Quarantining the Contagion: Antonio Moore & Richard Rothstein in Conversation

This past Thursday, Antonio Moore sat down for an interview with Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. In writing that book and demonstrating how New Deal era housing policy deliberately excluded African-Americans from the same access to wealth-building opportunities with which it furnished white America, Professor Rothstein has no doubt provided a valuable contribution which supports one of the principle claims that inform a politics of reparative justice.

However, when Moore asks Rothstein whether he thinks the nation can make meaningful progress toward rectifying the wrongs of its history “if white people want to stay white”—that is, if the approach to racial justice isn’t one that necessarily understands whiteness as a fundamentally advantageous economic position that is made wholly possible by its historical relation to blackness as a purposely engineered inferior one—Rothstein provides a surprisingly limp and cringe-worthy response:

“Well, I think about it a little bit differently,” Rothstein says. “White people did not get an advantage through the policies I was just talking about. They got what they were entitled to…The problem was not that whites got an advantage of moving into [single-family homes in the suburbs]; the problem was that African-Americans were denied that same opportunity. Everybody should have been entitled to that kind of subsidy to move into a single-family home. So I think that it’s not helpful to talk about whites having gotten an advantage. What we should be thinking about is that African-Americans were denied that same opportunity and that’s what needs to be remedied.”

It’s hard to say how that’s not precisely what Antonio Moore is thinking about when he speaks to the centrality of race in relation to federal policy designed to lift a nation out of poverty and promote economic betterment among a bourgeoning middle class. Moore then rightly points out how the advantage—regardless of whether a person feels comfortable explicitly naming it as such—was “baked into creating a system” of wealth positionality in which one group naturally benefits from access to opportunities that is denied another group. Moreover, as a result of these race-conscious policies having further contaminated the black community with profound economic disadvantage, Moore uses Rothstein’s own work to demonstrate the ways in which blackness became, in effect, a “contagion” whereby whites who associated or transacted with African-Americans were “created and made into black people.”

It’s at this point in the interview where it becomes apparent that Antonio Moore is talking about race on a level that Rothstein—with all due respect to his scholarship—simply does not appear to engage with it. He is, after all, a white septuagenerian. And while his work evinces an obviously deep and thorough understanding of one of the critical ways that the U.S. government created one group’s economic position at the expense of the other’s, he does not appear either able or willing to really grasp how the government was—in so doing—also in the “insidious” business, as Moore says, of manufacturing race so that blackness and whiteness as categories gained essential and rigid economic identities, ones that depend entirely on the other’s condition of advantage or disadvantage, a dialectic that has, for so long, made up virtually the whole of what is recognizable as American life.

Rothstein nonetheless counsels how we must appreciate what the New Deal got right in its creation of programs that provided pathways to wealth and prosperity for one group, while also identifying those flaws in the policies that “prohibited African-Americans from participating in them to the same degree as whites.” He continues: “If we understand that, then we’ll be able to come together in a civil rights movement that requires the participation of both African-Americans and of whites to correct this.”

But it’s not clear how what Rothstein is asking us to understand here is not an exact description of the government having manufactured advantage for one group and disadvantage for another? And why—in his vision of a way forward for justice—is the coalition discouraged from admitting this obvious reality into its consciousness? “We’re not going to create the kind of civil rights movement that we need if we try to blame the beneficiaries of programs to which they were entitled for the inequalities in this country,” Rothstein tells Antonio Moore. But it seems eminently arguable that, absent that difficult task of—as Moore says—“getting really honest about race and what race has done in America even after slavery,” the solutions put forward by a coalition insufficiently attentive to those consequences are ones that will ultimately function to uphold the normalization of the racial hierarchy in American economic, political, and social life, even as they work toward ameliorating the material conditions in the black community.

To posit a musical analogy, the approach offered by Rothstein—where it’s seen as not helpful to advance a discourse that isn’t sensitive to the notion of white entitlement (as if the advancing of that sort of discourse is the problem and not the very real historical fact of white entitlement itself)—is like taking a bad, unworkable melody line, and instead of changing the notes around and trying to do something really radical and different—the ‘solution’ for making it better is to just move it into a different key. It is a mere transposition of a problem, rather than an actual solution, and one in which the essential shape and intervals between the constitutive elements all remain exactly intact. How much progress can we really ascribe to that?

Richard Rothstein ought to be commended for providing a pellucid account of one example of how the federal government bears responsibility for its creation of a bottom caste of economic failure. However, in terms of coalition-building and what white ‘participation’ might actually look like in the fight to redress that injustice, we would be much better off looking to people like Antonio Moore and Yvette Carnell—people who do not shy from identifying those dynamics in American life that have shaped the lived realities for blacks and whites—from whom we ought to take the lead.