Barry Goldwater once famously claimed that “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue,” but he was dead wrong. When it comes to securing justice generally, and social justice in particular, moderation is indispensable. Other virtues are needed, too, of course. It takes moral imagination and often physical courage to stand up against invidious discrimination and entrenched disadvantage. It takes clarity of purpose and unflagging perseverance to stick to one’s guns in the face of indifference, denial, obfuscation, and temporizing. But in the end, when it’s time to fashion workable remedies that actually produce a fairer world, there is no substitute for the moderation that cools heads, bridges differences, and hammers out compromise.

These days, however, such moderation is in short supply. The great open wound of American life—our long, ugly history of racial oppression, and the ongoing stigmas and disadvantages that attach to people of African ancestry—is once again the focus of intense national attention, especially since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year and the nationwide protests that erupted in its wake. Now another incident of police violence in the Minneapolis area, the fatal shooting of 20-year-old Daunte Wright earlier this month, is sparking new outrage and protest.

In these combustible circumstances there is strong pressure, coming from both the right and the left, to see extreme positions as the only available alternatives. On the right, the Black Lives Matter movement has been demonized to the point that any sympathy with its grievances and goals can be portrayed as pusillanimous weakness in the face of radical, anti-American anarchism. On the left, any questioning of the arguments and tactics of the most militant activists can be dismissed as morally bankrupt complicity with the evils of white supremacy.

In this essay I want to resist that pressure and articulate an intermediate position between the two extremes. I believe it is possible to do what hard-liners on both sides are united in denying: recognize the reality of entrenched racial inequity and the morally urgent need for reform, while at the same time disagreeing with some of the arguments and tactics now prominent in anti-racist activism. And not only is it possible, but here again moderation is indispensable. If there is hope that the current fraught and contentious—but politically fluid—moment can lead to real progress in race relations, I believe that it is to be found on this intermediate ground.

I want to explain how and why I’ve arrived at this intermediate position—in no small part because I know very smart people, including current and former colleagues, who see things differently. In light of that fact, I think there’s value in setting forth reasons why strong disagreement with one pole of the debate doesn’t mean you have to have to wind up at the other pole. Polarization, on racial issues as well as more generally, thrives on false dilemmas. It’s therefore useful to make clear that the highly visible and clamorous extremes are not the only choices available.

So, first things first: I side with progressives in recognizing that the disadvantaged position of Black people in American society is deeply unfair and cries out for redress. The large gaps between Black and white people on numerous measures of success and well-being—life expectancy and health, income and wealth, IQ and educational attainment, commission of and victimization by street crimes and subjection to the penal system—are all first and foremost the legacy of two-and-a-half centuries of slavery and another century of legal and social oppression. That’s not the only explanation for what’s going on, but it’s the most important one.

Blacks tend to live in highly segregated neighborhoods, where poverty is heavily concentrated and thus more easily transmissible to the next generation, where street crime is rampant and schools are lousy, and where good jobs are often far away and hard to get to—in large part because of exclusionary zoning restrictions designed to keep affluent neighborhoods lily-white. Blacks have less wealth—because, among other forms of discrimination, they were excluded from government programs to encourage homeownership. And the stigmas associated with centuries of legally subjugated status mean that Blacks face ongoing mistreatment in the present day. They continue to encounter discrimination in housing and job markets. And they suffer simultaneously from not enough protection and too much abuse at the hands of the police.

To put the matter plainly, then: The crimes of slavery and Jim Crow cannot be relegated to the past and put behind us, because their legacy lives on in deep structural disadvantages for Black people. I’m not a fan of the term “systemic racism” (I’ll explain why a little later on), but the phenomena to which it refers are absolutely real.

That reality, unfortunately, is not widely accepted among conservatives. According to a recent survey, three-quarters of Republican voters believe that discrimination against whites is now as big a problem as discrimination against African Americans. Such shameful obtuseness is of a piece with a larger pattern of beliefs on the right: On matters ranging from race to climate change to the results of the 2020 election, the conservative worldview is increasingly characterized by the willful denial of adverse facts.

But just because the right is dead wrong about American race relations doesn’t mean the left is always right. The progressive diagnosis of our racial problems may be correct, but whether all the prescriptions progressives offer will really make things better is a separate question altogether.

In particular, I see two big problems with the anti-racism arguments and tactics that have surged to prominence in recent years. First, the acutely race-conscious fashion in which they frame the relevant issues is both unnecessary and counterproductive. Second, the heavy emphasis on changing hearts and minds, rather than reforming policies and institutions, is misguided. The combined effect of these two problems is to misdirect the energies of social justice activism down pathways that are more likely to lead to backlash and empty culture war theatrics than real, positive change on the ground.

