A positive vision: the agenda of “1776”

The United States of American began in 1776, not 1619. I’ve found myself saying this quite a bit lately, in response to the claims of the New York Times’ 1619 Project. The 1619 Project has argued, among other things, that the American Revolutionary War was fought to preserve slavery, that aggressive American capitalism is a legacy of slavery, and that historical racial segregation “caused your traffic jam.”

Empirically, I believe that I and other members of the “1776” initiative — founder Robert L. Woodson Sr., Glenn Loury, Coleman Hughes, John Sibley Butler, Carol Swain and Taleeb Starkes among them — have done a solid job of pointing out the weaknesses of the 1619 case and, more broadly, of the Howard Zinn-style radical social “science.” To take just two of the points mentioned above: British colonies maintained the Peculiar Institution until 52 years after our revolution ended, and the most aggressively competitive economy in the world is generally Singapore’s.

But, there is another essay regarding 1776 to be written. When I speak or write about the initiative, easily the most common question I receive is: “But what do you guys believe?” The 1776 perspective can be condensed into one sentence: The U.S. is a flawed but very good country, where it is simply not terribly hard to succeed, given hard work and personal responsibility. As a founding member of 1776, I would personally draw this single thesis statement out into four points:

  1. It is not accurate to claim that the contemporary U.S. is a “systemically” racist society;
  2. Many of the primary social problems of today have nothing to do with historical racial conflict;
  3. Individuals are not responsible for the sins of other members of their groups; and
  4. Basic skills training — for example, test taking — would do far more to prep both blacks/minorities and working-poor white Americans for the real battles of today than would any amount of training in “grievance.”

The first of these points is the most obviously accurate, but also the most controversial. The American activist left argues constantly that the United States of 2020 is an “institutionally,” “structurally,” “systemically” racist hell-state, chock-full of “white privilege” and “cultural appropriation(s)” and “microaggressions.” In a widely cited 2018 essay, scholar Nicki Lisa Cole identified at least seven complicated forms of racism, including the “representative racism” of depicting blacks or Italians as criminals in films, the “discursive racism” of using such potentially loaded terms as “ghetto,” and the “ideological racism” of believing in any ethnic stereotypes (for example, that Latin women tend to be fiery lovers and debaters) whatsoever. Activist scholars frequently point to “prejudice” of this kind, in combination with legitimate historical atrocities such as lynching, to argue that people of color are systematically disadvantaged in the U.S.

The problem with this claim is that it is not true. No one disputes the bloody, unpleasant nature of large portions of American — and human — history. But, black and brown Americans have been on an even keel with the rest of our countrymen, at the level of literal federal law, for quite some time. The Brown v. Board of Education decision declared de jure racial segregation unconstitutional in 1954. The Civil Rights Act went a big step further a decade later, making virtually all forms of racial discrimination civilly, and sometimes criminally, illegal. Even affirmative action is more than 50 years old, dating to President Nixon’s Philadelphia Plan in 1967.

These legal protections are not merely words on paper, in the manner of the old Soviet Constitution. Affirmative action, in particular, provides a massive empirical advantage to virtually any non-Asian person of color applying for a Fortune 500 job or slot in a selective university. The Crimson recently noted that, among students admitted to Harvard, Asian Americans averaged a 767 score “across all sections” of the SAT exam; whites averaged 745; Hispanics, 718; and blacks, 704. All of these scores are quite solid, but their obvious implication is that a white student would have to score 82 more points than a black student, across just the math and verbal sections of the exam, to have the same chance at admission — and an Asian student would have to score 126 more points. The affirmative action gap is even larger among students enrolled in good institutions one level down, sometimes ranging up to 300 points after the Ivies have poached the very best black and Hispanic students from the applicant pool.

