In my last column I tried to describe part of the current controversy over race and K-12 education — the part that turns on whether it’s possible to tell a fuller historical story about slavery and segregation while also retaining a broadly patriotic understanding of America’s founding and development.
In this column I will try to describe the part of the controversy that concerns how we teach about racism today. It’s probably the more intense debate, driving both progressive zeal and conservative backlash.
Again, I want to start with what the new progressivism is interested in changing. One change involves increasingly familiar terms like “structural” and “systemic” racism, and the attempt to teach about race in a way that emphasizes not just explicitly racist laws and attitudes, but also how America’s racist past still influences inequalities today.
In theory, this shift is supposed to enable debates that avoid using “racist” as a personal accusation — since the point is that a culture can sustain persistent racial inequalities even if most white people aren’t bigoted or biased.
Still, this kind of vision would, on its own, face inevitable conservative resistance on several grounds: that it overstates the challenges facing minorities in America today; that it seems to de-emphasize personal responsibility; that it implies policy responses (racial quotas, reparations) that are racially discriminatory, arguably unconstitutional and definitely threatening to the white middle class.
But the basic claim that structural racism exists has strong evidence behind it, and the idea that schools should teach about it in some way is probably a winning argument for progressives. (Almost half of college Republicans, in a recent poll, supported teaching about how “patterns of racism are ingrained in law and other institutions.”) Especially since not every application of the structural-racist diagnosis implies left-wing policy conclusions: The pro-life and school choice movements, for instance, regularly invoke the impact of past progressive racism on disproportionately high African-American abortion rates and underperforming public schools.
What’s really inflaming today’s fights, though, is that the structural-racist diagnosis isn’t being offered on its own. Instead it’s yoked to two sweeping theories about how to fight the problem it describes.
First, there is a novel theory of moral education, according to which the best way to deal with systemic inequality is to confront its white beneficiaries with their privileges and encourage them to wrestle with their sins.
Second, there is a Manichaean vision of public policy, in which all policymaking is either racist or antiracist, all racial disparities are the result of racism — and the measurement of any outcome short of perfect “equity” may be a form of structural racism itself.
The first idea is associated with Robin DiAngelo, the second with Ibram X. Kendi, and they converge in places like the work of Tema Okun, whose presentations train educators to see “white-supremacy culture” at work in traditional measures of academic attainment.
The impulses these ideas encourage take different forms in different institutions, but they usually circle around to similar goals. First, the attempt to use racial-education programs to construct a stronger sense of shared white identity, on the apparent theory that making Americans of European ancestry think of themselves as defined by a toxic “whiteness” will lead to its purgation. Second, the deconstruction of standards that manifest racial disparities, on the apparent theory that if we stop using gifted courses or standardized tests, the inequities they reveal will cease to matter.
These goals, it should be stressed, don’t follow necessarily from the theory of structural racism. The first idea arguably betrays the theory’s key insight, that you can have “racism without racists,” by deliberately trying to increase individual racial guilt. The second extends structural analysis beyond what it can reasonably bear, into territory where white supremacy supposedly explains Asian American success on the SAT.
But precisely because they don’t follow from modest and defensible conceptions of systemic racism, smart progressives in the media often retreat to those modest conceptions when challenged by conservatives — without acknowledging that the dubious conceptions are a big part of what’s been amplifying controversy, and conjuring up dubious Republican legislation in response.
Here one could say that figures like Kendi and DiAngelo, and the complex of foundations and bureaucracies that have embraced the new antiracism, increasingly play a similar role to talk radio in the Republican coalition. They represent an ideological extremism that embarrasses clever liberals, as the spirit of Limbaugh often embarrassed right-wing intellectuals. But this embarrassment encourages a pretense that their influence is modest, their excesses forgivable, and the real problem is always the evils of the other side.
That pretense worked out badly for the right, whose intelligentsia awoke in 2016 to discover that they no longer recognized their own coalition. It would be helpful if liberals currently dismissing anxiety over Kendian or DiAngelan ideas as just a “moral panic” experienced a similar awakening now — before progressivism simply becomes its excesses, and the way back to sanity is closed.
This Karen thought she was safe from the cops. Rick Strom breaks it down. Give us your thoughts in the comments below!
Police officials in Georgia refuse to release the identity of a detective who showed up to the home of a couple and lost his temper. The residents were armed and the officer didn’t like it. It turned into a shouting match. Cenk Uygur and Ana Kasparian, hosts of The Young Turks, break it down. Tell us what you think in the comment section below.
“Earl Cannady and his wife just arrived home from a shopping trip to the local Walmart when their son told them there were cops at the door.
The couple both have licenses for their guns which they were both wearing but that must have spooked the cops because they demanded to know why the Georgia couple had guns.
He shut the door and walked to get his cell phone to begin recording the video that has since gone viral. The officer accused the couple of being involved with drugs, despite the lack of evidence and the insistence that the family is chemical free.
