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  • Writer's pictureJacob Hansen

Coleman Hughes: The Legacy of Slavery and The Parable of the Pedestrian.

Updated: Dec 7, 2021

In exploring the problems facing the black community there is much talk of "the legacy of slavery" and historical racism. Built into these discussions is almost always an assumption that if whites in the past caused the problem that it must be whites in the present who are the ones who can fix it. The brilliant scholar Coleman Hughes (a black man himself) explores the problems with this assumption in his esteemed essay in Quillette. Below is an important excerpt.


The entity responsible for a harm cannot always redress it. This truth is illustrated by ‘The Parable of the Pedestrian,’ from legal scholar Amy Wax: A reckless driver runs a stop light and hits a pedestrian, injuring her spine. Doctors inform the pedestrian that if she ever wants to walk again she’ll have to spend many painstaking years in physical therapy. Clearly, she bears no responsibility for her injury; she was victimized by the reckless driver. Yet the driver cannot make her whole. He might pay for her medical bills, for instance, but he cannot make her attend her tedious physical therapy sessions; only she can do that. Still, she might resist. She might write historical accounts detailing precisely how and why the driver injured her. When her physical therapists demand more of her, she might accuse them of blaming the victim. She might wallow in the unfairness of it all. But this will change nothing. The nature of her injury precludes the possibility of anyone besides her healing it.17

The dynamic underlying the Parable of the Pedestrian scales up to entire communities. It is no longer primarily racism that holds blacks back, but a set of cultural elements—some acquired from white southerners,18 some a consequence of historical racism,19 others a consequence of the political upheavals of the 1960s,20 and some which are mysterious in origin—that are ill-suited for success in a modern information economy. Thus, unfair as it may seem, blacks can now do more for themselves than either whites or the government can do for them.

During the half century since the end of the civil rights movement, the academic Left has been asking the question—who is to blame for the state of black America?—on the assumption that, once we identify the guilty party, we can petition it for a solution. Baradaran typifies this mindset. In her view, the “essential first step to dealing with the wealth gap is to acknowledge that it was created through racist public policy.”22 But what do such “acknowledgements” achieve, other than to imbue those doing the acknowledging with a sense of virtue? Acknowledging historical racism is no more of an “essential first step” to closing the wealth gap than acknowledging the driver’s culpability is an essential first step to healing the injured pedestrian.

The salient question should never have been who to blame for blacks’ predicament, but who is able to fix it. If the problem were simply a lack of cash, then the government would be the ideal candidate. But if we learned anything from the explosion of violent crime and single motherhood following welfare expansion in the late 1960s, it was that cash transfers cannot solve a problem that the absence of cash didn’t cause.

Herein lies one of the many issues with reparations: it would not address the root causes of black underachievement. Fans of the concept should ask themselves: what will happen the day after reparations are paid, when black students still spend less time on homework than their white peers, blacks are still making poor financial decisions, and two out of every three black kids are still living in single-parent homes? On that day, I’d hope to see progressive scholars acknowledge that they had been asking the wrong question for 50 years. But I would not be shocked to hear them insist that, if only the reparations checks had been a bit larger, black America’s problems would have been solved. Click below for full article.

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