The Republicans approved last week’s resolution against white supremacy unanimously. They must not have realized that in doing so they have undermined themselves on a host of other issues. If the premise of the resolution is correct, if white supremacy is a serious and widespread problem, then the conservative take on many policies is flat wrong.
The dots aren’t hard to connect. Any area showing disparate outcomes or impact by race implies, in progressive thinking, racism at work. It need not involve individuals consciously discriminating against persons of color. Racism might be systemic, baked into the norms or procedures of a program, business, or culture. Disproportionate results are sufficient evidence of bias.
And so we can assail politicians who support policies that maintain those disproportions. The objects of immigration enforcement are mostly Hispanic, which makes Mr. Trump’s wall a racist design. Welfare recipients are disproportionately persons of color, which makes Mr. Ryan’s entitlement reforms the same.
In the absence of explicit acts of prejudice, however, it’s hard to tie the dominance of white people in America 2017 to racism. Systemic racism operates subtly, with actors unconscious of their bias. People don’t like being told they’re racist when they honestly can’t identify anything in themselves that fits the label.
Hence the need to magnify patent moments of discrimination. A cop muttering a racist remark, a wall on campus marked with racist graffiti, and 200 white nationalists meeting in Washington before the Inauguration are rhetorical opportunities. Liberals and progressives pounce upon them as evidence of the systemic problem they’ve declared all along.
The Charlottesville episode is a chance for liberals to put conservatives into a corner on just about every social issue before us. The resolution shows how cannily the Democrats have deployed the existence of a small group of militant and radical whites, and how frightened the Republicans still are of the accusation. Donald Trump’s victory in spite of ample warnings of his racist leanings seems not to have impressed them at all.
After David Duke came out for Mr. Trump in Feb., 2016 and Mr. Trump didn’t immediately disavow his endorsement, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell demanded that he be quick and vigorous about it. Dreading that the subject of race comes up in the campaign, in any way, they couldn’t say “Who cares what David Duke thinks? Mr. Trump is no racist.” Instead, they had to reassure and deflect.
In signing on to the current resolution, too, Republicans conceded that white supremacy is a crisis in our country. They have handed the Democrats a club to raise in upcoming contests over education, crime, immigration, and entitlements. The debate over school choice, for instance, comes down to one thing for both sides: does it help or hurt minority children? Randi Weingarten, head of the powerful American Federation of Teachers, calls choice programs “more polite cousins of segregation” Republicans deny it, but in the same terms, arguing that minority children are the main beneficiaries of choice programs. The first fact of white advantage shapes the debate.
What liberals and the media have made of the Charlottesville affair will keep it going. Not one Republican leader is going to say what Steve Bannon said on “60 Minutes” when Charlie Rose pressed him on white nationalists and neo-Nazis: “They’re irrelevant.”
Years ago I wrote a book about white supremacist violence in turn-of-the-century Georgia. Back then, politicians spoke openly about “Negro degeneracy.” Jim Crow and peonage were in full effect.
Peonage worked like this. A group of men rounded up for minor offenses such as drunkenness and loitering go before a judge who levies a fine or a month in jail. They have no money to pay, but a man with a turpentine farm does. The prisoners are handed over to him until they work off their debt. He gets cheap labor, the state gets revenue, and men guilty of petty misdeeds endure brutal treatment — and nearly all of them are black. Here was genuine systemic racism.
To speak of today’s conditions in the same terms is ridiculous. But the political advantages of doing so are mighty. Charges of white supremacy appeal, too, to a certain extremism among social justice progressives. When I said to a liberal friend recently that it was absurd to elevate a few thousand fringe characters into a significant political force — even the partisan Southern Poverty Law Center counts only 5-8,000 members of groups claiming Klan identity — she replied, “It doesn’t matter how few of them there are.”
This is a dangerous loss of perspective. To rid a nation of every person with bad race attitudes is a utopian dream that only produces illiberal acts. If Republicans think that they will make the issue go away by conceding the white supremacist premise, they are naive or deluded. Or stupid.
• Mark Bauerlein, senior editor at First Things and professor of English at Emory University, is the author of “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future” (Tarcher).