My 2009 “Rational Optimism” book addressed race. Rejecting the trope of America as a fundamentally racist society, I saw a nation “that has made titanic efforts to right these wrongs.” Recapping all the progress in just my own lifetime. Quoting black scholar Shelby Steele that America has achieved the greatest moral evolution in human history.
Obama had just been elected. The symbolic import seemed huge: we were “choosing a civic father, a tribal leader.” And “in a nation where bloody battles once raged over blacks merely voting, a black presidency has arrived in peace and goodwill.”
I wrote that “[t]hose few who still spout white supremacy are mostly disadvantaged, powerless whites,” with “no influence upon the larger society, and scant real impact on blacks.” And “institutional racism . . . is largely a figment of imagination . . . no significant American institution could actually practice it. Indeed, today’s institutional bias is affirmative action . . . favoring blacks.” (Emphases in original.)
My view has since evolved. I obviously did not foresee the racist backlash against Obama’s presidency soon to explode. Nor a successor empowering the racism I’d thought was relegated to America’s dark corners.
What I wrote was colored by my own experience interacting with blacks, in the workplace, in commerce, in society. I understood deeply what cause for resentment they had, yet rarely observed its expression.
Instead I was always impressed by the friendly decency of most blacks toward whites. If white society had, as I believed, done much toward reconciliation, blacks had done more. Again I quote Kimberly Jones: we’re lucky they seek only equality, not revenge. Their goodwill has outstripped that of whites.
But that does not mean they’re now okay with how things are, and it’s in that respect that my understanding has grown.
In particular, my words “scant real impact on blacks” overlooked policing. Being white, it just wasn’t on my radar screen then. Even if most cops aren’t consciously racist, nevertheless for a lot of them brown skin is a red flag.
And for people having that skin, that’s a very big fact of life. They might shrug off the racism of assholes, but it’s another matter when it’s guys who can commit violence against you with near impunity under color of law. (Of course that’s a threat to us all, but blacks bear its brunt.)
I also didn’t fully grasp then how deeply raced-based concepts are culturally embedded in our heads. Jonathan Haidt, in The Righteous Mind, likened one’s conscious mind to a rider on an elephant, which represents the unconscious. The rider thinks he’s directing the elephant, but he’s really just along for the ride.
Whites claiming color-blindness is a cliché. But experiments have shown that most harbor unconscious negativity toward black faces vis-a-vis whites. Even blacks themselves do.
I’m not color-blind. I see blacks as people whose forebears were brought here in chains and who struggle against much adversity to live their lives. I respect their blackness.
And even if today’s society were truly color-blind, also deeply embedded into its fabric are the effects of past racism. Studies have found differences between two populations today are often actually rooted in differing circumstances centuries ago. When slaves were freed in 1865, of course they started out very disadvantaged in relation to whites. That gets passed down through the generations. If your parents are poor and ill-educated, you will likely be too, hence handicapped in rising to betterment. And of course white society made sure that continued, at least for a century — the Jim Crow regime in the South erected to keep blacks “in their place” and, elsewhere, red-lining and a host of other discriminatory practices doing much the same.
Most of that is thankfully a thing of the past, yet all the racial baggage described above got lodged pervasively throughout societal structures and institutions.
We’ve tried to rectify this, with civil rights and voting rights legislation to at least remove barriers, affirmative action to counteract their lingering effects, and anti-poverty programs. But in one crucial respect we’ve singularly failed: education. Schooling could be a powerful force for overcoming the effects of inherited disadvantage.
Instead, that disadvantage is mostly aggravated by rotten schooling for blacks.
That’s probably a key reason why, despite the mentioned efforts to close the black-white economic gap, it has actually widened over the past half century. A further reason is the over-incarceration of blacks, mostly thanks to the insanely punitive “war on drugs,” which makes everything worse. And another factor is the disintegration of black family life, at least partly the unintended consequences of anti-poverty programs. Even during the worst of the Depression and Jim Crow, the black family was strong. Today, 70% of black children are born to single mothers. That has an undeniably negative impact on those kids’ life prospects.
The chapter I started out quoting from was titled “America the Beautiful.” It didn’t claim perfection. Rather, what inspires me is the place of humanistic ideals in our society and our striving for progress toward fulfilling them. That’s America’s greatness. In the last few years we’ve had a great lurch backward. But progress never goes in a straight line, and in the long view we do grow better.
Francis Fukuyama wrote, in The End of History, of our craving for thymos — for recognition of one’s legitimate place in society, one’s worth and dignity as a human being. This is what “Black Lives Matter” is all about. It is this dignity, in the eyes of white Americans, that black people don’t feel they’ve yet fully achieved. But we’re getting there.
George Floyd’s killing and its aftermath raised the consciousness of millions of Americans, many more whites now able to empathically put themselves in the shoes of blacks, as fellow human beings, seeing the reality that they do, and newly supportive of measures to improve it. Even Mississippi is removing Confederate symbolism from its state flag.
While Trump ramps up his racist divisiveness. Tweeting “thank you” to a video with a man shouting “White power!” Completely insane — such hatefulness is fortunately far outside today’s American mainstream. In November the nation will do the right thing, flush its toilet, and we will move forward.
George Floyd will not have died in vain.