Two weeks ago, in his appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, Colin Powell noted that while we have made tremendous strides against racism in the United States, “We should have no illusions about the fact that there are still people in this country who will judge you by the color of your skin.”
It’s been nearly twenty years since Powell disappointed many Americans by announcing that he would not run for the presidency of the United States. I still remember the hope so many had at the time that Powell could heal our country’s racial divisions, especially in the wake of the O. J. Simpson case. Maybe that hope was naive, but you couldn’t blame Americans troubled by our tensions for holding on to it.
The day Powell announced he would not run, he declared:
I will continue to speak out forcefully in the future on the issues of the day, as I have been doing in recent weeks. I will do so as a member of the Republican Party. And I will try to assist the party in broadening its appeal. I believe I can help the party of Lincoln move once again close to the spirit of Lincoln.
Twenty years later, it’s obvious that Powell’s efforts to “help the party of Lincoln move once again close to the spirit of Lincoln” failed miserably. Powell subtly acknowledged that failure two years ago, when he decried the “dark vein of intolerance” that remains within the GOP—a criticism he repeated in this month’s Meet the Press interview. It failed because the Republican Party and the conservative movement recognized that racism could be mainstreamed, cleaned up, made civil and presentable. In fact, just weeks before Powell announced he would not run, the American right sunk to new depths in its efforts to make racism sound reasonable.
On September 30, 1995, the right-wing Simon & Schuster imprint Free Press released The End of Racism: Principles for a Multiracial Society, by Dinesh D’Souza, who had previously generated controversy for his ugly tenure as editor of the Dartmouth Review in the 1980s and for the 1991 book Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. The End of Racism was branded “The Bigot’s Handbook” by then-TIME columnist Jack E. White; if anything, that criticism was far too tepid. As Vox‘s Dylan Matthews noted earlier this year:
The End of Racism (1995) was considerably more incendiary [than Illiberal Education]. Here are a few lines from the book:
“Was slavery a racist institution? No. Slavery was practiced for thousands of years in virtually all societies … Thus slavery is neither distinctively Western nor racist.”
“In summary, the American slave was treated like property, which is to say, pretty well.”
“Am I calling for a repeal of the Civil Rights Act of 1964? Actually, yes. The law should be changed so that its nondiscrimination provisions apply only to the government.”
“Segregation … represented a compromise on the part of the Southern ruling elite seeking, in part, to protect blacks.” [Emphasis D’Souza’s.]
“If racism is not the main problem for blacks, what is? Liberal antiracism.”
“Racism originated not in ignorance and fear but as part of an enlightened enterprise of intellectual discovery.”
“The civil rights establishment has a vested interest in the persistence of the underclass.”
“The main contemporary obstacle facing African Americans is neither white racism, as many liberals claim, nor black genetic deficiency, as Charles Murray and others imply. Rather it involves destructive and pathological cultural patterns of behavior: excessive reliance on government, conspiratorial paranoia about racism, a resistance to academic achievement as ‘acting white,’ a celebration of the criminal and outlaw as authentically black, and the normalization of illegitimacy and dependency.”
“Evidence for the old discrimination has declined, but there are many indications that black cultural pathology has contributed to a new form of discrimination: rational discrimination. High crime rates of young black males, for example, make taxi drivers more reluctant to pick them up, storekeepers more likely to follow them in stores, and employers less willing to hire them. Rational discrimination is based on accurate group generalizations that may nevertheless be unfair to particular members of a group.”
The book got a respectful hearing in some corners; historian George Frederickson called it “the most thorough, intelligent, and well-informed presentation of the case against liberal race policies that has yet appeared” in the New York Review of Books. By contrast, philosopher Richard Rorty wrote a takedown for the New York Times, consisting largely of direct quotations from the book, and concluding, “Conceivably somebody could make a case for the claim that white Americans are now entitled to relax, go color-blind, and let the African-Americans rebuild their culture on their own. Mr. D’Souza has not even begun to make it.”
Rorty was not the only one disturbed by D’Souza’s attempt to rationalize racism and promote the idea that African-American culture was by definition backward. The late New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis also recognized what D’Souza was trying to pull:
[We now have] a flood of articles and books on the same premise: the likely inferiority of blacks…A monument of the genre was last year’s “The Bell Curve,” by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, which argued that races differ in intellect and that heredity has much to do with the differences. Many scientists dismiss the book’s statistical analysis as nonsense, but it has sold 400,000 copies.
Now we have “The End of Racism,” by Dinesh D’Souza. Mr. D’Souza rejects the genetic claim of “The Bell Curve.” But he says black Americans have a distinctive and inferior culture — and that, not discrimination on the basis of color, is the reason for their problems.