Race-conscious framing of issues

The distinctive analytical innovation associated with recent anti-racist activism is a broader, structural conception of what constitutes racism. According to longstanding usage, the word racism denotes an individual vice characterized by animus against ethnic minorities. Racist words and deeds are those that display such animus, and a racist is someone with a habit of engaging in racist speech or conduct. By contrast, the new, expanded definition of “systemic racism” locates racism not in individual hearts but in broad social structures that disadvantage racial minorities or otherwise result in less favorable outcomes for them. The newly popular term “white privilege” conveys what amounts to the other side of the same coin: Because of systemic racism, whites enjoy a privileged position that benefits them at the expense of African Americans.

With the broadened definition of racism comes a newly expansive definition of “white supremacy.” Formerly, that term was reserved for the now widely reviled doctrine of innate white superiority, while “white supremacists” described fringe groups like the Ku Klux Klan that still upheld that doctrine and portrayed themselves, to general derision, as members of the master race. Now white supremacy is used to describe the social hierarchy that encompasses white privilege and systemic racism; it refers, not to an explicit belief in white superiority, but to social structures whose effect is to leave white people disproportionately on top.

The new definitions of racism and white supremacy can serve useful analytical purposes—namely, to stress continuities between the Jim Crow era and what has followed, and to bring home the point that oppressive conditions don’t require ongoing animus to persist over time. So, in service of historical or sociological analysis, this rhetorical turn can be provocative and attention-getting yet also defensible and illuminating.

Importing such loaded terminology from academic debate into politics, however, is a recipe for disaster. The result is to portray race relations as a zone of zero-sum conflict. If the ultimate problem is “white supremacy” and its structures of “white privilege,” that suggests that white people must fall for Black people to rise. If all whites, by virtue of their whiteness, enjoy unfair advantages that derive from an artificially elevated status, it follows that equity requires whites to surrender that status and those advantages.

And the conflict suggested by the rhetoric of systemic racism isn’t just zero-sum; it’s also either-or. As the prominent anti-racist scholar Ibram X. Kendi argues, there is no such thing as being “not racist.” Being fair and decent and generous in all your personal dealings is a good thing of course, but it doesn’t let you off the hook. If you’re not actively opposing and seeking to dismantle racial disparities in American life, you’re part of the problem. According to Kendi, we face a stark, binary choice: “We’re either being racist, or we’re being anti-racist.”

This kind of framing inevitably provokes defensive reactions and backlash. Advocates for greater racial equity seek a change in the status quo, which means they need to persuade people currently content with the status quo to embrace change. And you don’t persuade many people by issuing ultimatums—here, either accepting the current left-wing anti-racist line or being complicit in monstrous evil. You certainly don’t persuade many people by insulting them—in the present case, by telling them that all white people are undeserving beneficiaries of unfair privileges.

Indeed, the whole idea of white privilege gets things upside down. The real problem we face in our country is not white privilege, but Black disadvantage. What’s wrong is that Black people have been mistreated and are suffering as a result, not that white people have it too good. Greeting the arrival of police with relief rather than fear that your life may soon end, enjoying decent schools for your kids, living in affordable housing reasonably close to work—these are the rightful expectations of all citizens in a 21st century advanced democracy, not the special perks of a ruling racial caste.

Yes, it’s true that some Black disadvantage is rooted in elite opportunity hoarding. Equity in access to housing is blocked by affluent (and mostly white) homeowners’ tenacious defense of exclusionary zoning; those incumbents do need to give up their privilege, aka “neighborhood character,” for housing opportunity to be more widely shared. But NIMBYs aren’t all white, while most of their victims are, so to cast the debate over housing and land use in terms of racial justice versus white supremacy obscures more than it reveals.

When we examine in detail the specific policies and institutions that constitute the structures of Black disadvantage, we see that the case of housing is typical. Although the policies and institutions in question harm people of color disproportionately, they are racially neutral on their face and a hefty portion of their victims are actually white. In addition to residential segregation, the primary components of what social justice activists call “systemic racism” include militarized policing, mass incarceration, bad schools, underdeveloped public health institutions, and a patchwork and difficult-to-navigate social insurance system. In all of these cases, the neglect and abuse perpetrated by the status quo extend to Americans of all races and ethnic backgrounds.

Which means that the “systemic racism” frame is not only counterproductive, but gratuitously so. It is entirely possible to mount a campaign against these structural obstacles to well-being and opportunity in unifying, positive-sum terms—to characterize reforms as good for the vast majority of Americans regardless of color, and based on the shared ideals that define America at its best.

