Magazine July 6, 2020, Issue

‘I Accuse . . .’

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Behind indiscriminate claims of racism there is a dangerous propaganda strategy

Cuba’s Communists have long railed against the U.S. embargo. Yet the “blockade,” as they cleverly call it, is the crown jewel of their propaganda strategy — the excuse for all their failures, the justification for every new abuse. In America, progressives have now embraced a similar strategy. The good intentions that originally led them to abandon the Democratic Party’s racist legacy are now obscured by rapid-fire accusations of “racism” targeting anyone who disagrees with them about anything.  

Witness how progressives have manipulated the death of George Floyd. They have blamed President Trump for his killing (which happened in a city controlled at every level by Democrats), have attempted to justify rampant rioting and assaults on police, and are now seeking to defund whole police forces. Not a word about how they and their policies have contributed to the conditions they are protesting. “Black Lives Matter” to them, but not to the point of admitting a mistake of their own. And where anarchy ensues, they will doubtless use that as an excuse to further expand their power. 

One shudders to think what more they might want. The head of the New York City Council’s health committee, Mark Levine, recently declared that any spike in COVID-19 infections arising from the protests is really the fault of “racism.” Over 1,000 health experts signed an open letter declaring that protests against racism “must be supported,” despite the risk of a new spike in COVID-19 infections. They made space to warn that protests for other reasons — particularly protests against their preferred policies — should still be suppressed. 

In The Nation, R. H. Lossin published what amounts to a terrorist insurgent manifesto. “Attacking police stations, for example, makes rational sense,” she writes. “It is not the sudden, spontaneous expression of a disordered and irrational mob but the clear enactment of a political position, the fulfillment in some small but concrete way of the central demand being made by protesters across the country: Police need to be defunded, and some police stations need to disappear.” It was only a matter of time before “systemic racism” became an excuse for systematically targeting everybody. 

Not so long ago, a credible accusation of racism was enough to end the career of any public figure in America. But today, accusations of racism are so indiscriminate as to risk diluting their own effectiveness. 

One shouldn’t doubt their commitment to anti-racism, but blaming racism for everything allows progressives, however subconsciously, to shift blame for the consequences of their own policies, even in the very incidents of police brutality that they are complaining about. Put yourself in New York City in the summer of 2014. Eric Garner is selling loose cigarettes to friends and passersby on the street on Staten Island when he is apprehended, resists arrest, is placed in a chokehold, and dies as a result. A grand jury later refuses to indict the police officers involved, but the confrontation with police was only the last step in an all-too-familiar causal chain. 

Ask yourself: Why are so many people selling loose cigarettes in New York City to begin with, and why is it a felony? The reason is that Mayor Mike Bloomberg sharply raised taxes on cigarettes, and then raised the penalty for selling loose cigarettes from across the river (where they are cheaper). Under the combination of state and city law, anyone with a prior conviction who sells a single unauthorized cigarette in New York City can be charged with a felony. And if they have probable cause to believe that a felony is in progress, the police are required to attempt an arrest — that is why we have them. 

It was Bloomberg who involved the police in the otherwise harmless black market that his own policy had created. Sadly for Eric Garner, Bloomberg didn’t stop to think that when you involve the police, you are involving the state’s monopoly of legitimate force. Every new felony on the books creates countless new opportunities for potentially deadly confrontations with the police. 

As Heather Mac Donald has shown, there is little evidence of systemic racism in police treatment of black Americans today. But black men get arrested at much higher rates than white men, and many do indeed suffer racism at every step in the process. Racism does exist in our society, and calling it out and rooting it out remain an urgent cause. But populating the country with imaginary racists does not make it easier to root out the real ones. 

Systemic racism simply is not the main cause of the racial disparity in arrest rates. The main cause is the disproportionate incidence of black-on-black crime relative to the rest of the population. In New York City last year, according to the NYPD’s official report on crime and enforcement, non-Hispanic blacks were just 22 percent of the population yet accounted for more than twice as many victims and suspects in almost every category of violent crime: 45 and 53 percent of reported assaults, 56 and 62 percent of murders, and 71 and 74 percent of shootings. 

