Opinion

Racial justice has a Goldilocks problem

Can America be made less racist without triggering a massive backlash?

Early polls may find solid and broad-based approval of the guilty verdicts in the trial of Derek Chauvin. But views of what the outcome should mean for the future of race in America are as polarized as the nation itself.

On the right, the outcome is a travesty of justice. That's because over the past 11 months conservatives have talked themselves into believing that George Floyd was minutes away from a drug overdose when he encountered Officer Chauvin, and therefore that the guilty verdict was entirely a function of the jurors having been intimidated by the left's lawlessness on American streets last summer and irresponsibly prejudicial comments from Democrats (including the president and Rep. Maxine Waters) during the trial.

In the liberal center, defined in large part by President Biden's comments since the events of Tuesday afternoon, there is relief and gratitude that justice was done in the case and a commitment to using momentum arising from the result to address structural racism in America, especially in law enforcement.

On the left, which expected to be launching nationwide protests in response to an acquittal, there is some relief. But it took very little time for that good cheer to be transmuted into an insistence that the outcome of the trial did hardly anything to address the structures of injustice that made it necessary. The day after the verdict was reached, some even fastened onto a much less clear-cut case of police abusing their power (one in which a police officer in Columbus, Ohio, shot and killed a Black teenager who appeared seconds away from stabbing an unarmed peer) in order to claim that the conviction of George Floyd's killer had accomplished nothing at all.

I have little to say about the substance of the right's response. As is so often the case now, conservatives have constructed their own alternative reality that's immune to falsification and deadened to cries of injustice when they come from outside the tribe. But that doesn't mean we can ignore the right and its distinctive grievances. (More on them in a moment.)

As for the center and the left, both express hope for a better, less racist, more just America. I support these efforts — though I also think that those undertaking them need to do so with their eyes wide open about just how challenging the struggle will be. I don't just mean at the level of whipping votes and getting bills passed. I mean at the deepest cultural and psychological level — deep down within the nation's genetic code.

The left, of course, claims to grasp this quite well, repeatedly pointing out how entrenched structural racism truly is. Yet this awareness is belied by the left's simultaneous insistence that we can and must act to dislodge such racism completely. I'm not entirely sure those two messages are compatible with each other.

Aristotle helps to explain why. As I've noted on more than one occasion in the past, the ancient Greek political philosopher remarks in a passage of the Politics that "a mistake at the beginning" of a political community sets a pattern of injustice for that community going forward — a pattern that can be ameliorated but never eradicated or expunged, because every effort to address it provokes a reaction from those who feel they will lose out from reforms. This reaction then sets off new calls for reforms, and then new reactions, down through the years, decades, and even centuries, as the country careens back and forth in a never-fulfilled effort to right itself by finding a balance between competing appeals to justice and aggrieved cries of injustice.

If Aristotle was right about this — and if the insight can be applied to America's foundational mistake (slavery, along with its multifarious legacies) — the implications are profound and sobering. They entail that, yes, we can and should try to correct for the injustices of the past and present, but also that those efforts will never be more than partially successful and will always run the risk of provoking a backlash that precipitates a reversal.

Do too little to correct the mistake and the improvement will wash out and amount to nothing. Attempt too much and it will generate a reaction that threatens to make things worse. Call it America's Goldilocks problem — the need for racial reformers to display just the right amount of ambition to make things marginally better over time.

Consider the example of reparations. Is there a case to be made that the descendants of slaves are owed some compensation for the injustices they have continued to endure over the century and a half since the institution was formally abolished? Yes, there is. Yet attempting to pass a bill that would transfer significant amounts of wealth from white to Black Americans would almost certainly provoke a massive reaction, quite possibly handing the already emboldened white-supremacist far-right the greatest recruiting tool they've seen in many decades.

Don't buy it? Recall the consequences of the civil rights movement, which aimed at securing the bare minimum of political equality for Black Americans. On the obvious plus side, it succeeded in smashing Jim Crow in the South once and for all. That was both absolutely necessary and morally unimpeachable. But it also came at a considerable cost for the left, breaking apart the Democrats' electoral coalition, sending white southerners running into the arms of the Republican Party, turning the GOP for several decades into America's governing party, and necessitating that the Democrats track sharply to the center even to be competitive in presidential elections. We still live in a country shaped by these consequences.

If the left and its allies in the center wish to make meaningful, enduring change, they need to proceed steadily and with purpose, but also with wisdom and caution, avoiding legislative overreaching and distancing themselves from asinine slogans that whip up their own activists but provide the forces of reaction with ad copy to advance their own malign causes.

Listen to Aristotle — and move forward toward a better future in knowledge of the limits of the American possible.

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