Glenn C. Loury, Department of Economics, Boston University
Paper prepared for the conference:
“Reparations: An Interdisciplinary Examination of Some Philosophical Issues”
Department of Philosophy, Queens University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada
Feb. 6-8, 2004
Abstract: I argue that the disadvantaged situation of African Americans constitutes a gross historical injustice in American society, but that the payment of slavery reparations is not an appropriate remedy for this injustice. Rather, past racial injustice in the U.S. should be understood to establish a general presumption against indifference to present racial inequality. While the quantitative attribution of causal weight to distant historical events required by reparations advocacy is not workable, one can still support qualitative claims. Rather than conceiving the problem of a morally problematic racial history in compensatory terms, I propose to see the problem in interpretative terms, wherein justice requires a public recognition of the severity, and (crucially) the contemporary relevance, of what has transpired. The result would be to encourage a shared basis of civic memory – an agreed upon public “narrative” about the problem of racial inequality – through which the fact of past racial injury, and its ongoing consequences, can enter into current political discourses.
Outline for this essay:
II. Racial Stigma not Racial Discrimination
III. Problems with Color-Blind Liberalism
IV. Epistemic Difficulties
The Interpretative Approach
Should African Americans, in keeping with an idea of trans-generational justice, receive reparations for the historical crimes of slavery and Jim Crow segregation? That question is being asked with growing intensity across America. If one understands by “reparations” the receipt of financial transfers as compensation for historical crimes, my answer to this question is a resounding, “No.” In this essay, which draws on economics, sociology, politics and philosophy, I attempt to support this position while leaving room for the possibility that some claims can be sustained on behalf of African Americans that arise from the many racial injustices perpetrated against them and their ancestors over the course of U.S. history. Before getting to my argument proper, I wish to put forward some common sense reasons to think that we black Americans have little to gain and much to lose from making "Reparations Now" the next civil rights rallying cry:
[Conceptualizing Harm] Consider the complex character of the harm. To repair the consequences of historical crimes we need to begin with an understanding of what has been lost. Depriving the ancestors of current-day African Americans of the fruits of their labors was not, I argue, the gravest injury done them. Rather, it was the relegation of the black slaves and their progeny to a status of social pariahs, which constituted the severest harm. This harm, I claim, will not be reversed, and may indeed be reinforced, by the successful advocacy for slavery reparations.
[Political Challenges] Consider the demographics. When it comes to race in America, "them times, they are a-changin'." We are no longer, and will never again be, a nation of blacks and whites. Some 30 million immigrants, mostly of non-European origins, have arrived on our shores since the height of the civil rights movement. These new Americans and their children have a claim to the national narrative no less surely than do blacks. It is their country, too. Of course, new citizens of this republic are obligated like the rest of us to shoulder their share of national responsibilities, including the discharge of any debt the country has incurred as a result of historical wrongs. But, a racial reform movement built around the theme of paying reparations to blacks is unlikely to engage these newcomers, making the construction of political coalitions in support of progressive public policies that are essential for black flourishing less likely to occur.
[Epistemological Problems] Consider that there is no intellectually defensible way to put a price tag on slavery. Any sum mentioned is arbitrary. This is because the tort-law model underlying reparations advocacy – he who harms another must make the injured party whole – is hopelessly muddled when applied here. How would one even begin to demonstrate in quantitative terms the nature and extent of injury? Given the wide economic disparities to be observed among white Americans of various ethnic groups, who can know how blacks would have fared but for the wrongs of the past? Who can say what the out-of-wedlock birth rate for blacks would be, absent chattel slavery? How does one calculate the cost of inner-city ghettos, of poor education, of the stigma of perceived racial inferiority? The damage done by slavery and its aftermath is at once too subtle and too profound to be evaluated in monetary terms.
[Issues of Interpretation] Consider the symbolic tone of reparations advocacy. At the deepest level, it seems not even to be the money that animates most advocates. [See Randall Robinson, 2000, for an example of this rhetorical posture.] The deeper demand seems to be that America, by making amends, should fully acknowledge its wrongful past. While, as will become clear, I agree with this sentiment, I also think that it is rather late in the day for African Americans to be satisfied with a politics of symbolism. Substantive political gains for today's descendants of slaves require forging coalitions with those non-blacks who can see the need to extend greater opportunities to every American now being left behind. This means appealing to people on the basis of universal ideals, and proposing programs the benefits from which are available in principle to all who need them. I can see no way to fight black poverty, black imprisonment, inadequate black health care or deficient black education without, at one and the same time, fighting the poverty, imprisonment, poor health care and failed education that afflicts non-black Americans as well. Nor can I see any real justification for doing so.