Looking past racial divisions to make a unifying, positive-sum case for necessary reforms offers a much more promising path toward racial equity. Consider, for example, the prospects for a significant expansion and upgrading of America’s social insurance system, which would disproportionately benefit Black families since they are disproportionately represented in the bottom half of the income distribution. As pointed out recently on Slow Boring, the Substack blog run by my Niskanen Center colleague Matt Yglesias, polls show that expanding the welfare state, as well as raising taxes on the affluent to pay for it, are both widely popular—even among people skeptical of initiatives aimed explicitly at greater racial equity. According to a 2016 poll, Americans endorse the proposition that money and wealth in this country should be more evenly distributed by a 53 percent to 31 percent margin; yet of that 53 percent, 24 percent (or 45 percent of the pro-redistribution camp) also agree with the proposition that Italian, Irish, Jewish, and other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up so Blacks should do likewise. Similarly, support for raising taxes on families making more than $200,000 a year outpaces opposition by a whopping 61 percent to 27 percent margin; but out of that 60 percent, 20 percent—or a third of the pro-tax-hike constituency—see police shootings of unarmed Black men as isolated incidents rather than part of a broader pattern.

And look at the problem of residential segregation—to my mind, the single biggest contributor to the perpetuation of Black disadvantage. According to a recent poll by Vox and Data for Progress, economic arguments for relaxing restrictions on building multifamily housing are much more persuasive than appeals to racial justice. When liberalization of housing construction was touted as a way to spur economic growth, voters supported liberalization by a 47 percent to 36 percent margin. But when liberalization was framed as a way to help Black people, support fell to 44 percent while opposition rose to 43 percent. Arguing that a given policy benefits everybody is simply more persuasive, here and more generally.

The available evidence thus points strongly to the conclusion that racial equity, like happiness, is best pursued indirectly—by aiming at other goals that conduce to the desired end result rather than directly at the end result itself. In the present case, that means making broad-based cases for reforming the facially race-neutral policies that impose disproportionate harms on African Americans. This option wasn’t available, of course, for the Civil Rights Movement against Jim Crow that culminated in the 1950s and ‘60s. At that time, Black people in the South—and elsewhere—were subject to de jure discrimination to enforce segregation and concerted, systematic state action to deny voting rights. It was therefore impossible to avoid addressing head-on the injustices that oppressed African Americans because those injustices were explicitly race-conscious. Yet even so, the path to ultimate victory lay in the movement’s strong commitment to framing its struggle in positive-sum terms: to allow Black people to enjoy the same basic rights that are promised to all Americans, and to move the country into closer conformity with the founding principles that all Americans embrace.

I can understand why the counsel to pursue racial justice by indirection might be rankling. Why should those who have been wronged have to measure their words to suit the sensibilities of the ignorant and willfully blind? I agree, it’s unfair—but in this fallen world, what’s fair and what works are all too often different. And remember, the unfairness that really matters is the persistence of Black disadvantage. If you really care about addressing that problem, you must care enough to adopt the most effective arguments and tactics possible. To do otherwise is to succumb to the performative temptation—that is, to prioritize feeling good about yourself over doing good for others.

Misplaced focus on hearts and minds

The second distinctive—and dysfunctional—novelty of contemporary anti-racist activism is an outgrowth of the first. With the new, expansive definitions of racism and white supremacy has come a heightened sensitivity to and censoriousness over anything that might give racial offense. What counts as offensive has expanded as well, now including not just expressions of old-style racial animus but anything that suggests obliviousness to white privilege.

Equipped with new standards for understanding and identifying racism, people have been eager to apply those new standards to the world at large. We see this eagerness in renewed campus activism, initiatives by corporate HR departments to promote workplace diversity and inclusion, curricular changes in K-12 schools, and a seemingly endless parade of incidents and controversies on social media. Statements and actions, past and present, by public figures; video clips of or social media posts by private individuals; historical monuments and reputations; even characters from popular culture—all take turns in the dock of the roving online tribunal. And in response, a cottage industry dedicated to denouncing the excesses of “wokeness” and “cancel culture” has emerged on the right.

It’s more than a little ironic that the analytical embrace of systemic racism should go hand in hand with such intense concern with the purity of individual hearts and minds. After all, the whole point of looking at racism in systemic terms is to shift the focus away from personal failings and misdeeds and toward broader social structures of oppression instead. The idea is that these structures, and not the personal animus of particular individuals, are the real source of continuing Black disadvantage. Yet a great deal of the energy now expended in the name of anti-racism is directed toward identifying, calling out, and punishing individual malefactors. It’s as if the doctrine of the Social Gospel had spawned a massive wave of fire-and-brimstone revivalism.

The new censoriousness is hard to square, not only with the theory of systemic racism, but also with established progressive views on the relationship between culture and social structure. When conservatives posit a “culture of poverty” as one explanation for lower levels of Black socioeconomic achievement, progressives typically reject the claim and argue that it gets the causation backwards. What conservatives characterize as cultural causes of poverty—lack of stable two-parent families, weak attachment to the workforce, lack of emphasis on education—progressives see instead as consequences of deprivation and lack of opportunity. Improve Black well-being and prospects, they say, and culture will take care of itself. Yet now, even while proclaiming that the real goal is to effect deep structural change, many anti-racism activists are spending their time battling what amounts to a “culture of white privilege” —the mirror image of the right’s alleged culture of poverty.

