From a recent WSJ.
George Floyd was murdered. How else to describe what was done to a man who was handcuffed, wrestled to the ground, and forcibly restrained by four men, one of whom put his knee and the full weight of his body on Floyd’s throat for roughly nine minutes? After due process is afforded, swift punishment must be meted out to those responsible for his death.
Yet in America, a nation that is increasingly testing the limits of incivility, justice for Floyd and his family was never the primary objective of those who took to the streets. Instead, the incident represents an opportunity for some to pursue an era of racial leveraging, the likes of which we haven’t seen in some time. For those who yearned to return to a time when race is at the center of the public-policy agenda, this is it.
Some say that America needs to have a conversation about race. I doubt that’s a good idea, but such a conversation is inevitable and already under way. In preparation for an even more intense exercise in American democracy, with race as the centerpiece, I suggest a few factors to guide the discussion.
First, let us acknowledge that there is pressure, spoken and silent, to accept without challenge the view that U.S. is a nation boiling in the juices of “systemic racism.” The response should be a bold and spirited defense of our nation’s progress as we have addressed the topic of race.
When certain Americans were denied the right to vote based on the color of their skin, that was systemic racism. When small children and college students had to be ushered to school by the National Guard, past defenders of state laws and policies that sought to maintain racial segregation, that was systemic racism. When black and white Americans were forbidden to marry, that was systemic racism—and a gross infringement on individual liberty.
Our history is the best proof that America is not a racist nation. A nation of white racists wouldn’t elect and re-elect a black man as president. Those who assert that the U.S. is racist must, at a minimum, address this historical fact.
What delivered us from the undeniable racism of the past to the election of Barack Obama? The American creed—“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”—inspired the laws that changed our social and legal structure to make the aspiration real.
We are witnessing an all-out assault on America, not only as it was but as it is and as we seek it to become. As a society, we have been slow to respond to those who propose to transform the U.S. We have not asked, as we should have: Transform from what to what? The answer to this question may be found in the bluest of American states—among them California and Washington—where the transformation is in full bloom.
The operating thesis of a significant segment of the leadership in these states is that America is a racist nation, governed by a horde of white male supremacists who use the pretense of equality to maintain their superior position. When asked for evidence to support the claim of white supremacy,” the only response I have been given is, “Look all around.” They hold this untruth to be self-evident.
My grandfather was born a slave in the early 19th century. My father was born late in that century and lived through the era of Jim Crow. I was born in 1939, but I became a full American just after my 25th birthday, when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law. I am able to enjoy the fruits of American freedom with a slice of the American pie equal to that of every other American. This experience informs my faith in and optimism for continued progress in building our more perfect union.
When our nation was dismantling Jim Crow, efforts to hasten the integration of black Americans were accelerated. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925, which used the term “affirmative action” for the first time. This order instructed federal contractors to take “affirmative action to ensure that applicants are treated equally without regard to race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.”
In 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson issued Executive Order 11246. This order changed the focus of affirmative action from nondiscrimination “without regard to” race to one that seeks “results” based on race. Fifty-five years later, affirmative action continues, although its legitimacy is vigorously questioned. Some view it as an entitlement, others as a serious assault on the right to equal treatment, no longer warranted if it ever was. Because affirmative action was created by executive order, it can be ended by executive order. The circumstances that some believe warranted Executive Order 11246 in 1965 no longer justify its continuation more than half a century later.
The claim that America is “systemically racist” is a false narrative that fuels racial paranoia, division and hatred. If we can identify specific institutions or people within them that are racist, we should confront them. If not, it doesn’t serve us well to allow a false presumption of guilt to guide our conduct.
In 1996 California voters approved a citizen-sponsored initiative, Proposition 209, that added the following words to the California Constitution: “The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin, in the operation of public employment, public education or public contracting.” In recent months, much attention has been focused on the destruction of historical monuments and statues, while very little attention has been focused on action by the California Legislature to erase Proposition 209, and the principle of equality that it represents, from the California Constitution.
Having grown up in segregated Louisiana, I can attest to the significance of the equality principle. Being equal gives citizens that essential feeling of belonging. For me, equality meant being free to pursue happiness on my terms. Martin Luther King Jr. expressed the feeling: “Free at last! Free at last!” He was exulting not merely because he was shedding the shackles of bondage—unequal schools, two-tiered justice and inequality in all vestiges of life. He was also embracing liberty.
I am persuaded that how America resolves the issues of affirmative action and community policing will define for generations to come the fraught relationship between what we call the black community and the larger society. Our national performance thus far hasn’t been encouraging.
Mr. Connerly is president of Californians for Equal Rights.
I appreciate Mr. Connerly's perspective. I'm not sure I quite get his "a few factors to guide the discussion." He seems to be saying look what we've accomplished, case closed. Some of our neighbors and fellow citizens are hurting. Saying they are wrong to hurt doesn't seem to me to be dignified, doesn't seem consistent with the Golden Rule. The violence in Portland and Seattle is wrong. But to just say "you're wrong about how you feel" seems to me to also be wrong. Let's have the discussion. Let's filter out the extreme positions and the yelling. Let's listen and understand and see if we can improve.