An African-American friend recently told me he felt we don’t have categories to adequately describe what’s happening in the streets. He’s right. Here’s why.
Long before George Floyd, many blacks didn’t relate to much of the black experience in America. To see why, read Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America. Eugene Robinson says Black America has splintered into four subgroups – elites, mainstream, emergent, underclass.
Barack Obama represents elites. The emergent community is mixed-race families and immigrants. The middle class represents the mainstream majority of black Americans. The growing underclass concentrated in the inner cities is what Robinson calls the Abandoned. Divided by economics and culture, these four groups have little in common and little reason to identify with one another. So they’re splintering.
So is the white population. Read Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 by Charles Murray. America’s white population is splintering between white elites and the white mainstream. Read Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance and you’ll discover there’s also a white underclass. Many have become the Abandoned, like the black underclass.
Many Abandoned have become the Angry. This stretches back to the 1950s. To see why, read Richard Hofstadter’s “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” and “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” He describes how Joseph McCarthy and Barry Goldwater’s conspiracy theories (“catnip for cranks”) created “an arena of uncommonly angry minds.”
The arena’s getting larger. I do understand the anger and distrust of the African-American community given the history in this country. For most of our history, many of our institutions were explicitly racist. We see this in our dismal inner-city schools and public housing, monopolies epitomizing institutional racism. Or look at our 70-year-old failed war on drugs has brought intractable violence to poor neighborhoods and is used to justify so many police searches.
But human anger does not produce the righteousness of God (James 1:20). So angry people are unlikely to produce righteous solutions. Jonathan Haidt knows why. His book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, echoes Solomon’s warning: “Do not be excessively righteous, why would you run yourself?” (Eccl. 7:16). Excessively righteous minds are ruinous because they splinter people into polarities. You’re the oppressor, I’m the victim.
Haidt believes that coming together requires a sociocentric model. It places the needs of groups and institutions first, and subordinating the needs of individuals. We don’t need the individualistic model that places individuals at the center of society. But that’s the dominant one today.
Haidt, a liberal, recognizes this. He says the individualistic model dominates liberalism. And “while liberalism has done much to bring about freedom and equal opportunity, it tends to overreach, change too many things too quickly, and reduce the stock of moral capital.”
Individualism dominates conservatives as well. They “do a better job of preserving moral capital, but often fail to notice certain classes of victims, fail to limit the predations of certain powerful interests, and fail to see the need to change or update institutions as times change.”
Herbert Schlossberg says individualism dominates American Christianity. Like Haidt, he roots this in the Enlightenment. To see this, read Schlossberg’s Idols for Destruction: The Conflict of Christian Faith and American Culture. The title comes from Hosea 8:4: the Israelites made “idols for their own destruction.” Schlossberg lists six idols based in the Enlightenment and presently splintering the church. He feels they will ultimately bring God’s judgment upon us.
Few American Christians recognize this because idols blind us (Isa.44:9). Most of us are blind to God’s judgment, evident in how Western Christianity has been in a slow but steady decline over the last 200 years. This afflicts all American churches, liberal and conservative.
Two final books. I hear a few Christians say social media is a force for good for what’s happening in the streets. Read Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. He feared a future when the truth is drowned in a sea of irrelevant information. Then read T. S. Eliot’s The Rock. “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
We don’t need more news. We need less news. We need better news. Without it, we’re blind to the many causes of systemic racism. We splinter into sub-groups. Healing will be difficult – but it requires all of us, white and black, to begin reading better books.
 Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (Vintage, 2003), 343.