[Civic Construction Goals] Reparations advocacy invites the majority of Americans to see the problem as one where “we” do something for “them.” What is needed, however, is to construct a “we” – meaning all Americans – capable of righting whatever social injustices plague our society – for “our own sake” in this country, so that our moral pronouncements on the world stage will not be made into a hollow mockery. Slavery's consequences will be minimized only when we have established a regime of social provision that affords every American the chance to live a full and satisfying life. For blacks to gain reparations without attaining this goal would be to win a false victory. For then, when the horrible consequences of our troubled racial past persist in the blighted lives of millions of poor black people, skeptical onlookers will be able to say, "We'd love to help, but you Negroes have already been paid."
This essay is organized as follows: Drawing on my book The Anatomy of Racial Inequality (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002),I will offer in the next section a conceptual model of the propagation through history of racial injury. This model guides my thought about the problem of reparations and supports the conclusions here advanced. The core idea is that racial stigma, not racial discrimination, constitutes the deepest and most enduring historical harm done to blacks in the U.S. Following this, I will consider the limitations of one frequently encountered argument against slavery reparations, which I will refer to as color-blind liberalism. I then take-up some of the epistemic difficulty for inferring causal connections over long stretches of history, and the resulting implications of this difficulty for formulating a coherent conception of historical claims. Finally, I offer a statement of my proposed alternative approach, advocating an interpretative, as distinct from a compensatory, approach to meeting the imperative of historical justice in the case of black Americans.
II. Understanding the Harm: Racial Stigma not Racial Discrimination
In this section I will discuss the conceptual framework that guides my thinking about the problem of racial inequality in the US. I have two broad aims: to outline a theory of “race” applicable to the social and historical circumstances of the United States; and, to sketch a speculative account of why racial inequality in the U.S. is so persistent. Fundamental to my approach is the distinction between racial discrimination and racial stigma. Racial discrimination has to do with how blacks are treated, while racial stigma is concerned with how black people are perceived. My fundamental premise is that reward bias is now a less significant barrier than is development bias to the full participation of African-Americans in US society. Reward bias refers to the unfair treatment of persons based on race in formal economic and bureaucratic transactions, limiting the rewards they can receive for the skills and talents they present to the market. Development bias refers to blocked access for persons in a subordinate racial group to resources that are essential for the development of human skills and the refinement of talents, due to the fact that resources of this kind often become available to persons as a byproduct of informal, non-market-mediated but race-influenced social relations.
I do not claim these two kinds of bias to be mutually exclusive: the acquisition of skills can be blocked by market discrimination; and, the maintenance of a discriminatory order against the pressures of market competition may rely on various instruments of informal social control. Still, I think this distinction is useful for, whereas the reward bias emerging from market discrimination presents a straightforward moral problem, and calls forth the obvious and nearly universally embraced remedy of anti-discrimination law, development bias is a subtler, more insidious moral problem – one, I will argue, that may be difficult to remedy in any manner likely to garner a majority’s support. This difficulty has both a cognitive and an ethical dimension. From a cognitive point of view, many observers, when seeking an explanation for a group’s poor social performance, may not distinguish between limited opportunities for development and limited innate capacities to develop. From an ethical point of view, citizens who find the overt discrimination by race associated with reward bias to be noxious may be less offended by the covert social discrimination that underlies development bias. All of this is relevant to a discussion of reparations because given the facts of human developmental dynamics, the irreversibility of harms associated with blocked developmental opportunities, and the inability of financial transfers to offset those harms, to the extent that development bias is the main culprit, a compensatory goal for reparations will be that much more difficult to attain.
The subordinate position of blacks in the contemporary social economy of the U.S. derives from the stigmatized status of blacks in the society, and not the other way around. Racial stigma (about which more momentarily) inhibits African Americans from gaining access to those networks of social affiliation where developmental resources are most readily appropriated. The main problem today is not a race-influenced marketplace refusing to reward black talent, but race-influenced patterns of social intercourse refusing many black people a chance to reach their full human potential, and a race-influenced psychology of valuation that denies to African Americans the tacit presumption of equal human worth. My key point is that blacks’ stigmatized status in the social imagination is reinforced, reproduced and justified by their subordinate position in the economic order, creating a vicious circle which, though it originates in the distant past, has now taken-on a life of its own. Blacks’ “underperformance” is rooted in their social isolation and tacit devaluation, while this isolation and devaluation is legitimated and normalized by widely held perceptions about black underperformance. Unfortunately, race-conditioned social policy, of which reparations is one variant, is likely to prove insufficient to counteract this self-reinforcing dynamic.
