We are still debating the basic humanity of black people and other minority groups.
That’s at the heart of the unrest we’ve seen in places such as Middlebury College, where a professor was attacked by protesters for the sin of having participated in a public discussion with controversial figure Charles Murray, a man who has been labeled a white nationalist because he co-authored “The Bell Curve” and other works many believe are anti-black. It’s what drove protesters into the streets after the Keith Lamont Scott shooting and is why Donald Trump’s victory sent shudders through the souls of black folk, because Trump was rewarded with the White House after spending years practicing open bigotry.
Some of our top thinkers have convinced themselves this is primarily about political correctness run amok and chide the “snowflakes” who can’t handle difficult discussions. But they are blind to a more disturbing reality. Sure, Middlebury students should have instead acquainted themselves with Murray’s work, as a black professor insisted I do when “The Bell Curve” was released while I was a Davidson College student, which is why I know Murray is neither white nationalistic nor particularly important. Intellect, like human behavior, is the result of a complex mixture of genetics and environment that scientists still can’t fully pinpoint. Nothing Murray has written undercuts that truth nor is indispensable in our pursuit to better understand.
And it helps no one to over-react to every uncomfortable racial encounter, whether between a white cop and black man during a traffic stop or a “Make America Great Again” cap-wearing college Republican and a member of Omega Psi Phi. More of us should earnestly grapple with opinions which challenge our assumptions. But too quickly dismissing uncomfortable ideas isn’t the biggest threat we face.
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Much of the recent unrest is an outgrowth of what’s been with us since before the founding of this country, the questioning of black people’s basic humanity, sometimes overtly, sometimes out of ignorance, which also manifested itself in our treatment of Native Americans and has metastasized into a subtle condemnation of every minority group deemed insufficiently assimilated into mainstream (read white middle class) culture.
Black Lives Matter is a thing, not because all lives don’t matter, but because black ones have for too long been treated as less than. Black people are on the wrong side of just about every racial disparity imaginable either because the historical treatment of black people has led to those disparities, or because black people really are dumber, lazier and more violent. It’s about time we stop tiptoeing around the obvious, and acknowledge that that’s what we are really debating.
It’s coming to a head because people of color understand the danger of allowing the roots of that ugly thinking – sometimes expressing itself as unconscious bias that has affected more of us than we like to admit – to continue bearing fruit and are resisting in ways they haven’t since the civil rights era. That’s occurring as white America struggles with the reality that it won’t be the majority much longer, meaning its most cherished customs and ideals will no longer by default define what’s good and great about America.
We are the longest-lasting representative democracy this world has ever known – but also a place that has never treated the downtrodden fairly until forced to, whether with blood-soaked swords, precedent-setting Supreme Court rulings or marches in the streets.
Political correctness is a side issue. The redefining of America in the 21st century – will we embrace the emerging diversity and become better for it or succumb to the fear and hatred of our lower angels – is the main event.
Issac J. Bailey is an interim member of the Observer editorial board.