Anti-racism has emerged as a powerful movement in recent years, especially in 2020. Anti-racism goes beyond simple non-discrimination, and so while many Americans believe that our society has made progress in eliminating racial prejudice, anti-racists do not agree. At the grass-roots level, it manifests as Black Lives Matter (BLM), a movement that seeks to stir people who otherwise might be indifferent to deaths of young black men, especially those deaths that take place in confrontations with police. In the realm of ideas, the movement manifests as Critical Race Theory (CRT), which is promulgated by college professors, human resource professionals at large organizations, and even administrators and teachers in many K-12 schools. Within contemporary anti-racism, BLM and CRT are two important streams, which sometimes blend together.
Unfortunately, each of these two streams is poisoned by an untruth. In the case of BLM, the untruth is that young black men are often killed by police because of racism. In the case of CRT, the untruth is that white supremacy permeates American life, so much so that combating racism requires radical change in all of America’s formal institutions as well as its informal cultural norms. The centrality of these untruths to anti-racism, when coupled with their propensity to inflame passions, leads to an instinctive totalitarianism which rejects all attempts at correction or critical examination.
Black Lives Matter and the Myth of the Racist Cop
Incidents in which black men have died at the hands of police have come to figure prominently in our public discourse. In any such instance, how do we know whether the death was due to racism or to some other reason? It is impossible to know what is in the hearts of policemen. But here are some reasons to be skeptical about racism as a blanket explanation for all police shootings.
First, although blacks do account for a disproportionate share of those killed by police, in terms of absolute numbers, more whites are killed by police than blacks. Indeed, whites are the victims of over half of all police shootings. By definition, this tells us that most police killings are not motivated by anti-black racism. The whites who are killed certainly die for other reasons.
It might still be the case that all killings of blacks by police are motivated by anti-black racism. But it would be strange if other reasons accounted for so many police killings overall, but did not apply to any police killings of blacks.
Second, as years of publicized incidents show, essentially every police killing is preceded by a challenge to the policeman’s authority. This might involve resisting arrest, either intentionally or unintentionally failing to obey a policeman’s instruction, or acting in a threatening manner toward a policeman. We do not always know whether race is a motivating factor in any given incident of police violence, but we do know that it is not the only factor or even the most important factor. Indeed, in most cases, the challenge to a policeman’s authority is the preeminent factor.
Certainly, someone who challenges a policeman’s authority does not deserve the death penalty. And whatever penalty the person deserves, it should be handed down later by a court using due process, not administered at the discretion of the policeman on the spot.
But attempts to delegitimatize police authority in the eyes of the public inevitably backfire. Consider an imaginary society that insists that police never use physical force to obtain compliance. In such a society, if a suspect refuses to be arrested, he would later turn himself in or be tracked down and placed under arrest.
An obvious problem with such a policy is that it would give suspects a strong incentive to resist arrest. To deal with this problem, the penalty for resisting arrest would have to be very high, especially for suspects who do not soon turn themselves in. Indeed, disobeying a policeman’s order would have an automatic, severe penalty.
But imposing a strong penalty for disobeying a policeman’s order has the potential to give power to police that they could abuse. What if a policeman’s order needlessly harms a citizen or violates the individual’s civil rights? This sort of abuse would have to be deterred, ideally by allowing the citizen to take the policeman to court. If the court agrees with the citizen, the citizen receives compensation and the policeman is punished. The punishment has to be sufficient to deter the police from harassing or abusing the rights of citizens.
We will not get closer to an ideal system of restraint, respect, and rights by spreading the lie that police violence comes from racism. Insinuating that police deserve less respect is no way to save black lives.
Such an imaginary system of criminal justice is not workable in our society as it actually exists. But it does suggest principles that should guide us. These principles are restraint, respect, and rights.
Police should act with restraint in dealing with suspects. When a suspect resists arrest or runs away, it should be acceptable, depending on the level of risk that the suspect poses, to let the suspect escape, to be pursued later. Nonviolent but mentally impaired individuals should be dealt with gently.
Police also have to respect civil rights. Neither “qualified immunity” nor any other doctrine should permit police to get away with abuse of power. Although citizens should not challenge the authority of police on the spot, they should have recourse through the courts to seek compensation for civil rights violations and punishment of police who commit such violations.
Likewise, everyone should respect police. In addition to penalties for resisting arrest, there has to be strong community support for police. The check on police power should be the legal framework that governs police practice, not ad hoc defiance of police authority.
We should work to improve that legal framework in order to promote restraint and rights as well as respect. Police should be given instructions, training, and incentives to help them to make good decisions in stressful circumstances. And again, there also need to be sanctions to deter abuses.
