Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Rather than being a racial healer, Barack Obama has presided over and at times stoked more racial divisiveness than we have seen in a long while. Just in the last year we’ve had Black Lives Matter marches and verbal assaults of Democratic candidates, the Oscar protests over the absence of nominated black actors, Ivy League university students marching over “microagressions” no one else can see, and the still simmering protests and agitation over police shootings of black men. Driving it all is our duplicitous and malignant national racial discourse.
At the heart of it lies “racism,” a question-begging epithet and verbal aerosol sprayed over issues to avoid honestly confronting them. The idea of racism is peculiarly modern, and like most of progressive ideology it reflects the rise of pseudo-science in the wake of the scientific revolution. As such, racism was a consequence of the massive category error that tries to reduce human beings to mere material phenomena to be classified and understood and shaped with the methods of real science. In “scientific” racism, certain characteristics of physical appearance and behavior were stripped of historical and cultural context, and the “irreducible complexity” defining all humans reduced to this simplified, superficial description. Worse yet from the perspective of the West’s Judeo-Christian and Hellenic heritage, the unique individualism of people, with their God-given natural rights and spiritual freedom, was denied to fellow human beings.
Before modern racism, there were prejudice and bigotry, the leftover tribal instinct to distrust the stranger or those who look and live differently. Humans are naturally clannish and exclusionary, as a visit to any playground or school, or a perusal of multiculturalist dogma and curricula, will reveal. The idea of a universal human nature and the subsequent tolerance for difference was and still is a strange one, a learned behavior that culture has to teach and reinforce.
Of course distaste for the stranger persisted, even among the Greeks who invented this notion of tolerance, but who also dismissed non-Greeks as “barbarians.” But there’s a difference from modern racism still important today. Old racists reduced Africans to their skin color, from which their names for them like “Negro” were derived. For the Greeks, the word “barbarian” reflected language, not a physical attribute: when foreigners spoke it sounded to the Greek ear like “bar-bar.” But anyone can learn a language. Superficial physical characteristics, however, are immutable. More important, how one lived, particularly politically, was more important than how one looked. The self-ruling Greeks who voted and spoke freely in the Assembly looked down on those, like the Persians, who bowed down and kissed the ground before the god-like Great King.
That focus on culture and language distinguishes ancient Greek bigotry from modern racism. It also contributed to the notion that humanity’s defining similarities––which included the unchanging destructive passions of human nature–– are more important than physical differences. A remarkable statement from ancient Greece illustrates this revolutionary idea, from an oration by Isocrates in 380 BC. “The name ‘Hellene’ [Greek] suggests no longer a race but an intelligence [mentality, way of thinking] and the title ‘Hellenes’ is applied rather to those who share our culture than to those who share a common blood.” In other words, people aren’t condemned by their natures to be inferior or politically slavish, but have the capacity to learn how to be civilized and live as free men. Just as every human has the capacity to learn any language, every human has the capacity to live by the mores and customs of any culture. The United States is the greatest exemplar of this truth, even after decades of anti-assimilationist ideology and multicultural Balkanization.
This idea of human adaptability is exactly the opposite of the old-school racists, who believed blacks were inherently inferior no matter how much education or civilization they acquired. That’s why the biggest threat to a slave-owning or Jim Crow racist was an educated, intelligent black person who could speak the King’s English. Just like the race-hacks say today, the racist said such a black person was “acting white” or “uppity.”
That’s what “racism” more accurately means––the belief in inherited inferior tendencies or qualities that no education or improvement can mitigate. This racism today is a fringe phenomenon, which is why variations like “institutional racism” or “systemic racism” or racial “microagressions” had to be invented. Any black who lived under the daily humiliation and sporadic vicious violence of the Jim Crow era would have been delighted to be subjected only to the subtle and often imagined slights that sleek Ivy League protestors and affluent professors call “racism.”
That genuine racism, the public assertion of indelible black inferiority, is what the Civil Rights movement battled against in order to return to the idea of Isocrates, echoed in Martin Luther King’s now ignored statement that he dreamed of a day when his children “would not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Today, however, the vision of King, consistent with the ideals of the West going back to the Greeks as refined by Christianity, has been discarded. Now skin-color is as much the defining characteristic of blacks as it was under Jim Crow segregation. It reflects as well the Progressive “scientific” racism that evoked Darwin as the justification for their eugenics programs to reduce the numbers of the “unfit.” That so many blacks support Hillary Clinton, who has accepted from Planned Parenthood an award named for the racist eugenicist Margaret Sanger, is testimony to just how incoherent and historically ignorant is our public discourse on race.
Worse yet, an Orwellian debasement of the word “racism” has changed it to describe not a belief in inherited, immutable intellectual and moral inferiority, but any word or deed or even fact that disturbs the self-selected black “leaders,” activists, race-hustlers, professors, Ivy League college students, entertainers, and athletes, all of whom compensate for their fame, privilege, and wealth by decrying “systematic racism” or “disparate impacts” or some other sophistry. Whether they sincerely believe what they say, or are merely using black misery in blue-state urban hellholes to leverage more institutional power and influence from guilty white liberals, in the end doesn’t matter. The wretched lives of too many black people are improved not one bit by our public racialist melodramas.
And that is the real scandal of movements like “Black Lives Matter” or the temper-tantrums thrown on Ivy League universities or the moral preening at the Oscars. They all have done nothing to improve black people’s lives, and often have abetted the cultural and political forces worsening them by perpetuating what economist Thomas Sowell has called “the toxic message of victimhood . . . spread by liberals.” Consider the record of our first “black” president, Barack Obama. As radio host Larry Elder pointed out during the Black Lives Matter protests,
Meanwhile, the net worth of all non-white families has fallen almost 20 percent since Obama took office. For blacks, it’s even worse. The so-called black/white wealth gap is at a 25-year high––with black income down, homeownership down and equity down. From 2007 to 2010, blacks’ net worth declined 13.5 percent. But over the next three years––from 2010 through 2013––it plummeted another 34 percent. But allow a black kid to be shot by a white cop and CNN covers it like the first moon landing.
Accompanying this economic decline has been the continuing plague of black-on-black murder; the blighting of young black lives forced to live in urban war-zones; the destruction of black potential by dysfunctional schools, destroyed families, a slow-growth economy, and drugs; and the systematic aborting of black lives, large numbers of them by Planned Parenthood, 78% of whose clinics are in minority communities.
But instead of using their wealth and prestige to address these tragedies, most of the well-heeled black elite perpetuate lies like “hands up don’t shoot,” decry “white privilege,” whine about “microagressions” at tony universities, and complain because not enough blacks were nominated for academy awards. People who live lives of material abundance and social capital far beyond the majority of white people who have ever lived, shamefully leverage for their own gain the misery of people they have nothing to do with. And they have hidden this moral idiocy by turning “racism” into another progressive “thought-blocker” that serves only politics.
Like other progressive “thought-blockers,” a spurious “racism” is a way for progressive Democrats to amass and consolidate political power, in this case as a tool for keeping black voters on the party plantation, patrolled by the equivalent of the Fugitive Slave Law that hounds any black person who dares to think for himself and challenge the racialist orthodoxy. The losers are truth, rigorous argument, sound evidence, and most important, the millions of blighted black lives that really don’t matter to the race industry.