Even before the cultural upheavals following the death of George Floyd, race in America was among our most polarizing issues. According to a 2019 analysis by Pew Research, political partisanship is strongly associated with attitudes towards race: a person’s political affiliation is even more predictive of her views on race than of her racial identity itself. Among white Democrats and Republicans alone, there are massive divergences on questions concerning the prevalence of racism in modern life and the impacts of past racism on present inequalities. Seventy-eight percent of white Democrats say that the main problem is that people fail to perceive genuine racial discrimination, while a similar share of white Republicans say that seeing racial discrimination where it does not exist is a bigger issue. The left and right occupy separate realities where race issues are concerned.
This chasm has been widening. As Matthew Yglesias has pointed out in his 2019 article “The Great Awokening,” white progressives took a sharp left turn on race somewhere around the mid-2010s when social media activism first took off, and now see anti-black racism as a bigger problem than black people themselves do. Likewise, concepts such as systemic racism, reparations and white privilege have gone mainstream on the left to an unprecedented degree. Meanwhile, the right has become more explicit about its racial attitudes. The overwhelming sense that white people are under attack in the US was a major predictor of a Trump vote, and the percentage of whites who identify with their race has nearly doubled since the early 90s. The feedback loop between woke progressives and right-wing populists has been accelerating, as each side uses the other’s excesses to justify its own.
Race issues arguably lie at the root of the culture war. As Shelby Steele argues in his 2014 book Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country, it was the societal acknowledgment of racist evil at the height of the civil rights movement and the subsequent moral transformation of the culture in the 1960s that set our polarization spiral into motion. Likewise, in his book Why We’re Polarized, Ezra Klein argues that the civil rights revolution realigned the political parties into ideologically and culturally homogenous camps. Before the 60s, ideology and party were barely linked: there were significant numbers of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans and many cross-aisle coalitions. But President Lyndon Johnson’s break with the Southern Democrats after the civil rights legislation changed all that.
Ironically, addressing our historical blind spots on race, gender and sexuality ultimately led to the balkanization of American culture. Once the past was stained with racism, national identity was split between those who sought to preserve the past in spite of its sins and those who sought to purge their guilt by dissociating themselves from the past altogether. Furthermore, abolishing institutional segregation and other racist policies shifted the legal focus from individual to group rights, hence ushering in the era of identity politics.
Race is inextricably tied to political polarization in America. It should come as little surprise, then, that the country’s 2020 explosion was triggered by race issues.
The Racial Reckoning
After the video of George Floyd’s death went viral, following a string of high profile killings of black people and other racial incidents, many things happened at once. After months in lockdown, people felt restless, isolated and angry. The collective stress brought on by the pandemic was a force amplifier of this anger and the footage of America’s original sin provided the perfect focus for all that outrage.
Protesters hit the streets pretty much everywhere around the country and in many places across the globe. Instagram and other major platforms were flooded with posts in favor of Black Lives Matter, and celebrities and influencers rallied behind the cause. Support for the movement skyrocketed. Public health officials, who, in the previous months, had condemned public gatherings, suddenly encouraged mass protests, designating racism a public health issue. Statues were toppled and building and street names were changed. Virtually every major corporation, institution and media outlet pledged its allegiance to anti-racism, and campaigns to purge those unenlightened souls who challenged the prevailing narrative quickly ensued. For publishing an opinion piece by a US senator who called for military intervention to quell the riots, the op-ed editor of the New York Times, James Bennet, was hounded out of his job. A young data analyst was fired from a progressive consulting firm for retweeting a study that showed that violent protest is a bad political strategy.
The mayor of Minneapolis, Jacob Frey, was publicly shamed for not agreeing with every aspect of the Black Lives Matter platform. Calls to defund the police were considered in earnest. Evangelical Christian white police officers washed the feet of black citizens and white politicians knelt in dashikis. People texted their black friends to express sympathy and donated to black-run organizations with little knowledge of what those groups actually do. Ibram X. Kendi’s How To Be An Anti-Racist and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility shot to the top of the best-seller lists. Major media outlets downplayed the violence of the riots. And a confluence of city blocks in Seattle was occupied by protesters for months and renamed the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ). Multiple people were killed before the area was reclaimed.
