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Speech Is Not Violence, and Violence Is Not Speech
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Speech Is Not Violence, and Violence Is Not Speech

Plus, thoughts on what systemic racism is—and isn't.


Let’s start with something easy before we get to the hard stuff. 

A lot of people are saying a lot of very dumb things. For a few years now, we’ve lived in a very strange chapter in American history where large numbers of people claim that speech they don’t like is violence, but the violence they like is speech.

I can assure you that if a gaggle of groyper goons toppled the Martin Luther King, Jr., statue on the National Mall, none of the people making excuses for similar acts against disfavored historical figures would say, “Look, they were just making a statement.”

But here’s Nikole Hannah-Jones, the lead architect of the 1619 Project, saying that it is not just wrong, but immoral, to call violent actions violent:

“Violence is when an agent of the state kneels on a man’s neck until all of the life is leached out of his body. Destroying property, which can be replaced, is not violence. To use the same language to describe those two things is not moral.”

I’m sorry, but the definition of violence as the use of force to harm people or things dates back, in the English language, to the 13th century. It’s the word we have to describe a broad swath of behaviors, and Hannah-Jones’s sleight of hand doesn’t change that fact.

But don’t despair! It is our good fortune that we have other words and concepts to make the distinctions she is blurring. Not all violence is equal, which is why we have words like “murder,” “homicide,” “assault,” “looting” and so on. They are all forms of violence, and it is not immoral to say so. In fact, I think it’s immoral not to say so.

Hannah-Jones is setting up an immoral straw man here. No one, to my knowledge, is saying that the two acts are equal, but she’s trying to bully people into not complaining about indefensible violent behavior that she condones, at least to some extent.

I don’t know why this should be controversial: Destroying someone’s grocery store is bad, but I don’t think it’s as bad as a cop pressing his knee against an unarmed and handcuffed man’s neck until he dies. Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on my opinion to make such distinctions. They are deeply and broadly codified into law. If you’re convicted of murder, you can be put in prison for the rest of your life or even executed. If you ransack a grocery store, without killing anybody, the price you pay will be much lower. My suspicion is that something like 98.5 percent of Americans, of all races and backgrounds, agree with this arrangement, at least as a general proposition.

But you know what? It is immoral to send the signal to millions of people that there’s nothing wrong with wanton looting, rioting, and arson. It’s immoral because those acts are in and of themselves immoral. But it also creates conditions on the ground where violence of property can lead to violence against people. David Dorn, a retired police captain—and an African-American by the way—was killed protecting a pawn shop in St. Louis. He wasn’t protecting the shop from robust speech, he was protecting it from violence. The violence escalated—as it often does—and he paid for it with his life.

Amid all of the reasonable and the ridiculous argle-bargle about Trump promoting violence on Twitter, it’s worth at least noting that celebrating looting as a righteous rebellion promotes violence, too. And I don’t have much patience for people who say that arson is fine, but draw the line only when mobs accidentally discover the house they burned had people in it.

Now, I don’t think Hannah-Jones is responsible for Dorn’s or anyone’s death, but it’s worth noting that she’s contributing to what might be called systemic violence. Which brings me to systemic racism, the new hot phrase these days.

Systemic racism.

Systemic racism, also called institutional racism, is a theoretical framework that says a society can have deeply embedded racist mechanisms and ideas within it that yield racist results even if the individuals working within it aren’t racist.

Here’s a fairly typical definition from The Conversation:

“Systemic racism”, or “institutional racism”, refers to how ideas of white superiority are captured in everyday thinking at a systems level: taking in the big picture of how society operates, rather than looking at one-on-one interactions.

These systems can include laws and regulations, but also unquestioned social systems. Systemic racism can stem from education, hiring practices or access.

At this level of abstraction, I have no problem conceding that America has a systemic racism problem, which is not the same thing as conceding America is systemically racist.

One problem with talk of systemic racism is that many people use the term without understanding it. Another is that some talk about it as if there’s an ongoing racist conspiracy afoot, in which whites deliberately plot racist schemes to oppress black people.

It’s important to understand that this conspiracy theory is literally the opposite of what systemic racism is supposed to mean. (Indeed, the whole concept of “disparate impact” was invented in part to account for the fact that investigators often couldn’t find any racist intent even though they found what they believed to be racist results.)

