On April 20, when Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of two counts of murder and one count of manslaughter in the May 2020 death of George Floyd, the country breathed a sigh of relief. But distressingly, that relief was narrowly focused on the likelihood that the verdict would reduce the chances of legitimate protest spiraling yet again into vandalism, looting, arson, and deadly violence.
As for the “conversation” surrounding these events, it brings no relief whatsoever. Indeed, if you are hearing this “conversation” for the first time, then you are either extremely young or recently arrived from some other part of the galaxy. Because to anyone who has been living in America since the end of the previous millennium, this “conversation” (which I put in quotes because it is not a conversation) is a definite case of the same ol’ same ol’. And the question is, has it made anything better? Or has it made everything worse?
Twenty-three years ago, when my husband and I were living in the middle-class, predominantly white college town of Claremont, California, there was an incident that sounds all too familiar today. In the early hours of January 11, 1999, a white Claremont police officer stopped an eighteen-year-old black man named Irvin Landrum, Jr., on Baseline Road, the east-west thoroughfare at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains. The reason for the stop was ostensibly that Landrum was speeding, although the officer’s testimony on that point was never clear. What was clear was that another white officer arrived a few minutes later, and under circumstances that remain murky to this day, they both fired their weapons at Landrum, wounding him fatally.
In the uproar that ensued, the officers’ stories kept changing, and the evidence about a gun allegedly in Landrum’s possession proved inconclusive. Investigations were started at both the county and federal levels, and Landrum’s uncle, together with a black activist professor from one of the Claremont colleges, organized protests at city hall. I did not attend the protests, but I recall being appalled by the political ineptitude of the Claremont officials. While still under investigation, the two officers were voted Employees of the Year by their fellow city workers, and Officers of the Year by the police department. When the city manager, dismissing concerns about “mere” public perceptions, allowed these honors to be bestowed, the story made the Los Angeles Times.
The city manager’s next gambit was to release the sixteen-year-old criminal record of Landrum’s uncle, in an effort to discredit the protests. When it became public that the uncle had turned his life around and started a small business, the city manager issued a public apology that, needless to say, lacked the ring of sincerity. A few months later, when the investigations exonerated the officers, the Landrum family filed a wrongful death suit that dragged on until April 2003, when the city of Claremont finally paid a settlement of $450,000—without any formal admission of guilt.
Meanwhile, a prominent church in town hosted a “racial dialogue” led by a professional “diversity consultant” who, in an interview with the Claremont Courier, stated, “Dialogue is a facilitated process that leads to cross-cultural collaboration.… It is not intended to be ‘let’s beat up on the police, let’s blame white or black.’… The hurting runs both ways across color, class, and culture.”
Hmm, I thought. Maybe I’ll head down to the church this Saturday.
But then the diversity consultant added, “Some people sincerely do not perceive racism. Fish don’t see water either—not because the ocean isn’t there—it’s because they’re swimming in it.”
Hmm, I thought. Maybe I’ll stay home.
The following Monday, the Courier reported that only a handful of elderly citizens had shown up to hear a “civil rights activist” brought in by the diversity consultant liken the residents of Claremont to the whites who had recently dragged a black man to his death in Jasper, Texas. Afterward, the organizer of the event expressed hope that the next session would attract a larger group.
Hmm, I thought. How’s that going to work?
Two decades later, a new invention called a smartphone was used by a young bystander to capture Derek Chauvin’s defiantly stolid expression while kneeling on the neck of George Floyd as he lay prone on the sidewalk. For more than nine minutes, that expression reflected the arrogance and impunity of police power at its worst. The result was a wave of mass protests several orders of magnitude larger than the picketing that occurred outside Claremont City Hall back in 1999. Unfortunately, that 2020 wave contained a fair number of individuals pumped up with their own toxic mix of defiance, arrogance, and impunity, which in turn stoked the arrogance and impunity of the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Which returns us to the “conversation” we are now being called upon to have. For the past twenty-three years at least, an ever expanding number of diversity consultants have been plying their trade, not just in churches but in other institutions, large and small, private and public, in every corner of the nation. And by now, the message is tiresomely familiar: You white people are fish, and the water you are swimming in is racism. Because you are fish, you can neither change the water nor get out of it. But if you let us define reality, you might be able to achieve a state of wokeness. By “wokeness” these helpful souls mean something approximating the unearned grace of God (not that they ever put it that way).
Delivered full strength, the message borders on brainwashing. Diluted with hypocrisy, it is more of a light rinse. Foisted on the unwilling, it sets off an allergic reaction. Overall, its impact is to erode common sense.
In America the real question is not whether the body politic can purge itself of racial hatred (most likely it cannot) but whether its immune system is up to the job of resistance. There is little point in tracking a pathogen if the system cannot produce an effective antibody. I say “effective” to distinguish genuine anti-racism from the bogus kind now circulating in our blood.
What genuine anti-racism consists of, we lack the confidence to say. But surely it begins with a rejection of the notion that the same ol’ same ol’ will save us. It is true that some Americans need to distinguish between prosecuting a black criminal and regarding all black people as members of a vast criminal gang. But it is also true that some other Americans need to distinguish between prosecuting a white lyncher and regarding all white people as members of a vast “systemic” lynch mob. If these distinctions are lost, then so are we.
Martha Bayles writes about the arts, cultural policy, and media. A former columnist for The American Interest, she is a contributing editor of American Purpose and film and TV critic for the Claremont Review of Books. This article is adapted from her recently completed memoir on race, Off White.
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