The cult of white liberal race-deniers: David Brooks, Sandra Bland and race denying at its worst

David Brooks chastises Coates for grimness, as if for every devil there's an angel. Where was Sandra Bland's angel?

Published July 21, 2015 5:15PM (EDT)

David Brooks, Sandra Bland
David Brooks, Sandra Bland

I have been late getting to David Brooks’ column on Ta-Nehisi Coates, “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White.”   I was absorbed by the case of Sandra Bland, the young black woman who was found dead in a Texas jail cell, supposedly by her own hand.  For many, this seems highly implausible, given the fact that she had just landed her dream job at her alma mater and had displayed no signs of depression or poor health, except for the arm that was likely broken or fractured during her arrest.  So the thought Bland would or even could kill herself seems incredible.

When I did finally approach Brooks’ column it was with the usual sense of dread; I was particularly not in the mood for his well-established self-satisfaction, his pompousness, his condescension wrapped in smugness.  Indeed, his “critique” of Coates did not stray from his usual style.  As is by now well known, he chastises Coates for painting too grim a picture of America.  Sure, there are problems, but there is a neat equilibrium:

I think you distort American history. This country, like each person in it, is a mixture of glory and shame. There’s a Lincoln for every Jefferson Davis and a Harlem Children’s Zone for every K.K.K. — and usually vastly more than one. Violence is embedded in America, but it is not close to the totality of America.

That is to say, there is an angel for every devil.  But, I wondered, what does that mean in practical terms? Where were the angels in Bland’s cell?  She was held in the custody of the police. In this case the relevant definition of “custody” would be:

Imprisonment.  “My father was taken into custody.” Synonyms: Care, guardianship, charge, keeping, safekeeping, wardship, responsibility, protection.

So it was the duty of the police not to have suicide be even a possibility.  What effective angels can blacks rely on to protect them from devils? What positive structures of justice serve them, as compared to the corrupt systems of injustice that we found so profoundly and thoroughly documented in Ferguson, Missouri, for example?  Having all this on my mind, I rather doubted Brooks’ column was going to have any answers, and I was right.

As I thought of responding to Brooks I was filled with both anger and frustration.  What could I possibly say that would penetrate his hermetically sealed, sanitized and utterly complacent version of race relations in America?  Furthermore, what could I say that a host of other commentators had not already said?

Then it suddenly struck me.  Even the best critiques of Brooks make the same mistake I would've made. They go too far in treating Brooks as if he were a rational human being, open to reason, evidence, argumentation.  I came to realize that nothing can or will dislodge him or others like him from their privilege; they lack the authentic humility to give up one iota of their self-righteousness, for in so doing they would concede an ounce of power.  And here I am broadening my focus beyond David Brooks to that sizable portion of the white liberal class who simply don’t and won’t get race in America.  Of course it’s not only whites, but it is predominantly whites, for obvious reasons: They have historically had the most to gain and retain by hanging on to a particular version of American history.

Let me put this bluntly: The obdurate insistence on the part of white liberal race-deniers that things are ultimately for the best, that all it takes is time and patience and a wider appreciation of what makes America great, no matter what mountains of evidence to the contrary you lay before them, has all the aspects of cult behavior.  I have the same sense in addressing people who hold these beliefs as I do when I answer my door only to have some literature or another thrust at me that will supposedly save my soul or make me happy.

Let me hasten to add that I am being descriptive, not prescriptive.  I am sure there are several very fine cults out there.

But white liberal race-deniers are a particularly destructive cult because what they do or don’t do affects us all.  The effects of their views are not confined to their churches, covens, bunkers.  They hold political and economic power. They control the distribution of social benefits and entitlements. They serve on juries that assign guilt or innocence.  But they are not a reality-based community.  Consider the standard features of cults, and the ways liberal race-deniers manifest those features:

• Ahistorical, or “historical” only insofar as that “history” narrates the gradual and inevitable unfolding of their version of history, a history that ultimately vindicates them.  Brooks’ column is a classic example of insisting on an American history that is partial, in every sense of the word. Inconvenient truths are either omitted, or greatly reduced in number or significance. (“Well maybe, but that only happens in the South or big cities, or rarely.”)  Here’s Brooks' version of American history, and the future to be cherished:

In your anger at the tone of innocence some people adopt to describe the American dream, you reject the dream itself as flimflam. But a dream sullied is not a lie. The American dream of equal opportunity, social mobility and ever more perfect democracy cherishes the future more than the past. It abandons old wrongs and transcends old sins for the sake of a better tomorrow.

