Conservatives, especially white conservatives, have always been reluctant to seriously discuss the politics of race in America. From Bill Buckley’s equivocation on Jim Crow segregation and “outside agitators” in the South to more contemporary reactions to racially-motivated protests, the right has long recognized that race is its political Achilles’ heel and has sought to avoid serious conversations on the topic for decades. This response has largely become routinized: an unarmed black man (or woman) is killed under dubious pretenses; protests and civil unrest emerge; and conservative commentators excuse away instances of police brutality or institutional racism as mere blots on America’s otherwise stellar historical record. In some cases, they deny the problem of systemic racism outright and bring in unrelated critical observations about black culture. Wash, rinse, repeat.
The current crisis surrounding the murder of George Floyd is no different. The right’s measured condemnation of the circumstances surrounding Floyd’s death was quickly replaced by vociferous and indiscriminate denunciations of the protesters, many of whom admittedly engaged in acts of wanton violence. This case was particularly salient, given the widespread nature of the unrest and the idea that nefarious agents are behind it all. The specter of Antifa now looms large in the conservative blogosphere, replacing such previous actors as black super-predators and subversive Communists as the new outside agitators. Three depressingly familiar narratives can be discerned from the outrage on the right, each representing a unique rhetorical tendency within the broader conservative position on racial politics and civil disobedience.
The first conservative narrative appropriates the rhetoric of mainstream civil rights activists to be used as a bludgeon against contemporary activists. In a recent article for the conservative flagship magazine National Review, Kyle Smith chides the rioters for disturbing the public peace and damaging private property and criticizes them for “hijacking” Dr King’s teachings, arguing that the violent protesters “pervert the message of his life.” Citing Dr King’s own speeches and lectures on the merits of peaceful, nonviolent protest, Smith criticizes the millennial/Zoomer left for its alleged abandonment of King’s lofty ideals.
Aside from the paternalism and condescension embedded within the essay, the main sticking point of this particular narrative is its reliance on a halcyon past of harmonious relations between protesters and the powers-that-be. The product of a somewhat flattened history of the Civil Rights movement and the bitter tensions it evoked in the postwar era, this narrative conveys the sort of ambivalence and paternalistic caution that frustrated previous generations of activists. It is also misguided: despite King’s insistence on nonviolence, he recognized the futility of admonishing radicals and rioters while ignoring the violence perpetrated by those same political actors who were counseling restraint. As Dr. King puts it, “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.”
Indeed, the most glaring weakness of this perspective is the inconsistency with which it is applied. The most famous example of civil disobedience in recent memory was Colin Kaepernick’s famous decision to kneel during the Pledge of Allegiance. Unlike today’s aggressive activists, Kaepernick’s protest was passive and nonviolent, restricted to silently protesting the National Anthem during football games, as well as voicing his views on racial issues in a measured way to the press. Kaepernick’s protest was arguably a model of nonviolent action, both in its shrewd use of the media as well as in its insistence on non-disruptive methods of communication. Smith and his colleagues on the right claim to be staunch proponents of nonviolent protest to address police brutality, so one would think they would be staunch advocates of Colin Kaepernick.
Unfortunately, the political right was not as sympathetic to Kaepernick as one might have hoped. Conservative activists and intellectuals denounced Kaepernick for protesting racism and injustice on national television, accusing him of politicizing football and thereby ruining the national pastime by bringing up the inconvenient issue of race. Many accused him of disloyalty and disrespect for the troops, while others claimed he was a self-serving fraud, who only sought to stroke his own ego. Vice President Mike Pence publicly left a football game when Kaepernick knelt during the anthem, and Trump famously excoriated him on Twitter for “disrespect[ing] our Great American Flag.” This offers an interesting parallel with the campus left and its presumed intolerance to opposing viewpoints, suggesting that the related conflict over political correctness is less about free expression of ideas and more about which ideas ought to be silenced.
Moreover, the excuses proffered by conservatives in defense of their criticism of Kaepernick fall apart at the slightest scrutiny. Kyle Smith, for example, claimed that the persecution of African Americans was merely a “failure of our ability to live up to our ideals,” and that Kaepernick should be grateful to be living in a nation that would put up with his childish antics. Smith’s hagiographic lecture on American history resembles the deplorable excuses of an abusive spouse. The victim’s suffering may be unsightly, but it only detracts from the abuser’s list of achievements—surely we cannot throw the baby out with the bathwater? Conservatives are fond of declaring that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, so perhaps they should reflect on how cheap these lofty ideals may appear to many Americans—and, particularly, to members of those communities that have borne the brunt of American injustice.
