For this summer’s protesters and their allies, the present moment marks a great awakening of America on race. The rise of BLM, in their view, signifies the advent of a new civil rights movement, broadening and completing the work of the movement that began the country’s transformation in the mid-20th century.
The truth is closer to the opposite. The present ascendancy of the woke Left on race is no triumph for civil rights, nor for social justice or any sort of justice, nor for democratic government. Least of all is it a victory for government by reflection and choice. The central, concrete claim of BLM—that systemic anti-black racism corrupts law enforcement in the U.S., such that “Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise”—has been assiduously refuted by critics well schooled in the pertinent evidence. Yet the movement and its allies stay their destructive course, undisturbed by appeals to evidence and reason.
The “anti-racist” Left, as it styles itself, is riding high. The virally publicized deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd elicited near-universal condemnation in public sentiment. Nearly all Americans attributed those deaths, respectively, to reckless vigilantism and abusive policing. Most Americans also saw anti-black racism at work, resulting in a large upsurge in the number (76% in an early June poll) who now believe race relations to be a big problem in the U.S. A storm of mass protests mixed with rioting predictably followed, producing an unprecedented windfall of money, power, and prestige for the Black Lives Matter network, which emerges amid the destruction as the vanguard of left-wing anti-racism.
On the streets, throughout the culture, and across the society’s major institutions, the sudden triumph of the woke Left seems nearly complete. Its street protests bring out thousands in cities all over the country. The youthful participants in those protests, nearly half of whom are white (including many suburbanites), support it with unthinking zeal. Its canonical books are bestsellers. It seeks and is gaining the power to rewrite America’s history and to recast her heroes.
The essay epitomizing the Left’s thoroughly racialized and condemnatory view of U.S. history was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, and curricular ancillaries of that essay are being disseminated in schools throughout the nation. Educators are fired and students expelled for challenging it. It topples public monuments and renames institutions. University leaders, elected officials high and low, CEOs of companies large and small submit themselves, figuratively and literally, on bended knee before it. It defunds and discredits law-enforcement agencies. It rescinds public safety regulations, seemingly on its own authority. Priests are disciplined for criticizing it; it demands and receives confessions of sin and professions of faith. Elite media coverage ranges from deferential to adulatory. It dominates one major political party, intimidates much of the other, and stands poised to capture the White House and both houses of Congress.
In all this there is much cause for foreboding, but also a glimmer of hope. The cause of sanity in race relations has faced many dark days in America’s history. Few could rival the spring, 1857 day when the U.S. Supreme Court declared the protection and expansion of racialized slavery to be the supreme law of the land—thereby confirming slavery’s control over all the departments of the federal government, and clearing a path for it to spread to every state in the union. The Court’s pronouncement delivered a seemingly crushing rebuke to decades of energetic argumentation by abolitionists and other opponents of slavery. And yet at that darkest of hours, in contemplating the Dred Scott ruling, the greatest of abolitionists declared: “my hopes were never brighter than now.”
Frederick Douglass was hopeful—rationally hopeful—because his sight was trained on deeper truths about America and about human nature. “Step by step,” he observed, “we have seen the slave power advancing; poisoning, corrupting, and perverting the institutions of the country; growing more and more haughty, imperious, and exacting. The white man’s liberty has been marked out for the same grave with the black man’s.” Douglass was confident of slavery’s impending demise because he trusted slaveholders, intoxicated with the love of dominion, to offend ever-larger numbers of liberty-loving Americans as they showed the nation what they really were—an arrogant oligarchy, disdainful of republican government and of the rights of all their fellow citizens. “Pride goeth before destruction,” Douglass read in Proverbs, “and an haughty spirit before a fall.”
Consider in this light what the woke Left, in its angry self-righteousness, is revealing of itself in its season of apparent triumph. Witness the utter disregard for democratic government—government by the consent of the governed—in the monument-topplings by know-nothing mobs, along with the armed usurpation of power in Seattle’s Capitol Hill district. Add to that the contempt for freedom of speech manifested in the firings and cancellations of those who diverge, even ever so slightly, from the woke dogmas of the day.
Then consider, above all, the disdain for the security of person and property on display in the widespread vandalism and looting, the sudden spike in homicides in major cities, and the demands all the while for the dismantling and defunding of local police departments. BLM and its followers take themselves and their cause to be a law higher than the highest law. But to any observer with a modicum of common sense, the woke Left is daily revealing itself as an enraged, irrational mob, many thousandfold more dangerous to American lives and well-being than the police it preeningly denounces.
