25 November 2014

Why Our Media Will Make it Difficult for Anything Good to Come of Ferguson

Protests flared up around the country and violence and looting resulted in at least one death last night in Ferguson following the Grand Jury's decision not to indict Darren Wilson. So what's the good news? All of this media attention and turmoil is in the wake of the killing of an 18 year old boy rather than a man of Martin Luther King's stature. That, for me, signals hope. But it's a signal that could get lost in our media's noise.

I've become increasingly disillusioned with our for-profit media. A for-profit media is motivated to increase revenue. If that means making a big deal about Kim Kardashian's butt than they'll do that. Real progress is slow and takes some sophistication to cover. It's like writing a novel: you have to be skilled to get it right and it takes a long time. The conversation the media needs to facilitate now is one about causes and cures for the huge cost of being a black American.

The simple fact is that a black man can expect to die in his 60s and a white man in his mid-70s. (White males life expectancy is 75 years and black male's is 6 year less.) Household income for blacks is only 59% of whites' and wealth of black households is 20% of white households.

There are only two explanations for this. The first is that blacks are inferior and this is a natural consequence. We can dismiss the fact that blacks - once excluded from sports and pop culture entertainment because of their supposed inferiority - have proven that they're more than able to compete in their athleticism, comedy, creativity and music ability.  It's possible that they really are as good as whites on a variety of performance measures but just happen to be bad at business. Or it could be that business relationships are one area where it's still common to be unscientific and instead rely on  our judgments that are colored by folklore, gut, instinct, and racism that we scarcely admit even to ourselves. Which brings us to the second explanation for the gap between whites and blacks: racism.

It's obvious that there is still plenty of racism alive today. It's less obvious that when we're talking about issues like wealth and income, racism suffered by your grandparents puts you at a disadvantage.  Privilege and opportunity - for good or for bad - dominoes across generations. Even if we eradicated all racism today, blacks would still take generations to catch up simply because privilege and opportunity provide advantages that take generations to dissipate. Even if the average American's income stopped growing for decades, it would still be higher than that of China's.

Good policy starts with facts and then makes plans to change them. It doesn't ignore facts. It doesn't defend the status quo. And it looks beyond the stories of heroes and villains to systems. It's true that privileged whites screw up their advantage sometime. It's true that disadvantaged blacks rise above obstacles. But it's not the folks who do well or poorly in spite of prevailing norms that should concern policy makers. The focus of good policy is on improving the distribution of the whole population, not putting a spotlight on outliers. And of course, outliers - the violent youth or wealthy businessman - are the focus of our media, which makes it so hard to hope for policy that will change normal rather than spotlight the extremes.

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