If we are to have, as Attorney-General Eric Holder suggested more than a year ago, a national “frank conversation about race,” the first thing that needs to be said is that such a conversation is virtually impossible. Why? Because those who are on the “conservative” side in this discussion will be accused of either racism or dishonesty the moment they open their mouths.
For instance, I will be accused of racism (or stupidity) by those on the “liberal” side of our frank national conversation if I declare my belief that that there is almost no significant racism left in the United States. I believe that Martin Luther King Jr. and his coworkers were almost totally successful in the campaign they undertook more than half a century ago, a campaign to persuade white Americans that racial prejudice and discrimination are morally wrong and must be eliminated from American life.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
Racism, as I see it, takes two forms: prejudice (anti-black feelings or attitudes) and discrimination (anti-black actions). The institutions that have the power to do real damage to African Americans through discrimination — such institutions as big business, colleges and universities, governments (federal, state, and local), the courts, and the military — not only don’t discriminate against them any more; they bend over backwards to treat African Americans fairly (sometimes, even more than fairly). The only important institution that is still guilty of anti-black discrimination are some police forces; but the damage the police do to the black community is far less than the damage that could be done by those other institutions, were they still behaving in a discriminatory manner.
As for anti-black prejudice, three things need to be said. First, there is far, far less of it than there used to be. This is because King persuaded America to examine its national conscience and renounce its racial sins. It is also because older generations — the ones who grew up in a society in which racial prejudice was the most natural thing in the world — are dying off and being replaced by younger generations who grew up in a society that was strongly anti-racism.
Second, racial prejudice, while it is a despicable thing and can be very hurtful when expressed, can do little real damage to the life chances of blacks when not accompanied by racial discrimination. As an African-American friend of mine says: “I don’t care what people think of me; just treat me fairly.”
Third, much of what is regarded as anti-black prejudice is really anti-lower-class prejudice. Americans have always disapproved of those in society’s lowest class, regardless of race — a class marked by poor performance in school, trouble with the police, violence, drug or alcohol addiction, a lax sexual morality, an inability to speak standard English correctly, a sloppiness in personal appearance, etc. While most blacks are not lower class, a high percentage of are. Just as bad, the mass media give the impression that most blacks are from society’s lowest (and most “objectionable”) class. And so many whites reason: I don’t like the lower classes; blacks are lower class; therefore I don’t like them.
That white racism is still a problem for African Americans, I won’t deny. But on the list of problems facing blacks, it is down near the bottom. At the very top is the appallingly high out-of-wedlock birthrate (near 70 percent of all African American babies are born to unmarried women); not far from the top are such problems as a high rate of black-on-black crime, and the absurdly bad public schools typically found in poor black neighborhoods — these schools being bad not because of poor teachers or poor facilities, but because most of the students have internalized the profoundly anti-academic values of their lower-class subculture.
The myth of widespread white racism is kept alive by two groups. For one, there are the black demagogues who are doing poor imitations of Martin Luther King. They are fighting Jim Crow in an age when Jim Crow is dead and buried. I don’t have in mind here just the major league players (mainly Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson) but also the petty demagogues, hundreds of them, found in almost any city or town with a sizable African American population. Their occupation would be gone if it were recognized that white racism is an insignificant factor in American life.
The second group is composed of upper-middle-class white liberals. These are privileged people — privileged in terms of education, career, income, assets, housing, travel, fine dining, good wine, and so on. Privileged people in all societies and in all ages have felt the need to justify their privileges by claiming to be morally superior to the non-privileged. These liberals are racism-free, and they deplore racism in others — this is their great claim to moral superiority. They don’t say they are perfect, and will freely admit to moral shortcomings of a non-racist variety. But racism is America’s great national sin — the nation’s original sin, so to speak; and with regard to this, upper-middle-class white liberals are sinless. This makes them morally superior, which entitles them to their many privileges.
Unfortunately for them, when it comes to claiming moral superiority, being racism-free doesn’t qualify if everybody is racism-free. For the claim to work, other white Americans — the great majority of other white Americans — have to be guilty of the sin of racism. Hence upper-middle-class white liberals have to keep alive the myth of white racism.
If we are to have a frank national conversation about race, we mustn’t be afraid to talk about the informal mythmaking alliance between black demagogues and white liberals.