Civilization. Civility. Civics. These noble words are all derived from the Latin word for “city.” Historically, it has been in cities that most people first encountered people very different from themselves—who spoke other languages, had skin of another shade, or practiced another religion. The mark of civilization is how well we come to recognize the humanity of those whom we find alien, how willing we are to accord them the same human rights that we demand for ourselves and families. Our first lesson in empathy, in moving beyond the narcissism of the nursery, is to learn to love the members of our family. We expand our sympathies next to our schoolmates, and then to our neighbors. Later on, we extend our loyalty and respect to ever larger units of community, until at last we develop a healthy patriotism and love for our countrymen, and a generalized respect for every fellow human on the planet. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.
But things go wrong. Each of us is flawed, and continually tempted to selfishness—sometimes under the guise of groupthink and tribal loyalty. We can all too easily truncate our sympathies, cutting them off at those who don’t look or pray or think like us. When that begins to happen, communities tear themselves apart—or scapegoat the weakest people in their midst. Historically, there have been many occasions when America’s white majority acted like one enormous tribe, denying the full humanity of Native Americans or African Americans—first through the laws removing Indians and outright enslaving blacks, later through biased white juries, lynch mobs, and white race riots. The courage of the Civil Rights Movement helped awaken the Christian conscience of white America, and enshrine in our laws a full regime of protection for minorities in our country.
But civilization is never a finished product, a safe and final settlement where we can relax and enjoy ourselves. It’s a complex and fragile achievement balanced on a knife-edge, always prone to tipping over too far in one direction or another—rightward into mass tribalism, where the Nazis and other radical nationalists of the 20th century tried to lead us, or leftward into bureaucratic tyranny, as Communists and other socialists promote. The tribalists try to solve the problem of diversity by driving out or killing those who are different; the bureaucrats seek instead to dissolve the different groups, to destroy any intermediate institutions (family, tribe, or church) that might attract a citizen’s loyalty, leaving him lonely and naked before the power of the State. We must reject both tendencies if we wish to live both civilized and free.
In The Race to Save Our Century, we explored the foulest depths of evil to which the tribalists and utopians each led Western man in the twentieth century—claiming some 170 million murdered civilians along the way. We warned of the ongoing dangers of racialist bias and economic envy, and pointed to timeless principles of human dignity and decency around which honest people should rally, regardless of their ethnic or economic interests. Drawing on the lessons of history, we would like to offer some unsolicited advice to white and black citizens in light of the ongoing unrest in Ferguson, Missouri.
If you’re white: Resist the temptation to mindlessly side with the police against black defendants. Direct your ethnic pride to principles such as English Common Law, which presumes a citizen’s innocence and guarantees him a fair trial—not a quick and dirty death at the hands of a panicked policeman. Remember that for almost a century after 1865, the law itself was profoundly unfair to black Americans—who faced nationwide segregation, and in many states laws prohibiting them (for instance) from even commenting on the appearances of white women, enforced by bigoted lawmen and all-white juries. Think about the poverty and frustration that pervades black America today, and try to feel some human sympathy with these, your fellow Americans. Pay some attention to the inequities in sentencing laws for drugs, and the fact that too many death-row defendants are black men who could not afford decent defense lawyers.
Remember that the state is a blunt and brutal (if necessary) instrument, which acts through policemen’s pistols and the threat of decades in prison. The same big government which you resent when it pillages you through taxes or spies on your Internet use is what black teenagers face when they’re questioned by cops. Have you never seen a policeman abuse his authority, or heard of a jury verdict which seemed to you outrageous and biased? Never forget that America was founded on group resistance to the unjust and bullying actions of an unresponsive government. The Boston Tea Party was not a legal, peaceful gathering.
If you’re black: First of all, face the facts about the dysfunction in your community: Three-quarters of your kids grow up without fathers. That’s not all white people’s fault. Most black American crime victims are victims of other blacks. Again, you can’t blame whitey. Fear of black men might once have been a piece of reflexive racism, born from the guilty conscience of slave-owners—but does that explain why Jesse Jackson feels it too? Why exactly do you think that white and black policemen commit racial profiling, anyway? Are they simply trying to hassle people for fun? Or are they making broadly rational decisions, with results that are often unfair?
Do not forget the past—when white lynch mobs would hang innocent black men who didn’t make it to trial by all-white juries. But please, for your own sake as well as America’s, stop listening to the hustlers who pretend that this still how America’s criminal justice system works. What message do you think your community is sending to non-black citizens when you react to a careful legal investigation, carried on in the blinding scrutiny of international media—with a black president and attorney general looking on—by torching your own neighborhoods? Does this send the message that black citizens are equally law-abiding and responsible, and deserve the same deference from policemen as everyone else?
Such equal deference, and equal respect, is our moral and civic goal. Insofar as we fall short of that, we endanger our national health. But if we really do want a civilized community—instead of patchwork of mutually-hostile tribes—we each need to suppress the primal impulse to side with his own “kind,” to wink at injustice or violence on the part of our own “kin.” Our true tribe is the human family, whose color-blind father is God.
Jason Scott Jones and John Zmirak are authors of The Race to Save Our Century: Five Core Principles to Promote Peace, Freedom, and a Culture of Life.