One of the most striking features of American history is its periodic waves of religious fervor. We are in the midst of another today, stripped of its references to God but filled with the same passionate desire to be reborn, absolved from past sins.
What sins need absolution now? America’s history of slavery and Jim Crow segregation. Those “original sins” continue, say the movement’s leaders, in a new (and vaguely defined) form: “structural racism.”
Revivals like this have been called “Great Awakenings” since the first one, in the 1740s. Today’s acolytes use similar language, so this one might be called the “The Great Awokening.” Just as slavery and abolition were central to the Second Great Awakening of the 1850s, so race is central now. In both cases, the message is that white Americans must act decisively to correct historical wrongs and pay penance for them.
Today’s progressive politicians also offer a measure of absolution. It is a costly one, a whole series of race-based policies, massive government spending, centralized controls (including new rules for voting), and economic redistribution, plus “reimagining” local law enforcement.
Who are the sinful “whites” in this account? In practice, they are everyone except descendants of enslaved African Americans. In this reframing, Americans of Chinese, South Asian, Korean, or Cuban ancestry are all considered privileged and, in a political sense, “white.”
Asian Americans are already in open revolt against this ideology and the discriminatory policies that flow from it. They are irate about proposed quotas to limit their enrollment in elite, merit-based schools. For Hispanics, the issue is more vexed. Their national leaders are closely allied with the Congressional Black Caucus and progressives. They are understandably reluctant to break with that powerful coalition. But it is already fracturing at the local level as second- and third-generation Hispanics embrace the American Dream, adopt bourgeois values, and move up economically. Their growing numbers also undermine the long-standing assumption that Black politicians would lead any “coalition of color.”
The most eager disciples of the Great Awokening are educated, upper-middle-class whites, from Cambridge to Cupertino and every campus in between. The New York Times has provided them with just the kind of history they crave, the 1619 Project. The date is significant. The Times is saying American history really began when African slaves arrived in Virginia. Their America is not John Winthrop’s Puritan vision of a “City on a Hill.” It is John Bunyan’s “Slough of Despond,” a sulfurous bog of slavery, racism, and exploitation.
These historic sins, like the Protestant original, can never be fully erased. Even the celebrated achievements of the mid-1960s are not enough. Gone is the optimistic message that America has made enormous strides toward racial equality, paid heavily to do it, and worked mightily (with considerable success over the past half-century) to create a society of multiracial opportunity and tolerance. Gone, too, is Martin Luther King’s dream of a color-blind society.
This imputation of collective white guilt is diametrically opposed to the most basic concepts of Western jurisprudence and moral responsibility, where each person is responsible for his own actions, not for those of his ancestors, cousins, or group. These legal principles track Western ideas about personal moral responsibility. The Woke would replace this achievement with crude ideas about communal responsibility for your “race,” religion, or ethnicity, for your ancestors and everyone else’s, all in hopes of receiving absolution for historic sins you never committed.
It is hard to find a silver lining here, but there is one. This frenzy of self-flagellation is unsustainable. It will fade away. What’s uncertain is how long that will take and how much wreckage it will leave. How long will parents stand for teachers who indoctrinate their children to hate the hard-earned achievements of their own middle-class parents and grandparents? How long will Americans stand for policies that measure fair treatment not by unbiased procedures but by “appropriate” outcomes, measured solely by racial percentages?
Progressive leaders must know their time is limited because they are moving swiftly to push their “anti-racism” agenda through Congress. If adopted, their program would constitute the largest expansion of central government in half-a-century and complete a fundamental transformation of America’s 20th century political structure, begun under Franklin Delano Roosevelt and extended by Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Barack Obama.
The Woke have convinced themselves that backing this agenda is the road to redemption. In fact, it would lock-in racial divisions, pit group against group, and destroy hopes of a common American future. The penitents, whipping themselves raw and begging forgiveness, are seeking salvation from Washington and City Hall, from propagandists and political hustlers. They are looking in the wrong place.
Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at [email protected].