All About Race
Top Stories of the Year: #4
I continue my countdown of the top stories of 2014 with #4: the return of racial politics. As I noted when protests first broke out in Ferguson, Missouri, over the shooting of Michael Brown:
One of the many disappointments of the Obama era is the failure of the one promise which, more than any other, brought him into office backed by a surge of goodwill, with approval ratings around 80% on Inauguration Day. As the first black president, Barack Obama was going to heal the nation's racial divisions and put an end to our divisive racial politics.
Now here we are five years later, and there's a race riot in Missouri. No, this has nothing to do directly with Obama, but it has a lot to do with how he and the mainstream media have failed to actually do anything to elevate the way Americans deal with racially charged issues.
That is the crucial issue. The groundwork for the Ferguson riots were laid much earlier and guarantee that the politics of racial conflict is going to rear its ugly head again and again.
That context was on display early in the year with several leftist commentators mocking Mitt Romney's adopted black grandson and implying a new doctrine in which the races are segregated into separate political ideologies and party affiliations. This is no accident but is driven by political desperation. "The left has hitched its wagon to the issue of race—which is all they're going to have left after ObamaCare wrecks the economic case for big government."
Similarly, in April Jonathan Chait came out in opposition to the ideological mixing of the races and openly declared that Barack Obama's presidency is all about racial politics now.
[T]he left is doing what they always do when their policies fail: make everything about race, instead. If the Obama presidency itself is what's failing, then his whole presidency—the one that was supposed to usher in a post-racial era—must be all about race, too.
Hence a long article by Jonathan Chait in New York magazine informing us that yes, Obama's term in office was really about race all along: "if you...set out to write a social history of the Obama years, one that captured the day-to-day experience of political life, you would find that race has saturated everything as perhaps never before."
Chait accurately identifies the distinctive racial politics of Obama's post-racial era, describing an incident in which Bill Maher attributed the entire rise of the Tea Party to a visceral reaction against a black president. There you have the new racial politics: white people calling other white people racists.
Racial politics, I noted, is being made permanent by design. "It's the left's version of 'segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever': let us score political points off of segregation today, tomorrow, and forever."
I expanded on this in a long takedown of a widely praised article by Ta-Nehisi Coates calling for reparations for black Americans.
The reparations commission is...meant to set up the argument that if you don't go along with its welfare-state remedies, you must be a racist.
This is the wider sense in which the issue of reparations is a political hammer. Coates bills it as an attempt at racial healing, but again, he must think we're naive. He knows that any attempt to set up a system of reparations will meet extensive resistance. And since the proposed reparations will almost certainly consist of an expansion of government and of the welfare state, with a concomitant expansion of taxes to pay for it, he must expect that reparations will be opposed specifically by Republicans.
I think that explains some of the renewed enthusiasm about reparations: it is an attempt to indefinitely extend the pattern of voting by racial blocs. Coates's piece is best read alongside a recent analysis by Thomas Edsall in the New York Times. It bills itself as a kind of impartial and dispassionate examination of the idea that Republicans can win elections by appealing to the white vote alone without engaging in any outreach to minority voters, as opposed to the Democrats' strategy of winning elections by appealing to a coalition of minority voters. The not-so-subtle theme of the piece is that Edsall is goading Republicans to please, please, please embrace their assigned role as the party of white people, letting Democrats keep a monopoly on the minority vote—in the hope that minority voters will eventually constitute a majority.
That is the deeper sense in which this is the beginning of a whole new era of racial politics. In the last two presidential contests, Democrats got a taste of how they could win elections by mobilizing racial blocs, but they also know that President Obama won't be on the ballot again, so this moment will be difficult to recreate. That's where the argument for reparations comes in. It is a perfectly divisive issue, meant to provoke a backlash among blue-collar whites and to be opposed by Republicans, and therefore to maintain the racial polarization of the electorate.
Then again, a controversial shooting of a young black man by a white police officer can also do the trick, which brings us to the shooting of Michael Brown, news that dropped into a cultural context that has been deliberately primed for racial conflict.
But as is often the case, the facts didn't end up supporting the racial narrative. As I warned early on:
The cardinal sin here is the subordination of facts to a "narrative" adopted by activists and by the media. To adopt a narrative about how all police are racist or all police lie about shootings would be as unjust as to adopt a narrative about how all young black men are violent. Instead of insisting on our cherished narrative, we should be calling for the rule of law—which applies for everyone.
Later, when the case against the police officer fell apart and a grand jury refused to indict him, I expanded on the lesson that "People are individuals, not symbols."
But of course reporters and commentators had to make this immediately into a "symbol" of race relations in America. They started doing this five seconds after they discovered the story. It is a reflex drummed into them by decades in the media, where every story must be freighted with as much dramatic, life-or-death, world-shaking significance as it can bear, and then some.
