We Need Government Handouts, Not Equality of Opportunity

WASHINGTON, DC - AUGUST 28: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during the Let Freedom Ring ceremony on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial August 28, 2013 in Washington, DC.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

In the midst of yesterday’s peroration on race in America, Barack Obama took an aside to reassure white people that he’s not one of those black politicians:

And then, if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that during the course of 50 years, there were times when some of us claiming to push for change lost our way. The anguish of assassinations set off self-defeating riots. Legitimate grievances against police brutality tipped into excuse-making for criminal behavior. Racial politics could cut both ways, as the transformative message of unity and brotherhood was drowned out by the language of recrimination. And what had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead was too often framed as a mere desire for government support – as if we had no agency in our own liberation, as if poverty was an excuse for not raising your child, and the bigotry of others was reason to give up on yourself.

Obviously if anyone out there is deliberately refusing to participate in the raising of their child and using poverty as an excuse for doing so they ought to stop (but does this happen? I’m skeptical.) And a bold stance against violent rioting is, I guess, something we can all get on board for (though see Ta-Nehisi Coates’ important points). But this business on equality of opportunity versus a “mere desire for government support” is pernicious nonsense. Unless equality of opportunity is going to be nothing more than a hollow formalism, you need a lot of government support.

You think about the good old days of the pioneers when you could pull up your bootstraps and go work a farm out west (if you were white, that is). Well, that was a government program! You didn’t confiscate that land from its native inhabitants. Somebody else made that happen. Conversely, if you suffered from lead poisoning as an infant then your equal opportunity isn’t going to amount to much. Of course ideally we will actually fix these problems. Get the environmental hazards out. Improve the public schools. Reduce crime. But public policy also has to work in real-time on actual human lifespans. If you’re already 35 or 25 or even 15 or 5 then a lot of these smart ideas about universal preschool and school reform and wraparound social services are coming too late for you. But you still deserve to have as good a life as possible, just like people suffering from serious genetic maladies or who’ve been badly injured in car accidents or whatever. “Well you had the opportunity to wear a seatbelt” isn’t much of an answer. People can’t work hard and get ahead on fair terms without lots of government support, and plenty of people who do work hard won’t get ahead anyway for one reason or another and they need government support too.

My impression is that Obama and his team know all this and agree with it all, just like they know this is a total parenting strawman. It’s just the faint echoes of Sister Souljah rattling around American racial politics. But it rankles.