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What liberals get wrong about race The media's fixation with identity has skewed reality

Facts matter. (Photo by KEREM YUCEL/AFP via Getty Images)


July 26, 2021   5 mins

America may have its first mixed-race Vice President, its first African-American Secretary of Defense and its first Latino and immigrant as Secretary of Homeland Security, but the country has never been so racist. That, at least, is one of the disturbing conclusions being drawn from a new Gallup poll, which found that the share of Americans reporting that race relations are bad or “somewhat” bad has reached 57% — the highest it’s been in two decades.

But are its findings really evidence of widespread racism in the US? Hardly. In fact, you need only look at the behaviour of Americans — at the number of interracial marriages or police shootings of minorities, for example — to see that racism has almost never been so absent.

Take interracial marriages. In 1958, 94% of whites opposed it — yet just 10% do today. Similarly, the long-running General Social Survey found that in the 1970s nearly 60% of white Americans agreed with the statement that blacks shouldn’t “push themselves where they’re not wanted”. In 2002, that figure fell to 20% — and the question was discontinued.

It’s much the same story with police shootings of African-Americans. Despite the charged rhetoric of the past year, which culminated in calls for entire police forces to be disbanded, such shootings are 60-80% lower than they were in the 1960s.

So why is there such a misunderstanding between the American public and the reality of US race relations? The answer, I suspect, reflects a media-driven moral panic — one that is rooted in the racialisation of identity-obsessed progressive politics.

Indeed, the “rise” of racism in America since 2014 is a social construct that reflects perception rather than daily life. This is largely a result of what Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman described in 1973 as the “availability heuristic” — the idea that vivid images rather than statistical reality tends to shape people’s perceptions. For instance, people routinely overestimate vivid phenomena, from crime to the share of Muslims in their country, because these stories make the news. Crime in America may have fallen every year before 2019 — but when asked about it by Gallup, most people in all but two years said crime had risen over the past year.

So too with race. In some ways, this is to be expected. Whenever events such as the 1992 Los Angeles riots or the killing of George Floyd make the news, people — shocked by what they are seeing — inevitably perceive race relations to be worse than they are. What is distinctive today, however, is the sustained determination of major progressive news outlets like the New York Times or CNN to centre racism as a dominant theme in American society.

As UnHerd has previously noted, citing ground-breaking research by Zach Goldberg of Georgia State University, the use of the term “racism” and similar terms in mainstream news outlets took off around 2015, (which can be seen here).

What caused this spike? Goldberg cites social media and the new partisan clickbait business model in online journalism as the catalysts. Then, during the campaign for the 2016 US election, Donald Trump energised the enterprise. As the New York Times‘ Ben Smith recounted last year: “Heated Twitter criticism helped to retire euphemisms like “racially charged. The big outlets have gradually, awkwardly, given ground, using “racist” and “lie” more freely, especially when describing Mr. Trump’s behaviour.” Certainly, many of these outlets swiftly retired all objectivity and standards in favour of this new partisan model.

One reason for this was the media’s desire to tap into a mythic script of a white officer killing a black suspect. Indeed, Goldberg’s study of the 2015-20 Washington Post police killings database reveals that black police shooting victims received nine times the media coverage of white victims. As Coleman Hughes has observed, when footage emerged in 2016 showing Tony Timpa, a white suspect, being suffocated as a Dallas officer placed his knee on his neck, the media looked the other way while the officers walked free.

This media fixation on identity politics, alongside pre-existing misperceptions, ultimately skews the public’s sense of reality. The number of unarmed black men killed by police in the Washington Post’s own database in 2019 was between 13 and, using a very broad definition of “unarmed”, 27. Yet nearly half of “very liberal” Americans think the number is between 1,000 and 10,000. There were over twice as many unarmed whites killed by police as blacks but, as John McWhorter, author of the new book Woke Racism notes, this never makes the news because it doesn’t fit the narrative of white racial violence against African-Americans.

The narrative of police racism is exacerbated by party politics. A young black man is around ten times as likely to die in a car accident than from a police bullet, but only 10% of African-American Democrats and 20% white liberals get this question right — while more than 70% white Trump voters do. While there are some who are undecided, Figure 2 (below) shows that 95% of blacks and 70% of whites who believe “all white Republicans are racist” agree with the statement.

