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After Racism, the Left Struggles to Find a New Menace

Few writers today on either Right or Left can come close to matching Shelby Steele in the depth of his thinking or the pungency of his social commentary. He is a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution and the author of the 2015 book Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country [1]. He is also—and this is significant in understanding him—a mixed-race American whose black father married his white mother in 1944, a time when such marriages brought a lot of social disdain, even hostility. He grew up in Harvey, Illinois, a working-class town just south of Chicago, where his father, a truckdriver, was kept down financially because of racism in the local Teamsters union.

But Steele considers his mixed-race heritage to have been “an absolute gift, the greatest source of insight and understanding.” The reason, he adds, was that “race was demystified for me. I could never see white people as just some unified group who hated blacks.”

For years a significant outlet for Steele’s commentary has been The Wall Street Journal editorial page, where he has weighed in with powerful insights when big events have roiled the nation’s racial politics. As Joseph Epstein wrote [2] in reviewing Shame, “He is a brother, make no mistake, but a brother quite unlike any other.” What distinguishes him, added Epstein, is his “openly stated belief that blacks in America have been sold out by the very liberals who ardently claim to wish them most good.”

Consider his response when Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, on the Senate floor, sought to thwart the confirmation of her colleague Jeff Session as attorney general under President Donald Trump. It was, wrote Steele, an example of  “so many public moments now in which the old weapon of stigmatization shoots blanks.” To bolster her attack, Warren read from a 30-year-old letter by Coretta Scott King on racial justice. Wrote Steele [3]: “There it was with deadly predictability: a white liberal stealing moral authority from a black heroine in order to stigmatize a white male as racist.”


Reacting to the aftermath of National Football League players refusing to stand for the national anthem before games, Steele considered [4] the protests “forced and unconvincing….as if they were mimicking the courage of earlier black athletes who had protested.” In contrast to those earlier protesters, he wrote, these new ones demonstrated “no real sacrifice, no risk, and no achievement.” Steele welcomed the backlash to that frivolous protest and wondered if white Americans had finally “found the courage” to “judge African-Americans fairly by universal standards.”

What stirs these musings about Steele’s ongoing commentary was his latest Journal entry, on Monday, entitled “Why the Left is Consumed With Hate [5].” The provocative subhead: “Lacking worthy menaces to fight, it is driven to find a replacement for racism. Failing this, what is left?”

Steele opens the piece by noting that hatred had begun to emerge on the American Left even before Trump’s election. Afterward it could be seen in various stark guises. There was Madonna musing about blowing up the Trump White House: “Here hatred was a vanity, a braggadocio meant to signal her innocence of the sort of evil that, in her mind the White House represented.”

For others hatred of the nation had become “a self-congratulatory lifestyle”—reflected in New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s recent statement [6] that “America was never that great.” For radical groups such as Black Lives Matter, hatred of America had become “a theme of identity, a display of racial pride.” For campus radicals, it was “a license.” And some leaders of the Left (he specifically cites Representative Maxine Waters here), seemed to view hate as a call to “power itself.”

This final suggestion gets to Steele’s central point: it’s all about power.

Steele steps back here and seeks to assess where this is coming from. It stems primarily, he avers, from the nation’s cultural epiphany of the 1960s—when the country finally accepted that slavery and segregation were profound moral failings. “That acceptance changed America forever,” he writes, adding it imposed a new moral imperative that the nation must show itself “redeemed of those immoralities in order to stand as a legitimate democracy.”

The genius of the Left in those days, says Steele, was that it identified itself with that moral imperative. “Thus the labor of redeeming the nation from its moral past would fall on the left. This is how the left put itself in charge of America’s moral legitimacy. The left, not the right—not conservatism—would set the terms of this legitimacy and deliver America from shame to decency.”

Thus did the Left create the wellspring of its political and cultural power. “The greater the menace to the nation’s moral legitimacy, the more power redounded to the left.” And the 1960s bestowed upon liberals “a laundry list of menaces to be defeated”—racism above all, of course, but also eventually “a litany of bigotries ending in ‘ism’ and ‘phobia.’’’

