It’s poignant to recall today that, after the election of Barack Obama to the US presidency in 2008, some commentators wrote hopefully of an impending “post-racial” American society, wherein historic divisions between black and white citizens would at last be surmounted. A less-remembered footnote to the story, however, was the observation of conservative pundit William Bennett on CNN, who said on the night of November 4 that Obama’s victory meant primarily this: “No more excuses.”
We are assuredly not living in a post-racial society in 2020, as many agitated protests and counter-protests demonstrate online and on the streets, but it is Bennett’s quip which still resonates, at least among some of the protesters. Critics of Black Lives Matter and its rhetoric elaborate on the no-more-excuses line to argue, in essence, “Yes, African-Americans were abused and exploited by whites for a long time, but that was far in the past, and laws and culture have changed for the better. No position or accomplishment is barred to any qualified person. Any ongoing troubles experienced by black people aren’t due to white racism but to problems within the community itself.”
Is this a fair point? Many would reply that the legacies of slavery and segregation run so deep that the occasional individual success (like Barack Obama’s) can hardly negate them; current bids to dismantle statues or defund police take aim at the insidious racism said to be hiding in plain sight, unnoticed by whites but continually reminding black people of the inferiority imposed on them for generations. Under this premise, to assert that white racism has been eliminated – and therefore blacks have nothing more to complain about – is itself a racist expression.
A more complicated reading, though, might elicit a two-part message of both hope and despair. The good news is, legal barriers to non-white achievement have indeed been gradually repealed, and people of all colors are free to make of themselves whatever equal rights afford them throughout their life. The bad news is, life sucks. Life is an existential misery which literature, art, religion and philosophy have reflected on for centuries. Disappointment and alienation are part of the human condition. Each of us is a minority of one. The suffering of the innocent, unrequited love, unrealized dreams, the capriciousness of fate and and inevitability of death are known to all civilizations. Everyone from great poets to anonymous peasants have come to feel these things – even when the poets or the peasants sat atop a racial, sexual, or other form of social order.
More, people have always found reasons to disdain or denounce others for real or perceived flaws – even when those others belonged in the very same racial or sexual or other form of social category. Being advantaged with someone, if that has any meaning at all, is not the same as being allied with them. I consider Donald Trump, for example, to be an incompetent megalomaniac buffoon, despite his being a straight white male just like me; why shouldn’t I also apply the same standards of character, intellect, and responsibility which Trump fails to the non-straight, the non-male, or the non-white? To do so is, in every sense, only fair. My standards are the same, whoever it is that can or cannot meet them. So are reality’s. As William Bennett might add, No more excuses. As a cynical bystander at a downtown rally might mumble, No lives matter. As a sympathetic but unsentimental auditor of so many people’s unmet demands for freedom and justice and fulfillment, I might only conclude, Welcome to the club.