Home/Rod Dreher/The Demons Of Racism Return

The Demons Of Racism Return

Martin Luther King statue at Westminster Abbey, London (Arthur Tilley/GettyImages)

This letter came in from a reader:

Rod, I’m sure you’ve seen the articles about the Rochester principal that was caught screaming “f— the police” and various other obscenities at the protest. After first saying they would “deal with it as a personnel matter” the district has summarily suspended him.


You’ve talked frequently about how identity politics will end up driving whites & conservatives to illiberalism out of desperation. It’s already happening. I teach civics in [deleted] and consider myself a student of political philosophy, yet it has begin to affect me as well.

Six months ago, my reaction to this principal being suspended would have been anger that a school district would hold a tenured principal’s job hostage based purely on his personal political beliefs. When I read the FoxNews article today, my first reaction was, “good, maybe they’ll actually get rid of this idiot.” I am appalled my such an illiberal response, but no longer surprised by it.

Until this year, I would have put myself in that principal’s shoes. A John Stuart Mill response: “I wouldn’t want my job to be conditioned on my private political opinions, therefore, I must accept that no one’s job should be conditioned on their private political opinions.” But it is clear the Left no longer believes this. They can — indeed, they do — condition continued employment on holding the correct political opinions. Express dissent from progressive orthodoxy, and they will bury you. They’ve abandoned Mill for Khrushchev. Even though I despise the new rules they’ve created, I find myself being dragged into to playing by them whether I want to or not — a political expression of mutually assured destruction. Hence my illiberal response: “Sack that principal; he’s in the Other Tribe.”

This isn’t the first time either. I’ve never experienced any form of racial solidarity. Like you, I grew up in MLK’s “content of their character” America; collective racial identity was unthinkable. But this summer I found myself quietly rooting for a charity to sponsor the white businesses that were destroyed in Minneapolis. Admittedly, this was in response to the charities formed to rebuild only minority-owned businesses, but the feeling of solidarity with whites — simply because they were white — was very foreign to me. And again, I found it disturbing.

Liberals have been attacking white, married, Christian, conservatives for years. It never affected my underlying commitment to John Stuart Mill liberalism. Until this year. I know these are small, symbolic things. But my core political philosophy is changing. I don’t like where it’s going, but I don’t know how to stop it. And I’m starting to wonder whether maybe I shouldn’t try. Maybe Ahmari and Legutko are right.

Thank you for what you do, Rod. I’m looking forward to Live Not By Lies. I’ve even ordered a copy for my dentist, who is a [ex-communist country] emigrant, since I’m curious his take on it. I didn’t fully believe you after Benedict Option; I can’t deny the obvious now. The darkness is coming. I mean this very seriously: please pray that I don’t end up becoming part of it.

As always, if you post any of this, just leave my name off. My wife is a public school teacher and I’m certain her district would fire her in a heartbeat.

For years, I’ve said in this space that the left, by insisting on valorizing racial identity, is calling up demons it will not be able to control. Well, here is a white race liberal who is losing his race liberalism because of the left’s insanity. You cannot insist on racial identity for non-white people, and expect white people not to claim it for themselves. You might wish that they would own their “whiteness” by turning on themselves self-critically, and ashamedly. That only works with middle-class white people who are desperate to conform.

I don’t know how this lands with Millennials and Gen Z readers. For me, as a Gen Xer raised in the Deep South, it is very, very depressing (though I completely understand it). My generation was the first one raised on Martin Luther King-style race liberalism. Prior to my generation, white kids and black kids in my parish went to different schools. You don’t erase the effects of centuries of white supremacy overnight, yet the idea that people should not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character, was the only reasonable way out of that morass. My children, all 21st century kids, cannot fathom in their imaginations the world into which their father was born, and how much progress has been made in improving racial understanding. The world is far from perfect, but under the liberal principles of the King era, America made immense progress.

Four years before I was born, a black pastor was the first black man to attempt to register to vote in over six decades in my parish. It caused a near-riot among white racists on the courthouse lawn. I went to school with that pastor’s grandkids. One of his granddaughters was in my class all the way from elementary school. That old man could not have fathomed that his grandchildren would live to see the election of the first black president of the United States of America. What a triumph for our democracy! It did not lead to utopia — there is no such place — but progress away from a world in which racial identity was codified in law and immovable in culture is something to be grateful for, and celebrated.

It is literally breathtaking to me that all of this is coming back now, not via what remains of the white supremacist right, but through the mainstream progressive left and the institutions it now runs. It took so much blood and pain to exorcise those demons (“exorcise” meant figuratively; unfortunately, no society can ever be completely free of racial prejudice), and now the most progressive among us are begging them to come back.

This country is going to convulse in the years to come, no matter who is in the White House. Jesus said:

“When an unclean spirit goes out of a man, he goes through dry places, seeking rest, and finds none. Then he says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when he comes, he finds it empty, swept, and put in order.