The impact of such warped perceptions cannot be overstated. But rather than trying to correct untruths, the American Left has leaned into these corrosive myths. Witness Elizabeth Warren tweeting that Michael Brown was murdered by police in Ferguson, despite the fact that the officer had been cleared by a federal grand jury of wrongdoing. Or, in the wake of the Chauvin verdict, Joe Biden reinforcing the irresponsible fiction that black people in America live in fear of their lives from police bullets:

We must do more on police violence, so they don’t have to wake up knowing that they can lose their very life in the course of just living their life. They don’t have to worry about whether their sons or daughters will come home after a grocery store run or just walking down the street or driving their car or playing in the park or just sleeping at home.

No doubt Biden was well-meaning, but he was, in effect, propagating a conspiracy; it was similar to telling an anti-vaxxer that their fears are well-placed and it is up to pharmaceutical companies to eliminate every last side effect before we can expect them to trust a jab.

Of course, Black Americans have had a historically uneasy relationship with the police, but that is no excuse for the blend of romanticism and virtue-signalling that seems to have gripped today's progressives.

While Democratic politicians and the media rightly held Trump to account for violating liberal democratic norms, such as claiming the election was stolen or encouraging the Capitol rioters, they were strangely silent when Biden said he was "praying for the right verdict" in the Chauvin trial and Democratic Congresswoman Maxine Waters told a crowd in front of the courthouse to "get more confrontational" and let the judge "know that we mean business", Meanwhile, media interest in the record-setting $2 billion in damage caused by the riots following George Floyd's death — which struck a disproportionate number of minority-owned businesses — was minimal.

It was a disturbing reflection of the distorted, racialised reality they now inhabit. Just don't expect them to take responsibility for it.


Eric Kaufmann is Professor of Politics at the University of Buckingham and author of Taboo: How Making Race Sacred Led to a Cultural Revolution (Forum Press, 4 July).

epkaufm

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Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
2 years ago

Just as Big Brother was eternally engaged in hunting down the Brotherhood and eliminating Goldstein. So the political left will forever be fighting racism, sexism and homophobia. Whatever the reality of their existence.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matthew Powell
David Uzzaman
David Uzzaman
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

That’s the existential threat poised to all full time anti racist activists, there just aren’t enough racists to go round.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

Let the Left bark on about its racial fantasies, but they are losing the ‘hearts & minds’ of many who who are fatigued by their baying.

Johann Strauss
Johann Strauss
2 years ago

Great article and spot on analysis.

