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.

Liberal societies vs top down (centrally planned) societies

Michelle Obama is absolutely correct to criticize food served in many school cafeterias as contributing to an epidemic of obesity. I grew up knowing that white bread, especially enriched white bread, was bad for me. My mother, who like all mothers loved her children and wanted them to be healthy, had read every word of Adelle Davis three times over. Moreover, compared to whole wheat and multigrain breads, white bread has no taste. So why are some kids today—fat kids no doubt—throwing whole wheat bread and fruit in the trash? “Michelle Obama’s school lunch agenda faces backlash from some school nutrition officials” WP/2014/05/29/

I believe it is ignorance, which the First Lady wishes to help overcome, and rebellion. The ignorance is a bad thing to be over come, and the rebellion, if that is what it is, is fundamentally a good thing—resistance to being dictated to from above. If loving mothers and their children understood the importance of nutritious food to their well-being, do we really believe they would throw it in the trash? These are children we are talking about, who must be taught everything they know. If on the other hand, the government and school administrators simply try to impose healthier food on them, they will resent having their candy taken away from them and will rebel.

This all speaks directly to a frequent theme of mine—the sanctity of the individual vs. the power of the state. If the government thinks it knows better than Johnny and Betty what is good for them to eat, what should it do? The top down, central planning mentality calls for better food standards imposed on schools. After all, pizzas etc. are cheaper and easier to prepare as well as more fun to eat and the government shouldn’t allow these shortsighted considerations to dominate. Respect for individuals, even children, suggests a very different approach. It suggests improved education (the same arguments I have made against the war on drugs). If mothers, and through them their children, understood better what food was good for them and the implications of eating or not eating healthier food, most would choose it. The companies that make it are interested in selling their products and if there is demand for healthier food, then that is what they will make money producing.