Sunday, July 05, 2015

The forsaken

Sorry, folks, one more sentimental, overwrought, non-economics-related post. I promise I'll try my best not to turn this from an econ blog into a sentimental, sappy blog about nationalism and culture and stuff like that. But anyway, I just had to do a follow-up to my last post.

In my last post, I wrote about what I see as the fundamental core of the United States as a nation - the concept of equality. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in a much longer, more personal, and better-written essay than mine, expresses a very different vision of what America is all about. I encourage you to read his piece from start to finish (don't skim).

Here are just a couple small excerpts (again, you should read the whole piece):
To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The law did not protect us. And now, in your time, the law has become an excuse for stopping and frisking you, which is to say, for furthering the assault on your body. But a society that protects some people through a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth but can only protect you with the club of criminal justice has either failed at enforcing its good intentions or has succeeded at something much darker... 
Before I could escape [the ghetto], I had to survive, and this could only mean a clash with the streets, by which I mean not just physical blocks, nor simply the people packed into them, but the array of lethal puzzles and strange perils which seem to rise up from the asphalt itself. The streets transform every ordinary day into a series of trick questions, and every incorrect answer risks a beat-down, a shooting, or a pregnancy. No one survives unscathed. When I was your age, fully one-third of my brain was concerned with who I was walking to school with, our precise number, the manner of our walk, the number of times I smiled, who or what I smiled at, who offered a pound and who did not—all of which is to say that I practiced the culture of the streets, a culture concerned chiefly with securing the body...
This America that Coates sees is very real. How can his America be the same America that I believe in so strongly?

Let me try to explain. I am not as eloquent as Coates, so I'll use my typical plain-spoken, spluttering style, with visual aids.

Because I grew up Jewish, my parents made me read about the Holocaust at a very young age. I read the testimonials, I saw the pictures. It really freaked me out. I was scared. I remember walking down the street with my dad at the age of 7, and asking him: "Is there anyone like the Nazis around today?" He said "Well, the Soviet Union is a little like the Nazis." That scared me. "What if the Soviet Union comes to get us?", I asked. And his answer was: "We have the most powerful military in the world. And we have tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. There's no way they can get us."

And that was it. Suddenly I felt safe from those cosmic threats, those vast and distant hosts of evil. I had the ultimate backup.

I had this on my side:

I may be too weak to defend myself against an army of bad guys, but behind me stands what you see in the picture above. That is a picture of America coming to protect the weak and forsaken. That is a picture of the ultimate backup.

What about black Americans? Do they have that same backup? Well, they used to, at least once in a while. In the Civil War they did. And in the Civil Rights era they did. Check out this:

That's what I'm talkin' about!! That is the 101st Airborne Division - the same guys from D-Day! - protecting some black kids from assholes who want to stop them from going to school. And the guy who ordered them to do it was the same guy from D-Day - Dwight D. Eisenhower! And how about when the assholes tried to stop the black kids from going to school? This!

Damn straight! 'MURICA!!

But here's the thing - this only happens once in a while. Most of the time, large chunks of black America - not the whole thing, not all African-Americans, but vast swathes - are either left to rot in the anarchy Coates describes, or actively oppressed by police, courts, and prisons.

Don't believe me? What's this, then?

WHAT THE F******************* IS THAT S***?!!!

Or this?!!!

These are peaceful protesters being menaced by militarized police!! These are not racist individuals making personal choices to be mean to black people! This is an institutional, organized, official act of government oppression of a peaceful American populace! Where's the 101st Airborne when you need them???!!

It's not just black people who get this treatment these days, of course - I saw the same scene at anti-Iraq War protests in 2003. But for a lot of black Americans, this is their only contact with the police, with the armed might of America, except for getting arrested and thrown in hellish prisons.

We lock up millions of people in this nation - far more even than authoritarian nations like China and Russia. It's our own Gulag Archipelago. In these prisons most inmates are raped and beaten. All of them are forced to do slave labor. After they are released, they can never vote in American elections again. And they have extreme trouble ever finding jobs again. They are, in short, tortured, enslaved, and then reduced to permanent second-class citizens.

