Today, as I do most everyday, I was scrolling through 3 Quarks Daily. In case you don’t know, it’s an excellent site. Once a week, on Monday, they have a collection of original essays. The rest of the week, they are a high quality aggregator. Instead of the usual headlines, they tend to feature longer works dealing with politics, the arts, philosophy and science. Today they had a piece from Salon called “The 1 Percent’s White Privilege Con” by Corey Robin. When I started reading the piece, I thought it was the standard liberal handwringing about the lack of diversity in schools. I almost stopped reading, but I have a compulsion to finish what I start, so I discovered it was much worse.
The gist of the piece is that since the peak of desegregation things have regressed. We now have a duty to start desegregation over again. At least, that’s the most likely point. He isn’t exactly clear and seems to change his stance throughout the piece. But, aside from the bad writing, the first red flag for me was a paragraph about Hannah Arendt. I will quote it in full:
In 1959, Dissent published an article by the German-Jewish émigré philosopher Hannah Arendt. A criticism of desegregation and a defense of states’ rights, “Reflections on Little Rock” was controversial, offensive and wrong-headed in almost every way. But one point—beyond the immediate question of integration, about which she was wrong—Arendt got it right. Why, she wondered, do we “burden children, black and white, with the working out of a problem which adults for generations have confessed themselves unable to solve?” It’s an age-old dream, she acknowledged in a reply to her critics, that “one can change the world by educating the children in the spirit of the future.” But doesn’t that dream just shift “the burden of responsibility from the shoulders of adults to those of children”?
Now, it had been a while since I read Arendt’s article, but I didn’t recall anything “offensive” or “wrong-headed” about it, let alone it being those things “in every way.” So, I pulled my copy of The Portable Hannah Arendt to reread her article. Then I reread Robin’s piece and what I found is that either he has not actually read Arendt’s article or he completely misunderstood it. Arendt’s main point was that forced desegregation of schools by the federal government was wrong for three reasons. The first is that it is morally wrong to force black children into a position where they will be bullied and traumatized. And it’s immoral to prevent their parents from protecting them. The second is that it is morally wrong to force children to deal with the problems that adults cannot fix, as Robin noted. The third is that the basic difference between the North and South in the 1950’s wasn’t that one was segregated and the other wasn’t. The difference was that in the South, segregation was part of the law. She argues that the proper thing to do is to make sure everyone has equal protection under the law, not to force people who do not want to interact to interact.
If Robin read Arendt’s article, I would imagine the place where he misunderstood her is when she gets into a theoretical discussion of the differences between the political, social and private realms. In the political realm, equality is paramount. But, in the social realm, people choose to segregate themselves all the time, and the government has no business interfering. “Without discrimination of some sort, society would simply cease to exist and very important possibilities of free association and group formation would disappear.” If the VFW were forced to allow non-veterans in, they would lose their reason for being. This discrimination allows a group to exist which benefits its members who have benefitted society. When she says that society would “cease to exist,” she is saying that a society without discrimination would be no more than a mob. And in the private realm, “Here we choose those with whom we wish to spend our lives. . . and our choice is guided not by likeness or qualities shared by a group of people – it is not guided, indeed, by any objective standards or rules.” I can see where this may sound bad, but it is simply saying that the government has to stick to the political arena. People may be completely wrong in their choice of society and friends, but the government is not there to fix these mistakes. She no where says that the plight of blacks is anything but bad. She actually refers to it as the, “original crime in this country’s history,” and believes that all laws that encode segregation are perpetuating that crime.
The other thing that Arendt talks about in her article is the fact that there are other, better places to fight for equality than the schools. The ones that she is focused on are the right to participate fully in government, from voting to holding office, and the right to marry whomever one wishes (she was talking about inter-racial marriage, but the principals would transfer to gay marriage). The first violates political equality, which is paramount. The second violates privacy. “If legislature follows social prejudice, society has become tyrannical.” These are two ways in which our society was tyrannical, and are therefore more important battle grounds.
I know I’ve been talking at length about Arendt rather than Robin. I want to make it clear that she was neither offensive nor wrong-headed. And her arguments are still sound. Robin is talking about a new wave of forced desegregation when he says, “lobby for better state and federal laws, and more liberal courts, to reintegrate the public schools,” or, “schools could organize workshops to teach students how to lead a mass movement that would divest private schools of federal tax benefits.” If I’m being generous, this is a failure to learn from history. Forced desegregation didn’t fix the problems before and it will not fix them now. Segregated schools are the result of a bad system. Redlining, voter ID laws and gerrymandering are the causes. You can’t fix the roots by messing with the fruit. Focusing on desegregation is at best a waste of time and effort. It is still putting an unfair burden on children. It is still confusing the private, social and political realms. Robin and most liberals need to get past their clichés and platitudes to focus on the root causes if any progress is to be made.