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Have we reached a state where there is a pervasive need for “racism?” Not the actual negative mental and social phenomenon but an unshakable belief that it is widely present even if it has largely dissipated?
Twenty years ago, I recall Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton often both rushing to the same scene of a reported incident of hiring discrimination or disrespect to African-American customers. There seemed to be a growing shortage of actionable, newsworthy instances of racial injustice such that they had to compete like predators at a shrinking waterhole. Twenty years before that, you could walk in any direction in almost any town and find evidence of overt racism. The progress in one lifetime is truly stunning.
When Al or Jesse could seize on some injustice it also felt like that there was also a moment of shared relief behind the rituals of grievance and corporate or municipal contrition. There is still racism. It is still about white people oppressing us. It’s not on us yet.
The civil rights movement beginning in the 1950s was a genuinely ennobling moment for the nation as well as the movement leaders and activists. Victories over injustice changed society and even how African Americans viewed themselves. There was a purity, a simplicity to that movement in that both the enemy and the goals were well-defined.
Opportunity and rightful political power were rightfully seen as the endpoints of the struggle. But something went wrong even as these ends were being achieved.
An African American friend told me years ago that his biggest disappointment was that when it finally was “our turn” to run the cities to complete and fulfill the social visions of the movement, it was mostly a disaster. Instead of leaders in the mold of MLK or Thurgood Marshall, there was a raft of genuinely bad leaders from Marion Barry through Kwame Fitzpatrick. The cities seemed to get worse all through the 1970s.
For whatever reason, the removal of all de jure and otherwise overt forms discrimination did not result in the expected great change in the social environment of poor, urban blacks. There is a strong case for the theory that the Great Society locked many into poverty. Others blame the legacy of slavery. But none of these explanations invoke active or even ongoing passive adverse actions by white people. The entire frame of reference of African Americans with respect to social and economic adversity was shaped by a 300-year reality that whites had done it to them and whites were undeniably the major overriding cause of adversity. But what if it is no longer whites causing the adverse outcomes? What then?
Nothing in the civil rights movement or in their history prepared African Americans for the question: What if it’s our problem and not about relief from white oppression?
A need for “racism” and preserving a useful caricature of the civil rights struggle is also important for a lot of white people. There are few causes more morally uplifting than that one so having a psychological connection however tangential and artificial can be satisfying. There is also a functional benefit. To enjoy the self-perception of being above and free of the moral claims of country, church, tradition, and family can be more than just sustained adolescent narcissism but an entrée to the new gnosticism, the belief system/sensibility which makes its adherents wiser and hipper than others. To focus on the sin of gross racial injustice in American history presumptively negates all moral claims of the country on its citizens, except for those too stupid or malignant to eschew patriotism.
Consider the complex silliness of “cultural appropriations” and “microaggressions” or the utterly sophomoric “1619 Project” and, of course, the all-purpose “white privilege.” People are going to enormous lengths to synthesize an artificial form of racism to replace the original, real version and thus fill that need, that habit. (My daughter has tried to argue for the reality of pervasive “white privilege” with someone who as a kid drank from whites-only water fountains in an era when white privilege was real.)
The spectacular innumeracy of “racism”-addicts is also telling. Hundreds of thousands violent crimes by African Americans (six times their share of the population), thousands of black victims of black killers are all mandatorily invisible but a dozen freak fatal events per year involving African American victims (even if grossly misreported and mischaracterized) comprise a “pattern” the defines the African American Experience.
Even when there are no white cop perpetrators (e.g., Sylville Smith, Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin), it is still the Narrative that matters and applies. Even where political power has shifted to elected black politicians, even as police forces increasingly become far more racially integrated, more professional, better trained, and more heavily scrutinized, the rhetoric seems to apply more to Bull Connor’s cops than the reality.
These days we get to we watch on TV our uniformly deferential and contrite politicians pleading guilty to utterly specious charges of systemic racism made and endorsed by people who are desperate to preserve an increasingly distorted fiction. The appalling behavior of rioters, looters, and violent attackers of innocents makes manifest the problem that cannot be named and thus cannot be addressed while the country suffers trying to service a lie instead.Published in