by Roger Kimball
For the last couple of months, your inbox, like mine, has been awash in nauseating communiqués from every school, club, or business you had carelessly entrusted with your email address. “Stay safe,” they urged – and stay home. A great plague is upon the land, and we must all respond with displays of ritual purification and groveling obedience. Shows of obedience were critical, as was the virtue-signaling that accompanied them. People were shamed for appearing in public without a mask or for walking too close to other people. The whole thing was an extraordinary display of communal insanity.
Suddenly, almost overnight, those communiqués vanished, replaced by others, no less nauseating. There are new items on the menu of virtue-signaling and ritual abasement. Now the theme is not a novel respiratory virus, but a spiritual virus: the virus of supposed “systemic” or “institutional” “racism” and police brutality.
A day or two ago Uber emailed me to announce that it “stands with the Black community” – how nice for them – and that it deplores “institutional racism, and the police violence it gives rise to.” The Yale Club of New York let it be known that it “unequivocally condemns racism, violence, and social injustice in our society.” Unequivocally! Meanwhile, the Harvard Club chimed in about its “broken” heart because of “racism, injustice, and violence.” Many politicians have signed up for this chorus, taking their cue from Minnesota Governor Tim Walz who decried the “stain . . . of fundamental, institutional racism.”
As all the world knows, the catalyst for this emetic display of meaningless verbiage was the unfortunate death of George Floyd, a black man and career criminal, who expired while being arrested by the police in Minneapolis. Much obloquy – to say nothing of a second-degree murder charge – has been directed at Officer Derek Chauvin, one of four police officers involved with the arrest, for his rough restraint of Floyd. Chauvin, who is white, pinned a handcuffed Floyd to the ground, kneeling on his neck. Was that what killed Floyd? Maybe. But maybe he died because his serious heart condition was fatally aggravated by the Fentanyl and methamphetamine he had ingested.
In any event, the death of Floyd, excruciatingly captured by an amateur video that went viral, was the spark that excited not only the explosion of hand-wringing about supposed “systemic racism” among the police and in American society at large, but also the nationwide wave of protests, violent riots, and even calls to defund or disband the police.
As I have noted elsewhere, the destructive mob riots are not race riots. Rather, they are an attack on civilization itself. In essence, they are a reprise of the antinomian radicalism that swept the country in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with Antifa and Black Lives Matter standing in for the SDS, the Weather Underground, and the Black Panthers.
Now as then, histrionic rhetoric ran far ahead of reality. America was not a racist country in 1968. Nor is it one now. As Heather Mac Donald has shown, the charge that the police are guilty of “systemic racism” is a divisive myth. In 2018, Blacks were responsible for 53 percent of the homicides and 60 percent of the robberies in the United States, though they represent only 13 percent of the population. “Police shootings,” Mac Donald observed, “are not the reason that blacks die of homicide at eight times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined; criminal violence is.”
How it is that racism got installed as the crime of crimes is a deep question which is unanswerable not least because we cannot even pose it seriously as a question . . .
But reality counts for little in the disorienting echo chamber of political correctness. In those surreal environs, “race” is simultaneously merely a “social construction” but also, when politically convenient, an inescapable and essential reality. “Racial equality” is demanded even as “whiteness” is declared an irredeemably existential liability. Which is it, equality or a new race-based hierarchy?
It is worth stepping back to ask what is it about the term “racism” that silences conversation and sends an anticipatory shudder of delight down the spines of politically correct vigilantes of virtue. Like the word “heretic” in an earlier age, “racism” is more weapon than word. Its primary effect is not to describe but to intimidate, ostracize, and silence. What semantic significance it may command is overshadowed by its use as a negative epithet. Once successfully applied to a person or practice, a sort of secular damnation, or at least excommunication, ensues. Seldom is there any appeal, let alone absolution. Those who blaspheme against the Holy Spirit, said St. Mark, cannot be forgiven. Racism is the eternal, the unforgivable, sin of our age. It is our summum malum. Those successfully accused of racism are beyond the pale, cast out into the place of fletus et stridor dentium. Exactly why this should be takes us into deep waters. I do not pretend to have the answer.
This much is clear, however: The deployment of power always attracts acolytes and entrepreneurs. So it is no surprise that a thriving cottage industry has grown up around accusations of racism. We might call the resulting enterprise “Racism, Inc.” There is no shortage of workers on that assembly line. On college campuses (but not only on college campuses, as a look at our city streets these last weeks remind us), the bludgeon of “racism” is a popular and effective instrument of moral one-upmanship and social control, not to mention intellectual conformity and economic blackmail.
A full exploration of this phenomenon would fill a book, maybe several. A diligent student might start by drawing on Norman Cohn’s analysis, in The Pursuit of the Millennium, of collective madness, especially the shared conviction of spiritual election and higher virtue, in various medieval heresies.