A writer for the conservative editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, Hugh Pearson, writing critically about the book, pointed to one passage as exemplifying the extremity of Mr. D’Souza’s views: “If America as a nation owes blacks as a group reparations for slavery, what do blacks as a group owe America for the abolition of slavery?”
The message is that blacks should not complain: They haven’t really suffered all that much. Thus Mr. D’Souza argues that historically slavery was not racist, though it “developed a racist character” in America. And after slavery ended, the white South imposed segregation “to protect blacks.”…
Mr. D’Souza’s book has been widely criticized. But that has not affected his financial rewards; 100,000 copies are in print. That says a lot about what white Americans want to be told these days: that they should not be criticized for racism.
The essential appeal of the Murray and D’Souza books lies there. They argue that white Americans have nothing to be ashamed of: If blacks have problems, it is their fault. Read this book, and stop worrying about your feelings toward blacks.
Black Americans should be as subject to criticism as others. Our freedom cannot be based on political correctness.
But Mr. D’Souza’s generalized attempts to make whites feel good are pathetic. Can anyone doubt that slavery was racist in this country? Or that segregation branded blacks as inferior just as much as the yellow stars that the Nazis made Jews wear? Still, today, blacks suffer harassment and discrimination that the rest of us would surely find unbearable.
Perhaps the best denunciation of D’Souza’s deceitful diatribe came from the late Washington Post columnist William Raspberry, who noted that the book was so sleazy that two of D’Souza’s colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute actually decided to walk away from the right-wing think tank in protest:
The anguish of Robert L. Woodson and Glenn Loury is almost palpable. These two black conservatives are outraged over a book by a sometime colleague–even while agreeing with much that is in the book.
The book is Dinesh D’Souza’s “The End of Racism,” to be published this fall. And because he wrote it as a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Loury and Woodson say they will end their own (unpaid) association with AEI.
And just what is it D’Souza has done? He has written (though he would deny it most vehemently) a defense of racism. Slavery wasn’t all that bad a deal for black folk, and besides, there was nothing racial about it. Segregation was created by the Southern ruling class “to protect blacks.” Only “an infinitesimal fraction of the black population” was lynched. And as for the lower status of blacks in the American society and elsewhere, he suggests that “a natural hierarchy of racial abilities would predict and fully account for such” a phenomenon.
Why should any of this make such a special problem for Woodson and Loury that they feel compelled to step forward in denunciation? Because D’Souza uses these notions to support his opposition to affirmative action programs, his belief that racism is greatly exaggerated as the explanation of the black plight and his contention that blacks must learn to look inward for solutions to the worst of their problems–all views that Woodson and Loury have for years been urging.
Some of us for a decade or more have been trying to get a reasoned discussion in our own community concerning the dysfunctional behavior–the fratricide–that is threatening to destroy us,” Woodson said in a joint interview with Loury. “We’ve been making a case that continuing to look to external solutions to internal problems prevents us from addressing what Glenn has called `the enemy within.’
“These are delicate arguments to make, given the racial hostility still within our society. For D’Souza to take these same points and turn them into an anti-black pejorative threatens to make us look like racial hustlers who don’t want to see change.”
Loury agrees. “I don’t disagree with everything D’Souza has to say,” he points out, “but the intemperate, irreverent, insulting way in which his book is written so offends me. . . . There’s no need for us to have a press conference on this man’s book except as self-defense. We have stuck our necks out saying what we believe is important for black people to hear, and we have paid a price. We’ve been called `Uncle Toms,’ which we are not. But to be silent in the face of this book, written by a conservative colleague, would make us Uncle Toms.”
(Loury ultimately severed ties with the right; a 2002 New York Times profile briefly discussed the role The End of Racism played in his decision to walk away from wingnut world.)
The End of Racism was a sick, sad effort to convince large segments of the public that African-Americans were somehow beyond redemption and a net liability to the country. D’Souza argued, in effect, that black lives didn’t matter. We saw the consequences of the D’Souza vision in Florida in 2000. We saw the consequences of the D’Souza vision in Louisiana in 2005. We saw the consequences of the D’Souza vision in Missouri in 2014. We saw the consequences of the D’Souza vision in Maryland in 2015.
It’s a shame that D’Souza got away with the moral crime of giving racism a seat at the head of the American political and cultural table…although, if you believe in karma, he didn’t really get away with it. After all, twenty years ago, D’Souza was a right-wing wunderkind, the future of conservative punditry, the next William F. Buckley. Today, he’s nothing more than a truly awful documentary filmmaker, a disgraced former college president and, shall we say, a conservative of conviction.
Dinesh D’Souza will never, ever apologize for having written that bombastic black-bashing book two decades ago. Instead of actually trying to end racism, he attempted to keep it going for as long as humanly possible. What a sad legacy.