FROM A POLICE shooting in Queens, N.Y., to a racially charged legal battle involving the Los Angeles Fire Department, from the self-immolation of comedian Michael Richards to the failed Senate campaign of Tennessee’s Harold Ford, race is back in the news, bringing with it a batch of new and disturbing questions.
Is racism now a powerful, subterranean force in our society? Is it so subtly infused into the white American subconscious as to be both involuntary and invisible to the racist himself? A recent CNN poll tells us that 84% of blacks and 66% of whites think racism is a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem in American life. Is this true?
In attempting to answer these questions, we must acknowledge one of the most profound achievements in recent human history: the death of white supremacy. Here was an event far more world-altering than the collapse of communism, and yet, out of a truly extraordinary historical blindness, it has gone utterly unnoticed. Possibly it was an event too conspicuous to see.
Many believe that it is racist for whites to say white supremacy is dead, and that it is Uncle Tomism for blacks to say it. But it is dead nevertheless. Once a legitimate authority with dominion over all the resources and peoples of the world, it is today universally seen as one of history’s greatest evils. It is dead today because it has no authority anywhere in the world and no legitimacy out of which to impose itself. It was defeated by revolutions in the last half of the 20th century that spanned the globe from India to Algeria to the United States. It was defeated by the people who had suffered it. And even if it survives in some quarters as an idea, as a speculation, it now stigmatizes anyone associated with it to the point of ruin.
When Richards blasted forth with the “N-word” at a comedy club, his language met with universal condemnation. Today’s acts of racism play out within an American society obsessed with purging itself of racism, a society that measures its very legitimacy by its intolerance for racism. When I was growing up in the last decade of segregation, even violent acts of racism were no threat to American legitimacy. When Richards said to his hecklers, “Fifty years ago we would have hung you up by your feet,” he was longing for the days of my childhood, when blacks would fear to heckle a white comic -- a time when violence enforced a much larger pattern of black subjugation. But Richards’ hecklers only laughed at him. The difference between the two eras is the death of white supremacy.
This does not mean that racist behavior today is somehow benign. It means that today racism swims upstream in an atmosphere of ferocious intolerance. Moreover, today’s racism is no longer in concert with an overt and systematic subjugation of blacks. While racism continues to exist, it no longer stunts the lives of blacks.
Yet a belief in the ongoing power of racism is, today, an article of faith for “good” whites and “truth-telling” blacks. It is heresy for any white or black to say openly that, today, underdevelopment and broken families are vastly greater problems for blacks than racism, even though this is obviously true. The problem is that this truth blames the victim. It suggests that black progress will come more from black effort than from white goodwill -- even though white oppression caused the underdevelopment in the first place.
In other words, this truth is unfair. And when whites or blacks utter it, they are instantly identified with the unfairness rather than with the truth.So it propriety causes us to say that racism still explains black difficulty.
This explanation is also a source of power because it portrays blacks as victims. And wherever there are victims, there is justification for seeking power in their name. Thus the specter of black difficulty has been an enormous source of power for the left since the 1960s. To say racism is not the first cause of black problems is to put yourself at odds with the post-'60s left’s most enduring fount of power.
This of course means that racism in the United States has parallel lives. In one life, it is the actual instances of racism on the ground. But, in its parallel life, it is a time-honored currency of power that still trades well in the United States. Here, racism lives as faith rather than fact. It is something you believe in out of unacknowledged self-interest.
So when race gets in the news, it is hard to know whether we are dealing with fact or faith. Was the political ad that some say defeated Harold Ford in Tennessee really racist, as the NAACP suspects, or was this old civil rights group ambulance-chasing for power? Did racism motivate the police shooting in Queens? Was the recent defeat of affirmative action at the polls in Michigan an example of racism or of an insistence on fairness? As we look at such events, are we judging facts or practicing a faith?
The great mistake Americans made after the civil rights victories of the ‘60s was to allow race to become a government-approved means to power. Here was the incentive to make racism into a faith. And its subsequent life as a faith has destroyed our ability to know the reality of racism in America. Today we live in a terrible ignorance that will no doubt last until we take race out of every aspect of public life -- until we learn, as we did with religion, to separate it from the state.