In confronting the race question in America today, we are faced with a paradox. On the one hand, our generation has lived through a political and cultural revolution that has no parallel. Discriminatory laws enforcing racial segregation have been declared unconstitutional and abolished, while the dream of Martin Luther King (that every individual be judged by the content of his character and not the color of his skin) has been integrated into the American dream itself in a way that only Lincoln’s Gettysburg image (a government of, by, and for the people) had been previously. At the same time, the accession of black Americans to full citizenship rights has been truly dramatic. Black Americans have become the mayors, police chiefs, and public officials of the very citadels of what was once the segregationist south. Nor is it only in the south that such victories have been won, for black Americans have been elected mayors of the great metropolitan centers of New York, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Los Angeles as well, and have become an integral part of the nation’s political life.
And not only its political life. Thus, we have recently entrusted our national security to a black American general, first as the president’s national security advisor and now as the head of our armed forces. In 1984, our country was symbolically represented at the Los Angeles Olympics by a black athlete who was chosen to light the ceremonial torch opening the games. Our highest literary honor last year went to a black woman, and for nearly a decade the most watched model family on television has also been black. Year in, year out, moreover, the popular heroes of our culture—athletes, musicians, entertainers, and film stars, the aristocracy of talent adored, emulated, and worshipped as only royalties were in the past—are now significantly black as well. It would seem that the integration of black America into the national mainstream is well along the path to completion.
Yet much of our political and social reality seems to contradict the promise of these changes. In fact, a significant chorus of civil rights leaders claims that we have made no real progress, that racism is as pervasive and the goal of equality as remote as ever. And racial consciousness, generally, is higher than at any time within recent memory. The founder of the National Association for the Advancement of White People is one of the leading candidates for Senator from Louisiana; in major cities like Chicago and New York, black Americans vote in blocs of 90 and 95 percent for black candidates; racial crimes are common and racial tensions rife in places—for example, liberal college campuses—where they were once virtually nonexistent. Moreover, conspiracy theories—themselves symptomatic of social disintegration and incipient fascism—have exfoliated at both ends of the political spectrum, gaining credence among wide sectors of the population.
At the root of this paradoxical state of affairs lies a new racism, differing from the old in its origins and dynamics. The old racism may have served economic and social interests, but its sources were instinctive and visceral. The new racism is political. It has sprung up and spread like a poisonous weed to choke the civility that the civil rights movement had established. It has given the old racism a new lease on life.
For the old racism did not die with civil rights, just as the old Adam doesn’t disappear with civilization. It was driven underground. Civilized order is constituted by the moralities, institutions, and traditions that tame the savage in us and restrain our impulse to evil, that humanize our behavior and elevate our souls. That is the significance of the laws that were instituted by the civil rights revolution, that made our standards color-blind and universal, and that completed our constitutional covenant; they called us to our better selves.
But it was never in their capacity to remake us, to extirpate the reflexes of fear and resentment of the other that achieve their repulsive apotheosis in racism, and that are inscribed in our characters like a genetic code. That is why we have placed our hopes in laws, standards, and moralities that are universal, that are meant to be applied to our citizens regardless of race, gender, and creed. That is the importance of the civil rights revolution, and why defending its principles, which are now under siege, is more urgent than ever.
It is urgent because of the breach that has been made in this covenant in the last two decades by the radical forces of the political left. Radicals are the permanently unsatisfied among us—nihilists of the Utopian vision, restless with the imperfections of humanity as we know it—who clamor for a future in which human beings will be different from what they are and the world transformed, for a world in which racism and evils like it will be purged from the species forever, and of course for the time when radicals like themselves will inherit the earth. This is the messianic maximalism that has blighted our century, the Gnostic idealism that subverts its own ends and leads instead to the gas chambers and the gulag. And it is this political religion—preached by left-wing ideologues on our campuses and by demagogues in the streets—that is the primary source of the new racism.
An emblem of this pathology can be found in one of the recurring symptoms of the present crisis. A racial crime is committed, but the forces of the law are blocked in their efforts to secure justice by radical attorneys representing the victims. These attorneys refuse to allow their clients to cooperate in the prosecution of the crime, claiming justice will not be done, indeed cannot be done, because the system in its very nature is unjust. Thus the crime becomes the occasion for an indictment not of the deranged individuals who may actually have committed it, but of America itself.