Black Americans are far more vulnerable to this bullshit than other Americans. Racial profiling means they are far more likely to get arrested (and are killed by police at much higher rates). Racist sentencing means they are far more likely to be given prison terms, and longer ones. And the militarized response of police to protests in Ferguson and Baltimore makes it clear to black communities that America is not on their side - that the police are not simply trying to protect poor black communities from a few bad apples, but simply trying to suppress and contain poor black communities and keep them cordoned off from the rest of America. 

This is exactly what Coates talks about in his essay. It's real. It's true. You can see it on YouTube.

For white Americans, there is at least the idea that this is temporary, that America will correct these abuses, right the wrongs, and return to the correct path. For Asian or Hispanic Americans, there is probably less certainty (remember those internment camps?), but still an overall feeling of positivity. But when black Americans look back on American history, what do they see? Centuries of racial enslavement. Another century of lynchings, segregation, and KKK terrorism. And essentially zero lag between the end of segregation and the beginning of the prison gulags.

For me, growing up, America represented the ultimate backup, the ultimate protector. Many black Americans - not all, of course, but many - feel utterly forsaken by that protector. They are lost, abandoned in a violent, frightening world, with no backup, no sheltering presence, no cavalry to ride to the rescue when the chips are down. Maybe just cavalry to ride over your face.

To me this unacceptable. Unacceptable! Those are our people - our countrymen! America should be the protector of the weak, not the oppressor - and when the weak are Americans themselves, the imperative is a million times stronger! No American should ever feel forsaken by the powers that be. No American should ever feel that the system is against him or her.

To me the plight of American black people is not about justice. It's not about righting the wrongs of history. It's about giving black Americans the certainty that America is a country that is always - ALWAYS - on their side, that will always fight for them, not against them. It's about backup

I'm a nationalist. I firmly believe that the fundamental essence of America is the belief in human equality and freedom, and that this essence will continue to win out over the darker tendencies that afflict our nation and all nations. But this essence is not a magical force that rights all wrongs while we sit on our couches and scarf Doritos and Mountain Dew. My relatives weren't in the D-Day picture above, but they were in the overall effort, flying planes or fighting in Asia or doing cryptography. The army of backup doesn't exist unless a bunch of us join up and volunteer. 

And to our credit, lots of us are joining up and volunteering. The protests after the killing of Eric Garner were enormous. But we need more than protesters - we need police departments, judges, and legislators to use their power to stop the madness. Stop the police militarization, stop the racial profiling, stop the racist sentencing, and stop mass incarceration.

If we can save France from Hitler, if we can save China from the Japanese Empire, if we can save Europe from the Soviet Union, we can save our own people from our own system.  


  1. Noah, can you please do another post letting people who would like to help make your vision of "giving black Americans the certainty that America is a country that is always - ALWAYS - on their side, that will always fight for them, not against them" a reality know how they can help? (Sorry for the unparseable sentence.) Who is most effectively working to root out the racism that persists to this day?


    1. I'll look into it. The key things, I think are: 1. ending mass incarceration, 2. ending police militarization, 3. training police against racial profiling, and 4. training judges against racist sentencing. I'm sure there are lots of groups and people working on this.

    2. Anonymous7:46 PM

      For what it's worth, whenever I read a particularly moving TNC piece, I donate to the Better Boys Foundation (they are mentioned in the Case for Reparations,

      I don't know where they fall on the Givewell list, but I don't much care. And I'll match the first $1000 in contributions from Noahpinion readers.

      1) I already gave earlier today (, and I'm counting that as my matching gift.
      2) I have no connection to BBF other than an occasional donation.

    3. On 4), my understanding is that the problem is actually with the government prosecutors who charge differently and ask for different sentences according to race. Judges are more constrained.

  2. Anonymous11:01 PM

    The 101st Airborne like the rest of the US military is full of rednecks willing to die for you.

    You are welcome.

    They won't be holding their breath waiting for a good word from you.

    They won't be holding their

    1. I don't want them to hold their breath, or whatever else you were about to say they won't be holding! I don't want anyone to have to wait for a good word from me!!

  3. Noah, I recall blog posts from March and June 2014 in which you expressed the opinion Ta-Nehisi Coates was too pessimistic in his assessment of race in the USA.

    Would it be fair to say that your thinking has moved closer to his since then?