Rates of violent crime and homicide have shot up, particularly among black Americans, which some have argued is the result of police being demonized for doing their jobs. The riots have been the most expensive in history, causing two billion dollars in property damage. Although the estimates are shaky, at least dozens of people have been killed—far more than the number of unarmed black Americans killed by police last year. Video after video of gratuitous violence has appeared on social media, both from protesters and police. A teenager in Kenosha shot three people with a rifle, killing two of them, allegedly in self-defense. Months after the initial protests, support for Black Lives Matter has declined. According to a recent poll, 81% of black Americans report wanting the same amount or more policing in their communities. As of yet, there have been no national policy initiatives to improve policing. Plans to defund the police in Minneapolis quickly collapsed. And, whether or not Donald Trump is reelected in November, we are more racially and politically polarized, a less stable democracy and closer to mass political violence than when the protests began.
The country has just undergone a collective manic episode, the ripple effects of which will be with us for some time. We have now fully entered the era of institutional anti-racism in which merely questioning whether something is racist is itself considered racist.
Narrative and Metanarrative
It is hard to tell what actually happened here. The narrative of white police racism and black victimization is weak. A number of studies (some of which are cited here) suggest that white police officers are no more likely to kill black suspects than those from other groups (though the assumptions underlying the most famous of these studies, by Roland Fryer, have been critiqued by Stuart Ritchie). What is certain, however, is that young black men are much more likely to encounter police, due to their higher crime rates, so it’s reasonable to expect a racial disparity in police killings. We live in a huge country with more guns than people and a disproportionate amount of gun violence—and yet fatal encounters with the police are rare. It is important for high crime communities to have better—not less—policing, especially since fewer black people die at the hands of the police than die as a result of gun violence in their own neighborhoods. If the problem were police violence per se, we’d expect an equal number of videos of white people being killed by police to go viral and generate the same level of passion, since white people are also unjustly killed by police and in higher raw numbers (a 2016 video shows a mentally ill white man named Tony Timpa dying in almost identical circumstances as George Floyd). That few seem to care whether police violence impacts members of all racial groups, is telling. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery were all killed by racism, the story goes, and their tragic deaths reveal the enduring scope of antiblack sentiment in American life. But every cultural narrative has an underlying metanarrative: every social movement has both an explicit and an implicit cause.
Explicitly, the issue is racism reflected in police violence. But this is not a big enough issue in itself to explain the rage. Only fifteen unarmed black men were killed by police in 2019. Meanwhile, over 40 million Americans lack access to good health care, a majority of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, there is a huge amount of violent crime in the country and average life expectancy has been declining largely due to a spike in overdoses and suicides. What we are seeing play out in real time is something deeper, less conscious and more symbolic: a national redemption story. By protesting police racism, activists are pushing for a new moral identity for our country, shorn of the brutal legacy of racism. The assumption that George Floyd died because of racism is a projection of our unacknowledged need for national salvation. No amount of material change could satisfy this urge, which is why the gap between the prevailing narrative and the relevant facts is so large.
White Guilt and Black Power
This metanarrative began in the 1960s when, after finally acknowledging the nation’s longstanding complicity in racism, we underwent a profound loss of moral authority. For America to justify its continuing power in the world, it couldn’t name its moral failings without somehow definitively proving that we are not like that anymore.
Hence, the adoption of a new racial politics, characterized by a psycho-cultural dynamic of white guilt and black power. Whenever the issue of race emerges in public life, white people are meant to express guilt and black people to express anger, even if they do not actually feel that way, so that white people can dissociate themselves from the stigma of racism and black people can dissociate themselves from the stigma of inferiority. The upshot of this arrangement is a hidden moral investment in the existence of racism, the continuation of which offers an endless supply of opportunities to redeem ourselves of our ugly past. The 2020 racial reckoning was an attempt to relive some of the glory of the civil rights movement. In all but the facts on the ground, these past few years have been a kind of inverse parallel of the 60s, a photonegative of the civil rights revolution without any of its attendant sacrifice or moral courage—as though our historical record player had broken in 1965 and has been replaying those events on a loop ever since.
It was only natural that the politics of white guilt and black power would transform into modern anti-racism, or what Wesley Yang refers to as the “successor ideology.” An ideology doesn’t just go away when the forces it was reacting against subside. It will keep itself alive by expanding the notion of the problem it was originally intended to address. This helps to explain why anti-racist commentators today are loath to acknowledge the gargantuan racial progress we have made since the sixties, and why activist scholars like Robin DiAngelo argue that things are worse now than they were before the sixties, because racism is more covert. This is convenient for DiAngelo, whose whole career is predicated on raising the specter of racism and selling her brand of therapeutic racialism as a corrective.