The Limits of Self-Delusion
The hopefulness in all this may be only a glimmer. The capacity for self-delusion on the part of well-meaning white progressives is undeniably impressive, as is illustrated in the New York Times’s astonishing interview with the Minneapolis man who, in the aftermath of the rioting, regretted his decision to call the police on a pair of black teenagers who robbed him at gunpoint. And yet the capacity for self-delusion is not infinite. Even the moral vanities and dogmas of progressive anti-racism do not completely suppress the natural concerns for security and liberty.
A case in point is left-wing Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s recent call for the Seattle City Council to investigate even more left-wing Council member Kshama Sawant for “reckless disregard of the safety of my family and children” after Sawant led a BLM protest march to the mayor’s home. Down the road from Seattle in Olympia, Washington, Mayor Cheryl Selby was a vocal supporter of BLM and the protests—until a mob came to her neighborhood and vandalized her home. “It’s like domestic terrorism,” Selby then declared. “It hurts when you’re giving so much to your community.” MSNBC reporter Andrea Mitchell, having been nearly attacked in another purported “autonomous zone” claimed by protesters near the White House, exclaimed, “Where’s the police?” Durkin decided to order police to end the so-called “CHAZ/CHOP” neighborhood usurpation after six shootings and two murders in its 24 days showed it to be a Hobbesian war zone rather than the social-justice block party its sympathizers initially imagined.
Most important of all, the woke Left’s loud professions of concern for black lives will surely move some of its more naïve sympathizers to take those professions seriously. They must then notice the sharp spike in shootings and homicides perpetrated by civilian offenders, not by the police, in the wake of the rioting, and they must find puzzling BLM’s resounding silence about the black lives lost year after year in such homicides, multitudinous in comparison with the tiny numbers taken by abusive policing.
That spike in civilian homicides—including, five days after George Floyd’s death, Chicago’s deadliest day in over 60 years—is attracting the attention of elite media on the Left, including CNN and the New York Times. Even in the present moral fog, facts remain stubborn things. Amid such outcomes, the shocking moral callousness of the Left’s absurd depolicing campaign is even now becoming evident to those on the front lines.
To hasten and solidify the return of good sense, it is necessary to drive home the point that the violence and the illiberalism currently in season are not mere excesses, products of the heat of the moment. They represent the core, not the periphery, of the “anti-racist” Left. They proceed from its vision of America.
The Real Conspiracy
For BLM and the woke Left, America is in essence a vast, murderous anti-black conspiracy. This is why they express relatively little concern over the crimes committed by civilians and far greater concern over those committed by police, just as they pay no significant attention to the high incidence of violent crime by blacks against other blacks and much greater attention to the smaller category of such crimes by whites against blacks. Their predominating interest is to spotlight not individual crimes but “systemic” ones, crimes they view as assignable to a racist criminal justice system and, more fundamentally, to a white-supremacist America.
They demand that we remember George Floyd, along with Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and others like them. But they neither note nor remember the likes of Mekhi James, Sincere Gaston, Natalia Wallace, and innumerable other young children killed by civilian assailants in Chicago. Only the former, not the latter, are useful to the cause. BLM’s apparatchiks care about black lives selectively and instrumentally, not about most of the actual black lives who are endangered daily in their own neighborhoods, because what they care about, more than actual lives, is “the revolution.”
What is this revolution? The theoretical vision that animates the riotous faction of the anti-racist Left is articulated with a measure of ambiguity in statements by BLM’s leadership and in the lead essay of the New York Times’s “1619 Project.” Each makes gestures toward moderation, which have likely contributed to the success, especially of BLM, in identifying its cause in the public mind with the mainstream cause of opposition to race-based injustice. But on closer examination, those gestures are revealed to be only the decent drapery of a radicalism profoundly at odds with American principles and with any constructive response to the problem of racial inequality.
On the the BLM website, the overarching vision is presented as a more multiculturally inclusive version of the aspirations of the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century. The movement, we read, seeks freedom and justice for blacks and for all people; it celebrates “differences and commonalities”; it aims to complete Martin Luther King, Jr.’s work in building “a beloved community.” How this state of loving community is to be achieved, or even why it is to be sought, in a society where blacks are even now “systematically and intentionally targeted for demise,” is not explained.
The clearer, fuller explanation of BLM’s programmatic aims is presented in the 2020 policy platform of the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), a network of left-wing activist organizations that includes and overlaps the BLM network. The platform contains a by-now familiar mélange of illiberalisms—black nationalism, anti-capitalism, and intersectional identity politics heading the list—all conjoined with demands for radical transformations of the criminal justice system, the education system, and the economic system. Its animating premise is that the U.S. is waging “war on black people,” subjecting them to “constant exploitation and perpetual oppression.”
