FROM A POLICE shooting in Queens, N.Y., to a racially charged legal battle involving the Los Angeles Fire Department, from the self-immolation of comedian Michael Richards to the failed Senate campaign of Tennessee's Harold Ford, race is back in the news, bringing with it a batch of new and disturbing questions.Steele forgets to mention the racial outcry after Hurricane Katrina. Jonathan Alter's Newsweek cover story following the catastrophe in New Orleans focused on the racial angle of poverty, looking at structural characteristics like de facto segregation and changes in welfare policy as the most important aspects explaining the persistence of a large black underclass. Did Katrina expose a fundamentally racist United States unwilling to deal effectively with the poverty of black America? Alter argues that racism was one factor making things worse. The articles does not discuss the cultural aspects of race and poverty, of course. Race becomes an easy explanatory variable for the liberal media, and as Steele notes in the L.A. Times commentary, it gives the activist left some leverage of guilt in perpetuating race-conscious social policies.
Is racism now a powerful, subterranean force in our society? Is it so subtly infused into the white American subconscious as to be both involuntary and invisible to the racist himself? A recent CNN poll tells us that 84% of blacks and 66% of whites think racism is a "very serious" or "somewhat serious" problem in American life. Is this true?
In attempting to answer these questions, we must acknowledge one of the most profound achievements in recent human history: the death of white supremacy. Here was an event far more world-altering than the collapse of communism, and yet, out of a truly extraordinary historical blindness, it has gone utterly unnoticed. Possibly it was an event too conspicuous to see.
Many believe that it is racist for whites to say white supremacy is dead, and that it is Uncle Tomism for blacks to say it. But it is dead nevertheless. Once a legitimate authority with dominion over all the resources and peoples of the world, it is today universally seen as one of history's greatest evils. It is dead today because it has no authority anywhere in the world and no legitimacy out of which to impose itself. It was defeated by revolutions in the last half of the 20th century that spanned the globe from India to Algeria to the United States. It was defeated by the people who had suffered it. And even if it survives in some quarters as an idea, as a speculation, it now stigmatizes anyone associated with it to the point of ruin....
This does not mean that racist behavior today is somehow benign. It means that today racism swims upstream in an atmosphere of ferocious intolerance. Moreover, today's racism is no longer in concert with an overt and systematic subjugation of blacks. While racism continues to exist, it no longer stunts the lives of blacks.
Yet a belief in the ongoing power of racism is, today, an article of faith for "good" whites and "truth-telling" blacks. It is heresy for any white or black to say openly that, today, underdevelopment and broken families are vastly greater problems for blacks than racism, even though this is obviously true. The problem is that this truth blames the victim. It suggests that black progress will come more from black effort than from white goodwill — even though white oppression caused the underdevelopment in the first place.
In other words, this truth is unfair. And when whites or blacks utter it, they are instantly identified with the unfairness rather than with the truth.So it propriety causes us to say that racism still explains black difficulty.
This explanation is also a source of power because it portrays blacks as victims. And wherever there are victims, there is justification for seeking power in their name. Thus the specter of black difficulty has been an enormous source of power for the left since the 1960s. To say racism is not the first cause of black problems is to put yourself at odds with the post-'60s left's most enduring fount of power....
So when race gets in the news, it is hard to know whether we are dealing with fact or faith. Was the political ad that some say defeated Harold Ford in Tennessee really racist, as the NAACP suspects, or was this old civil rights group ambulance-chasing for power? Did racism motivate the police shooting in Queens? Was the recent defeat of affirmative action at the polls in Michigan an example of racism or of an insistence on fairness? As we look at such events, are we judging facts or practicing a faith?
The great mistake Americans made after the civil rights victories of the '60s was to allow race to become a government-approved means to power. Here was the incentive to make racism into a faith. And its subsequent life as a faith has destroyed our ability to know the reality of racism in America. Today we live in a terrible ignorance that will no doubt last until we take race out of every aspect of public life — until we learn, as we did with religion, to separate it from the state.
Be sure to check out my earlier post on the New York Police shooting in Queens. I had to delete one of the comments on that post from a radical leftist blogger, who said that the I was stupid and that racist cops should be shot and killed.