by Victor Davis Hanson
Two Racial Narratives — and the Current Hysteria
Polls show that the Trayvon Martin case has split the country apart over perceptions of race and justice, in ways that may dwarf the polarities of the O.J. Simpson trial days of 1994. Or does the new friction simply reflect an ongoing erosion in relations since 2009? Or is it all hype, and things are still about as they were?
This tension was not supposed to have increased with the election of Barack Obama, who ran on “healing” and “unity,” and who was proclaimed by supporters as ushering in a new post-racial age.
Here I list a few random examples of the new racial furies and conclude with the two irreconcilable narratives.
The Trayvon Martin Tragedy
Hollywood director Spike Lee tweeted what he thought was George Zimmerman’s address, in hopes, apparently, that vigilantes might assemble there. Ex-boxer Mike Tyson called for George Zimmerman’s death; the New Black Panther Party put a “dead or alive” bounty on his head, confident that there would never be a state or federal charge of conspiracy to commit a felony lodged against them. I think all these examples were more or less open calls for violence.
Many of the publicly reported “facts” of the yet to be tried Martin case really were in error and in error by design. Indeed, George Zimmerman was not white; he really did have head injuries; he did not employ a racial epithet on tape; he did not voluntarily profile on tape Martin as a “black”; there was indeed an altercation; Mr. Martin was not a preteen, tiny, and a model student; Zimmerman did not outweigh Martin by 100 pounds.
But such constructs were all necessary for the narrative of a white Germanic-sounding vigilante, who, after uttering racial slurs, executed a little African-American boy, then lied about a fight and injuries, and got off due to a racist police department and by extension a racist America. We don’t know what happened (murder, manslaughter, self-defense?), only that the above narrative did not happen. Most agree that when one party is shot, killed, and was not armed, then the evidence must be carefully reviewed to substantiate a self-defense plea; the objection is not to the review but to the prejudging of the review and public threats.
The Race Establishment
The problem with the race establishment is not its acrimony per se, but (a) that the acrimony is frozen in amber around 1960, with no acknowledgment of some 50 years of federal action and three new generations of Americans, and (b) the inordinate time invested in blaming “them” rather than spent on introspection on how to achieve parity with a majority culture in the manner of other minorities’ successes. Or at least that is how I perceive the growing anger at the Sharpton/Jackson/Black Caucus nexus.
One day, Rev. Wright, the president’s former pastor, is once again railing against Jews and whites; while on the next, Louis Farrakhan tours the country warning of the dangers of racial intermarriage and declaring Jesus a black man. No one rebukes such overt hatred. Revs. Jackson and Sharpton, as is their wont, flew to the center of the Martin case controversy, to be photographed and to “organize.” Al Sharpton is now rebooted from the days of his involvement in the Crown Heights and Freddy’s Fashion Mart cases. No one wishes to remember his derogatory comments about homosexuals, Jews, and Mormons, much less the Tawana Brawley matter in which he lost a defamation case after falsely accusing a state prosecutor of being one of the assailants. He has a nightly MSNBC show where he reports on his earlier daytime heroics; in some sense, he has eclipsed Jesse Jackson as the black community’s premier civil rights leader. I say that without irony but based on the official praise from the country’s leading officials.
Attorney General Eric Holder lauded the defamer of state prosecutors “for your partnership, your friendship, and your tireless efforts to speak out for the voiceless, to stand up for the powerless, and to shine a light on the problems we must solve, and the promises we must fulfill,” and said of the ongoing Trayvon Martin case: “I know that many of you are greatly — and rightly — concerned about the recent shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, a young man whose future has been lost to the ages.” Holder’s “lost to the ages” quote bookends the president’s comment that Martin resembled the son he might have had. Whether those editorials will influence the jury pool in Florida no one knows, but I cannot remember a president and attorney general editorializing about a local criminal case before it has even gone to trial. If before the O.J. trial Bill Clinton had said that Nicole Simpson looked like the daughter he might have had, or had Janet Reno said Nicole was lost to the ages, well, fill in the blanks.
