Why Black Moderates Awoke The Woke
The backlash to progressive Wokeism, or victimology, has been brewing for years. Why did black moderates tip it over the edge?
From left to right: John McWhorter, author, Woke Racism; Marcus Arbery, father of Ahmaud; San Francisco Mayor London Breed; New York Mayor-elect Eric Adams; former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter
For a period of time last year it felt as though everything having to do with race, crime, and policing had changed. The killing of George Floyd, and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests, resulted in a broad and intense reaction from from every major institution in American life. Mayors and city councils of San Francisco, Oakland, New York, and Los Angeles acted to defund the police. Senator Elizabeth Warren effectively ended the brief and expensive presidential run of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg at their only debate through a single, devastating attack on his police department’s use of “stop and frisk,” a policy widely viewed by progressives as racist. And sweeping federal legislation on policing and criminal justice reform seemed inevitable, not least because President Joe Biden promised it.
Today, that time seems very far away. Police reform died in the Senate in September for lack of bipartisan support, a significant loss for progressive criminal justice reformers and the Biden Administration. After homicides rose in 2020, San Francisco, Oakland, New York, Los Angeles, and most other cities that had acted to defund the police reversed themselves. Homicides rose 30% in 2020 and will rise in two-thirds of America’s big cities in 2021; at least 13 cities will break homicide records, with Philadelphia coming in number one with 545 as of today. And some of the strongest voices for a crackdown on crime are New York Mayor-elect, Eric Adams, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, and former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, who are all black and moderate Democrats.
Those black moderate elected officials will be the first to point out that racism, racial disparities, and police violence still plague our criminal justice system and should be addressed. Police are 50 percent more likely to use nonlethal physical force on black people than white people. Black Americans are more likely to be wrongly convicted of murder, rape, and drug crimes, to be incarcerated longer for the same crimes, and to be convicted to life without parole for nonviolent offenses, than whites. And blacks are more likely to receive higher bail requirements for the same crime, to be offered plea bargains that include jail time, and to be incarcerated while waiting for trial, than whites.
But the officials are all also demanding stricter policing and criminal justice measures to reduce crime. In November, New Yorkers elected former police captain Eric Adams on an agenda to crack down on crime including by returning to stop-and-frisk (Adams calls it “stop, question, and frisk”). Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter was so enraged by District Attorney Larry Krasner’s outright denial that there was a homicide crisis that he denounced him in The New York Post and on CNN; Krasner issued an emotional apology. And, after San Francisco Mayor London Breed last week called for a crackdown on crime and drug dealing, saying that 90 to 95 percent of San Franciscans are being impacted by it, progressives admitted, after nearly 18 months of gas-lighting the public, that San Francisco is, indeed, experiencing a crime wave.
The backlash by black moderates on crime is aided by the rapidly growing backlash against cancel culture and “Woke” progressivism. Witness the mainstream embrace of Woke Racism, a slashing liberal polemic against progressive “anti-racism,” by Columbia University linguist John McWhorter. Progressives had in the past been hostile or dismissive of McWhorter’s longer, more evidence-driven books, Losing the Race (2000) and Winning the Race (2001). (“McWhorter stirs the waters,” sniffed a New York Times review of Losing the Race. “Unfortunately, he does not clarify much in the process.”) But over the last few weeks The New York Times, MSNBC, PBS, CNN, and even the liberal hosts of “The View” gave Woke Racism largely positive treatment, turning it into a best-seller, and making McWhorter, who is also now a New York Times columnist, the most influential American thinker today on race.
Why is that? Why did it take black moderates to finally break the hypnotic race trance progressives fell into last year?
One Nation, Half Asleep
Former Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best
The obvious reason it took black moderates to wake up Woke white progressives is because their race creates cognitive dissonance. If there is one belief that trumps all others in Woke theology it is that we must listen to, and “center,” black voices. Adams, Breed, and Nutter are all black voices. “If I, as a black person say it,” McWhorter told PBS, “it’s harder — not impossible — to call me a racist, or white supremacist.”
