a liberal attempt to meet conservatives where they are
This week a number of conservative opinion-leaders took up President Obama’s challenge to have a national conversation on race. “You want a conversation, you got it,” Bill O’Reilly retorted combatively, denouncing “race hustlers and the grievance industry” and arguing that President Obama “has no clue at all about how to solve problems within the black community.”
That may not have been the response liberals were hoping for, but it’s the one we got. So OK, let’s start there: not just with O’Reilly, but also Rush Limbaugh, Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin, and the National Review’s Victor Hanson. Together, those four represent a significant and diverse audience on the Right, not just one guy popping off.
And they paint a unified picture, which I will call the Response. I suspect most of my liberal readers won’t get far into those links before tripping some rhetorical land mine that makes it impossible to keep paying attention calmly, so let me abstract the Response’s main points:
- Slavery ended a century and a half ago. Back in the 1960s, we got rid of Jim Crow, and made explicit discrimination against blacks illegal. So that’s all ancient history and isn’t relevant to today’s problems. O’Reilly: “you cannot … design effective public policy that solves present problems by dwelling on the sins of the past.” Rubin: We should “not be held prisoners forever in a past that most Americans have never personally experienced.”
- The ongoing problems of the black community are its own fault and can only be solved by blacks making better individual choices: getting off drugs, renouncing violence, and forming traditional families that take responsibility for their children. O’Reilly: “The reason there is so much violence and chaos in the black precincts is the disintegration of the African-American family. Right now about 73 percent of all black babies are born out of wedlock. … White people don’t force black people to have babies out of wedlock. That’s a personal decision; a decision that has devastated millions of children and led to disaster both socially and economically. So raised without much structure, young black men often reject education and gravitate towards the street culture, drugs, hustling, gangs. Nobody forces them to do that; again, it is a personal decision.”
- Young black men are racially profiled by police and private citizens like George Zimmerman, not because of racism, but because they commit more crimes. Hanson: “The president knows that if it is true that African-American males are viewed suspiciously, it is probably because statistically they commit a disproportionate amount of violent crime.”
- Blacks would rather blame whites for their problems than accept their own responsibility. Liberal politicians and black community leaders pander to this denial and stir up black anger against whites to further their own careers. Rubin: “I think it is time to stop using this both as a crutch and as a method for stirring up [Obama’s] base. … I thought we had gotten to the point where whites, blacks, Republicans, Democrats realized that there are certain problems in the African-American community that need to be addressed, but that at this point — however we got here — we’re here and we should start working on them: start having policies that are family-friendly, start having policies that if not reward at least encourage young men to take responsibility for the children they create. And instead, no, he’s there telling them it’s slavery or Jim Crow or something else. It’s really a horrible message.” O’Reilly: “Race hustlers and the grievance industry have intimidated the so-called ‘conversation’, turning any valid criticism of African-American culture into charges of racial bias. … It is now time for the African-American leadership, including President Obama to stop the nonsense. Walk away from the world of victimization and grievance and lead the way out of this mess.”
- The same politicians and leaders show no interest in the victims (even black victims) of crimes committed by blacks. Hanson: “The world will long remember Trayvon Martin, but few people — and certainly not Barack Obama or Eric Holder, who have a bad habit, in an increasingly multiracial country, of claiming solidarity on the basis of race — will care that Khin Min and Lina Lim were torn to pieces by bullets and a knife. Few will care that they died in a vicious assault that had nothing to do with stereotyping, Stand Your Ground self-defense, weak gun laws, insufficient federal civil-rights legislation, or any of the other causes of interracial violence falsely advanced by the attorney general — but quite a lot to do with an urban culture that for unspoken reasons has spawned an epidemic of disproportionate violent crime on the part of young African-American males.”
- Liberals want whites to feel guilty about racism, but the vast majority of today’s whites have nothing to feel guilty about. Limbaugh: “It’s time for all this white guilt to end. … White guilt is doing nothing for anybody, and white guilt is not solving anything. And besides that, a little history lesson for you: If any race of people should not have guilt about slavery, it’s Caucasians.”
I’ve done my best to make a fair summary; if you hear something else in those links, think I have taken the quotes out of context, or believe I’ve constructed straw men that don’t really represent what conservatives think, please comment.
How to answer? First, let me say that I’m not surprised that a number of liberals reacted with anger. As I said, the four pieces (and many others) are filled with barbs that seem designed to shut down the conversation rather than move it forward. The in-your-face tone is most obvious if you watch O’Reilly; the topic seems to call for sorrow, but by the end of the segment he has worked himself up into a rage.