In this context of relative equality or even situational minority advantage, a critical if rarely made point is that many common examples of “institutional racism” collapse when a basic adjustment for non-racial variables is made during a scholarly analysis. This fact has been an open secret among regression analysts and other “quants” for years. In 1995, government economist June O’Neil and conservative researcher Dinesh D’Souza both noted that the average black man earned only 82.9 percent of the white male wage, and that this disparity was often attributed to racism. However, adjusting for no variables but geographic/Southern residency, age, years (not quality) of education, and aptitude test scores closed the gap to 4 percent. Tossing in years of work experience closed it to 1 percent. Similarly, the gap between white and black Americans in terms of the likelihood of being shot by the police — blacks make up 13 percent of the country and 25-30 percent of shooting victims in a typical year — vanishes if an adjustment is made for the black crime rate, generally 2.1 to 2.4 times the white rate[1] .

Further evidence for the non-nightmarish nature of contemporary America comes from the success of many recent minority immigrant groups. A 2014 Census Bureau graphic[2]  — so pleasantly surprising to many middle-class people of color that it became a trending online meme — noted that the highest income racial/ethnic population in the United States is not WASPS but rather Indian Americans, with a median household income of $100,295. All told, 18 groups finished ahead of whites, taken en bloc, including Taiwanese Americans ($85,500), Filipino Americans ($82,389), Lebanese Arabs ($69,586), and Nigerians ($61,289). American Jews, white or not, unsurprisingly also did well, with 44 percent of Jews living in households with incomes of $100,000 or more, and the Open Orthodox sub-category of Jews bringing home a remarkable $185,000 annually. There is no reason to believe that white racists fancy Yemini Jews or Yoruba tribesmen from Nigeria any more than black Americans, and the visible success of such groups illustrates that racism has declined dramatically — or, at the very least, that performance can dramatically overcome it.

A corollary to the fact that the U.S. is no longer a particularly racist or anti-Semitic country, in any historical or comparative sense, is the fact that many of today’s problems in black or minority communities have little to do with present or past racism. This is often true to a rather surprising extent. Perhaps the best example of this trend is illegitimacy — or “out-of-wedlock birth,” if you prefer. The black illegitimacy rate is currently 72 percent[3] , and this is almost inevitably described as “a legacy of slavery.” However, as right-leaning black economists such as Walter Williams have pointed out, the black illegitimacy rate was far lower when racism was much worse. In 1938, for example, only 11 percent of black children[4]  were born to unwed mothers. Almost unbelievably, under slavery, “one well-known 19th century study found that in three fourths of the families, all of the children had the same mother and father.”

Perhaps the best evidence that modern family collapse is not because of anti-black racism is that it has not been confined entirely — or, in numerical terms, even primarily — to black people. In 2010, resources for homemakers such as The Thinking Housewife website began to note, with a notable lack of enthusiasm, that births to unmarried women had climbed above 40 percent[5]  of all American births for the first time. Such births were remarkably common among all races, making up 28.6 percent of the total for non-Hispanic whites (and 35 percent for all whites), 52.5 percent for Hispanics, and 72.3 percent for blacks. There is little, if any, doubt that out-of-wedlock birth rates for many regional and lower-income white groups currently stand well above 50 percent[6] . Literally every large, non-Asian racial group in the United States “boasts” an out-of-wedlock birth rate well above the “shocking” 20-odd percent among blacks that triggered the famous Moynihan Report. This multi-colored problem is certainly disturbing, but literally impossible to blame on racism — and the same is true for many of the shared big issues of today.

A third “1776” point can be summed up as: Even where past racism clearly did play a role in creating a problem we still see, as in the case of poverty housing, it is useless and indeed counterproductive to blame white Americans today for the sins of long-dead members of their ethnic group. All blacks are not responsible for black gang violence or crimes against whites, and all whites are not responsible for slavery. In the most obvious literal sense, a Caucasian individual whose ancestors were serfs in Sicily or Russia in 1864 had nothing to do with the Peculiar Institution, and basically the same holds true for the Jewish or Irish guy whose ancestors would have been trudging along shoeless in Union blue during the same year. Even a direct lineal descendant of Stonewall Jackson, one strongly suspects, might spend more time in 2020 taking his Italian-American girlfriend to dinner and throwing passes to diverse buddies from the football team than secretly plotting the resurrection of the South. Accusing any of the individuals just described of nonsense such as “cultural appropriation” does nothing but fracture a potential problem-solving coalition of countrymen.