The officer was denied entry into the home because he didn’t have a warrant to search and that’s when things took a turn for the worse.
“Now if you got a problem with those kids, you take it up with those kids, but I’m going to tell you something right now, you don’t got a f*cking investigation on me,” Cannady can be heard on the video saying.”*
Isn’t it remarkable that the establishment that created a system of slavery at home and supports corporate power abroad, including a recent coup in Bolivia.
Recalling the provocation that came midway through a routine traffic stop, Danville police officer Dylan Hayden told reporters Thursday that driver Donald Watkins’ decision to frustratedly point his finger at him was just the green light he needed. “Legally, I’m not allowed to touch the motorist after pulling him over, but when he extended his index finger directly toward me, I knew that gave me the go-ahead right there to take whatever action I deemed necessary,” said Hayden, adding that as soon as he noticed the conceivably threatening hand gesture, he had full authority to skip right ahead to exerting force. “Frankly, I probably would’ve had the okay to rock and roll after he cursed under his breath, but I wanted to be absolutely certain that I was in the clear. Once he pointed his finger at my chest from inside his vehicle, I knew I’d be covered no matter what happened next. He really left the door wide open for me with that one.” Hayden expressed confidence that there was probably someone wanted for robbery who looks similar enough to Watkins to legally justify pulling him over in the first place.
My career as a historian of white backlash might have begun the day that, as a teenager precociously obsessed with people like Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, and Eldridge Cleaver, I asked my parents if they had any interesting stories to tell me about the 1960s. The only one my mom could come up with was the day in 1967, two years before I was born, when there were riots in the inner city of Milwaukee. My parents invited all of their friends in our suburban neighborhood, who couldn’t go to work at the businesses they owned in the city, over for a pool party.
That was probably when I first became aware that there were two sides to the 1960s: the movements for social justice and the anti-authoritarian rage on one side, and on the other the people for whom such disorder spurred confusion and fear for their white-picket-fenced safety.
I later learned researching my book Nixonland that Milwaukee’s authoritarian mayor, Henry Maier, eventually declared a version of martial law so strict and fierce that mothers could not go out to buy milk for their children. Klansmen, however, weren’t hassled for defying the lockdown; they rolled around town with shotguns poking out car windows. The Milwaukee police burned down a house with a mentally disabled man inside. They claimed it was a nest for a sniper. The next year Mayor Maier was up for reelection. He won with 80 percent of the vote.
People are thinking of stories like that now, during a week that school kids might study some day. President Trump, after all, responded to the uprising in Minneapolis by tweeting something Miami’s racist police chief said during riots in 1968: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” Conservative Republicans (and right-wing Democrats) have a long and sordid history of exploiting riots for political gain. Richard Nixon knew what to do when, during a wave of urban uprisings in 1966, Vice President Hubert Humphrey said that “the National Guard is no answer to the problems of the slums.” Humphrey predicted “open violence in every major city and county in America” if conditions didn’t improve—then added, exuberantly but injudiciously, that if he lived in a slum, “I think you’d have more trouble than you have had already because I’ve got enough spark left in me to lead a mighty good revolt.”
Nixon took to the pages of a newsweekly for a guest editorial asking: “Who is responsible for the breaking of law and order in this country?” Hubert Humphrey for one, he answered. And Robert F. Kennedy, who had said—responding to a comment by former president Dwight D. Eisenhower that the 1965 Watts uprising stemmed from a “policy of lawlessness”—that “there is no point in telling Negroes to obey the law. To many Negroes the law is the enemy.”
Nixon was laying the groundwork for his 1968 presidential run. When he originally began doing so, it seemed likely his main appeal to the electorate would resemble that from his last presidential campaign in 1960: He was a statesman with deep foreign policy experience. That he chose a different approach this time was attributable to the tutelary example of a political neophyte: Ronald Reagan, who had just won a shocking upset in the California Republican gubernatorial primary with a law-and-order, white-backlash campaign.
So it was that in 1968, after two more summers of fire and blood, running against none other than Hubert “Mighty Good Revolt” Humphrey, Nixon aimed straight for the amygdala of those frightened white suburbanites. His most famous campaign commercial was a montage of riot scenes over a jittery, shrieking electronic soundtrack, the camera lingering on the naked white torso of a mannequin. Then came Nixon’s voice: “So I pledge to you, we will have order in the United States.”
It worked, and the lesson appeared plain enough: A politics of empathy of the sort that Humphrey and Kennedy had attempted—and Joe Biden is attempting now—is a political nonstarter.
It’s simply incorrect to argue that mass political violence inevitably spurs a backlash that benefits conservatives. By 1970, Nixon sought to nationalize that year’s congressional elections as a referendum on law and order—even intentionally spurring crowd violence against himself for the cameras to capture. A columnist reported, “Nixon’s advance men this fall have carefully organized with local police to allow enough dissenters into the staging areas so the president will have his theme well illustrated.”