One advantage I get from being white is that it’s easier not to take those barbs or that anger personally. If my everyday experience included racial slights that sometimes progressed into unforgettably ugly incidents, I probably couldn’t listen as sympathetically to the conservative view.
But I’ve chosen not to return insult for insult and anger for anger because I’m not focusing on O’Reilly, Limbaugh, Rubin, and Hanson themselves, but on the audience of more-or-less well-meaning whites — some of whom I grew up with — who hear the Response and think: “That makes a lot of sense.” Angry blasts from the Left, I know, just harden them in that point of view.
First reply: Who are you arguing with? It’s tempting to jump into details of the Response and start disputing facts. But the most poisonous parts of the Response are the unstated assumptions behind it, not the particular details. If I argue facts and leave those assumptions unchallenged, new facts can be found (or stretched) to fill the gap.
What assumptions? Well, listening to the Response, you get the impression that someone — maybe Obama or “race hustlers” like Jesse Jackson — is arguing the opposite side: Someone is telling blacks to blame whites for all their problems, look to the government for salvation, and not accept any responsibility themselves.
That’s just not true. In reality, no one is making that case.
That may be hard to believe if you’re a white conservative who only sees black activists in the clips Fox News decides to air. But last summer, for example, Jesse Jackson said this:
Each year … about 7,000 African Americans are murdered, more than nine times out of 10 by other African Americans. … If a foreign foe took these lives, we would mobilize armies and armadas to stop them. But here, because much of this violence is contained in racially concentrated neighborhoods, there is too much resignation and too little outrage.
It wasn’t an off-the-cuff remark. Jackson was announcing marches in 20 cities to draw attention to the violence problem. After the Justice-for-Trayvon marches conservatives asked: Why don’t black leaders organize marches against black-on-black violence? Well, they do. Fox just doesn’t cover it.
And did you know that Barack Obama said this?
You and I know … that more than half of all black children live in single-parent households, a number that has doubled — doubled — since we were children. We know the statistics — that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and 20 times more likely to end up in prison. They are more likely to have behavioral problems, or run away from home or become teenage parents themselves. And the foundations of our community are weaker because of it.
That was in 2008 when he was a candidate. He has stuck with that message as president. In a commencement address to all-male, historically black Morehouse College this May, Obama again pushed graduates to take personal responsibility rather than use racism as an excuse:
We know that too many young men in our community continue to make bad choices. And I have to say, growing up, I made quite a few myself. Sometimes I wrote off my own failings as just another example of the world trying to keep a black man down. I had a tendency sometimes to make excuses for me not doing the right thing. But one of the things that all of you have learned over the last four years is there’s no longer any room for excuses.
So if you’re white and get your racial information from conservative sources — especially if you live in a suburb or rural area far removed from the inner city — let me (and Tim Wise) suggest that you are being fooled. Black leaders who speak out against racism are not making the whitey-caused-all-our-problems argument.
It’s not an either/or. Believing that white racism is still a problem doesn’t mean that you think blacks are helpless victims who can only plead for whites to change or wait for the government to save them.
In short, there is no “grievance industry”.
Does the Response have any constructive point? My fellow white liberal Tim Wise calls the Response “white deflection”, because it doesn’t lead to any positive action. White opinion-leaders telling their white audiences that blacks are to blame for their own problems — that’s an excuse for turning the whole discussion off rather than solving anything.
Republicans control one house of Congress and the entire governments of the states that contain Philadelphia, Detroit, Houston, and Milwaukee. If they are in fact deeply concerned about the disintegration of the black family or inner city unemployment or black-on-black violence — if those issues are more than just excuses for whites to ignore racism — what constructive proposals have they put forward?
Bill O’Reilly is the exception that proves the rule: He followed up the piece I quoted with his plan for solving inner-city violence: “the feds should criminalize all gun crimes and impose strict mandatory sentences upon conviction” — as if this punish-them-harder idea is brand new and not what we’ve been doing for decades.
OK, maybe conservative office-holders aren’t proposing anything because they don’t believe in government solutions. Fine, but what about private efforts to discourage violence or promote education or help families in poor urban neighborhoods? Conservative media voices could be telling you which ones work and where you could effectively volunteer or send money. But they seldom do, because they are just raising these issues to shut off an uncomfortable conversation, not turn it in a more constructive direction. Conservative pundits will stop talking about black problems as soon as the Trayvon Martin controversy fades, because all they really want is for the topic to go away.
Black-on-nonblack crime. In the Asian-American murders Hanson discusses, he knows the perpetrator was black because the man was caught and charged without any public outcry. No one needed to march or protest, because the system was working fine.
