Is America An Inherently Racist Nation?

Note: This article is based on a lecture I gave on Thursday, August 8, 2013, to the Public Policy Lawyering class (LAW 760) at the Liberty University School of Law.

Ken Blackwell, a prominent practitioner and opinion-shaper in politics and policy, visiting professor of law at Liberty University, and one of the few men I've met who, in my opinion, is deserving of the label "statesman", speaks of politics as the art of "controlling the narrative".

One of the most persistent, compelling and controversial narratives of modern American politics, specifically among the liberal orthodoxy, is that, despite the gains of the civil rights era, America is still an inherently racist nation.

The summer of 2013 has been particularly fruitful to those who subscribe to that narrative. Consider these recent events:

  • Fisher vs. University of Texas – This Supreme Court decision ruled that colleges and universities, in pursuing the legitimate aim of diversity, must demonstrate that the consideration of race is necessary to the achievement of that goal. Some observers view the "strict scrutiny" requirement for the use of race in achieving diversity as a hindrance to affirmative action in college admissions.
  • Shelby County v. Holder – This Supreme Court decision declared unconstitutional Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act. This section established a coverage formula for determining which voting jurisdictions required "preclearance" from the federal government before enacting changes to voting laws and practices. The formula was declared unconstitutional because it was based on data over 40 years old, and was therefore not reflective of current needs. While the Court left open the possibility of legislative remedy through a modernized formula, opponents of the decision viewed it as essentially gutting the Voting Rights Act, one of the signature pieces of legislation from the civil rights era.
  • State of Florida v. George ZimmermanThe "not guilty" verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, who fatally shot 17-year old Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012 in an altercation in Zimmerman's neighborhood, has sparked a national debate on race relations and the tribulations of young black men unlike any witnessed in recent memory. Both sides, in my opinion, have become so entrenched in their points of view that neither is looking at the situation with any degree of nuance or objectivity, so the less said about it here, the better.
  • The N-word – This summer saw two public figures, celebrity chef Paula Deen and Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Riley Cooper, pilloried for their use of the word "nigger," in Ms. Deen's case some time in the distant past and, in the case of Mr. Cooper, a couple of months ago at a Kenny Chesney concert, where he was drunk and belligerent toward a black security guard.
  • The Butler  - The upcoming film, The Butler, inspired by the true story of a black butler who served eight presidents in the White House, is being promoted in advance of its release on August 16th, and the cast and director, Lee Daniels, are not missing the opportunity to tie the film, with its evocative portrayal of the civil rights era, to current events related to race relations.

    Daniels, in a recent interview, made a pointed reference regarding the movie's depiction of Lyndon Johnson announcing the Voting Rights Act, and what he perceives as the potential impact of the recent Supreme Court decision:

    It was divine order, Daniels said, that let the film, which features President Lyndon B. Johnson's announcement of the Voting Rights Act, to be released just weeks after the Supreme Court weakened some of the protections provided by the landmark law. "We had a great time shooting the scene with Lyndon Johnson," Daniels said in an interview with POLITICO. "He did something incredible for the African-American — for us — with the Voting Rights bill. And then they took it away. My grandmother, if she wants to go in and she ain't got her ID… she's not going to vote. That's just where it is right now."

    Note the pride in the director's voice as he recounts the reaction of former president George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, to a private screening of the film:

    "It was so powerful because they hung their heads — both of them hung their heads, he said. "And that was a gift for me knowing that they felt it. That they felt that they knew…that was a gift for me."

    I'm not sure what the gift was, but I'm guessing he's proud of having made a former president and his wife hang their heads in shame for how America has treated black people.

    Oprah Winfrey, one of the stars of the film, was asked during an interview what she thought of the comparisons between Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till, a 14-year old black teenager from Chicago who in 1955 was dragged from the home of a relative he was visiting in Mississippi and brutally murdered for allegedly flirting with a white woman. The decision of Till's mother to hold an open casket funeral for her son, exposing to the world a face so badly mutilated it was barely recognizable as human, is considered by many historians as a tipping point in the civil rights movement, and the episode still resonates in the black community today.

    In response to the question, Ms. Winfrey replied, "Let me just tell you, in my mind, same thing."

