The half-life of racism

Attorney General Eric Holder made a bit of a splash when speaking at Columbia earlier this year.  He told the audience at his alma mater that he could not imagine a time when the need for racial preferences like affirmative action would cease.

So at what point does racism stop mattering in American life?  Perhaps you’ve entertained this question before.  If government, civil society and churches have been laboring against this great sin for decades, is there anything to show for it?

Surely, in 300 years, after our great-grandchildren are deceased, the old, nasty attitudes so prevalent before the Civil Rights era will have been expunged.  But if not, there will be sophisticated equipment–maybe like a Star Trek tricorder–to empirically identify any remnants.

For now, we are lucky to have wagging tongues like Chris Matthews to tell us when someone is being racist.  Or, we can just as well heed the dire warnings of speakers at this year’s Democratic National Convention.

Anyone who genuinely seeks a substantive discussion of issues, such as our raging national debt or the proper scope of federal government, has required a little patience in dealing with smokescreens thrown up by progressives and Democrats.  We know these as racism, the war on women, homophobia and so on.

The identity politics fiefdom built on these “wedge” issues is troubling in how it treats people in need as abstractions, not individuals.  The long history of progressive prescriptions affirms the ineffectiveness of promises perennially extended toward these abstracted victims.  President Johnson launched a “War on Poverty” in the 1960s, but the numbers of poor and dependent have reliably increased in the decades since.  Why should we think that President Obama, in spending ever more sums on the same problems, will change that?

While some conditions haven’t improved, there has been tremendous progress on societal attitudes.  Among those born after the tumult of the 1960s, the ideal of “equality” crowns the paramount virtue of “tolerance.”  But many remain beholden to the hope that just a little more money to social programs, a little more Ad Council propaganda, will actually change conditions for the abstraction.

What if these well-intended moves crowd out the healthy habits and cultural capital necessary to the success of the individual?  These, not the wasteful expenditures of federal welfare programs, are what can change conditions on the ground.  But to assess this soberly will require a little distance from the crooning promises of “Hope and Change” or MSNBC’s alarmist cries of “racism!”

Would it be safe to say that, in America today, we’re beyond the half-life of racism or patriarchy?  Existential struggle against oppression need not trump every policy consideration.  As I noted recently, a diverse lineup of thought leaders in media and at this year’s Republican National Convention have given us hope that we’re past that point.  For the sake of true progress, and the issues that really matter, I hope November will reflect a similar move among the population at large.

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Bootstraps versus Knapsacks

The California state budget fiasco has afforded me some free time recently, so I’ve been doing some spring cleaning.  Among the relics I unearthed from recent months were the collected handouts for a class  on race taught at my church last year.  It was a sad reminder that leftist agitprop had infiltrated the Sunday classroom.  I mean no disrespect for those who earnestly pursue God’s will in matters of race and justice.  Yet,  the ideas propagated in those papers and discussions contribute to an unhealthy, counterproductive worldview.

One particularly troubling area of the race curriculum is its prescribed journey from bootstraps to knapsacks.  Since I first encountered these two concepts in the same context, they have always seemed at odds.  Bootstraps and knapsacks are mutually exclusive; people tend to love one and hate the other.  In one corner is the classic “up by the bootstraps” idea that hard work begets success in America.  As an alternative, progressives offer the red pill notion that any comfort, success, and prosperity are owed instead to an “invisible knapsack of privilege.”  No, you can’t make this stuff up.  The  idea originated in the 1980s with feminist Peggy McIntosh.  Now if you take success and prosperity to be synonymous with  being white, you have the original gist of the knapsack.

McIntosh’s personal revelations notwithstanding, I find the knapsack lacks effective explanatory power from where I stand as a mixed race, conservative man in a tremendously free and prosperous society.  I find it more relevant to look at success in America as a general whole rather than assume that success is the exclusive reserve of some monolithic group called  “whites.”  Yet knapsack proponents are eager to showcase McIntosh’s writing as a contrast to bootstraps in the hope of inducing an aha! moment that race is integrally relevant to American success.  Any serious-minded person who encounters these two tangling visions must decide which one will ultimately color (no pun intended) their own life at the everyday level.

In their existential tendencies, knapsack and bootstraps could not be more divergent.  In spite of its good intentions, knapsack supplants bootstraps’ twin senses of gratitude and agency with a new malaise of victimhood and guilt.  In doing away with bootstraps, knapsack denies us the ability to thank our parents, ancestors, and even our Creator for their respective roles in contributing to our current comfort and success.  From its secular Leftist roots, knapsack can only give us an impersonal, monolithic explanation that oppression is the true father of our prosperity.  Its as depressing as when Luke Skywalker discovers that Darth Vader is his dad. Progressive Christians mean well when they attempt to carve a path for American repentance, but they damage worldviews when they uphold knapsack and dismiss bootstraps.  American history is marked more by opportunity than by oppression.  But supposing the facts to be in dispute, such an assertion would be better defended in a separate post.  Existentially, bootstraps thinking cultivates an “attitude of gratitude” that in turn nurtures desire for stewardship. This then necessitates individual accountability, and all three of these are integral to Christian living.  Knapsack, however, turns us to navel-gazing and perpetually renewed  calls for dialog that might make good sound bites but do little to effect meaningful change.  Instead of attending ponderous powwows that reinforce progressive dogmas, Christians sincerely pursuing what is right and good should look critically at knapsack thinking and reclaim as their own the virtues of the bootstraps ethic.

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