The Beatles. Joan of Arc. Abraham Lincoln.
Hey, white people have done some pretty cool stuff.
It’s very difficult to praise white people. It implies that you’re racist. But in the wake of the election and the shrill warnings about the rainbow-colored tsunami that is about to wipe conservatism away, it’s time that intelligent people of good will talk honestly about race. There is a cogent argument to be made, one that threads the needle between Chris Mathews’ thrombosis and the conservative counterattack.
But first: Do left-wingers (not necessarily liberals) have any idea how racist they sound? They’re exactly like Southern whites from the 1950s, peering out the window and seeing mongrel hoards descending on the country. The only difference is that to the modern left, it’s the extant white people who are the danger. The Huffington Post’s Geoffrey Dunn referred to the GOP convention in Tampa as a “gathering of pasty white people.” He later apologized — sort of: “I was trying to be ‘clever’ or ‘witty’ in my remarks,” Dunn wrote, “when what I really wanted to do was draw serious attention to what was, for me, a troubling demographic of Republicans gathered in Tampa. And whenever I could stomach watching the proceedings on television, the gathering in Florida looked, quite frankly, like a congregation of Pillsbury dough boys, often times in cowboy hats. But by making fun of them — and I did that — I undercut my message.”
The message, of course, is that every time a Republican breaks wind it’s a “dog whistle” to their seething, Billy Bob base that it’s time for the Klan to mount up. This argument makes some liberals feel virtuous, which is why they keep seeing more and more racism in smaller and smaller examples. It’s also why they feel so cavalier about stereotyping white people.
But I think most Americans are more in the middle, and in their minds hold certain truths about racism. The truth of the matter is that slavery and Jim Crow traumatized the African-American community, which is still dealing with the fallout. It’s here where the argument breaks down when it should get specific. For while conservatives need to admit the reality of this trauma, as well as the fact that most blacks don’t like what it has done to them, liberals need to face the fact that many liberal policies — though not all — over the last 40 years have made the problem worse.
In my view, the best argument for getting past America’s race obsession goes something like this. Liberals can draw a line from slavery to segregation to failing inner city public schools. But if they are honest, that line will also run through the disastrous public policies of the 1960s that paid poor black women to not be married (liberal journalist Haynes Johnson details this in his 1963 book “Dusk at the Mountain”). Note: This is not an argument about unemployment insurance, affordable health care (which Republicans punted on and which we owe not only blacks but all Americans), or anything else. I’m simply saying that slavery and segregation were traumas in every sense, and that welfare policies that kept couples unmarried and resulted in a lot of fatherless children allured by drugs and gangs made recovery more difficult. A conservative who yells that a black person needs to just “get over it” discounts the possibility that that person does want to get over it, has tried to get over it, and would do anything to get over it. But the culture that person was raised in makes it damn near impossible.
Blacks are also still dealing with a culture of illiteracy, which grew out of slavery. I have witnessed this first-hand, and if the example I am about to give earns me an accusation of triggering the racist air siren, never mind dog whistle, then so be it. Many years ago I attended a self-help group for a challenge I was dealing with. People would have meetings at different times and places in Washington, D.C., and often read aloud out of the founding organization’s literature. I attended meetings all over Washington, in black neighborhoods and white ones. And more often than not, blacks had more trouble reading than whites. I don’t care what anyone says, or what it costs me, this is the truth. And it is heartbreaking. To hear an adult struggle through a passage while being encouraged by others — “take your time, you can do it” — is to be confronted with the fruits of 500 years of oppression. Slaves were not allowed to read, and once freed, blacks were discouraged from doing so. The effects are still obvious. It has nothing to do with intelligence. They were just not given basic tools at home and in school.
Conservatives are right when they argue that we are all individuals, and that the best way to pick yourself up in modern America is, well, to pick yourself up. They are equally accurate in observing the insufferable liberal condescension toward black people — that We Are the World smugness that allows lefties to think of themselves as righteous protectors when they are really only bolstering their self-esteem by using black people. Furthermore, conservatives show genuine compassion in their attempt to break teachers unions so that it’s possible to get qualified — and literate — teachers into broken schools. But we would also do well to stop and simply acknowledge that African-Americans suffered a trauma, and traumas take time to recover from — sometimes a lot of time.
This doesn’t mean we have to treat blacks with that horrible, dewy-eyed sadness that the left does — those haloed liberals who can’t approach a black person without offering a quivering apology and a long lecture about how much they love Obama. It also doesn’t mean that we should treat people as members of groups rather than as individuals. I know, that somewhat contradicts what I said earlier about the struggles of the African-American community. But as G.K. Chesterton noted, the healthy mind can hold two seemingly contradictory thoughts — indeed, that is often the way to sanity.
I realize that I’ll most likely be called a racist for even bringing any of this up. Hell, Chris Matthews would call me a racist if I sang “She Loves You.” But if we are all Americans and people of good will, we all have a license to speak freely and honestly about race. Even us Pillsbury dough boys.
Mark Judge is the author of A Tremor of Bliss: Sex, Catholicism, and Rock ‘n’ Roll.