In an op-ed for The Washington Post last month entitled “For African Americans tired of U.S. hostility, Ghana is still calling,” columnist Karen Attiah discusses the trend of African Americans moving to Africa, or what she calls “black asylum from white supremacy.” Attiah, of Nigerian and Ghanian descent, declares that “leaving is the most powerful form of resistance,” and cites prominent African Americans who move to Africa to “feel mentally and spiritually free from White America’s psychic violence.” Because, you know, Africa doesn’t suffer from much violence.
I suppose one shouldn’t be surprised to read such nonsense from a writer who two years ago blamed the “lies & tears of white women” for violence against black Americans and claimed white women were “lucky” blacks were not “calling for revenge.” But Attiah’s blinkered thinking on race in America is sadly commonplace among prominent black intellectuals on the left.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, whose “1619 Project” curriculum is now taught across the United States, has claimed America was “founded … on an ideal and a lie” as a “slavocracy,” and that “anti-blackness” is “at the core of so many of our institutions and really our society itself.” Ibram X. Kendi, perhaps the most prominent black intellectual in America, has claimed that “racial discrimination is the sole cause of racial disparities in this country and in the world at large.”
It is these theories — and the often erroneous stories that reinforce them — that define much of the discourse on race in America, especially during national Juneteenth celebrations, which commemorate the effective end of slavery. But the story doesn’t have to be told this way.
There is an alternative approach to understanding (and celebrating) black life in the United States. “The State of Black America: Progress, Pitfalls, and the Promise of the Republic,” edited by emeritus professor of political philosophy at Michigan State University W.B. Allen and featuring essays from several prominent black scholars, offers a much-needed corrective to the cynical (and false) thinking peddled by people like Attiah, Hannah-Jones, and Kendi.
In Touch With Reality
In an essay entitled “Whose Fourth of July: Black Patriotism and Racial Inequality in America,” the erudite and rhetorically effective Brown University economics professor Glenn C. Loury calls for an “unabashed black patriotism” and “forthright embrace of American nationalism by black people.” One of the keys to doing so, as Loury has regularly explained, is to “keep in touch with reality.” By that, the economist means that, whatever racism still exists in America, we must not allow that to obscure the remarkable, even unprecedented success black Americans have experienced in the United States.
“Here in America,” writes Loury, “we have witnessed since the end of the Civil War the greatest transformation in the status of an enserfed people … that is to be found anywhere in world history. Some forty million strong, we have become by far the richest and most powerful population of African descent on the planet.”
He notes several important developments for blacks in the last 75 years: the development of a large middle class, the existence of black billionaires, and the influence of blacks on American culture. “Black Americans are the richest and most powerful people in large numbers of African descent on the planet. … [African Americans] have access to five times the income of a typical Nigerian.” He also argues that the success of people like Hannah-Jones and Kendi “gives the lie” to their cynical pessimism.
Bluffs and Bludgeons
“Structural racism,” says Loury, is largely a fabrication employed as a “bluff and a bludgeon.” It is a bluff in the sense that it is presented as an explanation that is not a legitimate one, and a bludgeon in that it is leveraged as a rhetorical weapon to shame and defeat one’s opponents.
An example of the bluff is the left’s obsessions with the narrative of police brutality against black victims. Yet more whites are killed by police every year, and although blacks are overrepresented in that statistic, they are far less than the majority (about one-fourth of just over 1,000 fatal shootings by police annually).
The left-wing narrative also typically elides that many of the persons killed are engaged in violent conflict with police officers, and that, as Loury notes, almost half of the 17,000 homicides in the United States every year involve black perpetrators. “For every black killed by the police, more than twenty-five other black people meet their end because of homicides committed by other blacks,” writes Loury.
The bludgeon, of course, is even easier to identify. That weapon is employed every time someone claims that this or that institution is permeated with systemic racism, or claims systemic racism explains some news event. The reaction to Will Smith slapping Chris Rock is explained by structural racism; gun rights are based on it, and the disproportionate number of black Americans killed by Covid is because of it.
These are either overly simplistic or fallacious. Although the use of this weapon is pervasive and quite damaging, Loury is hopeful: “I believe we are already beginning to see the collapse of this house of cards.”
A More Complicated History
The introductory essay by W.B. Allen and Mikael Rose Good exposes yet another problem with the “systemic” and “structural” racism narratives on the left. For, contrary to what many have been led to believe, substantial progress toward parity with whites for black Americans occurred before the civil rights movement, and during Jim Crow — quite an achievement, given what blacks were up against. Yet the sharpest drop in intergenerational economic mobility in the United States since 1965 has been among African Americans — quite counterintuitive given this was coeval with desegregation and other race-related policies like increased government subsidies for black communities, affirmative action, and busing.
What then explains the stagnation, and even decline of black fortunes in America? Allen and Good blame, in part, administrative cantonment, by which they mean the policy of the U.S. government treating blacks as separate and apart from everyone else.
Precious D. Hall and Daphne Cooper in their essay note that “on the whole, public policies have had a negative effect on African Americans, contributing significantly to a persistent state of poverty … and causing them to face unemployment, underemployment, and inadequate access to health care, housing, and education.” Stan Parker and Robert Borens in the summary of their essay note that poverty correlates strongly with family structure, that since the 1960s marriage and the traditional family dramatically deteriorated (in large part because of changes in attitudes toward religion and government), and that these changes were bolstered, accelerated, and enabled by Supreme Court decisions such as Roe v. Wade.
Ian V. Rowe in another essay observes that “overwhelming data and common sense suggest that family stability matters significantly in virtually every facet of a child’s future life.” Yet about half of black children are living in a home headed by a single parent, increasing the likelihood of all manner of negative outcomes, including failure to graduate high school, underemployment, or prison time. As Parker and Borens mourn: “It is an unfortunate historical fact that the civil rights movement coincided with the prevalence of a certain cultural arrogance which emphasized religion and pretended like the federal government could solve all social ills.”
Which Story Will We Tell?
In other words, the very same trends that have devastated all American demographics since the 1960s — the breakdown of the family, declining religious observance and attendance, failed federal social welfare programs, and increased rates of substance abuse — have hit the black community. Many of the economic and social gains patiently and diligently accumulated among multiple black generations since emancipation — which were leading them closer to parity with white Americans — stalled, or even evaporated.
A few years ago, Hannah-Jones asserted: “None of the actions we are told black people must take if they want to ‘lift themselves’ out of poverty and gain financial stability — not marrying, not getting educated, not saving more, not owning a home — can mitigate 400 years of racialized plundering.” The story told by the contributors to “The State of Black America” quite decisively repudiates Hannah-Jones’ claim and the broader racialist accounts offered by her and others like Attiah and Kendi. This Juneteenth, which story we tell ourselves, and allow to inform our imaginations, will in large part determine the future trajectory of blacks in America.