Good Friday seems a good day to discuss this.
It is tempting for white Americans weary of being called racists to embrace this proposal by former NAACP diretor Michael Meyers. Meyers calls for “color blindness” and criticizes Obama for giving what amounts to a detailed description of racial differences that does not lead us out of the present cycle of escalating black anger and defensive white fear:
I would say that Barack Obama’s “momentous” speech on race settled on merely “explaining” so-called racial differences between blacks and whites — and in so doing amplified deep-seated racial tensions and divisions. Instead of giving us a polarizing treatise on the “black experience,” Obama should have reiterated the theme that has brought so many to his campaign: That race ain’t what it used to be in America.
Meyers concludes, “The man or woman who talks plainly about our commonality as a race of human beings, about our future as one nation indivisible, rather than about our discredited and disunited past, is, I predict, likely to finish ahead of the pack and do us a great public service.”
This “race blindness” approach certainly has some appeal, but it’s not a realistic approach. Race, like ethnicity, is a real category of human identity. Obama is correct to note that the two races see things differently, have different histories, different sensitivities, and that blacks in particular are sensitive to their former treatment as inferiors complete with legally imposed subordination.
Three Approaches to Race Relations
One possible response to our racial differences is a deepening tribalism and racial enmity, fomented by people like Jeremiah Wright who see racial reconciliation as impossible and fake and harmful to the “black community.” This substitutes one bigotry for another, along with all of the problems and conflicts such bigotry entails. As I wrote about Rwanda, “mass violence seems to be most primed to occur when a group perceives itself to be avenging an injustice or preventing impending violence against itself.”
Another possibility is Obama’s: he recognizes gains, but remains firmly planted in the tradition of government solutions based on a formula of white indebtedness and black moral exquisiteness. In this view, the “national conversation about race” will be akin to that of a confessional: whites need to ask for forgiveness, and it will be granted, so long as they acknowledge the role of their own racism and their ancestors’ white racism as the first and continuing cause of black victimization, poverty, anger, etc. Voting for him is part of the “conversation” and healing process.
Finally, there is Meyers’ proposal: the utopian ideal of color-blindness and universal identity. It’s popular on the neoconservative right and, before the rise of multiculturalism, was the driving force of many idealistic liberals. In my lifetime, it was not too uncommon to hear, mostly from liberals, that “race is only skin deep” and that we must “judge people by the ‘content of their character.’” This proposal has a certain appeal, particularly as it prioritizes social peace, justice in race relations, and our sense as Christians of the brotherhood of man. But it seems to many a painful proposal, by its nature eliminating (and cheering the elimination of) familiar sources of community and strength and identity. Consider the recent revival of interest in the Negro Leagues and historically black colleges.
The Meyers proposal is basically a liberal idea that requires deliberate forgetfulness of the past and its crimes, as well as the erasure of the valuable “pearls” that grew from those irritations, pearls like Gospel music, the blues, historically black colleges, and other early expressions of black American culture. Since these experiences and feelings are real sources of identity, demanding color-blindness is about as realistic as all of us becoming “citizens of the world.” True color-blindness would come at a high price particularly for black Americans.
Historical Black Strength and Patriotism
I do believe over a long period of time something like a genuine rapproachment between the races is possible without demanding the elimination of identity. The way out from our mutual misunderstanding can be found in our history. As I’ve said earlier this week: unlike some white conservatives, particularly traditionalist and paleoconservatives, I do not accept the view that the two races can’t get along or that inherited differences explain all of the problems of black America.
We are countrymen with a common history. Black America was once more decent and functional than it is today. Black families were more intact. Black leaders were more patriotic. Blacks talked, worshiped, acted, wrote, and thought much like other Americans. In areas where equally qualified blacks and whites worked together, such as the military, racial problems were minimal. It is worth noting that the civil rights movement recognized a change already underway by the 1950s, equally as much as the movement did anything to create the conditions of equality. Even today, blacks that follow the old formula of thrift, hard-work, focusing on education, and having a stable family life are entering and staying in the middle class.
