Black and Tan Fantasies

Black Lives Matter march calls for better communication between ...

The wave of anti-racism rallies which have gripped the western world in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police is being characterized as a watershed moment in race relations – but what lies on the other side of the watershed?  Protesters’ rhetoric of “Systemic Racism,” that “Indifference is Evil” and “White Silence is Violence,” redefines neutrality as bigotry and disinterest as discrimination.  Generations of progress in legislatures, courts, and popular culture are ignored or recast as merely cosmetic.  For full-time advocates of redress and redistribution, business and media bookings are booming.

Yet the logical terminus of today’s anti-racism demonstrations seems to be at best a kind of benevolent apartheid, whereby whites and non-whites are politically, economically, and legally separated from each other in the name of social justice, and at worst a revival of ethnic nationalism, whereby even the most welcoming multiculturalists are obliged to side with those of their own heritage – a society of permanent victims indefinitely pitted against their historic oppressors.  If this is Year One of the Anti-Racist Revolution, we ought to be looking out for an Anti-Racist Terror.

Previous advances against racism were achieved in Canada, the US, and other countries because the urgency of the cause was matched with finite demands for change:  discriminatory laws and customs in employment, housing, education and other arenas were clearly identified and, eventually, overturned.  In 2020, though – in the midst of a global health crisis when so much of the future is already uncertain – open-ended calls for remaking the entire social order according to vague and vindictive notions of identity and advantage are less tenable.  That many of the callers are themselves career anti-racists, who have benefited from tectonic shifts in demographics and public opinion, further undermines their arguments.  It’s a strange systemic racism which offers salaries, tenure, publishing contracts, and government departments to its own opponents.

Many commentators have pointed out that the routine demonization of conservative politicians as intolerant crypto-fascists led to the presidency of Donald Trump, who makes once-demonized figures like George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, and Stephen Harper seem like the responsible moderates their supporters defended.  The wolf of extremism had been cried too often to be heard when the real wolf appeared.  Likewise, vilifying whole white populations as latent racists in need of communal reeducation can only foster an aggrieved solidarity among hitherto accommodating people, and encourage genuine white supremacists.  Lifetimes of stigmatizing all blacks as inferior or all Aboriginals as primitive created a justifiable backlash whose effects have been ongoing for decades – how will stigmatizing all whites as undeserving produce a different result?  As a political tool, shame can’t persuade much, but it can certainly provoke.

The hard reality this movement must finally confront is that equality is not exemption:  equal opportunities can still be missed; equal treatment might still be unfavorable; equal rights may still be limited; equal standards can still be demanding; equal citizens aren’t always equal individuals.  It isn’t too much to ask that police use force in ways which don’t disproportionately injure or kill people of color.  It is, however, too much to ask that color must be disproportionately invoked in every social dynamic, lest anything transpire that somebody, somewhere, can attribute to racism.  A world segregated by alleged guilt and felt injustice is still segregated.  A panicked hunt for outlawed words and private prejudices is still a panic.  A moral underclass of suspected haters and confessed privileges is still an underclass.  An ideal of fairness and freedom is not realized by empty accusations of collective bias, nor the sweeping language of collective blame.

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