Our Dysfunctional 'Race Relations'
How virtue signaling and weaponizing racial discourse sabotaged the goals of the civil rights movement.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Commentator and radio host Larry Elder recently posted an insightful tweet: “It is a sign of progress that today in America ‘race relations’ pretty much comes down to just one thing: how black people feel about white people––and how white people feel about how black people feel about white people.”
Unpacking this comment will reveal how dysfunctional “race relations” and racial discourse have been for half a century since legal segregation was ended.
First, I suspect the word “progress” carries a double edge. Of course, the condescending and patronizing sensibility that underlies “white” America’s obsession with black people’s opinions of them is a tremendous improvement over the indifference and neglect at best, and at worst the daily demeaning humiliations and physical violence of the past.
But the goal of the Civil Rights Movement that brought down legal segregation wasn’t for blacks to become “mascots,” to use Thomas Sowell’s metaphor, of enlightened white people’s moral preening, or superficial compassion, or need for racial redemption and absolution. Rather, it was for black people to be in full possession of the unalienable rights upon which the country and the Constitution were founded, and hence to be politically and legally equal to other Americans. The color of their skin, then, would be irrelevant to their political and national identities and the “content of their character.”
So how did this goal that inspired the Civil Rights Movement starting in the early 20th Century become the divisive, weaponized, racialist set of beliefs and attitudes that dominate today’s national discourse on race? Of course, Orwellian clichés like “white supremacy,” “systemic racism,” and “implicit bias” are the go-to answers provided by universities, popular culture, corporate media, and government agencies. Like “racism,” they are forms of verbal graffiti that deface our public discourse and town square.
These phrases, however, are empty of any coherent meaning founded on empirical evidence. They are political tools used by one political faction to leverage power and influence in order to promote their ideological goals of increasing managerial elite’s power and regulatory incursions into civil society and private life.
The real answers have to be looked for in history. One important influence has been the communist party in America, which from the beginning per Stalin’s orders insinuated itself into the Civil Rights Movement. Racial injustices like the trial of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers unjustly accused of raping two white women in 1931, attracted various communist fronts, especially the formal Communist Party of the USA, that offered legal help as the pretext for turning the incident into a “propaganda of the deed.” Protests and violence were fomented as tools for recruiting blacks into the party and expanding communists’ influence. The goal was not freeing the wrongfully accused, but creating disorder and violence as a prelude to the revolution. In the case of the Scottsboro Boys, the communists’ goal of weaponizing their trial in the service of communism rather than getting the defendants acquitted led to needless delays and diversions from their trials, ending up with some of them having to be incarcerated for years before being exonerated.
Worse, the communists attacked the moderate Civil Rights Organizations, like the NAACP, that were already providing support and publicizing such injustices. Communism’s goal has always been violent and revolutionary, not peaceful and incremental, change. Hence moderates who work within the existing legal system have been anathematized, discredited, and delegitimized as collaborators with liberal-democratic governments. Howard Zinn’s chapter on the Civil Rights era in A People’s History offers many examples of this mentality, as Mary Grabar writes in her indispensable Debunking Howard Zinn. Discussing the neglected civil rights giant E.D. Nixon, whom Zinn barely mentions, Grabar writes:
Zinn has little time for the stories of African-Americans who worked on peaceful campaigns for civil rights, especially when they did it without the help of Communists. Zinn clearly hoped that “the frightening explosiveness of the black upsurge” could be useful in bringing about some kind of socialist revolution or other radical transformation of America.
To Zinn––who was a practicing communist activist and organizer in those years before and after the Civil Rights legislation–– achievements like the Voting Rights Act and desegregation laws were mere self-defense “cooling mechanisms” for the liberal-capitalist establishment to forestall the only real agent of transformative change–– a revolution that imposed a communist regime and economy. For leftists, civil rights was not about restorative justice for black people, but a mere “prelude of more revolutionary action to come,” as Grabar sums up Zinn’s thinking
Our “race relations,” then, have been long warped by such influences. If true racial justice can be obtained only under communism or at least socialism, no matter how much real-life improvement in black lives has occurred, it will never be enough to correct the black grievances that can be exploited to create racial divisiveness and conflict. And if those grievances are hard to find, then they will be manufactured, as Black Lives Matter––run by self-confessed “trained Marxists”–– have done with the mythical crisis of police officers wantonly gunning down unarmed black men, something belied by mountains of statistical data. And like Zinn, for BLM the only black lives that matter are those that can be leveraged for more power to hasten the socialist revolution.
This decades-old paradigm has over the years seeped into our nation’s school and university curricula, even as the factual history of the civil rights movements––a triumph of liberal democratic institutions and mores, as well as black Christians–– is neglected. Now we have generations of people, most comprising one of America’s two political parties, who have internalized that narrative of persistent racism and grievance that no amount of improvement can correct. This ideological construct permeates as well culture, whether high, middle, or low, along with mass media, social media, corporations, and even sports, all of which have eagerly embraced the doctrines and slogans of BLM.
This anxiety on the part of white people over what black people think of them is unhealthy and fundamentally illiberal. It’s a form of social and psychological apartheid, putting black people into a distinct, homogenous class whose ancestors’ history imposes a solicitude on the part of whites extended to no other American demographic, thus erecting a barrier that interferes with the daily social intercourse that helps create a national community.
And it leads to disastrous policies the malign effects of which have disproportionately burdened black people. The Great Society welfare programs in part reflected for many whites a bribe for obtaining black approval and absolution, or at least for soothing their own consciences. But such programs have contributed to the weakening of the black family and the erosion of those virtues that even during the Jim Crow era, kept black families intact and black employment closer to white levels than they have been until the Trump administration. That’s why many black commentators like Jason Riley plead, as his book is titled, “please stop helping us!”
Black people don’t exist to soothe white people’s neuroses or to be objects of smug virtue- signaling. They do not comprise a homogenous group that we can treat all the same. Black people don’t think alike any more than they look alike. Their true diversity is the most important diversity for all humanity: of individual hearts and minds that deserve respect for their freedom, autonomy, and unique identities. They should not be treated as interchangeable pacifiers for white people’s neuroses and insecurities. They, like the rest of us, should just be left alone.