My ‘Black Lives Matter’ Problem
Wrong on crime, wrong on Israel, and wrong on education.
I had lunch recently with a colleague of mine named Allan. He’s a retired professor who once taught at a university in New York and now teaches inside prisons. Allan was talking in despairing tones about America and wanted to know my thoughts on the matter. When I asked him to be more specific, he was taken aback at the idea that further clarification was needed. He couldn’t understand my failure to see the utter hopelessness of the society all around me.
Allan is 68 years old and a self-proclaimed Marxist. Both of his parents were surgeons from New York, and he attended private schools all his life. He graduated from Harvard and Princeton with degrees in philosophy and French literature. Although he and I are on opposite ends of the political spectrum, I still enjoy the sharpness of Allan’s mind and his compassionate spirit; but I resist, as best as I can, his extreme pessimism. He believes mankind is going to be felled soon by an apocalyptic revolutionary blow, courtesy of the international working class. Until such time comes, however, he will remain in a state of despair about the United States.
“Jason, black men are being killed in this country,” he said.
“Oh, I know that,” I said. “They are being exterminated.” I went on: “We both live in Chicago, where they are being massacred on a weekly and daily basis, but who is killing them? Huh? Are white cops going in and slaughtering them? Are white people from the suburbs gunning them down? Is the military going in and killing these black men?”
“If the cops kill them,” he said, “what incentive do they have to obey the law and—?”
“Listen,” I told him, “the spate of killings of unarmed black men by police officers in recent years is tragic and a disgrace. It is, I believe, the work of a small minority of rogue police officers, or ordinary officers weighed down by a form of statistical reasoning—given the disproportionate homicide rates among black men—that breeds a pervasive fear of blacks among the general population. This is sad, and it is a blight against the humanity of all persons.”
With that concession in place, I continued: “However, against the heroic commitment of the entire police force in this country, and given the enormous contribution that police officers—black, white, and Hispanic—are making every day by going into black and Hispanic communities overrun by murderous street gangs and protecting the lives of innocent residents living in these tragic neighborhoods, we need to keep things in perspective here. Police officers, when all is said and done, overworked as they are, underpaid as they are, and given the poor public image that they suffer, are doing a good job of trying to protect black lives in the inner cities of this country, where thugs and hooligans think neighborhoods are either extensions of their living rooms, or their own private fiefdoms where they can do as they please.”
Allan shifted in his chair. He asked what I thought about racial profiling. Here, I agreed with him that the practice is unjust because it arbitrarily targets members of a law-abiding majority at any given time. Because law enforcement agents have a coercive monopoly on the use of force against virtually helpless citizens, profiling is a legally problematic affair that, given the broad discretionary powers of the officers who exercise it, can lead to disastrous consequences. But there is still some possibility for rationality in the exercise of racial profiling itself. That is, an officer who has made an error of judgment in singling out a person for suspicious activity based on race could revise his actions before stripping the person of his or her dignity. The act of profiling by police officers, while embarrassing and painful to an innocent person, is not irrevocably harmful.
I explained to Allan that there was a more deadly and insidious form of racial profiling that was taking place in our nation. Yet this profiling fails to provoke the righteous indignation of those who care for universal justice. I was speaking of the racial profiling done by blacks against other blacks, which manifests itself in black-on-black crime. Black men, in particular, target other black people as prey to be annihilated.
This form of racial profiling is worse than police racial profiling, and not because it is an in-group phenomenon. Rather, it’s because the deadly intent of its perpetrators leaves a trail of tragic, irrevocable consequences. It is neither white authority nor white apathy that so threatens the lives of so many black Americans. The average white person has not created policies or instituted systemic forms of oppression that force the hands of criminals on the streets.
When some black folks complain that white people don’t value black lives, I often ask: What exactly do you mean? In fact, too many black Americans are reluctant to hold other black people accountable for the horrific crimes they are committing against one another. Members of Black Lives Matter want white people to esteem black lives and value the humanity of black people when they themselves can’t condemn and express moral outrage at those who maim and kill black children in the course of gang warfare, senseless street violence, and drive-by shootings. Why do white people have a larger moral responsibility to care about black people than black people have to care about their own lives? And why are blacks in need of special white nurturance?
