Exploration of Blackness: Moral Hazard

Thursday, February 23, 2012

By Alexander Dede

The idea of the nature of things is a fallacy. To be specific, it is an appeal to tradition. You often hear this when people are describing an aspect of society such as racism or homophobia and someone claims those things to be normal because they are old. While it may sound cliché, it is true that we have it within our hands to change the nature of things; but to do that, we first have to understand what it is that we are trying to change, which is deeper than many give credit. Society can be divided into those who have privilege and those who do not; those privileges rest on various intellectual pillars. One of the stronger, albeit ignored ones, is moral hazard.
In economics, moral hazard occurs when one body makes a decision but another body is responsible for the negative cost if things go poorly. The decision-making body is insulated from the negative costs, and therefore behaves differently than they would if they had to bear the weight of their decision. You see this behavior with how people treat things that they don’t own, like rental cars or a manager of a business who behaves recklessly because the system protects them, or they are simply the child of the higher ups in a corporation. I like to apply this idea outside of economics, finance, and management and to society itself.

Part of being a minority in the United States is that a large degree of your autonomy and your pursuits of happiness are determined by members of the majority. I feel that some White people fail to fully grasp this reality. Why are Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and other groups so vocal about issues of rights, access to the mechanisms of power, and institutions of upward mobility? Because minorities do not control the mechanisms and institutions of power that Whites control. One of the great unspoken truths of American society is that in terms of rights, White people have complete moral hazard. If rights and access are limited to minorities, it does not affect them. It is the ultimate form of privilege in society, to decide the rights of others.

Now, to be clear: white allies of minorities, be they liberal or conservative, understand this, but there is still a large segment of White society that doesn’t. No one, spare the most vocal screeching racist, will openly say that “White people have the right to limit the rights of others” so the conversation is hidden within a larger discourse on “freedom,” “liberty,” and “equality.” I must admit that it is a brilliant tactic because who in their right mind would argue against these things? But herein is the deception. What does “freedom,” “liberty,” or “equality” look like? How do we measure it? These ideals that Americans treasure are easily corrupted because they have no firm definition aside from what popular culture ascribes to them. It rests on the philosophical. "The freedom to associate with whom I choose" is easily turned into "I have the freedom to deny access to my school or hospital to whatever group I do not like".

Minorities taken as a whole tend to focus not on philosophical ideas, but on more tangible measures such as “rights” and “equity.” I think this is because the act of being denied something solidifies where someone sits in a social structure. “I don’t have the right to do X” or “I don’t have access to Y” is not a philosophical exercise. It’s life for those people. The clash we see when discussing minority affairs is rooted in the clash between the philosophical exercises of those who have moral hazard in a discussion on rights versus those whose lives are attached to those discussions.

As an African American, it becomes very taxing to wage these battles. From my standpoint, I become suspicious of anyone who brings up terms like “liberty” or “freedom” when we are discussing rights because I know they are not necessarily the same thing. It is often thrown in the face of minorities that we want special treatment in American society, which is bad because we are all equal here. I’ve made it a habit to point out that what minorities want is equity, and I know it must seem that special treatment is being given when the nature of things has been inequity for so long that it has become normalized.