Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The issue of police treatment of African-Americans, most recently highlighted by Quarterback Colin Kaepernick's decision not to stand for the national anthem, is unquestionably a serious one.  If even as distinguished--and as staunchly pro-police--a figure as Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina can attest to having repeatedly been ill-treated by police officers unaware of his position, then we can safely conclude that the perception of police hostility among American Blacks is both widespread and at least partially grounded in actual experience.

It is also safe to conclude that this experience, and the resulting general distrust of the police, has existed for many decades.  We can therefore ask why expressions of rage among African-Americans, even spilling over into violence, have suddenly spiked over the last year or so, after two decades of relative calm, and despite evidence of gradual improvement in police treatment of African-Americans during that interval.  The unsettling answer can be gleaned from the long history of violent Black protest movements: their cyclical rise is driven not only by internal dynamics within the Black community, but also by active encouragement on the part of politically motivated establishment institutions such as the press, the intellectual class and mainstream politicians.

Intellectual celebration of Black lawlessness goes back at least as far as Norman Mailer's seminal 1957 essay, "The White Negro", in which Mailer lauds "hipsters" who self-consciously identify with Blacks' perceived rejection of middle-class values and embrace their supposedly more primitive, and hence more authentic, culture.  By 1970, this phenomenon had gone upscale, with Tom Wolfe lampooning it in his famous essay "Radical Chic", about a party thrown by composer Leonard Bernstein and his affluent, cultured guests for a representative of the Black Panther movement.  (That movement is still widely honored today, despite its ugly history of the most brutal violence and criminality.)

It's not clear how much this sort of encouragement from the intellectual and cultural communities affected the strength and violence of Black radicalism during the 1960s through the 1980s.  Certainly rabble-rousers such as Malcolm X, Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan originally rose to prominence within the Black community without significant mainstream assistance.  (Whether the Black Panthers would have lasted as long as they did without radical campus activists enthusiastically abetting their activities and defending them against criminal charges, is an interesting question.)  But by the late 1980s, racial provocateurs such as Sharpton had developed a symbiotic relationship with sympathizers in the press and political establishment, who rewarded their bombast with attention and credibility as legitimate Black leaders--the whole phenomenon again being ruthlessly lampooned by Tom Wolfe in his famous novel The Bonfire of the Vanities.

Shortly thereafter, white music producers began promoting "gangsta rap" to primarily young white audiences as an "authentic" African-American musical form that portrayed Blacks admiringly as violent criminals.  Thoughtful Black critics like Stanley Crouch denounced it as a "minstrel update" catering to the contemporary equivalents of Mailer's primitivism-seeking hipsters.  But Mailer-esque public intellectuals, oblivious to the ugly precedents, hailed the medium's brutally obscene portrait of the modern Black condition as insightful and true rather than insulting and false.

Then, starting around the mid-to-late 1990s, something quite remarkable happened:  there began a nearly-two-decade period during which Black militancy and its public celebration declined dramatically.  (A list of mass racial violence incidents in the US, for instance, shows strikingly fewer incidents during this period.)  I've written previously about the numerous possible factors influencing this decline, and it's impossible to say which of them--if any--had the most significant impact.  But an accompanying development--quite possibly a direct effect--was an overall strongly positive trend in Black circumstances:  a steep reduction in crime that rejuvenated many predominantly Black urban neighborhoods; a significant rise in Black household income, and continuation of previous improvements in majority attitudes towards integration and Blacks in general.

The reversal of this trend towards racial reconciliation began with the economic downturn of 2008 and the election of former radical activist Barack Obama to the presidency.  The former wiped out a significant portion of Blacks' substantial economic gains during the previous decade and a half, while the latter elevated to the country's most powerful bully pulpit a man who made no secret of his enthusiasm for fomenting racial confrontation and conflict in the name of combatting racism.  Once elected, the president and members of his administration encouraged racial resentment at every turn, suggesting political opponents were motivated primarily by racism, consistently taking the side of angry Blacks in controversial cases--such as Colin Kaepernick's--involving highly charged racial confrontations, and enacting activist policies on race that implicitly imputed racial discrimination to the entire nation's cities and educational systems
Radicals in academia and the mainstream press followed the president's cue, initiating fresh rounds of purges of "political incorrectness" and enforcing a dogma of racial essentialism that discredits dissenting arguments using the invented pejorative category of "white privilege". 

It was out of this toxic stew of radical racialism that there arose a new generation of Black apologists for rioting and violence--all of them heavily promoted by mainstream liberal-to-left-wing publishers and news sources--such as Ta-Nehisi Coates (Atlantic Monthly), Shaun King (Daily Kos, New York Daily News), Marc Lamont Hill  (CNN, MSNBC, Huffington Post) and Deray McKesson (Huffington Post, The Guardian).  Like the founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, these prominent activists all appear to have absorbed their radicalism in academic settings, rather than on ghetto streets.  (The BLM list of demands reads like a boilerplate manifesto issued by radical protestors of any color on just about any university campus anywhere in the country.)  Far more assimilated than their predecessors, these new Black militants speak the language of modern academic radicalism with native fluency, affecting outrage at alleged "oppression" while basking in the awards, attention and employment lavished upon them by academics, intellectuals, campus activists and journalists alike.

Now, it should be said that their rage is most likely completely genuine.  As Ellis Cose has documented, middle-class Blacks, despite their relatively comfortable--even privileged--status, are often even angrier about racial issues than their less economically and socially successful counterparts in the Black working class.  Middle-class Blacks' comfortable assimilation into majority middle-class society makes instances of its incompleteness even more jarring and infuriating: occasional tiny slights seem much worse, and perceived instances of unfairness much more galling, for someone who has effectively bet his or her life and livelihood on society's fulfillment of the promise of equality by choosing to assimilate, than for someone who hasn't staked so much on the prospect of full acceptance by the majority.

But again, these resentments are nothing new--Cose wrote about them over two decades ago.  What has changed is the reception that they are likely to get.  Whereas 15 years ago, a discredited troublemaker like Al Sharpton would have been laughed off any mainstream news broadcast, today he hosts his own cable news show, while CNN hosts raise their own hands in solidarity with Ferguson protestors, and universities throughout the country eagerly capitulate to disruptive protests and forcible takeovers of campus property in the name of "racial justice". With these mainstream supporters of racial militancy making it abundantly clear that aggressive (and perhaps even violent) racial confrontation will receive a warm public welcome from them, those disposed towards violent action have readily answered the call with riots, threats and disruptions, all solemnly excused in turn as necessary and understandable by their academic and journalistic allies. 

We can only hope that the public's memory of the more peaceful and prosperous preceding two decades eventually overcomes these radicals'--and their mainstream fans'--enthusiasm for further self-righteous mayhem, and that voices of reconciliation and unity (such as the Seattle Seahawks') prevail over the forces of divisive racial confrontation.