Sam Smith – For the first time I can remember, I feel somewhat at odds with a lot of liberal talk. It’s not that I oppose the goals, but rather I find myself uncomfortable with some of the approaches and language being used to reach them.
For example, the huge preference for the phrase “anti-racism” as opposed to something like “improving ethnic relations” or “defunding police” instead of, say, “bringing police back into the community.”
I view the purpose of politics and social change as being to improve the life of all, not merely to punish or restrict those of contrary intent. It’s not just about doing away with evil, but about creating something much better.
My guess is that part of the problem is that while liberals generally were greatly increasing their educational levels – witness the growth of those with law degrees in recent decades – they were also increasing their tendency to choose analysis over action and to seek legal and procedural, rather than cultural, change.
As an anthropology major and the graduate of a Quaker high school, I tend to view positive change as something that happens for cultural reasons. As I described it a while back:
Although Quakerism may seem just an esoteric religion to many, it in fact has a strong pragmatic side. For example, unlike most religions that put virtue ahead of action, the Quakers were more like existentialists – emphasizing actions reflecting their virtues. Thus the Quaker meeting that ran my school had come out against slavery in 1688.
The Quakers also believed in reciprocal liberty, the idea that if I am to have my freedom you have to have yours even if I don’t agree with all of it. Thus the Quakers got along with other cultures – such as Pennsylvania Germans and native Americans – far better than say, New England pilgrims even worked with other religious groups.
In anthropology, you learn that laws don’t necessarily change habits – witness, for example, our national use of illegal drugs despite the vehement legislative opposition. Thus, even banning racism doesn’t assure positive intercultural relations.
So what bothers me about the phrase “critical race theory” is not only its somewhat elitist academic sound, but that, from what I’ve read, it does little to make us like each other better. Further it’s a description, not a solution.
For example, yes, slavery was evil, but where in critical race theory is seen the need to teach the techniques used to defeat it or the extraordinary blacks who did good things despite the evil around them? When I was involved in the 1960s civil rights movement I can’t remember slavery coming up more than occasionally. There was too much to do tomorrow. And when I think about why I got involved, I recall some of my role models back then, including black jazz musicians and Martin Luther King, whose Stride Towards Freedom, was the best book I read in college yet wasn’t on any required reading list.
Today, the liberal habit is to treat blacks only as victims rather than as role models and there is little talk of how blacks could be leaders today, for example joining with the white working class to fight for better conditions.
And where are the courses on multi-culturalism that should be in every school? Or gatherings where adults get to share their ethnic stories with others? Or mediation centers to handle cultural conflicts?
The same problem is found with the police. Yes, we need to stop choke holds and improper use of weapons, but instead of “defunding” the police, let’s demilitarize them and find ways to bring them back into our communities.
This is not a matter of law or bureaucratic procedure. It requires the recognition that we are all imperfect creatures and we need to discover – or rediscover – techniques that make more of us more human towards each other. Behind every lawless behavior towards another human being is not just legal contempt, but a lack of rational understanding of one’s relationship with them, This doesn’t require critical theory, just a discovery of common sense and decency.