The Founding Undone
This multifaceted, racially charged, radically oppositional vision is the ideological inspiration of the destructive street protests of the past decade. But before its disruptive effects are felt in the streets, they are felt in the classrooms. With the eager assistance of the NEA, BLM for the past few years has been propagating its view of America in steadily increasing numbers of public school systems across the nation. The influence of the woke Left in the nation’s schools promises only to magnify in the coming years, as the Times’s 1619 Project, aided by the Pulitzer Center, lends its own enormous resources to the effort “to reframe the country’s history.”
In the Project’s lead essay, Times editorialist and “1619” architect Nikole Hannah-Jones sometimes also professes a certain moderation, suggesting that she writes to explain and vindicate her father’s American patriotism. The thrust of her intervention in the teaching of U.S. history, she claims, is to credit blacks properly for their contributions to the end of realizing “the American creed,” as epitomized in the Declaration of Independence.
Would that it were so. Executed with due regard for the truth, the idea of fortifying patriotism among black citizens by highlighting blacks’ historical contributions to America’s preservation and perfection is all to the good. That sort of effort is in fact exemplified in Robert Woodson’s “1776 Unites” campaign. But in Ms. Hannah-Jones’s explanation of the Times’s project, the professions of patriotism prove to be self-negating, as her argument suffers from three decisive defects: it is unfaithful to historical truth; it is incoherent; and it is pernicious, both morally and politically.
The infidelities to historical truth in the 1619 lead essay, which are numerous and concern matters vital to the nation’s self-understanding, were promptly exposed by a succession of distinguished historians. The particular errors need not be revisited here; what needs emphasis is their root cause. The effort, laudable in itself, to showcase blacks’ contributions to the nation’s development is vitiated by a spirit of profound racial partisanship, moving the author to claim for blacks not simply a contribution but instead the contribution—not simply one set of important contributions but instead the singular and decisive contributions, pre-eminently or even exclusively worthy of honor.
This is the somewhat neglected dimension of the 1619 claim: the year 1619 must be identified as the birth year of the country, because that is the year America’s true saviors or redeemers arrived. We blacks, writes Ms. Hannah-Jones, are “the most American of all”; we are “this nation’s true founding fathers,” the “perfecters of this democracy.”
Partisanship is not total or radical falsehood; it is partial truth, conflated with the whole truth. Of course it is true and worthy of grateful commemoration that great black men and women have helped perfect the American republic. Ms. Hannah-Jones seems momentarily to moderate the partisanship when she states blacks are our founders only “as much” as the men “cast in alabaster in the nation’s capital.” But when she says “as much,” she really means “much more than.”
Ms. Hannah-Jones seems to conceive of honoring as a zero-sum transaction. To elevate the contributions of blacks, she feels compelled to denigrate the achievements of the white statesmen Americans have traditionally revered. In the “1619” rendering, Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues didn’t really mean “all men are created equal” when they wrote those words; the framers of the Constitution didn’t really mean to imply slavery is wrong when they referred to enslaved persons as “persons” and declared their purpose “to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity”; white abolitionists played only minor, insignificant parts in the struggle against slavery; Abraham Lincoln didn’t really mean blacks should be American citizens when he urged that they be provided education and voting rights after emancipation. To white Americans who take pride in their country for its remarkable progress in race relations, Hannah-Jones’s implicit retort is: “You didn’t build that—we did.”
Transgressions against the truth aside, this argument is incoherent. The claim, “we are the most American,” is made with obvious pride. The implicit supposition is that America—the improved, democratized, more perfect America—is something to be proud of, a country worthy of admiration and devotion. But the expression of patriotic pride that concludes the essay seems not to represent the author’s true conviction or heartfelt sentiment. It is negated by the vision of America presented in the body of the essay, where, repeating a mantra of the woke Left, Hannah-Jones asserts, “Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country.” Such racism is not only original or historical, she says, but “endemic” in America “to this day.” The upshot is that Black Americans are to feel pride in their outsized contributions to the improvement of a country that, after all their efforts, remains in the decisive respect…unimproved.
