Whenever police brutality sparks riots and resentments, from Rodney King to Freddie Gray to George Floyd, there is a current of contrarian opinion that wants to blame “The Narrative.” The Narrative holds that police killings are common; that they are motivated mostly by race; and that race is the defining line in American society, the source of all its problems and divisions.
Each claim, the naysayers note, is either exaggerated or fabricated. No, police killings are not common; law-abiding citizens are more likely to be struck by lightning than shot by the police. No, they’re not racially-motivated; once you control for crime rates, police kill whites just as often as they do blacks. And while racism is certainly a part of American society, to say that it’s the whole thing is ridiculously reductionist, a potted, politicized tall tale that excuses, maybe even encourages violence.
And they’re right: The Narrative does trade on hyperbole, ignore inconvenient facts, and deepen the divisions it purports to redress.
But if its shortcomings suggest the naivety of a certain sort of protestor, its persistence despite those shortcomings suggests the naivety of much of the pushback. In particular, it suggests that the three main counter-narratives on offer today — creedalism, nationalism, and localism — simply ring hollow, and provide very little in the way of unity or hope.
Start with creedalism. For many centrists-cum-civic nationalists, racism and rioting alike are rooted in a betrayal of America’s founding identity, its classically liberal character. What unites us all as Americans, on this view, is (or should be) reverence for the Constitution, respect for the rule of law, and belief in the fundamental equality of man: in other words, a series of abstract principles.
It’s an admirable vision, and no doubt it would be less divisive than The Narrative. But “less divisive” is a far cry from unifying. It’s easy to agree on abstract principles in the abstract; it’s hard to interpret and apply them when their whole point is to transcend concrete conflicts and experiences. And even if we could agree on what the principles mean, it’s not clear that they would satisfy our need for kinship and identity — indeed, it’s not clear “principles” are an identity at all.
The other problem with creedalism is that it tends to imagine Americans as individuals first, and members of groups second. But — and The Narrative is right about this — individual and group identity aren’t always so separable. People have parents, parents have pasts, and pasts contain pains, not all of which time can anesthetize. George Floyd’s murder may have been an outlier, in other words, but it took place in a country where racial violence was the norm for centuries, where blacks are nearly ten times poorer than whites, and where, if police killings are unbiased, policing itself is not, as any serious scholar will attest. And of course, race does not exhaust the list of divisions that “free markets, free people” seems unable to bridge.
Partly in response to these problems, some conservatives have pivoted toward a more particularist understanding of American identity — based on shared values, yes, but also shared history, shared culture. This was the understanding that dominated last summer’s National Conservatism Conference in Washington, D.C., with more than one panelist invoking “the mystic chords of memory” posited by Abraham Lincoln in his First Inaugural. At first glance, it can seem like a healthy corrective to creedal abstraction, and perhaps, in some small sense, it is.
But as a blueprint for racial union, it’s got some pretty big design flaws. Leave aside for a moment the question of whether we’ve ever had a common culture, or the fact that we don’t have one now; it’s not even clear we have a common history. Yes, our ancestors fought the same wars . . . but not always on the same side. Yes, blacks have lived here for over three centuries . . . first as slaves, then as second-class citizens to whites. Even if you think racism is mostly a thing of the past (and it’s debatable whether you should), American history does contain quite a lot of it, enough to make those “mystic chords” rather hard to harmonize. Arranging them may be possible in principle; in practice, no one has written a score.
And in a country of 330 million people — black, white, and every shade in between — that lack of harmony is a huge problem. It would be one thing if our diversity broke down neatly along state lines, so that each demographic were largely self-governing under our federal system. But that is not the America we have, and, more to the point, it’s not the one we should want — meaning that localism, the last-ditch solution to which Americans often turn, doesn’t solve much at all. If anything, it has become another vector for polarization, cynically deployed by whichever side is out of power, from the grassroots gutting of Obamacare to the California crusade against ICE — and on the specific issue of police reform, it is poised to polarize us further still: consider how a local vote to disband the police became national news, and part of national debate, literally overnight.
So it’s not enough to reject the racial gnosticism of The Narrative. You need a positive replacement, a story that’s sufficiently broad to include everyone but sufficiently narrow to make inclusion seem worth it. The academic defenders of the riots, the reporters determined to downplay them, the pious protesters lamenting their privilege, clearly don’t know what that looks like.
But nor, I think it’s safe to say, do you.