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Home/Rod Dreher/Books As Race Bait

Books As Race Bait

Cracker trap in the front lawn? (Source)

Whenever people ask me why I keep subscribing to The New York Times, even though I believe it despises people like me and is working in many ways to make our lives worse, I tell them that one has to know how one’s enemies are thinking. The Times is the parish newsletter of the Cathedral, and as such the thoughts expressed there, whether openly in op-ed pieces or implicitly in its news coverage, pretty much express the views of the American ruling class — or at the very least opinions the ruling class believes are normative. Attention must be paid, because these opinions will sooner or later affect your life.

One of the most interesting aspects of Times-reading is coming across outrageous remarks that indicate how deeply inside the progressive bubble the newspaper is. I say “progressive,” because the Times is no longer a liberal newspaper. No authentically liberal newspaper would publish something like this lunatic racist screed. Here is the headline:

The author, a black woman named Erin Aubry Kaplan, is feeling guilty about putting a My Little Library — a box of books for people to borrow and return — outside her house in a black Los Angelis neighborhood, because … well, let her tell the story:

Prepandemic, Inglewood was gentrifying, another reason I’d been inspired to do the library: I wanted to signal to my longtime neighbors that we had our own ideas about improvement, and could carry them out in our own way. There are organizations that help people build these little libraries, but I did mine independently. I envisioned it as a place for my neighbors to stay connected during the pandemic. The wooden post on which the library sat was a stake in the ground, literally.

The response to the library was slow at first — it was the first in the area, and some people mistook it for a birdhouse, or a mailbox. But I was pleased to soon see people stopping by to browse and take home books.

Then one morning, glancing out my front window, I saw a young white couple stopped at the library. Instantly, I was flooded with emotions — astonishment, and then resentment, and then astonishment at my resentment. It all converged into a silent scream in my head of, Get off my lawn!

Uh oh, there goes the neighborhood. More:

What I resented was not this specific couple. It was their whiteness, and my feelings of helplessness at not knowing how to maintain the integrity of a Black space that I had created. I was seeing up close how fragile that space can be, how its meaning can be changed in my mind, even by people who have no conscious intention to change it. That library was on my lawn, but for that moment it became theirs. I built it and drove it into the ground because I love books and always have. But I suddenly felt that I could not own even this, something that was clearly and intimately mine.

As the couple wandered on, no books in hand, I thought about how fragile my feeling of being settled is. It didn’t matter that I own my house, as many of my neighbors do. Generations of racism, Jim Crow, disinvestment and redlining have meant that we don’t really control our own spaces. In that moment, I had been overwhelmed by a kind of fear, one that’s connected to the historical reality of Black people being run off the land they lived on, expelled by force, high prices or some whim of white people.

Kaplan reflects on the fact that this sounds pretty racist, but then reassures herself that it’s just fine, because reasons. I am quite sure that anybody in the New York Times newsroom who read this and thought, “hang on, that’s racist” knows by now to keep that opinion to themselves if they want to keep their job.

This op-ed is a perfect example of the illiberalism of today’s Left. Kaplan is correct to write in her piece about the old white-supremacist laws that prevented black Americans from controlling their spaces. We overturned those with civil rights legislation, which was built on the idea, in part, that no race in America gets to control a residential space to keep home buyers out on the basis of race. What do you think the “white flight” phenomenon was all about? It was about white people angry that they “don’t really control [their] own spaces,” so they fled to places where they would not have to live around black people. Erin Aubry Kaplan condemns white people who prefer to live in white neighborhoods, and condemns white people who would like to live in her minority neighborhood. You might think, sorry, Erin, you can’t have it both ways, but of course you can, if you are on the Left. Leftists like Erin Aubry Kaplan are the beneficiary of a racist system that puts its thumbs on the scale to benefit racist progressives. Her rationalization of her own objectively racist views makes sense within a system of thought that denies liberal universalism, and that places the line between Good and Evil between races … exactly as the white supremacists of old did.