My view on the ontological status of “race” under girds and reinforces this way of thinking. As one who takes “race” to be a social construction, I place great weight on the subjective and inter-subjective aspects of racial awareness. I take mainly a cognitive rather than a normative stance toward race-conscious behavior, looking to how human agents process social experience and how they organize their perceptions, examining the categories into which they sort those others whom they encounter in society. What we see in the phenomenon of “race” is that a field of human subjects characterized by morphological variability (differences in skin tone, hair texture, facial bone structure and the like) comes through concrete historical experience to be partitioned into subgroups defined by some cluster of these physical markers. Information-hungry agents then hang expectations around these markers, beliefs that can, by processes I have discussed elsewhere in some detail (see Loury 2002, Chp. 2), become self-confirming. Meaning-hungry agents invest these markers with social, psychological, and even spiritual significance. Markers become the basis of social and personal identities. Narrative accounts of descent are constructed around them. Collectivities of mutually susceptible agents -- sharing feelings of pride, honor, shame, loyalty, and hope – come into existence based to some extent on their holding these race-markers in common. This vesting of reasonable expectation and ineffable meaning in objectively arbitrary markings of the human body comes, through social and political struggles mediated by economic and institutional structures, to be reproduced over the generations. It takes on a social life of its own, seems natural not merely conventional, and ends up having profound consequences for social relations obtaining among individuals within the "raced" society.
Now, taking “race” to be a conventional, not a natural category, suggests that the symbolic connotations of racial categorization in American life may be helpful to understand the extent and durability of the subordinate position of black people. The conceptual frame I envision for this essay builds on the observation that, due to the history and culture of this society, powerful negative connotations have come to be associated with particular bodily marks carried by some citizens. I claim that this is decidedly the case with respect to the marks that connote “blackness” in U.S. society. (This claim is defended at length in Loury 2002, chp.3) To understand racial inequality in this society I propose that scholars should place great emphasis on how observers perceive and interpret social data bearing on the status of disadvantaged racial groups – an approach that is to be distinguished from the traditional focus on some racial dislike or antipathy that members of the dominant group are said to harbor against members of the subordinate racial group.
My argument begins with the broad observation that we humans have the innate tendency to impute an ineffable significance to the artifacts that furnish our lives. That is, we look for and derive meaning from the material substratum in which we are embedded. Accordingly, human behavior is determined not only by material structures “out there” in the world, but also by what those structures are understood to signify “in here,” inside our minds. The bodily markings associated with racial categories are among those material structures in the American social environment to which meanings about the identity, capability, and worthiness of their bearers have been imputed.
Once established, these meanings can come to be taken for granted, enduring unchallenged for generations. In a hierarchical society, a correspondence may develop between a person’s social position and the physical marks taken in that society to signify race. Bodily signs that trigger in an observer’s mind the sense that their bearer is ordained to be “a hewer of wood and drawer of water,” or is a member of a “master race destined to rule the world,” or is a “social pariah best avoided at all costs” illustrate the possibilities. When the meanings connoted by race-symbols undermine an observing agent’s ability to see their bearer as a person possessing a common humanity with the observer – as “someone not unlike the rest of us” – then I say this person is “racially stigmatized,” and the group to which he belongs suffers a “spoiled collective identity.”
Historical context is everything here, and for the matter at hand the key contextual factor is the historical institution of chattel slavery. In his 1982 treatise, Slavery and Social Death, historical sociologist Orlando Patterson shows that to understand slavery one must grasp the importance of honor. Slavery, he argues, is a great deal more than an institution allowing property-in-people. It is “the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons,” Patterson argues. By surveying this institution across five continents over two millennia, he shows that the hierarchy of social standing—masters over slaves, reinforced by ritual and culture—is what distinguishes slavery from any other system of forced labor. In the American context, obviously, the rituals and customs supporting this hierarchical order—the system of taken-for-granted meanings that made possible an adherence to high Enlightenment ideals in the midst of widespread human bondage—came to be closely intertwined in both the popular and the elite culture with ideas about race. As such, dishonor, shown so brilliantly by Patterson to be a general and defining feature of slavery, became, in the (American) case at hand, inseparable from the social meaning of race.
