Denying Progress Is Key to the Left’s Rhetoric

People take part in a protest following the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd in Boston, Mass., June 3, 2020. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
The radical culture’s rejection of the facts about change is most pervasive in two important aspects of life: civil rights and the fight to reduce poverty.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE T oo often, the new voices taking over our national discussion decline to acknowledge how much America has changed since 1960. The work of the anti-racist progressives is full of false comparisons of America’s present with its past. “The popular narrative that emphasizes the death of slavery,” writes Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow, “is dangerously misguided.” In his 2015 memoir, Ta-Nehisi Coates describes “police forces transformed into armies,” and “the long war against the black body.” Robin DiAngelo even suggests that “racism’s [modern] adaptations over time are more sinister than concrete rules such as Jim Crow.”

The radical culture’s rejection of the facts about change in our country is most pervasive in two important aspects of American life: civil rights and the fight to reduce poverty. In rejecting the current state of America, radical leaders don’t recognize the progress we have made in securing voting rights, improving educational opportunities, and promoting economic advancement for black and minority Americans. They likewise deny that the enactment and implementation of a long series of large and costly federal and state programs, combined with the employment offered by a thriving free-market economy, have led to a dramatic decline in poverty.

Given how our schools teach American history and what is contained in our mainstream media and culture, it is not surprising that young people buy into this rejection of history. The story of America’s racist past is just so simplified, so compelling in its portrayal of good vs. evil, that it has been adopted as the story of America’s racist present.

That is why the awful actions of individual police officers are so compelling for the Left. Regardless of their infrequency in the context of policing, these terrible incidents are a perfect fit for the misperceptions and political ambitions of activists. The story becomes not about police abuse in liberal Minneapolis (how did that happen?) but racism in conservative America.

I have a personal stake in this argument. I believe Dr. King and the civil rights movement were successful in leading America to positive change, partly because I saw my father play a role in that change. During his time working in the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division under three presidents, John Doar helped to move the country forward by helping to integrate Southern universities, prosecuting the murders of civil-rights activists, and guaranteeing the fairness of federal elections in the South. Dad’s record led President Obama to say in recognizing his efforts: “I might not be here had it not been for his work.”

There are hundreds of ways to document how different America is today than it was 60 years ago. Black and minority legislators make up a significant portion of our federal and state legislatures, city governments, and public school boards. Fifty-seven current members of Congress are African American. In 1960, there were just four. Fully, 131 members of Congress are black, Hispanic, Asian, or Native American. African-American college-graduation rates have quadrupled over the past six decades, and roughly 12 percent of recently admitted students at our nation’s most elite universities (Harvard, Yale, and Princeton) are African American. Princeton announced this spring that 61 percent of those admitted to next year’s incoming class are “students of color.”

African-American progress is not limited to politics and higher education. There is also a large and flourishing black upper class. According to my colleague Brad Wilcox, millions of black men have reached the upper income bracket. And, adjusted for inflation, the median black household income has risen 45% in the past 50 years. A peak of this success was the election and reelection of Barack Obama, an African-American candidate who won the votes of 42 million white Americans in 2008.

There is another more recent example of the large role African Americans play in politics. By overwhelmingly supporting the more moderate Joe Biden over the more progressive Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, African-American voters determined the Democratic nominee for president this year.

It is common among the liberal elite to dismiss these accomplishments and political power — but one has to ask what other country in the world can claim this kind of peaceful rise of a racial or ethnic minority? Our legislatures are among the most racially and ethnically diverse in the world, and the United States remains the place millions of emigrating “people of color” choose as they escape the inadequacy of their own homelands.

Rejecting the civil-rights revolution is not the only ahistorical aspect of the radical Left. They also refuse to accurately describe the successes of our nation’s prolonged war on poverty. In both relative and absolute terms, there are fewer American children living in poverty today than there were 40 years ago, despite a significant increase in population. We spend nearly $800 billion per year on anti-poverty programs that help provide food, housing, and medical care for the needy. This spending is supplemented by billions more from charities and thousands of smaller efforts from churches, synagogues, and communities across the country. Scholars such as University of Chicago economist Bruce Meyer can now say — and not be honestly refuted — that, properly accounted for, only 2.8 percent of Americans live in poverty, an all-time low.

Here, again, I have a personal stake. I spent from 1995 to 2013 leading social-services programs in New York State and City. I saw the effective combination of an economy offering jobs, government aid, and a government policy that said clearly that the path out of poverty is employment — all of which together dramatically increased earnings while reducing poverty, not just in New York, but throughout the country.

If progress has been made in both civil rights and poverty alleviation, why are the radicals so effective at making it sound like it isn’t true? One word — equality. Equality, properly defined, is about equal treatment under law, not equal outcomes in all aspects of life. But progressives have twisted that understanding beyond recognition. Our schools, media, and culture constantly send the message that the goal in the civil-rights battle was not equal rights under law but equal outcomes in educational attainment, income, housing, and wealth.

Likewise, for the new Left the fight against poverty was intended not to lift people up to the first step on the ladder of economic well-being but instead to achieve a secure middle-class existence for all, without regard to individual effort or work. Those two goals, equal outcomes and middle-class incomes for all, are what people are repeatedly told they were promised. No wonder they believe it.

The contest for the future of our country is going to be waged on this ground. Our system of government is suited to achieve the goals of civil rights under law and elimination of severe material hardship — we can do that with the system we have, and we have been doing that with the system we have. But those who insist that civil rights mean equal representation in all walks of life, and ending poverty means a government-guaranteed middle-class income for all, regardless of effort, cannot get there with the system we have. It’s not possible because our system is built around the individual and imposes important limits on government. This makes what the radical Left is seeking impossible to achieve by government action, but they would destroy our country and all that we have gained in the effort.

Robert Doar is the president of the American Enterprise Institute.

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