic system cannot be blamed for the greatness of our society nor for its shortfalls. People within the same system experience greatly different pressures and outcomes, but what determines the overall health of our society is how we use the system in place. In capitalism the very wealthy have taken advantage of the system to benefit themselves, which is a side effect of the system that does deserve criticism.  I would argue that on the other end of the system, thinking of a socialist or communist society, we would fear that those who are the most disadvantaged would find ways to take advantage of the system as opposed to those who are the most wealthy.
The argument that I believe Singer would make, in regards to capitalism, is that those who do become super wealthy, or even moderately wealthy (which may mean the average American when we adopt a global perspective), can do the most good by choosing to redirect their resources to causes that they can meaningfully impact and that will meaningfully impact the lives of those who suffer the most.  Without a capitalistic system that allows us all to obtain the most wealth possible, we lose the opportunity to do the most good possible. A focus on social responsibility within a capitalistic society, Singer would argue, is the greatest change and source of positivity the world can provide.