An especially awful effect of that fracturing is the almost universal neglect of poor whites, often dismissed as “deplorables,” by the American taste-making class. Poor white Americans, almost by definition ineligible for both affirmative action and legacy programs, may be the most genuinely neglected population in the modern United States — making up the plurality or majority of those felled annually by suicide, auto wreck, and opiate and other drug overdoses[7] . While less likely to catch the eye of the mainstream media that breathlessly reported urban homicides, these deaths of despair claim far more lives. In the fairly typical year of 2016[8] , there were 17,250 recorded homicides in the United States, but 42,249 fatal drug overdoses, with 33,450 of their victims (79 percent) being non-Hispanic whites.

In this context, a very explicit goal of 1776 is “desegregating poverty.” We plan to host an event in Appalachian Ohio in July — headlined by Bob Woodson, columnist Clarence Page, and J.D. Vance, author of “Hillbilly Elegy” — that focuses on how Americans as a group can tackle the problems afflicting both poor black and poor white communities. In one of the entertaining ironies of our politically correct era, it just might take a group of well-off black guys to publicly stand up for poor white ones!

So, how can Americans as a group help struggling people tackle real problems? A solid, if hokey, two-word answer is “skills training.” A point made earlier in this essay is that many of the performance gaps between groups that inevitably are attributed to institutional racism vanish once non-racial variables such as age and test scores are adjusted for — and an obvious, if unspoken, fact is that non-Asian people of color and poor whites do very poorly against many of the tests used to measure success in modern societies. In 2017, the average SAT score[9]  was 1,181 for Asian Americans and 1,118 for whites as a group, but 941 for African Americans, 963 for Native Americans, and 987 for Hispanics. The disturbing alt-right tries to attribute these score gaps to genetics — a flawed theory for many reasons, notably including the fact that the Census Bureau classifies 50-75 percent of Hispanics as white — but the social scientists Fordham and Ogbu identified a simpler explanation in a magisterial late-1990s paper[10] : minority kids study a lot less for the exam.

This may sound banal, but teaching study skills and other examples of what Amy Wax was pilloried for calling “bourgeois norms[11] ,” as charter schools often do, will do far more to move working-poor Americans toward success than will teaching them African (or Celtic) meditation techniques and the Swahili word for “racism.” Middle-middle class culture can be a bit pious and stifling, and it is occasionally fun to tweak the petit bourgeoisie. But, this friendly cynicism is a luxury: One must learn how to be a successful adult, or at least play one in public, before testing the limits of that role. Preachers and rabbis have said from the pulpit for centuries that one has to do only three or four things in life to avoid poverty and failure: Finish high school, take a job and work hard, wait until marriage to have children, avoid being convicted of a serious crime, and so forth. Empirical social science indicates this is very true — and this, rather than victimology, is the message to teach young people. “1776” is proud to have members such as Ian Rowe of Public Prep, who say exactly this on a daily basis.

The “1776” vision, at least as seen through my eyes, has four components:

  1. Recognizing that the modern U.S. is a good society where people of all backgrounds can and often do succeed;
  2.  Rejection of racism as a catch-all explanation for black problems;
  3. Advocating for alliances between blacks, whites, and others to solve American problems; and
  4. Teaching useful skills, rather than basket-weaving “intersectional” nonsense.

If this framework appeals to you, please take a look at www.1776unites.org and consider volunteering, donating, or just giving our essays a read-through.

Copyright 2020 The Woodson Center