The racist massacre of nine black worshippers at a Charleston, S.C., church on June 17 was an act of such heinous ugliness that it demands to be scrutinized for any larger meanings it may possess. That the victims had graciously welcomed the murderer, Dylann Roof, to their Bible study class at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church and had politely sat with him for nearly an hour before he started shooting makes their killings all the more heart-wrenching. Given America’s history of racial terror, including attacks on black churches, it is appropriate to ask humbly, with trepidation, whether the shooting reflects currents of hate that are still active in American culture. It is not, however, appropriate to answer that question with boilerplate rhetoric that bears little resemblance to reality.
An honest appraisal of race relations today would conclude that the Charleston massacre belongs to the outermost, lunatic fringe of American society. The country’s revulsion at the carnage was immediate and universal, resulting in a justified movement to banish the Confederate flag, embraced by Roof as a white-supremacist symbol, from official sites. Roof was not expressing the will of anyone beyond his own narcissistic, twisted self. White-supremacist killings are not a common aspect of black life today; their very rarity is what made this atrocity so newsworthy.
Obama, however, marched on, leveraging the bloodshed to confirm other liberal tropes regarding a racist America. “Perhaps this tragedy causes us to ask some tough questions about how we can permit so many of our children to languish in poverty, or attend dilapidated schools, or grow up without prospects for a job or for a career.” Obama is yoking together disjoint realities. Even were the standard liberal narrative about poverty true, its alleged malefactors would still bear no responsibility for the Charleston horror.
But the standard liberal narrative is not true. The notorious “we” that has allegedly permitted “so many of our children to languish in poverty” and “attend dilapidated schools” has spent decades trying to eradicate black poverty. Welfare reform was a good-faith effort to break the cycle of intergenerational dependence. Republican politicians regularly churn out earnest policy wonkery and programs in the hope of raising more black children out of poverty. Black uplift remains an obsessive concern of white Republican philanthropists. I don’t know a single conservative donor who is not fervently trying to improve urban schools or provide scholarships in order to liberate pupils from that educational wasteland. That the educational establishment desperately and ludicrously caricatures those efforts as an attack on children does not make those initiatives any the less heartfelt.
Obama leveraged the bloodshed to confirm liberal tropes regarding a racist America.
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof anticipated Obama’s speech with his own leap from the shootings into liberal bromides. America’s greatest shame in 2015 is not the persistence of the Confederate flag in the South, Kristof wrote, but the fact that “almost two-thirds of black children grow up in low-income families.” Kristof saw this statistic as a manifestation of racism: “The larger national disgrace,” he said, is that “so many children still don’t have an equal shot at life because of the color of their skin.”
Skin color has nothing to do with it. The overwhelming reason why children grow up in poverty “in 2015” is that they are being raised by single parents. Children with no father at home are between four and five times more likely to be poor as the children of married parents, whether they are black or white. But with 72 percent of black children born to single mothers — nearly three times the white out-of-wedlock birthrate — blacks’ higher poverty level is inevitable.
The formula for escaping poverty as an adult also has nothing to do with race: Graduate from high school, wait until you are married to have children, and work full-time. Whites who eschew those bourgeois behaviors are as likely to be poor as blacks who eschew them. Only 2 percent of individuals who follow those rules are in poverty, according to Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution; 72 percent of those who follow them earn at least $55,000 a year. The American poverty rate would be cut by 70 percent if the same percentage of Americans engaged in those responsible behaviors as did in 1970, regardless of race.
America spends over $1 trillion a year on programs for disadvantaged families, estimates Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution. In the liberal worldview, where compassion is measured by government spending, that vast sum should buy the American “we” some dispensation from race-mongering. Compassionate or not, however, that spending is unable to counteract the effects of nonmarital childbearing, a social catastrophe about which Obama, Kristof, and other scourges of alleged racism are silent. Family breakdown explains the other racial inequalities that Obama seized on. He criticized “us” for “permitting” so many children to grow up “without prospects for a job or a career.” This lachrymose accusation again overlooks the reality that a black boy who graduates from high school today with a modestly respectable GPA will have scores of selective colleges beating down his door; should he finish college in decent standing he will be able to write his ticket to the graduate school of his choice. If few black students are able to take advantage of those racial preferences, it is because children from single-mother homes enter school far behind their peers in reading, math, and social-emotional skills, a gap which schools struggle to close. Fatherless children, especially boys, are less likely to graduate from high school or college and are more prone to crime and gang involvement.
The Roof massacre was also portrayed as part of a pattern of white violence against blacks. Blacks live with the “daily threat of terror,” according to Patricia Williams Lessane, the director of the Avery Institute for Afro-American History and Culture at the College of Charleston. Such “terror,” Lessane wrote in the New York Times, “does not exist within a vacuum. It looms within the growing prison-industrial state, against the backdrop of school-reform debates, our slow movement toward gun reform and the political maneuvers by Republicans to make it increasingly more difficult for poor people and minorities to vote. The reality that our civil rights are under attack is just as heavy as our fear for our lives.” Bryan Stevenson, a black lawyer and activist, told the New York Times that the Charleston bloodbath is just the latest example, however extreme, of the way “black men and boys are treated by the police, by schools, and by the state.”
In fact, white violence against blacks is dwarfed by black on white violence. In 2012, blacks committed 560,600 acts of violence against whites (excluding homicide), and whites committed 99,403 acts of violence (excluding homicide) against blacks, according to data from the National Crime Victimization Survey provided to the author. Blacks, in other words, committed 85 percent of the non-homicide interracial crimes of violence between blacks and whites, even though they are less than 13 percent of the population. Both the absolute number of incidents and the rate of black-on-white violence are therefore magnitudes higher than white-on-black violence. There is no white race war going on.
(The Bureau of Justice Statistics stopped publishing its table on interracial crime after 2008, perhaps not coincidentally, the first year of the Obama presidency. The agency explains its decision on the ground that some of the estimates in particular crime categories, such as sexual assault, are based on sample sizes that are too small to be statistically reliable. But that is no reason not to tabulate data on the crimes for which reliable estimates are available.)A black boy “has a life expectancy five years shorter than a white boy,” notes Nicholas Kristof as part of his litany of persistent white racism. A considerable part of that gap is due to the black homicide-victimization rate — six times higher than the white homicide-victimization rate. It is not whites who are responsible for that homicide death gap; it’s other blacks. Blacks commit homicide at close to eight times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined; among males between the ages of 14 and 17, the interracial homicide commission gap is nearly tenfold. Rare is the national protest and media blitz over those routine killings.
The Roof massacre was a shocking throwback to this country’s deplorable racial past. But the vast majority of whites have moved beyond that past. Most whites and most blacks wish only to be allowed to get along, outside enforced race consciousness. Pockets of virulent racial contempt still exist (as much among blacks as among whites), but they are irrelevant to the millions of individual behavioral choices that drive social and economic outcomes. It is understandable not just to interrogate the Roof atrocity but even to overreact to it; every mass killing over the last several years has provoked a similar overreaction to what are equally rare events. But to exploit the very real victimization of the Emanuel flock for an ideology of victimhood will only make progress in closing racial economic inequality more difficult.
— Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor at City Journal.