It’s clear, given the right’s shameful treatment of Kaepernick, that they are both rhetorically and ideologically hesitant to wade through the bogs of American racism, both systemic and personal. Rather than patiently listening to the concerns of activists about criminal justice reform and urban poverty, they nitpick about their nomenclature and criticize protesters for disturbing the peace with their grandiose calls for justice and accountability. With their aversion to public tension and all-too-eager willingness to ignore and stifle discussion of injustice, Kyle Smith and his colleagues best resemble the sluggish “white moderate,” whom Dr. King argued was the chief obstacle to racial progress. If nonviolent protesters receive the same level of hate and disregard as their violent counterparts, they will have little reason to choose the difficult path of civil disobedience over the relatively easy route of violent resistance. Damned if they do and damned if they don’t, anti-racist activists might as well descend into public acts of violence, if only for the cheap adrenaline rush that comes from trashing a cop car.
The Right’s Selective Amnesia
Dmitri Solzhenitsyn takes a more interesting perspective on political violence, which ostensibly undercuts the left’s supposed justification of riots as a method of political change. Solzhenitsyn conjures up a thought experiment involving a principled (if somewhat deranged) right-wing ideologue—in this case, a pro-life supporter. Given that left-wing intellectuals and pundits are supposedly defending arson and looting as legitimate forms of political action, what is to stop our proverbial right-wing friend from shooting up an abortion clinic, or roughing up anti-war protesters who desecrate the flag?
Perhaps the first thing to note about this piece is the scapegoating of mental illness as the primary source of political violence in this country. Partly rooted in a modern trend that traces political disagreement to evolutionary psychology, this dismissal of more institutional sources of conflict ultimately essentializes political differences as inevitable, as opposed to socially determined and contingent on political and social context. Political dialogue is transformed into a shallow discussion of our immutable political differences and the need to embrace alternative viewpoints, as opposed to recognizing the conflict between different social and material interests. In the case of Solzhenitsyn’s proverbial right-wing terrorist, the real source of abortion-related violence ultimately lies in the more extreme permutations of fundamentalist Christianity and its reaction to growing secularization in American culture. Marginalized from the mainstream and unable to come to terms with social and demographic change, the radical Christian right has dedicated itself to waging a literal culture war in order to both combat secular cosmopolitanism and revitalize its own organizational health through a morally fulfilling crusade against Evil.
The historical record is replete with examples of violence employed with the purpose of defending social prerogatives. From the deplorable use of federal troops to murder striking workers to the generalized state of terror that plagued black communities under Jim Crow, American history (indeed, the history of civilization) is filled with political violence employed on a systemic scale, to achieve specific goals. The pages of the National Review itself attest to the prevalence of political violence in American culture, violence that often takes the form of hawkish foreign policy views, which see the entire world as a blank slate for America to write on at will. Solzhenitsyn ought to ponder Malcolm X’s observation about “chickens coming home to roost,” as the militarization of government policy is followed by a corresponding militarization of American civil society. In the past thirty years alone, American society has been cursed by right-wing extremism whose violence and terror rivals that inflicted by Islamist terrorists during the so-called war on terror. From the Oklahoma City bombing to the simmering anger of the far-right militia movement, the violent antics of the Bundy family, the bombings of abortion clinics and racially-motivated mass shootings, the primary agent of violence in our society has come from the extreme right, not the far left.
Zaid Jilani on Whether the Ends Justify the Means
The third, and perhaps most persuasive, narrative that pervades the political right in America with regard to racial issues is best encapsulated by the recent work of Zaid Jilani, which has featured in ThinkProgress, the Federalist, Jacobin, the Intercept and Quillette. An equal opportunity critic, Jilani has amassed considerable credibility for his journalistic integrity, and I begrudgingly acknowledge his mastery of the ideological Turing test.
Jilani adopts the disinterested demeanor of an empiricist, rather than preaching sermons against political violence or social disruption. Indeed, his is less of a conservative critique per se than an instrumental one: one can easily imagine Jilani being cited by liberal politicians in affected cities, as well as by supposedly sympathetic observers, distressed by Floyd’s murder, but unwilling to excuse the violence committed in his name. Jilani advances the plausible thesis that political violence—in particular, rioting and looting—is likely to hurt the cause its proponents claim to espouse. Citing political scholar Omar Wasow, Jilani convincingly argues that nonviolent protests have a positive effect on policy-related progress with regard to civil rights. Conversely, violent protests—such as the riots that plagued American cities after the assassination of Dr. King—ultimately push white voters and policymakers towards more punitive measures, such as mass incarceration and other tough-on-crime policies.
