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How many white lives is a single black life worth? It seems so easy to pin that down, but if you think it’s okay to say “black lives matter”, but not to say “all lives matter”, the implication is that one black life is worth more than one white life. Anyone who insists on that should take the following litmus test. 

A classic dilemma discussed by ethicists involves situations of mortal danger in which a life or lives might be sacrificed in order to save other lives. Variants of it come up again and again in the effort to tune software for autonomous vehicles. It’s also a simple tool for challenging assertions about the values of different lives, or whether different lives “matter”.

Suppose that two pedestrians step into the path of your vehicle. You can save them only by swerving, killing a single pedestrian standing at the curb. Most would agree the car should swerve, but the answer might change under certain circumstances. Forget about the argument that the two in your path weren’t careful, so they “deserve” die. We just don’t know what caused them to proceed, or what might have distracted them.

What if the two in your path are elderly, using walkers and dragging oxygen tanks, while the pedestrian at the curb is a healthy child. Does that matter? Do we weigh the sacrifice of many potential life-years as well as a higher quality of life? People might feel less certain about that choice.

Now let’s suppose that all three pedestrians are healthy, young adults. Does it matter that any of the pedestrians are black? The one on the the curb, or the two in your path? Of course not! The truly “colorblind” answer is to swerve regardless of race. You are an obvious racist if you think otherwise. The sacrifice of one white life is certainly worth saving two black lives; the sacrifice of one black life is certainly worth saving two white lives. Black lives and white lives matter equally. 

Our Constitution and ethical standards dictate that lives are equal, that we are equal before the law, that we that we have equal rights to speak, worship, and enjoy the fruits of our labors, including the unchallenged right to property we might acquire. Under the law, and in all of our social interactions, we must be accorded equal consideration regardless of extraneous characteristics such as race. All of us have the same promise of life and opportunities to pursue happiness, and to make of our lives what we can or will. However, none of this entitles us to equal happiness, romance, and material well being.

Now, detractors will say all that misses the point. The value of black lives has been discounted for centuries, they say, as evidenced in disparate treatment by police, prosecutors, juries, employers, neighbors, social clubs, and places of business. Of course it’s true that racism has a long history throughout the world, and at one time or other it has been turned against virtually every race or religion in existence. If you think in this day and age that racism doesn’t exist elsewhere, think again.

Slavery was a tragic reality in the U.S. until 155 years ago, but it was certainly not unique to the U.S. Jim Crow laws that prevented blacks from participating equally in many aspects of life were finally ended more than 50 years ago through a series of legislative actions and Supreme Court decisions. Slavery and Jim Crowism were the acts of long-dead ancestors of almost anyone living today. The presumption that all whites should assume guilt for some kind original sin against blacks is sheer nonsense, and one many of us will simply never accept.

Nevertheless, the legacy of degraded personhood under those long-defunct laws created a heavy burden for blacks in terms of upward mobility, and certainly vestiges of racism survive even today. However, we have adopted many standards and programs intended to rectify this unfortunate legacy, including the civil rights legislation of the 1960s and beyond, the Great Society programs of Lyndon Johnson, and many other enlargements of the social safety net since then. These programs have represented a massive redistribution of resources to the impoverished via education, housing, and direct transfers. One estimate put cumulative federal spending on anti-poverty programs alone at $13 trillion between 1963 and 2010. In addition, a variety of programs have been a source of preferential treatment for various minorities in an effort to ensure equal opportunities across many aspects of life.

The success of these programs is subject to great doubt (more on that below), and in fact the motives of Johnson and other proponents of this expansion in the role of government were perhaps less than pure. Nevertheless, the entirety of the package of civil rights and welfare state programs over the years was supported by most of the black community. In fact, one could say that these measures were hardly the actions of a racist society, at least in ostensible intent.

And yet we are told today that we do not sufficiently appreciate that black lives matter! There is no question that racism lives in the hearts and minds of certain individuals, but those individuals aren’t all white. More importantly, the blanket condemnation of whites as racist lacks any basis in reality.

When Black Lives Matter activists talk of “systemic racism”, you can translate as follows: blacks have not met with the ex post economic and social success to which these activists believe blacks are entitled. As it pertains to law enforcement, they mean that blacks are met with more violent police actions than blacks should suffer.

As to law enforcement, it is an awful thing that crime perpetrated by blacks, and particularly crime by blacks against blacks, is disproportionally heavy. As I argued recently, it is difficult to accept the hypothesis of systemic racism in law enforcement in the presence of rampant “systemic crime” in the black community. But crime, in turn, is tied closely to economic success, or the lack thereof.

Median black income has grown relative to median white income since 1970 (also see here). Unfortunately, many blacks have not shared in that growth and remain mired in poverty and on public aid. Sadly, many aid programs have pernicious effects because they impose extremely high marginal tax rates on earned income. The solution lays the groundwork for continued dependency. That qualifies as systemic racism, or at least classism.

Two well-known black economists, Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams, have both decried the welfare state’s destructive impact on the black family unit. That’s one reason why Williams calls white liberals the “worst enemy of black people“. (Also see what Williams has to say about expectations for black students, and about black crime.)

Ultimately, the uproar over racism alleged to be so widespread and “systemic” is divisive. It is an application of Marxist “conflict theory” lying at the very heart of identity politics. Such tribal philosophies creat huge obstacles to peaceful and productive coexistence among diverse peoples. Meanwhile, there’s a simple truth: a widespread consensus exists that all lives are of equal value, that all lives deserve respect and equal treatment under the law, that the goodwill of one’s fellows is a birthright, and that racism is fundamentally evil. If society is to provide fertile ground for the equal cultivation of all lives, it must reject the strictures and resentment bred by identity politics in favor of individual liberty, personal responsibility, and compassion for those unable to care for themselves.