    Any objective examination of the two incidents would lead to the conclusion, in my opinion, that such a comparison is ludicrous.

    Other influential elites, however, agree with her, and the comparison is taking hold. The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture, which already possesses Till's original casket – he was exhumed and reburied in 2005 – was, according to some media reports, interested in acquiring the hoodie Trayvon Martin wore on the night he was killed:

    "It became the symbolic way to talk the Trayvon Martin case. It's rare that you get one artifact that really becomes the symbol," Bunch said. "Because it's such a symbol, it would allow you to talk about race in the age of Obama."

    Curators, he mused, could "ask the bigger questions" prompted by the case.

    "Are we in a post-racial age?" Bunch asked, dreaming about how the hoodie might help shape perceptions. Then he answered the question: "This trial says, 'No.'?"

    While the Smithsonian later said it was not currently seeking to acquire the hoodie, Mr. Bunch's statement clearly places it as an artifact, on the same level as Till's coffin, of the continuing struggle of black people in America.

    Finally, according to Philly.com, Winfrey "told Diane Sawyer…that the film could help white people understand why African Americans are so angry over the Martin case."

The impact of these events, and the constant drumbeat of the narrative, on Americans' current attitudes regarding race has been staggering. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken in mid-July shows only 52 percent of white Americans and 38 percent of black Americans have a favorable view of race relations in America, down from 79 percent of whites and 63 percent of blacks in 2009, the first year of President Obama's first term. Some observers have declared that race relations in America are the worst they've been since the civil rights era.

Had you told me in 2008, as I watched President-elect Obama give his victory speech at Grant Park in Chicago, and as the Rev. Jesse Jackson looked on, weeping openly at the milestone he was witnessing, that even with President Obama's reelection in 2012, race relations would be in worse shape in 2013 than at any time since the 1960s, I would have scoffed at your statement.

A nation for which racism is "a permanent, essential, or characteristic attribute" – the dictionary definition of "inherent" – would never have elected a black man as President of the United States not once, but twice. Frankly, a sitting president with Obama's favorability ratings, unemployment figures, and economic indicators has never been re-elected to a second term – ever. To claim America is racist in its very core despite these facts offends the conscience like a clashing cymbal offends the ears.

But here we are.

So what is the state of race relations in America today – really? Given that human relationships are determined as much by emotion, perhaps more so, than empirical evidence, the question may be moot. Perception is reality, after all, and the liberal orthodoxy has done a masterful job of burying the real and substantive progress of black Americans since the civil rights era under an avalanche of stories which have black elites and everyday black Americans equating the second decade of the 21st century to the 1950s, when blacks rode in the back of the bus, faced the threat of lynching for the slightest offense, and were denied their fundamental rights as citizens, and where "niggers are gonna stay in their place", to use the vile language of one of Emmett Till's murderers. This is an extreme view of the current state of American race relations.

By the same token, however, is it realistic of those on the other side of the racial divide to declare a "post-racial" era in which "the content of character" has conquered racism, and we should therefore not indulge any sentiments to the contrary, dismissing them as "playing the race card"?

Please don't misunderstand me; given the nature of politics, I know there are constituencies and power bases standing on a foundation of perpetual grievance, and race is just one factor around which such monuments to human ego are built. That said, however, are those of us who are declaring the "race wars" over as guilty of oversimplification as those who believe we are still the nation we were over six decades ago?

The question of whether or not America is a racist nation is like the question of whether or not America is a Christian nation. If you are intellectually honest, the correct answer to both questions is "It depends."

Let's do some math.

The first African slaves arrived on the shores of what is now South Carolina in 1526. From that moment until 1865, when the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was enacted, blacks were in some form of servitude, primarily chattel slavery, for a period of 339 years.

From 1865 to 1965, institutionalized discrimination, built on a foundation of law, domestic terror, socially acceptable racism, and an education system which reinforced the notion of black inferiority, reigned throughout the South and significant segments of the North as well, a period of 100 years.

As I mentioned in a recent article, the belief systems of most humans, according to those who are experts in such things, are essentially formed by the age of six. Anyone who was six years old or older in 1965 would have been deeply influenced by the prevailing racial attitudes of the time. U.S. Census estimates suggest there are about 80 million of those people living in the U.S. today.