We have heard this indictment before. It is the prosecutorial brief of the political left (and indeed the chief prosecutors of the present racial confrontation, Vernon Mason and Alton Maddox, were actually trained in the William Kuntsler school of guerrilla law). The radical paradigm that informs the new racism is a melodrama of social domination and political liberation: domination by an oppressing class, liberation through civil conflict.
For old-style liberals, politics is the art of compromise; for radicals it is the conduct of war by other means. The radicals’ war begins by dividing society into the politically chosen and the morally condemned, and ends with the total annihilation of the social enemy, which will usher in a millennium of social peace. In proposing a strategy of total victory, radicalism becomes a species of racism. The will to genocide may begin as metaphor, as when Marxists call for the elimination of exploiting capital; but its momentum is towards genocide in fact, as in the Leninists’ program to exterminate the bourgeoisie as a class. In their political practices, Communism and Fascism historically are kissing cousins: the stigmatization of entire social groups is combined with the will to suppress them permanently in the name of a better world.
Marxism long appeared to be free from racist taint because the messianic force on which it pinned its hopes was not an ethnic or racial sub-group, but a universalist class. Because it was universal, the proletariat in representing its own interest represented the interests of all. But by 1960 the myth of the proletariat was itself universally dead. This recognition was one of the factors that gave birth to the New Left.
It also removed, however, the last barrier to the racism inherent in the politics of the left. For the New Left and its successors, the agency of revolutionary change was no longer the proletariat, no longer a class. Instead, race, gender, and even sexual orientation became substitutes for the missing messianic agent. Thus when the guerrillas of the New Left marched off the streets and into the universities at the end of the sixties, they did not create “proletarian studies” programs, but fortresses of ethnic and gender politics. These new “disciplines” provided academic fiefdoms for anti-Semitic and anti-white racists like Professor Leonard Jeffries of CUNY, who teaches undergraduates the moral superiority of the “sun people” because of the higher melanin content in their skin, and Leroi Jones, a/k/a Imiri Baraka, now Professor Baraka and head of Afro-American Studies at SUNY-Stony Brook. “We want poems like fists beating niggers out of Jocks of dagger poems in the slimy bellies of the owner-jews/Look at the Liberal Spokesman for the jews clutch his throat and puke himself into eternity/ Another bad poem cracking steel knuckles in a jewlady’s mouth,” wrote Baraka as a sixties icon. This seed has now sprouted in the hateful lyrics of rap group Public Enemy and in the proto-Nazi speeches of Louis Farrakhan.
While the soldiers of the radicals’ class conflict changed from proletarians to people of color and victims of gender bias, the structure of the radical paradigm was maintained: the division of society into the “people” and those identified as the “enemies of the people,” into “us” and “them”—the prescription for cultural and political war.
It is the emergence of this left, beginning with the black power activists led by Stokely Carmichael, that derailed the integration process and the authentic civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King—a movement which had fought for the idea of a single standard: one justice, indivisible, for all. The result was predictable from the contrasting agendas of the leaders of the two movements. A believer in American democracy, King had embraced the historic alliance between blacks and Jews, America’s other outcast minority; Carmichael hated America and American democracy, hated Jews and hated whites, and expelled them from the civil rights coalition. Carmichael and his cohorts replaced the liberal goals of racial integration and equal opportunity that King had championed with the leftist model of oppression and liberation. The goal of integration—the classic route to success in America—was condemned as a path to moral corruption and political co-optation; the strategies of non-violence and compromise were rejected in favor of the politics of confrontation and threat; the encompassing metaphor for the civil rights struggle became one of civil war.
When the political confrontation failed to generate a social revolution, Carmichael deserted his constituents and went into exile as a prince across the water in the Marxist totalitarian state of Guinea. In his adopted homeland, the atrocities committed against the impoverished population were acceptable to Carmichael because the dictator was a friend, a socialist and black. Recently, however, Carmichael has returned to spread his message of anti-Americanism, anti-Semitism, and race hatred on campuses across the United States, where he is welcomed by the New Left professoriate and its student disciples.
