SOMETIMES THE EASIEST TRUTHS to understand are the hardest to actually learn. "Thinking doesn’t make it so," is one; "Just because it feels good, doesn’t mean it’s good," is another. The failure to learn this distinction is actually the cause of liberalism, and the heart of the liberal confusion about race.
The liberal view begins with adopting a morally correct tone, which is actually easy. All it involves is taking a correct stand against evils like racism. The liberal view goes something like this: Even though it’s hard to find an actual racist standing in a school house door anymore, and even though white people won’t admit it, there’s still a lot of racism in American society, and it’s an obstacle to the progress of black citizens." There’s a corollary to this moral posture: The more racism you think there is, and the bigger the obstacle you think it presents, the more liberal you are. One could plot the entire political spectrum using this measure alone. A centrist liberal will think there’s more racism and it’s a bigger problem than a conservative will; a leftist will believe that there’s more racism and it’s an even bigger problem than a liberal. The rule is: the more racism you can find under every bed, the more progressive you are.
And the better you feel about yourself. You are the sensitive one. You are the one who can now imagine yourself shoulder to shoulder with the civil rights soldiers of the past, who faced down police hoses in Alabama and lynch mobs in Mississippi. Finding racism, even where it may not exist, heightens the sense of one’s own virtue and links one to the heroes of the past.
But just because it feels good, doesn’t make it good. Serving one’s appetite for self-love can be a profound disservice precisely to the people one set out to help.
Suppose an athletic team with a roster of black stars is having a poor season. Suppose the coach were to explain his players’ poor performance by blaming the racism of the referees. For all the internal satisfaction he might get, in the real world he would be crippling his team by denying his players the only chance they have to improve their game, which is by holding themselves accountable for their performance. This is the conservative critique of contemporary liberalism, in a nutshell.
Even at an abstract level, there’s something wrong with the liberal view of the contemporary race problem. Every survey of public attitudes on race shows that there has been an astounding decline of racist attitudes among white Americans over the last sixty years. Paralleling these findings, there has been an equally dramatic advance in the status of black citizens over the same duration. To take one key figure: In 1940, only 1% of blacks were middle class (defined as having twice the income of the poor). The figure is now 49%. (These statistics and the opinion surveys can be found in Abigail and Stephan Thernstroms’ America in Black and White.) If that isn’t progress, what is?
But the liberal confusion over race persists. A good example is offered by a recent column written by my friend Chris Matthews, otherwise one of the most astute and tough-minded commentators around. Matthews’ column is called "White Blindness," by which he means the blindness to black oppression induced by racist attitudes. His observations were inspired by a recent poll that showed a majority of white Americans believe that blacks have "about the same opportunities in life [as] whites have," and that there is not a lot of discrimination against blacks remaining. Quipped Matthews, "I accept the accuracy of the survey … It’s the white people I don’t believe."
White people lie to themselves (or to pollsters) about race, according to Matthews, because "many whites do not want to admit racial discrimination for fear it will be used to justify affirmative action." Liberals, being more moral than other whites support affirmative action with the following logic. By holding blacks back, racism gives unfair privileges to whites. Justice requires that some privilege be redistributed to blacks to "level the playing field." Since whites are adversely affected by affirmative action (they lose a race privilege) the unenlightened will of course oppose it. But they don’t want to appear racist, so they will deny that racism exists (or that it is a significant obstacle to black aspirations). Hence "white blindness."
The problem with this argument is that the principal opposition to affirmative action comes from two sources that have nothing to do with racism. The first is a belief that any kind of racial preference is an offense to the American idea that individuals should be judged on their merits. The second is the pragmatic conclusion that affirmative action policies work badly in the real world not only for whites but for minorities themselves.
The 50th question on the same poll that Matthews cites (but doesn’t quote) is this:
In order to give minorities more opportunity, do you believe race or ethnicity should be a factor when deciding who is hired, promoted, or admitted to college, or that hiring, promotions, and college admissions should be based strictly on merit and qualifications other than race or ethnicity?
Ninety-four percent of the whites interviewed answered this question negatively, which would seem to confirm Matthews’ point. But eighty-six percent of blacks also answered the question negatively and eighty-eight percent of Hispanics.
Matthews thinks it’s obvious that opportunities for blacks are dramatically less available than opportunities for whites: "Can a white American, with Harlem, Watts or any of this country’s huge racial ghettos in mind, defend his or her claim that blacks have the same ‘opportunities’?" he writes.
