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.
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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.