    1. Yes. Ferguson, Baltimore, etc. have been much worse than what I expected.

  4. Anonymous11:07 PM

    "For Asian or Hispanic Americans, there is probably less certainty (remember those internment camps?)."

    So, why do hispanics and Asians and others keep coming and coming? Over one million immigrants come every year. Is it because they are so scared of white people? Come on, we all know they aren't.

    1. Correct. From talking to Asian and Hispanic Americans, I sense a little worry that America values white people more, but it's just a vague, nagging sense of unease, and will probably be gone completely by the third generation. The main group of people who feel that America isn't for them are black Americans.

  5. Anonymous7:13 AM

    You appear to be exaggerating voting prohibitions against convicted felons, it varies by state. That said, I assumed there were none until checking, naive middle class white man that I am. For a country that views itself as a foundation of democracy, we suck at voting in all respects I can think of. Good post.

  6. Pedro8:04 AM

    Noah, I agree with the majority of the above, which is eloquently put and a forceful, righteous and rightful condemnation of a system that time and time again has failed black Americans. To that, I have nothing else to say, but to hope that this message is pounded again and again and again, until more action if finally taken.

    Amen to that!

    But I have to say that your closing paragraph, "If we can save France from Hitler, if we can save China from the Japanese Empire..." is a simplistic and very inaccurate characterization of WWII, and although I can understand your sentiment that leads you to expound this view, it fall well within that lamentable trope, "America Wins the War!"

  7. Baltimore is a disaster of it's own making. Fewer than 15% of registered voters actually voted in the last mayoral elections, which have not been competitive in forever. Before that, the mayor-turned-governor-turned-presidential wanna be "solved"** crime by locking up 100k people in a city of 650k. The political class gave law enforcement special "rights" that ordinary people do not have. But, the residents are not themselves blameless either. They protested racism and police brutality by ... burning down symbols of police oppression like a CVS and nursing home.

    Baltimore is a mess due to rampant political corruption and an extensive underground economy. Even city council gets their picture taken with gang leaders. The gangs run the jails too. It is one banana short of a Latin American failed state.

    Solving Baltimore's problems starts by voting. And, when you do vote, vote 180 degrees from whatever the current political class tells you to do.

    **by most real accounting, this was mostly lipstick on a pig arithmetic.

    1. Anonymous10:39 AM

      "Solving Baltimore's problems starts by voting."

      Do you really believe that? While I think we all want that to be true, it seems laughably naive. Political power structures, especially corrupt ones, are inherently self-reinforcing.

    2. "Solving Baltimore's problems starts by voting."

      Try googling the phrase "who will bell the cat?" I'm pretty sure somebody has to run for office, not just vote. And then survive all the corrupting influences should they manage to be elected. Power structures do pretty well at beating down or co-opting those who challenge them.

    3. MaxUtil11:07 AM

      I won't defend the purity of Baltimore's political system. But your analysis would carry a lot more weight if Baltimore were somehow unique. The vast majority of this country is neither rampantly corrupt nor a "disaster", and yet the existing political, financial, and justice systems serve in many ways to immiserate and suppress certain substantial parts of our populace.

      I'm also not saying that voting and engaging with the political system isn't good and/or necessary. But we have the political system for the most part that people ARE voting for. We have the cops that we asked for. The system of institutional racism and suppression are not some aberration that was foisted onto us. It is precisely the system that much of the country has either demanded or passively endorsed. That we are finally beginning to wake up to the reality and results of the system we asked for is in some part because people are refusing to be polite and work within the system.

    4. "But we have the political system for the most part that people ARE voting for."

      By not voting people are sending the message that the status quo is acceptable. In reality people vote with their feet and leave the city for the suburbs, or leave Maryland altogether. If they can afford to.

      "Political power structures, especially corrupt ones, are inherently self-reinforcing."

      There is plenty of evidence against that. To wit: Maryland, New Jersey, and Illinois all have republican governors. Holy cow, people almost had a heart attack when Hogan won in Maryland.

      The only real losers are the defeatists who claim that change and experimentation cannot happen. I don't have any patience for defeatists, they are just enablers and co-dependents.

      Getting people to take risk and change their habits is extremely hard. Real change takes a generation or so. The "power structure" is not an abstract thing, it's city, county, or state delegates. We elected them, and we can un-elect them too and get them to change the laws.

