As we watch the mostly white officials of the Democratic party pander to black Americans with talk of reparations on which they will never deliver, it is worth pondering their motive. The support of black Americans for the Democratic party is precarious. Black America, the secret soul of our country, has seen one group after another appropriate its moral authority to become new Democratic party vanguards: first women, then gays and lesbians, and now the transgendered. On what authority would these causes rest if the agonizing struggle to heal the wound of slavery were not their backdrop? None of these claimants wears the crown of thorns as black Americans have.
On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court ruled against racial segregation in public schools, on the grounds that it violated the Fourteenth Amendment. “We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” So wrote the Court. That decision, written with black Americans in mind, has morphed into the strident demand within the Democratic party—and on the college campuses that are its academic arm—for “inclusion.” But this sort of inclusion does not help black Americans. It harms them.
Many black Americans still suffer from the legacy of slavery. Slavery destroys the family, the pillar of every civilization. Slavery means no durable marriage, no assurance of raising your own children, no support from family members in times of need, and no sense of the continuity of the generations, without which civilization perishes. Neither women, nor gays and lesbians, nor the transgendered can claim a wound as deep as the one slavery causes.
Each of these claimants, in its own way, undermines the conventional generative family that black America needs in order to recover and thrive. Each new cause celebrated by the Democratic party, every extension into new territory, each call for greater inclusion, has weakened the family.
The claims of women in postindustrial societies arise from the inevitable tension between their generative role and their economic potential in a world in which having and making money has become the singular obsession. No one has yet devised a solution to this problem, which mothers with young children daily face as they go to work. Their concern is how to modify the conventional generative family—which the least among us, black or white, can hardly do without falling into poverty, as the staggering statistics about single-mother households attest. The least among us need fathers who are breadwinners, who can support mothers whose earning capacity does not offset the cost of sending their children to daycare. The evidence is by now conclusive. The challenge women face in the postindustrial world is real. But it is a problem everywhere in the postindustrial world, not just in America. Why, then, should women in America appropriate the moral authority of black Americans?
The claims of gays and lesbians are not made with a view to modifying the conventional generative family, but rather to questioning whether the conventional family need be generative at all. Often conventional without being generative, gay and lesbian marriage has received public and legal sanction because in much of the postindustrial West, generation seems now incidental to who we are and the lives we construct. Outside of the postindustrial world, that sentiment has not taken hold; nor has it taken hold among black Americans, who are the canaries in the coal mine, alerting the rest of America that the family remains a frighteningly fragile institution. If you doubt this awareness of fragility among black Americans, consider the current polling numbers for Mayor Pete Buttigieg. They are quite low, and not because black Americans are “homophobic.” Black Americans are attentive to what they need: the conventional generative family, and political exemplars who affirm its importance. Democrats declare that President Trump is not the exemplar they want for their children. Are black Americans to be denied their choice on similar grounds?
The claims of transgenderism challenge the conventional generative family that black Americans require, the modified generative family that well-to-do women desire, and the conventional non-generative family that gays and lesbians endorse, for the more radical among the transgendered call into question the very categories of “man” and “woman.” Consequently, the Democratic party is now involved in an internecine war in which old-line leaders of the women’s movement, and of the gay and lesbian movement, are attacked for being insufficiently inclusive. They are “heteronormative,” or “cis-gender,” which is to say, comfortable with their birth sex. The new radicals, who doubt every aspect of the conventional generative family, are taking to task the old radicals, who doubted only one aspect. By the ironclad law of inclusion, it is only a matter of time before former victims become the oppressors, who need to be purged. The left of the 1960s, which gave us feminism and a nascent gay and lesbian movement, turns out to be not woke enough. Nor will black Americans be.
Civil rights for black Americans are not the basis of women’s rights, gay rights, or transgender rights. The arc of history is not the arc of inclusion. Or if it is, then we should note the irony that the vast majority of black Americans, who provide the moral authority and template for the latter movements, end up being “heteronormative” or “cis-gender” offenders in a Democratic party that is perpetually searching for new victims to invoke.
In the distant future, we can imagine a time when black Americans will have had their fill of this exploitation and cry, “Enough!” Today, Democrats are calling for reparations. They want to keep black America in the Democratic party tent while at the same time pushing for the inclusion of groups who are repelled by the conventional generative family. There indeed has been an injustice here, for which reparations must be made: The Democratic party must repay black America for the support it has withdrawn each time it moved away from its defense of the conventional generative family.
In the postindustrial world, there is room to wrestle with questions that pertain to the nonconventional generative family, to the conventional non-generative family, and even to the status of the categories of man and woman. A liberal society, a tolerant society, surely does not compel all its citizens to take one course. These questions, however, must stand on their own, and not rely on the moral authority of black Americans, whose history involves wounds of a deeper sort. The accommodations that emerge must supplement the conventional generative family, rather than substitute for it as the logic of inclusion presently demands.
The Democratic party does not view things this way. As it lurches further into the identity-politics wilderness, black Americans who view the generative family as their most important bulwark must silence themselves. Can it really be the case that millions of black men and women must count themselves among the oppressors? The logic of inclusion points in that direction.
Fearful of losing black Americans altogether, the New York Times has done the bidding of the Democratic party by publishing “The 1619 Project,” as if to say, “American history is racist; we have your back.” The Democratic party does have the back of black America—but only insofar as black America allows ever-new identity groups to wrap themselves in the mantle of its struggle, and only insofar as black America says nothing about the conventional family these new identity groups seek to undermine. If cultural appropriation is the misuse of one group’s identity by another, then surely this is cultural appropriation. If racism is the ability of one group to silence another, then surely this is racism.
Joshua Mitchell is a professor at Georgetown University.