Vox “Unexplains” the Racial Wealth Gap

A.C. Gleason
8 min readJun 26, 2018

Vox now has a netflix show called Explained. Well really its a youtube show that just happens to be on Netflix. Each episode aims to be about 15 minutes long and they will be uploading a new episode every week. By almost any definition that’s a youtube channel…but obviously its on Netflix.

In any case the idea of the show, according to Vox, is to take a deep dive into some topic relevant to our lives. And therein lies the problem. How deep can a dive get in 15 minutes? The premier episode is about the racial wealth gap in America. A subject that Thomas Sowell has written about extensively over several decades and covered in some degree throughout most of his 30 books.

But Vox will explain it to us in 15 minutes? Maybe if they had invited intellectual heavyweights like Sowell or Charles Murray to participate. But instead the cast of experts is Mehrsa Baradaran, Thomas Shapiro, and Cory Booker fills in as the token black (Baradaran is Iranian not African). Baradaran actually has some expertise in this area and her contributions are the most informative. To be fair so does Shapiro but he’s barely involved.

It’s not really about the Racial Wealth Gap

But the episode is actually a very awkward bait and switch. It’s an argument for reparations for black Americans in order to heal the wounds of slavery. This is not revealed until the final minute when the viewer is treated to a barrage of Ta-Nehisi Coates clips. This is very unfortunate because Baradaran’s work actually shows that government intervention makes racial problems considerably worse. Yet the solution is of course more government intervention?

To be fair their response to that would probably be that if Lincoln’s plan to provide the Freedmen with 40 acres had been enacted the racial wealth gap would have been prevented or at least mitigated. They claim that the slaves had been creating wealth for their owners for 236 years and whites got to keep that wealth. But there’s at least two problems with this:

1. This is a marxist analysis based in prescriptive philosophy not the well understood reality of how wealth is created. Slaves simply didn’t create wealth. Slavery was so expensive and poisonous to the South that the North easily outperformed them economically.

2. Even if the marxist analysis is correct that somehow the labor of the proletariat creates the wealth of the bourgeois they are ignoring the fact that there were two classes of proletariat in the South. White Southerners did not own property or slaves so whatever wealth they generated was not for whites, it was for a very few people who happened to be white. Far less than 10% of the South could rightly be said to be bourgeois. The Freedmen weren’t really that much worse off than the vast majority of their Southern neighbors. So this point cuts twice because clearly property denied a century and a half ago has nothing to do with the racial wealth gap today, which means that if reparations happened tomorrow it would likely have no long term impact on the racial wealth gap.

Also it should be noted that the wealth of Asian Americans is never mentioned in these discussions because they are financially better off than white Americans and so this completely destroys their narrative.

Additionally the ways in which Johnson’s Great Society laid waste to the black family through welfare by de-insentivizing marriage is not mentioned. To name drop again Thomas’ Sowell’s latest book Discrimination and Disparities solidly debunks pretty much everything presented in the inaugural episode of Vox’s show. Except for the impact of the New Deal. The AHA did institute racist policies. But that is 80 years after slavery was ended so its only a piece of this “puzzle.”

What is really going on

But to understand what really went wrong in this episode, and basically what’s wrong with the show in general, we need to resort to a much older work of Sowell’s : The Vision of the Anointed. He writes:

“Even when issues of public policy are discussed in the outward form of an argument, often the conclusions reached are predetermined by the assumptions and definitions inherent in a particular vision of social processes. Different visions, of course, have different assumptions, so it is not uncommon for people who follow different visions to find themselves in opposition to one another across a vast spectrum of unrelated issues, in such disparate fields as law, foreign policy, the environment, racial policy, military defense, education, and many others. To a remarkable extent, however, empirical evidence is neither sought beforehand nor consulted after a policy has been instituted. Facts may be marshalled for a position already taken, but that is very different from systematically testing opposing theories by evidence. Momentous questions are dealt with essentially as conflicts of visions.”

The tone of Explained is condescending. The title says it all. They are the explainers and we are the ones who need explaining. But not real explaining, simple childish explaining. Explanations that aren’t related to facts. In other words Vox is providing us with the explanation of an Annointed one. The facts aren’t nearly as relevant as the desired outcome. And the outcome, the conclusion, of these self Annointed explainers is that the government needs to give black people something. That there needs to be a reckoning of some sort with this most heinous of sins.

We should not be entirely dismissive of reparations, or any idea. If a case can be made then we should listen. And there might be a good case for reparations somewhere. I just don’t think we’ve heard it yet. And every year that goes by we get further and further away from slavery and it becomes more obvious that reparations aren’t really the problem. But according to the Anointed ones this is ignorance. We should have listened when they explained it to us the first time. Because Explained isn’t trying to persuade you. It’s letting you know that this is just how it is. They are more like prophets of Doom than a voice for reason.

