Stamped from the Beginning

Recently, a friend of mine asked what is the best way for white people to talk to their kids about Black Lives Matter. Then another friend suggested that I read the book Stamped from the Beginning to better understand the history of racism. The interactions got me thinking, so I put the book on my list and started to read some reviews so I could get a general understanding of what the author, Ibram X. Kendi, wants me to know. I’m glad I did.

I haven’t read the book yet, but a paragraph from one of the reviews got me thinking:

Any accounting for such disparities within the racial state revolves around two fundamental though contentious questions, each identified with a different camp. The first is: what are “the blacks” doing wrong? The second is: what are “we” doing to “the blacks”? Kendi identifies these two camps as “segregationists”, those who have “blamed Black people themselves for the racial disparities”; and “assimilationists”, those who have argued that “Black people and racial discrimination were to blame”. Stamped from the Beginning also narrates how a third camp — anti-racists — has positioned itself against both.

This is an interesting and useful framework. But before we get deeper into any analysis, I want to briefly point two facts that will serve as a baseline for the discussion.

First, white people own almost all the wealth in America, and the gap is growing:

Second, black people are far more likely to be raised in a single parent family (mostly single mothers):

Poverty Culture

Ok, so many black people are poor. But there is a difference between being poor and being a carrier of “poverty culture.” In fact, it is several layers removed. Here are the layers:

  • Status = how much money you have
  • Strategy = behaviors that impact your status
  • Culture = ideas that influence your behavior
  • Environment = circumstances that determine your culture

The term “strategy” comes from an analogy to biology — specifically, to something called r/K selection theory.

Here is a useful bit from an article explaining the difference between r-strategy and K-strategy:

Those organisms described as r-strategists typically live in unstable, unpredictable environments. Here the ability to reproduce rapidly (exponentially) is important. Such organisms have high fecundity (glossary) and relatively little investment in any one progeny individual, they are typically weak and subject to predation and the vicissitudes of their environment. The “strategic intent” is to flood the habitat with progeny so that, regardless of predation or mortality, at least some of the progeny will survive to reproduce. Organisms that are r-selected have short life spans, are generally small, quick to mature and waste a lot of energy. Typical examples of r-strategists are: salmon, corals, insects, bacteria.

K-strategists, on the other hand occupy more stable environments. They are larger in size and have longer life expectancies. They are stronger or are better protected and generally are more energy efficient. They produce, during their life spans, fewer progeny, but place a greater investment in each. Their reproductive strategy is to grow slowly, live close to the carrying capacity of their habitat and produce a few progeny each with a high probability of survival. Typical K-selected organisms are elephants, and humans.

Basically, r-strategists have many offspring, and don’t invest in them much. K-strategists have a few offspring and invest a lot in them. In most animals, their strategy depends entirely on genetics. But in humans, our strategy depends mostly on a combination of genetics and culture.

Here are some human behavioral patterns that distinguish r-strategy from K-strategy:

  • Spending all of the money you earn is r-strategy. Saving money and passing it on to your children is K-strategy.
  • Having sex with many people is r-strategy. Getting married and staying married is K-strategy.
  • Getting an education and making your kids get an education is K-strategy. Going to jail or letting your kids go to jail is r-strategy.

You get the point. Anyway, now that we know what the strategies look like, we can contemplate different cultures that promote these two strategies. Let’s call them r-culture and K-culture. That is, r-culture is any set of ideas that makes people better at and more likely to employ r-strategy. K-culture is any set of ideas that makes people better at and more likely to employ K-strategy.

With all that in mind I present a cultural version of the Kendi spectrum:

  1. Segregationist: We need to protect ourselves from r-culture.
  2. Assimilationist: We need to help people learn K-culture.
  3. Relativist: r-culture is valid.

I am going to focus on this cultural version because I think it is a little less politically charged to call someone a culturalist than a racist. However, I am going to keep the terms segregationist and assimilationist as a way to emphasize the connection to Kendi’s approach.

Segregation (focus on behavior)

Segregationists are worried that certain cultural influences will pollute or undermine cultural development. So we need to protect ourselves. Cultural segregationists often emphasize the difference between good and evil, i.e., morality.

Morality is one of the key ways that cultures propagate themselves. And morality practically requires a concept of evil. But remember that when we demonize other people and cultures, the main purpose is usually to promote our own culture to our children. In other words, morality should be viewed primarily as an intra-cultural phenomenon, not an inter-cultural phenomenon.

Thus, one sign that someone is a cultural segregationist is that they are keen to point out the dangers of certain “evil” cultural influences. And there do exist cultural elements that explicitly glorify r-strategy. For example, consider the following song:

This might be the wrong term, but I’m just going to call this “gangster rap”. To a segregationist, gangster rap is a big deal, and we need to protect our kids.

Here’s a pretty strong example of this way of thinking, from an essay written by a black scholar:

The rise of nihilistic rap has mirrored the breakdown of community norms among inner-city youth over the last couple of decades. It was just as gangsta rap hit its stride that neighborhood elders began really to notice that they’d lost control of young black men, who were frequently drifting into lives of gang violence and drug dealing…

By the eighties, the ghetto had become a ruleless war zone, where black people were their own worst enemies. It would be silly, of course, to blame hip-hop for this sad downward spiral, but by glamorizing life in the “war zone,” it has made it harder for many of the kids stuck there to extricate themselves...