To make Hanson’s case similar to Zimmerman/Martin, you’d have to assume that police found an armed black man standing next to the bodies, believed his story, didn’t immediately secure the area as a crime scene or canvass for witnesses, and let the man go until protests and bad publicity forced them to arrest him.
But of course that didn’t happen. It never would.
White-on-white? Yes, 93% of ten murdered blacks are killed by other blacks. But the same Justice Department report says (on page 13) 84% of murdered whites are killed by whites. This is why The Guardian’s style guide bans the term black-on-black violence:
imagine the police saying they were “investigating an incident of white-on-white violence”.
Again, that would never happen.
Racism in the justice system is real. Once you get past all the distracting noise, you’re left to deal with the facts of racism in the justice system. And I’m not just talking about the fact that blacks are more likely than whites to be in prison. (Those statistics cut both ways; they can be used to claim that blacks commit more crimes than whites.)
No, I’m talking about facts that are much harder to explain away:
- Black murderers are more likely to be executed than white murderers. A report by the Death Penalty Information Center said: “The researchers found that, even after controlling for case differences, blacks in Philadelphia were substantially more likely to get the death penalty than other defendants who committed similar murders. Black defendants faced odds of receiving a death sentence that were 3.9 times higher than other similarly situated defendants.”
- Juries are less likely to believe black self-defense claims. Anecdotally, many are contrasting George Zimmerman’s successful self-defense plea with John White’s unsuccessful plea in a black-on-white killing and Marissa Alexander’s unsuccessful stand-your-ground claim in a black-on-black case. Statistics tell the same story: Juries are most likely to accept self-defense claims when whites kill blacks, least likely when blacks kill whites.
- Blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates, but blacks are four times more likely to be arrested for it. And communities that decriminalize marijuana tend to have small black populations; apparently, smoking pot is less serious when whites do it.
- Crimes mostly committed by blacks are likely to carry far higher punishments than similar crimes mostly committed by whites. The most famous example is crack cocaine (popular among blacks) vs powder cocaine (popular among whites). For years, getting caught with 99 grams of powder would get you a lower sentence than 1 gram of crack. In 2011, the 100-to-1 ratio was reduced to 18-to-1.
That final point can be pushed a lot further if you’re willing to look at crimes that are harder to compare: Street crime carries far higher penalties than white-collar crime. A black pickpocket who steals your wallet is a lot more likely to go to jail than a white banker who illegally forecloses on your house. In fact, the number of crimes committed by corporations and the over-representation of whites in corporate management casts doubt on the claim that blacks commit more (or more serious) crimes than whites.
Group guilt. I still haven’t touched Limbaugh’s comments on white guilt. Actually (ignoring his trolling about slavery) I agree with a big chunk of what he said: Whites sitting around feeling guilty doesn’t help anybody.
But who’s asking us to? If you think the point of the Martin protests is for you to feel guilty for something your ancestors — or maybe just people who superficially resemble you — did a long time ago, I don’t think you’re getting an accurate account.
Here’s the actual point the Martin case has raised: Blacks still suffer unfairly from racial stereotypes. Those stereotypes have deep roots in slavery and Jim Crow, but the damage is here and now. Because of those stereotypes, whites are way too quick to assume that blacks are up to no good, that blacks deserve any misfortune they get, and that the best way to deal with black people’s problems is to punish them harder. Whites are too slow to consider a black person’s point of view and too slow to take seriously any problem that mainly affects blacks.
Here’s what you’re being asked to do about it: Personally, introspect to see how those stereotypes live and function in your own mind. (Here’s a place I notice it: When some jerk cuts me off in traffic, I get a bigger surge of anger if it’s a black jerk, like that’s some separate category entirely.) When you have to make a decision about a black person — whether you’re on a jury or a hiring committee — notice your tendency to jump to unfair race-based conclusions and try to resist it.
Politically, join the fight for justice. Help us roll back unfair laws and change processes that produce unfairly skewed results. Help us create the equality of opportunity that American ideals demand. And if you think an underlying obstacle to opportunity is drugs or bad parenting or whatever, find some constructive way to work on that, rather than use it as an excuse to do nothing.
And finally, if it makes you mad that someone might hold you responsible for things other white people did, use that resentment to understand how blacks feel when they are racially profiled. Unlike the largely imaginary white guilt, profiling has real effects. As you read these words, innocent young blacks are being stopped and frisked for weapons by New York police, not on suspicion of any specific crime, but because people who superficially resemble them have done bad things in the past.
You reject racial guilt in your own life. Take a principled stand and help other people fight it too.