The more places you can find racism, the more progressive you are.
SOMETIMES THE EASIEST TRUTHS to understand are the hardest to actually learn. “Thinking doesn’t make it so,” is one; “Just because it feels good, doesn’t mean it’s good,” is another. The failure to learn this distinction is actually the cause of liberalism, and the heart of the liberal confusion about race.
The liberal view begins with adopting a morally correct tone, which is actually easy. All it involves is taking a correct stand against evils like racism. The liberal view goes something like this: Even though it’s hard to find an actual racist standing in a school house door anymore, and even though white people won’t admit it, there’s still a lot of racism in American society, and it’s an obstacle to the progress of black citizens.” There’s a corollary to this moral posture: The more racism you think there is, and the bigger the obstacle you think it presents, the more liberal you are. One could plot the entire political spectrum using this measure alone. A centrist liberal will think there’s more racism and it’s a bigger problem than a conservative will; a leftist will believe that there’s more racism and it’s an even bigger problem than a liberal. The rule is: the more racism you can find under every bed, the more progressive you are.
And the better you feel about yourself. You are the sensitive one. You are the one who can now imagine yourself shoulder to shoulder with the civil rights soldiers of the past, who faced down police hoses in Alabama and lynch mobs in Mississippi. Finding racism, even where it may not exist, heightens the sense of one’s own virtue and links one to the heroes of the past.
But just because it feels good, doesn’t make it good. Serving one’s appetite for self-love can be a profound disservice precisely to the people one set out to help.
Suppose an athletic team with a roster of black stars is having a poor season. Suppose the coach were to explain his players’ poor performance by blaming the racism of the referees. For all the internal satisfaction he might get, in the real world he would be crippling his team by denying his players the only chance they have to improve their game, which is by holding themselves accountable for their performance. This is the conservative critique of contemporary liberalism, in a nutshell.
Even at an abstract level, there’s something wrong with the liberal view of the contemporary race problem. Every survey of public attitudes on race shows that there has been an astounding decline of racist attitudes among white Americans over the last sixty years. Paralleling these findings, there has been an equally dramatic advance in the status of black citizens over the same duration. To take one key figure: In 1940, only 1% of blacks were middle class (defined as having twice the income of the poor). The figure is now 49%. (These statistics and the opinion surveys can be found in Abigail and Stephan Thernstroms’ America in Black and White.) If that isn’t progress, what is?
But the liberal confusion over race persists. A good example is offered by a recent column written by my friend Chris Matthews, otherwise one of the most astute and tough-minded commentators around. Matthews’ column is called “White Blindness,” by which he means the blindness to black oppression induced by racist attitudes. His observations were inspired by a recent poll that showed a majority of white Americans believe that blacks have “about the same opportunities in life [as] whites have,” and that there is not a lot of discrimination against blacks remaining. Quipped Matthews, “I accept the accuracy of the survey … It’s the white people I don’t believe.”
White people lie to themselves (or to pollsters) about race, according to Matthews, because “many whites do not want to admit racial discrimination for fear it will be used to justify affirmative action.” Liberals, being more moral than other whites support affirmative action with the following logic. By holding blacks back, racism gives unfair privileges to whites. Justice requires that some privilege be redistributed to blacks to “level the playing field.” Since whites are adversely affected by affirmative action (they lose a race privilege) the unenlightened will of course oppose it. But they don’t want to appear racist, so they will deny that racism exists (or that it is a significant obstacle to black aspirations). Hence “white blindness.”