So my syllogism is this: In general, slaves are profoundly dishonored persons. In the American context, slavery was a thoroughly racial institution. Ergo, the social meaning of race emergent in American political culture at mid-nineteenth century was closely connected with the slaves’ dishonorable status. Of course, that was a long time ago and it is true that many non-black Americans have ancestors who were profoundly dishonored in one way or another. Nevertheless, honest assessment of the contemporary American politic landscape – debates over welfare, crime, schools, jobs, taxes, housing, test scores, diversity, urban policy, and much more – reveals the lingering effects of this historically engendered racial dishonor. By “racial dishonor” I mean something specific: an entrenched if inchoate presumption of inferiority, of moral inadequacy, of unfitness for intimacy, of intellectual incapacity, harbored by observing agents when they regard the race-marked subjects. I assert that this specter of “social otherness,” of racial dishonor that emerged with slavery and that has been shaped over the post-emancipation decades by political, economic, and cultural forces specific to American society, remains yet to be fully eradicated. So my use of the term “racial stigma” alludes to this lingering residue in post-slavery American political culture of the dishonor engendered by racial slavery.
It is crucial to understand that this is not mainly an issue of the personal attitudes of individual Americans. To reject my argument here with the claim that “stigma cannot be so important because attitude surveys show a continued decline in expressed racism among Americans over the decades” is to thoroughly misunderstand me. I am discussing social meanings, not attitudes—specifically the meanings conveyed by race-related public actions and events. I am talking about the “etiquette of public discourse” and the “boundaries of legitimacy” that constrain politicians when they formulate and justify the policies they advocate. I have in mind the unexamined beliefs that influence how citizens understand and interpret the images they glean from the larger social world. I claim that the meaning of a policy – job preferences, say – can be quite sensitive to the race of those affected: Veterans are acceptable beneficiaries but blacks violate meritocratic principles. I assert that public responses to a social malady—drug involvement, say—depend on the race of those suffering the problem: The youthful city-dwelling drug sellers elicit a punitive response, while the youthful suburban-dwelling drug buyers call forth a therapeutic one.
Nothing in these examples, I claim, turns on the racial attitudes of the typical American. Everything depends, I am arguing, on racially biased social cognitions that cause some situations to appear anomalous, disquieting, contrary to expectation, worthy of further investigation, inconsistent with the natural order of things—while other situations appear normal, about right, in keeping with what one might expect, consistent with the social world as we know it. These cognitive distinctions tend to be drawn to the detriment of millions of racially stigmatized citizens, I assert, because of the taint of dishonor that is part and parcel of the social meaning of race in the United States. Now, I may be right or I may be wrong about this, but no attitude survey can decide the issue.
To illustrate, consider the debate over race and intelligence that has raged in recent years thanks in large part to the best-selling 1994 book, The Bell Curve by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray. What, I ask, does the typical well-educated American know about IQ differences among people from Tennessee, Texas, and Massachusetts? I venture that most Americans know next to nothing about such disparities, if any exist. Moreover, and this the key point, it would be illegitimate to make a factual claim about such differences in a public argument over policy – to object to the redistribution of resources between geographic regions within the county, for example, on the grounds that people in the less advantaged areas are already receiving their IQ-adjusted deserts.i Or I can put the point somewhat differently. The American population is aging. It is known that intelligence declines as a person ages, after some point in the life cycle. And, laws against age discrimination have invalidated mandatory retirement policies. These things taken together imply that the American workforce could become “dumber” if we baby boomers insist on staying in the workforce beyond our prime years. Where can one read about the dire consequences of this development for our future economic productivity? Nowhere. Why not? The reason, I suggest, is that those older, soon-to-be-less-intelligent workers are our mothers and fathers (or, in some cases, ourselves!) We are not about to set those people to one side so as to conduct an elaborate discourse about their fitness. And if they are “dumb,” then they are our “dumb” moms and dads. Like those living in different regions, we who belong to different generations will not permit ourselves to be sundered by any civic boundary. We will sink or swim together.
