In Prospect

Spring 2001

As five of this issue’s stories make clear, American race relations stand at an odd crossroads today. Read the newspaper front pages, with their daily reports about racial profiling and the related trials and hearings now under way in New Jersey, and you’d think we were back in the America of Bull Connor and George Wallace, with ubiquitous racism constricting and embittering the lives of most black citizens in the nation. Here, the reports would have us believe, are state troopers, armed with government authority, in effect hunting down blacks if they have the temerity to drive on the public highways. But, as Heather Mac Donald shows in her story, there’s not a shred of credible evidence whatsoever that any such thing as racial profiling exists. What is certain is that the anti-profiling crusade threatens one of the greatest benefits that the law-abiding majority of inner-city blacks has gained over the last decade: the activist policing that has reduced crime in their neighborhoods by staggering percentages, making inner-city communities livable once again. What’s also certain is that the anti-profiling agitation is stoking up blacks’ sense of grievance alarmingly.

That black rancor should be heading up toward the boiling point just at this moment doesn’t quite make sense, though, observes John H. McWhorter in “Why Blacks Should Give Bush a Chance”. With racism rare and getting rarer, the objective situation of black Americans, he argues, is better now than at any time in the past, and their future prospects are even more promising. The new administration of George W. Bush envisions education reforms that stand a chance of actually helping inner-city black kids significantly, and the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives stresses a build-up of exactly the kind of human capital inner-city blacks need in order to take control of their own lives and their own communities. The new administration has even appointed a constellation of distinguished and accomplished blacks to high government posts. But the established black leadership, unable to take yes for an answer, is struggling hard to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, arguing all the more fiercely for the kind of government handouts that keep blacks dependent. What African-Americans need, McWhorter suggests, are leaders who, like those of the past, stress independence and self-reliance. To join the ranks of those new leaders, City Journal nominates contributing editor McWhorter.

As graying black leaders like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton cling all the more closely to the Democratic party, the Democrats and others on the left-liberal side of the political divide cling all the more closely to the old leftist shibboleths about race and other matters, as Brian C. Anderson observes in “Illiberal Liberalism”—and instead of arguing their positions reasonably and civilly against conservative opponents, they’ve taken increasingly to debate by invective and name-calling. As a result, “racist” has become for them the term of global dismissal that “fascist” was for the 1960s’ radicals. This is not, Anderson judges, the kind of debate that the Founders hoped to promote in the liberal democracy they created; and it makes one wonder whether, under all the bluster, today’s left has much to offer in the way of ideas.

The liberal left’s readiness to find racism everywhere adds its own measure of fuel to blacks’ sense of grievance, of course. And with blacks’ feelings in such an inflamed state, what New York Police Commissioner Bernard B. Kerik has to say in this issue’s Diarist is all the more important. New York cops are not racist, Kerik says; but they can be rude and arrogant—sometimes insufferably so, as almost every New Yorker can attest with an experience of his own or of a friend. But even though New York’s Finest, when rude, are indiscriminately rude—theirs is an equal opportunity arrogance—the sensibilities of black New Yorkers, already rubbed raw, easily mistake the rudeness for racism. All the more reason, Kerik says, to make sure, as he intends to do, that his cops treat the citizens of every color who pay their salary with the respect they are due.

When racial sensitivity among both blacks and whites reaches so fevered a pitch, terrible, even fatal, consequences can result, as Theodore Dalrymple recounts in the current installment of his unfailingly absorbing column, “Oh, to be in England”. The alternative, Dalrymple suggests, would be for everyone simply to do his best on a case-by-case basis, without racial consciousness—a modest but revolutionary approach to which Mac Donald, McWhorter, and City Journal in general would heartily say, Amen.