It’s an odd, but typically liberal idea that all blacks live in Harlem or Watts, or some "huge racial ghetto." It makes putting scare quotes around the word "opportunities" an easier task for sure. But the reality is that 78% of blacks have incomes above the poverty line, and don’t live in inner cities or "ghettos." This wasn’t always the case. In 1940, as a matter of fact, 87% of blacks were poor and lived in places like Harlem. Job and housing discrimination had big impacts then. But now things are obviously different. How come the remaining 22% of blacks are still living in poverty? Can their failure really be blamed on white racism? Are whites forcing some blacks to live in inner cities, while allowing the vast majority to escape?
Part of the problem is the now habitual use of the word "ghetto" itself. Blacks in America don’t live in "ghettos." When Jews were forced to live in ghettos in Europe – which is the source of the noun – they were actually forced to, and couldn’t leave. By law. The word "ghetto," like many other emotionally charged terms – "holocaust" and "Diaspora" are two – has been appropriated from the annals of Jewish suffering by black spokesmen for obvious reasons. But for the same obvious reasons, these words carry with them many false implications.
The Middle Passage, for example, which brought black slaves to America and which Toni Morrison and others refer to as a "Black Holocaust" was actually not a calculated genocide, like Hitler’s extermination of the Jews. The slave traders were businessmen who had money invested in their grim cargos, and did not buy slaves in Africa to kill them on the way to the plantations across the sea. The term "Diaspora," on the other hand, refers to the forced dispersal of the Jews from Israel and their existence for two millennia as a pariah group, without a homeland of its own. The population of black Africa was not dispersed by an external power. Black Africans sold their brothers and sisters into slavery, while retaining continuous sovereignty in their own lands. The slaves who were sent into exile lost their connection so thoroughly in the process, that there is no significant movement among American blacks to return to a "homeland." American blacks are not living in a Diaspora where they are permanent aliens. They are home.
Their disconnection from reality notwithstanding, each of these terms heightens the perception of victimization beyond the circumstances. That is their purpose, but thinking doesn’t make it so.
Matthews and other liberals don’t accept this analysis, even insofar as "ghettoes" are concerned. As Matthews tells it, blacks are "consigned" to live in certain neighborhoods. To be fair, he is too smart to state this claim baldly. Instead he asks it as a rhetorical question: "What does consign blacks to….? Which he repeats in several variations: "Because they are not wanted in nicer neighborhoods, and would rather not have their families put up with the hassle? Because real estate agents steer black buyers away from the better openings? Or because the black home buyer simply doesn’t have the money to buy better homes? Whatever answer you choose involves a denial of equal opportunity."
The idea that blacks can’t buy nice middle class homes is demonstrably false, given the existence of such a large black middle class. Even the smaller truths in Matthews’ statements hide the much bigger ones that confound his claims. Recently, black organizations made a huge stink about a small symbol, the Confederate flag. Does Chris Matthews seriously believe that the reason black "civil rights" organizations are not protesting rampant racial exclusion in real estate is to avoid a hassle? If this kind of exclusion were systematically keeping middle class blacks from living where they wanted to, doesn’t it seem likely that Jesse Jackson would have long ago alighted in the neighborhood at the head of a concerted campaign to integrate it? And to prosecute all those nasty realtors working (illegally) to keep the neighborhood pure?
A more interesting question Matthews might want to ask is whether there are in fact large numbers of middle class blacks who want to live in predominantly white neighborhoods in the first place. Does he think that the persistence of "historically black" colleges is the result of white colleges keeping blacks out? Perhaps Matthews missed the recent article by a black reporter in the Washington Post who announced she was proudly relocating in "Chocolate City" and didn’t want any "Vanilla" there? Recent studies show, in fact, that black segregation in housing is largely a product of self-selection.
I was thinking about liberals’ perception problems the other day in a different context. As it happens, the day was July 4th , and I was looking out over miles of ocean beaches stretching from the Pacific Palisades to Malibu, crowded with holiday bathers. What caught my attention was the fact that there was not a black person in sight. I thought to myself, a liberal would immediately call this segregation, and explain it as a product of "institutional racism." Black people can’t afford to live in Malibu or the Palisades or even in the white suburbs near them. South Central is quite far away. Even if black people were inclined to make the trip, they probably wouldn’t want the hassle of spending time on the beach with whites who don’t want them. In either case, the explanation for the absence of blacks would be white racism, which – of course – is alive and well.
There is a problem with the analysis, however, which is that about three-quarters of the people who were in fact enjoying the surf and sand were Mexican-Americans from East L.A. East L.A. is even farther from the coast – and just as impoverished – as Compton and Watts. Moreover, there are a lot more black actors and music moguls living in Malibu and the Palisades than there are Mexicans. The problem with the liberal viewpoint is that it fails to take into account people’s cultural choices and free will.
