In recent weeks, a series of demeaning, racially charged incidents targeting African-Americans have been captured on video and released on the Internet. They include the arrest of two young black men who were waiting to meet someone at a Philadelphia Starbucks without making a purchase; the harassment of a Yale University student reported to campus police for napping in a student lounge; and police mistreatment of a Georgia grandmother who was screamed at and violently pulled out of her car after she declined to sign a traffic ticket.
These and other stories are a stark reminder that, too often, black men and women in America are not treated with equal dignity. But does this mean that conservative, libertarian, and traditionally liberal critics of identity-based “victimhood politics” are wrong and that leftist advocates for social justice are right? Or do we need a better way to move forward?
These racial incidents should be chastening for those who have dismissed anti-black racism in America as ancient history and mocked hypersensitive reactions to trivial or imagined slights. In 1993, Newsweek columnist Ellis Cose published a book titled “The Rage of a Privileged Class,” examining the anger many middle-class black Americans felt at the race-based indignities that are part of their lives — such as being viewed as criminals for no reason. A quarter century later, the proliferation of camera phones and the internet have allowed such humiliating encounters to be shared with the world. The rest of us can see their undeniable reality, and it should make us all angry.
It’s a reality that some commentators on the right, such as National Review columnist David French, have admirably urged fellow conservatives to confront. Those who talk about “colorblind” policies should not lose sight of the fact that skin color remains a factor in American life. The evidence is more than anecdotal: new research shows, for example, that enforcement of marijuana laws disproportionately targets blacks.
But while awareness of race-based wrongs is essential, it does not mean we should embrace a vision that treats the lives of black and white Americans as defined by unshakable and all-pervasive white supremacy (a view offered, for instance, by the acclaimed author Ta-Nehisi Coates). American society in the 21st century is too dynamic and complex to be captured by such a framework. We can point to the rise of successful African-American politicians and to thriving communities of black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean. We can point out that today, some white Americans’ racist behavior is likely to be met with disgust and condemnation, not support, from other white people.
An alternative to Coates’ pessimism is provided by such black commentators as Columbia University associate professor John McWhorter, who argues that African-Americans need to confront racism without allowing themselves to be defined by victimization and without downplaying the immense progress made in the past half-century. Such voices, too, need to be part of the discourse on race.
The leftist strategy of telling white people to repent their privilege and accept that their role in conversations on race is to shut up and listen is morally questionable and counterproductive. Being white may confer advantage overall, but millions of white men and women are still, in every meaningful sense, underprivileged; nor are they exempt from injustices like police maltreatment, even if they may experience them less frequently.
The answer to racism is to treat people as individuals. This does not mean ignoring the role of race where race is implicated; it means working to ensure human dignity when it is denied to anyone for any reason.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.