Should New York City Help Only Black and Latino Men?

The New York Times reported  recently that New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg will, to quote the headline, “Unveil a Plan to Aid Young Black and Latino Men.” The article said the plan is “a blunt acknowledgment that thousands of young black and Latino men are cut off from New York’s civic, educational and economic life” and are “disproportionately undereducated, incarcerated and unemployed.” The various social programs will be financed not only by the city, but by Mayor Bloomberg himself, as well as fellow billionaire George Soros.

Now, suppose that there was a flood in the South Bronx, and hundreds of people were drowning or in danger of drowning, so that the city sent rescue boats there. What would the reaction be if the mayor announced that the boats would be saving only African Americans and Latinos, and that members of other racial and ethnic groups would just have to swim for it?

Of course, that would be appalling and no one would stand for it.

It shouldn’t matter that most of the other people drowning don’t share your skin color, or, conversely, that a disproportionate number of people who aren’t drowning do happen to have the some national origin that you do. If you’re drowning, you should be able to get on the boat.

The point is that there is no reason to make eligibility for the mayor’s new plan hinge on skin color or what country someone’s ancestors came from.

donate_mail.gif And, to be fair, it is not clear yet whether—rhetoric aside—it will be. For example, the first program described in the article involves “plac[ing] job recruitment centers in public-housing complexes where many young black and Latino men live ….” Nothing wrong with that, so long as anyone can go to the new centers, regardless of race or ethnicity, and so long as public-housing complexes are chosen on the basis of high rates of local employment, and not on the skin color or national origin of the folks who live in them.

It’s interesting that, the day after the original Times story, it ran a followup article —with the headline, “Hope and Doubts Over a City Effort to Aid Black and Latino Men”—with this opening paragraph: “The problems that face young black and Latino men in New York City are deep-seated and diverse, officials who work in minority neighborhoods say. They vary not only from neighborhood to neighborhood, but also from family to family and man to man.”

Exactly. So treat people like individuals, rather than using skin color and national origin as a proxy for disadvantage.

Incidentally—or, actually, not so incidentally—isn’t it offensive to blacks and Latinos to frame the program as being about their problems, as if those problems are specific to them and that there aren’t, for example, whites and Asians who are also “undereducated, incarcerated [or] unemployed”?

Two other points. First, the Times articles frequently use “minority” as a synonym for “black and Latino.” There are, of course, racial and ethnic minority groups besides those two. And many Asians, for example, don’t like the fact that this use of the word “minority” turns them into nonpersons. Second, much of what I’ve written here applies to sex as well as race: That is, if there are black or Latina women—or women of any skin color or national origin, for that matter—who can benefit from these programs, why exclude them?

As I said, it is not clear yet whether New York City’s brave new program will be open to all individuals, regardless of race, ethnicity, or sex. Here’s hoping that it will be.

If it’s not, someone should sue.