The headline story last week was as disturbing as it was ironic. The Gallup poll reveals that both blacks and whites think race relations are generally bad, and by wide margins. In general, two thirds of survey respondents say that people are not getting along and that tension is high.
The striking fact: this is the reverse of what people believed in the days after the election of Barack Obama, the nation’s first black president.
American civic culture has always treated the presidency as some kind of mystical pinnacle, a beautiful bellwether of where we are as a people and where we are headed as a country. The idea is that we all look to the great man to set the tone and shape the character of us as a people.
Surely, then, because most everyone but a few trolls wants peace, understanding, and cooperation between blacks and whites, the best path forward is to elect a person of color. Surely that will fix something. Right?
Of course it did not. It’s one thing to observe little improvement in these poll numbers but it is quite something else to see them flip to reveal more despair than ever.
During Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign, nearly 60 percent of blacks said race relations were generally bad, but that number was cut in half shortly after he won. It has now soared to 68 percent, the highest level of discontent among blacks during the Obama years and close to the numbers recorded in the aftermath of the riots that followed the 1992 acquittal of Los Angeles police officers charged in the beating of Rodney King.
The presumption that a black presidency would repair the U.S. race problem trivializes the on-the-ground reality. It presumes that people will respond to symbolism, to identity, to the perception of a new form of power sharing in society regardless of reality. Something similar is emerging in the case of Hillary Clinton: her womanness will surely bring new forms of gender justice and therefore peace. Based on the experience with Obama, we can look forward to a similar reversal of fortunes here too.
But let’s dig just a bit deeper into the polls, because it reveals something interesting. Though the news was buried in the story, the polls show a huge chasm between people’s macro and micro perceptions. It turns out that when people are asked about their own communities, which is to say their own lives, the picture is much brighter. Fully 77% said that race relations are good at this level — a number that has not changed in 20 years.
In other words, in terms of people’s actual experiences in daily life, we find evidence that both blacks and whites get along pretty well. And what does this mean? How do the races typically encounter each other in their own lives? Mostly it is through commercial settings. Shopping, trading, working, and engaging in all the normal activities of life, people find common interests despite their differences. Or it takes place in our social lives: at our houses of worship, at the community pool, at the neighborhood barbecue. On this very human level, it would appear that matters are relatively fine.
So in what respect do people perceive problems? It is when they reflect on the larger picture, which usually involves perceptions of politics and official institutions. Here is where differences manifest themselves. And in this respect, what has changed so dramatically over the past six years to signal new levels of racial tension? It is in the news every day: it is the treatment of blacks by civic institutions, meaning cops and criminal justice in particular. Here is the real source of the problem.
You can see this in the data too. Here are the charts on how police treat people by race.
These are wide disparities. Among whites, 82% feel safe concerning the police, but only 58% of blacks say the same. Only 5% of whites believe that they have been singled out by police because of their race. Among blacks, 41% believe that — which is very high (but not as high as I might have expected).
The polls are surely affected by the daily barrage of youtube videos coming out that show horrendous treatment of black people by police. For white Americans, this has been a remarkable parade of injustice, causing a serious consciousness raising on the part of every white person I know. Everyone has noticed how much more militarized policing has become over the last decade but the problem is felt particularly intensely by blacks, who are disproportionately harmed by harassment and abuse.
My friend T.K. Coleman, who is black, posted a note a few days ago about his own experience. He and his wife were detained, handcuffed, and questioned for absolutely no reason. His account is harrowing.
He concludes: “There’s this naive idea floating around that people should never be afraid of cops as long as they’re innocent and compliant. For a lot of people in this country, that’s simply not true. … But if we want to have intelligent discussions about authority in this country, we have to stop using a logic that tells us that people in authority always have a fair reason for doing what they do. We do a lot of talking about what people can do to avoid being abused by cops. We don’t talk as much as we should about the abuse that happens to people who follow all those instructions. If we can’t question authority, we are doomed.”
What we can tease out of these polls is the single most striking fact about human relationships. When they are politicized, and when we rely on government to rule our engagements with others, the result is less harmony and more tensions and injustices. But when we let go and let markets and voluntary human associations take over, we see progress toward what most everyone wants, which is peace, harmony, and mutually beneficial engagement.
The implications of this realization are epic. For a hundred years, governments at all levels have been interfering in race relations, favoring or disfavoring one group or another, sometimes in petty ways and other times in egregious ways. In taking this path, governments have done no one any favors. And today, government remains the single biggest obstacle towards a more harmonious social life of inclusion and free association.