Progressives deny that the disparity in arrest rates could be driven by any factor other than racism. That is ironic, considering that the other possible factors include many of their favorite policies. Welfare programs and minimum-wage laws do indeed increase wages for a small fraction of low-skilled workers. But they do so mostly by depriving the least-skilled workers of both the right to work and the incentive to work.

Minimum-wage laws make it illegal for you to agree to a lower wage than the statutory minimum, however much you may want to. Thus the meager benefits of a minimum wage are derived by squeezing the labor market at the very bottom in order to inflate wages slightly higher up. Meanwhile, welfare benefits, which compete against potential employers, lure unskilled workers away from jobs where they could acquire valuable skills. The world’s most widely available and effective avenue of upward social mobility is on-the-job training. But many progressives believe that to work for low wages is “exploitation.” 

At the dawn of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, even left-wing publications such as The New Republic predicted the destruction of the nuclear family among the poorest of the poor. Many welfare programs were structured so as to obviate the need for a breadwinner in the family. Again, the intention was noble, but the logic was flawed. The breadwinner duly disappeared in poor American families, including a disproportionate number of black families. 

One major result of these economically suffocating measures has been economic blight across large swaths of urban America. Another is likely the crime rate. Today more than 70 percent of black children are born to unwed mothers, one reason why Bill Johnson of the Detroit News called Detroit “an assembly line for criminals.”

Meanwhile, progressive elites seem to assume that because they’re providing basic necessities for the poorest of the poor, it doesn’t matter if the poor languish in a cycle of dependency. 

In Minneapolis, the city council recently voted to defund the police. Asked on CNN what someone should do if his house is being burglarized, council president Lisa Bender responded with confessional humility that she had indeed thought of that, and that people in “a place of privilege” like hers and her neighbors’ should think about the risk to their assailant before they call police. She didn’t explain where disbanding the police would leave the vulnerable residents of poor, crime-infested neighborhoods. 

Similar examples of what Paul Johnson has called “the heartless tyranny of ideas” abound in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. In the ominously best-selling How to Be an Antiracist, American University professor and activist Ibram X. Kendi writes, “There is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy. . . . If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racist.” Lady Justice’s blindfold is a racist construct. 

What progressives mean by “social justice” is the equalization of outcomes after impartial laws have operated. The principle of equality under the law produces “inequality,” therefore its operation must be corrected — that was Friedrich Hayek’s key insight about the socialist system. A proper system of laws must have indeterminate outcomes depending on the choices people make, but if equalizing those outcomes by state action is the goal, then it is the laws that must be indeterminate.

Like the Communists and Fascists of 1920s Europe, progressives increasingly see today’s institutions as irremediably corrupt, and sometimes in need of wholesale replacement. Equal protection of the laws — a cardinal principle of democracy that requires rules to be applied impartially to everyone — is a hollow construct for them because they see it as subverted by an inherently illegitimate system. “This moment calls for the left to define violence and nonviolence for itself,” intones Lossin in The Nation

Even if some of the progressives’ demands are just, indiscriminate hostility can only deepen America’s social divisions. The opposite of racism cannot be just a mirror image of it, for the mirror image of bigotry is bigotry. Our system requires compromise and mutual understanding. But today’s progressives are in no mood for compromise with the racists and white supremacists that they imagine everywhere. Discriminating against such people is allowed because it is “antiracist.” 

We have almost forgotten that they are not the only ones entitled to make accusations, and there are many one could make against them.  One might accuse them of rank bigotry; of persecuting those who disagree with them; of causing many of the very problems they blame on others; of trampling on basic human rights, such as the right to work; of inventing a new form of segregation; of holding poor people in a state of dependency; and of seeking to hide all of it behind a just cause.

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Mario Loyola is a former White House speechwriter and environmental adviser. He is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

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