The Bones of Our House

Caste (Wilkerson) and From Here To Equality (Darity and Mullen)

Book cover2

We should regard intellectual progress, of the sort that will allow us to find and correct our moral mistakes as soon as possible, as an urgent moral priority rather than as a mere luxury.

Evan Williams, “The Possibility of an Ongoing Moral Catastrophe” (2015)

Most human societies have had horrific moral blind spots. Since our present society is just one of hundreds over time, it’s unlikely that we would be the first society not to have any. Thus, it’s probable that our society has one or more horrific moral blind spot–an argument from induction. Moreover, even if we correctly believe it’s highly likely that we’re morally correct in each of our current moral beliefs individually, there are so many areas where we could be wrong that there’s a high probability that we are wrong about at least one of them–an argument from disjunction.

So argues philosophy professor Evan Williams in his 2015 paper “The Possibility of an Ongoing Moral Catastrophe.” Williams, Evan G. “The possibility of an ongoing moral catastrophe.” Ethical theory and moral practice 18.5 (2015): 971-982. I’m not sure how I first encountered this paper, but it made a strong impression on me through its simple and compelling argument, and I think about it often. Without advancing any specific judgment, Williams cites a number of examples of things that could potentially qualify as current moral catastrophes, including mass incarceration, factory farming, and abortion. I believe there’s a pretty good case for more than one current moral catastrophe, but I think the power of Williams’s argument lies in the fact that it holds regardless of your views on any specific issue.

Given this probabilistic conclusion, what should we do? Williams argues, in line with the epigraph above, that we ought to structure our society in ways that make it likely for us to recognize wrongdoing quickly, and to be flexible enough to change our actions to reflect improved values once we do identify a specific case of wrongdoing–both in terms of resources and in terms of our political decision-making apparatus. He discusses various concrete ways in which a society could be better or worse at either of these tasks, but I was particularly intrigued by one of the references in his footnotes.

Professor Allen Buchanan’s 2002 paper “Social Moral Epistemology” Buchanan, Allen. “Social moral epistemology.” Social philosophy & policy 19.2 (2002): 126-152. is a more in-depth look at this specific challenge: how do social practices and institutions of any given society promote or impede the formation of true beliefs that cultivate right moral action and condemn wrong moral action? The whole paper is extremely interesting (and, like the Williams paper, quite readable), but the general idea is that the standard “reflective equilibrium” method of applied ethics, where we try to arrive at a set of moral principles that best align with our intuitions about right and wrong, has a fatal flaw if we live in societies that systematically distort our moral intuitions. Thus, says Buchanan, we should study what circumstances are likely to produce such distortions.

Although the paper is just a sketch, The late great David Graeber makes a similar argument in “Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology”: “[V]iolence, particularly structural violence, where all the power is on one side, creates ignorance. If you have the power to hit people over the head whenever you want, you don’t have to trouble yourself too much figuring out what they think is going on, and therefore, generally speaking, you don’t” (72). Buchanan identifies that individuals with high status and privilege are systematically vulnerable to moral epistemic vices, such as self-serving rationalization and expertise imperialism. As such, he comments, a developed social moral epistemology would lend support to “the view of critical race theorists and feminist social epistemologists that individuals who occupy positions of subordination in racist or sexist social orders are epistemically privileged” (146).

I probably don’t need to spell it out, Book cover1 but American society in 2020 seems like a dismal failure from the perspective of social moral epistemology. In addition to the proliferation of misinformation on social media, and the undercutting of scientific expertise, our social practices and institutions systematically exclude the voices of people in positions of subordination. This is probably most clearly evident in the Citizens United Supreme Court decision that equated money with speech, ensuring that the most economically privileged in our society would have the loudest political voices as well. But it’s just as evident in the systemic racism, and in particular anti-Black racism, that results in underrepresentation of people of color in positions of political, economic, and media power. And as many have commented recently, our political structures are extremely resistant to change.

Nonetheless, I see some reasons for hope. The 1619 Project, the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements have all been extremely impactful in our national discourse, and the papers I mentioned above allow me to see them as united by more than just being positive social justice movements: This lens also helped me reframe my thinking on reading more women and authors of color: it’s about learning from their privileged moral positions as well as getting them more sales. they are movements that improve our social moral epistemology by specifically amplifying the voices of marginalized populations. I also found reasons for hope in two books I read recently: Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, and From Here to Equality by William (Sandy) Darity and Kirsten Mullen–not just because they are well-publicized books by Black authors addressing the ongoing moral catastrophe of White supremacy and anti-Black racism, but also because I think each of them offers a new “technology” for improving our society’s moral knowledge.

Isabel Wilkerson reaches for a wide variety of analogies to talk about the complex issue of race in America, but the one that stuck with me the most is her comparison of our country with an old house. She uses this analogy to respond to the common objection that any given person living today didn’t participate in the genocide of indigenous people, or the enslavement of Black people, and so on; many of us didn’t even have any ancestors here when those things happened. All true, she says, and yet we living in America today are like people who have bought an old house. Any flaws in its construction are certainly attributable to someone else, and yet they are now our responsibility. It’s incumbent on us to inspect and to understand these flaws as the current owners, because if they lead to a collapse, it’s all of us who are going to get hurt. Wilkerson describes the American caste system, based on a racial hierarchy, as the hidden structure of our collective house–something that may not be readily apparent on the surface, but that determines a huge amount of its design and arrangement, to an extent we don’t always appreciate.