Then he goes and takes with him seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man is worse than the first. So shall it also be with this wicked generation.” (Matthew 12: 43-45)

We have invited the unclean spirits of race hatred to re-enter the body politic. The one thing that might have given us the power to resist — Christian faith — is something many of us have turned from. The author of the letter above hasn’t turned from it — it’s what is causing him to resist the temptation to race hatred. But as for the country as a whole, the Christian legal writer John Ehrett prophesied something dark in his review of Live Not By LiesHe wrote:

All told, atavism—at least in its more elaborate forms—offers a disquietingly coherent alternative to both traditional Christianity and the social justice movement. Charles Péguy presciently warned in Temporal and Eternal that it would not be a simplistic materialism that posed the greatest threat to Christianity, but rather those pantheistic philosophical systems that are developed enough to stand as genuine metaphysical rivals to Christian theology. Such a system is here, now, and it is the mortal rival of the modern progressive. In the face of the social justice activist’s claim we are infinitely valuable, the atavist offers a cold rejoinder—we’re nothing special at all.

I’ve spent so long laying out the principles of atavism because I think it’s necessary in order to properly frame the current conflict. Despite the seemingly political valence of Dreher’s writing, the struggle recounted in Live Not By Lies is not, I think, properly conceived as a struggle between “right” and “left”—it is between a post-Christian right and a post-Christian left. Dreher routinely writes of the “demons” being called up by those on the left who absolutize “whiteness” as an immutable reality—well, those demons are already at hand, and the battle to come will likely be fought between these two forms of post-Christian religiosity.

The historic Christian faith sits uneasily between these two alien poles. It cannot affirm either post-Christian system as such, though it can ascertain certain glimmers of truth in both. With proponents of the modern social justice movement, orthodox Christians can affirm the absolute dignity of human souls and the reality of transhistorical, transcultural moral obligations. So too, Christians can acknowledge (as Dreher certainly does) an essentially linear view of history: the Son of God entered contingent human history at a distinct moment in time, and He will come again in glory at the end of days to restore the world. Christians can also acknowledge, as do at least some of those whose inclinations trend atavist, that there is a link between the created order and our moral obligations—that is, that there is a genuine natural law—as well as that community practices and traditions are integral to human flourishing. But a faithful Christian can never hold that the absolute end of human beings is emancipation from all unchosen constraints, or, alternatively, that human beings are of fundamentally unequal value before God. So too, both left and right post-Christian systems reduce any concept of the divine to the level of the immanent—the orthodox idea of a transcendent, personal Creator is alien to both.

Could it be that the future of America does not lie with men like the author of the letter — Christians who are living through the passions of our time, and struggling to hold on to the old Biblical moral vision — but rather with those who have already sided with either the post-Christian left (even though it takes some Christian forms, through CRT), or with the post-Christian right?

Ivan Krastev, a sympathetic critic of Anne Applebaum’s new book, suggests that she is a prisoner of 1989, the year that the things she believes in triumphed. The world has changed, and she has failed to change with it. In the same way, I wonder if white people like me are prisoners of 1964, the year the Civil Rights Act was passed. I’m reading Days Of Rage, Bryan Burrough’s history of violent radicals in America, circa 1968 to 1972. It’s pretty incredible to read the same arguments we hear today from the left, coming out of the mouths of gun-toting white and black revolutionaries from that era. Today these views, slightly less radical (but only slightly), are more likely to come from people of all colors within the Establishment.

By the end of this decade, I fear that there will be no liberals or conservatives. There will only be radicals and reactionaries. This is what the left is bringing down on us all.

UPDATE: A reader writes:

Since you like collecting stories of how people are reacting to the chaos of our times, here’s another one for your file.
I’m a white male, older Millennial (born early 80s), middle class, with a Ph.D in the sciences. In response to your question, “I don’t know how this lands with Millennial and Gen Z readers” from your post “The Demons of Racism Return”: I can relate to your letter-writer, sort of. Not so much with regard to feelings of racial solidarity with whites or animus towards minorities. I grew up taking the “content of your character” position for granted, and this year’s riots haven’t made me deviate from that. After all, when I watch videos of the destruction, it seems like it’s mostly being perpetrated by insane, leftist, WHITE psychopaths with a smattering of minorities thrown in. It might help that, during my university studies, I made many friends with international students, and dated a Chinese girl for a while during grad school — and that, although it didn’t work out with her, that’s been by far my best experience with relationships by comparison with the American girls I’ve dated (ranging from slightly older than me to one Gen Zer, born in the mid-90s), who have been a bunch of emotionally unstable commitment-phobes. In general, a lot of the foreign people I’ve known — admittedly, almost all Asians — seem to have better American values than most of the Americans of my own age or below.
As far as blacks specifically are concerned, knowing that they vote 90%+ for Democrats, I know that the vast majority of them don’t share my values, but that knowledge has nothing to do with their skin color and everything to do with political views that just happen to be correlated with their skin color. I respect the hell out of prominent black conservative voices with the strength and courage to stand against the tide, like Candace Owens, the Hodge Twins, Brandon Tatum, etc.
In short, I’ve never given a hoot about race and I still don’t.
The part of the letter I can relate to, however, is being driven toward radicalism and illiberalism by the madness of the left. People claim “the right has its share of crazies,” but it sure isn’t a bunch of Trump supporters burning the country down, or cheering on the looters; and it’s not the right that regards me, a straight white male, as an evil to be crushed by virtue of my immutable characteristics.
All of that has provoked a sharp reaction from me. I’d rather just be apolitical, be left alone, and tend to my own life, my own tiny slice of the world, without interfering with others or suffering their interference. But the left won’t allow it. My job has started showing signs of racial anti-white craziness and I’m prepared to lose my job rather than suffer the humiliation of denouncing myself for having Y chromosomes and less melanin in my skin. I sat the last election out because I found both candidates unacceptable, but come this November, I’ll be voting for Trump, full-stop. I’ve also armed up with lots of ammunition and even body armor, and have been hitting the range to sharpen by shooting skills, in anticipation of possibly needing to defend myself using maximal force in the event that things really go south. There was a time when that would have seemed like a crazy proposition. Today, it really doesn’t.
I had ordered Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed a couple of years ago, but put it on the shelf without finishing it. The other day, I pulled it back out and read it to the end. His arguments have a lot of force today. I can’t say for sure, but I suspect he may be right that what we’re witnessing today is the inevitable destination of the liberal project, that this chaos and destruction isn’t because of a failure of liberalism, but because of its success. I’ve lost a great deal of trust in liberalism as a philosophical framework. The frightening thing is that I don’t see a viable alternative to it. All I see is a slide into chaos, and then despotism. The alternative — that decadent liberalism does manage to stumble along in an oppressive, technocratic haze of blind hedonism in the face of a meaningless blob of existence — doesn’t seem much better.
The only sensible response I see is the Jordan Peterson approach, which represents a kind of Benedict option that’s broader in application due to not being specifically Christian: Cultivate virtue first in oneself, then in one’s immediate social circle, and from there to one’s community. The tide is too strong to turn back, but individuals, families, and maybe even communities might be able to weather it. So, prepare — morally, and martially (yes, martially, not materially) as well. The time has been upon us for a while where we’ve had to fight a difficult spiritual battle. For many, sometime in the near- to mid-future, that battle may turn physical as well. I pray that it doesn’t, that I’m just being an overreactive paranoiac — but as the time-honored wisdom goes, better to err on the side of caution. If it can happen in Kenosha, it can happen anywhere.
UPDATE.2: This from a reader. She used her real name in her letter, but asked me not to publish it. I checked her out, and she is who she says she is:
I’m a long time reader of your blog who started out on the political left and made a gradual shift rightward. I’m also a (white) teacher in the Seattle Public Schools.I’m writing in response to your blog piece “The Demons of Racism Return.” The mention of the principal in Rochester who was fired for anti-cop invective spurred me to write to you. Ideas like his are common in Seattle schools. Where I work, saying “all lives matter” or “back the blue” is more likely to get you fired than shouting profanity at cops.

One example is a teacher at Chief Sealth High School. A quick browse of his twitter page shows all of the typical far left ideologies: anti-cop, anti-capitalism, supports BLM and antifa, etc. Here is his page in case you want to browse; he uses his real name on the account:


He is a particularly extreme example, but there are many teachers who think this way. I used to think this stuff was fringe; I never thought “dismantle” literally meant “dismantle…” I thought it was a metaphor for reform. It’s not. You might say I’ve just become “woke” to the real danger posed by the far left; I thought they were just crazy before.

My circle of friends and family are nearly all on the left and are posting black squares and making blanket “all white people” statements and so forth. They are a racially diverse bunch but they all think the same way and take their cues from left-leaning media. The weird thing is they all act normal in public. They will #BLM and post black squares and black power fists and talk about “Karens” etc., but when you see them in real life they are completely normal humans who never bring any of this stuff up. I deleted my social media accounts because I couldn’t stand the toxicity I was seeing, and didn’t dare comment on any of it. I also didn’t want to be called out for *not* saying anything on social media, in the “silence is violence” vein, so I thought it better to make my exit.

I don’t think any of the people in my circle realize that the threat on the left is real. They see any concern from the right about a Biden presidency ushering in the possibility of radical leftist control of government as scare tactics by right-wing fascists (I don’t think that Biden himself is a radical, but I fear he is simply a puppet). If I hadn’t seen the far left craziness from many teachers in my profession, I might be similarly dismissing these concerns.