    5. "To wit: Maryland, New Jersey, and Illinois all have republican governors."

      Oh, so *snap* all the corruption is gone? LOL Very obviously didn't happen in Jersey, at least. The issue isn't that individual politicians can't be voted out of office, it's that doing so is only a first step. The other steps somehow never seem to happen. Change that is favored by the moneyed interests happens often. Change needed by the underclass ... not so much.

    6. "The other steps somehow never seem to happen."

      We have these things called voting booths that can be used for change. It is hard to take comments like this seriously when so many people vote for the status quo by not actually voting.

      Ever stop to consider that the answer is in front of you and you just don't like it? If government is too corrupt and abusive, we need less of it.

  8. Oh, but your post is all about economics -- the labor market. 100,000 out of (my guesstimate) 200,000 Chicago gang age, minority males are in street gangs -- I presume because they wont work for a minimum wage that is one-third below Lyndon Johnson's $11 peak, double the per capita income later.

    Let's look at a previously decent paying job that white Chicagoans will no longer do: taxi driving. In 1981, a little after I started, the meter was 50 cents a mile higher than today. Beginning in 1990 Chicago began putting on free trolleys between all the hotspots, subways to both airports, unlimited limos AND 40% more cabs.

    Here is snapshot of the people I meet in my day moving around white Chicago:
    bus drivers: American born (mostly), decently paid, unionized;
    drug chain employees: American born, $400-500/wk;
    Supermarket employees: American born, a little bit better;
    fast food employees: (all) foreign born, $300/wk (can't get 40 hours);
    UPS drivers: American born, well compensated, Jimmy Hoffa's union.

    Keep in mind the minimum needs line for a family of four is realistically around $1,000 a week: $11,000 a year health insurance (family of four; Brill p. 346), $4,000 FICA, $15,000 rent and utilities and you haven't even put the dried beans in the pot of water to soak overnight.

    The money is there to pay people. 3.5% of GDP shift pays for $15 an hour minimum wage. Bottom 50% getting 12% income share; top 1% getting 25%.

    Easy solution: just rebuild high union density. Easy way to do that: make union busting a felony and step back out of the way. State level fine at first: invokes federal and state RICO prosecution. Every other form of market muscling or collusion is heavily penalized.

    1. Wait, are you serious?!

  9. You really ought to read "Rise of The Warrior Cop" if you haven't already. Very solidly researched and eye opening.

  10. Anonymous5:18 PM

    Love the passion in your last two articles. Apparently you do have an opinion! Nice.

  11. Be careful using pictures without context as you did above. While I largely agree with your sentiments and points made, there are potentially viable and reasonable explanations for your pictures regarding "peaceful protestors," unlike your holocaust pictures, for which there can be no explanation other than the horrors which took place.

    1. Anonymous6:45 PM

      "Yeah, but what if THAT unarmed black guy DESERVED to have high powered guns pointed at him?"

      "Who KNOWS when that crowd might turn violent and the police officer might need a sniper rifle to defend the McDonalds?"

      No. You don't get to JAQ around with impunity. If you think the Ferguson images are reasonable, state your reasons.

    2. It's just like I said, there is no context for those pictures and therefore no way to judge the appropriateness of the apparent response. In pictures above, we see apparent racists being turned away or kept away from black children by not militarized police, but the actual military and we believe it is good! Perhaps the police in the Ferguson images chosen were protecting the right to peacefully protest or protecting personal property? My long point is you can't just look at a picture of four guys in military gear pointing rifles at a black guy a say that they are absolutely wrong or racist or whatever.

    3. Anonymous2:05 PM

      "It's just like I said, there is no context for those pictures and therefore no way to judge the appropriateness of the apparent response."

      Yes, there is. The Ferguson city government was and is a bandit nest, and these people are behaving like bandits.


    4. there were no black bad actors in Ferguson and no reasonable city government would have put heavily armed police on the streets in the wake of protests. Is that what you're telling me? Is that why we know the police in the Ferguson pictures were all bad and the black protestors were all good?

    5. MaxUtil4:43 PM

      The pictures are not "proof" of a bad situation, they are demonstrative or symbolic of a bad situation. You would have a valid point if all we knew about the situations was what we could see in a handful of photographs. But we know much more than that and your point (valid in and of itself) that we don't know the exact context of these particular images completely misses the broader issue.