In these last days of his presidency, Obama has finally turned his attention to the problem of criminal justice and the horrible problem of prisons. Finally! I have no reason to doubt his sincerity, even if it is too little and too late. To the extent he manages to reform the system, removing the boot from the neck just a bit, he will have made his greatest contribution toward racial reconciliation.
In the long run, no one benefits from top-down rule. If we are to forge good lives and good communities for ourselves, it is going to be by deferring to the emergent process of social and economic engagement, one person at a time. Governments divide people; markets bring us together.
Thanks for mentioning the prison system. While we are bombarded with requests to grant special privileges to vociferous minorities, hardly anyone spends words about the non-persons among us, inmates, children in foster care, psychiatric patients.
What an elegant approach to this ugly situation!
I suspect that an extra layer of racial unhappiness occurs because various government policies require you to identify as being a member of this or that group. So we get locked in to whatever racial categories the bureaucrats define for us, and we feel unable to transcend or transform them.
Some people benefit immensely from Top-Down rule. This is why they perpetuate it, and have for thousands of years.
Over the last few years I’ve sadly come to the conclusion that I can no longer just be a Person. The President defines me as white. My employer defines me as white, my schools defined me as white, and the EEO police definitely define me as white.
Society has identified me (straight white American male) as the enemy. They have made this division. I am not a Person to them, just “white.”
My days of innocence and naivety are gone because it’s become painfully apparent that there is no point at which they will be satisfied — there is no neutral ground, there are no boundaries, there are no lines that won’t be crossed. It is war against who I am; it won’t stop until one of us is dead.
Whatever else I may think or believe about President Barack Obama, he had an opportunity that no other president before him ever had. He could have acted to bring true hope & positive change to America, especially when it comes to relations between Black & White Americans. He could have initiated a National Conversation on Race, addressing many of the issues that have recently arisen long before they came to national attention through violence…along with many issues that have been too long ignored.
Instead, he chose a different course, a racist and reactionary course, that has left a greater racial divide than we have seen in decades. Its almost as if he wanted to strike back at America rather than healing our nation.
The results of this will take years, if not decades, to heal!
An elegant explanation of how government, despite good intentions, ends up making problems worse.
And thank you for commending President Obama for what is commendable. It is so popular to rail against the system (as we should against evil systems), that we often hear little praise for when they do something right. Regardless of his intentions (and thank you for allowing even our crooks in office to possibly have good intentions), Obama’s work to bring peace to the Iranian situation and to reform the prison system are steps in the right direction. He maybe totally wrong concerning China and Ukraine, and a host of other situations, but we should praise the work towards peace and justice, always.
The actions Obama has taken to redirect the power and authority of the congress and supreme court to himself is one of his more worrisome traits to me. Ever since his reelection, which I found surprising and disheartening, I’ve had this thought that he might try to gain a third term, perhaps on his way toward becoming president for life. That truly would end this grand experimental idea called the United States of America. But regardless, I think most of us on liberty.me are aiming for the elimination of statism in favor of a truly free society, i.e. every individual sovereign, all interactions mutually agreeable and contractual, and zero plunder. We have a long way to go and ideas like those promoted by Obama are a major barrier.
Jeffrey, your talk at a Libertopia luncheon a couple of years ago in which you likened the state to a huge mountain that we cannot move or remove, but, I paraphrase here, with our emerging technologies in social media, et. al. we can go around the mountain, over the mountain, under the mountain, until, finally, the mountain is behind us. I love that imagery and hold it dear. Thank you.
While I enjoyed the article I have to say – about the charts: At best, they’re misleading as presented. The main, fundamental problem is that there’s no control whatsoever, and not even mention of the need for a control, for the fact that most police are white. Less important, but still distorting, is the lack of any control for the fact that blacks are disproportionately involved in activities – crime – that cause them to encounter police, or to feel uncomfortable when confronted by police. A third distorting factor: Even a totally innocent black, confident of his innocence, but knowing that blacks are more likely to be involved in crime, and that the officer – white or black – is doubtless well aware of that, is more likely to be anxious than an innocent white.
While it is possible for a person being stopped by an officer of the same race to feel the stop was racial, it certainly isn’t likely. Since the vast majority of officers are white, it is perfectly predictable and to be expected that fewer whites than blacks will feel a racial discomfort in their encounter with officers.
I will add that my personal belief is that police are far more likely to tread carefully in treatment of blacks than whites. The “racist!” gun that is aimed at all our heads all the time is especially prominent in police work. Abuse a white, that’s bad. Abuse a black, that’s bad, that’s racist, and there’s a huge hair-trigger movement all geared up and ready to pounce.