Paddy Taylor
Paddy Taylor
2 years ago

The racial grievance industry is enjoying a boom time. There are careers to be had and fortunes to be made. Who cares if we’re speaking the truth if we can make a buck from spreading falsehoods!
Robin Di Angelo, Ibram X Kendi and Layla Saad are basically arms dealers in the culture war.
We’ve reached a point where, regardless of how well-meaning people might be, before engaging in any worthwhile cultural or political debate, those taking part must first decide what sort of discussion they wish to have – one that sits comfortably within current moral fashion, or an honest conversation that deals with actual facts (however uncomfortable, or unfashionable, they may be).
Unless all participants agree that a real and honest conversation is preferable, then daring to voice perfectly justifiable thoughts in certain quarters will lead to (unchallengeable) charges of racism and kill any chance of rational debate.
It is also sadly true that the identity of the messenger is often as consequential as the message itself. The matter of one’s race, gender, age or creed should not add a jot or subtract a tittle from the validity of one’s argument – but we know that it does in today’s marketplace of ideas. Writing as a British, middle-class, middle-aged white man, I am on much thinner ice tackling contentious issues such as race than if I were black, or younger, or any of half a dozen other differentiators. Because according to Critical Race Theory, the very fact of my Whiteness supposedly stops me from being able to discern systemic racism – and thus I can be safely ignored. Any attempt to push back against that is dismissed as defensiveness and further proof of my racism – apparently.
It is therefore crucial that enough black intellectuals and writers take on the divisive racial myths being peddled by race-baiters, the leftish media and the ever-growing army of (largely well-meaning but chronically misinformed) young, indoctrinated liberal woke – who I like to call the Children of the Quorn – who parrot this stuff and take it as Gospel. Of course they think race relations are the worst they’ve been for generations, they’ve heard little else from the media, and seem almost to want to believe it, for reasons unknown.
When I’ve tried to read and understand the messages put about by Ms DiAngelo and her ilk, it appears that the arguments rest wholly on guilt, and cynically seek to exploit that guilt for perceived gain. Organisations such as BLM seek to feed into a culture of guilt among whites, and victimhood among the black community. Rather than empowering those they claim to champion, it enfeebles them. It is frankly demeaning to imagine black people as perpetual victims of systemic white racism. It removes the idea that any Person of Colour has agency. It absolves such “victims” of the need to take responsibility for their actions, their choices and their future. Such infantilisation of an entire racial community has been the principle behind much that is holding people back.
Thomas Sowell has been making these points for many years. Now into his 90’s, and with BLM in the ascendency, his voice is needed more than ever. Thankfully there are other intellectuals taking up the challenge – Glenn Loury and Coleman Hughes very much among them.
Here in the UK, Trevor Phillips, once considered righteous by the BBC and Guardian, is now vilified because he dared speak the truth, he dared push back against the false narrative that the UK is an irredeemably racist country – his crime was merely to point out that, by almost any metric you can find, the UK is just about the most tolerant, diverse country on planet earth. Or witness the immediate denigration of the authors of the recent Sewell report. The comments made about them (in mainstream as well as social media) were overtly racist and deeply unpleasant, all because they challenged the race-baiters and pointed up the fact that poverty, social class and culture were determining factors of far greater significance in holding people’s life-chances back than merely race.
But not only does the politics of grievance divide us, it makes us weaker. It glorifies victimhood and vilifies anyone who tries to suggest otherwise. The #metoo movement could have been empowering, yet insisting that a clumsy advance, or an unwanted touch of a knee, is somehow equivalent to rape is insane. Who is that empowering? Telling every woman they are a victim, teaching impressionable young women they are likely to become victims, that all men are naturally predatory? Does that heal divisions in society or exacerbate them?
Similarly, teaching young black men that they are oppressed, that society doesn’t value them as much, that the police are not to be trusted. Who does that help? Does it improve their chances of success in life or does it weigh them down with unnecessary baggage? Does it drive a wedge between communities, between groups? Of course it does.
In the end, the politics of grievance can only be defeated by a better politics – but that has to be rooted in honesty, not what fits the narrative. Honest assessments of a situation probably sell fewer newspapers, or get fewer Youtube views, than sensationalised hyperbole. This poses a dilemma for any media outlet that has bought into the identity fixated woke agenda.
Identity politics is the very antithesis of the principles of universalism – it suggests what differentiates us is more important than what we have in common. Surely we should treasure more what we share as members of a diverse community rather than seek to silo people and segregate that community into ghettos based on our racial identities, sexual orientation, age, gender or creed?
How do people who claim to speak for progressive attitudes justify shifting the argument from Martin Luther King’s dream of a future where people are judged according to their character rather than the colour of their skin to the point where these activists are calling for PRECISELY THE OPPOSITE? That you are defined, as a person, solely by the groups to which you belong. To abandon that call for universalism in favour of separatism is surely a retrograde step?
That point seems so incontestable to me that I am utterly baffled how “progressives” can think this present strategy is advancing the cause of equality.
For each anecdotal instance of intolerance that gets trumpeted as “proof” of widespread bigotry, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc there are a million other instances of just everyday acceptance of people, – regardless of colour, nationality or gender – that aren’t worthy of anecdote simply because they are so everyday.
The activists and writers who seem so keen to push this agenda, seem not merely willing, but positively hoping, to see the country divided, pitting their ideas of racial antipathy against the reality of a tolerant and accepting society. In an attempt to appear Woke they are sleepwalking the country into the very same dystopian future that they imagine our present to be.

Alan Tonkyn
Alan Tonkyn
2 years ago
Reply to  Paddy Taylor

Excellent comment on a first-rate article. I entirely agree with your arguments, especially with regard to the disempowering and divisive effect of racial identity politics.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

The supply of race hucksters greatly exceeds the demand for them, so they naturally have to spend a great deal of effort making it appear that more race hucksters are needed.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago

“No doubt Biden was well-meaning, but he was, in effect, propagating a conspiracy;”

Hahahaaa, he hates America as it is, as it is represented by ‘The American Dream’ which he would claim, Like Pilosi and AOC and Omar, that such a dream is pure White Supremacist ideology…. They want to destroy USA.