Given the prominence of “racism” in today’s lexicon of moral opprobrium, it is curious that the word itself is of very recent vintage. Indeed, it is a neologism so recent that it does not appear in the 1971 Oxford English Dictionary. The Supplement to my edition of the OED (printed in 1961) introduces “racialism” – the “tendency to racial feeling; antagonism between different races of men” – but fails to provide an equivalent of our multipurpose imprecation “racism.” (A later edition managed to turn up an instance of the word from the early 1930s.) Perhaps that fact is itself evidence of a particularly insidious form of racism – all the more insidious because unacknowledged.
Or perhaps that fact, along with the recentness of the word in any currency, suggests that there is something artificial, manufactured, or even cynically manipulative about the tort it describes. Doubtless, there are spokesmen for both alternatives.
Another oddity: Racism, Inc. manufactures only one-way ratchets. That is to say, “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” I well remember a bulletin from a professor at Texas Christian University:
At the beginning of the semester, I usually like to invite all my white students to get together and discuss the challenges they may face. . . . However, the time slipped by and I didn’t get a chance. So, I would like to ask if you are interested in a get together on Monday afternoon. We can also discuss the exam that is coming up. I don’t mind if this would turn out to be a study session for my WHITE STUDENTS ONLY.
Are you outraged and disgusted by this blatantly racist invitation? Of course, you are. Though given that it issued from an institution with the words “Texas” and “Christian” in its name, perhaps you are not surprised. What else can you expect from so tainted a source?
Except, that is not exactly how the bulletin read. The professor really did offer an invitation to some, and only some, of his students, and the invitation was race-based. But the original email extended the invitation not to white students, but to “STUDENTS OF COLOR ONLY.” Do you find that your feelings of outrage and disgust are noticeably diminished? Are you busy searching for an explanation, an extenuation, an excuse? Just asking.
Back in 1970, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, then serving as a domestic advisor to President Nixon, wrote a memorandum about race relations in the United States. “[A] great deal of the crime, the fire setting, the rampant school violence, and other such phenomenon in the black community have become quasi politicized,” Moynihan noted. “Hatred – revenge – against whites is now an acceptable excuse for doing what might have been done anyway.” Noting the great economic and social strides that blacks had made in recent decades, Moynihan suggested that:
The time may have come when the issue of race could benefit from a period of “benign neglect.” The subject has been too much talked about. The forum has been too much taken over to hysterics, paranoids, and boodlers on all sides. We may need a period in which Negro progress continues and racial rhetoric fades. The administration can help bring this about by paying close attention to such progress—as we are doing—while seeking to avoid situations in which extremists of either race are given opportunities for martyrdom, heroics, histrionics or whatever.
Moynihan was a liberal who came to despair of what had become of liberalism. Much to his chagrin, the gargantuan – and gargantuanly expensive – social programs enacted to end poverty and lift blacks into the middle class and self-sufficiency had backfired by creating an enormous apparatus of government dependency.
As James Q. Wilson observed, the War on Poverty did not end poverty, it institutionalized it by providing incentives for infantilization. Commenting on Moynihan’s legacy, the social critic Fred Siegel noted that Moynihan’s advocacy of liberal openness “was blocked by an architecture of indignation built not on evidence, as Moynihan understood it, but rather on what Shelby Steele calls ‘poetic truths,’ which insist, among other things, on the persistence of racial repression. The new shape-shifting structures of micro-oppression (and microaggression) guarantee explanations for why blacks are still held back by white subjugation, even as the symbols of that oppression – such as ‘hands up, don’t shoot’ – have to be manufactured out of whole cloth.”
How it is that racism got installed as the crime of crimes is a deep question which is unanswerable not least because we cannot even pose it seriously as a question, at least not in any of those institutions supposedly devoted to ferreting out the truth. Nevertheless, the noxious activities of Racism, Inc.—from the shake-down tactics of Black Lives Matter and Antifa to the academic sport of manufacturing racist incidents on campus—remind us of a profound observation made by the philosopher Sidney Hook.
“As morally offensive as is the expression of racism wherever it is found,” Hook wrote:
a false charge of racism is equally offensive, perhaps even more so, because the consequences of a false charge of racism enable an authentic racist to conceal his racism by exploiting the loose way the term is used to cover up his actions. The same is true of a false charge of sexism or anti-Semitism. This is the lesson we should all have learned from the days of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Because of his false and irresponsible charges of communism against liberals, socialists, and others among his critics, many communists and agents of communist influence sought to pass themselves off as Jeffersonian democrats or merely idealistic tenured radicals reformers.
Hook wrote that several decades ago. We have yet to catch up to it.
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Roger Kimball is editor and publisher of The New Criterion and the president and publisher of Encounter Books. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Fortunes of Permanence: Culture and Anarchy in an Age of Amnesia (St. Augustine’s Press), The Rape of the Masters (Encounter), Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse (Ivan R. Dee), and Art’s Prospect: The Challenge of Tradition in an Age of Celebrity (Ivan R. Dee).