by Bruce Thornton
Who's inflicted the most damage on the black underclass?
Recently a black man named Tyre Nichols was savagely beaten by five Memphis policemen, and died a few days later of “extensive bleeding caused by a severe beating,” according to the preliminary autopsy report.
Typically such an event is met with nationwide protests and riots marked by arson, vandalizing, and looting. The usual race-baiters, attracted by black blood, exploit the crime in order to promote their own interests as racialist tribunes, or to get publicity for some ideology and its supporting “evidence,” like the sketchy, counter-factual “systemic racism” that drives police to target unarmed black men for murder, even though for decades police shootings of all ethnicities have declined considerably.
In this instance, however, the protests were muted and localized. More pertinent, the five policemen were black men, a fact that require some sophistic rhetorical gymnastics in order to argue that this murder bespeaks systemic racism or lingering “white supremacy,” for which protestors find arson and vandalism somehow effective. It also didn’t hurt that the five were fired and charged with second-degree murder with dispatch, taking away another sham motive for riots–– the accusations of impunity or cover-ups that long investigations and delayed filling of charges invite.
This disaster no doubt has many causes: poor training, lax hiring standards, “equity” and “diversity” imperatives, for example. Police departments are finding it harder to recruit more police to replace those who have quit, despite six-figure salaries and signing bonuses. The problem obviously can be traced to the “defund the police” movement and the perception of many likely hires that they will be demonized and second-guessed, and their bosses in city government won’t have their backs. That treatment is not likely to attract people to a dangerous occupation that requires you to wear a target on your back every time you show up for work.
Yet the “systemic racism” explanation is too politically useful to forgo, and so the current heinous crime by black cops must be subject to this one-size fits all argument. But what the purveyors of this weapon forget is that dubious theories like “systemic racism” in the end are patently harmful and insulting to black people, as all arguments based on determinism compromise the full humanity of all peoples.
A typical example of commentary shoe-horning this crime into a “systemic racism” paradigm comes from Van Jones, one of our most well-remunerated and influential cognitive elite purveyors of racialized explanations for the problems of less privileged blacks. Writing for CNN, where he is a political commentator, Jones tried to explain how the five cops who murdered Nichols were victims of “systemic racism”:
“One of the sad facts about anti-Black racism is that Black people ourselves are not immune to its pernicious effects. Society’s message that Black people are inferior, unworthy and dangerous is pervasive. Over many decades, numerous experiments have shown that these ideas can infiltrate Black minds as well as White. Self-hatred is a real thing. . . . Black cops are often socialized in police departments that view certain neighborhoods as war zones. In those departments, few officers get disciplined for dishing out ‘street justice’ in certain precincts — often populated by Black, brown or low-income people — where there is a tacit understanding that the ‘rulebook’ simply doesn’t apply.”
The most striking thing about this line of argument is not its complete detachment from empirical evidence, or its questionable reference to dodgy “experiments” rife with subjective interpretations and confirmation bias. As for the lack of evidence, scores of books and essays by journalists like Heather MacDonald have pointed to crime databases that do not show an epidemic of white police hunting down unarmed black men for execution, let alone that they are motivated by “white supremacy” or other occult racist ideologies.
Much worse is the complete disregard race-mongers like Jones, or the Congressional Black Congress, or our first black president, Barack Obama, have shown toward the continuing slaughter of black men, the overwhelming majority at the hands of other black men. Nor are most of the peddlers of “systemic racism”––who support Black Lives Matter and the violent riots that follow any death of a black man at the hands of the police (white victims don’t count)––as vocal about the black victims of these “peaceful protests.”
And if “black lives matter,” why don’t we hear from “antiracist” crusaders about the thousands of black lives lost because anti-police policies and prosecutors have neutered the police, leading to increases in murders and assaults of black people? If anything is truly “racist,” it’s the mostly white progressive cognitive elites living in tony zip codes who propose and support such feckless policies, the impact of which will seldom be felt in their families and neighborhoods.