But want the answer? it is….:

SOROS

From yesterday, Daily Mail

“Billionaire George Soros donates $1million to racial justice organization seeking to defund the police”
And just one of the vast number of searches pulled up when one searches this topic…

“Liberal billionaire George Soros donated $33million to social justice organizations which helped turn events in Ferguson from a local protest into a national flashpoint.”

“The amount Soros donated was his most generous in 2021, and supported the organization’s efforts to minimize police budgets. In February, Soros donated $2 million to Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascon’s campaign, who announced immense changes to his office’s law enforcement strategy immediately after assuming office.”

It goes on and on – all the ultra Lefty/Liberal DAs and Prosecutors and Judges, and every other kind of elected official in USA gets their campaign money from him, he is buying all the ones in who refuse to prosecute the criminals but prosecute any Cop who dares to do their job. This man is as evil as the devil.

Tom Krehbiel
Tom Krehbiel
2 years ago

You perhaps should have mentioned that Michael Brown’s fingerprints were found on Officer Darren Wilson’s gun, which indicated that the policeman shot Brown in self-defense. The witness who gave the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” tale had to retract his story or face perjury charges. Oh, and John McWhorter is black himself, so is an unlikely victim of white fragility.
I wonder if Tony Timpa really was murdered? I feel obligated to ask in all fairness since I have the same doubts about George Floyd dying from Chauvin’s knee, as opposed to expiring from a drug overdose or else from his heart condition.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
2 years ago

I don’t believe that 95% think that.
They just answer that because it fits with their world view.
Maybe the article should say “95% of people don’t think before they open their mouths” ..
Just saying.. 🙂

Adam Wolstenholme
Adam Wolstenholme
2 years ago

Robin Diangelo’s work has done a lot to peddle the falsehoods EK identifies. For those who don’t want to read White Fragility, I’ve done it for you …
Adam Wolstenholme: White Fragility – a Review (adamjwolstenholme.blogspot.com)

Alan Tonkyn
Alan Tonkyn
2 years ago

Thanks for this. I’ve read your blog comment on what is clearly a dangerous book, and, like you, I hope we can keep this stuff out of our classrooms. However, I fear that, because of the attitudes of many of our teachers (and their managers) the Trojan horse – in various forms – is already within the gates.

Hardee Hodges
Hardee Hodges
2 years ago

Trying to counter the narrative with facts seems to add fire to the polarization. What is evolving in the aftermath of constant declarations of racist is the word is gradually losing impact. But the worst fear is the stoking of animosity and race consciousness in the public. Perhaps liberals will be Ok with constant apologies for “being White” but it doesn’t sit well with the average person, IMHO. I do wish that the race baiting and factual distortions come to haunt those that participated.

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago

“It was a disturbing reflection of the distorted, racialised reality they now inhabit. Just don’t expect them to take responsibility for it.”

What I don’t understand is why they cannot be forced to take responsibility for it. $2bn in property damage but it’s nobody’s fault?

You have got to be kidding.

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
2 years ago

I note that the UK branch of BLM does not seem greatly exercised over the Black Lives of those crossing the Channel in small boats.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
2 years ago

In 2016, the Democrats nominated an unpleasant white woman to replace the incumbent President, a popular mixed race man with a good deal of charisma. To get Hilary elected, the Democrats needed to get African-Americans to vote for a woman who had learnt her politics at the feet of a KKK recruiter. So their friends in the media exaggerated the racism in American society. When Trump was elected, the campaign was continued. Until the present day when the same Democrats are desperately trying to persuade an agitated country that things aren’t so bad now they are in power. It’s that simple.

Robert Kaye
Robert Kaye
2 years ago

“There were over twice as many unarmed whites killed by police as blacks but, as John McWhorter, author of the new book Woke Racism notes, this never makes the news because it doesn’t fit the narrative of white racial violence against African-Americans.”

But given that there are four to five times as many white Americans as black (depending how you categorise) this is still a massively higher rate.

DA Johnson
DA Johnson
2 years ago
Reply to  Robert Kaye

Yes, that is at a higher rate in relation to the percentage of each group in the population, but for various historical and cultural reasons that can be endlessly debated, black Americans commit more crimes per capita than white Americans, and the rate reflects that.