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Our History of Racial Oppression: A Difference of Kind, not Degree

Joshua Mitchell’s “The Identity Politics Death Grip” helped me to understand my strange relationship, as a classical liberal, with the social justice movement. I am animated on issues of economic freedom and criminal justice reform, but feel deeply ambivalent about the general language and goals of the movement. The term itself was called “sloppy” and “empty” by F.A. Hayek, who was, I believe, legitimately concerned that its standards were both scarily unrealistic (equality of outcome) and totally amorphous, such that it could lead to tyranny and undermine the basic institutions of justice that allow for productive cooperation.

Some of my tension lay in the proper attention being paid to the historical experience of America. As Tocqueville predicted over 150 years ago, the “the prejudice of the master, the prejudice of the race, and the prejudice of colour” had created a nigh-insoluble division in American society, since blacks, due to the color of their skin, could never really blend in the way other, briefly hated, groups could.

Legal attempts to fix what had become a deeply held social pathology have led to some of the most puzzling contradictions in our system (many legal and philosophical conundra arise, for instance, from the Incorporation Doctrine, or from Anti-Discrimination Law). That's only to say that slavery, Jim Crow, LBJ’s condescending Great Society, mass incarceration, and every other form of legal and cultural humiliation that has been visited upon American blacks put us in the position of which the Founders themselves forewarned: being irresponsible and unable to rule ourselves properly, we lost some of our liberties.

For these reasons, I am far more interested in sober evaluation of American race relations than I am in the trend towards gender and sexual orientation issues so popular in social justice circles. These other issues are far less clear, morally speaking, and are not unique to the American experience.

Here is the relevant passage:

“Identity politics depends on the wound of slavery to provide its initial coherence—but it does not stop there. Instead, it ceaselessly seeks to expand its mandate.

That is why the community most harmed by identity politics is the African-American community. Because identity politics combines all nonwhite, heterosexual males, the African-American wound is seen as just one wound among many, different in degree but not in kind from any other wound that a nonwhite heterosexual male might claim. Yet that is not true. The African-American wound is different in kind, not in degree. Sustained legalized slavery in America, over more than two centuries, sets African-Americans apart from all others who are now here in our country. African-Americans are not one “identity” among others. ….

The African-American wound, by contrast, still festers. If fault and debt were only a worldly matter, as identity politics stipulates, then the never-ending fault and debt of white America would require that it eternally repay the African-American community with money transfers orchestrated by Washington—overseen by the Democratic Party, needless to say. But trillions of dollars have been spent, while the African-American wound remains unhealed. Does this not prove that fault and debt cannot be resolved on the worldly field where politics plays out? If the wound reaches beyond the world to divine things, to repentance and forgiveness, then it is not through politics but rather through our houses of worship that it will be healed. Political action can supplement the work of these societal institutions, but it cannot be a substitute for them, as it increasingly has been over the past half-century.”

This is just it. The black-white wound in America is getting rolled in with every “new civil rights” movement under the moon, AND THAT IS NOT RIGHT.

No, intersectionalists, blacks don’t have to care just as much about class, sexual orientation, disability, and gender as they do about race relations in order to be correct in their approach to justice issues in their own community.

No, they do not need to deny deeply held religious beliefs, support abortion, or eschew forgiveness of racist whites.

No, gay marriage and trans pronouns are not ‘just like the civil rights movement’ of the 1960’s.

No! “I am a man” is a profound philosophical claim. “There is no such thing as a man” is a dubious one that serious black influencers need neither accept nor support.

No, blacks do not need to give up the wealth they’ve gained or hope to gain through entrepreneurial participation in markets.

No, they do not have to be ‘anti-police’ to fight for criminal justice reform – only anti-bad police, anti-wrong training, anti-militarization of the police, or anti-legal immunity for the police.

Regular, everyday black folks, perhaps uninterested in the elite, university faculty-led, left-wing intersectional justice fringe, also want to fight for a good relationship with police, sensible prison sentences, economic independence, and the strengthening of their communities. See this New America study for more on just how ideologically diverse American blacks really are. Given our history of racial oppression, it’s troubling that so many black voices are ignored by this new orthodoxy.

Ultimately, though, the wound goes so very deep. I think that Josh Mitchell is correct that healing must occur through the church and other voluntary social institutions. The state, once again, has created a number of problems that it cannot fix, and we must pick up the pieces. But that also means that chuches and others must divorce things that have been, culturally speaking, inextricably linked: critical race theory has linked racial oppression with markets – this is dead wrong, and must be rejected (racial oppression is too costly to be tolerated for very long by market participants; it always requires state intervention to maintain). Churches and other non-profits need to be fighting to get the marginalized into markets through all sorts of support, rather than complaining about markets themselves. On the flip-side, progressives have linked care for one’s neighbor with nothing but state action. This tired trope must also be firmly rejected. After the near-decimation of the cultural life of poor communities created by these ham-fisted efforts over the last six decades, we ought to be repenting in sack-cloth and ashes for our “well-intentioned” hubris, rather than entertaining ever-more convoluted attempts to tweak a corrupt system. Civil society is powerful. Get the state out of our way.

Furthermore, churches must reject a 'thin' notion of the gospel that only captures the legal mechanics of the atonement. This approach has led to a wholly inadequate notion of what life with God is, including a ghastly historical tolerance for grievous sin against black brothers and sisters. This historical observation, all by itself, ought to stop us in our theological tracks. The gospel is thick! It includes “teaching them to obey everything that [Jesus has] commanded you”; it is not just intellectual assent to certain propositions (Matthew 28:20).

Finally, ACT. Don’t REACT. I'm hearing far too much of this: "He sounds like a [fill in the blank]! He's using terms like [racial reconciliation, marginalized, business profits, work ethic, etc.]! He'd better be careful!" Our poisonous political conversation is threatening to divide us in totally unproductive ways. An idea is worth discussing IF IT'S TRUE. It doesn't matter who it "sounds like" or what side someone might think you're on because she can't think outside of the (usually only two) categories provided to us by the anorexic account of reality offered in the news media.

The truth (and only the truth!) will set us free.

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