The Obama’s on race and poverty

Riots in near by Baltimore and elsewhere following killings of unarmed black men by police have reignited a public discussion of approaches to policing, causes and curse for poverty, and race relations in America. Good. We will never have final, definitive answers to these questions and it is good that we continue to discuss them and to search for better ways of addressing them.

Yesterday I posted a Washington Post op-ed by Richard Cohen addressing criticisms of the First Lady’s public statements on race and the “black experience.”

The evolutionary process has predisposed us to bond with and trust most easily our own families and tribes—to be most comfortable with what and who is most familiar to us. Traits that served us well as hunters-gatherers are often less useful or actual impediments to life in larger communities and cities. Civilization is, in part, the process of taming some of these primitive impulses.

At the dedication of a museum in NYC recently, the First Lady stated that: ““I guarantee you that right now, there are kids living less than a mile from here who would never in a million years dream that they would be welcome in this museum,” This surprised many of us, especially here in Washington DC, where the percent of blacks in the population has just recently slipped below 50%, and where it is hard to imagine any building in which blacks would not be welcomed. But though I have many black friends, and don’t give it a second thought, I can remember when I lived in Hyde Park, Chicago as a student at the University of Chicago, I was apprehensive about penetrating more than a block into Woodlawn, across the midway from my classes. This is the South Side Chicago almost all black neighborhood Michelle Obama grew up in. There was something about being the almost only white man in an all black neighborhood that was uncomfortable. Nonetheless, I was shocked a few months ago when the black friend of a houseguest expressed some nervousness at driving into my neighborhood (though a few black families are among our 61 home community).

While some of this is in our genes, some of it is fortified by experience. What can we do to remove baseless apprehensions between ourselves and our fellow man and more importantly what can we do to help left the likes of those living in West Baltimore from destructive cycles of poverty, crime, and other destructive behavior? There are no magic bullets. Many factors are at play and I admire the First Lady’s contributions to improving these lives.

I disagree with much of President Obama’s policy views, especially domestic policies, but I have admired his and his wife’s advise to African Americans. On several occasions the President has told young blacks to avoid thinking of themselves as victims and to focus on what they can and must do themselves to better their lives. Yesterday at Georgetown University he said: “The stereotype is that you’ve got folks on the left who just want to pour more money into social programs, and don’t care anything about culture or parenting or family structures. And then you’ve got cold-hearted, free market, capitalist types who are reading Ayn Rand and think everybody are moochers. And I think the truth is more complicated.” Indeed it is and I welcome his and the First Lady’s contributions to finding better ways to better lives.

Author: Warren Coats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 1975 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My recent books are One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina; My Travels in the Former Soviet Union; My Travels to Afghanistan; My Travels to Jerusalem; and My Travels to Baghdad. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.

One thought on “The Obama’s on race and poverty”

  1. One time my son and several friends were shopping in a Los Angeles clothing store. One friend, who is a fellow college teacher and author of a textbook and several novels, is a very large black man with impressive dreadlocks. My son was shocked to see that there were employees of the store watching their every move. His friend explained that he was used to it, as it happened every time he went somewhere. This was a good lesson for all of us.

    My problem with Mrs. Obama, in addition to the place she chose to make her comments, is that she seems to try to claim that she and her family, including the president, have barely been able to survive all the cruelty and discrimination they were burdened with all of their lives. I feel like saying, “Duh, your husband is president of the United States!” I know she grew up in a black area of Chicago, but if what I have read is correct, she had an intact family, with two parents who gave her a stable home. Her husband was raised by white grandparents in Hawaii, for Pete’s sake, and he was sent to private schools. Both of them went to Ivy League schools and obviously had support from people along the way.

    I would prefer it if she would instill a positive message in her speeches to minority students. “See what you can do? Look at me! Look at my husband! Look at all of the successful black people – judges, doctors, military leaders, politicians, educators, etc. in this country. People have worked for decades to be sure you have the opportunities you deserve, that were not given to your ancestors. Take advantage of these opportunities, don’t dwell on the past and the old wrongs no one alive today had any part of.” Instead, she reminds us all of all the terrible things that happened years ago. She tells people, like the ones who were most likely excited to be opening a new museum for the enjoyment of the public, that what they had done was nice, but it certainly couldn’t make up for all the really horrible things going on around them. “The children down the street don’t feel welcome here!” Really? That must have made all the donors, visitors, and employees feel wonderful. She has a great platform on which to encourage, identify with, and boost up minorities. I hate to see her wasting the position she enjoys by espousing the negative and ignoring the possibilities.

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