It may be argued that this older black “patriotism” was rooted in social control by whites and the natural side effects of segregation: coalescence of upper and lower class blacks in the same neighborhoods and their solidarity in the face of white oppression. But the independent rhetoric of black intellectuals and black leaders of that time suggests otherwise. One is not required to fly the flag. An old black man does not tear up at FDR’s funeral as an incantation to ward off white racists. Most important, one does not convince more numerous, more wealthy, and more powerful whites to give up some of that power unless one has something to say that is persuasive and resonant with a common moral language borne of a common national experience and national identity.
Further, various corners of black American life were consistent with a common national identity in the past, not least the black churches. Sunday morning may be the “most segregated hour” in America, but this voluntary retreat into the familiar retreats of one’s co-ethnics is a far cry from the de jure segregation enforced by Bull Connor and German Shepards. Black churches in that past were akin to other equally “loyal” sub-cultures, such as those expressed in such varied forms as the Daughters of the Confederacy, Greek-American clubs, single sex fraternities, or Irish pubs. It is natural that people who are, in a sense, distant relatives would feel a connection and commonality, particularly in light of the very different historical pasts of white and black Americans. It’s unrealistic and also unjust to condemn these associations in the name of an unnecessary ideal of “color blindness.”
Repentance in the Life of Nations
I believe one way out leading to reconciliation and a just social peace lies in something like Solzhenitsyn’s proposal for “repentance in the life of nations.” He writes, “Nations are the wealth of mankind, its generalized personalities . . . the least among them has its own unique coloration and harbors within itself a unique facet of God’s design.”
Patriotism he describes as “an integral and persistent feeling of love for one’s homeland, with a willingness to make sacrifices for her, to share her troubles, but not to serve her unquestioningly, not to support her unjust claims, rather, to frankly assess her faults, her transgressions, and to repent for these.”
For Solzhenitsyn, the root of social solidarity comes from the collective expression of an individual virtue: everyone should humbly acknowledge their faults, but then forgive. There is no need to label a nation or a people worthy of complete destruction on account of its faults. I’m reminded of the value of repentance, even amidst horrors, when a parent apologizes for some inexplicable crime committed by their child. One can’t help but feel that family’s pain as fellow victims and see in that act the possibility of renewed social solidarity based on mutual sympathy rather than an endless cycle of revenge.
Out on a Limb
In some sense, whites have participated in this conversation since the mid-20th Century. From Bill Clinton to George Bush, JFK and Frank Sinatra, whites have been acknowledging the wrong they and their ancestors have done to black Americans. But no one is comfortable being so far out on a limb alone. The crimes of whites are easily recounted and familiar to all. They are a prime topic of study for both races from elementary school until graduation. These lessons about white crimes are decontextualized, however, both from the similar histories of non-white peoples, the history of the American past–such as the abuses of black appointees during Reconstruction–and, more important, these litanies of white crimes are separated from the serious black decline on every scale of civilization since the 1960s concomitant with the emergence of extreme anti-white racism among many blacks.
This rising hostility and social failure is symbolized by such varied events as the 1992 LA Riots and the wealthy Michelle Obama’s lack of pride in America. This alienation expresses itself not only in crime, but in a kind of coarseness of social life particularly visible in the North. Far from helping blacks, this combination of inflated moral pride and degraded social conditions leads to projection and anger at whites, who are hated for the crimes of their ancestors and are resented for their attempts to help poorer, less qualified, and less powerful blacks today.
In other words, we can’t have peace and reconciliation if we must pretend that blacks are faultless and that nothing is demanded from blacks in their relations, attitudes, and treatment of whites. But so far, no such conversation has taken place, and it can’t, so long as someone like Obama and most of the left finds the prime mover of whatever list of black faults they will acknowledge in a phantom of enduring white racism.
Solzhenitsyn has spoken of a similar conversation that needs to occur in Russia between Jews and Russians, with the hitherto unacknowledged, disproportionate Jewish participation in Soviet crimes given some treatment as a distinctly Jewish event with a moral meaning for Russian Jews as a community. Of course, in his case and ours, any deviation from the standard description of the minority group as “all victim” and the majority as “all perpetrator” requires a certain subtlety and nuance. It also meets with extreme resistance.