Steele doesn’t stint in giving the Left credit for many worthy achievements since that 1960s moment when it claimed a monopoly on civic morality. “It did rescue America from an unsustainable moral illegitimacy,” he writes. It also established “the great menace of racism” as the country’s “most intolerable disgrace.”

But now the Left is in crisis because it is running out of menaces to fight. “The Achilles’ heel of the left,” writes Steele, “has been its dependence on menace for power.” As long as it can raise the call against such things as “systemic racism” and “structural inequality,” it can leverage those evils for power, as it has been doing for half a century. But now a mortal threat to this power formula has come into view: “The left’s unspoken terror is that racism is no longer menacing enough to support its own power.”

That leaves anxiety-riddled liberals seizing upon hate in a kind of last-gasp effort to retain power. As Steele puts it:

Hatred is a transformative power. It can make the innocuous into the menacing. So it has become a weapon of choice. The left has used hate to transform President Trump into a symbol of the new racism, not a flawed president but a systemic evil. And he must be opposed as one opposes racism, with a scorched-earth absolutism.

Steele draws a sharp distinction between this kind of politics and that practiced by Martin Luther King before his 1968 assassination. For him, hatred was not necessary as a means to power. “The actual details of oppression were enough. Power came to him because he rejected hate as a method of resisting menace.” Whereas King called on blacks to resist being defined by what menaced them, today’s blacks and “their ostensible allies” wallow in perceived menaces “because menace provides moral empowerment.”

Steele has written extensively about how this syndrome harms America. But he seems particularly anguished about how it harms America’s blacks. “The menace of black victimization becomes the unarguable truth of the black identity,” he writes. “And here we are again, forever victims.”

And yet the Left, for all of its civic vehemence and dark emotion, remains “stalked by obsolescence.” There simply aren’t enough menaces these days to meet its demands for power. The result is that the voices of the Left are becoming ever more unconvincing. Writes Steele:

It is hard for people to see the menace that drives millionaire football players to kneel before the flag. And then there is the failure of virtually every program the left has ever espoused—welfare, public housing, school busing, affirmative action, diversity programs, and so on.

And so, writes Steele, the Left’s “indulgence of hate” should be seen as essentially a “death rattle.”

Perhaps. But this liberal hate, so brilliantly exposed and analyzed by Steele, provides a lot of fuel for ongoing political combat of the Left, as the current putridity of the Brett Kavanaugh matter demonstrates. A big question that emanates out of what Steele is talking about is what kind of damage all this will wreak on the American republic before it finally dissipates, if indeed it ever does.

Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C. journalist and publishing executive, is a writer-at-large for The American Conservative. His latest book is President McKinley: Architect of the American Century [7].

60 Comments (Open | Close)

60 Comments To "After Racism, the Left Struggles to Find a New Menace"

#1 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 27, 2018 @ 2:14 am

I dare utter the words of the conflict that served as floodgate, dam busting to post modern thought —

come a crashing into the lives of everyday life demolishing even the civil rights agenda.

#2 Comment By mrscracker On September 27, 2018 @ 9:23 am

M. Orban says:

“If you don’t think that the war or the union victory were good things then Mr. Ruffin should have held that shot at Ft. Sumter.”

I agree. If Ruffin instead had stuck to soil science & teaching farmers how to replenish their worn out land he could have done much good- rather than helping ignite a conflict that took well over half a million lives.

#3 Comment By KD On September 27, 2018 @ 9:27 am

The problem with the American Left (from an identity standpoint) is the same problem that someone like Leo Strauss had as a German Nationalist–once German Nationalism metastasized into Nazism, it was pretty hard to stick around for the program.

However, Jews were only about 1 percent of the population, so the blowback to the Nazi’s from targeting 1 percent of the population was minimal. In contrast, deciding that 25% of your population is now going to occupy the same niche as the Jews in Nazi ideology–well, good luck with that. I am certainly stepping aside.

#4 Comment By M. Orban On September 27, 2018 @ 1:54 pm

who is the opressed 25%?

#5 Comment By EliteCommInc. On September 28, 2018 @ 2:37 am

I dare not utter the words of the conflict that served as floodgate, dam busting to post modern thought —

which arrived crashing into the lives of everyday life demolishing even the civil rights agenda.

