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Andrew Sullivan Shows How Conservatives Are Missing the Point on Race

His Appearance on The Problem with Jon Stewart Exemplifies Why They are Unable to Understand Reality

The most recent episode of the Problem with Jon Stewart centered around a controversial topic in America: racism.

Let’s set aside the opening setup which seemed designed to appeal to liberals’ self satisfaction around “listening” and having “race conversations”. We can also ignore the problematic use of white supremacy as a stand in for general racism and the lack of in depth policy discussion on how to actually tackle social and economic inequality, which is often found in liberal cities (hello zoning reform!).

Instead let’s focus on the substance of Andrew Sullivan’s comments, which get to the heart of why conservatives will never be able to tackle the problem of racism with their current politics.

For those who don’t know, Andrew Sullivan is a well known conservative journalist and pundit. He was formerly the editor of the New Republic and has written extensively for major publications like the Atlantic and Time Magazine.

In his conversation with John Stewart, Andrew mostly spoke in vacuous platitudes about how America is the greatest multiethnic democracy in the world today. His comments are common talking points among conservatives that highlight the hollow patriotism at the heart of their movement. Andrew used his experience growing up as an immigrant to exemplify the ways in which America doesn’t suffer from the specter of racism today (see comments starting at 3:50 here). How could a country that welcomes immigrants from around the world be racist?

He also seemed aghast that the other guests and Jon Stewart himself saw systems today as racist despite the overwhelming empirical evidence that they are(see comments starting at 6:38).

At many times during the show, Andrew appeared to become defensive, seemingly at what he perceived were unjustified criticisms of this country and its people (see comments starting at 9:40).

The problem is that many conservatives like Andrew refuse to see reality and instead harken to a sugarcoated version of America.

When pressed for solutions to the problems facing the Black community, Andrew fell on a common conservative tactic of blaming the culture and pushed for the need to foster stable, two parent households.

There is a certain logic to pushing for more stable family structures. Research shows that two parent households have more economic resources than single parent households, often because there are either two adults working or because it is easier to split the cost of child care.

Given that, it makes sense for conservatives who believe strongly in the stable family unit as a cultural value to push for it and highlight the fact that Black men and women have lower marriage rates compared to White counterparts.

But we should dig deeper to ask ourselves why do these disparities in marriage rates actually exist? The easy scapegoat is culture, but we have to examine the evidence.

In reality Black men and women had higher marriage rates (and therefore lower rates of never being married) compared to White men and women until around the 1960s-1980s. Then it flipped and the rate of never being married for Black individuals started to dramatically rise.

Rates of never being married by race and gender over time; from the ACS survey

This coincides with a dramatic rise in the incarceration rate of Black men born after 1945, especially for high school dropouts. These Black men would have been ~30 years old between 1970 and 2010 when the rates of marriage started to decline.

Research from the Hamilton Project

Much of the lower marriage rate within Black communities can be explained by this dramatic rise in incarceration rates, especially among lower income and lower educated Black men. We know a lot of this rise in incarceration rates was also driven by racist policies that gave out severe sentences for low level drug offenses and were often pushed by White Americans.

Individuals who enter the prison system face difficulty in holding down jobs, gaining education, and many other things that in turn makes creating stable relationships difficult.

Rather than blaming culture as the core problem, Andrew Sullivan and other conservatives should examine the evidence and push for criminal justice reform and more investment in black communities.

We already know that equality of opportunity is not real in the United States and has been steadily decreasing over time, leading to disparate negative impact in Black communities that lack access to resources due to decades of little to no investment.

This is particularly driven by the compounding growth of generational wealth that redlining and other racist laws in the housing sector prevented. Not being able to own homes for decades and being shut out of specific communities prevented Black families from building the wealth that could have given them the resources to invest in their own communities. This exacerbates the resource divide further as public education in the US is partly financed by local property taxes.

Conservatives like Andrew Sullivan see themselves as intellectually rigorous and tied to a coherent narrative about how we can understand the problems in the US through an eroding culture instead of a place that has constructed institutions that prevent meritocracy. That belies the history that Black Americans have faced, and the decades of inequality that is structurally embedded in the criminal justice system, education, and housing. Their world view fails to explain the vast differences between White and Black Americans.

Indeed, this fact is the whole point of the academic discipline known as Critical Race Theory that he and others rail against, treating it as a boogeyman despite the fact that they clearly don’t actually understand it.

So why can’t conservatives see this? They are obsessed with this culture narrative as the underlying explanation because it fits with their own values and ideals, but they ignore the structural forces and environments that actually created the culture they are bemoaning.

Conservatives need to ask themselves how many Americans whose only real difference is in the color of their skin have for decades been relegated to a worse reality and how that is precisely a result of policies and choices we have made. Differential incarceration rates led to a differential impact on the family and community structure of many Black Americans, which directly created the environment and culture we see today.

The fact of the matter is we need a lot of conservative policies to tackle these problems. A big part of the issue is the cost of housing which prevents many Black (and other) Americans from moving to areas of higher economic opportunity. Instilling more free market policies into mostly liberal cities on the coasts would do wonders.

Today many conservatives have rhetoric that is not tied to reality. They need to dig deeper and reexamine their own assumptions. That will help push America to finally becoming the wonderful place they all proclaim it is, for everyone.

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Vinod Bakthavachalam

Vinod Bakthavachalam

I am interested in politics, economics, & policy. I work as a data scientist and am passionate about using technology to solve structural economic problems.