Compared with the recent spate of police killings of unarmed black men, black-on-black crime is tantamount to a national-security disaster. The moral hysteria raised by a few incidents of police brutality in the face of this larger national tragedy is reckless hyperbole. It hides from the nation a deep malaise at work in the psyche of some in the black community: a form of self-hatred that manifests itself in a homicidal rage not fundamentally against white people, but against other black people.
Allan, like others on the left, places the blame for this black self-hatred on so-called white privilege. In our lunch conversation, he veered into a case for reparations for blacks based on this privilege and the ways in which unfair discrimination against black Americans is sociologically responsible for what I consider pathologies in some black communities. In the end, we agreed to disagree, as we do on most things.
Our conversation, however, had left my mind racing with thoughts about the moral hypocrisy of Black Lives Matter. As I sat at my desk late that evening and looked out my window as the street grew dark, I thought about two other transgressive and unpardonable sins of the Black Lives Matter movement. The first has to do with its outrageous position on Israel; the second pertains to its immoral demands regarding the education of black Americans.
The leaders of Black Lives Matter have written a profoundly anti-Israel (and anti-American) manifesto in which they accuse Israel of “genocide” and “apartheid.” The manifesto endorses the “Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions” (BDS) movement and takes the view that the United States justifies and advances the global war on terror via its alliances with Israel. This, according to Black Lives Matter, makes the U.S. complicit in a supposedly genocidal massacre of the Palestinian people.
As a staunch defender of Israel on moral grounds, I categorically condemn the moral ineptitude of the Black Lives Matter movement on this point. If there is a victim in the Middle East, it is the beleaguered state of Israel. The Jewish state is the only technologically advanced and democratic country in a region of illiberal, primitive, and human-rights-abusing nations that treat women worse than cattle and don’t know the meaning of religious reciprocity. Since its founding, Israel has fought marauders in the likes of the Jordanians, the Egyptians, and the Syrians. These parties have invaded Israel, threatened her right to exist, and tried to eliminate her and Jewry itself from the region. Israel’s enemies among the Palestinians have sought to do the same with the help of terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority. And the Palestinians have made an unprecedented demand in the history of warfare. Displaced by a war that their leaders started and lost, they claim a right to return to a territory they failed to conquer. While Arab Israelis serve in the Knesset side by side with Israeli Jews, Palestinians have elected governments whose charters have called for the annihilation of Jews and whose leaders portray Jews as pigs, vermin, and an evil to be eradicated.
Israel is the only country I know of that grants citizenship and land rights to its avowed enemies. What’s more, Israel offered a Palestinian state to both Yassir Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas and was not only repeatedly turned down but repaid with the second intifada and the indiscriminate murder of Israeli citizens. Palestinian intransigence is forged in the conviction that no deal will be made so long as Jews—any Jews—occupy the land of Israel. In 2005, Israel unilaterally handed over its territory in Gaza to the terrorist government Hamas and was, and still is, rewarded by a daily showering of rockets into Israeli land.
With its accusations against Israeli Jews, Black Lives Matter suggests that in their support of Israel, such Jews are complicit in the unproven crimes of genocide and apartheid. We must remember that even amid the daily onslaughts of war and terror that Palestinians inflict on Jews, the Israelis, in a spirit of almost irrational altruism, take great pains to limit civilian casualties and to ensure that those caught in a war they did not personally initiate are spared as much harm as possible.