Similarly, it was only after the success of the civil rights movement that the concept of institutional racism came into being, first appearing in Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton’s 1967 book, Black Power: A Politics of Liberation. Since overt racism is now stigmatized in polite society, the argument goes, more subtle and pernicious forms of racism have been built into the very structures of society itself, and churn out unequal outcomes between racial groups whether or not there is any actual, conscious discrimination. And because white privilege is a direct consequence of black disadvantage, it is the responsibility of broader society—and white people in particular—to close these gaps. Black agency doesn’t factor into the equation.
The conceptual expansion of racism from interpersonal prejudice to an all-encompassing systemic force was necessary for anti-racism to maintain its moral leverage. But, if racism were merely systemic and not behavioral, George Floyd’s killing would not have provoked such a strong reaction. Racism is an individual behavior reflecting antipathy towards an identifiable racial Other. Extrapolating racism out to an entire system anthropomorphizes society—as though this complex structure of policies and cultural forces were a conscious superbeing. A person can be racist, but a system can’t—unless we erase the important distinction between racism and racial inequality.
The concept of systemic racism is vague. It exempts us from any responsibility for proving and combating specific instances of racial bias, since, according to this theory, racism is omnipresent and guilt is institutionalized. The concept is unfalsifiable—what would a not systemically racist society look like and is there one that can be pointed to as a model? In practice, the concept operates in Orwellian ways. Racism is thought to be both structural and behavioral, top-down and bottom-up, everywhere at once, so pervasive as to be obvious and yet so obvious as not to require evidence in any given context. The upshot is that we are powerless to change it—and that’s precisely the point.
To Ibram X. Kendi, one can only be either anti-racist or racist: “There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy. Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups.” Nor, in his view, are there relevant cultural differences, such as differences in attitudes towards education or marriage, that might engender different outcomes between groups. To be anti-racist is to support policies and ideas that level disparities between racial groups, and to be racist is simply not to support such measures or to otherwise naturalize unequal outcomes between groups. Kendi even recommends an anti-racist amendment to the constitution. To Kendi, discrimination itself is not racist, if it’s used to level disparities: “The only remedy to racist discrimination is anti-racist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.”
Leaving aside the logical circularity of this framework, in which claiming not to be a racist is itself racist, and the facts that disparities of outcome between groups are the unavoidable norm in every multi-ethnic society and that all sorts of policies that have nothing to do with race—just consider how confusing, subjective and totalitarian this vision is. It is almost as though the extent to which we are willing to deny reality is indicative of our commitment to the cause.
The expansion of the racist stigma is not a bug but a feature: to be against Black Lives Matter is to be for racism. This enables dissent to be silenced, disconfirming information to be ignored, and the moral identity underlying anti-racism to perpetuate itself indefinitely. The consciousness-raising struggle sessions are the main meal, not a side dish.
Anti-Racism and National Identity
Many people have made an analogy between modern anti-racism and religion. Anti-racism is animated by themes of original sin (white privilege), atonement (anti-racist praxis or doing the work) and the hope of salvation (coming to terms with historical racism). The analogy is apt—but would be equally true of any moral conception of ourselves. What distinguishes current anti-racism is that it is a uniquely American redemptive politics, which stands in for a national identity. This helps explain why it so often depicts the country as fundamentally, structurally oppressive and why it so often uses the language of patriotism (see the New York Times 1619 Project). This bleak vision of American society does not so much encourage patriotic nationalism, though, as provide a replacement for it. Modern anti-racism is meant to establish a sense of community and citizenship and to fill the vacuum of American moral authority left over after 60s counterculture.
Ta-Nehisi Coates has argued that reparations would represent a “national reckoning that would lead to a spiritual renewal” and “a full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences.” In her argument in favor of reparations, Nicole Hannah-Jones writes, “Citizens don’t inherit just the glory of their nation, but its wrongs too. A truly great country does not ignore or excuse its sins. It confronts them and then works to make them right. If we are to be redeemed, if we are to live up to the magnificent ideals upon which we were founded, we must do what is just.” At a moment when patriotism is at an all time low, this national redemption story is very appealing.
The biggest issue in this country is our collective inability to look at a random citizen and see her as one of our own just because of our shared Americanness. Many people long for this kind of broad connectedness. But, because many of them have already written off America as racist and evil, they regard notions of conventional civic nationalism as exclusive, ideological and reactionary. But, without a shared identity as a nation—or what Jonathan Haidt refers to as a form of “common humanity” identity politics that is framed in positive sum terms—we will break down into smaller political, ethnic or cultural tribes, and that will preclude our capacity for collective decision-making. Anti-racism is a poor replacement for national identity. Any zero-sum approach that sees its opponents as evil is unsustainable in our increasingly diverse multi-ethnic and multicultural society.
