In its struggle against left-liberalism, one of the conundrums faced by the Anglo-American right in all its hues is how to shake off its longstanding image as a shady coterie of often racist white men—out of touch, heartless, venal, looking out only for the rich while stomping on the marginalised. During the so-called ‘culture wars,’ the right—especially its libertarian-leaning wing—have cultivated an image of themselves as advocates of a patriotic and industrious working class sneered at by liberal elites. They also emphasise their fidelity to colour-blindness over the left’s obsession with the spectre of systemic racism and white supremacy.
Even a politically unengaged person will be aware of America’s deep, traumatic history of racism—its supposed original sin, and the pretext for a great deal of violence and atrocity directed at black Americans over the centuries. Despite the clear progress since the Civil Rights revolution, America remains to some extent a pigmentocracy: one’s so-called “race” still correlates with one’s social standing. Poverty remains to some extent colour coded. Blacks still get the short end of the stick when it comes to health, education, rates of incarceration, the quality of housing and neighbourhoods, and so on.
In the documentary The Great American Race Game, Martin Durkin, supported by a cast of “experts” including Glenn Loury, Wilfred Reilly, Kmele Foster and Walter Williams, claims that race is the “most cynical game in American history”—a game mastered above all by the Democratic Party. The film presents itself as a provocative, dissident polemic against the “woke orthodoxy.” But while it is slickly made and technically competent, The Great American Race Game is less provocative polemic than tendentious propaganda.
The Democratic Party is clearly presented as the villain. According to Durkin, the party pulled off the biggest bait-and-switch in history. It has managed to rebrand itself, having been the party of slavery and segregation (the Republicans being the party of Lincoln), “duping” black people into the idea that it was their defender. The eras and strategies may differ, but what persists is the Democrats’ use of race to bolster their political standing. Slavery and segregation, the documentary asserts, have now been replaced by liberal welfarism and identity politics.
It is true that the Democrats have a shameful history of defending racist segregation in their incarnation as the Dixiecrats of the South. It was George Wallace, the Democratic populist governor of Alabama, who tried to enlist the Ku Klux Klan to disrupt the court-ordered integration of public schools. Propaganda doesn’t have to lie; it may contain grains of truth. But at some point glaring omissions of historical truth are required if the narrative is to run smoothly.
You almost get the impression from Durkin’s film that Dwight Eisenhower ended segregation with the 1957 Civil Rights Act and the enforcement of integration during the Little Rock crisis. According to this picture, the Democrats under Lyndon Johnson, in a continuation of the Dixiecrat tradition, re-subjugated blacks by expanding welfare. In reality, however, the 1957 Act in the end failed to protect the voting rights of black people. It was the 1964 Civil Rights Act signed by Johnson that ended Jim Crow, ultimately restoring full citizenship rights to blacks. Of course, this moment is omitted from the historical overview offered in the film. Also missing is any reference to the Republicans’ “Southern strategy” of the 1970s, crafted to win over disillusioned Democratic voters in the South by appealing to anti-black prejudice. Johnson’s bigoted statements are given emphasis; but Ronald Reagan’s advocacy of “state’s rights”—which apparently played no role in winning over white voters to the Republican Party in the wake of the Civil Rights era—fails to make an appearance. Unsurprisingly, Reagan is presented as a hero and prophet of self-reliance against the dependency inculcated by welfare.
It is also striking that, just as Durkin charges the Democrats with using the politics of race to smear the working class, the film cuts to a stereotypical diner in small-town America containing only white patrons. This is a fleeting image, but leaves a clear subliminal impression.
When it comes to the condition of the black community, the film offers a unanimous argument from black conservatives. In the past, blacks understood the dignity of work. They built their own schools, saved and owned their own homes and businesses, building up their own universities and colleges to satisfy their thirst for education. Of course, much of this was forced upon them by their racist exclusion from mainstream society and institutions. Moreover, an overwhelming majority of blacks entered into faithful marriages, rarely divorced, and raised male-led nuclear families with a discipline inspired by the moral foundation of Christianity. Babies were rarely born out of wedlock because of social stigma and the risk of ostracisation. Elders were respected and communal solidarity was strong.
Ever since the expansion of welfare and the Great Society programme in the 1960s, however, the black community has endured what Glenn Loury calls a “moral catastrophe.” Offering the prospect of easy money and access to resources, liberal welfarism altered the behaviour and habits of black people. They became less prudent and more workshy. Families and communities disintegrated. Big government “replaced the male breadwinner” in the black family, incentivising out-of-wedlock births. As a result, the number of teen pregnancies spiralled upwards. Households led by single mothers became a booming phenomenon. Kids came to be left unsupervised, existing in an “urban jungle,” where they became subject to a game defined by the survival of the toughest.
Without male authority figures to cultivate masculine virtues, these young men and boys are left to develop masculine vices in their worst forms: violence, aggression, curtness and ultra-virility furnish their model of manhood. They don’t respect authority and have little enthusiasm for education or professional advancement. Thus, across generations, poor blacks are chronically ill-educated, inarticulate, innumerate and prone to criminality. A void was thus created that came to be filled by crime and gangsterism. Drug dealing has become a popular occupation for those who are unable to secure a proper job—hence the streets have become increasingly dangerous as rates of violent crime including murder have soared.
