Societal problems, personal solutions

"Race Wrongs" book jacket

The law of remedies says that a person who causes harm to another is obligated to repair any damage he or she inflicted. If a man steals from his brother, he has an obligation to replace what was stolen. If a woman wrecks her sister’s car, she is obligated to have it repaired.

But, it is not always possible for the wrongdoer to remedy the situation. If a person is killed, for example, nothing will bring him or her back to life. If someone loses the ability to walk, it cannot necessarily be restored. And in some cases, only the victim can cure himself.

In her new book, “Race, Wrongs, and Remedies: Group Justice in the 21st Century,” Amy Wax, the Robert Mundheim Professor of Law at Penn, attributes the law of remedies to the issue of race, asserting that although white society is responsible for some of the ills plaguing the black community, most of what ails black America today lies outside the power of others to fix. It is, she says, up to African Americans to help themselves.

A former assistant to the U.S. Solicitor General, Wax says she was compelled to write the book because so many discussions about race are unproductive. Basing her conclusions on legal science and social studies, she hopes to move people to start thinking differently about the role racism, discrimination, and societal obstacles play in black advancement.

Self-identified as a conservative, Wax is aware that her book is controversial and that some will reject its findings because of her political views. “People try to discredit your work because you’re conservative all the time, but I think that’s just a dodge and not really confronting the arguments on their merits,” she says.

Wax says the primary obstacles facing the African-American community include low educational attainment, poor socialization and work habits, criminality, paternal abandonment, family disarray and non-marital childbearing. And, she says, the problems are only getting worse.

“Certainly, the black family is not making progress,” she says. “Black educational underachievement is just now in a stagnant phase. We haven’t really made any significant progress in the past 25, 30 years.”

Wax says her research has found that the violent crime rate among blacks is seven or eight times that of whites. She says if issues regarding the disintegration of the black family, crime and education were to be addressed by African Americans themselves, the results would make “a hundred times more difference to the fate of black Americans than all of the hubbub about racism or whatever racism is supposedly there.”

Wax does not deny that racism exists. She acknowledges the problems that beset black Americans today are “an outgrowth of a long history of discriminatory treatment and enslavement.” But, she says, racism in 2009 is surmountable, and dwelling on it doesn’t get society anywhere.

“There’s always going to be people who are prejudiced and people who are biased,” she says. “There’s always going to be people who are misogynist, or anti-Semites, or the like. I just think it’s not a super core part of ordinary life in most cases.”

Wax says while evidence shows that, in some limited respects, schools that are majority black are educationally subpar to majority white schools, she believes the measured differences are “small and of uncertain or undocumented importance to outcomes.” She says most schools are, more or less, mediocre and black students, for a multitude of reasons, lag behind even in schools that are racially integrated.

Wax writes that the rhetorical habit of characterizing African Americans as victims of poverty, crime, failing school systems and broken families ignores the truism that people largely create their own environments. “These commonly identified conditions are not solely, or even predominately, imposed from above,” she says. “Rather, they are mostly the product of the actions and choices of participants.”

Wax says it is “literally impossible” for the government, or outsiders, to remedy dysfunctional behavior or to make good decisions for individuals. “These choices belong to persons, families and the community itself,” she says.

Not all African Americans are making poor choices, Wax says, but the number who excel is not high enough.

“If we’re demographers and we’re looking at the picture overall, we see some pretty disturbing patterns,” she says. “We have to face up to some of the gaps that are still there, and how we can fix them, and we have to realize it’s come to a point where we can’t fix them.”

Originally published on September 17, 2009