In his case, this very decent, sensitive, and humane man has been labeled an anti-Semite for saying these things, but it is clear from his tone that his concerns are to refound social relations on truth and humility and not to shill for a crude Russian nationalism. Unfortunately, his comprehensive work on the subject, 200 Years Together, has yet to find an English language publisher because of these unfair characterizations of his morally courageous project.
Under today’s dominant liberalism, in the realm of social relations between majority and minority, a kind of Manichaen principle reigns, because much of our present talk about race does not permit nations and communities, like people, to be a mixture of good and bad, with things to be proud of and things to be ashamed of. Black and white history are described through a Marxist lens and whites, under this view, are always and everywhere the oppressor.
For anything resembling social peace to come out of this milieau, a new approach is needed. A commitment to truth, reconciliation, and also repentance is required. But such a way out cannot be pursued if every apology will be redrafted and returned as an indictment and if every complaint about the erstwhile victims will be dismissed as a rationalization and defense of white offenses.
As it stands, there can be no talk of the fact that 600,000 whites died to end slavery, that whites lost their lives very recently so black southerners could vote, or that white institutions with no legal compulsion have extended educational and economic opportunities to people like Barack and Michelle Obama. There is certainly no talk of the trillions whites have spent on black schools, black colleges, affirmative action, and other measures designed to elevate black Americans.
In this realm of mutual distrust, whites may be inclined to downplay the horrible reality of slavery and the range of indignities that compromised Jim Crow. This temptation is particularly pronounced among conservatives, but such a defensive interpretation of the past represents a distortion, an embarrassment to people that are supposed to recognize the importance and complexity of real and truthful history.
There should be no expectation for parity and equality on the final ledger of grievance. It would be artificial–even shocking–if this were to be the final result considering the two races’ very different historical circumstances. In plain English, collectively whites have treated blacks much worse when looking to the historical record as a whole. This is a historical fact. These historical facts do not, however, define the present and the recent past, where whites have abandoned racism almost entirely and there are legitimate white grievances at black anti-social behavior. More important, legitimate white grievances may be lodged at the misguided defenses of such behavior by black leaders for cynical reasons. At the same time, looking to the future, there should be no expectation of absolute racial parity in economic and social outcomes; this too would be artificial, and such faux color blindness instead would yield (as it already has) a color obsessiveness based on an unsupportable expectation of and demand for absolute racial equality of outcome.
Regionalism and Particularity
The nation is a recent arrival. True conservatives remember the bygone age of guild, county, fiefdom, and parish. We cannot ignore that the nation is, in a sense, the last in a long chain of real attachments: self, family, neighborhood, church, state, race, political affiliation, voluntary associations, and the like. As conservatives, we are as dismayed by Procrustean globalism as we are by the move to eliminate regional differences on the national level. We believe in federalism for more than legal reasons, but also for emotional and spiritual ones: the world would be a lesser place without some distinctiveness between an Alabama and a Wisconsin and New York and California.
We have the same respect for difference regarding our nation’s various historical peoples. We know that the ties of race, ethnicity, and religion are among the strongest of sub-national attachments. There is no reason to eliminate them, so long as they are expressions of American identities under the aegis of loyalty and love of the nation and one’s countrymen.
Renewed social solidarity through repentance, like individual reconciliation, requires a combination of necessity, commitment, love, knowledge, and willingness to challenge the received wisdom, but it also requires a magnanimity that our coarsened vocabulary of race and collective wrong does not easily permit. Obama hints in his speech at the mutual misunderstandings and concerns of the two historical American races, but he falls back on a familiar and flattering narrative that puts all of the blame and all of the burden to change on whites. Such absolute power in the form of absolute black victimhood is naturally and predictably abused by small-minded men such as Jeremiah Wright.
Until Obama finds the courage in his role as black leader not only to forgive but also ask for real forgiveness for his people and their shortcomings, then there will be no reconciliation; one half of the ledger will always remain shrouded in myth, falsehood, false pride, arrogance, and dangerous declarations of black moral infallibility.