Eric Kaufmann suggests that national identity should be thought of as a menu from which we can select items in accordance with our respective tastes and dispositions. We can have multiple strands of national identity as long as they are treated symmetrically in mainstream discourse, aren’t linked to immutable traits such as race and are not ideologically exclusive. As Kaufmann writes: “There is no single, superior form of national identity … we are all glancing at it from a different angle and belonging to it in our own way.”
Transracial Cultural Nationalism
America is in need of a radical reassessment of its history with race, but the prescriptions of antiracism are too depressing to be of value and, worse, reflect the same racial essentialism and historical determinism that white supremacy once did. We need a better national metanarrative. Luckily, there is a more honest and hopeful vision—outlined by great American writer Ralph Ellison and literary critic Albert Murray.
Both Ellison and Murray argue that we must embrace our multi-ethnic, mongrel heritage and disentangle reductive notions of race from national identity and culture. America has never been exclusively white: its culture has always been heavily influenced by black American, Native American and immigrant cultures that have shaped and continue to shape the nation’s sense of self. In his masterwork on American identity, The Omni-Americans, Murray writes,
The United States is in actuality not a nation of black people and white people. It is a nation of multicolored people. There are white Americans so to speak and black Americans. But any fool can see that white people are not really white, and black people are not black. They are all interrelated one way or another. American culture, even in its most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite. It is, regardless of all the hysterical protestations otherwise, incontestably mulatto. Indeed, for all their traditional antagonisms and obvious differences, the so-called black and the so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world as much as they resemble each other.
In his excellent book of essays on America’s literary and cultural lineage, Shadow And Act, Ellison calls for a new American humanism: a transracial cultural nationalism that identifies our essential pluralism and diversity as the basis of a common American sensibility resilient and adaptable enough to unify us and deal with our central moral dilemmas around race. Ellison and Murray recognize that race—stripped of nationality, culture, ethnicity and politics—has no inherent meaning or value: “The values of my own people,” writes Ellison, “are neither ‘white’ nor ‘black,’ they are American … I see no reason why the heritage of world culture—which represents a continuum—should be confused with the notion of race.”
Transcending racial division and categorization is more important than probing our historical failures in an attempt to liberate ourselves from them. Transcending race is the best path towards unshackling ourselves from our racist history.
A Conflict of Visions
If the race issue lies at the root of political polarization, then coming up with a better long term solution will turn down the temperature of the culture war. What’s necessary is a new way of talking about race, a new racial contract that is not stuck in the past at the expense of the present and that doesn’t confuse race with culture. This is not simply a question of how to materially address racial inequality, but of how we frame these issues altogether. At present, we are confronted by what Thomas Sowell has called “a conflict of visions.”
The lodestar of the anti-racist left is a society with approximately equal outcomes between different racial groups on various socio-economic metrics. But disparate outcomes will persist well into the future (the list of average household incomes among different ethnic groups should make that clear). Nor are disparities inherently a negative thing—it doesn’t bother me as a white Jewish person that Indian-Americans make more money on average than my group does. What matters is that we help those in need regardless of their ancestry.
The alternative, post-racial vision aspires towards a society in which one’s racial identity is about as socially meaningful as one’s hair color, and in which inequalities can be diagnosed without using race as a shorthand. Both this vision and the antiracist one are oriented toward a world in which racial identity is not predictive of life outcomes. But they have very different ideas about how to get there and how close we are to realizing that vision right now. While the anti-racist vision sees fighting racism and agitating on behalf of historically marginalized groups as the central vehicle of change, under the assumption that we still live in a country plagued by white supremacy, the post-racial vision sets out to mitigate racial and political tribalism by appealing to a broad humanist impulse under the assumption that we have already made a great deal of progress and can only continue to do so by inculcating universalist principles and focusing on cultural development.
The anti-racist vision has come into cultural power in a whole new way over the past few months. But its reliance on the stigma of historical shame and intergenerational collective guilt makes this ideology incapable of solving the major problems that most Americans face in our increasingly technologized and globalized information economy. It is better at stoking grievances over past wrongs than engaging with the present in all its complexity and ambiguity. We need a new racial politics—a non-racial politics—that can appreciate the realities of historical oppression yet refuse to create a moral identity out of them. It is not 1965 anymore. Our problems are very different than they once were. It’s time to let go of our obsession with history and finally achieve maturity as a nation.