Black Lives Matter is not only being unjust toward Israel; its anti-Israel stance betrays Jews in America, to whom blacks in this country are enormously indebted. If there are any unsung heroes of the civil-rights movement, it is those Jews who played an enormous but largely unacknowledged role in the liberation of blacks from racial oppression. American Jews undertook monumental efforts to found and fund some of the most important civil-rights organizations in the U.S. These include the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In 1909, Henry Moscowitz joined W.E.B. Du Bois and other civil-rights leaders to create the NAACP. The vice chairman of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism), Kivie Kaplan, served as the national president of the NAACP from 1966 to 1975. Arnie Aronson worked with A. Philip Randolph and Roy Wilkins to found the Leadership Conference. From 1910 to 1940, there were more than 2,000 primary and secondary schools and 20 black colleges (including Howard, Dillard, and Fisk Universities) established in whole or in part by contributions from Jewish philanthropist Julius Rosenwald. At the height of enrollment at the so-called Rosenwald schools, nearly 40 percent of Southern blacks were educated at one of these institutions. During the civil-rights movement, Jewish activists represented a disproportionate number of whites involved in the struggle for black emancipation. Jews made up half of the young people who participated in the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964. Leaders of the Jewish Reform Movement were arrested with the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1964, after mounting a challenge to racial segregation in public accommodations. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were drafted in the conference room of the Religious Action Center (RAC) of Reform Judaism, under the aegis of the Leadership Conference, which for decades was in the RAC’s building.
The hard, cold, and unsentimental fact of the matter is that without Jewish financial backing and moral contributions, there may never have been a civil-rights movement. What I consider to be our country’s heroic Third Founding (the Second Founding being Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg), which culminated in the passage of the Civil Rights Acts, would have at least been severely postponed.
Charged by God with a duty to repair the world and to remedy injustice wherever they find it, the Jews have maintained a civilization for more than 3,000 years. They carried their duty into the 20th century by playing a pivotal role in widening the pantheon of the human community in America. The Jews tweaked the moral consciences of their fellow Americans and entreated them to consider blacks and all persons of color as possessing dignity and moral worth equal to that of any other human being. The anti-Israeli platform of Black Lives Matters has understandably alienated some progressive Jews in America who had initially aligned themselves with the movement. And it has alienated this black American as well.
There is another morally irresponsible claim made by the Black Lives Matter movement—a claim that should offend any self-respecting black American citizen. I refer to the movement’s demand that the United States provide free college education to blacks. On what grounds is this organization making such a demand? Why free college education for blacks but not for poor whites or for Latino, Asian, or Native-American college students? What special sociopolitical conditions exist for blacks that do not hold for other ethnic or racial groups such that blacks deserve to be exempt from paying college tuition?
Could it be that the spokespersons for the movement are failing here to recognize another cultural pathology blacks face? I have in mind the problem of single-parent families—in which 70 percent of African-American children now live. This is a financially untenable situation for a massive swath of black America. And it is certainly an issue over which blacks have control. This crisis is not a consequence or inheritance of slavery or Jim Crow. Indeed the Jim Crow period saw significantly lower single-parent birth rates among blacks. The downward spiral of the black family, the marked absence of fathers, cannot be the responsibility of white Americans. Nor should white Americans ever be asked what they intend to do about that problem, as the problem is not theirs. What we have here is a widespread failure among black Americans to exercise free will in a judicious and wise manner—a failure to appreciate that free will comes with a moral obligation to be fiscally mature. The question that the Black Lives Matter movement should be addressing here is as follows: What do you intend to do about these problems and issues, which are endemic to your communities?
Realizing, of course, that not every single parent can afford to send her children to college, perhaps the movement is simply attempting to pass that responsibility on to society. This leads us to some significant philosophical questions: Are the procreative choices that we make in life the responsibility of others, or are they our own? Is it a form of child neglect to bring more children into the world than you can afford to support? When you have children, is it fair to expect your neighbors to bear the financial responsibility of raising them when they may have decided not to have any, or to have just one, or two, or just the exact number that their budget can accommodate over the course of a lifetime? If someone has sacrificed and planned his life carefully and has already incurred debt by sending his own children to school, by what moral right would anyone dare tell him that because of racial disparities he is obligated to finance the college education of someone else’s child?
