Several American cities and college campuses are experiencing levels of racial strife that haven’t been seen in decades. For myriad reasons, including legitimate complaints about police violence, many black Americans have come to feel disconnected, if not flat-out threatened, by our society. While it is true that progressives have cynically poured gasoline on these fires with outsized rhetoric, it is also true that conservatives have been far too dismissive of these concerns.
Too often, people of color find themselves trapped between a Left that exaggerates racism and a Right that pretends it doesn’t exist. Under these circumstances it is difficult to blame them for choosing the former. Black Americans in particular feel gaslighted by conservatives. They experience racism, they explain it to us, but instead of addressing it we tell them it is marginal, rare, and unimportant if we acknowledge its existence at all.
The result of this conservative ambivalence to racism is that we are ceding an enormous amount of ground in what should be an important and nuanced conversation. It is very much our fault that the only sides of the issue are “white privilege explains everything” and ”white privilege doesn’t exist.” The truth lies in between, in the murky waters of interpersonal relationships where baseless racism still lurks. Casting ourselves as the side that denies racism leaves the Left the entire playing field upon which to castigate the country for its iniquity. Our only response? A tin-eared refusal to accept that we have a problem.
Yes, Racism Still Exists
A few years ago, my wife and I were looking for a new apartment. My wife met with a realtor who had a place that was perfect for us, but wanted to know if I was Arab (I’m not). Turns out the landlord didn’t want to rent to Arabs, who are a growing population in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Because he lived in one of the apartments in the house, this was perfectly legal—but also obviously racist.
On many occasions in New York I have seen cab drivers pass by black men, as Al Rocker recently detailed. Just the other day, while buying a six-pack down the shore I chatted with the clerk about the hapless 76ers. He told me, “They need a white guy, you know, someone with brains.” I cringed and said something like, “I don’t think that’s the problem.”
On social media, conservatives have been quick to quibble with racist Donald Trump supporters, but not quick to address it in our pages. It’s time that we do. The Trump nativists often post horrible anti-Semitic and anti-black cartoons of a kind we thought long gone from discourse. They are not long gone. They are right here with us, and they demand rebuke.
Racism is real. It happens. It’s no good pretending it doesn’t. And it’s no good pretending that police deal with white kids the same way they deal with black kids. Irrational racist bias is still a part of our lives. It’s true that racism has a very different form than it did half a century ago. Our laws have moved towards equality, even to inequality to address historic racism, such as affirmative action. There isn’t much more the state can do to promote racial equality, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing we as Americans can do.
No, Racism Is Not the Driving Force in Our Society
The very real existence of racism in our society does not justify the Left’s contention that racism is everywhere and everything. This argument emerged with the concept that unconscious bias is the most fundamental form that racism takes in our culture. Even though, as shown above, blatant and conscious racism still exists, the Left focuses on supposed unconscious racism because it broadens the field of their agenda.
Most of us reject blatant racism, but for the Left this is not enough. The Left insists that all white people are the complicit beneficiaries of historical racism. To some degree this is true, insofar as everyone is the beneficiary or victim of history, and sometimes both. But in practice this invisible hand of racism theory offers us no practical path towards eliminating racism. We can sit quietly contemplating our advantages all day, we can listen to and accept the testimony of people of color, but it won’t make any difference.
Navel-gazing white people can confess their privilege on Facebook over and over without ever truly confronting the root cause of racism. That cause is and always has been an irrational belief that a person’s skin color defines them in any important way. Addressing that cause is off-limits to the Left because it denies their fundamental belief that people are first and foremost defined by their race. Whites are doomed to oppress whether they want to or not, blacks are doomed to be oppressed no matter what they achieve.
A racial grievance industry worth millions of dollars has grown over the past two decades. Consultants to colleges and businesses preach privilege for a paycheck. Ethnic studies departments focus more on the debilitating nature of oppression than the considerable cultural contributions of every ethnic group.
This fatalistic fantasy of perpetual prejudice is the central theme of the modern Left’s failed anti-racism efforts, because they don’t really think racism can ever be defeated. This is why they never talk about the point at which affirmative action won’t be needed. So ingrained is white supremacy, they argue, that its effects are permanent. And all institutions, be they governments or colleges, must enact permanent policies regarding racial difference.
Anti-Racism Is a Conservative Issue
The Left is happy to go on endlessly promoting policy prescriptions for racism and justifying state control of anything and everything along the way. Conservatives do not have that luxury. Racism undermines conservative ideals of individual responsibility, freedom of speech, and limited government in ways it does not with progressive ideals. The Left believes it can coerce equality on a racist population. Conservatives do not. Conservatism demands that we overcome this problem ourselves.
Implicit in the demand for limited government is a responsibility to treat people fairly. Conservatives are not anarchists. We do not eschew moral norms, we insist upon them. Any concept of conservative morality must contain the duty to treat people as they are, not as symbols or reflections of their racial caste. On that moral principle, we have not been insistent enough. But there are ways for conservatives to tackle this issue, and they hold much more promise than the tired digital privilege theory pamphlets so pervasive on our Internet feeds.
The first step is mostly symbolic. It is simply to accept the racism that exists in our society and to call it an important problem. On its own, this admission will do nothing. But it will lay the groundwork for positive approaches and assure people of color that conservatives are not blind to their concerns.
A second and vital step is for conservatives to start developing a competing anti-racism agenda. The focus of this agenda should be the irrational nature of racism, not its immorality. It should harken back to the outdated but much more successful color-blind model, which demands we treat people as individuals, not as representatives of a demographic. Our think tanks and foundations should develop curriculum around this ideal and demand equal access in education. We must demand that diversity and race in culture be treated as a conversation, not a lecture.
A third step is to re-engage with urban politics. Robert Tracinski in these pages and Kevin Williamson at National Review Online (among others) have written about how conservatives must regain a foothold in cities. These appeals dovetail directly with anti-racism. The dismal decline of American cities under perpetual Democratic control exacerbates racism enormously. It creates the conditions of crime and poverty that turn fear into racial bias.
The predicted demographic demise of the Republican Party has so far turned out to be hokum. Outreach to minorities no longer seems so essential to survival of conservative politics. But opposing and ending racism is not about political survival. It’s about creating the level playing field upon which conservatives believe everyone can succeed. It’s about reestablishing an abiding faith in the principles of democracy and the free market. Too many Americans, particularly Americans of color, have abandoned this faith.
Ours will not be an anti-racism of coercion, confession, and castigation. It will be an anti-racism of hope and an abiding belief in the dignity of man. For too long we have chosen to ignore racism. We have done so at our own peril, and that peril has been delivered upon us. It’s time to strike back. It’s time to defeat racism. And we are the only ones who can do it.