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The Race to Racism
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The Race to Racism

If you start with the conclusion you can talk yourself into anything.

Demonstrators march through downtown Memphis protesting the death of Tyre Nichols on January 28, 2023 in Memphis, Tennessee. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Hey, 

“To know only one country,” Seymour Martin Lipset often said, “is to know none.”

If I were to compile a list of pithy insights that every high school student should have pounded into their heads, this would be near the top of the list.

Whenever you hear people talk about America as uniquely or exceptionally flawed—or superior!—the first question you should ask is, “compared to whom?”

For instance, we hear a lot about how America has a murder problem. And it does!  But you know where America ranks internationally on homicides? 

64.  

Now, in one sense America could be No. 1 or No. 195 on the international intentional homicide rate charts and it really wouldn’t matter much. Because by definition, one murder is too many. But it’s worth knowing if we’re doing much worse—or better—than other countries for all sorts of practical reasons. Maybe some country had success or failure trying X or Y? That’s worth finding out for policy reasons. 

But it’s also worth knowing for psychological and political reasons. Knowing lots of countries have the same problems we do should take some of the edge off your outrage about our shortcomings. Believing that our problems are unique to us is fodder for conspiratorial thinking, fuels the demonization of your political opponents, and promotes anti-Americanism because it makes us feel like our problems are somehow deliberate. If you believe no other country is racist, then every incidence of racism becomes almost synonymous with American.

This gets at the profundity of Lipset’s maxim. He didn’t say if you know only one country you’ll know only one country. You won’t even know your own country.  

And that’s the problem with many of the loudest voices today. They are describing an America that doesn’t actually exist. 

Just to be clear: It’s fine—and morally obligatory—to condemn racism in America. But it’s just wrong—factually and morally—to say that America is uniquely racist or even especially racist. On international surveys asking if you’d have a problem with a person of a different race as a neighbor, we’re not the most tolerant country in the world, but we’re closer than you’d think if you just read a lot of the stuff in The Atlantic and the New York Times, or followed these debates on TV. Three percent of Americans say they’d object to racially different neighbors. That makes us half as racist as Finland, roughly a quarter as racist as Spain and Italy, and slightly less racist than Germany or France. You can argue that such surveys don’t account for social desirability bias—people saying what they think they’re supposed to say—but even that bias is a sign of racial progress. In 1958, 44 percent of white Americans had no problem saying they’d move if a black family moved in next door. Forty years later, that number had dropped to 1 percent.

This idea that the immutable essence of America is irredeemably racist is simply wrong. But once you believe that, all sorts of wrong ideas seem right, or at least plausible, like the idea concocted by the 1619 Project that the American Revolution was fought to preserve slavery. 

Slave patrols, again.

Or, more relevant to today’s debates, the cockamamie idea that policing—not just American policing—but policing qua policing is inherently racist because policing was invented to catch fugitive slaves. 

Here was Atlantic contributor Jemele Hill the other day:

This idea simply won’t go away. Here’s part of the Black Lives Matter Foundation’s statement on the killing of Tyre Nichols (emphasis mine):

This moment affirms what we’ve known all along: Reform doesn’t work. Incremental progress is too slow. Diversifying a police department will not work. No police department, no matter how diverse, can ever overcome the reality that it is a direct descendant of slave patrols. Police will never keep our communities safe. Our call to defund the police includes ending traffic stops for minor traffic violations and removing police from traffic interactions. 

Now, I’ve written about all of this before many times. I do not dispute that in a handful of states fugitive slave patrollers became police before or after the Civil War. But the idea that policing—and every police department today—is a “direct descendant” of slave patrols or the Fugitive Slave Act is ahistorical nonsense no dumber than saying policing was invented to catch escaped Hebrew slaves in ancient Egypt. 

The oldest policing institutions are probably forgotten to history, because the very idea of a polis, city state, or society more advanced than a tribe of hunter-gatherers is bound up in the idea of providing security. Still, the Egyptians had police 3,000 years ago. The Babylonian paqūdu were patrolling the streets of Uruk before Jesus was born. The oldest “modern” police in Europe are the York Minster constables, who were founded in 1275.

But let’s skip ahead and across the Atlantic. Policing—whether in the form of professional departments or more informal arrangements—has been a staple of American life, in both slave states and non-slave states, for a very long time because policing is what governments do. More on this in a bit.

 Philadelphia started paying patrolmen in 1751. And since we’re talking about a police killing in Memphis, maybe someone can explain how the Memphis PD owes its existence to the Fugitive Slave Act, which was passed in 1850, when the Memphis PD was founded in 1841?

But even if history was on the side of these claims, the idea that every police department is still possessed by some demonic slave-catching spirit is just frickn’ weird—and not just because we don’t have legal slavery in this country. 

It’s also more than a little racist when you take it seriously. To believe that the black cops who killed Nichols were “driven by racism,” you have to believe that black people lack agency not to do evil things because they are simply victims themselves of a hardwired culture of racism. The ghost in the machine of policing is racist so being a cop, black or white, means being possessed by this demonic spirit. 

