The Inauthenticity Behind Black Lives Matter

Pre­mi­um con­tent from WSJ.

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

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