What explains the deliberate misreading of the new Arizona immigration law by pundits, politicians, and even private citizens? The law expressly forbids racial profiling, and yet a vast constituency of Americans interpret the law as an open assault on race–or, perhaps, on the racial status quo.
The answer has to do with the massive transfer of moral capital that occurred in the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. According to civil rights activist and scholar Shelby Steele, that landmark legislation marked a revolution of consciousness in the American white majority in acknowledging its complicity not only in the formative years of slavery but in subsequent era of segregation. America’s acknowledgement of this huge wrong resulted in a “vacuum of moral authority.”
According to Steele, from that moment on “the legitimacy of American institutions [became] contingent on proving a negative: _that they are not racist_” (White Guilt, by Shelby Steel, p. 27, emphasis added). Soon this contingency extended beyond black-white relations in the United States to include all non-white populations throughout the world as well as the environment and even the rule of law. It was impossible for those traditionally associated with power in America–the white majority–to invoke any sacred text or principle, whether Holy Writ or the U. S Constitution. Why? Because they lacked the moral authority to do so.
This explains why Americans are more afraid of being called racist than they are of defending their own borders. It’s almost like they are in fear for their mortal souls. It explains why American airport security has turned into a ritual exercise of proving “we are not racists” by showcasing obvious non-threats rather than going out of our way to keep would-be terrorists from entering the United States.
It also explains why many are desperately intent upon keeping the memory of America’s racial past on center stage, until almost everything is about race. For today’s political opportunist, every issue derives either directly or indirectly from America’s original sin of racism. Those who identify on one side of an issue have the power to stigmatize those on the other simply by calling them a name. That kind of spiritual potency translates into moral capital which, in turn, justifies political power.
Moral authority is what gives weight to one set of public opinions and not another. It explains why politicians can get away with dubious logic and even outright falsehood as long as they are “on the right side” of a sensitive (usually racially charged) issue. It explains the mysterious power of political correctness, which everyone laughs about but few have the courage to confront.
Moral authority is what legitimizes the exercise of power in society. Some have it and some don’t. Those who have it have rights. Those who don’t can be pushed around. This is why people can simply walk across American borders and join a protest movement once they get here. It explains why anyone who objects is “racist.” Rational discourse about “issues” is usually a matter of political window dressing. Arguments are won these days based on who holds the cards in relation to America’s racial past.
Hence the intuitive reaction to the Arizona legislation. In a very concrete way, the new legislation reshuffles the American political deck. It does so by reinstating the rule of law as a matter of principle and in defiance of the demand that public discourse be properly vetted by some certified authority brokered in during the era of political correctness.
Arizona has threatened the status quo by refusing to acknowledge the old currency of political correctness. That means the handwriting is on the wall. Now it is only a matter of time before that currency loses all value.
If Arizona gets away with asserting the rule of law–the same law that is on the books at the Federal level and in most states–then the basis for exercising power will have changed hands in the United States. A transformation of consciousness will have taken place. This is why the President and his minions are waging a special campaign against the Arizona legislature without reading the text of the legislation and without consulting with the Governor.
A people that is willing to stand up for itself, even at considerable cost, acquires moral weight in defining the meaning of right and wrong. As Dr. Steele points out, that was the moral achievement of the civil rights movement in the 50s and early 60s.