White Supremacy, The Red Scare, And Moral Panics

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Posted: Oct 02, 2020 9:58 AM
White Supremacy, The Red Scare, And Moral Panics

Source: AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

The convulsions of this summer have resolved themselves as simply the latest national moral panic: wildly exaggerated fears of largely imaginary horrors that gallop through the national psyche, spurring delusional theorizing and histrionics displays, but then pass without too much lasting damage. Increasing evidence suggests that we approach the passing of this panic. The passing is marked by careful attention to the claims of the panic mongers, which leads to reasoned appraisal and disgusted rejection of those mongers’ more pernicious claims.

Now comes the cleanup, and hard decisions about how to impede future panics. Particularly relevant here is this panic’s fairly unique capture of so much of the corporate world, and how to respond to that.

To see how the great “White Supremacy/Systemic Racism” panic of 2020 fits the model, compare it to the most famous avatar of the form: the McCarthy-driven Red Scare of the 1950s. That panic was premised on a small truth: there were some Communist spies doing terrible damage to the United States, particularly the Rosenbergs and Alger Hiss. But Senator Joe McCarthy & Co whipped this into a delusional nonsense: that Communists and Communist sympathizers had infiltrated all of American life. Once McCarthy got around to thundering that the U.S. Army had gone pink, he was confronted, denounced and broken – but not before he had destroyed some good people’s lives, demanded censorship of diverging political and social views, threatened dissent with destruction, and otherwise behaved appallingly. Under the guise of rooting out “un-American activities,” he behaved in a thoroughly un-American manner. He rightly resides on the ash heap of history.

Sound familiar?

Compare the current iteration. The kernel of truth: there is some bad police behavior that really should be reformed. There is not much evidence that it is “systemically” racially motivated, but because manufacturing this moral panic required whipping up racial animus, focus was limited to police misconduct against blacks, and active mischaracterization of many of the highlighted incidents. Evidence of police misconduct against whites – which would belie the racial angle – was suppressed. And those pointing out that, overwhelmingly, most U.S. black homicides are committed by other blacks were declared racist by the panic mongers, even though that information would be vital to know if this summer’s concerns had really been about preserving black lives rather than manufacturing the panic.

In fact, almost everything was labeled racist this year – but only for whites. Whites, the panic-makers insisted, are all racists. Given that they consider racism not just evil but greatly evil, then all whites are inherently evil because of their race. Meanwhile, only whites can be racist, because… well, the theory underlying this claim starts with discussions of power, but since the designation remains regardless of who holds power in any specific instance, what eventually remains is just the assertion: only whites are racist. Therefore, whites are uniquely and deeply evil as no other races are or can be. And while whites can never fully eradicate their racism, they can mitigate it – but only by enthusiastically endorsing any assertion or demand made by the panic mongers. And this subservience of one racial group to all others on the basis of a heritable and permanent mark of Cain is designated as “anti-racism.”

Likewise, “anti-fascism” has been characterized by black-shirted hordes burning down urban areas and attacking those who dare gainsay them, while demanding abolition of the institutions charged with stopping their paramilitary mobs from destroying civil society. It includes a white-collar auxiliary that demands that political opponents be destroyed, professionally and personally, while the modern-day equivalent of libraries enact 2020 versions of book burnings of dissenting opinions.

So, yes: moral panic. But the spell is passing. Public support for the panic mongers and their institutions has collapsed, and the groups themselves have begun hiding their beliefs and, inevitably, lying about what they so recently proudly proclaimed. BLM has hidden its “about” page. And the author of the 1619 Project denies clear past assertions that 1619 was the effective foundation of our Republic, on grounds that slavery is the central and defining fact of America.

Hopefully these signs are correct. We can ensure the panic’s passing by speaking the truth about the pernicious doctrines powering the panic: despite the adorable deployment of “anti,” these theories and tactics are deeply racist and fascist, and must be so named. If, by Christmas, the goodhearted but misguided dabblers in this summer’s fit of madness have scrubbed their social-media accounts of their one-time support, then we’ll have shaken this moral-panic attack.

One fairly novel facet of this panic: many businesses either shamelessly flirted with or overtly embraced the organizations pushing the panic, and by extension their beliefs. This is new and deeply worrisome. Some organizations that adopted mandatory self-denunciation sessions for white employees or discriminatory speech policies, or that otherwise endorsed racism and created racially hostile workplaces, have run enormous reputational risks and raised the possibility of significant legal costs.

Let’s leave cancellation on the ash heap of history along with McCarthy and McCarthyism, both the 1950s version and the 2020 revival. But companies must consider carefully whether corporate leaders who agreed to, or even led, the embrace of pernicious doctrines with insufficient prudence might not better serve those firms in positions where their poor judgment cannot so vastly endanger the companies. And they will have to consider safeguards to ensure that such risks will not be taken so glibly in future. These should include giving the legal departments more veto power over the social-media, PR, and charitable-giving departments; and making sure that there is wide and deep diversity of viewpoint in all departments companywide. Some employees who not only vaguely understand the viewpoints of the right half of this country, but in fact share them and are able to express them without fear of retribution, could have saved a lot of companies a lot of headache, embarrassment and risk.  

Scott Shepard is a fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research and Deputy Director of its Free Enterprise Project.