The film draws a sharp, categorical contrast between the past, when blacks were more or less self-reliant, law-abiding and morally Christian, and a present defined by the moral degeneration inaugurated in the 1960s. But, in fact, complaints about moral degeneracy in the black community have a long pedigree, certainly reaching back before the 1960s. In the summer of 1957, a young Baptist preacher in the Jim Crow South issued a series of sermons calling for “Negroes” to improve their “personal standards.” He denounced the ignorance, laziness, promiscuity, criminality, drunkenness and immorality of blacks. From the pulpit, he howled in protest against the vulgar, covetous mentality of even professional blacks who were more interested in acquiring the flashiest car than in spiritual nourishment or professional advancement. Blacks, he felt, were “thinking about sex” every time they walked down the street; indeed, to show they were fit for integration, he insisted, they had to prove to white people that this wasn’t the case. They didn’t read enough. They had no work ethic. They were too violent. They didn’t dress right. They didn’t speak properly. They were slovenly. And their music, which was rapidly becoming anthemic for millions of American youth, “plunges men’s minds into degrading and immoral depth.” The preacher’s name was Martin Luther King Jr.
Durkin accuses progressives of using race as a one-size-fits-all explanation for every social problem afflicting America. But the same could be said of Durkin’s obsessive focus on welfare as the proximate cause of violence in black communities. Other factors, such as the war on drugs, don’t get a look-in when it comes to explaining the perpetuation of violence and gangsterism. Neither does the structural inequality embodied in the dilapidated housing and inadequate schools so many poor black communities endure.
Nevertheless, one of the film’s strengths is that it does demonstrate what ought to be a truism: that black people, just like any other “community,” have a variety of political and moral standpoints. Only a small minority of black people are down with defunding—let alone abolishing—the police. Certainly, police reform is seen by many as an urgent necessity, but many would prefer a higher police presence in their neighbourhoods to respond to the crime and gangsterism they are often afflicted by. It is often forgotten that the notorious 1994 crime bill that accelerated mass incarceration, passed under Bill Clinton’s Democratic administration, was pushed by black leaders, especially in the church, who felt it was the best way to get a grip on crime in their communities.
Indeed, Durkin isn’t wrong when he says that, though blacks vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, there is a degree of tension between the values of many blacks and those of secular progressives, such as transgender rights, gay marriage and access to abortion. This should be no surprise, as large segments of the black community are “God-fearing” Christians who adhere to socially conservative values, deriving many of their beliefs about what is “right” and “natural” from the Bible. Of course, this doesn’t mean such beliefs are right—but it does sharply demonstrate the necessity of real politics, in which conflicting ideologies clash with one another, rather than identity politics, which treats people as members of racial or ethnic silos, as opposed to citizens of the United States.
Contemporary progressivism is clearly responsible for a great deal of myopic racialist nonsense. “Cultural appropriation” is an incoherent and reactionary notion. Likewise, racism clearly is not the reason for every problem affecting black people. In fact, as I have written in relation to knife crime in the UK, moral poverty should be addressed, along with the nihilistic, lumpen attitudes that accompany it. I detest the notion that race has such god-like power that it must inevitably prevent blacks from having normal relationships with whites, or anybody else. Indeed, as Durkin rightly points out, on an everyday level most people don’t care about race and generally get along fine, as the proliferation of interracial relationships shows.
Still, Durkin’s solutions leave a lot to be desired. He seems to imagine all that is required in order for blacks to rediscover the enterprising spirit they once displayed is an end to welfarism—combined with an abandonment of liberal elite prejudices against consumerism and concerns about climate change. Bevelyn Beatty, a mercurial evangelical activist, has a starring role in the film. In the Q&A session at its premiere, Beatty called for black people, knee-deep in sin, to go back to their “first love”: Jesus Christ. Obviously, this view fails to register the tensions between consumerism and Christian “morals,” which take a dim view of coveting your neighbour’s possessions, being beholden to Mammon, and so on, while nonsensically equating liberal welfarism with communism. Beyond that, though, I find the assumption that black authenticity is linked with Christianity deeply irritating. I say this not only because I’m black (technically mixed race) and a confirmed atheist, but because it offers an odious image of blacks as putty in the hands of preachers — easy prey for demagogues and shakedown artists — and erases the black secular left’s crucial role in the Civil Rights struggle, represented by Bayard Rustin and A. Phillip Randolph.
Richard Wright lifted himself out of the poverty and ignorance of Jim Crow, taught himself how to read and write, emancipated himself from the oppressive Christianity of his childhood and rose to become one of America’s greatest authors, fit to be compared with his contemporaries Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. If you want a role model of a self-reliant and self-made black man, look no further than Wright. His life gives the lie to the one-sided propaganda of the film The Great American Race Game.