Racism and discrimination are not artifacts of ancient history, but existed in our lifetimes, and there were 439 years of slavery and second-class citizenship behind them. Let's not forget that it took a civil war that killed or wounded over a million Americans, and the sometimes violent social upheaval of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, to bring about change.

This history has had a profound and troubling impact on America, and it would be imprudent not to acknowledge it.

Black men, who were emasculated for centuries, were then pushed further into irrelevance by a welfare system that essentially banned them from the home so women and children could receive monetary benefits from the government.

This was a pivot point in the tortured history between blacks and whites in America, one which then-Assistant Secretary of Labor and sociologist Daniel Patrick Moynihan recognized, and for which he sounded the alarm in his report, "The Negro Family: The Case for National Action." Unfortunately, his report was rejected by a progressive establishment which was more interested in acting than in thinking through the implications of what they were doing. Today, with over 70 percent of black children born out of wedlock, the black family, which was the bedrock of the community in the worst of times, is an endangered species.

Have we truly considered the impact this had on the psyche of the black man who, on the eve of gaining his civil rights, had his dignity as a man yanked out from under him yet again by the effective disavowal of his importance to the children he helped conceived, and the woman who gave birth to them?

Does this history sound like an experience that wouldn't leave scars?

Do I believe that racism still exists? That's easy - the answer is yes, not only because of our history, but also because of human nature, which is inherently sinful. I don't need to know American history to believe that; I have the Word of God and 6,000 years of recorded human history as my guide.

Do I believe racism has had an impact on the black community, even today? Yes, I do.

The most telling illustration of this fact is to look at the achievements of black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean compared to the indigenous black population.

As far back as the 1930s, black historian Carter G. Woodson noted the difference in achievement between West Indian blacks and their American brethren, and attributed it to their belief that they were the equal of any man, while American blacks had been told all their lives how inferior they were. The gap in education and entrepreneurial success between black immigrants and home-grown blacks is measurable and still pronounced today.

Do I think America is an inherently racist nation? No, I do not. Were it so, no black person could succeed, and too many have succeeded and continue to succeed. There is a pervasive underclass of black Americans, however, that has a statistically significant impact on the metrics commonly cited for black unemployment, education, income, wealth, and crime, and they require our attention and assistance.

Yet those who follow a prescribed formula for success - finish school and get a diploma, find and keep a job, marry and then have children, in that order, are four times less likely to be poor, and the trajectory is upward from there. Policy prescriptions from the top down will have less of an impact on people achieving these personal milestones than community action from the bottom up, and I personally place a particular burden on the church which, if it is true to the gospel of Jesus Christ and not to some worldly agenda, is the only unifying and edifying institution in the black community.

Churches outside of the black community ought to partner with their brethren to help bring about healing and hope, for "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).

Churches can and do teach economic literacy, promote responsible sexual behavior, establish private schools which demand excellence and focus attention on the unique needs of their students, feed the hungry and train people to take on good paying jobs that bring them self-sufficiency and dignity. The success stories of churches, civic organizations and charities, institutions that exist between the individual and the state, in breaking the cycles of pain in the black community should lead us to do more at the local level rather than less, and should relegate politics to being the court of last resort rather than the first.

That's not to say that some policy prescriptions wouldn't be helpful, but the ones that come to mind primarily involve getting government to loosen its grip. Justice reform, for example, particularly for ex-offenders who've paid their debt so they can be successfully reintegrated into society, ought to be a cause for anyone who believes in liberty and, for those of us who proclaim our nation is founded on Christian principles, forgiveness and reconciliation. Education reform, particularly the expansion of education options for low-income families, is another area where blacks and whites can find common ground.

The bottom line is that blacks and whites have different views of the American experiment, for all the reasons I cited above, but if people of both races could approach the topic with transparency, humility and grace, we could go further than we are now, either declaring America a nation of racists, or denying that racism exists or has had an impact.

President Obama correctly stated that this dialogue is best held "in families and churches and workplaces" rather than in the political arena, where agendas polarize and corrupt, and this is also the level at which action can be most effective.

What we need most are people in every community across America who truly want us to reconcile with one another, and who are willing to offer their time, talent and treasure to the achievement of that worthy goal.