But we will not get closer to an ideal system of restraint, respect, and rights by spreading the lie that police violence comes from racism. Insinuating that police deserve less respect is no way to save black lives. It promotes a norm of challenging a policeman’s authority. If your goal is to reduce police violence, increasing the propensity to challenge a policeman’s authority is going to have the opposite result.
Critical Race Theory and the Myth of Structural Racism
Charges of racism against the police as well as a large and growing number of other institutions, receive their intellectual underpinning from Critical Race Theory. CRT is the doctrine that American life is suffused with racism. CRT says that because America has not been purged of this “systemic racism,” it will always be characterized by white supremacy.
CRT is promulgated by self-described “anti-racists,” such as Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to be an Anti-Racist, and Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility. Rather than view racism as one of many imperfections that our society should seek to overcome, these authors treat racism as the very essence of America. This doctrine is what stimulated the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which sought to refocus the entirety of American history on slavery and racism. It led the Smithsonian Institution to create a poster (which was later retracted in the face of criticism) alleging that important social norms, including the scientific method and a work ethic, are the products of a “white-dominant” culture.
CRT blames any and all adverse outcomes for African Americans on systemic racism and white people as a whole. So, for example, when the proportion of blacks with high scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) is below that of whites, CRT asserts that the SAT is racist and must not be used by colleges in admissions decisions. But it seems likely that other explanations help account for the difference. Performance on a test in high school depends on many complex factors, including innate ability, family upbringing, peer characteristics, and educational experience.
One may claim that, regardless of the variety of causal factors affecting outcomes, when the outcome is on average less favorable for blacks, there must be some form of racism embedded in each and every causal factor. The term “systemic racism” is sometimes used in this way, to imply that only racism can explain such outcomes.
Just as we cannot query what is in the hearts of policemen to know whether racism triggers police shootings of young black men, we cannot query society to know whether “systemic racism” causes adverse outcomes among blacks, such as lower SAT scores. But it is unlikely that everything can be traced to a pervasive, invisible force called “systemic racism.”
CRT’s proponents cannot be reasoned away from their position, because they presume that arguments are won on the basis of who has power, not on who has the better intellectual case.
Most Americans believe in equal opportunity. This may be difficult to define exactly, but while people may disagree on what conditions are needed to create equal opportunity, it seems that Americans have a rough consensus that it involves applying the same rules to people of all races.
CRT instead insists that a state of equal opportunity would lead to equal outcomes. If we have unequal outcomes that are adverse for minorities, CRT treats that as proof that we do not have equal opportunity.
Glenn Loury, an economist who has spent most of his career looking at sources of differences in racial outcomes, has distinguished between a bias narrative and a development narrative.
The bias narrative calls attention to racial discrimination and exclusionary practices of American institutions—black Americans not being treated fairly. So, if the gap is in incarceration, the bias narrative calls attention to the behavior of police and the discriminatory ways in which laws are enforced and attributes the over-representation of blacks in the prisons to the unfair practices of the police and the way in which laws are formulated and enforced.
The development narrative, on the other hand, calls attention to the patterns of behavior and the acquisition of skills and discipline that are characteristic of the African American population. So, in the case of incarceration, the development narrative asks about the behavior of people who find themselves in trouble with the law and calls attention to the background conditions that either do or do not foster restraint on those lawbreaking behaviors.
Loury argues that the bias narrative mostly held true through the middle of the 20th century, but has far less explanatory power today.
And the development narrative—the one that puts some responsibility on we African Americans ourselves, and the one that wants to look to the processes that people undergo as they mature and become adults and ask whether or not those processes foster people achieving their full potential—that, I think, is a much more significant dimension of the problem today relative to bias than was the case 50 years ago.
To get Americans to focus solely on the bias narrative, CRT’s proponents employ a form of totalitarianism, aiming to crush all dissent. They treat the development narrative as illegitimate and racist. They cannot be reasoned away from this position, because they presume that arguments are won on the basis of who has power, not on who has the better intellectual case.
Unlike Communism or Nazism, CRT’s totalitarianism is decentralized. Social media mobs and “woke” bureaucrats do not take orders from a single leader, as with Hitler or Stalin. But the denunciations and demands of CRT intimidate others just the same. University administrators force professors to sign “diversity statements.” Organizations force employees to undergo “training” in “unconscious bias” and diversity and inclusion. And the adherents to CRT punish infractions against the doctrine by reliably firing transgressors. In one recent example, a school principal in Vermont was fired for expressing the view that BLM was too coercive and too hostile to police.
In light of such incidents, many people disagree with the anti-racists but are afraid to speak out. Many other people do not realize that BLM (the movement, not the phrase) is based on a false premise. Most people do not know what CRT is, how it is embedded in many institutions, and how false and dangerous it is. To overcome these dogmas will require knowledge, courage, and determination on the part of those with the ability to see through them.