We Can’t Be Heroes
“Very frankly,” said Ronald Reagan about Roots after its 1977 broadcast, “I thought the bias of all the good people being one color and all the bad people being another was rather destructive.”
This line is so precise, we have to wonder whether he wrote it. Or, if he did write it, we have to wonder how well-worn this kind of dishonesty already was, that he could just pick it out of the air. Ronald Reagan was not an intelligent man, but he was a good liar, and he knew a good lie when he heard one.
The quote includes two words that jump out at us from this distance: “bias” and “destructive”. They grab our attention because the intellectual legerdemain behind them is still practiced today, but with another generation or two of refinement behind it.
And the lies still work, at least well enough to get by.
So: Bias. This one we remember. We were 18 in 1977, still taking in the world, but we had taken in enough by that point to know a few things. “Bias” was the move you used to used to deflect: “No, you’re biased.” Roots aired early that year; that fall, the Supreme Court would hear the Bakke “reverse discrimination” case — as it was popularly described — over affirmative-action policies.
The modern refinement of that is to accuse your opponents of what you’re doing. This puts you in the Both Sides sweet spot of contemporary political journalism, and takes the heat off.
The second word — “destructive” — strikes to the heart of today’s bipartisan fetish, and the challenge of seeing historical injustice for what it is: Something that continues to this day, both fresh and in its consequences.
The premise behind the word is that America settled accounts in 1964 and 1965 — leveled the playing field — and now you people are just whining. To cast white folks as villains now, even in an historical drama about slavery, is just to reopen old wounds still healing.
Come to think of it, we remember that one too, parodied as White Guilt, or especially in the Seventies, Bleeding-Heart Liberalism. What wasn’t well understood or expressed — at least on our peach side of the Crayola box — was how lasting the effects of past discrimination were, compounding over generations not just with Jim Crow or educational segregation, but things like redlining and exclusionary zoning laws. Or how then-new policies like the War on Drugs were continuing those effects into the future. Or how policing itself could be blatantly discriminatory. We certainly didn’t need The Talk.
Like we say, we were 18. Took us another ten years to catch up with all of that.
And y’know, critical race theory might have helped.