In the book, she compares the American racial caste system to the caste systems of India and of Nazi Germany, showing how they are premised upon the same key set of features. I think this characterization is a promising technology for talking about race in America. In many ways, I read this book as a parallel to Kate Manne’s excellent Down Girl. That book lays out a description of misogyny as a framework distinct from the more attitudinal I think the phrase “structural racism” is also generally meant to capture this distinction, but “racism” itself is such a fraught term that I think it’s good to have a completely different descriptor. concept of sexism; in a similar way, Wilkerson lays out the logic of caste as distinct from (if certainly related to) the attitudinal concept of racism. And not only does it provide us with a less burdened set of terminology, it also gives us a way of analyzing and understanding the American experience in comparison with those of other cultures. I think our national wisdom is severely impeded by American exceptionalism, i.e. the idea that we are a unique nation and we have nothing to learn from others besides how much better our system is than theirs. And indeed, Wilkerson is not invoking the Nazis in order to dunk on American racists, Though it’s quite stark to learn that Nazis came to the American south to study how to build a racist legal system and concluded that Jim Crow laws were more extreme than what they had in mind! but rather I think in hopes that we can learn from the way Germany has come to terms with its national transgressions–much more actively and directly than we have in America.

One way we might come to terms with our own national transgressions is to pay reparations to Black Americans, and it is this topic that Darity and Mullen take up in From Here to Equality. While this idea has been on the table for many years (the late Congressman John Conyers introduced a bill to initiate a study of reparations every year starting in 1989), it has gained increasing interest since Ta-Nehisi Coates’s influential article in The Atlantic in 2014. That article convinced me that it was at least an idea worth serious consideration, but I wondered a lot about the specifics of how it would work. That’s why I was excited to learn about From Here to Equality–a whole book about how it would work, and by an economics professor!

I was initially disappointed when I flipped through the book: the majority of its length is given over to argument in support of why the idea of reparations is a reasonable one, with only a short section at the end about the practicalities. I felt like I didn’t need convincing about the reasonableness, so the majority of the book was going to be a waste for me (though I can well understand why Darity and Mullen didn’t feel they could take this for granted). But in fact, although the end was still the most interesting part for me, I found the early chapters pretty engaging as well. Darity and Mullen have an extremely information-rich writing style, and even though I feel reasonably well-informed about American racial history, I learned a lot in these chapters. Just to give a small sampling, I encountered for the first time the idea that preserving slavery was a motivating factor in the American Revolution (due to the 1772 Somerset v. Stewart legal decision in England). This part of the book also made me think a lot about just how influential John Wilkes Booth was–while Lincoln may not have been the most progressive figure, Andrew Johnson seems to have personally destroyed any hope for a just postwar settlement. I learned about the huge amount of land that was set aside for freedmen by General Sherman’s Special Field Orders No. 15–the entire coast of Georgia and a decent chunk of South Carolina and a little bit of Florida–which was only reversed by Andrew Johnson’s decree. And I learned about the 2016 report of the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent on their findings in the US, which is a stark and sobering outsider’s perspective on the ongoing injustices in our country. (And remember, it came out well before the 2016 presidential election.)

Still, the last section was the most interesting to me. They discuss a number of academic papers that have examined the practical aspects of reparations in more depth, For an even more up-to-date and comprehensive view, see “Wealth implications of slavery and racial discrimination for African American descendants of the enslaved,” Craemer et. al (2020), of which Darity is a co-author. but I think it’s a significant contribution to bring these ideas to a wider audience. Certainly I think Conyers’s bill never became a law because it’s easier to object to reparations when the concept remains vague, but luckily, Congress can’t stop independent scholars from doing the work anyway. Darity and Mullen consider a number of different quantification schemes, including a range of reasonable compounding rates, but ultimately settle on the current average racial wealth gap as the most comprehensive measure of the range and compounding of historical injustices visited upon Black Americans. I was convinced by their argument in favor of this target, and indeed, believe it probably represents a floor on the just amount. And they make a compelling argument that the total, while high, is a number that the American govenrment could make happen over a reasonable number of years if we were committed to it as a polity.

While the authors talk some about the details of reparations payments My one complaint about the program they lay out was that, after spending much of the book talking about the harms inflicted on Black Americans in the post-slavery era, they then say that the eligible population should be limited to people identifying as Black who can trace at least one ancestor to enslavement–what about all those more recent injustices? (what form, to whom, over what time), they don’t spend a huge amount of time on recipes for this particular cookshop of the future, and I think for good reason. They argue that reparations ultimately must be determined and agreed upon in a democratic process by the potential beneficiaries. I found this idea to be really interesting, if obvious in retrospect. I’m curious if there have been other historical instances where a formal democratic process was created for a particular sub-polity of a nation. I couldn’t think of any; the closest comparison I could think of was the class members who are party to a class action lawsuit–but this is a legal structure rather than a political one.

In any case, I hope the book Darity and Mullen wrote becomes as influential as Coates’s article. Their clear analysis puts to bed any idea that reparations numbers would be so staggering that they would bring our country down. By far the greater risk is to keep putting off that pesky inspection of those creaky old beams. They’re probably fine…right?