A curious habit follows the most vocal critics of America’s evils. When discussing the pervasive and harmful racism they claim is endemic in the fabric of society, it is not an exaggeration to observe that the bulk of this evidence emanates from the well-documented past, with much greater frequency than from the present. No one disputes America’s historical horrors. America had slavery; America had Jim Crow; America practiced redlining; The KKK terrorized southern black communities. The list could be produced ad infinitum.
Though there is certainly no shortage of rallying cries, there is a remarkable dearth of hard evidence that comports with claims of persistent and systemic racism.
But what about when it comes to an honest assessment of modern times? Though there is certainly no shortage of rallying cries, there is a remarkable dearth of hard evidence that comports with claims of persistent and systemic racism. When evidence does appear, it has often been distorted, and even withheld, to fit a narrative.
It is not difficult to see why this transpires. In the absence of an honest, empirical recounting of America’s racial progress, one can only draw from previous examples. The 1619 Project, the ahistorical Pulitzer winner, is quickly becoming a central curricular piece across the nation’s schools. In this paradigm, for students to learn that America daily confronts racism, they must be shown that racism was real 400 years ago. The “1619 mindset,” as it were, is one that accepts all extinct sins as evidentiary proof of extant ones—and it saturates the discussion of race in America.
Perhaps nothing more starkly informs the narrative of systemic racism than present-day police shootings, specifically police shootings of black suspects. There is a sizable population that has lionized the likes of George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor, and Jacob Blake this year. These same people also still think Michael Brown had his hands up. Even if a police officer were found to have acted wrongly, which happens, it is another matter entirely to prove that racism itself played a prominent role.
This 1619 mindset attempts to criminalize America’s present on the basis of America’s past, and do so by selectively casting our history as racist. What it omits, however, is the large and significant part of our history that is anti-racist. The United States is first in many aspects, but one of its greatest contributions to modern life is a long-standing legacy of confronting racism and actively trying to root it out. And it’s worked: in 2020, racism isn’t the norm—being repulsed by racism is.
Why else would we be fixated on racial slurs on a midwinter Chicago night, a foreboding noose in a NASCAR garage, or a teenage burn victim? For precisely the same reason these episodes enthrall us, they are additional proof of the lack of widespread racism.
THE FALSE NARRATIVE OF SYSTEMIC RACISM IN POLICING
Black Lives Matter and Democrats often cite as proof of contemporary systemic racism the “fact” of widespread brutality and murder of innocent black men at the hands of American police. Apparently, the United States finds itself so marred by pernicious racism that the United Nations Human Rights Council was petitioned to intervene. (For the record, this is the same Human Rights Council that recently added China and Cuba.)
Faced with this evidence, then, the left is forced to manipulate language so that no matter the legal outcome of a fatal police encounter, the narrative of “police-on-black” animus can live on.
The problem with this particular claim is how it fails to withstand even the slightest bit of scrutiny. There are countless articles that debunk the theory of “police-on-black” animus. Two of the more frequently cited studies on this topic come from Harvard Professor Roland Fryer (2016) and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2019). Both reaffirm what reasonable minds have said all along: there is no evidence of police indiscriminately shooting and killing black Americans, let alone white officers doing so at higher rates. Counter to the noxious notion that black Americans are targeted for killing by police, more white Americans are killed every year—without deviation, at a rate of almost two to one—by police than are blacks. As most police are also white, this seems a fairly salient observation.
Faced with this evidence, then, the left is forced to manipulate language so that no matter the legal outcome of a fatal police encounter, the narrative of “police-on-black” animus can live on. If a police officer is charged with felony murder, as was the case for South Carolina officer Michael Slager in the 2015 killing of Walter Scott, and Florida officer Nouman Raja in the killing of Corey Jones the same year, the left nevertheless points to each shooting as further proof that cops are hunting blacks. A pastor for the Scott family declared: “Walter’s death was motivated by racial discrimination. You’ve got to hate somebody to shoot them in the back.” Insofar as he was quoted at length, no mention appears of his satisfaction with the guilty verdict. Similarly, a representative for the Jones family made sure to equivocate on the issue.
If a police officer is not charged with felony murder, recently exemplified in Louisville with Attorney General Daniel Cameron deciding not to pursue a case against the officers involved in Breonna Taylor’s death, then the left not only says cops are hunting black Americans, but goes a step further by declaring that the whole system is failing blacks, too. All of this, despite the overwhelming evidence laid out by a black Attorney General, no less. Despite repeatedly being told that the officers didn’t knock, that she was asleep, that the police shot first, and that she was murdered in cold blood, all of the evidence contradicted everything.
