Over the past month, protests against racism have taken place daily in America’s largest cities. They started out as a black movement against police brutality, but they have a different look now. In many cases, whites have taken over. They make conciliatory gestures, apologizing for their “white privilege,” and, in at least one case, washing black people’s feet to expiate themselves of their collective sins. Celebrities, athletes, and corporate America followed suit. Portland’s police chief resigned, asking to be replaced by a black man, and the CEO of Chick-fil-A urged whites to shine the shoes of black people to show a “sense of shame.” Countless others have pledged millions of dollars to end racism. Seeing all this, one wonders: Why now?
To find out what was moving the conversation on race in America, I had to hear what whites were saying. I listened to the protesters, talked with my white friends, and read articles and social media posts from those supporting the movement. Two things started to bring the issue into focus for me. The first was a video I’ve seen retweeted and forwarded on social media, explaining “systemic racism.” The video compares two friends—Jamal, who is black, and Kevin, who is white. “This is Jamal,” the narrator begins. “Jamal is a boy who lives in a poor neighborhood. He has a friend named Kevin who lives in a wealthy neighborhood. All of Jamal’s neighbors are African-American and all of Kevin’s neighbors are white.” The video opens with an image of Jamal standing in front of a boarded-up home with broken windows. This seemed overly simplistic, designed to make an extreme point.
Then I heard the news about universities deciding to stop using the ACT or SAT in consideration for admissions because the tests are biased against blacks. The schools don’t say that blacks aren’t smart enough to score well on the test—that would be vulgar racism—but that black kids cannot afford tutors or the prep classes the white kids use to increase their scores. This sounded as reductive in its assumptions about black economic life as the video about Jamal and Kevin. In each case, black people are depicted as desperate and defeated, with nothing in the way of material or personal resources to pull themselves out of their misery.
“I understand your point,” a white friend said, “but don’t you think blacks are being oppressed?”
That’s when I realized that white wokeness is the new factor in our national life. It has been embedded into the consciousness of whites that all blacks are the same and that they all face impossible barriers to improvement—from fictional Jamal to the standardized tests to the black men being arrested on the nightly news. A growing number of whites believe that these episodes are typical of everyday black life.
Most whites don’t have many black friends who can give them firsthand accounts of what their experiences are with racism. While most blacks do experience some discrimination or racial prejudice, it is rarely violent, and it does not hold them back in a significant sense. Is racism a “systemic” or “institutional” force? For more than half a century, the United States has had no laws preventing black people from doing anything that white people can do, and government agencies and courts closely monitor socioeconomic life for any vestiges of discrimination in housing, employment, or public accommodations.
The media give a distorted view of black life. We see this in the stories they decide to report—and not to report. In 2018, police shot and killed 54 unarmed men; 22 were black. Compared with the percentage of blacks in the U.S. population, that figure looks disproportionate—but black people commit a disproportionate amount of violent crime and thus tend to have more interactions with the police. Every police shooting must be investigated thoroughly and fairly, but we should also demand fair and thorough media coverage of these shootings. It’s telling that so many people can name some of the unarmed black men killed by police, but few can name any of the white men.
Blacks do lag whites in many socioeconomic indicators—but most blacks do not live in poverty, do not have constant run-ins with law enforcement, and are not uneducated. It’s important to look at racial disparities in context. Though blacks commit more violent crime than whites in relative terms, in absolute terms, the percentage of people who commit any violent crime is tiny. The white violent-crime rate is 0.12 percent; for blacks, it is 0.44 percent. By any standard, most people are not violent criminals, regardless of their race. The black unemployment rate has averaged between 7 percent and 12 percent since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started keeping records in 1954—except for a high of 19.5 percent in 1983—while for whites, the average has been between 4 percent and 7 percent. This disparity holds for poverty as well. As of 2018, the poverty rate for blacks was 20.8 percent, while the rate for whites was 8.1 percent. Though a persistently poor black underclass has emerged since the civil rights era, the underclass experience does not describe the lives of tens of millions of black people. While efforts should be made to close the black-white poverty gap, the numbers are not consistent with the assumption that American blacks are broadly impoverished.
Yet sympathetic non-blacks often see blacks as oppressed victims with limited opportunities. Since the killing of George Floyd, I’ve had many conversations with whites, mostly centered around my own well-being. Many of my black friends relate stories of management at their companies telling employees to “check on” their black co-workers. Messages abound of white guilt or white privilege, with people tearfully listing the things that they can do that blacks allegedly can’t do, such as go shopping without being followed around, or be served food before paying for it, or buy candy while wearing a hoodie—all things that blacks do every day.
Everywhere one looks, organizations are showing their solidarity with “black lives matter”—both the motto and the organization. Uber Eats canceled its delivery fees for black businesses. Turn on YouTube TV or order from Amazon, and you’ll see messages of support for “the black community.” Nike, the NFL, and others have made Juneteenth a paid holiday for all employees. Scroll through the categories on Netflix and you’ll find one updated to say, “Black History, Hardship, and Hope.” Who else, besides blacks, would get “hardship” as a characteristic? These gestures, mostly symbolic, suggest what whites believe blacks are concerned about. They seem insincere.
Since the protests began, woke whites have clamored to find a way to do their part. Since they don’t have many blacks in their social circles, and having conversations with blacks—the most constructive course of action—is awkward and can take time, they opt for easy, feel-good actions, most of which will have no effect on police brutality, on the quality of black schools or neighborhoods, or on black lives generally.
When actress Julianne Moore says that black people are being slaughtered in the streets, killed in their own homes, it sounds clueless. She may care, but these types of assertions—delivered as fact—are not helping, because they just aren’t true. Efforts to stop discrimination and stereotyping perpetuate the perception that black lives really are inferior. The implication is that black life is hard, black life is poverty, black life is scary, and black life is sad. Woke whites aren’t saying that black lives matter. They’re saying that it’s up to them to make black lives matter.
Blacks themselves are not exempt from these beliefs. When Gary Clark, Jr., a Grammy-winning recording artist, says that he’s worried he could die walking out of the house, and NBA superstar Lebron James, who has been glorified since he was 15 years old, says that blacks are “literally hunted every day,” they are telling black people that things are hopeless. If a black teen is struggling and looks up to Lebron, hearing Lebron’s proclamation can only make him feel worse.
It appears that a sleeping giant has been awakened in white America. Most woke whites probably have good intentions, but their symbolic gestures will at best have little effect and at worst do real harm. The campaign against police is a good example. Broad anti-police sentiment has already caused cops to become less proactive in high-crime neighborhoods, with the predictable result that shootings have spiked around the country. Whites are engaging in activism motivated by a misperception about black life that does not comport with reality for most blacks. With their views of blacks as wounded and perpetually oppressed, woke whites would do more good by doing nothing.
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