It’s also interesting that in your piece you mentioned Mills’ social contract. A couple of weeks ago SPS required its employees to attend an all-day live webinar on “dismantling the racial contract” which basically says the social contract only benefits whites, and everyone else really operates on a racial contract that leaves them out of the bargain. The presentation was rife with SJW jargon, calls to check one’s privilege, etc.  At one point the staff was asked to read and reflect on the following:

“For many of us, the task at hand is to stay Black and live. For others, it’s time to bankrupt your privilege in acknowledgment of your thieved inheritance. Sure, do whatever you need to do in order to sleep at night, but also- consider who you want to be when the morning light finds you.” — Saeed Jones

“Bankrupt Your Privilege” Personal Reflection Questions:

After reading the quote from Saeed Jones, use the following prompts to ask yourself how the role as educator has influenced certain power dynamics in the classroom and in relationships. Consider how your positionality perpetuates the inequities inherent in this racist system.

• What are you willing to risk for racial justice as an educator?
• What would “bankrupting your privilege” look like for you in your classroom practices?
• What is getting in your way?
• What are you afraid of?
• Who do you “want to be when the morning light finds you” especially as an anti-racist educator?
• What immediate step can you take to be that person tomorrow?

The obvious implication of the reflection activity is that white people have a “thieved inheritance” that SHOULD make it difficult for us to sleep at night. That we must constantly “do the work” in order to not be incorrigible racists. I have had to sit through many, many trainings of this type and am still told I must “do the work.”

The comments during the live webinar were nuts, too. Here are some gems from the “educators” participating in this webinar:

“What if we raised the bar in our profession, improved working conditions, provided teachers secretarial support, raised teacher pay, and paid BIPOC teachers more?” (emphasis mine)

“Thank you for posting those questions. It is not only the who but also the what in what networking. Some one [sic] who may be presented to be BIPOC but may have a different network in which their mindsets are different from their skin color.”  (emphasis mine)  In other words, non-white people who “act white” or hold “white” opinions aren’t to be trusted…when your “mindset” is “different from your skin color.”

We need to acknowledge the fact that whiteness/white supremacy isn’t solely enacted by white people. As a Black woman, I’ve experienced as much anti-Blackness from other Black people in our schools as other races. SPS rewards and promotes these types most…”  (emphasis mine)

Then…this one got everyone all riled up, ready for a witch hunt to find and fire the anonymous employee who posted it:

“Boy! You sure can tell we are in Liberal Land USA! What a ridiculous comment! USA was built of [sic] off black slaves? Oh, puleeez!”

The whole webinar imploded because of this single comment. Dozens of comments were made condemning this person and calling for their firing. One of the presenters stopped presenting to respond to this anonymous poster to the effect of “we see you” and “we WILL find out who you are.”  The superintendent subsequently sent out a handwringing email to the entire staff decrying the racism displayed in this comment. (Insensitive? Trolling? Debatable? Maybe…but flat out racist?)

This sampling of attitudes among SPS staff is indicative of the overall political climate in my district. I know “wokeness” is infiltrating K-12 schools, but my impression is that Seattle is ground zero for the woke agenda.

So, this is what we are up against. I often wonder if I am going insane; if I am the only one who thinks this stuff is bonkers.

UPDATE.3: Another reader:
I read your article The Demons of Racism Return and, like another reader you added in, thought I would reach out. I am a millennial (early thirties) pastor in a liberal town, business owner, married, two kids, with a doctoral degree. I have sensed this same illiberalism creep in my own mind but I remember it as far back as Charlottesville. I watched with fascination as a manifestation I had only imagined would happen took place. It was only a matter of time before white males begin to embrace the illiberalism being shoved in their face. I watched and witnessed their open racism with fascination. I had never seen anything like it. I grew up in the south with an openly racist grandfather. But I had never seen white men my age embrace their racial identity. I resonated with the first person who wrote into because when I watched it (Charlottesville), I was almost like, ‘about time.’ What a horrible thought. I had heard so much in many corners of evangelicalism about how white people were dumb, blind, and hopelessly racist. That our country was racist. That we were all complicit. I grew tired of it and was eager to embrace as similar illiberal spirit. I am tired of these arguments.
I have talked with my wife often about this. I keep trying to search my soul for any racism. I have stereotypes of different people and God forgive me if those are sinful. But hatred for another ethnicity? Even passive pride that thinks my ethnicity is better than theirs? I can’t find it. I almost want to find it so that I could just give in to the mob and acknowledge my complicity. It seems it would make me more acceptable to my peers and my people.
I’m afraid of where all this is heading. I keep reaching out to people to share my fear but they kind of act like I’m crazy. I don’t want my children to grow up in a revolution. My plan if things go south is to leave the country and start over somewhere else. But I’m prepared to shoot my way out to get there.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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