So, since the left can’t win the battle of narratives based on its paucity of actual sanctioned violence, it must therefore turn to undisputable historical facts. From there, it just needs to make the argument that proof of racism in the past is sufficient enough to indict in the present. (A statute of limitations need not apply.)
USING PERSONAL ANECDOTES TO CONSTRUCT A LARGER NARRATIVE
A few examples from online media make the case that, when in doubt, it is more effective for proponents of the 1619 mindset to lean on old, personalized sins that can provide cover for declared, but non-existent, ones. In an op-ed published on September 15th in USA Today, a black professor from South College of Texas Law, Njeri Rutledge, decided to share with the world how she woke up from not being “woke enough” to the so-called realities of race in America.
“Have I ever personally experienced racism? Every. Single. Day.”
She refers to there simply being a generic presence of racism: “I make the daily decision to either call out and challenge the routine subtle racism I experience… or ignore the racial cuts.” She continues: “Have I ever personally experienced racism? Every. Single. Day.” Explicit examples, however, are never proffered or alluded to; as the reader, we must take her at her word that, in 2020, racism is everywhere.
When she does point to specifics, Professor Rutledge draws from events in her distant past—events that hold little relevance to today. “[W]hen I was only a 10-year-old playing in my front yard, I was referred to as the N-word. This was the first time but not the last. And, like WNBA superstar A’ja Wilson, I too was “uninvited” from a birthday sleepover in the fourth grade.” Being called the N-word as a ten-year-old was despicable then, and it is despicable now. (Still, though she says it was not the last time, one can’t help but wonder why she refused to provide the more current example?) As for the second incident, the author was born in 1971; this event occurred in 1981, over forty years ago. The median age of all Americans is 38.2 years of age. This means more than half of all Americans alive today were yet to be born when this event happened.
The author, who is probably a charming human being, relies too heavily on an all-too-common fallacy. In essence, as a person of color, she feels she is automatically entitled to being right. This is just one of the many shortcomings of Critical Race Theory. Professor Rutledge, by virtue of her skin color, can declare that because she experienced racism as a child, America must be racist as a whole.
It is not hard to see how this now passes for critical thinking. Just like the 1619 Project, the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) offers no shortage of race-baiting chum guised as historical instruction. In some ways, it is hard to critique the EJI. According to a biography of the organization, it “provides legal representation for prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted of crimes, poor prisoners without effective representation, and others who may have been denied a fair trial.” Noble aims aside, where its morally lofty mission ends, its political agenda begins.
Founder Bryan Stevenson has a worldview that America never really abolished slavery; it just helped it evolve to include new forms of oppression, ranging from “sharecropping, Jim Crow laws, mass incarceration, convict leasing, and lynching.” The fact that two-thirds of all sharecroppers were white, or that there are 400,000 more whites in prison than blacks, do not seem to impress Mr. Stevenson.
To be sure, it is important to remember past crimes and atrocities. It is also important to put those events in context. The EJI does not do this; instead, as the left is wont to do, it refers to past evidence of racial animus with the sole aim of stoking racial tensions in the present. Its Twitter feed is replete with reminders of past evils. No doubt there are lessons to be learned, but there is a difference between simply studying history compared to studying history and judging it with contemporary equivalence.
The Equal Justice Initiative’s Twitter feed includes daily reminders of American sins. Consider a sampling from the end of September below:
What does the EJI hope to accomplish with these messages? Consider the tweet dated September 23rd that says: “On this day in 1667, the Virginia Assembly declared baptism did not free enslaved people from bondage and ensured enslavers they could keep Black people enslaved. To overcome racial inequality, we must confront our history”? Does an event from the 17th century, over a hundred years before the actual founding of the United States as a country, now also condemn the nation as it currently exists? To the EJI, yes.
There is some subtle psychology at work in this messaging as well. In each tweet, the Equal Justice Initiative asserts that “we must confront our history.” The use of we and our connote togetherness, but the rank division that occurs through identity politics is anything but unifying. In her testimony, Professor Rutledge is both oppressed and uplifted for being black, and the whites she encounters in her life are all biased and racist. This is hardly a means of bringing disparate ethnicities and cultures together. Indeed, while the words are saying one thing, it would be more accurate to translate the we into you whites; similar to how having an honest conversation about race really means whites need to be silent and grovel for forgiveness.
The implications of racism never being a sin from which America can fully recover thus create new opportunities for endless profit and shame.
