The frenzied search for one’s own racism has become a national compulsion.
The Great Manipulators
Lincoln knew how radical revisionists would try to remake America’s image.
“In the end, we cannot and shall not offer any guarantees that Black Power, if achieved, would be non-racist.” These words of Kwame Ture (aka Stokely Carmichael) and Charles V. Hamilton, proclaimed in their 1967 book, Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, gave no assurances that an America shaped by black solidarity would be free of ethnic tribalism. In fact, their forthright promotion of black identity politics reflected a conviction that American politics was fundamentally driven by race and power. Therefore, the liberation of blacks in America would only happen if they closed ranks, rejected mainstream American values and institutions, and promoted their own self-interest just as the white majority has long promoted theirs.
In his recent essay on today’s revisionists of racism, Bill Voegeli quotes a Times contributing editorialist as writing, in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, “right now cultural power is all we have.” What he calls “the power to name and shame” identifies an important aspect of the debate over who is a racist: namely, in a free society, who truly wields power? Voegeli aptly captures the double standard employed by today’s Social Justice Warriors and their patrons as they use race to turn America away from its founding principles and practices.
Abraham Lincoln well understood the means by which the revisionists would seek to redefine America. In his 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln proclaimed that “in this and like communities, public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed.” Lincoln argued that “he who moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes or pronounces decisions. He makes statutes and decisions possible or impossible to be executed.” Forget the hallowed halls of Congress. The real fight occurs in the battle for public opinion: whoever wins this battle over words, especially the definition or meaning of justice in a free society, will eventually win as a matter of law. This means opinions—and therefore the opinion-makers—loom large over the process of getting America right on the subject of race.
Racism revised to mean “prejudice + power” has implications for free speech, which is no mean aspect of American self-government. It is the engine of republicanism—the way a free people attempt to govern themselves according to reason and not emotion. As Hamilton’s Federalist No. 15 puts it: “Why has government been instituted at all? Because the passions of men will not conform to the dictates of reason and justice, without constraint.” Voegeli rightly observes that the new definition of racism has been enlisted “to delegitimize political opponents” and “shut down debate” rather than to foster genuine discussion over the principles that should inform public policy.
Related to this redefinition of racism is the rejection of the need to prove claims of racism in order to effect change. The allegation is enough, as what counts is not actual proof—which would require some semblance of evidence and an objective trial of the facts—but the mere demonstration of one’s moral outrage. If the mere denial by a white person that he is not a racist is actually proof that he is deluded (because we now “all know” that being white in America is a mark of privilege), then we have pitched the rule of law out the window. Institutional racism stands in for the actual racism of individual citizens, and therefore requires no day in court to establish guilt or innocence.
Academia, the chief culprit shaping what public intellectuals say and write, has enabled many a scholar on race to make careers out of what Ture and Hamilton outlined in Black Power. Today’s Social Justice Warriors are simply preaching from their playbook. Clever titles like Racism without Racists, The New Jim Crow, Waking Up White, and White Fragility reflect Black Power’s assertion that the new enemy of racial minorities is not the overt bigot but the implicit structures of a society long enamored with whiteness. “Institutional racism” has become the rallying cry for the disaffected when no specific violation of a law has occurred.
Of course, if the root problem is not an individual who commits a crime but a structure of authority or power, then calls for radical change or even revolution make sense. If society is rotten at its core, a change in laws is not enough to solve the problem; society itself must be uprooted. This requires not only putting the right people in power, but a drastic increase in political authority.
In the end, either racism has one definition amenable and applicable to all members of a free society, or the idea that “all men are created equal” is politically irrelevant. Sadly, in our lifetimes the dominant voices in the media, education, and culture have debased our public discourse. Americans have lost the language of the Declaration of Independence—the language of human equality, natural rights, and government by consent—and with that, they have lost faith in the rule of law and the freedom of speech.
The effects can be seen most clearly in America’s colleges and universities. When the pursuit of truth has been rejected as the fundamental aim of the university, it’s no surprise that its aim becomes power. Administrators turn to “implicit bias” training not only for employees but also their students—instead of changing minds through free debate and the operation of reason to sort right from wrong opinion. When it comes to eradicating racial prejudice, rather than trusting the classroom to change minds and shape character, universities rely on pre-instruction “orientation.” In these sessions, students are expected to absorb and parrot back what they must now believe in order for college to go well for them.
In contrast with today’s academics and mainstream media, Frederick Douglass sought to get white Americans “to trust the operation of their own principles.” Or as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it, “All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.’” If the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments required a black majority in Congress in order to pass, let alone to be ratified by the states, how secure would the rights of black Americans be? Ditto for the 1964 the Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act. How much political progress would have been made if color and not citizenship, if race and not humanity, pointed the way forward? Surely our progress had everything to do with the principle of equality taking hold over more and more Americans—most of whom were white.
If white supremacy were as pervasive and immutable as Black Power advocates claim, then none of these landmark advances in the Constitution and laws would have occurred. Rejecting the natural rights basis of civil government, as today’s social justice Left has done, leaves one only with an appeal to power. This explains why securing a political majority—whether through ordinary congressional elections or by extraordinary measures like eliminating the electoral college or packing the Supreme Court—is imperative for modern liberals.
By focusing on racism’s redefinition, Voegeli alerts us to the importance of words, especially as we try to align our political practices with our noblest professions. Unless American citizens recover a common definition of the rights (and wrongs) that constitute our civic life, race will continue to hamper our efforts to form an unum out of the pluribus that is our manifest diversity as a people. Heeding Lincoln, we must resist any attempt to turn American politics into a mere contest of wills, and thereby reclaim our political faith “that right makes might.”
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.