The American experiment is fragile. It has always been fragile and always will be fragile because it is so extremely unnatural. ‘Unnatural’ in this context means in conflict with human nature. Jonah Goldberg has described the fragility of the American system by comparing it to a garden hacked out of a tropical jungle. A garden surrounded by jungle is unnatural. The gardeners must tend it with unremitting care lest the jungle return.
Treating our fellow human beings as individuals instead of treating them as members of groups is unnatural. Our brains evolved to think of people as members of groups; to trust and care for people who are like us and to be suspicious of people who are unlike us. Those traits had great survival value for human beings throughout millions of years of evolution. People who were trusting of outsiders were less likely to pass on their genes than people who were suspicious of them. People who were loyal to their tribe were more likely to pass on their genes than people who stood apart. …
America proved that a durable alternative to the natural form of government was possible — a constitutional republic combined with carefully circumscribed democracy. …
The introduction of identity politics into that carefully crafted constitutional system does not simply distract us from warding off the jungle. It is the jungle, the primitive sense of ‘us against them’ pressing in upon the garden. It not only permits but insists that the power of the state be used to reward favored groups at the expense of everyone else. That view of power is the defining characteristic of the natural form of government that humankind endured until the miracle at Philadelphia in 1787. …
Why should group differences matter, if we treat everyone as individuals?
I am sure that many of you also have come to this page unconvinced that the facts of group differences are as important as I have claimed. I suggest that a reason for such a reaction is grounded in another aspect of human nature: the impulse to generalize from our own experience even when we know intellectually that our experience is not representative.
Suppose that your personal experience has consisted of life as a white in an upper-middle-class American suburb. Your black, Latino and Asian neighbors have been as smart, engaging and helpful as your white neighbors. The bell curve of your personal experience does not involve mean differences in cognitive ability or crime rates. It is natural to think your experience invalidates the data about group differences in means.
The mind insists on generalizing. But when mean differences between groups are real, it is absolutely essential to resist generalization; it is essential to accept the reality of documented group differences but to insist on thinking of and treating every person as an individual.
Why? After all, even if you’re technically ‘making a mistake’ with your generalization, it’s on the side of generosity and optimism. How could that be bad? The answer is that if it’s OK for you to do it, it’s OK for everyone else to do it. That way lies unrestrained racism.
Suppose that instead of living in an upper-middle-class suburb you are a white living in a multiracial working-class or middle-class neighborhood in a megalopolis.
- The great majority of crimes are committed by minorities.
- Most of the children in the bottom of the class in your child’s school are minorities.
These observations are not the products of a racist imagination. They are the facts of your lived experience. There are exceptions, to be sure — your daughter’s super-smart minority classmate, the minority couple down the street who provide loving care for foster children, the minority cop you watched deftly defuse an escalating confrontation. But your lived experience tells you that these are not typical. Is it OK for you to generalize that minorities are criminal and dumb? Obviously not. The obviously correct answer is that a difference in means exists, but that we must insist on treating people as individuals.
If you agree that it’s wrong for whites living in a multiracial working-class or middle-class neighborhood to generalize from their experience but think that it’s still OK for whites in an affluent neighborhood to do so, then I ask that you take two other considerations on board:
- Advocating double standards for people on top and everyone else is a bad idea
- A lot more whites live in working-class and middle-class neighborhoods than in affluent ones
These two considerations are politically pragmatic. The elites who run the country would arouse much less hostility if they kept both at the front of their minds.