For two decades, activists like Carmichael, street prophets like Farrakhan, and academic mountebanks like Baraka and the egregious Angela Davis have been stars of the campus circuit, indoctrinating new generations in the divisive and racially polarizing ideologies of the radical paradigm, and in the denigration of American values and institutions. They have been supported by a chorus of white radical academics and accommodating administrators who find their rantings congenial to the alienated worldview they can pick up in the pages of The Nation, Z, Mother Jones, and In These Times, or on the airwaves of Pacifica and National Public Radio. Without the presence of this left, the ugliness of the old racism would no doubt still be with us, but we would be much farther along the road in our attempts to repress and contain it.
It is this left that has promulgated the idea that there is no common cultural heritage that belongs to all Americans, that the culture out of which this democracy was conceived is really the culture of a master race, that the American consensus is oppressive in its very nature, in the same way that American justice is oppressive, that American institutions are inherently racist and need to be radically reformed.
The appeal to social theory and philosophical principle is the high road taken by New Left academics and legal activists in their assault on the universal covenants that have, until now, made this democratic Republic the wonder and envy of the world. But there is a low road, as well, on which racist demagogues have followed after them, inspired by their indictments and encouraged by their attacks. From Susan Sontag’s infamous remark of the sixties that “the white race is the cancer of history” to Elijah Muhammad’s revelation that whites are devils invented by a mad scientist named Yakub is no great leap after all.
The largest and most powerful racist organization in the United States today is the Nation of Islam, a pseudo-religious political cult born in the same malevolent crucible as the sixties’ left. A split-off from the Black Muslims, the Nation of Islam has preserved the political thrust of that amalgam, at the expense of its religion. For the Nation of Islam—as for the liberation theologians—the political is religious. Thus, the Nation of Islam regards white America and the Jews as great Satans, and accuses them of conspiring to commit genocide against blacks through the epidemics of drugs and AIDS. In a recent speech in Los Angeles, broadcast as a public service by Pacifica’s KPFK, Farrakhan lieutenant Steve Cokely even identified the local measles epidemic as part of this genocidal plot, whose ultimate architects were those familiar demons of the paranoid right and left, the members of the Trilateral Commission and other ruling-class cabals. In his diatribe, Cokely invoked a radical canard that has been showcased for national audiences in celebrated cultural artifacts like Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. Cokely claimed that white America was killing black Americans with impunity. The problem with black people, he complained, was that “we don’t deliver retribution,” which could also be a subtext of Spike Lee’s film. At a recent public gathering in the heart of the nation’s capital, with former civil rights hero and disgraced Mayor Marion Barry on the podium as an object lesson, Farrakhan prepared his black audience for the coming race war. Invoking the “persecution” of American blacks over the centuries, of which Barry was allegedly the most recent example, Farrakhan ranted: “All white America could be asked to die to equal the score.”
And this is heart of the problem. Racist hate-mongers like Farrakhan and Cokely and their genocidal messages, far from being stigmatized and isolated on the political fringe, have—through the intervention of the political left, the tolerance of the civil rights establishment, and the acquiescence of the liberal center—become part of the culture itself. The claim that there is a governmental/white conspiracy against blacks in America has been a weapon in the rhetorical arsenal of the left for two decades. It is as readily found in the editorials of the Nation (which have routinely claimed that the war on drugs is a war on black America), as in the public utterances of literary icons like Toni Morrison, who told Time magazine that the only thing binding America together as a nation is its racism toward American blacks.
To embrace the general idea of genocidal conspiracy obviously makes it easier to accept the particular paranoias spread by demagogues like Farrakhan about drugs or AIDS. These grotesque libels have been propounded as well by tenured radicals as though they were facts, and disseminated in “news” stories without editorial comment by left-wing journalists like Earl Caldwell of the New York Daily News. Even as responsible a black columnist as William Raspberry of the Washington Post has defended Farrakhan on the spurious grounds that he had some true things to say (as though Hitler did not). Nor has the outcry against these genocidal libels been all that deafening. Jesse Jackson, while still the leading Democratic politician in Chicago, chose to be silent during the public storm that broke after it was revealed that Cokely—then a high-salaried aide to the Democratic mayor—had accused Jewish doctors of injecting blacks with AIDS. Widely regarded as a moral leader, Jackson can condemn the President of the United States as a racist, while refusing to make similar judgments of Cokely, the Nation of Islam, or Farrakhan, his continuing friend and political ally.
