Which Americans in denial about race?
July 22, 2013 5 Comments
The aftermath of George Zimmerman’s acquittal dominated news and commentary last week. As the pleas and prescriptions from all corners reverberate, what should Americans of conscience do? Despite long standing calls to have a national conversation on race, many remain unwilling to confront the more difficult aspects.
Take this case in point. On the Monday after the six woman Florida jury handed in a “not guilty” verdict, The Atlantic Wire serve up this combative headline: “Richard Cohen Shows Why Racism Makes You Do Dumb Things.” Later that day, another headline-as-testy-retort: “No, Blacks Don’t ‘Benefit’ from Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law.” The Atlantic brand should bring to mind a measured–if passionate–patrician, East Coast progressivism. Those were its roots, at least. But with the headlines it runs these days, The Atlantic is clearly a plebeian outlet for snarky partisan sniping.
In responding to Richard Cohen, Elspeth Reeve fails to explain what it actually means for Cohen to say something “racist.” It’s just an epithet meant to draw her readers into a denial of the violent crime problem in the African-American community. She cites statistics indicating, in the past couple of decades, a steady decline in violent crimes nationally. From this, she plucks the fact that violent crimes committed by African-Americans have also gone down. In the world she paints, conservative commentators are crying wolf about a nonexistent epidemic. This is a perverse inversion of what was happening six months ago. Then, conservatives were citing declining national rates to dismiss the hysteria over an epidemic of gun-related homicides. Now, this good news has become a liberal talking point.
Over the past week, conservative media have consistently hammered away at the issue Elspeth Reeve and her Atlantic Wire colleagues deny: African-Americans, particularly young men, commit violent crimes at a grossly disproportionate rate. Blacks make up about 10 percent of the population, but are responsible for half of all violent crimes, including murders. And about 90% of those murder victims are African-American. It’s simple math then that nearly half of people murdered in America are black.
The Wall Street Journal has run a number of excellent editorials on the problem. Black conservative Jason Riley opened the salvo by reminding us how far back the problem goes. Consider his quoting of a prominent black civil rights leader:
“Do you know that Negroes are 10 percent of the population of St. Louis and are responsible for 58% of its crimes? We’ve got to face that. And we’ve got to do something about our moral standards,” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told a congregation in 1961. “We know that there are many things wrong in the white world, but there are many things wrong in the black world, too. We can’t keep on blaming the white man. There are things we must do for ourselves.”
And this week, Shelby Steele–another Black intellectual off of the liberal reservation–explicated on the concept of “poetic truth,” a cudgel with which today’s morally diminished civil rights leaders try to exercise influence. Steele authored one of the more compelling books I’ve read. It’s full title says it all: White Guilt: How Blacks and Whites Together Destroyed the Promise of the Civil Rights Era.
Reading the testy headlines of the The Atlantic Wire, I was reminded of Dr. Steele’s thesis, inasmuch as I understood it. It’s true, whites helped destroy the promise of civil rights. It wasn’t bigots in the American South. Rather, it was privileged whites–read, East Coast progressives–who had luxury enough to quench their feelings of guilt by demanding untenable social policies.
As Steele recounts his college years in White Guilt, it was spoiled white teenagers and militant black youth who worked together to occupy university lecture halls and chancellor’s offices across the country. Today’s privileged, well-connected, young and idealistic white elites–politically progressive through and through–indulge the same luxury their parents and grandparents did before them. They can afford to imagine a common cause with minorities. They can afford to indulge white guilt fantasies with little consequence. It is the marginalized who can’t.
How does one have real solidarity with the marginalized and the oppressed? President Obama had a good point in last Friday’s speech. He implored, “. . . we need to spend some time in thinking about how do we bolster and reinforce our African American boys.”
It turns out, some people have already done that thinking. The answer doesn’t lie in next entitlement program, or supporting the right to wear a hoodie. The answer is cultural capital, earned success, a flourishing moral ecology, traditional family values, an opportunity society. This is not racism or hate speech. George W. Bush put it well when he warned against the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” How does America, as one nation, raise those expectations for young African-American men? That is the challenge.