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Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina gave a remarkable speech at this year’s Republican National Convention. Yes, here was a black man at a GOP event, so there was a whiff of identity politics. When we see color these days, we expect ideology to follow. But Mr. Scott’s charisma that night was simply that he spoke as a person, not a spokesperson for his color.
Burgess Owens, Herschel Walker, Daniel Cameron and several others did the same. It was a parade of individuals. And in their speeches the human being stepped out from behind the identity, telling personal stories that reached for human connections with the American people—this rather than the usual posturing for leverage with tales of grievance. So they were all fresh and compelling.
Do these Republicans foretell a new racial order in America? Clearly they have pushed their way through an old racial order, as have—it could be argued—many black Trump voters in the recent election. I believe there is in fact a new racial order slowly and tenuously emerging, and that we blacks are swimming through rough seas to reach it. But to better see the new, it is necessary to know the old.
The old began in what might be called America’s Great Confession. In passing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, America effectively confessed to a long and terrible collusion with the evil of racism. (President Kennedy was the first president to acknowledge that civil rights was a “moral issue.”) This triggered nothing less than a crisis of moral authority that threatened the very legitimacy of American democracy.
Even today, almost 60 years beyond the Civil Rights Act, groups like Black Lives Matter, along with a vast grievance industry, use America’s insecure moral authority around race as an opportunity to assert themselves. Doesn’t BLM dwell in a space made for it by America’s racial self-doubt?
In the culture, whites and American institutions are effectively mandated by this confession to prove their innocence of racism as a condition of moral legitimacy. Blacks, in turn, are mandated to honor their new freedom by developing into educational and economic parity with whites. If whites achieve racial innocence and blacks develop into parity with whites, then America will have overcome its original sin. Democracy will have become manifest.
This was America’s post-confession bargain between the races—innocence on the white hand, development on the black. It defined the old order with which those convention speakers seemed to break. But there is a problem with these mandates: To achieve their ends, they both need blacks to be victims. Whites need blacks they can save to prove their innocence of racism. Blacks must put themselves forward as victims the better to make their case for entitlements.
This is a corruption because it makes black suffering into a moral power to be wielded, rather than a condition to be overcome. This is the power that blacks discovered in the ’60s. It gained us a War on Poverty, affirmative action, school busing, public housing and so on. But it also seduced us into turning our identity into a virtual cult of victimization—as if our persecution was our eternal flame, the deepest truth of who we are, a tragic fate we trade on. After all, in an indifferent world, it may feel better to be the victim of a great historical injustice than a person left out of history when that injustice recedes.
Yet there is an elephant in the room. It is simply that we blacks aren’t much victimized any more. Today we are free to build a life that won’t be stunted by racial persecution. Today we are far more likely to encounter racial preferences than racial discrimination. Moreover, we live in a society that generally shows us goodwill—a society that has isolated racism as its most unforgivable sin.
This lack of victimization amounts to an “absence of malice” that profoundly threatens the victim-focused black identity. Who are we without the malice of racism? Can we be black without being victims? The great diminishment (not eradication) of racism since the ’60s means that our victim-focused identity has become an anachronism. Well suited for the past, it strains for relevance in the present.
Thus, for many blacks today—especially the young—there is a feeling of inauthenticity, that one is only thinly black because one isn’t racially persecuted. “Systemic racism” is a term that tries to recover authenticity for a less and less convincing black identity. This racism is really more compensatory than systemic. It was invented to make up for the increasing absence of the real thing.
This summer, in cities from Portland, Ore., to Baltimore, black protest seemed driven more by the angst of inauthenticity than by any real menace. The protests themselves came off as theater. There were costumes, masks and well-rehearsed mimes of confrontation and outrage. The violence was destructive, but only to a point. After all it was calibrated to go on for months. In the summer of 2020, self-consciousness replaced spontaneity as the essence of youthful protest in America—yet another sign that there is not enough real victimization to light the sort of fire that burned down Detroit in the ’60s.
I doubt that any of the black speakers at the RNC would argue that racism has vanished from American life. What makes them harbingers of a new racial order is that they unpair victimization from identity. Victimization may be an experience we endure, but it should never be an identity that defines us. They all spoke as American citizens in a spirit of citizenship.
This is the great challenge that always awaits the oppressed after freedom is achieved. If only out of loyalty to our past (all this suffering has to mean something), we will feel compelled to make victimization the centerpiece of our identity today. This will seem the authentic and honorable thing to do. But it will only further invest us in precisely the fruitless tangle of identity and woundedness that mires us in the past. We should never deny the past, but it should only inform and inspire.
In the end, only one achievement will turn us from the old victim-focused racial order toward a new, nonracial order: the full and unqualified acceptance of our freedom. We don’t have to fight for freedom so much any more. We have to do something more difficult—fully accept that we are free