David McKenna, the screenwriter who penned Tony Kaye’s American History X, committed one of the great acts of intellectual cowardice in the history of modern American cinema. Telling the story of Derek Vinyard, a violent neo-Nazi who reexamines his squandered life while being tormented in prison, McKenna explores the origins of the angry young skinhead’s predispositions by revisiting Vinyard’s high-school days: In flashback, we see a breakfast-table conversation between the young man and his father (played by the excellent Edward Norton and William Russ, respectively). Vinyard and his father get into a discussion of affirmative action. His father, a fireman, makes a reasoned and principled case, if not an entirely eloquent one, that by promoting two black candidates over two better-qualified white candidates, affirmative action has put his life in danger. He resents that he must entrust his life to two men who are less qualified for their positions but who were hired nonetheless because of their race. “Is that what America’s about?” he demands. “No! America’s about the best man for the job.” But before the point can quite settle in, the father starts speculating about the “hidden agenda” and, finally, leans in and whispers conspiratorially to his son: “It’s n****r bulls***.”
Dramatically, that makes no sense. American History X would be an even more powerful story if the transformative moment in young Derek’s life — his father’s murder at the hands of black criminals during a firefighting call — had sparked a different and more radical sort of transformation in the Vinyard family, from the well-intentioned, best-man-for-the-job philosophy of the resentful but reasonable working-class father to the violent extremism of the son. Instead, the story is simply one of explicit, banal racism that deepens between generations, at a time when American society was overwhelmingly on the opposite course. But the father’s principled criticism of affirmative action cannot be allowed to stand; it must be thoroughly hosed down with racism, conspiracy-theory talk, and the totemic deployment of that infamous racial epithet.
In the view of America’s race-hustling professionals, there is no principled disagreement with them — there is only gross racism, either hidden or open.
It is possible — barely possible — that this is in fact how the Left sees the world: That behind every criticism of affirmative action, behind every anti-crime measure, behind every proposal for welfare reform, behind every expression of capitalism, behind every measure taken against voter fraud, behind every criticism of the Ferguson lynch mob — and even behind every fraction — a burning cross looms, men in white hoods await, and the lynching noose is being prepared. That view is borderline insane and contrary to the overwhelming evidence of contemporary American life as lived, but people hold all sorts of loopy views, so it is just within the boundaries of plausibility that people on the Left, so-called progressives, genuinely hold this view.
More likely, the spectral evidence of white supremacy in our modern Salem race trials is simply a rhetorical tool, a way for well-fed progressives to beat their critics into submission if one of them should happen to point out that progressive policies seem to produce reliably horrific results for people who are poor and, especially, poor and black. That Thomas Edsall sincerely believes that welfare reform is shaped in part by ugly stereotypes about blacks malingering on the dole is, despite the man’s intellectual dishonesty, more plausible than Jamelle Bouie’s daft and hallucinatory suggestion that my description of a thin black kid with long braids as resembling a scale-model of Snoop Dogg is a coded racist dog-whistle referring to the infamous Three-Fifths Compromise. Students of history will recall that Mr. Madison’s ugly political expedient did not refer to three-fifths of a Snoop Dogg.
It is a seldom-appreciated irony that irresponsible allegations of racism are politically effective in the American context precisely because American society takes racism so seriously; in a society with more cavalier attitudes toward racism, such dishonest opportunism would bear less fruit. Politicians in Spain and the Republic of Korea, for example, worry a good deal less about insinuations that they might harbor insensitive racial attitudes. But in the context of the United States, one can effectively win a political argument not by demonstrating to any reasonable standard of evidence that one’s opponent is a racist but simply by maneuvering him into explaining that he isn’t a racist. It’s the “Have you stopped beating your wife yet” gambit on a grand and nasty scale.
So when former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani takes seriously the operative slogan of the Ferguson protests — “Black Lives Matter!” — and asks the obvious question — “Don’t they matter in the 93 percent of cases when the lives of black murder victims are taken violently by black criminals?” — the Left’s reflexive response is to denounce him as a racist. The Washington Post’s hilariously Orwellian fact-check column labeled Giuliani a liar even as it confirmed that his observation is, as a matter of fact, entirely true. If David McKenna had been writing the scene, Giuliani would have leaned across a table and whispered to Sean Hannity that this is all “n****r bulls***.”
But real life doesn’t go according to script. That’s why we have the New York Times et al. — to write the script according to the Left’s dramatic imperatives, regardless of what actually happens. The media may not control the stage entirely, but they do control the lighting and the sound.
The reality is this: Black men, especially young black men, die violent deaths at appalling rates in these United States. But they do not die very often at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan, thugs reminiscent of characters from American History X, police officers of any race or motivation, lynch mobs, the Koch brothers, Karl Rove, Walmart, the Tea Party, Goldman Sachs, carbon dioxide, or any other bogeyman currently in vogue among so-called progressives. As Giuliani noted, blacks die violent deaths almost exclusively at the hands of black criminals. But attempting to accommodate that reality in any serious way does not pay any political dividends for the Left. It does not put any money in Jesse Jackson’s pockets or create any full-time jobs for graduates of grievance-studies programs.
And thus we have the very peculiar situation in which “Black Lives Matter!” but black perpetrators don’t. Only white perpetrators matter. And if, as in the case of George Zimmerman, they are not exactly white, then they can be declared white by the New York Times. Only white perpetrators matter to the people behind the Ferguson protests because only white perpetrators are politically useful.
The overwhelming majority of violent deaths suffered by black Americans are the result of simple crime, and crime is, as an issue, of no use to the Left. But when a black man dies at the hands of a white man — especially a white police officer — then that breathes life into the ghost of “white supremacy,” the infinitely malleable, endlessly useful set of imperial robes detectable only by the finest sensibilities on MSNBC. Actual white supremacists represent a dwindling and (metaphorically and, more often than you might expect, literally) toothless tendency restricted mostly to hillbilly precincts and anonymous Internet cowards. But if one already wants to boycott Walmart, and a white cop shoots a young black man, then — abracadabra! — the Left is boycotting Walmart because of . . . white supremacy, or something. Agitating for a $40 minimum wage? “Justice for Mike Brown!” Looking for even more generous solar-power subsidies? “Justice for Mike Brown!” Anointing AFL-CIO boss Richard Trumka president-for-life? “Mike Brown would have wanted it that way!”
If you believe that black lives matter, then you should be working for school reform, economic growth, and — yes — more effective law-enforcement and crime-prevention measures to protect black communities, which suffer an enormously disproportionate share of crime and violence. Never mind the stagecraft: That’s what you actually do if you think black lives matter.
And the drama that’s going on in Ferguson right now? That’s what you do if you think black lives are merely useful to you — and, in the end, expendable.
— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.