Shelby Steele suggests we are in a brilliant new essay at the Wall Street Journal, Black Protest Has Lost Its Power. It is behind a paywall so you might not be able to see it but if you use your incognito/private browser setting you should be able to pull it up.
Steele's basic premise is that the fizzle of the NFL anthem protests is heralding a change in race relationships. The NFL players are trying to recapture the bygone era of protest when there was actually something to protest about but are doing so in an era when blacks are free or as he writes: "The oppression of black people is over with.". In doing so they have seen an enormous backlash in the form of public anger and financial hits to the league that pays them millions to play a children's game. What we might be seeing is what Steele calls a new "fearlessness" from whites. No longer cowed by the threat of being labeled "racist", conversations are starting to happen that were once forbidden but are long overdue. I hope this is true. If you want to know why groups like the alt-right have suddenly burst on the scene, it is largely because conversations in this country have been submerged under political correctness for decades and people are sick to death of it. Anyone who speaks honestly and unapologetically is going to get a hearing in this atmosphere. If you don't like what the alt-right is saying, you better (to borrow a nonsensical phrase) "create some space" for honest and open conversations about race. Otherwise you are simply abandoning the rhetorical battlefield to the meme warriors.
One place where I see the old paradigm of endlessly staring back at the past, where race relations are always stuck in the pre-Civil Rights era, is in the church. The amount of navel-gazing, hand-wringing and guilt-tripping is unhelpful and unhealthy. In spite of the magnitude of apologizing for racial wrongs from people that really have never significantly wronged others, I see a disturbing trend of black evangelicals that were once solidly orthodox moving quickly away from the Gospel and embracing the "gospel" of racial antipathy. We are in desperate need of honest conversation in the church about race but what we mostly get is an endless rehashing of past grievances and an similarly limitless litany of platitudes and nonsensical phrases. The sheer fragility of so many people in the church when it comes to this topic is embarrassing.
I thought Steele's essay was magnificent, just about the perfect combination of honesty, bluntness and awareness. If there is one thing he seemed to overlook a little, it is the power of the racism-industrial complex to perpetuate the cult of victimhood. I wrote on Facebook in response to the person that originally posted this:
While I mostly agree, the other problem is that perpetuating the cult of victimhood is big business and it is why race relations conversations so often are endlessly rehashing the past instead of truly examining the present and exploring the future. Slavery, Jim Crow, sharecropping, back of the bus, all of these inform where we are but they are not the deciding or even significant factors in the current ills of the black population in America.I stand by that. There is a lot of money and power and influence to be exploited by perpetuating the cult of victimhood. That is precisely why voices like Shelby Steele are given little attention in topics on race relations and why Detroit is trying to find a way to change the name of the Dr. Benjamin Carson High School of Science and Medicine because although Dr. Carson is a magnificent role-model for any young black man, his refusal to embrace the cult of victimhood makes him a threat to those who profit from racial animus.
In case you can't get past the paywall, I selected a few key quotes here for your perusal but make an effort to read the whole essay because it is one of the best things I have read in a long while.
Watch out that you get what you ask for, the saying goes. Freedom came to blacks with an overlay of cruelty because it meant we had to look at ourselves without the excuse of oppression. Four centuries of dehumanization had left us underdeveloped in many ways, and within the world’s most highly developed society. When freedom expanded, we became more accountable for that underdevelopment. So freedom put blacks at risk of being judged inferior, the very libel that had always been used against us.
That’s why, in the face of freedom’s unsparing judgmentalism, we reflexively claim that freedom is a lie. We conjure elaborate narratives that give white racism new life in the present: “systemic” and “structural” racism, racist “microaggressions,” “white privilege,” and so on. All these narratives insist that blacks are still victims of racism, and that freedom’s accountability is an injustice.
We end up giving victimization the charisma of black authenticity. Suffering, poverty and underdevelopment are the things that make you “truly black.” Success and achievement throw your authenticity into question.
For any formerly oppressed group, there will be an expectation that the past will somehow be an excuse for difficulties in the present. This is the expectation behind the NFL protests and the many protests of groups like Black Lives Matter. The near-hysteria around the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and others is also a hunger for the excuse of racial victimization, a determination to keep it alive. To a degree, black America’s self-esteem is invested in the illusion that we live under a cloud of continuing injustice.
When you don’t know how to go forward, you never just sit there; you go backward into what you know, into what is familiar and comfortable and, most of all, exonerating. You rebuild in your own mind the oppression that is fading from the world. And you feel this abstract, fabricated oppression as if it were your personal truth, the truth around which your character is formed. Watching the antics of Black Lives Matter is like watching people literally aspiring to black victimization, longing for it as for a consummation.