This incoherence, along with the partiality, reveals the fundamental problem with the Times’s project. In the vision informing that project, the deepest reason 1619 must be considered America’s birth year cannot be that America’s future redeemers arrived that year, because the country to this day has not been redeemed. Instead, 1619 is deemed the birth year because that is the year America acquired its identity as a polity dedicated to white supremacy or black subordination. In the end, the 1619 Project is animated by the same conviction that animates BLM and the rioters: America is and always has been a racist tyranny, and there can be no black liberation absent its radical transformation, by any means necessary. After Claremont’s Chris Flannery and Charles Kesler drew this connection between the 1619 Project and the riots, Ms. Hannah-Jones essentially confirmed their analysis, tweeting in reply, “It would be an honor”—presumably meaning, an honor to bear responsibility not only for the protests but also for the trashing of the founding that Kesler noted.
This is deeply pernicious. The 1619 Project, operating together with the BLM program as the matrix of the racial vision of the woke Left, is socially divisive on its surface and at its core. In its racialized partisanship it divides white and black Americans from each other, and in its anti-Americanism it divides people, especially the many students it bids to influence, from their country. It is utterly destructive of the spirit of civic concord upon which the preservation of our republican constitutional order depends.
Racialism Today, Racialism Tomorrow, Racialism Forever
Let us be clear, too, about just how deep the divisiveness runs. In a pair of November, 2019 tweets reacting to historians’ criticisms of her 1619 essay, Ms. Hannah-Jones’s first reflex was to dismiss them as “white historians,” after which she clarified, “there is no such thing as objective history.” It is one thing to argue that a given historian has failed to achieve objectivity or impartiality in the performance of the craft. It is altogether another to reject the very possibility of such history, and therefore to reject a priori the idea of objectivity or impartiality as an aspiration and a regulative standard. In her dismissive, racialized response to her critics, Hannah-Jones appears to take the latter position.
If we are to take this response seriously, it would mean that the 1619 account of U.S. history—indeed any actual or possible rendering of U.S. history—is merely an expression of its authors’ group-centric will to power. The telling of history would signify a central battlefield, among numerous battlefields, in a natural and never-ending struggle for power among racial identity groups.
Ms. Hannah-Jones does not quite own that implication. She professes to make a claim of justice rather than a naked assertion of power. Her reading of the country’s history can then be viewed as a variant of law-office history—a brief designed specifically to make the case for reparations for black Americans. Even so, by telling America’s history in this tendentious way, she and others who tell a similar story for similar reasons contribute mightily to the ascendancy of a perspective that entails a rejection of universal principles of justice.
This ascendant perspective is larger and far longer in the making than the views of Hannah-Jones, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ibram X. Kendi, the BLM leadership, or any other mouthpiece of the woke Left in our latest round of racial troubles. The reduction of politics in America to a struggle for power among racial identity groups is a common implication of several prominent modes of racial thinking over the past half-century.
The doctrine of multiculturalism, prevalent in the nation’s schools and universities for decades, teaches that the racial and ethnic identities of aggrieved groups are to be cultivated as goods in themselves, thus in perpetuity. The school of Critical Race Theory, an increasingly influential presence in law schools, propagates the idea that law at least in the U.S. is at bottom an assertion of power by the dominant racial group. The disparate-impact theory of racism, established for decades in federal policy and now maximized in the work of Kendi, rules out attention to non-racist causes of outcomes disadvantageous to historically aggrieved racial groups, and therefore entails a permanent commitment to race-based redistributive measures. The result of all this can only be an intensifying of racial loyalties and interracial conflicts.
In the spreading and deepening influence of these converging modes of racial thinking, we are witnessing the demolition of the moral cornerstones of the American polity, foremost including its dedication to natural rights and color-blind justice, and their replacement by a regime that elevates race over humanity. We now confront a faction that, well-meaning or not, stands for the banishment of the spirit of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass and the coronation of a transmigrated spirit of George Wallace, demanding race division today, tomorrow, and forever.
“Plainly,” Lincoln observed, the “idea of secession”—the principle of disintegration—“is the essence of anarchy.” For the 1619/BLM faction, the ruling principle is one of disintegration, not integration; of discord, not harmony; of war, not peace. If we allow it to prevail in American public life, we will have placed ourselves on a path toward either dissolution or despotism.
In the present contest, the principles of 1776 are grossly overmatched in institutional power. But as Douglass maintained in in his famous Fourth of July oration, those principles remain saving principles. They are the true principles of integration, of equal rights irrespective of color or ancestry, of constitutional republicanism, of a more perfect union. They and they alone are the moral architecture of free government. For an American conservatism worthy of the name, there is no choice but to honor its heritage as the party of 1776. For those who are confused or reticent on the Right, and for any genuine liberals remaining on the Left, let this serve to clarify the alternatives.