Shelby Steele, a Hoover Institution senior fellow, lived through Jim Crow and knows that “active racism is no longer the greatest barrier to black and minority advancement.”
In a Wall Street Journal article, Steele noted, for example, that white racism isn’t to blame for blacks shooting each other in Chicago.
To the contrary, America for decades now—with much genuine remorse—has been recoiling from the practice of racism and has gained a firm intolerance for what it once indulged.
But Americans don’t really trust the truth of this. It sounds too self-exonerating. Talk of “structural” and “systemic” racism conditions people to think of it as inexorable, predestined. So even if bigotry and discrimination have lost much of their menace, Americans nevertheless yearn to know whether or not we are a racist people.
A staple on cable news these days is the “racial incident,” which stands as a referendum on this question. Today there is Charlottesville. Yesterday there were the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and others. Don’t they reveal an irrepressible racism in American life? At the news conferences surrounding these events there are always the Al Sharpton clones, if not the man himself, ready to spin the tale of black tragedy and white bigotry.
Steele explained why leftists can’t let go of “racism.”
What makes racism so sweet? Today it empowers. Racism was once just racism, a terrible bigotry that people nevertheless learned to live with, if not as a necessary evil then as an inevitable one. But the civil-rights movement, along with independence movements around the world, changed that. The ’60s recast racism in the national consciousness as an incontrovertible sin, the very worst of all social evils.
Suddenly America was in moral trouble. The open acknowledgment of the nation’s racist past had destroyed its moral authority, and affirming democratic principles and the rule of law was not a sufficient response. Only a strict moral accounting could restore legitimacy.
Paying down the debt of the country’s sins — a redemption narrative — fueled government programs, the “diversity” fixation, and political correctness.
Steele wrote that the “safe spaces” for blacks on college campuses are really redemptive spaces for white students and administrators.
“As minorities in these spaces languish in precious self-absorption, their white classmates, high on the idea of their own wonderful ‘tolerance,’ whistle past the very segregated areas they are barred from.”
Liberals must have “racism,” Steele wrote, or they will lose the “innocence and the power it conveys.” But there are signs of race fatigue.
How should conservatives seize this moment?