HISTORICAL SINS SHOULD NOT CONFER CONTEMPORARY GUILT
Consider Ta-Nehisi Coates’ seminal essay “The Case for Reparations,” appeared in the Atlantic in 2014, and reintroduced the concept of paying off societal debts to black Americans harmed by its racist pasts. Since then, local communities in both Illinois and North Carolina have sanctioned city dollars to atone for past harms. Most recently, the state of California expressed its wishes to repay the black community.
Coates’ piece is chock full of ancient crimes, mostly with events that took place between the 1920s and 1970s. In fact, it mentions just two episodes from the 21st century that Coates deems as racist: the segregated neighborhoods of Chicago and a Wells Fargo case from 2005 regarding predatory lending. With regard to the issue of segregation, Coates writes:
“North Lawndale is an extreme portrait of the trends that ail black Chicago. Such is the magnitude of these ailments that it can be said that blacks and whites do not inhabit the same city. The average per capita income of Chicago’s white neighborhoods is almost three times that of its black neighborhoods. When the Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson examined incarceration rates in Chicago in his 2012 book, Great American City, he found that a black neighborhood with one of the highest incarceration rates (West Garfield Park) had a rate more than 40 times as high as the white neighborhood with the highest rate (Clearing).”
Are some of the root causes of neighborhood segregation, and the differences in quality of life that Coates points out, related to past racist sins? Probably. But the problem with analyzing, say, the crime rate through a lens of only considering historical racism is that it downplays individual agency in the present. Surely Coates believes that blacks are capable of being independent actors; after all, some people rightfully lost their minds when Joe Biden said blacks were a monolith.
This kind of deduction harkens to the logic of another prominent anti-racist intellectual, Ibram X. Kendi, who declared all unequal outcomes as explicit evidence of racism (emphasis mine): “[T]he more that I talked to people about anti-racist ideas and what anti-racist ideas allow us to see, I came to realize that means that racial inequality must be the result of racial discrimination or racist policies.”
President Barack Obama, in his 2008 Father’s Day speech, shared alarming statistics about fatherless homes. He noted that blacks growing up without present fathers were “five times more likely to grow up in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of school and twenty times more likely to end up in prison.” It seems hard to confer the remnants of slavery to this, or the fact that just 17% of black students make it to their high school graduation with both parents still in the same home when the figure was around 70-80% in the late 1800s. Any claim to racial segregation as a root cause of black plight must also confront the other factors that lead to the differences in quality of life Coates highlights.
If banks don’t lend money, except to qualified borrowers, they are regarded as practicing racist lending habits. If they lend money to underqualified black Americans, they are found guilty of predatory lending practices.
The other reference Coates makes to 21st-century racism against the black community comes from a predatory lending case in 2005. “In 2005, Wells Fargo promoted a series of Wealth Building Strategies seminars … But the “wealth building” seminars were a front for wealth theft. In 2010, the Justice Department filed a discrimination suit against Wells Fargo alleging that the bank had shunted blacks into predatory loans regardless of their creditworthiness.”
That banks lent money to unqualified individuals is indeed a problem; that left-leaning organizations like the EJI repeatedly tell black Americans they are less likely to get loans is likewise a problem. Which is it? If banks don’t lend money, except to qualified borrowers, they are regarded as practicing racist lending habits. If they lend money to underqualified black Americans, they are found guilty of predatory lending practices.
Coates’ account fails to mention what happened in 1995, when then-attorney Barack Obama sued Citibank for lending money to objectively good borrowers, and, upon winning the case, caused over half of all undeserving mortgage-recipients to later lose their house to foreclosures. If Wells Fargo was a predatory lender, what was Citibank? Again, if banks are racist for not issuing loans and also racist for issuing loans, what are they supposed to do?
If someone so desired, an encyclopedic tome could be written, detailing all of America’s past harms, aggressions, and sins. There is no denying history, and in fact, no one does deny our past. The difference in perspective is that one group—the political left—seeks to meld the past with the present in a grotesque effort to assign blame and sew hateful divisions along racial lines, whereas another group— the political right—seeks to understand the past but not get stuck in old stories. There is a danger in having individuals committed to finding every microaggression inflicted by their neighbors, or organizations committed to overturning every potentially racist stone in America’s past.
For the simple fact that he does not espouse leftist politics, Clarence Thomas is never included in any conversation about blackness, and is even why he was left out of the Black History Museum. This is a nation that enables thousands of talented black men a chance to earn more money in a single athletic season than the average white family will earn over the course of a lifetime. Oprah Winfrey checks off two intersectional boxes, black and female, and has created an empire worth billions.
For as many sins that checker our past, one wonders if even larger encyclopedic volumes could be written identifying all of the good that has come out of America, especially for its minority and historically oppressed populations. That would be a book worth writing.