    6. Starting to get off in the weeds here, but please read my initial comment. I did not miss the broader issue, either completely or partly. In fact, I agreed with the broader issue! I just said be careful of using pictures without context. Your comment that the pictures are not proof is exactly my point. Noah was using them explicitly as proof, which is what I was and am warning about.

  12. Would it be fair to say that the Obama administration has largely failed to move the needle on this issue?

    1. Important to remember in this context is that he has the most obstructionist congress in the history of ever, and that a huge part [certainly not all] of the obstruction is clearly due to the color of his skin.


    2. Maybe so, but the impression I get from Noah's article is that a significant part of the situation he's concerned about is connected with the way laws are being administered, not with the law itself. If so, that particular problem is an executive branch concern, not the legislature. And even if there are legislative reforms needed, what specifically has POTUS proposed that would impact these problems? Happy to be educated...

    3. MaxUtil4:24 PM

      I certainly would not say that the Obama administration has done enough on this (though it is largely a local/state issue outside of federal control.) But a few things it has done are: scaling back the asset forfeiture program, halting the transfer of military equipment to police, reassess and reduce federal drug crime sentencing, scaling back the pursuit of legal marijuana operations, investigate and start oversight of particularly bad local police forces, large scale commuting of sentences for people doing long terms for minor drug crimes.

      All these things came pretty recently, but at least there does finally seem to be some attention paid.

  13. I'm with you but not so ardently. Militarized police seem new, but aren't much different from using the military for crowd control, which has a long tradition, not only in the US.

    The situation varies a lot. Here in NYC race relations and the general situation for blacks have undoubtedly improved a lot over the past few decades. Despite the big setback from not indicting (and convicting) that asshole cop in Staten Island and despite all those cops showing their backs to the mayor. The situation here is just not comparable to Ferguson, where part of the reason things blew up so fast was that blacks in that neighborhood trust cops so little that eyewitnesses seem really to have convinced themselves they had seen the kid shot in the back, and that story seemed utterly plausible to the broader black community.

    The US rescued France from Stalin not Hitler. As awful as the US prison system is, it's still can't be compared to the Gulags.

    You're a liberal not a nationalist. Keep these up.

    1. I'm a liberal nationalist. Such a thing exists!

  14. Anonymous4:29 PM

    I'm not sure why my comment was deleted. All I wrote was:
    "I'm sorry you are a nationalist. Please reread Einstein"

  15. I would suggest that the real reason for the blatant oppression is more economic than racist, that the lower economic classes in general are nearly equally oppressed regardless of race, its simply that a majority of black people are poor while it is only a minority of white people who are poor so in most peoples minds, regardless of race, it is assumed a black person is probably of the lower classes while a white person is not nessesarily assumed to be of the lower classes.

    Were it the reverse situation and only a minority of blacks were poor while a majority of whites were poor the oppression would reverse itself as well, it would be whites who were arbitrarily assumed to be unworthy of having any rights.

    The system exists to keep the lower classes in their place and the upper classes in their place, the role of police is first and foremost to protect property rights, the more wealthy you are the more police protection you have. So why do some wealthy people get arrested? because they have violated the property rights of yet even wealthier people.

    In poor white neighborhoods police oppression is just as bad, we are all in this together unless one is of the 1% or their immediate associates, America was the last to give up the old style ownership slavery and it will be the last to give up the new style wage slavery.

    1. MaxUtil4:28 PM

      I used to believe this as well. However, I now think this is naive. While it is true I think that some issues that are blamed on racism are as much or more about class, I think if you look more carefully you will see that race is still a massive factor. I think that if you really question this statement, "In poor white neighborhoods police oppression is just as bad" you may reach the same conclusion.

    2. +1

      The rebel army motivated privafe soldiers based on their supposed racial superiority. Most of them never had the least prospect of actually owning any slaves themselves. It is essential to elite rule that every opportunity to divide-and-conquer the masses be exploited to the hilt. In our own times, even the most ignorant fools can detect skin color better than they can read behavioral cues. (Think of the Cambridge, MA folks intimidated by Skip Gates -- possibly the whitest brother in America -- trying to get back into his own house.) Thus coded appeals to racism that blur into less obviously racist complaints about "moochers", the 47%, etc. are still real, not just in our imaginations. Veteran R hit-man Lee Atwater explained all this very well while plagued with guilt on his deathbed.

