If I understand the evolving racial rhetoric of our times, it goes something like this: You are either a racist or an anti-racist. There is no position of neutrality. Using this device permits adherents to dispense with nuance and divide the world in good and evil at the snap of a finger.
As a white man, I am told, I enjoy a privileged position in society, the beneficiary of systemic racism. This structural advantage colors, no pun intended, everything I do. If I fail to acknowledge my privilege, I am being willfully blind and therefore am “complicit” in a system that exploits people of color.
The system, of course, needs to be destroyed in the interest of racial justice.
It’s a simplistic form of Manicheanism, a division of the world into “good” and “evil,” and, candidly, reeking of its own vision of racial privilege. Black Lives Matter becomes important to recite not as a reminder that blacks, like whites, fall into the class of humanity, and that all humanity matters. History owes a debt to people of color. As The New York Times put it in a recent Sunday Magazine piece: We “owe” people of color. All the talk of “racial reckoning” in the mainstream media is simply a way of calculating how to pay that debt. Now.
The claim is that black lives matter more just now. Those who satisfy the criteria of blackness, however defined – are you black if you’re biracial, if one of your grandparents were black, if you were raised elsewhere but moved the United States later in life? – are owed special solicitude.
You, as a non-black, owe it. Anti-racism, the morally privileged position, means you recognize what you owe and are willing to pay it. Refuse to recognize that you owe someone something on account to race, and you are a racist. In it’s extreme form, refusal to acknowledge what you owe can make you a “white supremacist.”
It won’t do to protest that the very concept of owing something to someone else on account of race is a characteristic of racism. And never mind that the new form of privilege, black privilege, is a claim of entitlement on account of race. This new species of moralism comes down to the following: Show me the respect I deserve or you are a criminal.
Thus the new black noose now fashioned for white necks. Forgive me if I refuse to wear one. I’m no supremacist. I don’t trust anyone. One can be misanthropic without being a racist.
Before the onset of this mass hysteria, it used to be possible to have productive, even meaningful, discussions about race. For years, I litigated police misconduct cases, often representing people of color. I was passionate about the cases and believed that race often mattered in how police chose to use force.
The shock of recognition forced an awkward silence when I read Nathan McCall’s Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America. McCall wrote about growing up on the other side of the color line, and he had a word of caution about white folks: Beware when a white man talks race, he has choices about what to take an interest it; today it’s race, tomorrow it’s hang-gliding. For a young black man, race is never an option.
All at once, I recognized the truth of what he said. I was a white lawyer making a decent living suing police officers who used force, often, although not exclusively, against people of color. I could, however, make as a decent a living doing other things. Sure, I cared about race, but I also cared about plenty of other things.
The new racial hysteria demands that race matter always, urgently, and insistently – to the exclusion of anything else. I just can’t do it. While we tear society down, my attention goes elsewhere, to artificial intelligence, for example, where creative people are creating useful things. McCall was right. It’s as though the moral arc whose trajectory encompasses the abolition of slavery, the dismantling of Jim Crow, and the enactment of federal civil rights statutes never occurred. The new racists insist that it’s 1619 all over again. You’d think we were striking chains from the ankles of folks brought over on the first slave ship to North America.
American history is a tapestry of many colors. The current effort to render it exclusively in dark tones makes it unrecognizable to me, and, I suspect, to most Americans. African-Americans are 13 percent of the population. Not one of them was enslaved on these shores. The effort to transform our history into a morality play to the benefit of slavery’s distant descendants makes history into a farce. I attempt to read the over-heated prose of Ta-Nehisi Coates, but stumble on his making a god out of an abstract noun: keen all you want about the “black body,” but in the transactional world in which I live, a workaday world of obligations, commitments, and, yes, work, I negotiate with folks based on real hands shaken for real tasks done today. All this talk about reparations strikes me as a shakedown, a game of lotto played with skin color. I’m not buying a ticket.
History is tragic. There aren’t saints exempt from the human stain. Slavery teaches that. That a race could be held in bondage proves it. But attempting to hold a different race in thralldom to right an historic wrong doesn’t make the world a better place: It merely perpetuates the endless struggle for domination between people and groups. Forgive me if I am not prepared to tax myself into servitude on account of your skin color.
Don’t be seduced. All this talk of white privilege, systemic racism, anti-racism is spawned from the same source that inspired one man to hold another as a slave. In a world of scarcity, everyone looks for an edge. A legal system based on respect for individuals demands equal treatment for all and an abandonment of racial privilege. We were making progress on the road to equality when a pandemic forced us out of the marketplace and public square into our homes. That opportunists now seek to take advantage of the lull in affairs is sad but somehow predictable.
Sleepers awake, I say. Don’t let racial panderers demand a reckoning that is not due. None of us owe history a debt. What we owe one another is mutual respect. You simply won’t get mine pretending that I owe you more than that. And you won’t get a hearing from me by demanding that I support your viewpoint or confess to being a criminal.