FLOWERS: Virtue signaling gets in way of true progress

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A horrifying video of George Floyd dying at the hands of police officers sparked peaceful protests across our country—protests that very few, regardless of political persuasion, found objectionable. Sadly, those protests were soon overshadowed by violent rioting and looting that caused much division. Weeks later, the country still struggles with issues raised by Floyd’s death.

Much of the response from both politicians and citizens alike has taken the form of “virtue signaling.” This is an obstacle to significant action. I am sure economically advantaged individuals who put placards supporting “social justice” in their front lawns feel good about themselves. But what is accomplished? Serious attempts to tackle the hard problems that plague our urban areas are not made.

Changes in some police practices, however desirable, will not free the unfortunate residents of poor neighborhoods from the plague of drugs, violence, poor educational and economic opportunities, broken families and the like. A fixation on policing has given us an easy out. Laws will be passed; the current unrest will subside. We will tell ourselves we have fixed the problem and move on. Sadly, we won’t have done nearly enough to improve the lives of our fellow citizens who live in blighted areas.

We Americans face immense and complex problems, many of which reflect systemic neglect of the most vulnerable among us. These groups include not just poor Blacks, but also the mentally ill, the homeless and others.

It is easy for us to ask government to fix the problems. Create a government program, spend some money and all will be well. Alas, it doesn’t work that way. Groups that lack any effective voice in the political process will be ignored or exploited. They can’t stand up for themselves, and those who would advocate for them are often themselves compromised by the process.

We have tried this approach for decades, and the problems persist and worsen. Nonetheless, we still hope for simple solutions. Poverty and violence in poor urban areas? Reform law enforcement. Homelessness? Create affordable housing. Mental illness? What is the “cure du jour” for that? These are shallow slogans designed primarily to make us feel better about ourselves while our fellow Americans continue to suffer.

The persistent neglect of vulnerable groups is a manifestation of human nature but should not be confused with bad intentions. Americans are compassionate. However, our most compassionate acts are directed toward individuals—our family, our friends, our neighbors. When it comes to large, amorphous groups, our compassionate instincts are overwhelmed.

Let’s get serious. There is no quick fix for problems that have been decades in the making. We must start with honest conversation. Reject simplistic slogans and open our minds to arguments that challenge our accepted narratives. We might not agree with all contrary views, but they deserve honest consideration.

Can we please work our way back to a society in which civil discourse is possible and valued? We can’t wait for politicians to get serious. That will happen only if the folks they answer to are serious.•


Flowers is professor emerita of economics at Ball State University.

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