  16. "segregation, and KKK terrorism" needs a bit more political honesty.
    The Democratic Party is the KKK party, and for a hundred years believed that laws against blacks were ok because blacks were inferior. The Republicans officially held that all men should be judged based on their character, not their race. (Why not look at and publish the votes by party for the Civil Rights Act of 1964?)

    Martin Luther King's Dream -- judge all people based on their character.

    Does affirmative action do that? Or, is it a racist policy that judges people based on their race?

    The Demo-KKKratic Party of today supports Affirmative Racism today in order to "help" blacks -- because they believe blacks are inferior and cannot generally succeed based on their character.
    And majority black cities like Detroit and Baltimore, after voting for the last 40 years for DemoKKK corrupt black politicians, have shown the total racial failure of Dem Party policies, in the real world.
    It's not "American" problems, it's those areas where the voters have put DemoKKKs in power, including the current President of the USA, tho hopefully that will change in 2016/7.

    Finally, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes about how "we were enslaved for 250 years".
    This is the worst kind of never-ending revenge based tribal war-mongering.
    Nobody today is guilty for the sins of their unnamed great-grandparents.
    If blacks today claim whites today are guilty of what occurred before they were born, there can never be justice. Because justice is based on living individuals guilty decisions of those alive.

    It's not fair. But unfair, with no justice remedy, is different than injustice, based on unjust actions today.

    Note that almost all black countries in Africa suffer from similar tribal problems, where the injustices of the past are used to justify some revenge or retribution which means innocents today are punished for past sins -- such punishment itself becoming an injustice which may be remembered in the future as a justification for some other future injustice.
    When past injustice to ancestors is used to justify current violence, the violence never ends.

    And of course, the "solution" is mostly under the power of black culture -- 1) have fewer babies outside of wedlock than whites, 2) stay at their jobs for at least a year in higher proportion than whites, 3) graduate from high school more often than whites.
    For all chosen behaviors 1, 2, 3, the black rates of optimal behavior are lower than whites, or Asians. It's stupid to expect equal group success with sub-optimal group behavior.
    Oh yeah, 4) vote for the DemoKKKratic Party in lower % than whites.
    As long as blacks vote 90% for rich, white liars like Kerry (2004) ("was illegally in Cambodia, etc....") the anti-freedom political policies making selling single cigarettes illegal are unlikely to be reduced.

    1. Fun to observe that it is Republican members of the South Carolina House who rise in defense of state endorsement of the rebel battle flag. No more obvious sign that the roles of D and R in American politics have completely switched on the issues that defined the civil war. But keep trying to confuse people who don't know any history. It's remarkably effective prole-feed propaganda for team-R.

      It is unfortunate that urban blacks have no better alternative to corrupt D incumbents than R politicians who are basically going to subject them to a more extreme version of the same corruption. They probably understand this perfectly well, and just abandon any faith that voting would help.

    2. Anonymous8:50 AM

      I live on another continent; even so, I am familiar with the well-documented "Southern Strategy": the practice of the Republican party picking up - instead of marginalising - the racists the Democrats were washing off them during the 60s and 70s. We could argue the racial policies of the Whig Party, but for the past 50 years R stands with racists. Also, cigarettes are terrible for you.

  17. Please stop trying to make racism a Republican or Democrat problem, vice, ideal, creed, or any other thing. It is not and trying to make it so solves nothing.

  18. This post, though heartfelt, misses a critical economic point that TNC makes: that entire economic sectors actively collect rents from the subjugation of African Americans. Today, as before the Civil War. This is true for today's privatized prisons and county governments bankrolled off traffic tickets, yesterday's contract housing and exclusion from mortgage loans, and Reconstruction's pillaging, looting and taking over of black-owned businesses. Failing to understand the economic gains from oppression leads to thinking about institutionalized racism as a matter of reclaiming national principles. Revealing these economic gains helps explain the persistence of the system, its resilience to regulatory attempts, and the resistance of legions against any attempt to redress its grave injustices.