No political topic can turn friends into strangers and strangers into enemies as predictably, swiftly and decisively as that of race in America.
A recent conversation with friends went sour after I asserted that racism itself can’t explain the persistence of racial inequality in the country. The psychological and moral tone of the conversation shifted tectonically and we became awkwardly conscious of the optics of discussing this issue as three white males ensconced in relative comfort and security. What followed was a prolonged ear-beating about the continuing prevalence of racism and white privilege. I had to convince people whom I’ve known for most of my life that I wasn’t a racist or unconsciously supported a system of racial inequality.
It all felt so rehearsed, impersonal and surreal, as though we were each acting out our prescribed roles in a larger drama that had been determined by the momentum of history. In this tragicomedy, I was the bad white who didn’t understand racism and my friends were the good whites putting me in touch with the latent knowledge of my unearned advantages in life. Stranger still, it felt as though each of us were more preoccupied with staving off the underlying moral terror of being associated with the evils of historical oppression, than debating an important political issue. But how can any progress be made on the racial front when close friends, in private, can’t even bring themselves to discuss the issues openly without censoring each other for perceived transgressions?
This anecdote speaks to the theatricality of racial discourse in America and the interpersonal contortions compelled by the prevailing narrative on race.
The Prevailing Narrative
This narrative goes as follows. Race is an invention of the west, constructed to vindicate the economic exploitation of nonwhite groups; the cultural phenomenon of racism is the inevitable outgrowth of this invention, designed to justify the elevated social status of white populations. Although the civil rights revolution brought about some noteworthy changes, racism lives on in tropes, stereotypes, stigmas and implicit associations, manifested in social policy. In addition to the intergenerational injustices of slavery and Jim Crow, these forces wholly explain present inequalities that appear as racial disparities of outcome.
The logic suggests that, if not for the subjugation of nonwhite groups, there would be no America to speak of. All the nation’s wealth and power—of which whites have been the foremost beneficiaries—was the result of the exploitation of people of color. And if white privilege is a direct historical consequence of minority disadvantage, it is incumbent on whites to come to terms with the costs of their historic privilege, take greater responsibility for racial inequity and set about dismantling systemic racism by extracting racist people and ideas from our institutions and expanding the concept of racism to encompass a wider scope of offenses. When there is basic parity between blacks and whites on various socioeconomic metrics, we will finally have taken account of our original sin, exorcised the source of our collective guilt and can move on to other issues.
There is a certain internal coherence to this narrative. It includes a diagnosis of the problem (historical racism and its present implications), a methodology to fix it (acknowledging privilege/oppression and offsetting bias) and a terminus at which point it will be resolved (racial equity). It is crucial to understand why so many people feel compelled by these ideas and can identify with the moral vision guiding them. Bringing the unconscious elements of this narrative to light may help tame its excesses.
The Alternative Narrative
A number of commentators and analysts, many of them black and well to the left of center, have noted the fallacies, inconsistencies, hyperboles and discrepancies embedded within this story.
Thomas Sowell has argued that disparities between ethnic groups are the norm rather than the exception, and that the need to explain racial disparities in terms of justice, rather than as a result of underlying social conditions, is a misguided attempt to create a nonexistent order from the chaos of the cosmos. Coleman Hughes has expanded Sowell’s work on the disparity fallacy by arguing in favor of cultural explanations for present inequalities, which allow for greater black autonomy, and against the left’s stubborn unwillingness to acknowledge racial progress. John McWhorter has long argued that anti-racism has become a secular church bearing all of the motifs of religious faith—atonement, heresy, original sin, judgment day, sainthood—encouraging a cult of victimhood, which discourages blacks from meeting their true potential. Glenn Loury has discussed the chasm between elite intellectual rhetoric about race and the lived experience of poor blacks in crime-ridden inner city neighborhoods. Thomas Chatterton Williams has made the case that today’s racial activism mirrors certain white supremacist beliefs by tacitly presuming that the fate of black Americans remains in the hands of all-powerful decision-making whites. And Shelby Steele has discussed the moral and psychological excesses of post-civil rights liberalism, which sacrifices national unity and colorblind principles at the altar of white guilt.
These views have shaped an alternative narrative about race in America, which emphasizes humanist ideals, individual self-determination and political pragmatism over intertemporal racial justice. In this telling, since the demise of legalized segregation in the 1960s, Americans have been incentivized to exaggerate the effects of racism in society to explain recurrent socioeconomic inequities between blacks and other groups, either to endow themselves with a sense of virtue and assuage personal insecurities or to dissociate themselves from America’s past sins and appear innocent of historical racism. This has resulted in increasing cultural polarization. By framing issues that impact Americans of all colors—although they may disproportionately harm certain groups—in strictly racial terms, we render necessary compromise anathema and muddy policy issues. Is mass incarceration a problem because it’s racist, for instance, or because the prison system is punitive, brutal and dysfunctional?
We ought to be moving toward a society in which our cultural, political and ethnic identities are less relevant to public life and Americans are socially, economically and morally better off than in the past—as opposed to a society in which racial groups are closer to enjoying a parity of opportunities and outcomes.
Responses to These Two Narratives
It is not obvious which narrative is closer to the truth. But there is an asymmetry in the ways in which media, academia and the broader culture respond to these competing visions. After Coleman Hughes’ testimony before Congress against reparations, notable Twitter users with hundreds of thousands of followers tweeted out pictures of his family and unearthed old posts intended to embarrass and discredit him. Similar responses have met most of the other writers named above.
It would be unthinkable for anything similar to happen the other way round. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ibram X Kendi, Michael Eric Dyson and other progressive analysts of race would never be no-platformed or shouted down in public—because they represent the mainstream orthodoxy and awaken many Americans’ need to distance themselves from the brutal history of slavery and Jim Crow. Those championing the counter narrative, however, are often accused of being racists, race traitors or just callous and ignorant. One side receives praise or quiet acquiescence, while the other is routinely stigmatized, anathematized and pathologized.
Yet the counter narrative has become increasingly difficult to ignore due to the widening gap between the moral proprieties of our institutions, enforced from the top down, and the lived reality of generations of Americans emerging from the bottom up—most of whom aren’t identifiably white. Whites will no longer be the majority in America by the middle of the twenty-first century; 60% of Black Americans without college degrees say that racism hasn’t harmed their chances of success in life according to various polls; several dark-skinned ethnic groups outearn white Americans by a significant margin; about 40% of Americans living in poverty are white. This all contradicts the notion that an amorphous white supremacy remains the central organizing principle of American society. Fitting these facts into a narrative of racial oppression is like wrenching a square peg into a round hole.
This disconnect creates an opportunity for far-right and/or ethnonationalist figures, who leverage the incongruities of mainstream discourse to build online audiences, to promote a grand narrative of white victimhood and encourage conspiracy theories.
The progressive narrative about race isn’t going anywhere—nor should it—but it’s sorely in need of a sanity check. We’d all have a deeper grasp of the issue if debates were to happen more openly.
The conflict of visions about race in America is not a disagreement over facts. It involves deeper questions of national and moral identity—of how we conceive of ourselves and relate to our fellow citizens. While one side contends that America will never be free of its historical legacy until we collectively acknowledge the depths of racism in the country, the other side asserts that we won’t move forward as a nation until we stop blaming each other for past sins. On one side, we have a demand for atonement, and, on the other, for forgiveness. Which is more needed at this moment in history? That’s the question each side must definitively and publicly answer.