I think it was Eugene Volokh who once wrote that sometimes societies panic over the things they have the fewest reasons to worry about. In Victorian England, there was widespread concern about the loosening of sexual mores at a time of widespread chastity. I’ve long believed that America is suffering from a similar panic about bigotry and racism. Yes, yes, bigotry and racism still exist (See, Bundy, Cliven). But they are arguably at the lowest ebb in American history.
And yet, there’s a sense of almost witch-hunty panic over “white supremacy” in our culture. I think there are lots of reasons for this. One explanation: When you have a black president and then discover that the presidency isn’t nearly as powerful as you thought or hoped it would be (or that the specific black president isn’t that great at the job) the cognitive dissonance pushes you to develop conspiratorial theories about the “real” reason for his failures.
Another reason is that liberalism hasn’t figured out a moral vocabulary that doesn’t depend on the fight against slavery and Jim Crow. I am amazed how, on every campus I go to, no matter what the subject, liberal kids — not to mention their professors and my debate partners — can only internalize and conceptualize arguments about political morality and action in relation to the black civil-rights narrative. That’s a hugely important narrative. But it is not a tesseract providing an infinite and invincible moral power to every claim under the sun. Take for example, Chris Hayes’s argument in The Nation that the fight against fossil fuels is an analogue to the fight to end slavery. To my mind, this is quite simply crazy talk, as Tim Cavanaugh brilliantly explains here. But I have no doubt Hayes sincerely believes it, which in a way is far more troubling.