Baltimore is the latest American city to become a stage for the farce that is our national racial discourse. The swift, politicized indictment of 6 police officers for the death of Freddie Gray––which brought down, for now, the curtain on this performance by abandoning all the canons of procedural justice–– is a fitting end to this sorry spectacle.
The winners of this shameful display are obvious, as they always are after these riots. Local thieves, gangsters, and thugs; bourgeois white “anarchists” out on a lark; junior-high posers indulging adult-sanctioned destruction; well-heeled black politicians fanning the flames and leveraging the violence for career advancement; race-baiting vultures like Al Sharpton, and the sensationalist national media all benefitted. Most important, the false narrative of a national conspiracy of racist cops itching to murder innocent black men was yet again perpetuated by race hustlers and their progressive enablers.
The losers are the local black businessmen, the law-abiding black residents, the blacks trapped in ghetto hellholes, and the principle of social order as the necessary foundation for individual autonomy and advancement. Worst of all, black Americans have been betrayed by yet another spectacle that reinforces every racist stereotype blacks fought against during the decades of Jim Crow.
Legal segregation was based on the same rationale as slavery––the false assumption that all blacks were by nature incapable of achieving the level of civilization necessary for political freedom and personal autonomy. They were unsuited for freedom and autonomy because they lacked enough rational capacity to exercise impulse control and avoid the destructive behaviors that characterize barbarism, particularly sex and violence. As Aristotle, an important ancient source for this idea, put it, “He who participates in rational principle enough to apprehend, but not to have, such a principle, is a slave by nature.” Thus “it is better for them as for all inferiors that they should be under the rule of a master.”
Black Americans battling racism understood that their oppression was founded on the white assertion of their inability on their own to exercise virtue, especially self-control. Thus in their daily lives they strived mightily to explode these stereotypes by their own behavior. Education, deportment, proper speech, churchgoing, dignified public behavior were all daily challenges to the racist assumption that blacks could not be civilized because they lacked by nature civilizing virtues. In doing so blacks were not “acting white,” for many whites behaved in disorderly ways that bespoke a lack of virtue. Hence the Progressive eugenics movement in the early 20th century, speaking the language of Darwin rather than virtue, targeted poor whites and immigrant peasants as well as blacks. No, black people were acting civilized, and they refused to cede to whites the notion that civilization was color specific and exclusive.
Segregationists understood what blacks were doing, which is why they targeted black dignity, and attacked blacks who acted “uppity”––which included not just defiance, but speaking English properly, using a sophisticated vocabulary, displaying knowledge, and generally comporting themselves in a civilized and virtuous fashion, all of which made blacks dignified. If segregationists did not challenge that dignity, then the foundational idea of their racism was bankrupt. Blacks could be civilized, more so than many whites, and thus they deserved the political freedom and personal autonomy that defined American civilization.
That was an intolerable contradiction for racists, one battled not just with violence, but with daily ridicule and contempt. In contrast, black excesses of sex and violence, or vulgar and clownish public behavior, may have annoyed segregationists, but it did not challenge the justifying ideas of racism. Rather, such behavior was comforting, for it confirmed the notion that blacks acted that way because they lacked by nature the capacity of rational self-control. Long before the Civil Right movement, millions of American blacks had to fight every day for their dignity, and to assert their equal capacity to be civilized by behaving in ways that often called down on them contempt and humiliation.
But just at the moment the 1965 Civil Rights Act codified in law that idea for which blacks had struggled, for millions of blacks cultural developments began to undermine that achievement. Abetted by a decline in religious faith, the notion of virtue and self-control, reinforced by shame, guilt, and religious sanctions, began to retreat before the therapeutic hedonism epitomized in the chant, “If it feels good, do it.” As a result, impulse control, the most important virtue necessary for poor and historically disadvantaged people to improve their lot, was discarded, replaced by an idealized hedonism that glorified behaviors like sexual promiscuity and drug use guaranteed to hold back those trying to advance.
Second, the idea of Western civilization as a set of universal ideals and rights that transcend the accidents of race and ethnicity was attacked by identity politics. Now the particularities of race, ethnicity, and various spurious “cultures” were promoted by “multiculturalism.” An authentic identity could come only from the values, habits, and mores unique to one culture and incompatible with others. Hence the saying, “It’s a black thing, you wouldn’t understand.” No matter the differences of privilege, education, region, or wealth, melanin and hair texture melded all blacks into one identity, just as the one-drop rule did to blacks under Jim Crow.
Moreover, Western civilization now was uniquely oppressive, marred by slavery, imperialism, colonialism, capitalist exploitation, and endemic racism. As such, assimilation to Western civilization became a betrayal of racial identity, and learning its language, history, and foundational ideals yet another act of cultural oppression. Once W.E.B. Du Bois spoke of reading Shakespeare and Aristotle as “crossing the color line.” Now it’s “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western civ has got to go,” as the privileged students at Harvard and Berkeley chanted. Those who attacked America whether through ideas or violence were romanticized as “revolutionaries” fighting for racial “liberation,” as well-heeled racial commentators have done after the Baltimore and Ferguson riots. Or consider the new social media fad in which middle-class black kids stomp on American flags, in imitation of New Black Party college student Eric Sheppard, the self-proclaimed “terrorist toward white people” currently being sought by the authorities.
Finally, this new black identity assumed that being a victim was the core of blackness. No matter how rich or educated, every black American is still a victim who deserves some sort of redress, whether racial preferences and government jobs, or some form of redistributed federal tax money. Hence in the aftermath of riots like those in Baltimore we hear calls for “massive investments in urban communities,” as Obama puts it, despite the fact that Baltimore has been run by blacks for decades, and has enjoyed billions of dollars of federal aid. But even more dangerous, to predicate identity on victimhood and demands for reparations is to put inferiority at the heart of black identity, for it inculcates dependency, destroys autonomy, and frees people from personal responsibility and accountability. For as the African proverb has it, “The hand that gives is always above the hand that receives.”
The footage from the recent protests and riots all reflect this betrayal of respectable black Americans. Of course, there were peaceful demonstrations led by respectable community leaders, but they were obscured by the rioters and the race-baiters who peddled the old melodrama of evil white racists and helpless black people who lack the character to fight against joblessness, drugs, promiscuity, vulgarity, crime, and the slaughter of their black “brothers.” What we saw were images that would have warmed the heart of an old-school racist, and confirmed his belief that black people are barbarians, incapable of virtue and hence of civilization. That white leftists and privileged black opportunists enable and justify this narrative is a betrayal of black dignity.
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