In November 2016, in the wake of Donald Trump’s election to the presidency, I wrote an article arguing that the basic American racial détente of the late twentieth century had been shattered beyond repair. At the end of the article, I wondered whether a new set of rules could be established regarding race in America. It’s been a year and a half now. So have any trends emerged in regard to this question?
Some have, but they unfortunately don’t hold a lot of promise that race relations in United States are anywhere near improving. Before addressing these new trends, it is useful to look back again at what constituted the old détente. I described it as follows:
The rules of the deal were pretty straightforward. For whites, they stated that outright racist statements and explicit appeals to white racial identity were essentially banned. Along with this, whites accepted a double standard about the appropriateness of cultural and political tribalism. For obvious and reasonable historical and economic reasons, black and brown people explicitly pursuing their own interests was viewed differently than whites doing the same thing.
The other side of the deal was that so long as white people were sufficiently punished for acts of outright racism, minority leaders and communities would be cautious with accusations of racism. The key here was that once leveled and proved, the accusation of racism was a blow most whites could not come back from. From Jimmy the Greek to Michael Richards, being labeled a racist was a black mark that did not wash off easily.
Today’s State Of Opinion
Today, basically none of this is still operable and polls show that Americans are deeply pessimistic about race relations. According to Gallup, in 2007 75 percent of whites and 55 percent of blacks said race relations were good, or somewhat good; by 2016 those numbers had fallen to 55 percent and 49 percent respectively.
Perhaps more telling are the numbers from Pew regarding whether white people in America have advantages that blacks do not have. Ninety-two percent of blacks responded that whites get a good deal or a fair amount of advantage, as opposed to not too much or not at all. Only 46 percent of whites agreed. Inside those numbers, 68 percent of blacks say whites get a great deal of advantage, a position that only 16 percent of whites and 31 percent of Hispanics agreed with.
That only 16 percent of white Americans believe they receive a great deal of advantage is extremely important, because it is basically the central claim of today’s anti-racism movement. If only 16 percent of whites (myself included) believe this is true, then we aren’t just talking about a bunch of Trump-loving deplorables, we are talking about a lot of white Democrats as well. If a new racial détente is to be established, we cannot have such disparity in how whites and blacks view the current situation.
The New Ideas
A panoply of new views about race in America vie for attention. Two jump out at me. First is what has become the entrenched style guideline in polite discourse and respectable outlets, that overt attacks on white people as a whole are not only acceptable but also often prudent. The second is that questions about innate differences between the races, specifically regarding intelligence, have become increasingly acceptable. Let’s take each in its turn.
In regard to overt attacks on white people, there is simply no question that white people, writ large, are criticized in polite discourse in ways that are not acceptable to do about any other group. In the past I’ve listed litanies of articles titled “White people (are, should, do, can’t, won’t, ought not, perpetuate, etc.).” I won’t do that here — a Google news search of “white people” suffices. Any honest person will acknowledge that white people are talked about in the media in a way no other group can be, for better or worse.
This reaches back to the old détente in two ways. First, it does fit the agreement that white people require less special protection than people of color do, a central tenet of the old détente. But it runs completely afoul of the idea that accusations of racism should be carefully and specifically employed. Instead, we hear general theories about white fragility and how white women’s tears are used as a tactic to defend white supremacy. It may be that so few white Americans believe they have a great deal of advantage because they think they are attacked for their race in ways others are not.
The second trend, the reemergence of respectable talk regarding racial IQ levels, is just as notable and just as much in conflict with the old détente. Let’s be clear, there was never any scientific consensus on IQ and race. Charles Murray, and others who suggested racial differences in IQ, were never truly proven wrong. Rather, such ideas were not often discussed because they violated the appeal to white identity, and because in practice marginal differences in IQ were judged to be widely irrelevant.
This has now changed. The Intellectual Dark Web, or whatever you want to call it, has created a cast of mostly white heroes for whom truth is all. No conversation must be off the table. They are the clear-eyed defenders of reality, and when they ope their lips let no dog bark. They are not constrained by the old détente, and if some people react to their work by becoming rabid racists, well, maybe that’s just the price of truth. But in any event, they are not responsible for it. I urge all of them to think about it and make every effort to dissuade their sometimes cult-like followers from falling for racist hokum.
The Widening Gyre
These two trends in racial discourse are not on a collision course, they are on the opposite course, one in which they and their adherents never meet. We also now have a cultural and media environment in which they never have to. Part of what contributed to the old racial détente was the fact that we all consumed the same news and entertainment. The limited number of media options contributed to a shared sense of reality. That’s gone.
In its place is a mediated world in which we can hold snug in our corners and never confront the possibility that our actions and ideas should be mitigated by others’ feelings or ideas. As a result, what we have lost, most importantly, is any common sense of what a racially just and harmonious future in America would look like. Such a thing is now beyond our imagination.
The Contradictions Of Racial Utopia
The main reason we cannot envision a racially just society is that we have contradictory and competing concepts of what it looks like. Do we think that integrated neighborhoods are a part of it? Yes! Do we also think that Harlem and Bed Stuy should remain strong centers of black culture? Yes! Well, you can’t have both.
Do we think that a racially just America would see less disparity in income and achievement? We likely do. But then we must ask: Should society compensate for cultural advantages in order to create a more equal distribution of resources? There it becomes tricky. If Asians are only 13 percent of New York City’s population but take more than 50 percent of the spots in its elite public high schools that by law can only admit on the basis of test scores, should we change that law?
No right-minded person believes Asians are so far and away innately intellectually superior as to explain this disparity. So the difference must be rooted in culture. This being the case, how do we deal with it? Do we punish Asian children of immigrant parents whose relationship to the evils of white supremacy is tenuous at best? Do we manufacture and enforce equality, or create the circumstances under which it can flourish?
The very sad state of affairs right now is that America is absolutely nowhere near establishing widely shared norms regarding race. In fact, it doesn’t even seem that most white people and black people are engaged in the same conversation. Meanwhile, other ethnic groups, including black immigrants, look on from the sidelines seeing little but dysfunction.
A year and a half after an election that made clear the old rules about race have gone out the window, we are nowhere near creating new ones. This vacuum is hosting a lot of dangerous ideas. I’d like to suggest a new and better path forward, and I’ll keep working on one. But just at the moment, there seems little reason for optimism.