An economist, one of my former colleagues, challenged one of the central tenets of economics.  Much like physics intro teachers ignored “friction” to produced examples  to focus on what they want you to learn, economists include free choice in the lessons they want to teach. My friend wanted to argue that there is never free choice in economic decisions because there is differential access to information.  People are making their choices not in a free and unconstrained manner but because of the information available to them.  Those with superior information are more likely to make better choices while those with poor information will make less informed and more likely poor economic decisions.

I was reminded of the general question of un-free choice after I watched this CNN black host’s agreement with conservative Fox News about what is wrong in the black community: Don Lemon. Both he and the conservative folks trace the breakdowns in family, education and income among African Americans to decisions that black folks made themselves. The upshot is that black folks themselves can solve these problems if they make the right choices as they are free to do. Depending on which side of the coin you look at this is “blaming the victim” by rooting the cause of their failures in their own character or saying “they have the agency” to cure what ails them. Both of these positions depend on the fiction that they have unconstrained choice in making their decisions.

Is this true however?  It certainly is reassuring for both sides.  The conservatives can take heart that their faith in America and the capitalist system is confirmed by locating black failures in black character not the system.  The others can say that black people must, can and should lift their communities up by their bootstraps particularly because it is unlikely that the American political system or capitalism will come to their aid. Even if black teenagers pull up their pants, avoid the n word, don’t litter  and speak proper English as Lemon suggests will the image of the black “thug” fade from white America’s belief system? Even if blacks finish high school will they be able to find jobs even minimum wage ones in this economy? If teenage unwed mothers stop having babies will single parent households stop being the norm in black communities? Experience demonstrates “No!” to all of these tactics.

I will examine the change in family structure at length in another post, but here I want to concentrate on the question of whether the choices that Mr. Lemon and conservative commentators like Bill O’Reilly condemn really free or unconstrained choices. As I started with, one way to constrain choice is through differential access to information.  I remember “discussing” with some students whether everyone had access to college.  they argued that with the plethora of scholarships, community colleges and public universities there was no reason anyone could not get a college education.  I argued that there were many reasons that people could not.  The lack of information about the opportunities or the processes to take advantage of them, the need to provide child care to young ones, the need to provide income to support a family, or the lack of examples of people who were able to go, all contribute to a restraint of choices that my privileged student audience rarely experienced and could not see.

Some of these were about differential access to information but others weren’t. Poverty, availability and other circumstances also constrain choice. So do culture and peer pressure.  The relationship of culture and society is an old one in sociology and anthropology.  Suffice it to say that each affects the other and life proceeds as the result of both. You probably won’t get a change in either culture or society until you get changes in both. Almost fifty years ago sociologist Daniel Moynihan argued that a “culture of poverty” with its roots in slavery was damaging black family structure.  He would probably turn over in his grave if he saw the state of the black family today.  However few would today see the cause as a culture handed down since slavery.  The changes in economics, residential apartheid, environmental racism and education have decimated black communities and brought about massive changes in the “culture of poverty.” Those who say one of the problems is hip hop are neglecting the other side of the equation.  What are the social forces that have produced hip hop? How does the culture (hip hop) reflect the society it came from as well as how does hip hop affect society? You will not change one with out changing the other.

The final constraints I will talk about are the hidden ones.  I once learned a magic trick in which I would have someone pick a card from the deck at random, sneak a peek at it in a way that the audience didn’t know I knew what the card was.  I would then “steer” someone to the card by asking them questions. I would say “pick a color, ” if it were the one I want I would go on to the next command.  If it was not I would say “okay that leaves red (for example.)” Then I would say pick one of the selected color’s suits, pick a card in that suit, is it higher than seven and so forth all the time steering them into making the choices I wanted without the person suspecting that their choices were being manipulated and constrained. How many choices available to the African American community have been manipulated by unseen forces so that choices which appear free are actually constrained? For example we are free to choose to vote for a Democrat or a Republican for president. The truth is that big corporations give to both candidates so that they will win no matter which candidate does. No third party candidate has ever won the American presidency since the birth of the Democrat/Republican two party system.

The truth is that no one, African American, Latino, Native American, Asian or Caucasian makes unconstrained choice in life, religion or politics. There are however great differences in what constrains our choices, in what way or directions, and by how much.  What we need to figure out is what is constraining black choices and remove those constraints rather than blame the victim for those choices.

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