It’s easy for him to tell blacks to “abandon old wrongs and old sins,” but note that Brooks has nothing to say about current wrongs and sins, that very reality that makes it totally irrational to expect blacks and other victims of “wrongs and sins” to drop their grievances and sign on to his program.  This shows again the bad faith of his opening statement, about his ostensibly getting “an education” (and a humbling one at that).  Utter bullshit.

• Irrational, or, again, “rational” only in terms of a self-enclosed system of references.  Consider the reliance on personal anecdote, or references to close friends’ experiences, or hypothetical actions one would have taken were one in the position of someone victimized by racism.  (“Well, I’ve never seen any blacks abused”; “And neither have my friends, and some of them are black”; “Well, if a cop stopped me I am sure I would be courteous and lawful—why can’t blacks be that way?”).

This dream is a secular faith that has unified people across every known divide. It has unleashed ennobling energies and mobilized heroic social reform movements. By dissolving the dream under the acid of an excessive realism, you trap generations in the past and destroy the guiding star that points to a better future.

Again, note how Brooks gatekeeps the data that is going to be considered, measuring the precise amount of “realism” to be accommodated in his system of belief before it spills out into “excess.”  It is easy to see that “excess” is calibrated based on the tolerance (or intolerance) of this cult’s system of belief; what presents a danger to its core beliefs has to be excised, delegitimized.

• Self legitimizing.  The hermetically sealed, evidence-rejecting nature of cults is aimed, as is their “historical” vision, to grant weight and stature to their belief system.  The sheer accumulation of “facts” is an important element in cults, as the more they can produce, the more “real” or “actual” their cult seems. But note how by being so selective the evidence is all weighed in a specific direction.

• Sense of persecution.  To intensify belief cults need to name an external threat.  Their irrationality is legitimated by a survival ethos.  Here it’s simple: This cult is persecuted by politically correct, hypersensitive people who “see race everywhere.”  Thus the naysaying Coates who dares to challenge the American Dream that anchors Brooks’ cultish version of reality has to be reprimanded and contained.

• Sense of being misunderstood.  This is a gentler but no less powerful aspect of the sense of persecution. “Why did they take it that way?  I certainly did not mean to be a racist!”  gives way to “How dare they?”  Here is Brooks: “I read this all like a slap and a revelation. I suppose the first obligation is to sit with it, to make sure the testimony is respected and sinks in. But I have to ask, Am I displaying my privilege if I disagree? Is my job just to respect your experience and accept your conclusions? Does a white person have standing to respond?”  In other words, you have deprived me of my voice.  I can’t say anything right, Brooks whines pitifully.  And so, I will simply take my ball and go home: “Maybe you will find my reactions irksome. Maybe the right white response is just silence for a change.” Note that offer is made in a tone of sour grapes, not respect, and his compliment at the end seems no more sincere than his acknowledgment of his “education” at the start of his piece.

• Pitying and then damning others not of the faith.  Pity gives way to anger when others are resistant or critical.  Condescension (“I am sorry you feel that way, but I think you are overreacting”) gives way to false pity (“It must be hard having to react all the time every time you think someone is attacking you”); to anger (“It’s actually people like you who are racist—if you only stopped being so negative you’d see how good you actually have it”).

• Core teachings radiate out to a universal dimension.  This is the most pernicious one.  For no matter what we are talking about—education, healthcare, employment, the liberal apologist cult keeps a shell game afloat.  Any deficit anywhere is compensated for by a supposed positive someplace else.  This is complemented by a temporal dimension: Eventually we will have a uniform system of justice. In the meanwhile, accept my vision that liberalism is the best, in fact the only, solution for racism.

But as much as David Brooks’ column gives us a chance to see the white liberal race-denying cult at its best and worst, it would be a mistake to confine our sense of this cult merely to its epicenter.  We should remain alert to the fact that even self-professed “progressives” can exhibit some of the same behaviors.  For example, the disgraceful performances of Mike O’Malley and Bernie Sanders at last week’s Netroots Nation (#NN15) event in Phoenix:

Black Alliance for Just Immigration national coordinator Tia Oso, and Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors each briefly occupied the stage to draw attention to critical issues related to structural racism in America. Cullors acknowledged that while she took no pleasure in shutting down the discussion between Vargas and O’Malley, she felt compelled to, because she contended:

We are in a state of emergency. If you do not feel that emergency, then you are not human. I want to hear concrete action plans.

