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The Politics of Tribal Nonsense

A tidal wave of blatant falsehoods presented as terrifying truth intends to overwhelm fact-based analysis in service of a new kind of regressive, conspiracy-mongering politics

Wilfred Reilly
November 15, 2023

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In August of 2023, a criminology professor named Eric Stewart of Florida State University was fired for, at the very least, “extreme negligence” in his research praxis. Six of the tenured academic’s publications were formally retracted, most by major journals like Law & Society Review and Criminology. The withdrawn papers are likely to be followed by further retractions. The ivory tower scandal broke after former graduate student Justin Pickett “blew the whistle on his research” four years ago.

This wonky-sounding dispute between two gentlemen of letters in fact matters a great deal to public discourse. Stewart’s faked studies included explosive claims that American whites—presumably including jurors—“wanted longer sentences for Blacks and Latinos accused of crimes” than for Caucasians; that conservatives are on average more racist than liberals; and that the “legacy of lynching” continues to measurably influence perceptions of Black crime today.

These arguments were hardly made in obscurity. According to Google Scholar, Dr. Stewart is one of the most cited figures in all of Criminology, with 8,673 total citations and 3,965 citations (as of Nov. 14) since 2018. As the New York Post noted, Stewart was named one of the American Society of Criminology’s four highly distinguished criminologists in 2017 (the society selects only as many as five fellows annually). It is no exaggeration to say that Stewart did more than almost anyone to popularize the purely academic idea of systemic racism—and much of what he said was simply not true.

The iconic narratives used to prop up the “continuing oppression narrative” have an odd habit of turning out to be false, and the reaction in U.S. cities to Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre is the latest example of the same phenomenon. A curious feature of this process is the interchangeability of both the iconography and the rhetoric of various street-action movements demanding redress for different identity groups. The stock of common slogans, brandished with religious fervor, share a peculiar quality in common: They bear no relation to reality.

Take the use of the word genocide. Over the past month, claims by pro-Palestinian mobs of an Israeli “genocide” in Gaza mirror long-standing claims of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, for example, that U.S. police are perpetrating a “genocide” of African Americans. Both forms of sectarian group mobilization in America rely on conspiracism and falsehoods, and on the participation of the media in enforcing a hierarchy of victimhood. Insofar as this sectarian narrative is officially sanctioned, it is presented not only as reflecting the lofty ideals and values of what it means to be American, but also as indisputable empirical truth.

The emblem of the BLM narrative, the May 2020 death of George Floyd, is a case study in why language is important and how lying corrodes public trust and the health of our national discourse. It is useful, then, to revisit the considerable evidence that has emerged recently, which indicates that even the widely accepted account of Floyd’s death is possibly false, or at the very least incomplete.

The iconic narratives used to prop up the ‘continuing oppression narrative’ have an odd habit of turning out to be false.

A full and unredacted version of Floyd’s primary autopsy report notes simply that Minnesota’s Hennepin County medical examiner identified “no injuries of … muscles of neck or laryngeal structures” that would indicate strangulation or any other “life-threatening injuries.” Further, it notes, Floyd had taken a potentially life-threatening dose of “11 ng/mL” of fentanyl.

A deposition in relation to a sex discrimination lawsuit filed by former Hennepin County prosecutor Amy Sweasy against former County Attorney Mike Freeman revealed remarkably frank statements by county officials in 2020. Under oath, Sweasy disclosed that, the day after Floyd’s death, Hennepin County Medical Examiner Dr. Andrew Baker told her “there were no medical findings that showed any injury to the vital structures of Mr. Floyd’s neck. There were no medical indications of asphyxia or strangulation.”

Whether Floyd’s death was literally a homicide or not—at the very least, a cop charged with corralling an overdosing suspect should have called in the EMTs rather than continue to restrain him—there was never much evidence that a racist cop was out to murder a Black man. In reality, Derek Chauvin was an urbanite in an interracial marriage, and the team of officers sent out to respond to the initial complaint against Mr. Floyd included two minority cops in addition to two whites. Without calling into question the ultimate verdict in Chauvin’s case, we can simply observe that his case is the one typically considered the gold standard when it comes to hard evidence for the ongoing “genocide against colored people” in the United States.

And most other BLM martyr cases collapse even more quickly. Jacob Blake, probably the second-best-known innocent victim of police violence of the past few years, turned out to be an alleged rapist who returned to his victim’s house after she told him not to, and he held a knife as he resisted arrest after she called the cops on him. Michael Brown, the “gentle giant” of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” was a violent felon who robbed a popular minority-owned business on camera an hour before struggling with a police officer for his gun, resulting in his shooting. So unambiguous was the justification for Brown’s shooting that the Justice Department of President Barack Obama cleared the officer, with Obama himself stating that he had “full confidence” in the decision.

