The keynote of America’s domestic politics for the last 60 or 70 years—from sometime between the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v Board of Education school desegregation decision and the 1964 Civil Rights Act—has been the nation’s effort to undo the heinous wrongs that slavery and Jim Crow perpetrated on black Americans ever since the first slave was brought here in the 1640s. I am old enough to have had friends who were Freedom Riders, white college kids who went to Mississippi to register black citizens to vote. One I’ll never forget returned with tales of old people, whom legal chicanery had blocked from voting all their lives, marveling in almost Biblical language that such a miracle could be occurring in their own lifetimes, in their own towns. I remember how Sherriff Bull Connor turned the fire hoses and German Shepherds on those civil rights protesters, black and white, in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, and how that same year governor George Wallace stood at the door of the University of Alabama to prevent the enrollment of two black students, proclaiming himself Jefferson Davis’s spiritual heir and vowing “segregation forever!” But what I most remember is skinny Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach walking heroically down that hostile Alabama street—alone, but followed by federal marshals—to force Wallace to stand aside and let the two students enter. It was as heart stopping as Gary Cooper walking toward the showdown on Main Street in High Noon.
I also remember how civil rights zeal turned into zealotry. We made the integration of our schools, and then the closing of the black-white achievement gap, our principal educational goal for half a century, with the unintended consequence that we neglected actual education and turned urban schools into machines for perpetuating black failure. Judge-ordained busing in Boston, completely contrary to the terms of the Civil Rights Act, made the schools more segregated than ever. A judge-ordained Kansas City school-funding-equalization order, forcing local taxpayers to shell out $2 billion over a decade, including building a bizarrely unnecessary Olympic swimming pool, produced no educational gains whatsoever and proved to anyone with eyes to see that money was not the key to racial equality in education.
Then, the colleges turned to affirmative action in admissions, the ed schools taught their students not how to teach or what facts they needed to transmit but only “social-justice” ideology, and deans of diversity began to outnumber actual teachers on college campuses. The professors themselves brought the stupendous achievements of Western culture under the suspicion of creating nothing but racial inequality (and later an unimaginably broad smorgasbord of inequity). They replaced Plato with Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Believing that welfare payments constituted well-deserved reparations for 300 years of slavery and oppression, we New Yorkers created a come-and-get-it dole that ended up with one in eight of our neighbors on the welfare rolls—paid for by the rest of us and resulting in a multi-generational underclass. We entertained the foolish notion that black crime was a manly revolt against oppression—that black criminals were only protesting against the closure of all avenues of honest advancement for their race, as well as against the daily humiliation heaped on African-Americans.
The resulting depolicing of black neighborhoods and unwillingness of courts to punish black criminals drove crime to Hobbesian levels and turned minority neighborhoods into killing fields, where mothers put their kids to bed in the bathtub, trying to keep them safe from stray bullets. They would never send them out for a bottle of milk or take them into the street to learn to ride a bike. In those days, my upright, churchgoing cleaning lady had to pay the gang who controlled her block $20 of hard-earned money to allow Macy’s deliverymen to go past them to bring her the comfortable bed she had labored so long to earn. She lived, in other words, in something like the Middle Ages, when bands of ruffians ruled the land and extorted tribute from the peasants.
Thomas Jefferson had prophesied that God would punish America for black slavery, but he could never have foreseen how squalid that punishment would be.
As the Civil War, which cost 620,000 American lives, drew to a close, Abraham Lincoln gave his Second Inaugural Address, six weeks before one of the world’s perennial multitude of fanatics, this one opposed to votes for black citizens, blew the great president’s brains out. Lincoln had spoken in his address about the immense cost the country was paying for the sin of slavery. In the final accounting, he said, it might turn out that “all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and . . . every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword.” But as he looked toward the end of the war fought to end these wrongs, he urged reconciliation. He urged forgiveness. “With malice toward none, with charity for all,” he prayed, “let us . . . bind up the nation's wounds.”
Well, we tried. Despite the evil men who derailed Reconstruction, America took up again Lincoln’s charge “to finish the work we are in.” My whole life coincided with that effort. And for all the resistance and unintended negative consequences, the nation had come very close to succeeding by 2008, when Barack Obama, a black man, was elected president of the United States. A friend had called from London shortly before and asked incredulously, “Surely, America would never elect a black man as president?” “Of course it would,” I said. And when it happened, the resounding shout of joy that went up from the buildings of my ultra-left-wing Manhattan neighborhood was something I had never heard before. My wife and daughter wept. And though no admirer of Obama’s politics, I too felt awe at the historical momentousness of it all.
Central to the nation’s Herculean effort to end the wrongs of racism was the new determination of police departments, led by New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and his police commissioner William Bratton, to restore law and order to ghetto neighborhoods, so that civil society could come back to life there, and people wouldn’t have to pay tribute to armed thugs controlling their lives. The old policing had ignored all but the most heinous ghetto crimes. Its spirit was: If they want to kill each other uptown, fine, as long as it stays up there. But for the new policing, all victims deserved police attention, regardless of race. All neighborhoods deserved police protection, regardless of the color of their residents. And since the perpetrators of crime are overwhelmingly young minority men, they properly received a very large proportion of police scrutiny. The alternative, to repeat, was to let them kill each other.
But unlike Lincoln, America’s first black president didn’t bind up the nation’s wounds but scratched them open every time police killed a black man—rightly or sometimes wrongly, because when society arms men with guns and authority, it will inevitably attract some bullies, making a police chief responsible for policing his own men vigilantly, as the NYPD especially has striven to do, and as Plato told us was statecraft’s thorniest problem. Anytime a non-black man killed an African-American, Obama cried racism and said it could have been him or his son, if he’d had one. Every time a cop, white or black, killed a black American, Obama’s reflexive instinct was to blame the cop. About the mayhem of black-on-black murder in the nation’s ghettoes, he gave only a single speech.
When the president praises the Black Lives Matter demonstrators, as if they alone of his fellow countrymen know that platitudinous truth, he is only reinforcing black grievance, when his proper role is to convince ghetto blacks that their lives matter enough for them to take responsibility for them, to stop going around with chips on their shoulders and Glocks in their waistbands, to be fathers to the children they beget, and to set for them an example of the responsible citizenship that is theirs for the asking, thanks to the efforts of so many of their countrymen, white and black, living and dead.
True to form, Obama went into grievance-mongering mode on July 7, commenting on the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by cops in Louisiana and Minnesota. He noted that “all of us as Americans should be troubled by these shootings, because these are not isolated incidents. They’re symptomatic of a broader set of racial disparities that exist in our criminal justice system.” And he went on to detail law enforcement’s racial disparities, as if there were not even more stark and troubling racial disparities in lawbreaking. His familiar conclusion: “If you add it all up, the African American and Hispanic population, who make up only 30 percent of the general population, make up more than half of the incarcerated population. Now, these are facts. And when incidents like this occur, there’s a big chunk of our fellow citizenry that feels as if because of the color of their skin, they are not being treated the same. And that hurts.”
Later that day, a black former soldier assassinated five Dallas police officers and wounded seven more, sniping from above with a semi-automatic rifle. A sympathizer of the New Black Panther Party, which professes hatred of whites and especially Jews, the sniper, Micah X. Johnson, 25, told police who cornered and killed him that he was avenging cop killings of blacks by killing whites and especially white cops.
If you want to ignite race riots, a sure-fire way to do it is to stir up black hatred and suspicion of cops, which will in turn make cops warier of blacks and more trigger-happy, and so on, until an explosion occurs. So thanks, President Obama. You have set back American race relations by 50 years.