"Ever watch an NBA game [asks Matthews] and notice that the players are black but that nearly 100 percent of seats within a hundred feet of the court are filled with whites? Ever go anywhere and not see the whites in the better seats, the better houses, the better jobs?" For Matthews, these questions answer themselves and add up to the case that discrimination is responsible for denying blacks the opportunities that would get them those better seats and houses. It all reminds Matthews of a Groucho Marx line: "Are you going to believe me or your lying eyes?"
Well, it all depends on whose eyes are doing the lying. The fanciest house in my neighborhood is owned by Laurence Fishburne, the black star of Searching for Bobby Fisher, Othello, The Matrix and other films. Somewhere out there, the growing black middle class is living well, even if Chris Matthews is a stranger to their neighborhoods. The black middle class has some pretty respectable jobs, too, like running Atlanta, Washington, DC, Detroit, Baltimore and other major American cities, just to pick a non-entertainment, non-sports field of endeavor, with six-figure salaries, that will be familiar enough to provide an example.
As for the NBA, if Matthews had looked at the other seats in the house, he wouldn’t have found many blacks there either. But if he had looked say at the front row seats for a Mike Tyson fight in Las Vegas he would have seen Jesse Jackson, Don King, the late Tupac Shakur, the record mogul Suge Knight and other Armani-suited fans of a darker hue. What accounts for the difference at NBA games? Beats me, but then I couldn’t tell you why there are almost no black hockey players, let alone black hockey fans, let alone season box holders. Nor could I tell you why if you were hiking in the Sierras, or any national park – where the fees are nominal – a black person would be harder to find than a unicorn. Disneyland, which is very expensive, is crowded with working-class Mexicans, but there are almost no blacks to be seen. Cultural choices are mysterious. But they are choices. And one thing is certain: it’s not money or opportunity that’s keeping blacks from occupying the high dollar seats at NBA games.
Unfortunately the feel-good racial fantasies of liberals cause a blindness whose destructive consequences are real. Last April, a black criminal resisting arrest in Cincinnati was shot and killed by police. Some individuals in the black community started a riot. They attacked police first and then whites generally, blaming racism for what happened. Irresponsible black leaders and racial muggers from the NAACP descended on the scene. Instead of defending the law and calling for an orderly inquiry into what happened, they fanned the flames of racial grievance and blamed "racist" law enforcement instead. White politicians, striving to earn their "liberal" credentials (Racist police? Of course we’re against them.) piled on. The result was reported in the New York Times on July 17: "Since the protests, there [have] been 59 shooting incidents in the city with 77 gunshot victims compared with 9 shooting and 11 victims in the comparable 3-month period last year." Seventy-six of the seventy-seven gunshot victims are black.
Under attack – and lacking any political support -- Cincinnati police officers did the sensible thing. They took themselves out of the line of fire. "There has also been a decline, of nearly 55 percent in traffic stops," noted the Times reporter, explaining that traffic stops are "a tactic that the [police] union chief defend[s] as crucial to policing but that blacks often decry as harassment rooted in racial profiling." What could be clearer? When racial muggers and feel-good liberals join forces in hunting down racists who may not exist, the result is a lot more misery for blacks.
For another example, take Matthews’ own Rosetta stone, affirmative action. Some years ago, the liberals in the state education establishment in Michigan put in place aggressive affirmative action programs to overcome the "institutional racism" they imagined was keeping blacks out of Michigan universities. Of course, Michigan universities already couldn’t discriminate against blacks if they wanted to. It was against the law. The purpose of the new affirmative action programs was to rig the entrance requirements at these institutions so that black students who were not adequately prepared could get in any way. That would bring about "diversity." Liberals could feel good. So even though the students were not prepared, the liberals recruited them aggressively anyway to give them those front row seats that were just of out reach. When black enrollment lists swelled, liberals looked at these plums and said "My, what good boys (and, of course, girls) we are."
But the Detroit News recently spoiled the fun by showing what was wrong with the picture. The News conducted an investigation of the program results at seven Michigan universities, which revealed that among black students who were freshman in 1994, only 40% got their diplomas after six years. Sixty-percent had failed or dropped out. "We’re throwing them out after taking their money and they’re getting nothing out of it," summed up a history professor at Ferris State University who helped to start one of the programs designed to keep minority students in college. "We’re mugging [the majority] of them, taking their money, taking their dignity. I feel like I am participating in a vast criminal conspiracy."
The professor was probably a liberal. But the way I look at it, he’s a liberal who’s been mugged by reality, and is probably a conservative now.