Americans breathed a collective sigh of relief last week after Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd. The crime was heinous, the verdict just, the moral neat. If you think that systemic racism is the defining fact of race relations in 21st-century America, then Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck is its defining image.
But what about a case like that of Ma’Khia Bryant, a Black teenager who was shot and killed last week by Nicholas Reardon, a white police officer in Columbus, Ohio, at the instant that she was swinging a knife at a woman who had her back against a car?
Ben Crump, the Floyd family’s lawyer, accused the Columbus police in a tweet of killing “an unarmed 15yo Black girl.” Valerie Jarrett, the former Obama adviser, tweeted that Bryant “was killed because a police officer immediately decided to shoot her multiple times in order to break up a knife fight.” Jarrett wants to “Demand accountability” and “Fight for justice.”
An alternative view: Maybe there wasn’t time for Officer Reardon, in an 11-second interaction, to “de-escalate” the situation, as he is now being faulted for failing to do. And maybe the balance of our sympathies should lie not with the would-be perpetrator of a violent assault but with the cop who saved a Black life — namely that of Tionna Bonner, who nearly had Bryant’s knife thrust into her.
That’s a thought that many, perhaps most, Americans share, even if they are increasingly reluctant to say it out loud. Why reluctant? Because in this era of with-us-or-against-us politics, to have misgivings about the left’s new “anti-racist” narrative is to run the risk of being denounced as a racist. Much better to nod along at your office’s diversity, equity and inclusion sessions than suggest that enforced political indoctrination should not become a staple of American workplace culture.
And yet those doubts and misgivings go to the heart of what used to be thought of as liberalism. The result will be a liberal crackup similar to the one in the late 1960s that broke liberalism as America’s dominant political force for a generation.
Morally and philosophically, liberalism believes in individual autonomy, which entails a concept of personal responsibility. The current model of anti-racism scoffs at this: It divides the world into racial identities, which in turn are governed by systems of privilege and powerlessness. Liberalism believes in process: A trial or contest is fair if standards are consistent and rules are equitable, irrespective of outcome. Anti-racism is determined to make a process achieve a desired outcome. Liberalism finds appeals to racial favoritism inherently suspect, even offensive. Anti-racism welcomes such favoritism, provided it’s in the name of righting past wrongs.
Above all, liberalism believes that truth tends to be many-shaded and complex. Anti-racism is a great simplifier. Good and evil. Black and white.
This is where the anti-racism narrative will profoundly alienate liberal-minded America, even as it entrenches itself in schools, universities, corporations and other institutions of American life.
It’s possible to look at Floyd’s murder as the epitome of evil and not see a racist motive in every bad encounter between a white cop and a minority suspect, including the recent shootings of Adam Toledo in Chicago and Daunte Wright in Minnesota. It’s possible to think that the police make too many assumptions about young Black men, sometimes with tragic consequences, and still recognize that young Black men commit violent crimes at a terribly disproportionate rate. It’s possible to believe that effective policing requires that cops gain the trust of the communities they serve while recognizing that those communities are ill served when cops are afraid to do their jobs.
It is also possible to recognize that we have miles to go in ending racism while also objecting to the condescending assumptions and illiberal methods of the anti-racist creed. The idea that white skin automatically confers “privilege” in America is a strange concept to millions of working-class whites who have endured generations of poverty while missing out on the benefits of the past 50 years of affirmative action programs.
Similarly, the idea that past discrimination or even present-day inequality justifies explicit racial preferences in government policy is an affront to liberal values, and will become only more so as the practices become more common. In Oakland the mayor backed an initiative that was to provide $500 a month to low-income families, but not if they were white. In Vermont, the state has given people of color priority for Covid vaccines.
Ibram X. Kendi, the most important anti-racist thinker today, argues that “the only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.” Some liberals will go along with this. Many others will find themselves drifting rightward, much as a past generation of disaffected liberals did.
Joe Biden’s resounding victory and his progressive policies are supposed to mark the real end of the Reaganite era of American politics. Don’t be surprised if they’re a prelude to its return, just as the last era of progressive excess ushered in its beginning.
Bret L. Stephens has been an Opinion columnist with The Times since April 2017. He won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary at The Wall Street Journal in 2013 and was previously editor in chief of The Jerusalem Post.