The attitude and style expressed in the hip-hop “identity” keeps blacks down...The black community has gone through too much to sacrifice upward mobility to the passing kick of an adversarial hip-hop “identity.”

This is also how I interpret Candace Owens. In the following video, she makes it clear that she doesn’t want George Floyd to be hailed as a black hero.

Again, I am not calling these people racist. I am calling them culturalist. And they have some good points to make.

Assimilation (focus on culture)

Assimilationists usually don’t seem quite as moralistic as segregationists. Instead of looking for a villain and focusing on trying to purify and protect our culture, an assimilationist will usually focus more on education.

Here is an example of assimilationist argument from an essay about inequality in education:

[E]ducational outcomes for minority children are much more a function of their unequal access to key educational resources, including skilled teachers and quality curriculum, than they are a function of race. In fact, the U.S. educational system is one of the most unequal in the industrialized world, and students routinely receive dramatically different learning opportunities based on their social status. In contrast to European and Asian nations that fund schools centrally and equally, the wealthiest 10 percent of U.S. school districts spend nearly 10 times more than the poorest 10 percent, and spending ratios of 3 to 1 are common within states. Despite stark differences in funding, teacher quality, curriculum, and class sizes, the prevailing view is that if students do not achieve, it is their own fault. If we are ever to get beyond the problem of the color line, we must confront and address these inequalities.

An assimilationist believes strongly in education, so assimilation is clearly an element of K-culture. In fact, they tend to believe that with the right education, almost everyone can be molded into a productive member of society.

But an assimilationist is still a culturalist. They tend to view income inequality and absent fathers as social ills to be solved, rather than different expressions of an equally valid culture.

Relativism (focus on environment)

Nature doesn’t consider K-strategy to be superior to r-strategy. Both work, so nature takes both paths. A relativist takes a similar view toward culture. While a segregationist emphasizes morality, and an assimilationist emphasizes education, a relativist emphasizes environment.

Here is a quote from a paper written in defense of gangster rap:

In defense of rap music, this study argues that sexism and violence in rap, particularly in “gangsta rap,” is a product of the U.S. inner-city environment. Though rap is infamously associated with cursing, pushing drugs, smoking weed, drinking, and slinging guns, it has redeeming qualities, as well. This study argues that rap has become a ploy for the real issues in the United States today, issues such as race, class, and gender, all of which have plagued the U.S. since colonialism. It concludes that rap has more to offer than its limited qualities the record industry promotes; it has the ability to engage and impact its audience with its rich cultural elements.

Is culture to blame for the fact that so many black kids don’t have fathers, or is it caused by the environment? Surely they are correlation, but I don’t need to remind you that correlation does not equal causation.

If a privileged white kid listens to gangster rap, will it make him less likely to get into an Ivy League school? If a young black father is arrested for possession of marijuana, is it his fault he isn’t around to raise his family? If you answer “no” to either of these questions, you can understand how things we associate with r-culture might be an effect of poverty, and not the cause of it.

Also, remember the first thing we said about r-culture:

Those organisms described as r-strategists typically live in unstable, unpredictable environments.

In other words, in biology, r-strategy is a response to an environment. Wouldn’t we expect r-culture to be the same?

Now consider another aspect of cultural relativism, illustrated by a quote from the Black Lives Matter website:

We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and “villages” that collectively care for one another, especially our children, to the degree that mothers, parents, and children are comfortable.

I read this as an attempt to find value in a cultural adaptation associated with the absence of fathers. If if it didn’t occur to you already, let me assure you that this quote is very threatening to a cultural segregationist. Accepting that it’s okay to raise kids in the “ village” can be interpreted as letting men off the hook for bailing on their children.

A segregationist views this kind of thing as extremely dangerous. However, a relativist would argue that there is nothing inherently wrong with r-culture. It is simply an adaptation to an environment. Poor people are not responsible for the environment, and they are not to blame for adapting to it.

One rather extreme version of the cultural relativism that I have toyed with at times is that that the environmental conditions that lead to r-culture are inevitable… so we should not even attempt to eradicate poverty. We should just learn to coexist. In fact, I think it was Jesus who said that r-culture will always be with us.

Summary

To tie this all up, let me just say that when it comes to culture, I personally exist in a superposition of all three states: segregationism, assimilationism, and relativism. Moral responsibility, education, environment are all important, and different circumstances might call for a different perspective.

Also, it is worth noting that in a way, segregation is a short term strategy, assimilation is a medium term strategy, and relativism is a long term strategy. At least on the surface, changing behavior is less complicated than changing culture, which is less complicated than fixing the environment.

When it comes to race, the question is even more complicated because it is hard to define what race even is. For example, even if we were strict relativists who viewed r-culture as perfectly valid, we still might have trouble determining the extent to which black culture and r-culture intersect.

In any case, my recent foray into trying to understand racism has been fruitful because the Kendi framework has led to some new and interesting lines of thought. But I hope I have also been able to communicate a bit of how complicated I find this issue.

So to go back to the original question that prompted my investigation…how would I talk about this to my daughter? I suppose I must attempt to frame the question in terms of culture and pass on to her all three of these perspectives — and probably at different times, because trying to do it all at once would be confusing.

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Redbeard

Redbeard

Patent Attorney, Crypto Enthusiast, Father of two daughters