There is no greater offense to human rights, short of murder, than slavery. It’s hard to imagine a more viciously evil enterprise than the slave trade to the Americas. The treatment of those Africans who survived the crossing to the New World was mostly inhuman, and – in the US – the treatment of their descendants after emancipation and the short period of Reconstruction was a stain on the moral history of the nation. It wasn’t until fully 100 years after the Civil War that oppressive, discriminatory laws were removed from the books. Along with legal segregation, blacks were victims of pervasive extralegal violence, including lynching, for trivial “offenses.” Such violence was rarely punished.
American society, black and white, has still not recovered from the trauma brought about by the evil treatment of black people. By objective measures, the economic and social conditions of black communities are worse than the national average. Racist attitudes – by which I mean the propensity to treat black people as morally or intellectually inferior – still persist.
Black communities themselves have been damaged, often by policies that were intended to improve their condition, like welfare rules that encouraged fatherless family units. Family dissolution, poverty, and the weakening of black churches and other institutions opened the doors to drugs, crime, and incarceration. The reduction in upward social mobility that has characterized American society as a result of globalization and automation of low-level jobs has made it harder for those in the lower economic strata to escape. These same problems press on low-income whites as well as blacks, but they are a less distinct group and so their troubles are less visible.
The question facing the nation is what to do about it. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the movement he represented proposed three major steps: first, remove all vestiges of legal and institutional bias; second, ensure that blacks had high-quality education; and third, ensure that they had the ability to obtain political power by voting and being elected to office.
This program was in general adopted, but has proven difficult to implement fully. The educational system in the US has struggled to function, almost regardless of the amount of money it receives, especially in the inner cities where the black communities are the worst off. Laws to prevent discrimination in employment are ineffective when there simply aren’t enough good jobs. There are 53 black congresspersons (12.2%), about 1% fewer than the percentage of blacks in the overall population, and 10 senators (10%). There are also numerous black mayors and other local officials. Probably that is necessary but not sufficient.
Recently some very high-profile and emotionally affecting cases of blacks killed by police officers followed by mass demonstrations and riots have created a tsunami of anger and demands collected together under the banner “Black Lives Matter.” Although police killings of innocent people are always tragic, the question of whether blacks are disproportionally killed by police, when factors like disparities in contact with police between populations are taken into account, is not easy to answer. Having said that, anecdotal evidence indicates that humiliating, frightening, and sometimes painful contact with police is a common experience for black men.
In any event, the issue has galvanized American society toward racial issues in general. The program of Dr. King has been replaced with more radical proposals for the remaking of society. The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) is a coalition of organizations that present such radical demands. One of the major ones is for reparations to be paid to black Americans to compensate them for “past and continuing harms.” Demands include a guaranteed income, free education and health care, mandated school curricula to “critically examine the political, economic, and social impacts of colonialism and slavery,” and so forth. There are also numerous other demands, which generally follow a socialist line.
The idea that only radical changes in society will suffice comes from so-called “Critical Race Theory” (CRT). This postmodern/postcolonial ideological framework, which finds expression in the fields of law, education, and public policy, sees race as “a socially constructed concept that is used by white people to further their economic and political interests at the expense of people of [color].” Whites, in other words, have built racism into the society that they control; and so even if individuals do not harbor ill will toward blacks, whites benefit and blacks are harmed by their interactions. According to CRT, all “whites” have “white privilege” from which they benefit, at the expense of non-whites. CRT rejects the idea of meritocracy, because it sees “merit” as racially relative. So, for example, white teachers automatically prefer white students, because their idea of a good student is one that behaves in characteristically white ways and whose work represents white values.
The CRT worldview holds that because they can’t avoid exercising their white privilege, all whites are inherently racists. A corollary, expressed in the popular book “White Fragility,” is that an accusation of white racism is irrefutable: when a white person objects to being called a racist, that is prima facie evidence of their racism – an argument of very dubious logical quality. In the social paroxysm of guilt that surrounds the “Black Lives Matter” demonstrations, the author of the book has been paid large sums by major corporations and governmental entities to do “diversity training,” which teaches whites to understand and accept their inescapable racism, and to behave as inoffensively as possible to people of color.
These manifestations of postmodern philosophy have been nurtured in ethnic and gender studies classes in the best universities, and have now burst into everyday life. Like most postmodern ideas they are fundamentally unsound, and if implemented would not eliminate racial conflict, but lead to a more unjust society. Let’s compare some of the ideas of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with those of CRT:
|Racism is racial prejudice or hatred.||Racism is a way of exercising power and gaining advantage based on race.|
|There should be equality of opportunity for all, regardless of race.||Equality of opportunity is impossible in a racist society, so it’s necessary to favor POC over whites.|
|Racism in society comes from racist individuals who can be educated (or at least restrained).||Racism is built into the society, because whites naturally created it to favor their own race.|
|People can stop being racists.||Whites are inherently racist.|
|We can build a better society by making laws to guarantee rights and by educating people to respect one another.||It’s not possible to fix society except by fundamentally restructuring the power relationships in it.|
|Whites and blacks can learn to understand each other.||Whites can never understand blacks because they have not had the same history of oppression.|
|Violence is counterproductive.||Violence is necessary.|
If we agree with CRT, then the only way to eliminate racism is to restructure the power relationships in our society. Although they suggest that this would build a just society, their belief that justice is culturally or racially relative – that is, whoever has the power makes the rules – implies that they would have a hard time recognizing one. Indeed, the real implication of their view is that there can be no objectively just society, since they believe that any society is naturally biased to benefit the group with the most power. And what they are demanding is power. The inescapable conclusion is that if the CRT revolution were to succeed, it would do no more than change the color of the oppressors.
The liberalism of Martin Luther King Jr., on the other hand, and the system created by the US Constitution and its amendments, does provide a framework to establish a society that can be just for all its inhabitants, even if the history of the nation has not always lived up to its ideals. But – at least until recently – there has been progress in that direction. Those of us who remember the Civil Rights Movement and the changes it brought about, know that it is possible to take real steps toward a just society without wrecking it.