October 25, 2020

What Are You Gonna Tell Her?

Guest Opinion
By Isiah Smith | Oct. 10, 2020

Ludwig Van Beethoven wrote, “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy. Music is the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks, and invents.”     

Two new songs by country music singer Mickey Guyton accomplish that and more. While the rest of the nation drowns in Cardi B’s “WAP,” a lurid serenade to her gynecologist (about a part of her body only her husband, physician, and an infectious disease specialist should be interested in), Guyton has quietly released two empowering ballads that awaken the spirit and nurture the mind: “Black Like Me” and “What Are You Going to Tell Her?”

The latter, carrying a message not usually heard in country music, describes dark nights in the souls of parents of little girls: “Do you let her pretend/that she could be president?/Would it help us get there any faster?/Do you let her think the deck’s not stacked?/And gay or straight or white or black/you just dream and anything can happen?/What are you gonna tell her? Maybe you can’t/’Cause there ain’t no way, you can’t explain what you don’t understand.”

These words reflect reality, past and present. The U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that for every dollar a man earns, a woman earns about 80 cents. Over the past three and a half decades, substantial progress has been made to narrow this pay gap. Women’s wages are now significantly closer to men’s, but in recent years, that progress has stalled. It’s not clear why women have stopped gaining on men. Consider the puzzling “motherhood penalty,” the phenomenon in which women with children, on average, receive systematically lower pay than men with children. This tendency has stubbornly persisted, suggesting that the gender pay gap is not likely to change anytime soon. Harvard Economist Claudia Goldin, who has dedicated her career to studying these issues, concluded that the gender gap seems impervious to efforts to eradicate it.

As the recently deceased Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in Oct. 2, 2016, the New York Times Sunday Review: “Most people in poverty in the United States and the world over are women and children, women’s earnings here and abroad trail the earnings of men with comparable education and experience, our workplaces do not adequately accommodate the demands of childbearing and child-rearing, and we have yet to devise effective means to ward off sexual harassment at work and domestic violence in our homes.”

As they say, art imitates life. Or is it the other way around?

What are you going to tell your daughter about the irrational gender gap?  That the job market, at all levels, seems to value fathers more than mothers?  That the least qualified man can defeat the more qualified female in a national election? How to explain that?

In the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal, Harvey C. Mansfield recently published an essay, “The ‘Systemic Racism’ Dodge.” In it he argues, Inter alia: “Systemic racism (SR) ignores the agency of [B]lack citizens, leaving them nothing to do except to protest in the streets or cheer from the sidelines.”

Mansfield has been called Harvard’s most controversial professor. At 88, he has been at Harvard since 1949. After his long and illustrious career, it seems fair to ask how many years does it take for the heat of Harvard’s intellectual cauldron to burn away prejudiced ideologies?  The good professor has had a lifetime to leave his prejudices behind, but instead, he uses his formidable learning to deny the reality of what even the least educated among us can readily discern!

Exhibit A of my counter-argument to the professor’s solipsism is the case of George Floyd and Dylan Roof.  Police officers killed Floyd for trying to pass a $20 bill he might not even have known was counterfeit; Roof killed nine Black people who had welcomed him into their church to worship, and officers escorted him to McDonalds for a Happy Meal.  Not even his hair had been ruffled!

These are not isolated cases, but they reveal the obvious: Roof’s victims’ lives did not matter as much as one counterfeit $20 bill.

Cue “Black Like Me” — also not your typical garden-variety country song, which often glorify whiskey, railroads, women, and wine. Not this song: “Now, I’m all grown up and nothin’ has changed/yeah it’s still the same…/just to live that good life/it shouldn’t be twice as hard…/if you think we live in the land of the free/you should be [B]lack like me.”

In 1940, Hannah Arendt, a German-born American political philosopher, while grappling with her common refugee plight of not belonging anywhere, wrote, “Society has discovered discrimination as the great social weapon by which one may kill men without any bloodshed.”

Guyton reduces these philosophical abstractions to simple songs: “Do you tell her not to fight?/is it worth the sacrifice?/Can you look her in the face and promise her that things’ll change?”

What are you going to tell your girls?

Isiah Smith, Jr. is a retired government attorney.

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