For the second time in its 218-year history as an independent nation under the Constitution, the United States is in grave danger of disintegrating. While the line between two competing sides is not as easily drawn as it was in 1860, the gap between the two sides is nearly as wide and could erupt into widespread violence at almost any moment. And just as the crisis that led to civil war in 1861 was based upon slavery, this one is based upon the relations between ethnic groups. That division of course parallels the split between our major political parties, which have never before in our history been so sharply defined by demographics. And the political and intellectual leadership of both sides is still making things worse, because both have abandoned the traditional American principles that offer the only possible way out of this crisis, just as they ultimately prevented the breakup of the Union 150 years ago.
What has happened on the right among less well off white Americans is pathetic and appalling. While their economic grievances are very real, there is no excuse for the fantasy that Donald Trump is going to do any of them any good. He has never cared about working Americans and he never will. I am not however going to spend any more time today talking about Trump and his voters--that is the easy way out. The Democratic Party and its allies in the intellectual left, who are also strong in the mainstream media, are also responsible for what is happening are are doing their best to make it worse. And since that is my side of the political fence, it is my duty as a citizen, in my opinion, to spend more time talking about the faults of my fellow Democrats, while hoping that responsible Republicans will do the same.
The country is threatened by a new racial crisis revolving around two separate issues. The first issue is the shooting of black people by the police--now compounded by the shooting of four Dallas policemen by a black Army veteran who decided to retaliate. The second is what black activists and their allies call "systemic racism," which in their opinion is what leads not only to the deaths of black people at the hands of the police and their disproportionate incarceration in their jails and prisons, but also to their generally lower economic status in American society. Let me once again state my views about those issues here.
Without question, some appalling homicides involving police officers and black citizens have taken place during the last two years. I have no doubt that black people are more likely to be stopped by the police that white ones, and this has just been confirmed by a remarkable Senate speech by Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina, detailing his own experiences, which I highly recommend. But a newly released study by a young black Harvard economist finds that while police are more likely to use non-lethal force in encounters with black suspects than with white ones, they are not more likely to shoot them. Blacks are stopped and killed in disproportionate numbers based on their percentage of the population--but the largest number of civilians killed by the police are white. Some Latino activists are now complaining that shootings of Latinos by police are not drawing the same attention as killings of blacks. That, to me, is another indication of how far competitive victimhood has driven us off the rails.
What seems clear to me is that too many police officers have been convinced by their training and their environment that they can escalate a conflict all the way to lethal force any time some one they are questioning defies them in any way, including--or perhaps especially--by running away. That is what we saw a Texas cop do when he stopped Sandra Bland on a very questionable charge of changing lanes without signalling, leading to her arrest and her death in her jail cell. That is what has happened in several other cases as well. But it is evidently happening to Americans of all races--which means, to me, that it isn't a race problem so much as a police problem. Some police officers--not all--are much too quick to escalate to lethal force. That problem disproportionately affects black Americans--but it affects us all. And if we emphasized that, we would all have a much better chance of seeing it seriously addressed. It is tragic, to me, that Black Lives Matter activists insist on proclaiming that racism is the cause of the problem, because it cuts them off from potential allies who are not black but whose own family members or acquaintances have suffered at the hands of the police. But that it is entirely characteristic of black political strategies over the last half century, to which I now turn.
What does "systemic racism" mean? Well, it is quite true that the condition of black Americans today is related to their original status within the United States, which was usually that of a slave. When slavery was abolished after a war that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, constitutional amendments immediately proclaimed them to be full citizens, but many white Americans spent the next hundred years trying to stop that promise from being fulfilled. Meanwhile, despite the creation of a black middle class, the great migration northward, and the expansion of opportunities in industrial work, black people remained much poorer than white ones. The civil rights movement made great gains from the 1940s through the 1960s, ending legal segregation and discrimination, but that was followed by the "war on crime" and the "war on drugs," which led to the mass incarceration of black people (as well as the incarceration of a great many white ones.) Meanwhile, de-industrialization hurt everyone in the lower half of the economy very badly, including black Americans.
What this means to me, once again, is that while black Americans are suffering disproportionately from broader economic changes, their sufferings are shared by millions of white people as well. The terrible thing about our current predicament is that the combination of Republican racial appeals on the one hand--brought to a new level by Trump--and the black leadership's emphasis on racism on the other, has divided poor white Americans from poor minorities. The only group that can benefit from this ghastly situation is richer Americans, who are disproportionately, although not exclusively white. And one of them--Donald Trump--has emerged as the spokesmen for poor whites. That is, in my opinion, in large part because the Democratic Party for decades has tended to define poverty as a race and gender issue--not a national one. In that sense, the Democratic leadership is complicit with the Republicans in creating this new monster.
This morning's print edition of the New York Times led with an article by Nicholas Confessore arguing that the Trump campaign is fueled by the anger of white Americans who fear losing their preeminent place in American society to minorities and immigrants. Like so many pieces in the mainstream media nowadays, it repeatedly stresses that white people will no longer be a majority in America in a few decades--and bizarrely implies that tha twill solve all our problems. This reflects the kind of zero-sum thinking that has come to dominate discussion on the left as well as the right: history is simply a struggle among races (and genders, and those of different sexual orientations), and straight white males, who have caused most of the oppression and trouble in the world, are, thank heaven, losing their place of pride. At times during the article Confessore and the "authorities" he quotes seem to be saying that Trump voters are angry that they are losing power and influence, and that they are right--they will lose out to other groups--but that's a good thing. How it could escape anyone that this is bound to drive more and more of them into the Trump camp is beyond me. But they don't care. Decades of this cant, especially in universities, have persuaded our educated elite that straight white males are the problem and that anything that works against them must ultimately be good.
To this I would reply, first, that straight white males aren't the problem--our new economic system is. It benefits a tiny group at the top at the expense of everyone else. Neither presidential candidate, sadly, seems likely to do much about that. But secondly, I would suggest, the United States and its principles of equal rights and equal opportunity cannot survive if we are taught to identify with our group--or with oppressed groups only. We will stand or fall together. That eternal truth seems just as lost on those who cannot get beyond the trope of "systemic racism" as it is on the supporters of Donald Trump.
To my fellow Democrats I would return to a political question. We face one of the critical elections in American history--and it well be quite close. The emphasis on minority, female and gay grievances--however real they may be--has helped create the Trump phenomenon and make it grow. In any case, the most important grievances in our society, involving economic opportunity, educational opportunity, and an oppressive criminal justice system, affect us all. That should make it easier to solve them. But when some groups claim a monopoly of victimhood, it benefits only the rich and powerful. Nothing that deepens the racial divide can help us now.