Yet once you make this case into a symbol of race relations in America, you make Michael Brown into a symbol of all young black men. And that opens up a whole world of trouble.
If you make Michael Brown into a symbol of all young black men, you cannot let yourselves admit to or report on any negative facts you discover about him, because then those negative things become facts about all young black men. So if you find out that Michael Brown was a thug who roughed up store clerks so he could steal from them—if you actually have video of him doing it—you can't report that, because then you are saying that all young black men are thugs, which is clearly racist. So you've painted yourself into a corner where reporting the facts makes you racist.
Shortly afterward, I noted the very different reaction to the death of Eric Garner, who died after being choked during a botched arrest on Staten Island for the piddling non-crime of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes on the street.
Commentators and activists on the left assumed in both cases that the white cop was guilty because he was a white cop, regardless of the evidence. Commentators on the right split their decision: most of them agreed with the refusal to indict in Ferguson, but most condemned the refusal to indict in New York. (See The Federalist's Sean Davis, Charles Krauthammer, and many others.) Why the difference? Well, because the facts are different....
So one side makes its decisions on the basis of race, the other makes it decisions on the basis of evidence. No points for guessing which side has been calling the other "racist" for the last week.
I drew a very different lesson from the Garner case:
We should remember that whenever the police use force, there is the danger that they will kill someone, whether through malice, poor judgment, poor training, or sheer accident. From time to time, they're going to shoot the wrong person or wrestle a guy to the ground without knowing that he has serious health problems and can't survive this kind of rough handling. That is one good reason (among many) to make sure that police are only authorized to interfere with someone whose actions are a threat to the lives and property of others, and not just to enforce some dumb, petty regulation.
This is actually the basis for a good program of reform intended to improve the way police interact with citizens by restraining the police from harassing the people with petty restrictions—which tend to fall worse on low-income and black neighborhoods. But that assumes that you actually want to solve the problem, as opposed to exploiting its victims for political advancement.
The contradiction of the left is that they want to inject government into every little aspect of our lives and mandate that the police confront us all the time over everything—and then they scream when some of those confrontations go wrong. In this way, they are not only hoping for a new series of contentious, racially charged killings. By extending the reach of government and the omnipresence of police power in our lives, they are creating the conditions that make those cases inevitable.
This is all building to a kind of Grand Unified Theory of the Left. At its deepest ideological roots, the essential goal of the left is the sacrifice of the individual for the sake of advancing a wider conflict between social classes. Originally, this was conceived as a conflict between economic classes, but it has since been expanded to encompass friction between racial groups as well as the battle of the sexes. But if you don't buy the underlying justifications—all of the ideological pretensions about the inevitability of class conflict or the litany of real and imagined historical injustices—what the left's approach boils down to is: sacrificing the individual to promote social conflict. Which we saw plenty of this year.
The obvious question is how to fight back, and I noted the right's own weaknesses on this issue, particular in response to a notorious case in which establishment Republican Senator Thad Cochran beat back a Tea Party challenger in Mississippi's Republican primary by rallying the votes of the state's overwhelmingly Democratic black voters. What made this notorious is that Cochran was not rallying them in favor of a small-government message, but against it. Yet whose fault was it that this worked so well?
The Cochran campaign's attempt to appeal to black voters wasn't exactly a secret; it was widely reported throughout the campaign. So the question is why Cochran's small-government challenger, Chris McDaniel, couldn't launch his own appeal to Mississippi's black voters. As a state senator, McDaniel is no stranger to Mississippi politics, and if he had been successful in the primary, he would have had to be ready for a statewide general election campaign. Why didn't he have the contacts, the arguments, and the credibility to make his own appeal to black voters?
Thad Cochran's campaign was just cashing in on the fact that the left has managed to racialize free-market politics—and what's really disturbing is that we let them do it.
But in nearby Louisiana, I argued, black Republican firebrand Elbert Guillory has shown us the way forward.
The more dependent Democrats become on the racial vote, the more vulnerable they are if they lose any of it.
The right needs a new Reverse Southern Strategy, if you will, a strategy to convert black voters by finding and promoting leaders who can speak to them convincingly about the failure of the Democrats' welfare state—which, when you think about it, is a phenomenon so broad and vast that it can't be ignored forever.
That's an urgent task for the next year and well beyond: to push for a truly post-racial politics and short-circuit the left's engine of social conflict. That's a theme I've already covered in previous years, particularly in my essay on the "universal message" of free markets, and boy is there still a lot of work cut out for us to do.
Race is not the only issue this year in which the facts were not allowed to get in the way of a good narrative. We also saw it in the explosion of the "culture wars"—which I will turn to in the next installment of this countdown, as I offer the "Confessions of a Reluctant Culture Warrior."