The real problem for decades has been the neglect of the black underclass who have to live in urban hellscapes created by the callous redistribution of wealth through welfare transfers that create disincentives to work and maintain intact families. Of course, ultimately the individual’s decisions contribute to his fate. But given that all human beings are subject to acting on destructive passions and appetites, a humane society would not actively create conditions that promote bad choices––especially a culture that has driven faith and God from the town square, and banished both to the realm of subjective preferences and tastes.
Finally, blaming “systemic racism” left over from Jim Crow segregation and slavery for dysfunctions in the black community ignores history. Research by scholars and economists like Walter Williams have shown that starting in the 40s, more black lives began to improve, and suffer fewer social pathologies before the Sixties, in spite of legal segregation. Jason Riley has summarized the data:
“Between 1890 and 1940, for example, black marriage rates in the U.S. were higher than white marriage rates. In the 1940s and ’50s, black labor-participation rates exceeded those of whites; black incomes grew much faster than white incomes; and the black poverty rate fell by 40 percentage points. Between 1940 and 1970—that is, during Jim Crow and prior to the era of affirmative action—the number of blacks in middle-class professions quadrupled. In other words, racial gaps were narrowing. Steady progress was being made. Blacks today hear plenty about what they can’t achieve due to the legacy of slavery and not enough about what they did in fact achieve notwithstanding hundreds of years in bondage followed by decades of legal segregation.
In the post-’60s era, these positive trends would slow, stall, or in some cases even reverse course. The homicide rate for black men fell by 18% in the 1940s and by another 22% in the 1950s. But in the 1960s all of those gains would vanish as the homicide rate for black males rose by nearly 90%. Are today’s black violent-crime rates a legacy of slavery and Jim Crow or of something else? Unfortunately, that’s a question few people on the left will even entertain.”
These facts raise a fundamental question: if the travails of the black underclass trace back to the “systemic racism” that has tainted the U.S. since 1619, how did those earlier blacks manage to improve their lives in spite of Jim Crow and racist hostility? Only by diminishing black people’s characters, virtues, and agency by characterizing them as frail and weak––so much so that they can be programed to commit violent crimes against their own people, or cannot figure out how to register to vote or find a polling place, or have to be protected by big-state nannies from hearing “hate speech” that will leave them curled into a fetal ball.
In other words, turning them into perpetual victims dependent on patronizing government guardians and lupine race-baiters who seldom live in the same neighborhoods as their inferior clients. For as the African proverb has it, “The hand that gives is always above the hand that receives.
Finally, this transformation of one of America’s toughest, most enduring, and most long-suffering ethnicities into perpetual victims is a product of the cultural changes of the Sixties, changes that were the product mostly of middle-class and affluent white people who thought they could afford to dismantle traditional morality and virtue and go off on a binge of feckless self-indulgence.
And Cultural Marxists were also there to provide a specious rationale that turned debauchery and a lack of self-control into weapons of revolution. Pseudo-statements like the following from Herbert Marcuse: “The civilized morality is reversed by harmonizing instinctual freedom and order: liberated from the tyranny of repressive reason, the instincts tend toward free and lasting existential relations––they generate a new reality principle.” If it feels good, do it.
In other words, the Sixties discredited as “repressive” all the virtues that are necessary for success, just at the moment when the Civil Rights Act had begun to do away with the legal segregation that had shut out a considerable number of black people from taking advantage of new opportunities made possible by a growing economy and changing mores regarding race.
For decades now the self-proclaimed guardians of “social justice” and “equity” for “people of color” have made things worse for the black underclass. It’s time for those responsible for this scandal to be held accountable.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center, an emeritus professor of classics and humanities at California State University, Fresno, and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. His latest book is Democracy’s Dangers and Discontents: The Tyranny of the Majority from the Greeks to Obama.
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