The point here, once again, is that some social disparities are salient and others not. The salience of social facts is not determined in an entirely rational, deductively confirmed manner. It involves a mode of cognition that depends on some prior patterning or orientation that is not, itself, the product of conscious reflection. I want to deepen the received theory of racial discrimination for this reflection on reparations because, in the case at hand (namely, racial inequality in the US) the disadvantaged racial group is often objectively less productive (i.e., has fewer useful skills on average than the dominant population according to conventional measures, or commits more crimes, or whatever.) And yet, this “objective” productivity gap is, I maintain, the outgrowth of a social process that is racially biased. This kind of thinking led me, in my doctoral thesis of 25 years ago (oh, my!), to coin the phrase “social capital.” (And what a stroke of good luck that was for me! My writing down those two words has led the late sociologist, James Coleman, in his treatise The Foundations of Social Theory to credit me with being one of the progenitors of the idea of social capital. And, given the way that the idea has taken-off, that’s proven to be a real windfall!) I was moved to use the phrase in my dissertation because it seemed to me then that the “human capital” account of individual variation in labor market earnings gave insufficient attention to the socially conditioned processes through which people come to “invest” in human capital, ignoring what is often the most interesting and morally problematic aspects of the inequality-generating processes. I argued that we should look not only to the rational calculation of the anticipated return on investment, but also to the factors which promote or impede an individuals’ access to resources critical to human development. This access, this “social capital,” depends upon a person’s inherited social position – who their parents are, who their neighbors are, what kind of community they grew up in, whom they were connected to, where they got their life-altering inspiration – things of this kind. So, if we want to understand inequality in this society, especially racial inequality, we must understand how such differences of social situation are produced and have been sustained over time. But the orthodox approach in economics didn’t invite us to think about that.
With this framework in mind, I wish to suggest that durable racial inequality can best be understood as the outgrowth of a series of what Gunnar Myrdal (1944) referred to as "vicious circles of cumulative causation." I am particularly interested in how “race” can bias processes of social cognition. That is, I am trying to move from the fact that people take note of racial classification in the course of their social interactions, to some understanding of how this affects their perceptions of the phenomena they observe in the social world around them, and how it shapes their explanations of those phenomena. I am asking, when does the race of those subject to some problematic social circumstance affect whether powerful observers perceive there to be a problem, and if so, what follows from this. I am suggesting that the tacit social meanings associated with "blackness" in the public's imagination biases the social cognitions of observing agents, inducing them to make detrimental causal misattributions. Confronted by the facts of objective racial disparity of performance, observers must adopt some "model" of what has generated their data. Their processes of social cognition and discernment, their awareness of anomaly and their capacity for empathy will be influenced by widely held beliefs in this regard. Because observers will have difficulty identifying with the plight of a group of people whom they (mistakenly) assume simply to be "reaping what they have sown," there will be little public support for egalitarian policies benefiting a stigmatized racial group. This, in turn, encourages the reproduction through time of racial inequality because, absent some policies of this sort, the low social conditions of many blacks (say) persist, the negative social meanings ascribed to blackness are thereby reinforced, and so the racially biased social-cognitive processes are reproduced, completing the circle.
It may help to make this point with a non-racial example. So, consider gender inequality, disparity in the social outcomes for boys and girls, in two different venues – the schools and the jails. Suppose that, when compared to the girls, the boys are over-represented among those doing well in math and science in the schools, and also among those doing poorly in society at large by ending-up in jail. There is some evidence to support both suppositions, but only the first is widely perceived to be a problem for public policy. Why? My answer is that it offends our basic intuition about the propriety of underlying social processes that boys and girls do differentially well in the technical curriculum. Although we may not be able to put our fingers on exactly why this outcome occurs, we instinctively know that it is not right. In the face of the disparity we are inclined to interrogate our institutions – to search the record of our social practice and examine myriad possibilities in order to see where things might have gone wrong. Our base-line expectation is that equality should prevail here. Our moral sensibility is offended when it does not. And so, an impetus to reform is spurred thereby. We cannot easily envision a wholly legitimate sequence of events that would produce the disparity, so we set ourselves the task of solving a problem.
On the other hand, gender disparity in rates of imprisonment occasions no such disquiet. This is because, tacitly if not explicitly, we are “gender essentialists.” That is, we think boys and girls are different in some ways relevant to explaining the disparity – different either in their biological natures, or in their deeply ingrained socializations. (Note well, the essentialism with which I am concerned need not be based solely or even mainly in biology. It can be grounded in (possibly false) beliefs about profound cultural difference as well.) As “gender essentialists,” our intuitions are not offended by the fact of vastly higher rates of imprisonment among males than females. We seldom ask any deeper questions about why this disparity has come about. And so, we see no problem.