Not content with focusing on the purely political effects of racially motivated violence, Jilani argues that race riots irreparably harm inner city communities for decades to come, in the form of accelerated white flight, economic disinvestment and generalized urban decay. Ending his piece with a sympathetic plea to the young protesters in the streets, Jilani warns them to be cognizant of their actions and of how the radical right may reciprocate, in the pursuit of deplorable ends.
Jilani’s piece is both persuasive and rigorous in its style and structure: even a committed leftist such as myself can sympathize with his overall argument. His professed empathy for the protesters—violent and nonviolent alike—is certainly refreshing. If only Jilani’s counterparts could produce the same empathy: something they’re more than happy to do for anti-authoritarians fighting tyranny abroad, but not for their embattled counterparts seeking justice at home.
However, there are a number of flaws with Jilani’s argument, as well as with the broader fetishization of nonviolent protest as a method of achieving political change. For starters, while the violence of the 1968 riots arguably contributed to Richard Nixon’s razor-thin victory against the relatively progressive Hubert Humphrey, it is highly unlikely that that they were the decisive factor in that election. Given Nixon’s tiny margin in key states like California, which had voted Democratic in the 1964 election, other prevailing factors, such as Nixon’s illegal sabotage of the Paris Peace Talks in October, as well as the chaotic Democratic primary, can equally be blamed for the outcome. This is not to downplay the real world consequences of the 1968 race riots, only to put their effects in the context of what was surely a tumultuous year for the nation. This kind of argument also takes the agency of white voters out of the picture: we are led to assume that moderate white voters will instinctively side with politicians espousing law and order, an assumption that exculpates the mostly white electorate, in favor of blaming progressive activists, who do not generally advocate violence. This may be a realistic assumption, but it reveals the opportunism of so-called moderate voters, who see no problem with dictating the terms of their compatriots’ enfranchisement.
Moreover, it is unclear whether or not violent protests always impede progress on civil rights. Paul Heideman offers evidence to suggest that the 1968 riots increased local welfare expenditures in affected cities, belying the notion that violence automatically hurts a given community’s socioeconomic prospects: Heideman also cites the positive effect that the 1990 Poll Tax protests had, by disrupting and ultimately unseating Margaret Thatcher’s administration in Britain. The empirical evidence of the efficacy of violent protests is mixed and contradictory; in these circumstances, context is more important than moral dogma.
The injection of utilitarian concerns about the effectiveness of violent protest covers over the persistence of liberal and retrospectively conservative views on the ethical and aesthetic superiority of nonviolent protest. While mainstream preference for nonviolent protest appears commonsensical to contemporary observers, this preference is by no means universally applied. One is unlikely to find similar observations about politically motivated violence employed during other perilous moments in American history, such as the Stamp Act riots or the Boston Tea Party, neither of which are framed as the violent and provocative episodes that they were.
Furthermore, the prevailing distaste for violent protests imposes a double standard on emancipatory movements, which are subjected to state violence but are expected to refrain from responding in kind. The pundits may condemn police brutality and institutional racism, but, ultimately, this is framed as the product of a few bad apples and minimized as an example of America “failing to live up to its ideals.” Non-offending policemen or policymakers are rarely required to apologize or atone for their complicity in perpetuating injustice, the presumption being that they are well-meaning. By contrast, violence on the part of protesters is met with fierce condemnation, which lacks a similar degree of nuance: protesters are forced to denounce each and every instance of violence and actively police their movements or lose legitimacy in the eyes of the public.
It would be too much to ask the political right to abandon its positions on racism and identity politics, however distasteful they may appear to me or to my colleagues on the left. Their rhetoric suggests that they are incredibly hesitant to investigate the sources of racism in American society—perhaps because this too greatly conflicts with their fundamental principles about our nation’s political and social role in the world at large. Too wedded to their hagiographic conception of American history and its derivative ideals, conservatives are ultimately forced to condemn protest movements, wherever they emerge and however they comport themselves—unless, of course, the stated goals happen to align with their own.
But I would ask conservatives, and the American right more broadly, to imagine what it would be like to be on the receiving end of institutional injustice in this country: to have your grievances dismissed by journalists and used by comedians as cheap theater, to be held to impossibly high standards, at the risk of discrediting your entire political organization; to have to monitor every movement and action in order to avoid providing fodder for your political rivals. The political right talks a big game about freedom, personal responsibility and the proper way to protest. It would be far better for them if they would just listen.