But progressives have for decades dismissed, demonized, and denigrated black conservatives, such as economist Thomas Sowell, pundit Candace Owens, and California Republican gubernatorial candidate, Larry Elder, who the Los Angeles Times called “the black face of white supremacy.”
Politics today trumps race for most everyone on both Left and Right. There’s no doubt that part of the progressive attraction to Barack Obama was because he was black, but Democrats were also genuinely passionate about the things that Obama had to say. Ultimately, progressives dismiss and demonize black conservatives because they disagree with their beliefs and values, not because of their race.
As such, progressive struggle more to dismiss San Francisco Mayor Breed, New York Mayor-elect Eric Adams, former Philadelphia Mayor Nutter, and Woke Racism author McWhorter because they are Democrats and self-identified liberals or progressives who stress liberal values of compassion and care for the weak.
During the fever dream of 2020, progressives had an easier time doing so. Seattle’s progressive council in August of last year slashed the police budget, effectively demanding mass lay-offs of officers, even though the city’s black police chief, Carmen Best, had spent the last two years growing and diversifying the police force at the request of the very same council.
Wokeism was, on the one hand, too extreme. “I think a real extreme point was hit in the summer of 2020,” McWhorter told PBS. “And at this point everybody is rubbing their eyes and realizing that something went too far. Not that there’s something wrong with a racial reckoning in general. But that something went beyond what most, even ‘good people’ would consider just and fair.”
In a sense, people were right last year when they felt that everything having to do with race, crime, and policing had changed, it’s just that it wasn’t for the better. The killing of George Floyd, and the Black Lives Matter protests triggered white guilt, not real responsibility. It motivated cities to defund rather than work with the police. And it led Democrats, caught up in a Woke fury, to demand radical policing reforms they had not properly thought through.
Racism in police departments persists, but there is now more representation of black Americans among officers and commissioners. Use of force by the San Francisco Police Department declined by nearly half between 2016 and 2020. And racism in police violence is today heavily outweighed by other much larger factors, such as the degree to which police have been properly trained and managed, and the power of police unions to block necessary reforms.
In fact, there is wide variation between American counties when it comes to racial disparities in the rate of police shootings, and those differences could not be attributed to different crime rates. “Does racism play a role?” asked University of California, Berkeley, criminologist, Frank Zimring, who has been studying and writing about homicides for more than fifty years. “You bet. Is it the dominant force in explaining American lethal violence by police? No.”
Progressives overstated how much social workers could replace police officers in the same way they overstated how much they could replace psychiatric hospitals in the 1960s. “I don’t want to go out on calls with just another social worker,” a social worker wearing a bullet proof vest in Colorado told me this summer. “It’s too dangerous. I like being with a police officer.” Over 95 percent of all police calls in Denver require a police officer, not a social worker.
As a result, Wokeism became the thing it set itself up to fight. In the name of dismantling inequities, Wokeism seeks unequal treatment of different social groups by courts, universities, and business, and other societal institutions. In the name of caring for the poor, Wokeism tears down the institutions required for their care and protection, from psychiatry to policing to probation. And in the name of saving black lives, Wokeism lost them.
The antidote can be found near the poison. After a jury found two white men guilty of killing 25 year-old Ahmaud Arbery, I expected his father, Marcus Arbery, with Rev. Sharpton watching over him, would lace into white supremacy and structural racism. Instead, Arbery said, “All lives matter. I don’t want no daddy to watch his kid get shot down like that.”
Black moderates have broken through to a mass audience by speaking to basic values that transcend racial and political identities. McWhorter said he felt an moral obligation to defend the academics, journalists, and other intellectuals who were and are being unjustly persecuted by Woke mobs. Breed, Nutter, and Adams are trying to protect people from crime and violence. And Arbery wants to value all lives.
Afterwards, some argued that what Arbery had really said was “All life matter[s].” Either way, the meaning of his remarks is the same. “It’s all our problem,” he said. “So let’s keep fighting to make this a better place for all human beings. Love everybody! All human beings need to be treated equally.” His words touched a nerve. After I shared a video of Arbery on Twitter it went viral. It has to date been seen over seven million times.