Progressives were right before they were wrong. While I’m persuaded that certain cultural adaptations to oppression and poverty do create barriers to mobility and achievement for Black communities, the fact holds few implications for public policy. Yes, a bottom-up social movement within the Black community could reduce those barriers and empower success —but public policy lacks the capacity to summon such a movement into existence. So as progressives argue, improve the resources and opportunities available to Black communities and you will directly enhance their well-being while also pushing cultural norms in the right direction.

Likewise, if you’re worried about white obliviousness to the structural barriers that block Black advancement, your best move is to mount a direct, frontal assault on those barriers. To the extent you succeed, Black lives are improved directly while whites will have that much less to be oblivious about. Focusing instead on the problems of white culture is a distraction.

The historical record makes clear that changing white attitudes about Black people is neither necessary nor sufficient for Black progress. In the decades prior to the landmark civil rights legislation of the mid-1960s, African Americans registered huge gains in life expectancy, educational attainment, and income, notwithstanding Jim Crow in the South and endemic anti-Black prejudice nationwide. Meanwhile, since the 1970s progress in closing well-being and achievement gaps has been hard to come by, even as white attitudes have improved markedly. And today we have the spectacle of Bay Area homes adorned with impeccably inclusionary lawn signs welcoming all regardless of race, religion, or sexual identity—provided of course they can pay the obscenely inflated real estate prices caused by the exclusionary zoning that the people living inside those homes tenaciously defend.

Furthermore, it’s far from clear that the contemporary campaign against white privilege is actually effective in changing white attitudes for the better. Numerous studies of diversity, equity, and inclusion training programs show that they are generally ineffective. They don’t produce a more diverse workforce, reduce harassment and discrimination, improve cooperation and teamwork, or result in higher productivity. Indeed, they frequently provoke resentment and even end up inadvertently enforcing negative stereotypes by repeating and dwelling on them (“whatever you do, don’t think of an elephant!”).

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In leveling criticisms of contemporary anti-racist activism, I have tried to avoid anything that smacks of sensationalism or “nutpicking”—i.e., dredging up outlandish and extreme statements to put the social justice left in the worst possible light. It wasn’t for lack of opportunity, that’s for sure. My focus is on the motte, but there’s plenty of action in the bailey.

I’ve steered clear of lurid detail because I’m aware that a lot of the criticism of “wokeness” and “cancel culture” coming from the right is offered in bad faith. And indeed I’ve avoided using those terms, except in scare quotes, because they are loaded and pejorative. I do not want to be associated with ideological hit jobs, and I don’t want to offer any aid and comfort to those who stand against a fairer, more inclusive America.

My reason for taking issue with the social justice left isn’t to discredit the left generally, or to portray it as a radical and quasi-totalitarian threat. As I’ve stressed repeatedly in other writing, today illiberalism on the right is an incomparably greater menace. The main danger from illiberal excesses on the left is that they turn off potential supporters and drive them into the arms of the populist, anti-democratic right.

No, I oppose some of the arguments and tactics of anti-racism activists today even though I believe those activists have the basic diagnosis right. There are real and daunting structural barriers to Black well-being and success, and they exist as the legacy of centuries of enslavement and oppression. The problem is that some of the activists’ prescriptions—framing issues as zero-sum racial conflict, focusing intently on individual attitudes and language—are misguided and self-defeating.

If we are going to make progress in overcoming the legacy of our racist past, facing up to the existence of that legacy is essential but it’s not enough. We have to get past the performative temptation and concentrate our energies on finding remedies that will make an actual difference in real people’s lives—and then unite the broadest possible coalition behind those remedies.

To that end, moderation truly is an indispensable virtue. What defines the moderate stance generally, as well as in specific regard to race relations, is aversion to ideological absolutism and fanaticism. Social justice activists have performed a vital service in recent years by highlighting the daunting structural disadvantages that Black people are still forced to contend with. And in particular, their passion in confronting outrageous acts of police violence is both understandable and commendable. But they undermine their cause, and our country’s hopes for a better future, by reducing the messy complexities of today’s racial realities to the sweeping ideological simplification of all-encompassing systemic racism—and then, under the sway of such reductionism, regularly prioritizing the easy pleasures of claiming the moral high ground over the hard work of actually changing policy for the better. The moral passion of activists has helped us to realize just how far we really are from where we ought to be. But finding and following the path to get there will require the subtlety, self-discipline, and clear-headedness that only moderation can provide.

Photo by Nicole Baster on Unsplash