Systemic racism is when unconscious attitudes and vestigial unexamined and unjust laws, customs, and policies yield racially unfair or unjust results, in effect, by accident. When racial injustice is the intended result that’s not systemic racism but, you know, racism. Jim Crow was a system of racism, but it wasn’t systemic racism. Slavery in America was a racist system—or at least it became racist when slaveholders needed a new theory for why the evil institution should be prolonged. Even in America, the racial justification of slavery was a lagging indicator, not a leading one. Slavery existed for millennia before any modern notion of racism even existed. But the point is there was nothing unconscious or accidental about it.

I’m reminded of that great scene in Barcelona in which Fred asks about “subtext.”

“Plays, novels, songs—they all have a subtext, which I take to mean a hidden message or import of some kind. So, subtext, we know. But what do you call the message or meaning that’s right there on the surface, completely open and obvious? They never talk about that. What do you call what’s above the subtext?”

“The text,” Ted replies.

“OK, that’s right, but they never talk about that.”

Of course, this isn’t quite right because at least sometimes the subtext is intended by the author (though whole curricula are dedicated to subtexts never intended by them).

What’s so annoying about the debate we have is that if you don’t agree with claims of systemic racism—some of which I think are perfectly valid—you are shoved into the position of being an actual racist. It’s a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose, form of argumentation.

It’s important to note that however valid the claims of systemic racism—rightly understood—may be, the actual system we have is not racist. In other words, it’s fine to argue about subtext, but we should at least acknowledge the text. This country endured a civil war and then changed the text of Constitution to abolish slavery and expand rights to all Americans. Sadly, that didn’t do the job, so we had a massive civil rights movement and changed the text of the laws to put teeth on those changes. There is a mass of legislation and common law fleshing all of this out. That should matter.

Our culture is also less racist than at any time in American history, even accounting for some of the recrudescent backsliding in some swampy corners of the right. Calling yourself a racist or acting in non-subtextually racist ways carries an enormous price in our culture. Hell, even acting in ways that are merely interpretable as racist can carry a devastating price. One can argue that the prices should be higher—or lower—but that is an argument that requires a level of nuance few are willing to engage in. Instead we’re told that opposing looting and rioting is in itself racist, even if the disparate impact of that looting and rioting actually harms African Americans—and other minorities—more than white Americans. Don’t complain about the immigrant grocer having his livelihood destroyed, because that’s immoral! Don’t point out that Dorn was black, because that muddies the narrative!

Screw that.

Social Justice is neither.

Friedrich Hayek is one of the great antidotes of a lot of this systemic stuff. Hayek was in many respects a philosopher of systems. And one of his core points is this: Attempts to manipulate a complex system to achieve specific notions of systemic or “social” justice can lead to unjust results. That’s because, once you declare that the state has the power, never mind the obligation, to shower favor on one group over another, the political system is reduced to a contest for power and the victor’s justice that the winning contestant enjoys.

Hayek was a passionate defender of having a just text—fair laws and rules that are universally applicable and universally enforced. But he was an implacable foe of laws aimed at achieving specific results that benefitted only a specific group, even when couched in the language of helping everybody.

The practitioners of modern social justice theory reject this whole approach. They argue for using the power of the state to impose “just” results as they define them—and their definitions are always a moving target. What doesn’t change is the idea that they should be the ones who decide what does, or doesn’t, constitute “justice.”

Whatever may have been in Derek Chauvin’s heart when he crushed the life out of George Floyd, the objective fact is that he was violating the text of the law (at least that’s what most reasonable people believe). Was he racist? Maybe. Definitely. Probably. Perhaps we’ll find out. But if he is guilty of the charges against him, that’s his crime. The subtext is important, culturally, psychologically, and politically. But, again, if convicted, his crime won’t be for the subtext, it will be for the text. Holding one person accountable for the sins of other people is simply unjust, even if it feels good.

Part of the equation that many people are deliberately ignoring as they use this opportunity to gain more political, cultural, and legal power for the cause of social justice is that virtually nobody is defending what Chauvin did and virtually everybody is appalled by it. That should tell you a lot about the breadth and depth of “systematic racism” in America. What it says to me, is that whatever racial problems we still have—and we do have them—systemic racism is not nearly so broad and deep as many are claiming.

Photograph of a damaged storefront by Jessica Rinaldi/Boston Globe/Getty Images.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.