#6 Comment By C Martel On September 28, 2018 @ 10:15 pm

Clyde’s earlier remarks about “not racializing” the crime debate are absurd. The hard reality is that young black men commit a hugely disproportionate amount of violent street crime in this country. Thus, they will be inordinately confronted by police and sent to prison.

Another issue is black-on-white crime. If whites are so racist against blacks, then why do blacks inordinately commit violent crime against whites? Why are black inner cities so unlivable? Is it possible that the great Leftist project of integration (which wealthy Leftists themselves avoid) was a mistake?


#7 Comment By Denise S Oliver On September 29, 2018 @ 1:59 pm

Um…we are not “past” racism. Sure, there are haters – on the extremes of both left and right. Most of us in that very broad spectrum that runs through the middle, whether we lean conservative or progressive, or sometimes one and then the other, depending on the issue. And it’s my belief that most of us would like to see more unity and more working together on what should be common issues – the ones that ensure a decent life for all citizens. And less incendiary rhetoric.

#8 Comment By Max York On September 30, 2018 @ 10:00 am

Having been around when the civil rights movement was a real thing, involving real social disapproval and even physical risk to those who participated, I see the current agitation as the posturing of wannabes who missed out on the real thing, who risk nothing, but somehow think their hell-raising is at least the moral equivalent of the early civil rights movement.

#9 Comment By Jack Fuller On October 1, 2018 @ 8:47 am

Steele asks “what is left?” Global domination is what is left. Ask the Chinese. Ask George Soros. Ask the American communists who run California, New York, Illinois and the Democrat Party.

#10 Comment By EliteCommInc. On October 1, 2018 @ 5:17 pm

“Thus, they will be inordinately confronted by police and sent to prison.

Another issue is black-on-white crime. If whites are so racist against blacks, then why do blacks inordinately commit violent crime against whites? Why are black inner cities so unlivable?”

1. your advance here is old hat. It’s not about skin color. When there few blacks in the cities the crime rate was owned by whites as to proportion and otherwise.

Now that blacks inhabit the slums, projects, and what used to called ghettos they inherit the same environment. Your disposition is to blacks in general when in fact among blacks in general few are part of any criminal element. That reality has never prevented the police from targeting blacks across the general population, and engaging in tactics to ensure that said police contacts ended in some manner of criminal cite.

Nor does it explain why blacks were targeted across the country routinely — police target blacks as part of the history of police targeting blacks using the same admoniotions you site even when said crime rates dis not reflect the proportion you speak reference.

2. another failure is your suggestion that blacks target whites for being whites.

a. the fbi stats which go to motive have the highest offenders based on color as motive — whites lead the pack in every category. If I recall that was to the tune of above 70% of al;l hate crimes or crimes based on another’s color as motive — is white owned.

b. crimes against other persons happen most amongst people inhabiting the same local or region. Hence most whites commit crimes against whites, blacks to black, browns to brown, yellow to yellow, etc.

Where there is crossover is simply a numbers game statistically since whites make up the majority of the population, one would expect that proportion of crime that have said crossover would be more whites to blacks than whites to blacks – merely association unless it pertains to motive — then the numbers indicate whites are the perpetrators of such crime by far.

The answer to your quirey — is motive and statistical crossover

3. Urban life has always been tougher – period. Inner cities in the US have an environment that foster greater risk, interaction, economic, and social interchange and exchange — what constitutes unlivable has been a staple of urban life regardless of the population that inhabits them. The clarion call about blacks being more dysfunctional is the archetypal game of whites, that easily rebuffed by those who actually have engaged in urban histories or picking old news stories from previous eras. Congestion, population, pollution, filthy streets, unkempt children, crime, wantoness . . . are all part of the historic language of inner city life:

Italians, Irish, Poles, Jews, etc. and now blacks all ha\ve that association. The makor difference between blacks and these others groups is obvious — they had national ethnic origins associated with a lighter hue and could use that as a method of escape allow with the narratives that came with the same. That is not the case with blacks – they are the true outsiders and segregated as much — they have made their way via much starker confrontations based not on character, but skin tone – first and foremost.

None of comments are an ‘explicaction’ of defense for anyone’s criminal behavior — but it does address your typical use of crime stats.