Even the less lethal, sometimes more amusing stories that nevertheless contribute to the false sense of all-consuming racial tensions in America typically turn out to be hoaxes or nothing burgers. The actor Jussie Smollett famously faked his own beating. The Covington Catholic kids were, if anything, the victims of the stupid confrontation that made them famous. None of the middle-class civilization-maxxing white women accused of being “Karens” did much of anything wrong; one of them turned out to be a pregnant nurse absurdly accused of jacking a bicycle from five fighting-age Black men. And so forth.

With regard to police violence, during the fairly typical year of 2015 that I reviewed in depth for my book Taboo: 10 Facts You Can’t Talk About, the total number of fatal police shootings nationwide was 999. Of those, 258 (26 percent) of the victims were African American, which seems low given our younger average age and higher crime rate, and exactly 17—across roughly 60 million police-citizen encounters—involved unarmed Black men shot by white cops. Since that year, the negligible total has remained stable or even improved somewhat: 2022 data from The Washington Post’s “Killed by Police: Fatal Force” project indicates that exactly 12 unarmed Black citizens were shot and killed that year, by police officers of all races.

Data on interracial crime—often discussed on social media as though it involved a constant wave of “Barbecue Beckys,” “Pool Patrol Paulas,” “Dog Park Divas,” and similar harridans physically and verbally assaulting completely innocent Black taxpayers—also provides no support for the idea of ongoing systemic racism. In reality, once we break out the national crime report of the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ National Crime Victimization Survey, and focus on a representative year, “classic” inter-race crime (violent crimes involving a Black person and a white person) is revealed both to be only about 3 percent of crime—and more than 80 percent Black-on-white. During 2018–19 (the last year to include all major races as both victim and offender categories), there was a combined total of only 607,726 violent index crimes involving both Blacks and whites—out of roughly 20 million total crimes—and 547,948 were Black-on-white while just 59,778 were white-on-Black.

Even more detailed and serious claims of “systemic racism” tend to collapse when analyzed using any sort of modern empirical modeling technique. Years back, the well-regarded econometrician June O’Neill reviewed the 15+ percent gap in annual earnings that exists between white and Black men in the United States—almost universally attributed to racism—and noted that this shrinks to 1 to 2 percent when professional adjustments are made for variables like age, region of residence, and any board test or IQ test score.

As a once fairly apolitical Dinesh D’Souza noted back in 1996, it simply makes no sense to notice that a young Black man living in rural Mississippi makes less money year-over-year than an old white man living in Manhattan, and attribute this to “racism.” What does a young white man living in rural Mississippi make, comes the question? For that matter, did both Mississippians go to the University of Mississippi, or did one attend Directional Crawdad State and suffer financially afterward? Seems relevant, as the kids might say.

All of these are relatively simple and obvious points, which raises another question: Why are people in the “systemic racism” debate so often so reluctant to make them? My older cousin Glenn Loury has a good three-word answer to this question: “presumption of inferiority.”

From Ibram X. Kendi over to the dissident “alt-right,” a surprisingly common claim in American high- and upper-middlebrow discourse is that the only two factors that can plausibly explain large gaps in group performance are basically racism (however vague or subtle) and genetic inferiority. To quote Jared Taylor, who arguably founded the alt-right: Good liberals fear relaxing their vigilant belief in racism as the universal explanation for sky-high Black rates of, say, crime or fatherlessness, because doing so “leaves the door open for a possibility too dangerous to be countenanced.”

In fact, this binary argument is fatally simplistic. In reality, a third and superior “Thomas Sowell Alternative” exists: Dozens of social and cultural factor variables, including details such as daily hours of study time, explain group performance means and performance gaps. Two of the factors O’Neill examined—median age and regional culture—obviously have pretty much nothing to do with genetics, or indeed with racism. Even the third, test scores by group, correlates heavily with the amount of time members of different populations spend hitting the books and working with tutors—with Asian-Americans unsurprisingly spanking African-Americans 3:1 and whites roughly 2:1 against these metrics.

This logically obvious “culturalist” point is lavishly supported by hard data: Many of the most troubling contemporary problems are entirely modern in their origins, and essentially did not exist for any group in the recent past, when racism was far worse and the U.S. population was more genetically similar. The African American birth rate outside of marriage was roughly 11 percent in 1938, for example, while it is 69 percent today. The rate has surged from 4 percent to 36 percent among whites in the same period. Similarly, homicides across all races jumped from 8,640 in 1963 to 24,530 30 years later. The murder rate holds relatively steady today following substantial increases during the peak of the BLM era.

Problematic patterns like this have trackable causes, which, in 2023, are quite unlikely to include ubiquitous racism. Fortunately, they also have public policy solutions—typically quite logical and time-tested ones. To have any hope of enacting them, though, we first need to move beyond the illiterate sloganeering and made-for-TikTok street-protest mentality which is once again dominating the discourse.

Wilfred Reilly, a political science professor at Kentucky State University, is the author of Taboo: 10 Facts You Can’t Talk About.