Holder himself almost seems to enjoy expressing his racial passions (e.g., “cowards,” “my people,” his allegations of racism against congressional overseers in the Fast and Furious inquiry, his accusations of racial profiling against the Arizona immigration law, which he confessed that he had not yet read, etc.). He chose not to prosecute the New Black Panther Party for voter intimation. Nor, apparently, has he much concern with the latter’s bounty on Zimmerman — or its radio station’s calls for a race war. If John Ashcroft had said anything similar, or had even Alberto Gonzales, proverbial hell would have broken loose.
From the Very Top
This attention to racial division is not new with this increasingly desperate administration. Before a Latino audience, President Obama blasted congressional Republicanism and soared with the following statement: “America should be a place where you can always make it if you try; a place where every child, no matter what they look like, where they come from, should have a chance to succeed.” The “look like” formula was popular and used also by First Lady Michelle Obama, who had also complained about a description of her White House infighting, written by a New York Timesreporter: “That’s been an image that people have tried to paint of me since, you know, the day Barack announced, that I’m some angry black woman.” None of these comments was helpful in erasing away the old “never been proud,” “raise the bar,” and “downright mean country” campaign tropes of 2008.
When Rick Perry referred to “a big black cloud that hangs over America — that debt, that is so monstrous,” charges of racism flew. Chris Matthews referred to Perry’s support of federalism with the quip “this is going to be Bull Connor with a smile.” At some point, every Republican nominee was alleged to be waging a racialist campaign, as we heard that Gingrich’s food stamp references were racist and still more about the segregationist past of Romney’s Mormon Church.
In a Democratic National Committee video in April 2010, Obama called on “young people, African-Americans, Latinos and women . . . to stand together once again.” Shortly before the November 2010 congressional elections, Obama told an audience that Republicans “are counting on black folks staying home.” Before the Congressional Black Caucus, Obama affected the supposed accent of black America in emphasizing shared race: “Stop grumblin’. Stop cryin’. We are going to press on. We’ve got work to do.” Was “we” the black community or all of America? He appealed to Latino voters not to stay home from the 2010 elections, but instead to “punish our enemies” — and not to fall prey to the Republicans’ “cynical attempt to discourage Latinos from voting.” Conservatives, remember, wished, according to the president, to round up Latino children while eating ice cream. There is now an African Americans for Obama campaign group, and Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith warns us that he has Obama’s back.
All this is not quite new. Obama stereotyped the Cambridge Police Department as having “acted stupidly” for detaining Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates. He allegedly complained that racial bias explains much of the Tea Party opposition to his own administration, and used the derogatory “tea-baggers” sexual slur to characterize the protests. After Rev. Wright, the clingers speech, and “typical white person,” one would have thought that Obama would have tended to avoid the question of racial tensions.
Members of the Black Caucus have talked a lot about the Trayvon Martin case, calling it an “assassination” and a “murder” and alleging that Zimmerman shot Martin down like “a dog.” This too is not new in the age of Obama. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee said debt arguments showed racial animosity toward Barack Obama. Rep. Barbara Lee accused Republicans in racist fashion of trying to deny blacks the vote. Rep. Andre Carson claimed that the Tea Party wished to lynch blacks from trees. Rep. Charles Rangel alleged that Rick Perry’s job creation in Texas was “one stage away from slavery,”
Post-racial icons like Morgan Freeman blasted opposition to Obama with “It’s a racist thing.” Whoopi Goldberg blurted out, “I’m playing the damn [race] card” over Obama’s sinking polls.
I could go on and on, but one gets the message. So why the anger at this point and not, say, in 2007, when the evil Bush was president and Obama was but a weak senator and a dubious presidential candidate? For eight years there were African-American secretaries of state. Bush, through his African AIDS initiatives, saved millions of blacks who had no access to medicine. Minorities were visible in his cabinet. No one objected to the fact that Obama garnered 96% of the black vote, or thought much about it when, in the bitter Democratic primaries, the Clintons alleged that race was used to whip up support against them. So why, then, the anger now, when things should have improved even more?
