There was a short-lived Norman Lear sitcom that was supposed to be a sequel to “All in the Family.” The premise was that a black family had moved into Archie Bunker’s home many years later, with the contentious Archie and Meathead dynamic reversed: the father was a prejudiced blue-collar Democrat, the son a well-read young conservative.
In one of their political arguments, the father calls his conservative son an “Oreo,” prompting the younger man to shoot back, “I am not an Oreo. And you are a bigot.” Dad replies, “Black man can’t be a bigot, son. Ha!” The son’s rejoinder? “Tell that to a Korean, Dad. Ha! Ha!”
A version of this argument has played out before a larger audience in the aftermath of the riots in Baltimore. The violence, in some cases directed against whites and Asians, may be (or may not be) contemptible, this line of reasoning goes, but it cannot be racist in the same way as the death of Freddie Gray because it is not backed by institutional power.
In a more extreme example, a prominent South African student leader defended himself from critics of bizarre comments he made about Adolf Hitler by saying “a black man can’t be racist because racism is power.”
Liberals and conservatives tend to define racism somewhat differently. While both would agree that South African apartheid and American Jim Crow are racist, liberals generally view racism as more of a structural problem flowing from the legacy of these discriminatory systems while conservatives see racism more in terms of personal animus on the basis of race.
Both definitions have some merit. The effects of something like Jim Crow aren’t going to go away overnight just because most people now have better intentions concerning race than before. But those intentions do matter, don’t they?
The problem with the progressive conception of racism is that it doesn’t match up very neatly with the realities of 2015. Intentional white racists have less institutional power than they once did while black Americans have more. That doesn’t mean that white racism has ceased to matter, obviously, but it should matter at least somewhat less while sentiments like this matter a little more than they once might have.
Consider Baltimore. A lot has changed there since the long, hot summer of 1968. The mayor is black. Her immediate predecessor is black. A majority of the city council is black, including the city council president. About 40 percent of the police force is black, as is the police commissioner.
Yet there are still widespread allegations of police brutality against Baltimore residents, especially blacks, of which Gray’s suspicious death in police custody is merely the latest high-profile example. A majority of the working-age people in Gray’s 97 percent black neighborhood are unemployed and the median household income is below the poverty line for a family of four.
When the mayor and the city council president join the first black president of the United States in describing rioters and looters as “thugs,” they are said to be using racial slurs and made to apologize. But does anyone really believe that these black elected officials, two of them serving a majority-black city, are motivated by animus against black people?
Instead of receding as a driver of social problems, white racism is growing to include white people without any animus toward minorities and even African Americans who don’t have the right opinions (although the latter is usually described as “respectability politics” rather than racism).
Racists certainly have a lot to answer for. But a flaw of this approach is that it allows liberals of various backgrounds to deny any accountability for the results in cities they have run for fifty years, assigning all of the blame to people who are dead or irrelevant.
Maybe the problem is that we haven’t adopted redistributionist and progressive policies that are sweeping enough. Maybe if our governments were more liberal, even further to the left, we would start to see better outcomes. One smart piece making this case quoted the 1960s Kerner Commission’s warning about racial, residential and economic segregation, concluding, “As long as we ignore that prophecy, it will not matter how many black women we put in police uniforms, in mayor’s offices, or in the White House.”
That is one possibility. The other is that this isn’t Archie Bunker’s America anymore, necessitating something fresher than Meathead’s solutions.
W. James Antle III is managing editor of The Daily Caller and author of the book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? Follow him on Twitter.