So long, Redskins. The movement sparked by the death of George Floyd has, at best, a mixed record on police reform, but it is racking up victories in the struggle against statues and problematic names. Making the police better is difficult; changing the name of a football team is an easy win.
Of course, the Redskins’ name did not trouble many American Indians, quite a few of whom took pride in it. Nor was it offensive to the many black football fans in the D.C. area who support the team. Indeed, the name was the least of the team’s problems.
Rather, the real constituency against the Redskins was in places like the Washington Post newsroom — mostly white, educated, and left-wing — and they’re just getting started. There are demands and plans to rename cities, airports, schools, other sports teams (the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League are reportedly caving), and just about anything and anyone. Some leftists want to cancel saints, and some are even attacking statues of Jesus.
Destroying Symbols Doesn’t Help Anyone
These symbolic purges of the inherited wickedness of the past will not save a single black life. They will not reduce the harassment and mistreatment that black men sometimes receive from the police, which South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott spoke movingly about while promoting his police reform bill. Democrats still killed his legislation. Perhaps they would prefer to preserve the problem so they can run on it this fall, rather than work with the GOP to address it.
Meanwhile, many local changes have consisted less of making the police better than of making them rarer. Permitting rioters to run rampant allowed mobs to inflict enormous damage, undoing decades of hard-won progress, often in minority neighborhoods. Attempts by armed militants to establish police-free “autonomous zones” ended in the murders of children. Even as the riots have (mostly) subsided, many cities are suffering from spikes in horrific violent crime.
Nor will destroying symbols and renaming stuff help close racial disparities in education, employment, and income. That would require, among other hard tasks, taking on the teachers unions that block education reform.
It would also discomfit affluent white liberals, who in theory favor education opportunities for poor minority children, but in practice spend a lot of money to ensure that their own kids attend excellent schools that poor minorities cannot afford. As the libertarian writer Megan McArdle has observed, good public schools are basically private schools that come bundled with granite countertops and hardwood floors.
From riots to cancel culture, almost nothing the left has done under the banner of Black Lives Matter will prevent another murder like Floyd’s. A cynic might conclude it’s all a con. Opportunistic (often white) grifters have cashed in by selling a toxic “anti-racism,” while political opportunists have worked to graft their pre-existing causes onto the latest movement. Corporate behemoths such as the NBA have bought some cheap PR by promoting social justice as they kowtow to a Chinese regime that runs concentration camps and uses slave labor.
Redskins Renaming Nothing More Than a Religious Ritual
No doubt some people are just mouthing social justice slogans to sell products or protect themselves from the mob, but many are sincere, even if their methods are ineffective. Iconoclasm and renaming are dumb ways of advancing police reform, but they are normal during revolutions, whether in politics or religion.
There is mix of both right now, with political activism taking on aspects of a religious revival and substituting for traditional sources of meaning. The vision of a Year Zero, in which everything begins anew, is a perennial temptation that transfers religious eschatological longing to the political realm.
This impulse motivates attempts to banish evil and remake the world through linguistic re-description, as if it were possible to atone for the sins of the world by destroying monuments and adopting new nomenclature. Wise people might sometimes rename or change what they publicly honor, but they will not do so in a sanctimonious frenzy, wantonly declaring anathemas over their entire history. This magical thinking might be especially alluring to those who make their living with words, and it explains why they are trying to confront racism and systematic inequality through symbolic gestures such as renaming sports teams.
These efforts are ineffective at their stated goals of reforming the police and establishing racial justice, but that does not mean there are no mundane consequences. They are part of a broader attempt at cultural revolution. The campus crazies of a few years ago are now out in the real world; they got real jobs and are taking over Google, The New York Times, and much more.
This is why our national dialogue (if we can call it that; it often feels more like a lecture) on racial justice has been given over to the concerns and obsessions of the educated professional class and those who aspire to it. They are skilled at taking offense and detecting the smallest of transgressions, often on behalf of others, then canceling people and things. They have no idea how to reform the police to best provide the full and equal protection of the law to poor and minority citizens.
After all the protests, riots, death, and destruction, those driving the narrative think justice for George Floyd means giving D.C. football fans the opportunity to spend $29.99 on a hat with the new team name — made by Chinese slave labor.