Rep. Val Demmings, a black woman, was the chief of police in Orlando before she went to Congress. Was she just good at hiding her racism? Do we really believe that the San Francisco Police Department (established in 1849), run by a black man, is compelled to compound the legacy of slavery despite all of his training and beliefs, never mind the political culture of San Francisco? How about the black female Memphis police chief? Does anyone really believe that the only reason she fired and arrested these cops is because they got caught? That can’t be it, because they got caught by the Memphis Police Department. If policing is simply modern slave-patrolling, why would she care? Shouldn’t she have said, “Good job guys” or, “No worries, mistakes happen”?

Indeed, the radicalism of this whole argument is a searing indictment on all of the diversity and sensitivity training programs Americans have spent untold millions (billions) on. If “reform doesn’t work” and no amount of education or oversight can purge policing of its inherent racism, what makes us think such efforts can work any place else?

But let’s get back to my original point. 

You know which countries have problems with police brutality? All of them.

Don’t take my word for it. The U.N. says so, and so does Amnesty International.  

That’s because humans—white, black, Asian, Hispanic, et al.—are prone to abuse power or to overreact when they feel threatened or insulted. That’s why police need training. We give these people weapons and authority to use violence and arrest people. 

Racism and reality.

I highly recommend the Washington Post’s interactive database on police shootings (even though the data is still incomplete, it offers directional insight into the problem). In the last 12 months, about 1,100 people were shot and killed by police. Going by data since 2015, the killed are overwhelmingly male (96 percent), armed (83 percent) and under the age of 44 (73 percent). They are not overwhelmingly black but they are disproportionately black. Twenty-seven percent of those killed were black, while the U.S. population is 14 percent black. Fifty-one percent of those shot were white, while the U.S. population is 57 percent non-Hispanic white. One in 5 victims had confirmed mental health issues. Rates for all of these things vary widely by location. 

These numbers do not address a very basic point: While all police killings can be described as a kind of systemic or societal failure, that doesn’t mean every killing by police officers is unjustified. In a country with very high levels of violence, it’s going to be inevitable that police are going to be justifiably violent sometimes. 

The idea that you can reduce all of this to a simple narrative of racism is not just simplistic, it’s dangerous. Because if you think there’s one explanation for a problem that has many causes, you’re going to do a bad job at fixing the problem. 

It also completely erases a vital fact. America has made enormous—but nowhere near satisfactory—progress on this problem. Jason Riley points to a study reporting that “police killings of African-Americans declined by 60%-80% from the late 1960s to the early 2000s and have remained at this level ever since.” Reform has worked.

Police: The universal institution.

Again, police kill way too many people in this country, and we are definitely a negative outlier among the wealthy developed countries that make up the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. But, adjusted for population, we rank 33rd globally—and this assumes that countries like China, Russia, India, Mexico, North Korea, etc., collect and report accurate statistics. 

If policing is inherently racist and police brutality is simply the fruit of the poisoned tree of American slavery, why does literally every other country in the world have police? 

I am sure there’s some failed state out there where the “police” are really just some form of militia, but I’m even more sure there’s no country in the world that doesn’t have police of any kind. Bhutan is famous in some quarters for having a gross happiness index. But even they have the Royal Bhutan Police. Maybe they go around rousting misanthropes for excessive sadness? But even if there was a truly police-less country somewhere, here’s the thing: Most Americans probably don’t think we should be like them, including average black Americans who never supported the whole “defund the police” elite fad. 

The point here is that when you hear people talking about how “the police”—no one tell the Associated Press about that dehumanizing “the”—or “policing” are inherently racist and of a piece with America’s legacy of slavery, they have two choices. They can either explain how the Zurich, Beijing, Abuja, Riyadh, Brussels, London, and Toronto police departments took their inspiration from America’s Fugitive Slave Act or they can explain why all of these countries have police anyway. 

Option one is an impossibility, like trying to explain that Rome’s sewer system was inspired by Muncie, Indiana’s. But trying to answer the second question would be a useful exercise because it might lead them to understand that police are a necessity. Period. 

You can still have criminal laws without police, but a lot of laws won’t be enforced and a lot of innocent people are gonna get hurt by angry mobs chasing the wrong guy and skipping the whole “let’s find a judge” thing. A lot of women—or a lot more women—are going to get raped. A lot of people are going to get murdered. And a lot of the victims will be black.  

It is amazing to me that people who constantly push for a larger role of government in our lives can suddenly wax anarchist when it comes to arguably the one thing every political theory of the state says is inherent to the concept of the state: police. Who will arrest the people refusing to pay their taxes? If you want to ban hate crimes, force people to recycle, or, you know, not rape and murder people, you’re gonna need someone with handcuffs and weapons to impose your will. Otherwise, you don’t really want any of those things. 

That this has to be explained to anyone is a sign of mass hysteria. That people who deny it are treated as apologists of police brutality is a kind of slanderous madness.

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.