Almost Impossible To Discuss Poverty and Race In America Ideological blinders prevent an open dialogue aimed at finding new policies that will allow black people to get out of poverty

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WASHINGTON – Old and encrusted socio-economic problems related to race issues have become intractable in America. In large part this is because they cannot be discussed in an objective way.

No honest conversation about race and poverty

This is what columnist Juan Williams (he is black) stated in a WSJ op-ed piece, (Getting Past Name-Calling to Talk About Poverty, April 30, 2014). He is right. Essentially, America is still prisoner of ideological oversimplifications –on the left and on the right– that make a productive conversation on the roots of black poverty and how to overcome it essentially impossible.

Everybody has a chance

Conservatives are inclined to think that in (color blind, totally fair) America the only obstacle between any individual, no matter their race, gender or background, and material success is lack of a “hard work ethic” and perseverance. Here is the simple recipe: if you study hard, then work hard and do your best, you are bound to get results.

After all, this is America, universally known as “The Land of Opportunity”. Here everybody gets a fair chance, not matter what. From this vantage point, the inability to “make it” in America is a sign of a weak character, a personal failure that has nothing to do with the broader social context.

The game is fixed

Liberals would tell you instead that there is no real opportunity for black people who have been discriminated against for centuries. While open discrimination is illegal, the game is still fixed against them. Most blacks do not have a fair shot at the “American Dream”, because they have no real access.

The system does not give them a chance.

Therefore, the only way out of this is to create, via enlightened social policies, new paths for the perennially underprivileged. And, if some programs do not work as they should, it is simply because they are underfunded. Add money, and you’ll get better results.

Truth in the middle

Of course, the truth is in the middle. While racial discrimination is illegal, racism does exist. There is still a negative bias against black people. And this is obviously unfair.

However, it is also true that many black communities have yet to embrace a culture of committment and hard work. There is a lot of dysfunction, ranging from teen pregnancy to absent fathers and no interest in education that conspire to create new generations of black young people adrift and poor. They drop out of school, or do poorly in school. Many get involved in gangs or petty crime. And it is obvious that there are not many doors open for young people who have a criminal record but no education. The notion that the only way to help them is through more social programs is wishful thinking.

Change the culture

Realistically, not much will change unless the culture and psychology are changed. People need to feel motivated in order to engage. If the prevailing culture is that it is no use to get an education and find a job, while there are more easy money prospects through crime, then the vicious cycle of poverty-ignorance-crime-jail-poverty will continue.

Finding new common ground?

Given all this, it should be noted, as Williams writes in his piece, that some, like Representative Paul Ryan, Chairman of the House Budget Committee, are trying to break these stereotypes by engaging black leaders in an attempt to find a new common ground that hopefully will lead to more productive policies.

The facts are clear. However noble the intentions, a variety of federal and state anti-poverty social programs have not worked well, or have not worked at all. Notwithstanding billions and billions of dollars spent over decades, the black-white divide is still there and all sorts of statistics confirm this grim reality.

Clearly all this is very complicated. How do you fix education, families and bad neighborhoods? How much is society supposed to do? And how much is really the responsibility of the people living in these communities? Who knows really.

But, at the very least, we should welcome any honest attempt to have an honest conversation about all this. However, it appears that this may not happen.

The liberal establishment does not want a new conversation

The liberal establishment does not like any dialogue outside the orthodox official doctrine whereby black poverty is the direct result of discrimination and racism. From this perspective, any talk about “personal responsibility”, “work ethic” and “effort” as  integral components of the problem is immediately labeled as disguised or open racism, yet another example of “blaming the victim”.

Well, if this is the attitude, then Paul Ryan will not accomplish much. No black leader will engage in any dialogue with a white racist, let alone take any advice from him.

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