The Politics of Empty Symbolism

Every day gets crazier here in Virginia. The politics of symbolism have taken over, and real problems requiring careful analysis and sustained attention go neglected.

For an example of a festering problem with real-world consequences for African-Americans, read the previous post by Richard Hall-Sizemore. An electronic health records system would improve the quality of medical care of Virginia’s prison inmate population, which is disproportionately African-American, but the Commonwealth of Virginia has struggled for years to fund one. The obstacle has not been lack of money but the inability to sort out competing bureaucratic agendas. Meanwhile, Virginians are treated to stories like this…

Governor Ralph Northam, we read on the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch this morning, committed the cardinal sin of referring to the first Africans setting foot on Virginia soil as “indentured servants.” They were sold by Dutch slavers, but Virginia law had not yet codified slavery, so, technically, slavery did not exist. As PBS summarized the status of these Africans: “With no slave laws in place, they were initially treated as indentured servants, and given the same opportunities for freedom dues as whites.”

Del. Jeff Bourne, D-Richmond, an African-America protested Northam’s description. “Referring to the Africans who arrived here in 1619 as ‘indentured servitude’ is not how I would describe it,” he told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Northam’s use of the word “indentured servant” is entirely defensible. But Bourne could argue equally reasonably that if Virginia’s first Africans had been captured in slaver raids in Angola and had been sold by Dutch merchants as merchandise that they were, in fact slaves, regardless of their legal status in Virginia.

But what’s the point of such debate? Whom does it help?

This is an example of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t racism. Let’s imagine that Northam had referred to Virginia’s first Africans as “slaves” instead of indentured servants. Someone then could have accused him of minimizing the guilt of the colonial legislature that codified the slave laws. Africans ever-so-briefly enjoyed the same rights as white indentured servants, but those rights were subsequently snuffed out! How dare Northam fail to gloss over that injustice?

Sound far fetched? There are many examples of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t racism. When whites rejected rhythm and blues and other forms of black music as depraved, they were decried as racist (and rightfully so). But when whites began embracing black music and playing it themselves, they were accused of “cultural appropriation.”

When whites fled neighborhoods when blacks moved in, they were decried as racist. And when whites move into neighborhoods where blacks live… they are damned as gentrifiers and racists.

What’s going on? Most of the problems facing Virginia’s poor African-American community — and poor white communities, too, although they don’t generate the same attention — are highly complex, hence extremely difficult to remedy. The simple fixes have been tried and found wanting. Indeed, many programs designed to increase opportunity for poor blacks — helping them buy houses before the 2007 real estate crash, encouraging them to borrow money to attend college but failing to ensure that they graduate — have in many cases backfired. But rather than question the curative power of activist government, leftists are doubling down on racism as an explanation of what ails the country.

As long as the phenomenon of black poverty remains intractable, expect the politics of empty racial symbolism to intensify.