That this was a wrong, and overly simplistic, conclusion is suggested by another of that year’s election results—Bobby Kennedy’s. Campaigning in a Black neighborhood in Indianapolis for the Democratic primary in Indiana, a racially diverse bellwether state, he received word of Martin Luther King’s assassination before it had become public—before his audience knew. So he broke the news to them in a tender, improvised rhetorical masterpiece in which, for the first time publicly, he reflected on the assassination of his brother and the pain of losing someone you love to violence. The fact that Indianapolis was one of few big cities not to face rioting that day is often attributed to Kennedy’s speech. And though the reasons are many and complex, and still debated today, he won the primary.
Once, in San Jose, disappointed that no one heckled Nixon during a speech, his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, gave protesters time to mass outside afterward, then had the president leap up on the hood of his limousine in their midst. He was obliged with the expected hail of rocks while jutting out his chin and making his trademark two-handed V-salute, providing footage that made all the evening newscasts. “That’s what they hate to see!” he exulted.
But Republicans that year underperformed expectations. When disorder is all around them, voters tend to blame the person in charge for the disorder—and, sometimes, punish those who exploit it for political gain.
It’s also not correct to argue that such disorder harms prospects for progressive change. Sometimes, in fact, it has spurred it. Political scientist David Srketny credits the urban disorders of the 1960s with moving corporations to commit to affirmative action. Riots following the Rodney King beating are credited with spurring Congress to pass legislation granting federal oversight over police departments—a power that lasted until Jeff Sessions, as Trump’s attorney general, rolled it back. And the event that we now honor with Pride parades was not only a riot, but a particularly ugly one: the folks who set it off trapped cops raiding their bar, and then tried to burn it down. But no one would deny Stonewall led to progressive change.
The politics of riots are complex, ambiguous—and especially, in our present circumstances, unpredictable. Though it’s become commonplace to place Trump in a long lineage of right-wing racism-exploiters that runs through Nixon and Reagan, it’s also important to grasp the real discontinuities. Unlike any Republican president before him, Trump is risking the consequences of being openly racist. Nixon—and even, in his 1968 and 1972 presidential runs, George Wallace—at least paid lip service to the goal of racial justice. That’s because even white people who regularly said and did things harmful to Black Americans didn’t want to believe that association with a particular candidate marked them as racist.
So they made it a priority to have Reagan campaign before Black audiences—for instance before the Urban League at its annual convention in New York, even though they knew they would only win a tiny fraction of Black voters. “We weren’t expecting to pick up any Black votes in New York,” one adviser noted. “We just want to show moderates and liberals”—if it were 2020 he would say “suburban voters”—“that Reagan wasn’t anti-Black.”
The day before his Urban League appearance, as it happens, Reagan gave his infamous speech in Mississippi at the Neshoba County Fair, in which he championed “states’ rights” with Confederate flags behind him. He stood just a few miles from the site of the most infamous lynching of the 1960s, and in a place where barnstorming politicians had for decades deployed states’ rights rhetoric as a synonym for racial dominance.
That speech is widely credited with setting the tenor for Reagan’s campaign, especially in the South. But my research suggests things were more complicated. The backlash to Reagan’s most explicit foray into race-baiting was so immediate and so intense, it was widely judged by Republican strategists as a mistake. One Mississippi GOP official, in fact, worried that Reagan’s rhetoric was so embarrassing to moderate white Mississippians that it might throw the state to Jimmy Carter.
It didn’t—but where Barry Goldwater got 87 percent of the vote in Mississippi in 1964, in 1980 Reagan only edged Carter by one percent. White Southerners, by 1980, dearly wished to see themselves as “colorblind.” A racist dogwhistle that was too easily audible wasn’t useful.
So in Reagan’s homestretch swing through Texas, the campaign put a Black state legislator up front at their rallies, including one broadcast on statewide TV, for maximal prominence in reaction shots of the crowd. I’ve seen that trick pulled off at every Republican convention since—until, that is, 2016.
It’s often said that Donald Trump takes the dogwhistle and turns it into a train whistle. Looting, shooting: Sure, he, too, apes Reagan in attempting public appeals to African Americans, the better to soothe those suburban whites. But “MAGA loves the black people” does not appear to be doing the trick.
As Greg Sargent has noted in the Washington Post, Trump in 2018 turned up the volume on the train whistle—“relentlessly painting nonwhite immigrants as criminals and murderers.” What happened? The fallout of support among educated white suburbanites handed Republicans defeat after defeat.
Will the awful events in Minneapolis and Louisville and Atlanta and New York (and who knows how long the list will be by weekend’s end?), and the president’s racist grunts in response, beat out compassion, context, and empathy? Predictions are perilous. But history suggests that, even among voters bunkered behind their picket fences, they might not.