For a long time, conservatives used to think that by pointing out liberal hypocrisies, we would compel liberals to change. Now, nobody on the Right can possibly have that illusion. The people in power today in our country — not just in political power, but in power within all the important institutions of American life — have absorbed this postliberal Leftist viewpoint, and think of it as normal — just as the ruling class of the 1950s American South did when racism benefited whites who wanted to control their own neighborhoods. If it was wrong then — and I believe it was — then it’s wrong today.

Let me put in a word for Erin Aubry Kaplan, though. Wanting to live around people who look and think like you, and share your culture, is very human. About 15 years ago, the Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam (the Bowling Alone guy) published results of a study he was doing on how diversity affected social capital. What did he discover? This:

After Bowling Alone, Putnam’s next step was to determine why some communities have more social capital than others. To find out, he helped organize a large nationwide survey of social capital indicators that sampled about 30,000 people from a broad array of cities, towns, and rural areas. By collecting demographic information about the individuals and the places they lived, Putnam hoped to gain insight into what makes for a trusting and neighborly community.

When he spoke to my class in 2004, Putnam had started to analyze the survey data, but he had not yet published any findings. He began by telling us about one result he encountered that was thoroughly upsetting to him—the more ethnically diverse a community is, the less social capital it possesses. When a person lives in a diverse community, he trusts everyone less, including those of his own ethnic group. In describing the behavior of people in diverse areas, Putnam told us to imagine turtles hiding in their shells.

Putnam walked us through how he came to his conclusion. At first, it was just a simple correlation. Looking at his list of the most trusting places, Putnam found whole states such as New Hampshire and Montana, rural areas in West Virginia and East Tennessee, and cities such as Bismarck, North Dakota and Fremont, Michigan. Among the least trusting places were the cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Houston. The most trusting places tended to be homogenously white, while the least trusting places were highly diverse.

Putnam told us he had been fairly certain the correlation would go away once other factors were taken into account. But it didn’t. He entered a long list of control variables into regression analyses that predict elements of social capital such as neighborly trust and civic participation. Many factors—especially younger age, less education, and higher poverty and crime rates—seem to damage community relations. But none of these factors could explain the robust, negative relationship between ethnic diversity and social capital. Sounding almost defeated, Putnam told us that ethnic diversity is not merely correlated with certain community problems—it causes them.

When Putnam finally published the study, he fell all over himself trying to qualify its findings to avoid the obvious conclusion. Putnam is a man of the Left, and the foremost authority on social capital. Yet his research indicated that an inverse relationship exists between diversity and social capital — a refutation of the sacred progressive concept of Diversity Is Our Strength. In fact, he found that in terms of neighborhoods and social capital, diversity is our weakness.

This makes sense, not necessarily because we are a racist society, but because it is perfectly natural for people to feel more comfortable around those like themselves. The anxieties people of all races living in mixed-race communities feel about their neighborhood might be irrational, but they are normal. What Erin Aubry Kaplan is expressing is racist, but understandable in terms of human nature. She is black, and feels more comfortable living in a neighborhood where she shares the culture with most of her neighbors. Wouldn’t you?

It’s not just about race. You might be a nice middle-class liberal pleased to be living in an ethnically diverse neighborhood. But let’s say a white redneck family moves into a rental house on your block. Let’s say that all their cars — old, beat-up vehicles — have Trump stickers on them. The pick-up even has a Confederate flag sticker in the back windshield. They put a Trump 2020 sign in their yard during the campaign. They play music a little bit too loud, and sometimes they argue with each other in the driveway, cursing and carrying on. You get the picture. How are you going to feel about their presence? Chances are it’s going to wind you up, because these people don’t fit in — and it’s 100 percent about class and culture. You would prefer to have a nice middle-class liberal family living there, the kind of people who mind their manners, and put in their lawn signs that say BLACK LIVES MATTER and “IN THIS HOUSE WE BELIEVE…”. Progressivism gives you a conceptual vocabulary with which to justify your antagonism to the redneck neighbors. They make you feel “unsafe” in your own neighborhood, with their Trumpy redneckery, and so forth.