This attitude should be bothersome for no other reason than its denial of reality. But denying reality has consequences. Not just in some abstract policy debate (which rarely remain abstract) but within the human soul.

The Path to Hell is paved with “explanations”

Unsurprisingly Ezra Klein is one of the main people behind this show. And he means well. If you listen to the episode of his podcast that corresponds to this episode you’ll see a much more well rounded intellectual take on this issue from a leftist perspective. But they completely ignore conservative arguments (really they’re more like factual observations at this point) for how the welfare state continues to contribute to and exasperate these issues.

But Klein makes very clear that his conclusions expressed in the Explained episode were formed from conversations he’s had in the past with Ta-Nehisi Coates. Specifically the last time he had him on his podcast. By the end of that episode you can tell they’re both very saddened by the conversation.

And look sadness is a good thing. It is the foundation of wisdom because it pushes us towards God and gives us motivation to find solutions to problems. But unfortunately their sadness seems to have done the exact opposite and is pushing them to a very dark place indeed.

This was Coates’ reply to a question from Klein about the difference between Justice and Equality and how they could come to be in the world:

“I went through like this heavy French Revolution period where I was reading all these books on the French Revolution. On one level I was like horrified ya know like ya know like ya know I was like reading about like the execution ya know the king and Marie and I was horrified I was actually horrified and then horrified even more about the killing that came afterwards. And then I was in Paris one summer and I went out to this little town called Fountainbleu. And at Fountainbleu there is the most gaudiest castle you ever want to see. I mean it looks like something Trump would built. It is obscene. And you see what people were doing this. Ya know building this castle ya know with folks starving in the cities on the countryside ya know all this and and people are hoarding this wealth. I’ve never been to Versailles but apparently Versailles is like that too. And you begin to understand ya know what I mean? You begin to understand ya know what I would see um as unjust violence but done in the name of equalizing things ya know um. So no I think there there is great tension. I feel like…and I don’t know this to be true I mean Ezra honestly I’m kinda theorizing here. But it’s very easy for me to see myself looking at the processes like being contemporary with the processes that might make for a equal world, more equality and maybe the complete abolition of ya know of of of race as a construct because I think it only exists in the presence of inequality and being horrified by the process.”

Over two centuries ago Edmund Burke wrote thusly about the same revolution Coates feels terrifiedly seduced by:

“But am I so unreasonable as to see nothing at all that deserves commendation in the indefatigable labors of this Assembly? I do not deny that, among an infinite number of acts of violence and folly, some good may have been done. They who destroy everything certainly will remove some grievance. They who make everything new have a chance that they may establish something beneficial. To give them credit for what they have done in virtue of the authority they have usurped, or which can excuse them in the crimes by which that authority has been acquired, it must appear that the same things could not have been accomplished without producing such a revolution. Most assuredly they might, because almost every one of the regulations made by them which is not very equivocal was either in the cession of the king, voluntarily made at the meeting of the states, or in the concurrent instructions to the orders. Some usages have been abolished on just grounds, but they were such that if they had stood as they were to all eternity, they would little detract from the happiness and prosperity of any state. The improvements of the National Assembly are superficial, their errors fundamental.

It would be the same outcome today. The French Revolution was a disaster. All Revolutions are. That’s why Edmund Burke never referred to the American Revolution as a revolution. He gave it other names, most fittingly to my mind “Civil War.” Because it really was basically English citizens fighting for their English rights against England. That’s an entire conversation in and of itself but the relevance here is that Klein and Coates are making what Jonah Goldberg calls MEOW arguments. That’s Moral Equivalent of War. And it’s basically why Thomas Paine thought that the French Revolution was justified and why Edmund Burke deeply disagreed. Yuval Levin has written an entire book on the differences between these men and how they’re essentially the seeds of American Political right and left.

But a MEOW argument is essentially that some group is doing something so remarkably evil that it requires a militant response. That’s why the #resistance does what it does. They’ve made Trump into a MEOW. This is why sadly some American Christians have murdered Abortionists. This is deeply dangerous, especially because Klein and Coates are so deeply misinformed about the issues they want to make MEOW. Their attitudes are exactly what led to the American Civil War. Their attitudes may lead to bloodshed again. We must seek peace. Not at all costs, but we must seek understanding and civility as far as we can. Wars are never inevitable. People make choices that lead to them. Let us replace the vision of the anointed with the humble tragic vision of humanity that seeks patience and understanding first.