Silences like Jackson’s are made easy and thus virtually inevitable by the liberal center’s collusive tolerance of the new racism. This tolerance ranges from allowing political demagogues like Jackson to posture as moral spokesmen while maintaining their ties to bigots like Farrakhan to portraying those bigots as social critics. Thus a New York Times story described Washington Mayor Barry’s alliance with Farrakhan in the following terms: “[Barry] has shown up at rallies with the Rev. Louis Farrakhan, the Nation of Islam leader who has gained nationwide attention for his criticism of white society, particularly Jews.”
Mayor Barry’s alliance with Farrakhan was but the latest episode in the series of Reichstag fire incidents that began with the fraudulent claims of Tawana Brawley and have escalated since, in which the normal processes of the judicial system are converted by leftwing racists and black “nationalists” into their standard morality play about oppressive Amerikkka ruled by white devils and in need of liberation. The success of this morality play is such that the truly genocidal libel that whites and Jews are plotting the destruction of black Americans is now given wide credence in black communities across the country (as reported in a recent Washington Post survey), in the way similar conspiracy libels against the CIA and other government agencies have become staples of belief in the communities of the left. The conquest of the political culture of the black community by the culture of the left has allowed someone like Farrakhan to gain an acceptance and support that far exceeds that of any comparable black demagogue in the past including Malcolm X, who in his lifetime, it should be remembered, was condemned and isolated by the leadership of the black civil rights movement precisely because of his rhetorical violence and racial politics.
The liberal center is now so permeated by the culture of the left that institutions like the Times and the Washington Post (which recently presented Farrakhan’s views in a lengthy and respectful format suited to a world-important statesman) are unable to recognize such enemies of liberal society for what they are. As a result, the editors of the Times and Post legitimize by default “community leaders” whose civic agenda is to provoke a race war. Of course, this liberal myopia applies only to hate-mongers in one direction. Grand Dragons of the Ku Klux Klan, or neo-Nazis with parallel ideas, can expect no such treatment, partly because they have far smaller followings, but partly as well because they are white.
The double standard has led to other ugly consequences: the legitimization of white racist rhetoric in the advocacy of reverse affirmative action among ordinary Americans who don’t necessarily read the Times, and the re-emergence of white racism as a political program in the candidacy of former klansman David Duke. In a political crucible in which preferential treatment and race-based laws are advocated by the liberal establishment, a National Association for the Advancement of White People can look like an equal opportunity party. In fact, this revitalization of the old racism is integral to the agenda of the left, because it is the key to its favored strategy, which is to eliminate the moderate center. Thus, in the early seventies, Angela Davis formed a Communist Party front called the Alliance Against Racism whose main target was the Ku Klux Klan, at the time a thoroughly discredited, closely monitored, and generally moribund institution. Shortly afterwards, a mini-sect calling itself the Communist Workers Party announced a “Death to the Klan” rally in Greensboro, North Carolina, provoking a gun battle in which five of their own members were killed. At the time, the Klan was hardly important. But it was vital to the political strategy of leftists like Angela Davis and the Communist Workers Party that the Klan be important.
Historically, the way to every leftist political victory has been paved by the elimination of the political middle. Only when the left can present itself as the lone alternative to a fascist right has victory been within its grasp. In the last two decades, the left has greatly eroded the liberal center on the issue of race. In the process, it has relentlessly assaulted and nearly subverted the democratic ethos—the idea of universal standards, of equal opportunity, and of competitive justice. The task before us is to rebuild that center by reaffirming universal standards, by condemning and isolating racist hate-mongers, and by rejecting the radical paradigm of liberation and oppression—of politics as a means of civil war.
David Horowitz is Co-Director of the Second Thoughts Project of the National Forum Foundation and co-author, with Peter Collier, of Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the Sixties.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?