"The centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world . . . " (W.B. Yeats)
Toward the climax of his "I Have a Dream" speech at the 1963 March on Washington, Martin Luther King, Jr., envisioned an America in which "my four children will no longer by judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character." Like Abraham Lincoln, in the debates over slavery, MLK made his case based on the promise of America's foundational document, the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal..."
That dream is aspirational, incapable of being fully realized in any human society. But America has come a long way since 1963. A black man was twice elected president, and a black woman born in Birmingham, Alabama served as secretary of state and national security advisor. South Carolina, the heart of the Confederacy and hotbed of secession, today has a black senator, and twice elected a dark-skinned woman of Indian descent as governor.
And, as the reaction to the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer makes clear, a black man can no longer be killed with impunity anywhere in the United States.
BUT NOTHING COULD BE FURTHER from Martin Luther King's dream of a color-blind society than contemporary identity politics, with its portrayal of society exclusively in terms of matrixes of oppression, in which skin color becomes the defining fact about each human being, the dividing line between oppressor and victim. To proponents of intersectionality, the only admissible explanation of any difference between two races — in rates of incarceration, income, representation in the Ivy League, etc. — is racism, that is, white supremacy and black victimhood. (Only the NBA is exempted from the general rule.)
Yet, certainly as applied to the police, the claim of systemic racism is demonstrably false. Over the past five years, blacks have constituted about one-quarter of the approximately 1,000 civilians killed by police per year. Yet blacks commit about 60 percent of violent crimes in the nation's 75 largest counties. Last year, according to the Washington Post, police killed nine unarmed blacks, including those who grabbed a police officer's weapon or had firearms in their cars, as against 19 whites, despite blacks committing over half of violent crimes. A 2016 study by Harvard economist Roland Fryer, Jr., who is black, found that blacks are less likely than whites to be fired upon by police.
John McWhorter, a black linguistics and comparative literature professor at Columbia University, points out that for every high-profile and unjustified police killing of a black man, like that of George Floyd, it is easy to find an almost identical case of a white person, albeit one that garnered scant media attention. A 2015 study of the Philadelphia police department by the Obama administration's Justice Department determined that black and Hispanic police officers were more likely to shoot unarmed blacks than were white officers.
THOSE WHO WILL SUFFER most from the false description of America as ineluctably afflicted with systemic racism are blacks themselves. Victimology is never healthy for the purported victims, as it denies them agency and makes them dependent. Even where one is truly a victim, as, for instance, someone raised in an abusive family, the only hope is to go beyond an exclusive focus on what one has suffered. That is true for groups as well.
Blacks would suffer most from current calls to abolish police departments, as the Minneapolis City Council voted to do last week, or to defund police departments. Their neighborhoods would become even more crime-ridden and dangerous than at present. Without the fear of the police, people would swallow one another alive, as our Sages say. For that reason, blacks were twice as likely as whites, in a 2015 Roper poll, to actually want more police in the neighborhoods.
Since Black Lives Matter (BLM) came to prominence in 2015 with a false narrative (as determined by the Obama Justice Department) of the shooting of Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri — "Hands up, don't shoot" — many large cities have witnessed a dramatic upsurge in violent crime, as beleaguered police departments withdraw from the streets. That's the so-called Ferguson effect.
Similarly, when differential rates of school discipline are taken as prima facie evidence of racism, the result will be an end of all discipline, and black kids eager to learn will not be able to.
And finally, affirmative action, designed to bring the percentage of black students in prestigious universities in line with their percentage of the population, has harmed black students. Placing students in institutions for which they are unprepared or unqualified more often than not serves to suppress their academic achievement and leave them with a feeling of failure, whereas they might well flourish in a somewhat less demanding academic environment.
MORE FRIGHTENING in the long run than the recent rioting to protest "systemic racism" has been the complete capitulation, indeed the advancement of that narrative, by corporate, academic, and media elites; the ritual obeisance, prostration before and foot-washing of angry blacks; the world record number of abject apologies for expressing his reverence for the American flag by future Hall of Fame quarterback Drew Brees; the firing of a broadcaster for the suggestion that "all lives matter."
America is rapidly abandoning the traditional liberal values that made it possible for diverse people to live together, chief among them tolerance and belief in the free marketplace of ideas. Herbert Marcuse taught campus radicals of the 1960s that tolerance is "repressive," and only sustains existing power structures. Needed instead are "new and rigid restrictions" on certain teachings. Or as the joke used to go in the Soviet Union, "Of course, we have freedom of speech. We are just not allowed to lie." (American students no longer see the humor, reports Professor Gary Saul Morson, as it too closely reflects their lived reality.)
Followers of Marcuse (whether they've heard of him or not) now dominate university bureaucracies. And as Andrew Sullivan — not exactly a hard-core conservative — observed in New York magazine two years ago, "When elite universities shift their entire worldview away from liberal education... toward the imperatives of an identity-based 'social justice' movement, the broader culture is in danger of drifting away from liberal democracy as well.
"If elites believe that the core truth of our society is a system of interlocking and oppressive power structures based around immutable characteristic like race or [gender]... then sooner or later that will be reflected in our culture at large."
Sullivan's younger colleagues at New York Magazine recently discovered that earlier piece and demanded their pound of flesh. His column last week was canceled, and he has reportedly been banned from writing about anti-racism protests. They were soon outdone, however, by their woke peers at the New York Times, where a newsroom revolt forced the resignation of editorial page editor James Bennet. His crime: publication of an op-ed by conservative Republican senator Tom Cotton arguing for the use of federal troops to put down widespread urban looting (a bad idea, in my opinion). No such protests ever greeted the Times's publication of op-eds by a gallery of international despots.
Northwestern's Gary Saul Morson, a distinguished professor of Russian literature, sees a parallel between the American present and pre-revolutionary Russia, in which virtually the entire educated class was anti-regime and felt one simply had to be a revolutionary.
"Well-intentioned liberal people [couldn't] bring themselves to say that lawless violence is wrong," writes Morson. "While some liberals did not condone terrorism, they refused to condemn it, and called for the release from prison of all terrorists."
That moment may not be as far away as we think for America.