Commentary: Do progressives want to prove Gov. Ron DeSantis right?

Jonathan Zimmerman, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Op Eds

Let’s suppose you were a Democrat who secretly wanted Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to become our next president. What would you do?

Call America an irredeemably racist nation.

DeSantis has become the rhetorical general of America’s new culture war, repeatedly saying that evil left-wingers want to teach kids that the country is racist. His claim is mostly a canard, cooked up to provide red meat for Fox News. A small but influential subset of people on the left really do believe in America’s inherent racism, however, which plays directly into DeSantis’ hands.

Witness the reactions to the Memphis police killing and — before that — to the mass shooting in Monterey Park, California. Both acts were allegedly committed by members of minority groups against fellow minorities. But they were also products of the country’s baked-in racism — or so several prominent media and academic voices proclaimed.

In an opinion piece for CNN, Van Jones declares that the five Black police officers who were charged with murdering an African American in Memphis had “internalized” anti-Black racism. Of course he didn’t know that and could never prove it. As “evidence” for the claim, Jones’ piece linked to the famous Iowa elementary school teacher who separated her students in 1968 based on their eye color and told them that one color was superior to the other.

The kids behaved in accord with that system, developing superiority and inferiority complexes that reflected their eye color. Yes, the children with blue eyes — the “worse” group, in this experiment — came to view themselves as “less than.” But that hardly demonstrates that Black Americans do the same thing or — more to the point — that the five Memphis cops did.

In Forbes, meanwhile, University of Southern California professor Shaun Harper writes that police forces are marred by “institutional racism.” The five accused Black police officers “entered a profession that was born in anti-Blackness,” Harper states. Indeed, he adds, “slave catchers were America’s original law enforcement officers.”

There’s just one problem with that statement: It’s not wholly true. New England communities had constables starting in the 1630s. The first big urban police forces were established in the early 1800s in Boston, Philadelphia and New York.

Did slave patrols in some Southern states evolve into police forces? Yes. And did Northern police departments engage in horrible acts of racism against escaped enslaved people and many other African Americans? That would be a yes, too. But it’s also very different from claiming that police forces began with slave-catching.

Writing in Jezebel, meanwhile, Kylie Cheung insists that the mass shooting at a dance studio in Monterey Park was “still racial violence,” even though the gunman who killed 10 people was Asian himself. And Emerson College student journalist Maddie Khaw linked the Monterey massacre to “profound anti-Asian racism” — including the “internalized” version.


Let’s be clear: Asian Americans have suffered awful racist violence, from their arrival on these shores to the spate of attacks at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, which was frequently blamed on them. And the racist crimes against African Americans are incalculable and undeniable: slavery, segregation, lynching, redlining and so much more.

But that’s saying one thing, and saying America is an inherently and indelibly racist country is another. The latter claim is associated with critical race theory, which took root in law schools after the civil rights era. Now that laws ban discrimination, why do so many Black people remain mired in poverty? Why do they receive — on the average — worse education, health care and housing?

The answer, critical race theorists say, is that our institutions — including, importantly, our legal system — are racist. They were born in anti-Blackness, and they continue to serve the same nefarious purpose.

That’s a debatable assertion, to say the least, and we should certainly debate it. And that’s why I despise efforts by DeSantis and others to bar critical race theory from our schools. Most Americans have no idea what critical race theory is, of course. But once it gets banned, it’s easy to imagine how many schools will drop any study of racism lest they run afoul of the law. Indeed, some teachers report doing that already.

But if you’re terrified of that prospect, like I am, why would you take to the airwaves to call our institutions racist? When the anti-critical race theory campaign started, many of us dismissed it as a boogeyman invented by Christopher Rufo and other propagandists on the right. That becomes harder to sustain when notable left-wing voices are embracing its central propositions.

We would do better to take a page from Barrington Martin II, a former Democratic congressional candidate in Georgia. “Can’t people be bad people motivated by their lack of maturity, self-awareness, and inability to discern?” tweeted Martin, who is African American. “Does every incident involving police and black men have to revert to being an issue in race?”

The next election will hinge largely on the way that Democrats answer that question. And if they want to lose to a demagogue like DeSantis, they’ll say yes.

I say no.


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