Why, in the end, did black moderates wake up the Woke? Because they appealed to the noble values of life, love, and equality, whereas Wokeism appeals to base anger and the primitive demand for retribution.
The Key Ps: Policing, Psychiatry, and Probation
New York Mayor-elect Eric Adams and San Francisco Mayor London Breed
As satisfying as it has been to watch black moderates push back against Woke orthodoxy in the liberal news media, the backlash should also inspire a serious rethinking of criminal justice reform. Crime and homicides are rising, partly in response to anti-police advocacy, and could rise further in 2022. Police are demoralized and many big cities are suffering from a shortage of officers. And high levels of distrust between mayors, police chiefs, and district attorneys are undermining efforts to improve public safety.
Progressive criminal justice advocates are powerful and well-financed. In San Francisco, radical progressives are mobilizing against Mayor Breed’s request for emergency powers to address open drug markets and hundreds of drug deaths per year simply because it involved law enforcement. In New York City, progressives on the city council are opposing plans by Mayor-elect Adams to restore the aggressive policing that was crucial to reducing homicide rates to one-third the level in violent cities like Minneapolis, Chicago, and Philadelphia today. George Soros and other major donors contribute millions to push the entire criminal justice system in one, often counterproductive, direction.
But new black voices are emerging to support black moderates. “When law enforcement kills us we're in a major uproar, as we should be,” an Oakland rapper called Mistah F.A.B. told Betty Yu of KPIX (CBS) television. “But why are we silent when members of our community kill members of our community? My children have to grow up in this. If somebody don't make a change, it's only gonna get worse.”
Wokeism is still with us, but the trance has broken. The same L.A. Times columnist, Erika Smith, who called Larry Elder “the black face of white supremacy,” reported last week that a defund the police activist in L.A. fears gun threats at her child's school and that a defund activist in Oakland is so scared she removes her jewelry before pumping gas. Smith, who last year called for defunding the police, wrote that, today "even Black Americans" don’t want to defund the police.
The vote today by San Francisco Board of Supervisors on Mayor Breed’s request for emergency powers to deal with open air drug dealing and drug overdose deaths in the Tenderloin neighborhood will be close. Progressive Supervisor Rafael Mandelmann told me earlier this week he would vote for it. Breed needs six votes, has five in hand, has three no votes, with three supervisors on the fence. Whatever happens with the emergency declaration, there will be many votes still to come as San Francisco suffers from one of the worst open drug scenes in history.
The most important thing going forward is for black moderates to build a societal consensus around how to address the problem. Moving toward a more European approach on drugs and crime, which progressive have long said they want, requires not moving away from policing, psychiatry, and probation, but rather embracing them in proven and practical ways.
Better policing and effective probation strategies, including drug testing and electronic monitoring, can significantly prevent and reduce crimes, including homicides. Being under surveillance outside of prison is better, in many situations, than being in prison, for both the criminal, his family, and the public. Highways and city streets are already public spaces and so it is reasonable to allow police departments have camera surveillance so they can deter crimes including homicides, as Mayor Breed has requested.
And shutting down drug dealing and treating the mentally ill are two places of broad agreement among liberals and conservatives. North Carolina, Vermont, and five European cities show that open drug scenes can be shut down without mass arrest or incarceration. But law enforcement must be a full partner, not junior partner, with social services. A kind of blurring of styles occurs when this works well, with strict cops acting like soft social workers and soft social workers acting like strict cops.
As for dealing with America’s broader drug crisis, which killed over 100,000 people this year, it will require universal, easy-to-access psychiatric and addiction care, and that we get over radical libertarian objections to coercion, particularly when addicts are breaking laws.
In a sense, the feeling last year that many positive things could change on race and crime wasn’t wrong, it was just early. For the death of George Floyd, the protests, and the many homicides of the last two years to have a positive meaning, they should inspire a turn toward better psychiatry, policing, and probation. “The question should not be whether or not police are allowed to confront suspects,” said Adams, “it should be about how we train them. The question should not be whether we have police; it should be how we use them.”
The same could be said of every other major institution in American life.