Which Americans in denial about race?


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.

Somewhere on the Atlantic Coast. | Photo credit: oefe / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

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.

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About Lewis W
I earned an M.A. in Christian apologetics at Biola University, and occasionally write on ethics, truth, science and politics.

5 Responses to Which Americans in denial about race?

  1. I’ve missed reading your blog so much.

    • Then you should start reading it again! I haven’t posted as frequently as in the past, but I think three weeks has been my longest recent lapse. I’ve been reading Francis Beckwith, Politics for Christians. I think he teaches at Baylor. That’s where I got the moral ecology phrase.

      • Great! I haven’t met him, but I’ll have to look into it. Yeah, that’s my bad for not getting by here enough. I’ll have to see if I can get my e-mail on your list, I don’t read the WordPress “follow” anymore.

  2. michaelrdrane says:

    I had a few questions after reading and wasn’t sure where would be best to post/respond.

    To be honest, I’m not sure what your specific point is here. You said “The answer is cultural capital, earned success, a flourishing moral ecology, traditional family values, an opportunity society.” I might be missing something but it seems that your specifics on how to bring this about are implied more than directly stated. Again, I might not be catching everything so if I missed something, please clarify. I’ll summarize what I got and you can tell me if I’m off the mark.

    First, the sentence quoted above. Are you implying that the African American community lacks cultural capital, is not trying to earn it’s success, and is devoid of morals?

    Second, are these the “difficult aspects” of the conversation on race that you allude to in the first paragraph? Are you implying that underprivileged minorities are underprivileged because of their own flaws?

    What would you say the role was of those white bigots in the south during the Civil Rights Era?

    What do African American crime rates have to do with the Zimmerman/Martin trial? Is your point that the conversation on race focuses too much on black victimhood instead of how much black people hurt their own community?

    When you talk about “white guilt fantasies,” who are the “marginalized” that you cite at the end of that paragraph? Marginalized white people? If so, who are they? Minorities?

    Are you assuming that progressives act out of guilt-fueled motivation? To what extent do you believe that they recognize white privilege and are fighting against it?

    Going along with that, why bring up white guilt and not white privilege?

    Why did you quote Martin Luther King Jr. on the black community but not the myriad of statements he made against the evils of segregation and violence against the black community?

    I’m not trying to be passive aggressive with a ton of questions. I do have opinions that I can share specifically. Just wanted to make sure I understood these points first. Thanks!

    • Thanks for your questions.

      Cultural (or social) capital, earned success, and moral ecology each refer to concepts found in specific works.  Respectively, sociologist Charles Murray’s Coming Apart, behavioral economist Arthur Brook’s The Road to Freedom, and philosopher Francis Beckwith’s Politics for Christians.

      To the first question, the black community has been disadvantaged by a lack of social capital for some time.  Notably, Murray has documented a substantial, half-century decline among whites.  As for blacks “trying to earn” anything, I make no such judgment.  Nor do I claim any ethnic or racial group to be “devoid” of morality; such a position is incoherent when discussing human communities.

      Second question.  Thoughtful conservative approaches to policy and culture are “difficult” for progressive elites to stomach.  If by “flaws,” you mean blaming the victim, I do not mean that.  I would argue that progessive policies perpetuate socioeconomic difficulties, especially for groups traditionally identified as disadvantaged.

      I use the term bigot with a sense of irony, since many people of conviction get called that today. The term is being watered down. In the Civil Rights Era, a lot of white Southerners intimidated and initiated violence against blacks to defend an immoral social order.

      On the relation of African American crime rates to the Zimmerman trial. If the problem highlighted by the Zimmerman trial is an epidemic of vigilantes shooting young black men, as extensive media coverage implies, that is absurd.  Inasmuch as there is a threat against young black men, statistically it’s other blacks, not vigilantes.  But this idea goes against progressive sensibilities.  The Atlantic editor crafted misleading headlines for unsubstantive objections to candid observations.  It seems like obfuscation and denial.

      In the case of white guilt fantasies, pretty much everyone who is not partaking in the fantasies is marginalized, but particularly those who lack social capital.

      No, progressives are sincere and want to do good. But certainly, among the highly privileged (particularly Hollywood), there is reason to believe guilt at the liminal level of consciousness is a motivator. I don’t know what proportion of progressives are deeply aware of white privilege. There are possibly many overlapping reasons why any person might hold a belief or take an action. I know that to be true for myself!

      White guilt, as presented by Steele, is a major perpetuator of bad policies and discourse. Steele’s thesis is that today’s Civil Rights leaders have betrayed the legacy of their predcessors. They manipulate the guilt of white elite liberals. This is not to say all parties aren’t sincere seekers of justice. But Steele’s thesis is particularly tragic, because so few would ever acknowledge it.

      You may have heard Howard Zinn say there is no neutral on a moving train. He is speaking of the “corrective.” I write my piece as a corrective to those who think the Right has nothing substantive or constructive to offer. People need to know about the unpleasant political realities with respect to race.

      Please feel free to question or comment further, but please try to keep each message more focused, as I believe it helps to look at issues one at a time. I don’t want to trade lengthy essays, though I’d be up for a fixed-format debate sometime :-)

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