Taking note of the uptick in race-related activism at the University of Missouri and elsewhere, and still indignant over the extrajudicial murders of blacks by police officers, I finally opened a book that had been queued up on my nightstand for a while now: The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander. It’s a better book than I’d expected (call me a cynic); and because of its many virtues, I will excuse the fact that the author has a bit of a skewed perspective on the Founding Fathers. I’m going to use this space to discuss the book briefly before moving on to what I consider to be a troubling conflation of laudable anti-racism efforts with a meretricious politics of diversity.
Ms. Alexander offers a very compelling insight into the politics of the period immediately following the Civil War. She points out that three factions emerged:
- Liberals, who said a lot of high-minded things about how a nation built on the principle of equality must take an active role in elevating African Americans, but weren’t quite so committed to the cause as to champion the kinds of legislation that were needed to address the problem,
- Conservatives, who pursued a racist ideology on the behalf of a “planter elite” and other oligarchs who were determined to re-create a submissive and disempowered workforce after the end of slavery,
- Populists, who felt that former slaves and disenfranchised whites had common cause and ought to work together to create a more just nation. The cause? Overturning the excessive influence of the oligarchs and preventing said oligarchs from restricting the supply of jobs and denying working people a living wage.
Ms. Alexander points to evidence that the conservatives were terrified of the populists and soon settled on a strategy of aggravating racial divisions. This strategy worked brilliantly. Poor whites, instead of blaming the oligarchs, started blaming black people for social ills such as poverty, unemployment, and crime. This lays down a pattern that has lasted to this day.
Although many in the African American community have displayed servile loyalty to the Democratic Party, as Ms. Alexander demonstrates, it was Bill Clinton who set in motion “three strikes” laws and other criminal justice policies that contributed to the phenomenon of racialized mass incarceration. Mr. Clinton was very eager to demonstrate that no Republican could ever accuse him of being soft on crime. Or, in other words, he chose crime as an issue to triangulate – to deny the Republicans’ advantage in the popular imagination as the law and order party – even if it meant sacrificing the African American community.
I will suggest that the Clinton administration marks the beginning of an ever-widening separation between liberals’ and democrats’ professed concern for racial justice and the racist impact of policies and practices that liberals and democrats have allowed to go unchallenged. What we see today is the poisonous fruit of the Clinton administration: a society of people who overflow with self-satisfaction whenever they tweet “black lives matter” but are blissfully oblivious to their complicity in a system that is rigged against economically marginalized people of color.
I won’t review the evidence of a “racist impact” of U.S. policies and practices at length, other than to refer the reader to a report which shows, among other things, that 1 out of every 9 African American male between the ages of 20 and 34 is incarcerated (SOURCE). And I will add that the reasons for this have very little to do with racial differences in criminal involvement, and have a great deal to do with the cumulative effect of subtle and not-so-subtle racial bias in who gets pulled over by cops, who gets asked to step outside the car, who inspires the officer to place a trembling hand on his or her weapon, who gets arrested, who gets inadequate legal representation, who gets sentenced to a term of incarceration, who runs afoul of mandatory minimum sentences, and who gets denied parole. And it has a great deal to do with racially-motivated bias in which pedestrians are asked to submit to a stop-and-frisk. To the extent that African Americans are involved in crime, one may consider the racial factors that determine which Americans are segregated into our decaying urban centers to face both a constant danger of becoming a victim of crime and a constant uphill battle to find legitimate employment. People of any race who are trapped in those communities are more likely to fall into a life of crime.
The Politics of Diversity
The true extent of the impact of racist policies and practices can only be felt if one visits communities such as Detroit, St. Louis, or Baltimore. One may see first-hand the meaning behind statistics showing that 28% of all African Americans and more than half of all African American families experience poverty (SOURCE). One may see first-hand what people with short life expectancies and no upward social mobility look like. And with this imagery in mind, let’s turn to college campuses across America where well-fed, privileged students are exercised about the fact that they are victims of “everyday racism” and “micro-aggressions.”
These students are the beneficiaries of what Michelle Alexander refers to as a trickle-down theory of affirmative action: or the implicit belief that by providing a chosen few people of color with special advantages, we may eventually solve the problem of systemic racism. Most of them grew up in middle-class or upper-class homes. They are adolescents, and as adolescents are wont to do, they hew to the belief that their special gifts aren’t fully appreciated by others. And because they haven’t completely cut their apron strings yet, they want other people to take care of them.
These students have been indoctrinated by professors who may themselves be beneficiaries of affirmative action or may themselves have been indoctrinated. They have been brought to the firmly-held conviction that, if they hear the n-word or if others falsely presume that they enjoy listening to Luther Vandross, it will trigger a traumatic psychological response that will cripple them emotionally and blight their future prospects. Armed with this conviction, they do not hesitate to roll up their sleeves and take an active role in dismantling the First Amendment right of free expression. They are alert for any sign of heterodoxy. They demand the termination of faculty members and administrators who do not share their ideology.
Diversity ideology is something to be feared and resisted for the following reasons (1) it falsely assumes that the problem of systemic racial injustice is attributable primarily to the fact that there are white people who have not fully embraced this ideology, (2) it sets up a regime of harsh sanctions – such as loss of employment – directed toward individuals who do not conform to the ideology, (3) it has a chilling effect on the free exchange of ideas, (4) it shifts attention from certain important root causes of systemic racial injustice such as the de-industrialization of the American economy and unequal protection under the law, and most importantly, (5) it maintains a system of social control that is inimical to the welfare of a vast number of marginalized Americans.
To explain this system of social control, I will introduce an illustrative historical example. In the former Soviet Union, political leaders encouraged ordinary citizens to write denunciations. A denunciation is a letter addressed to the police, and a citizen would write a letter if he or she observed a co-worker or neighbor of saying things that were contrary to communist ideology. These denunciations were investigated and many citizens lost their jobs or faced imprisonment as a result. As scholars have pointed out, the institutionalization of the practice of denunciation caused ordinary citizens to be frightened of one another, caused citizens to engage in self-censorship, and more insidiously, diverted popular attention from the true nature of the society in which they lived. The citizens who wrote denunciations apparently believed that the problems that their country faced could be solved if only ideologically impure persons could be purged from society. Having arrived at this interpretation, they did not pause to think about the hidden class system that existed in the Soviet Union, and did not reflect on the significance of the fact that Soviet oligarchs enjoyed wealth beyond the wildest dreams of Croesus.
The net effect was a society of individuals who were suspicious of one another and policed one another. Now, if the common people felt at ease sharing their true thoughts, and through conversation arrived at a truer understanding of the nature of the society in which they lived, this would pose an existential threat to the Soviet Union. For several decades, this system of social control operated well and helped maintain the status quo.
I suggest that we, the American people, currently live in an oligarchy and that a powerful class system exists. Nearly half of the American people are economically disadvantaged and are disenfranchised from the political process. If certain injustices fall disproportionately on people of color, it is largely because of the class system. I do not deny that racist attitudes also play a part, but as Michelle Alexander points out, racist attitudes have been actively encouraged by the ruling oligarchs, and is part of their deliberate strategy to turn disadvantaged whites and disadvantaged people of color against each other. If this is true – if racial divisiveness has been foisted on the American people by the ruling class – let us apply this insight to the ideology of diversity. Who benefits the most from this ideology? A few privileged people of color, the ones who have been chosen under the trickle-down system to demonstrate that it is still possible for any American to enjoy upward social mobility, benefit from it. But the people who benefit the most from this ideology are the ones who want the vast legions of the poor to continue to be ignored. Perhaps it's time to return to populism.