Those on the far left will say that free college for blacks is a social good. I have heard this repeatedly, and I have often asked for clarification. By social good, people often mean “the public interest.” When asked to define the public interest, leftists tend to fumble and speak convolutedly about assorted moral conundrums. But society is nothing more than the sum of each individual. Therefore, any reference to the public good would logically first have to refer to the good that each individual person can do. How do we know what that good is? One of the glorious achievements of this country is that here we get to choose a conception of the good for ourselves. For some, it is having a family; for others, it is pursuing a career or devoting one’s life to a specialized hobby, service to others, traveling—you name it. There are as many conceptions of the good as there are persons to imagine them. And in the United States of America, the state has no business imposing its conception—or any conception—of the good on you or deciding a priori what your conception of the good is. It leaves you free to choose for yourself so long as you do not violate the individual rights of others. If a notion of the public good is foisted on you, it means that a group of people has decided that its interests and conception of the good should override your conscience. This is an act akin to tyranny, as it takes away your capacity to decide for yourself.
The cardinal sin of asking for anything for free in this life is that you abnegate your responsibility not just for maintaining your existence but, more important, for achieving your humanity. For we achieve our humanity in several ways. One is by exchanging goods and services with others. We affirm the worth of the other, and we respect the other by rewarding him or her for such services, and, in so doing, our agency is implicated in affirming our self-worth and dignity in the beautiful act of reciprocity. In reciprocity, there is a recognition of equality among us as individuals.
The demand for a free education, along with the demand for race-based reparations by Black Lives Matter and others, is symptomatic of another problem in race relations. There are those on the left who see self-reliance, initiative, and a commitment to one’s own life as, at best, hopelessly naive. This skepticism doesn’t apply to their own lives—oh, no, they have gotten where they are by the exercise of their own virtues. But the state apparatus and its system are so corrupt and stacked against blacks, they believe, that while the application of those virtues will always be possible for a Condoleezza Rice or a Colin Powell or an Oprah Winfrey, it’s not an option for most blacks in America. Such people see grit, honor, hard work, and self-reliance as “white” ideals that are being imposed on others. Those traits reinforce whiteness, in their minds, and there is a gnawing resentment of those blacks who wish to appropriate such virtues for themselves. They cease being black in the minds of some on the far left. A sizable number of well-meaning but, in the end, racist progressives need black people to be black. It’s the darndest thing, but an African colleague of mine, dressed in a formal Chanel suit, was met with disappointment by her department chair. Why, she was asked, didn’t she wear something more ethnic like an African dress, and how come she was losing her accent?
Some on the activist left heed the call of black dependence with glee because it places them in a permanent position of power as part of a managerial class lording it over a needy set of entitled subjects whose interests they represent. The neediness and dependence of their charges simply reinforce how independent, privileged, and powerful those in the managerial class are in relation to their socioeconomic inferiors.
Finally, when you demand anything for free, you are claiming a status of such impoverishment that you hold yourself up as an object of pity. But, unlike compassion and mercy, pity is not characteristically American. Pity denotes contemptuous sorrow for the misery or distress of another person. And the contempt one feels is linked to a moral vice the other harbors: an unwillingness to exercise one’s agency in the relief of that suffering. To present oneself as a lifelong socioeconomic supplicant is morally repugnant because it requires that one become an active participant in one’s own infantilization. It permits that one’s own agency be expropriated by others, and it requires the surrender of one’s capabilities.
Such ideas assume a malevolence about the American polis that is untenable and empirically false. It’s only natural, therefore, that many Americans reject this type of victimhood. No doors are closed forever to anyone in this great country of ours. If your ethos and character disposition are set for achievement, if your will is wedded to a resilience and tenacity, and you rid yourself of the idea that you are entitled to the financial earnings of other people, you will find a way to make it here. On the other hand, the kind of dependency that Black Lives Matter promotes lays the groundwork for personal failure.
My friend Allan would disagree angrily with all this. But I thank him just the same for helping me clarify my thoughts on Black Lives Matter, a movement that stands to set back the moral progress of our nation and the progress of American blacks. I’d also note that perhaps I don’t see hopelessness at every turn or find despair in every corner of America because I ignore those who preach helplessness where opportunity abounds. And I reject their nurturance of scapegoating and dependency. Israel is good. So, too, is America. And the achievements of both countries demonstrate, above all, the virtues of self-realization and persistence. ’Til we lunch again.