O’Malley’s response was “of course” black lives matter, followed by “all lives matter,” effectively erasing the specific ways black lives in particular are targeted by both structural and informal racist violence in all shapes and forms.  Sanders scolded the demonstrators, brusquely made reference to his legacy of civil rights work, and threatened to leave the stage, and then plowed ahead with his prepared remarks.

Yes, he did very briefly mention the issue of rates of black incarceration and unemployment, but his message never faltered—it’s the economy.  Sanders stubbornly stayed on message, refusing to break pace, to even acknowledge the state of emergency that Cullors put before him.  Because for Sanders, that emergency had to take a back seat to the one he cared about.  But at a time when blacks are found hanging in jail cells, slaughtered as they pray in churches, summarily executed on the streets, it is hard to offer the promise of jobs as a sufficient antidote.

If what Brooks forces in front of our eyes to distract us from the systemic attempt to suppress black lives is a pristine and untarnished “American Dream,” Sanders and O’Malley put before us insistently the salvation of economic justice.  But their words and actions at #NN15 show their one-note vision of America’s pressing problems.

What, exactly, did the protesters ask for?  Among other things, they asked O’Malley and Sanders to simply name some of the blacks whose lives have not mattered enough to keep them alive.  Neither O’Malley nor Sanders could, or would.  Of course, their publicists will work on alibis now, but the basic lack of respect and empathy they displayed in Phoenix shows that certain aspects of the white liberal race-denying cult are not limited to the soft types of the David Brookses of the world, but extend too to the ones we feel are the progressive antidotes to that mushy liberalism.

The fact of the matter is that hardcore white liberal race-deniers adamantly do not want to change their points of view.  When Brooks begins his column by saying, “The last year has been an education for white people. There has been a depth, power and richness to the African-American conversation about Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston and the other killings that has been humbling and instructive,” it’s extremely hard to take him at his word.  Because all that follows is a defensive repudiation of any “education” he might have received and in its place is his condescending preaching to Coates.  How dare Coates even offer a substantial alternative to the American Narrative as presented by David Brooks?

Brooks’ unwillingness precisely to be educated is revealed no more blatantly than in his absurd and utterly dishonest, reductive representation of Coates’ argument:  “If I do have standing, I find the causation between the legacy of lynching and some guy’s decision to commit a crime inadequate to the complexity of most individual choices.”  “Some guy”?  And who in the world is David Brooks to say anything about the “complexity” of black life?

If O’Malley and Sanders do not learn both from the sorry spectacle of David Brooks nor from their own behavior at #NN15, then true progressives owe them nothing.

So this Thanksgiving when your racist Uncle Archie sits down to have it out with your liberal Aunt Maude, and you find yourself irritated nearly equally by both of them, resist the urge to come up with one sort of intervention or another.  You may as well argue with a glass of water.  Instead, put on a warm jacket, call the dog, and take a nice brisk walk and look at the autumn leaves instead of doing what you usually do. You'll end up with lower blood pressure.

But more important, and this is the takeaway point: Join and support working coalitions doing real social justice work in the world. Argue from evidence backed with some semblance of political power and fight to get more. Forget about David Brooks, and, if they do not develop some real sensitivity to the issues they turned their backs to at #NN15, think twice about supporting O’Malley and Sanders.

This is a moment like none other in American history. The supposed “post-racial” era shepherded in by the election of Barack Obama has proven to be worse than a sham.  The GOP has no trouble at all wearing its racism on its sleeve and getting huge mileage from it. Unless the liberal wing finds an adequate, substantial and meaningful response to that racism, way beyond simply decrying it, it is in trouble. If we are supposed to support Bernie Sanders because he will move the conversation to the left, he’d damn well better develop a broader sense of who and what should be part of the conversation.  All those liberals who remain locked in denial, stuck in their cultish behavior regarding the critical issue of race and racism in America, are beyond hope.  We have to place our hope elsewhere, starting with ourselves.

By David Palumbo-Liu

David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor at Stanford University. Follow him on Twitter at @palumboliu.

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