Now, we may be right or wrong to act as we do in these gender disparity matters, but my point with the example is to show that the bare facts of gender disparity do not, in themselves, suggest any course of action. To act, we must marry the facts to some model of social causation. This model need not be explicit in our minds. It can and usually will lurk beneath the surface of our conscious reflections. Still, it is the facts plus the model that lead us to perceive a given circumstance as indicative of some as yet undiagnosed failing in our social interactions, or not. This kind of reflection on the deeper structure of our social-cognitive processes, as they bear on the issues of racial disparity, is what I had hoped to encourage with my discussion of “biased social cognition.” And, the role of “race” in such processes is what I am alluding to when I talk about “racial stigma.”ii
I see this argument as having important political implications. Imagine that an observer (correctly) takes note of the fact that, on the average and all else equal, commercial loans to blacks pose a greater risk of default, or that black residential neighborhoods are more likely to decline. This may lead that observer to withhold credit from blacks, or to move away from any neighborhood when more than a few blacks move into it. But, what if “race” conveys this information only because, when a great number of observers expect it to do so and act on that expectation, the result (through some possibly complex chain of social causation) is to bring about the confirmation of their beliefs? Perhaps blacks default more often precisely because they have trouble getting further extensions of credit in the face of a crisis. Or, perhaps non-black residents panic at the arrival of a few blacks, selling their homes too quickly and below the market value to lower-income (black) buyers, and it is this process that ends-up promoting neighborhood decline. If under such circumstances observers were to attribute racially disparate behaviors to deeply ingrained (biological or cultural) limitations of the African Americans – thinking, say, that blacks do not repay their loans or take care of their property because, for whatever reasons, they are just less responsible people on average – then these observers might well be mistaken. Yet, since their surmise about blacks is supported by hard evidence, they might well persist in the error. Such an error, persisted in, would be of great political moment, because if one attributes an endogenous difference (a difference produced within a system of interactions) to an exogenous cause (a cause located outside that system), then one is unlikely to see any need for systemic reform. This distinction between endogenous and exogenous sources of social causation, I am arguing, is the key to understanding the difference in our reformist intuitions about gender inequalities in the schools and in the jails: Because we think the disparity of school outcomes stems from endogenous sources, while the disparity of jail outcomes is tacitly attributed in most of our “causal models” to exogenous sources, we are differentially moved to do something about the disparities.
So, the effect I am after when I talk about “racial stigma” and the reason I employ an apparently loaded phrase like “biased social cognition” is this: It is a politically consequential cognitive distortion to understand the observably disadvantageous position of a racially defined population subgroup as having emerged from qualities taken to be intrinsic to the group when, as a matter of actual social causation, that disadvantage is the product of a system of social interactions. I reiterate that it hardly matters whether those internal qualities mistakenly seen as the source of a group’s observed laggardly status are biological or deeply cultural. What matters, I argue, is that something has gone wrong if observers fail to see systemic, endogenous interactions that lead to bad social outcomes for blacks, and instead attribute those results to exogenous factors taken as internal to the group in question. My contention is that in American society, when the group in question is blacks, the risk of this kind of causal misattribution is especially great. Given the facts of racially disparate achievement, the racially disproportionate transgression of legal strictures, and racially unequal development of productive potential, observers will have difficulty identifying with the plight of a group of people whom they (mistakenly) think are simply "reaping what they have sown." So, there will be little public support for egalitarian policies benefiting a stigmatized racial group. This, in turn, encourages the reproduction through time of racial inequality because, absent some policies of this sort, the low social conditions of many blacks persist, the negative social meanings ascribed to blackness are thereby reinforced, and so the racially biased social-cognitive processes are reproduced, completing the circle.
Moreover, this argument also has implications for how we social scientists interpret our data bearing on racial inequality. As I have been suggesting, individuals are embedded in complex networks of affiliations: They are members of nuclear and extended families; they belong to religious and linguistic groupings; they have ethnic and racial identities; they are attached to particular localities. Each individual is socially situated, and one’s location within the network of social affiliations substantially affects one’s access to various resources. Opportunity travels along the synapses of these social networks. Thus a newborn is severely handicapped if its parents are relatively uninterested in (or incapable of) fostering the youngster’s intellectual development in the first years of life. A talented adolescent whose social peer group disdains the activities that must be undertaken for that talent to flourish is at risk of not achieving his or her full potential. An unemployed person without friends or relatives already at work in a certain industry may never hear about the job opportunities available there. An individual’s inherited social situation plays a major role in determining his or her ultimate economic success. Some important part of racial inequality, on this view, arises from the way geographic and social segregation along racial lines, fostered by the stigmatized status of blacks—their “social otherness”—inhibits the development of their full human potential. Because access to developmental resources is mediated though race-segregated social networks, an individual’s opportunities to acquire skills depend on present and past skill attainments by others in the same racial group.