It’s bigotry based not on race, but on class. But bigotry it is. You are, like Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer, a bigot, but a bigot for the Left. That’s the kind of bigotry that is acceptable to the ruling class in American life. You can get an op-ed in The New York Times with that bigotry. White people who express the same kind of sentiment risk having their reputations destroyed by the attacks of the kind of power-holders who cheer for the Erin Aubry Kaplans of the world, but who at the same time see white people who reason in the same exact way about their neighborhoods as the scum of the earth who deserve whatever they get.

Imagine that you are that white couple whose interest in her My Little Library so triggered Erin Aubry Kaplan. You are thought by her to be racist for trying to “gentrify” her black neighborhood. But if Erin Aubry Kaplan overheard you talking about how you preferred to live in an all-white neighborhood, she would call you racist too. You can’t win. Progressives like Erin Aubry Kaplan and the people at The New York Times who publish her have no interest in logical consistency or moral fairness. Progressive racism is just social justice, haven’t you heard?

People are tribal by nature. Evolution has made us so; it’s a survival instinct. The reason Bob Putnam found that the more diversity you have in a neighborhood, the less social capital there is that if you live around a bunch of people who don’t look like you and — more importantly — may not share your values, the more wary you have to be of potential threats from them. This does not mean, of course, that people who look like you and share your culture won’t harm you, or that people who don’t look like you and don’t share your culture will harm you. The instinct, though, comes from humanity’s distant past, where failing to develop these prejudices to some extent might have gotten you killed.

Liberalism, then, is something that can only exist in conditions of advanced economic and cultural development. It is contrary to natural human instincts. I was telling someone the other day that at this point in my life, I really don’t want to live outside the American South. Is it because I think there is something wrong with people from the West, the Midwest, the East, etc? Not at all. It’s because of what Little Steven van Zandt said in the chorus of his great song “I Am A Patriot”:

I am a patriot, and I love my country
Because my country is all I know
I want to be with my family, the people who understand me
I’ve got nowhere else to go

Looking at Erin Aubry Kaplan’s column from that angle, I get it. She wants to be with the people who understand her — and in her mind, that means black people. She is permitted to say that out loud, because a black person is permitted to hold that kind of belief in our society without facing condemnation from the ruling class and its institutions. She expects others to affirm, or at least tolerate, her own racist views, while rationalizing her own. Here is an excerpt from a Times column she wrote in 2020:

Racism is a form of convenience, in the sense that it’s designed to make life easier for its beneficiaries. So is white privilege — the phenomenon of not having to think about the costs of oppression, or about Black people at all.

Antiracism requires the opposite: engagement. We are starting to see it in the demands for police reforms, in the growing white rejection of symbols of white oppression like Confederate monuments and flags, even figures of presidents.

But this is all part of Step 1. Being truly antiracist will require white people to be inconvenienced by new policies and practices, legal and social, that affect everything in everyone’s daily lives, from jobs to arts and publishing.

What a convenient ideology! Racism really is a form of convenience, in the sense that it’s designed to make life easier for its beneficiaries. Kaplan’s anti-white racism is a form of convenience designed to protect the ethnic homogeneity of her own neighborhood, which allows her to feel more at home there. But come on, “being truly antiracist” requires black people like Kaplan to be “inconvenienced” by the fact that under civil rights laws, that white couple has as much right to buy a house in her neighborhood as she does to buy a house in a white neighborhood.

What Kaplan — and The New York Times — supports is a double standard that dispossesses white people in the same way that a previous generation of laws and standards dispossessed people of color. And they want us all to call this progress.