And I do not mean just African-American anger. To read comments following these stories on the Internet is to enter the world of white counter-rage at a level I have never seen. We talk of black accusations of racism, but they are earning a counter-response that is equally scary, with some irate and others wearied to the point of quietism and isolation. The lurid Drudge Report weekly posts videos of African-American teens flash mobbing or attacking and beating whites, in not so subtle reminders that in terms of violent crime blacks commit roughly 50% of the offenses, while making up only 11-13% of the population, and are 7-8 times more likely to harm whites than vice versa. Indeed, 94% of all blacks who are murdered each year die at the hands of blacks. The more Eric Holder emphasizes racial distinctions, the more he seems oblivious to the fact that he is alienating far more than he is encouraging.
What Is It All About?
Two racial narratives without much hope of a compromise seem behind these different views:
A) The current black leadership believes in the following narrative: Due to the wages of past American racism and well over a century of Southern chattel slavery, blacks have been damaged in ways still underappreciated by whites. Thus, true equal opportunity and justice will take decades more of instruction, recompense, affirmative action, and set-asides to achieve real fairness. Whites say that they are not racist, but daily they do or say things that to others seem very racist. One can be destructively racist without the overtness of Jim Crow.
When blacks employ the N-word, or a Rev. Wright uses racist language, or the Black Caucus (or Black Panther Party) employs incendiary vocabulary that would earn their white counterparts ostracism, all that is a false equivalence. One must see this apparent asymmetry as a faux-asymmetry, given the hurt in the black community that suddenly in 2012 cannot quite be held to the same standards as the inheritors and present beneficiaries of privilege. If 50% of the black community has achieved near parity in the half-century since the civil rights reforms, 50% have not, largely due to the unwillingness of the majority culture to invest the necessary resources and alter attitudes to finish the job of racial parity. Therefore continued federal reparatory action is necessary until 100% parity is achieved, to paraphrase Eric Holder. If black crime is inordinately high, it is largely because of either present racism or the legacy of racism or both, and continues on due to the general neglect of the white majority, who objects only when the violence spills into their own enclaves. As for other minorities, they have suffered from white racism and may have transcended it, but slavery was a special case and left an imprint on the American psyche that explains the sensitivity of black/white relations in ways unlike other racial and ethnic polarities.
B) The counter-narrative is just as uncompromising. It runs I think as this: We live in a multi-racial society now, where almost every minority group has genuine claims on past exploitation, from the Holocaust to the frontier wars to the internment. But after a half-century of hyphenation and racial identity politics, and a trillion dollars spent on federal race-based programs, it is time to move beyond race and evaluate Americans on their behaviors and talents, without worry whether any particular group statistically does better than another — especially given that race itself in the 21st century is problematic with intermarriage and the waves of new immigrants. If we do not, our future is Rwanda, the Middle East, or the Balkans.
Millions of so-called whites are now adults who grew up in the age of affirmative action, and have no memory of systemic discrimination. To the degree some avoid certain schools, neighborhoods, or environments, they do so only on the basis of statistics, not profiling, that suggest a higher incidence of inner-city violence and crime. Most in this generation assume that a B+ white student in state college has none of the chances to get into law school, medical school, or graduate programs that a B- African-American student enjoys. If the black leadership were to preach a more balanced message of both monitoring race-based discrimination while addressing more vigorously endemic pathologies in the inner cities (such as illegitimacy, absentee fatherhood, drug use, crime, violence, misogyny, and anti-intellectualism), most racism would eventually disappear — as black crime rates, graduation rates, or illegitimacy rates matched those of the general public. Liberal whites and black elites profile as much as anyone (consider where they live, where they put their children in schools, and the fact that they associate with those quite distant from the inner city).
The phenomenal success of Asians, Punjabis, Armenians, Arabs, Latin Americans, and other supposedly non Anglo-Saxon groups is proof that the majority culture holds no one back on the basis of skin color. The crux for every group is culture, not skin color. Unfortunately, “racism” has become a careerist tool that leads to political and professional advantage when the charge is leveled; if there are indeed two black Americas, then the elite often uses the plight of the non-elite as arguments for its own claim to exemptions from criticism and often advantages in admissions and hiring.
Those two narrative don’t match and won’t, and so race relations have gotten only worse — as Barack Obama and Eric Holder well know. They do not seem to care or feel there is advantage to be had in the new polarity.
©2012 Victor Davis Hanson