Are we exaggerating racism?

Marty Rochester


Did you know that, according to increasingly accepted notions of racism in America, not only Donald Trump but also Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and all the other current Democratic presidential candidates and, indeed, you, dear reader, are all racist?

The bar for being called a racist has been lowered far beyond any previous standard. Although some might say that African-Americans such as Booker and Harris cannot be racist because only whites qualify as traditional exercisers of power in the United States, surely anyone positioned to possibly become president is sufficiently powerful to be included. In any case, based on the popular notion of implicit bias that all human beings are purported to have, we are now all prone to racism. 

I happen to think that this is baloney, that we have grossly exaggerated racism in America. 

Is there still racism in America? Of course, as there is in any country on earth. But is the United States a racist country, dominated by systemic racism?  

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Hardly, certainly not nearly as much as in the past, given the enormous racial progress we have made over the past several decades. Yet one would never know this from the narrative now presented by liberal elites in our schools and media, who not only ignore the obvious progress but paint an increasingly grim picture of race relations. 

One can understand the term “white privilege” being appropriately used through much of American history, given the blatant discrimination against minorities in the form of slavery, Jim Crow and the like. Curiously, though, the term really did not take off in academic and media circles until the 1980s, when Peggy McIntosh of Wellesley College and other far-left commentators started using the term ad nauseam, seemingly blind to the civil rights revolution that started in the 1960s.

Lately, the same academic and media elites have ratcheted up the rhetoric as the drumbeat of white privilege has morphed into white supremacy.  

This narrative displays gross ignorance. It misrepresents working-class whites and poor rural whites who are hardly privileged; it cannot account for the fact that Asians are the most successful ethnic group in America educationally and economically; it ignores arguably unfair advantages now flowing to blacks (e.g., the dean of admissions at Harvard just admitted that Asians need to score 250 points higher on the SAT exam than blacks to get recruitment letters from the university); it ignores the fact that actual white supremacists (members of the KKK, neo-Nazis, etc.) are a minuscule percentage of the American public; and it cavalierly overlooks the recent election of a black to the highest office in the land by sizeable majorities not once, but twice. 

The country is not racist, but the narrative is, in falsely stereotyping an entire racial group and misbranding an entire nation.The millions of routine, everyday examples of kindness between races go unnoticed by CNN, MSNBC and other media, while they are quick to report each incident that can be used to illustrate rampant racism, however rare and isolated such incidents are, such as a white cop shooting an unarmed black. 

The misplaced stigmatizing of law enforcement is especially shameful. Data show that “there is no epidemic of racist police shootings.” Over 90 percent of civilians fatally shot by police are armed with a weapon and are attacking police or other citizens, and “it is a racial group’s rate of violent crime that determines police shootings, not the race of the officers” (National Review, July 31).

The evidence used to support claims of systemic racism generally is based on dubious observations of “disparate outcomes” — racial bean-counting — when it comes to school suspensions, traffic stops and other such matters. Relying on this methodology, one would have to conclude that the National Basketball Association is racist and anti-Semitic, since only 20 percent of the players are white and there are only two Jews on NBA rosters.

Perhaps there is no sillier analysis of racism in America today than “The 1619 Project” that The New York Times has just rolled out. The year 1619 is when a British ship brought 20 enslaved Africans to the Jamestown settlement in Virginia, marking the beginning of black slavery in America. 

According to the Times (Aug. 18), “Out of slavery … grew nearly everything that has truly made America exceptional. … The goal of the 1619 Project … is to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year. Doing so requires us to place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.” 

• Forget 1776 and the Declaration of Independence and the Founding Fathers. (The historian Gordon Wood has noted that “the American Revolution was as radical and revolutionary as any in history.”)

• Forget the Bill of Rights and the commitment to freedom of speech, assembly and religion. 

• Forget the commitment to protection of private property and free markets that incentivized investment and work. (The Times includes free enterprise in its indictment, adding that “in order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.”) 

• Forget the contributions made by Native Americans, European and Asian immigrants and others, not to mention the bigotry they experienced. 

• Forget the roughly 300,000 Union soldiers, most of whom were white, who died in the Civil War that ended slavery. 

So we are led to believe that slavery is the defining moment of our history and blacks the main contributors to democracy.

The 1619 Project wildly distorts the factors shaping the American nation. As important as slavery is to the American story, race is overstated here. The Times does not even get race right. As Robert Woodson writes (Wall Street Journal, Aug. 28), “the NYT series wallows in victimhood and ignores success.”

What I find most ridiculous about the 1619 Project is the presumption that we have not adequately taught about slavery in our schools, so our kids do not really understand how evil it was, and thus we need to alter our curriculum to build social studies around it. Really? Speaking for myself, I can recall in the 1950s beginning to learn about slavery in my elementary school classroom, and it did not take more than a small child’s mind to understand fully how terrible the experience must have been and how much of a stain it was on our national history. This was not exactly rocket science. 

We have only multiplied severalfold our coverage of slavery and the black experience in K-16 over the past many decades. Howard Zinn and the academic left have ensured that we all have race on the brain. As just one example, Sam Wineburg of Stanford University found that, based on a survey of 2,000 high schoolers who were asked to list “the 10 most famous Americans” (other than presidents and first ladies), the three most prominent Americans were all black: the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman (Journal of American History, March 2008). Maybe the 1619 Project will help correct for the egregious omission of Crispus Attucks on the list.

Seriously, nothing I have said here is meant to deny the continued existence of racial discrimination and prejudice in America. This remains a real concern that deserves our utmost attention. However, far-left ideological diatribes, designed to promote reparations and other such agendas, do little to advance the cause of racial understanding, harmony and progress.

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is the author of 10 books on international and American politics.