You can roll your eyes at the hypocrisy of Erin Aubry Kaplan and The New York Times, but you had better be well aware that this hypocrisy is not seen as hypocritical at all by the ruling class and the Cathedral. In the spaces they control — like university campuses — they execute such racist policies all the time, such as creating racially exclusive student housing, while denying (as they should) whites the opportunity to live in such places. I believe that if progressives (of all races) had their way, they would expand these racist policies, and write protecting them into law. This is why it is important to read The New York Times: to know what the elites who control this society think, and what they are likely to do with their power.

One of the most interesting things about progressives is that they honestly cannot conceive of people objecting in good faith to what they proclaim. If you are a white person working at The New York Times, you probably never encounter white people who object to this kind of progressive racism, or find it problematic in any way. Those that do — like the liberal journalist Donald McNeil — have been driven out. Whites who work in environments under progressive cultural control (such as major corporations) have learned to keep their objections to themselves if they want to keep their jobs.

But they still see it, and they understand that the Left has created, and continues to create, a world set on dispossessing them and their children, in the name of rectifying wrongs of the past, when whites did the same to minorities. Justice, in the old, liberal sense, meant creating a world where this is less likely to happen. But justice in the postliberal left-wing sense means creating a world where the Erin Aubry Kaplans of the world are permitted to think and do racist things, as long as their racism is aimed at white people. And the white people this is typically aimed at are those who don’t know and accept the elite code that’s hammered into the heads of those who aspire to professional life. That is to say, it is aimed at working-class white people.

As J.D. Vance said at NatCon, once you realize that culture war from the Left is really class warfare in a different guise, everything becomes clearer.

The white couple that admired Erin Aubry Kaplan’s My Little Library was probably not working class, but Kaplan resented them anyway. Her late husband was white, but he accepted her anti-white racism. As she wrote in the Times in 2018:

When I married in 2000, I changed my name. I expanded it — kept my name but added my husband’s name, Kaplan, without a hyphen. I wanted my name to reflect a conjoining that was also an evolution, literally one thing following another. This was an experiment, as all marriages are, that felt exciting and open-ended, not least because I’m black and my husband was white.

I wasn’t excited because I thought we’d be some kind of symbol of racial resolution. I was hardly that naïve, and neither was Alan. I am a journalist who had been covering black matters for years at that point, and Alan was a locally famous high school teacher of American history who believed that race and racism had shaped America far more than it was willing to admit. Not surprisingly, he didn’t think changing my name was a great idea. “Black people know you as Erin Aubry,” he said bluntly. “They’ll resent a name so obviously white and Jewish. It’ll get in your way.”

He wasn’t being snide or heroic. One of the many things he’d figured out is that white people showing up in a black space, including the intimate space of a relationship, is seen by many black folks as an incursion, even if they don’t say so. That he understood and was even sympathetic to this view impressed me, but I changed my name anyway. It felt romantic.

In that piece, she talks about how her husband often challenged her thinking on race, and how she benefited from it. How does she know that white couple might not do the same thing for her? Why doesn’t she admit that as unpleasant as it might be for her to see white people moving into the neighborhood, this “inconveniencing” is the price she has to pay to have demolished a racist system that kept black people out of white neighborhoods in the past?

Again, I understand at some level why she feels this way. Erin Aubry Kaplan is as human as the rest of us. But I resent that she (and the people who publish her) would deny that same complicated humanity to white people, and to anyone on the Right.

More broadly, the kind of remedies for “systemic racism” that the Left promotes serve the function of making us all more suspicious of each other, and more tribal. The New York Times is a cheerleader for this kind of racial balkanization. A lot of white people read or hear opinions like Kaplan’s being broadcast in the workplace, in the classroom, and in the media, and know that the fix is in. Out of frustration, they end up voting for people like Donald Trump. You cannot get a liberal or a progressive to understand that, though.

Final point: if Erin Aubry Kaplan had to choose between having Trevor and Kayleigh as neighbors, or my fellow Baton Rougean Boosie Badazz (see below, in this clip filmed in his old Baton Rouge neighborhood), what would she do? How would she justify it?

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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