Bill Maher, Teddy Roosevelt, and the fear of progress in race relations

Steven Pinker coined the phrase “progressaphobia” to describe the fear of believing real progress has been made on race relations and racial equality in the United States, but one need only pick up a history book to see how far we’ve come.  History is frequently horrifying because of the progress we’ve made.

On October 16, 1901, President Teddy Roosevelt invited prominent black leader and civil rights pioneer Booker T. Washington to dine with him at the White House, something no black man had ever done before under any President.  Roosevelt had recently ascended to the highest office in the land after President William McKinley was killed by an anarchist in September, and the political and media worlds were watching him closely to determine precisely what sort of leader he would make, especially as some of his positions regarding race and economics were considered radical at the time even by members of his own party.  This was, after all, the maverick young politician who engineered a black man as chair of the state Republican convention less than two decades earlier, and had long made his beliefs that blacks and whites should be treated equally under the law known.  At the dawn of the 20th century, these were positions that would infuriate southern Democrats and concern more conservative Republicans.  Roosevelt, however, had met with Washington previously at the White House to discuss Southern appointments for US government officials and after a momentary qualm about being the first President to invite a black man to dinner, felt embarrassed that he questioned himself in the first place.  Ultimately, he did not see any reason for concern, believing Washington proved his place in the “aristocracy of worth” whatever his racial heritage and it felt “so natural and so proper” to have him there.

At first, it seemed the country was in agreement.  The Associated Press sent out a dispatch at 2:00 AM the following morning, noting only, “Booker T. Washington, of Tuskegee, Alabama, dined with the President last evening.”  Personal messages poured in from black people claiming it was the greatest “step for the race in a generation” and the “hour is at hand to make the beginning of a new world order.”  One person remembered Roosevelt’s role at the state convention in 1884, saying “Your act of honoring [Washington] was a master stroke of statesmanship – worthy of the best minds this country has produced.”  White reaction was largely favorable as well, until a bomb dropped from the South later that afternoon.  Then, it swiftly became horrifying.  The N-word had not appeared in print in respectable publications in decades, but racial slurs began flying fast and furious.  The Memphis Scimitar set the stage, proclaiming the innocent dinner “the most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States” because the guest was a “n****r.”  “It was only very recently that President Roosevelt boasted that his mother was a Southern woman, and that he is half southern by reason of that fact.  By inviting a n****r to his table he pays his mother small duty…No Southern woman with proper self-respect would now accept an invitation to the White House, nor would President Roosevelt be welcomed today in Southern homes.  He has not inflamed the anger of the Southern people; he has excited their disgust.”  Others piled on with headlines like “Roosevelt dines with a darky,” “A rank negrophilist,” “Our coon-flavored president,” and more.  Some claimed he was promoting “mingling and mongrelization,” and that Roosevelt’s son should marry Washington’s daughter.  One Senator went so far as to claim the outrage could only be redeemed with blood.  Benjamin R. Tillman, North Carolina, wrote “The action of President Roosevelt in entertaining that n****r will necessitate killing a thousand n****rs in the South before they will learn their place again.”

Perhaps, horrifying isn’t strong enough a word to describe these reactions, and yet it is in this struggle to properly capture the depths of racism and evil on display that we find the real proof of American progress in race relations.  Simply put, these things are horrifying to Americans today because of how far we have come in a relatively short period.  If the world had not changed so dramatically in the intervening century, we would not find statements like Senator Tillman’s so abhorrent.  They would merely be part of the discourse as they were in 1901, when even progressive reformers like President Roosevelt himself appeared shockingly racist and patriarchal at times.  Yes, Roosevelt embraced equality under the law and individual achievement independent of race, but he was no Critical Race Theorist or modern wokester, far from it.  He believed that granting blacks the right to vote under the 15th Amendment was a “mistake,” and that under present circumstances they were better suited to serve, not as slaves but as paid laborers because they were “altogether inferior to whites.”  To be sure, he viewed this as something of a temporary situation, one that could be remedied by generations of education and the instillment of Western values, likening the plight of the ex-slaves to Europeans in the 1600s.  This process would be “necessarily painful,” but it would happen – with some patriarchal guidance from Roosevelt himself, of course.  A couple of weeks after the incident, he concluded, “I have not been able to think out any solution of the terrible problem offered by the presence of the Negro on this continent, but of one thing I am sure, and that is that in as much as he is here and can neither be killed or driven away, the only wise and honorable and Christian thing to do is treat each black man and each white man strictly on his merits as a man.”

Of course, anyone who expressed these thoughts today would not be considered a maverick reformer on the cutting edge of race relations.  They would rightly be considered a patriarchal bigot and their views would be shunned from the public square.  Once again, this is only possible because less than 110 years after these words were written, a black man sat in the Oval Office and invited whoever he liked for dinner.  If this isn’t progress, it is difficult to say what would be, and yet there are millions of largely left leaning progressives who continue to insist that nothing, or at least, next to nothing has changed, and we are all living in a world a hairs’ breadth removed from slavery.  Some of the most extreme versions of this view hold that nothing can ever change, and it is impossible to establish equality between the races.  Indeed, equality is no longer the goal in many cases, as traditional definitions of racism and discrimination have given way to discussions on the unequal distribution of wealth, representation in business and politics, and other spheres of life, all of which are influenced by a multitude of factors beyond race relations.  Equity has replaced equality, meaning that any disparity in any area is proof that racism exists and the only way to expunge it is to radically realign all aspects of the economy and society, which they refer to as anti-racism.  Ibram X. Kendi, considered one of the leading race relations scholars in the world today, takes that approach.  When asked if there was a cure for racism, he replied, “I define racism — with an ‘m’ — as a powerful collection of racist policies that are leading to racial inequity that are substantiated by racist ideas of racial hierarchy. Is there a cure for racism? There is. It’s anti-racism. So, if you have an institution that is governed by policies that are leading to racial inequities and then the people in the institution believe that, for instance, White people are smarter, then they’re not going to see it as a problem when White people are in the most senior positions. But that same institution can eliminate those policies, can replace them with anti-racist policies that are leading to racial equity. There could be White people in senior positions and people of color in senior positions and there’s equity there, and people would view that as normal.  So anti-racism is the cure for racism.”

The very existence of this point of view can be seen as a sign of progress in and of itself, granted of the wrong kind in my opinion.  Here, we see the definition of racism itself has changed, and the vision of equal rights that drove the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s has likewise been replaced by a more activist vision of enforcing equity, one where any inequity is proof of racism whatever the cause and the only remedy is to force equality of outcome by the power of the government.  Putting this another way, if you were to travel back in time to Roosevelt’s era and insist that the only cure for America’s racial ills was equal representation across politics, business, media, and more, you would be branded a lunatic and laughed off the public stage by even the most progressive members of society.  Today, however, this point of view is readily embraced by academia, many segments of the media, a growing number of politicians, and some members of the business community.  There is no way to explain it other than that we have made so much progress in race relations that the very terminology has changed, and outcomes are now more important than a traditional vision of equality of opportunity.  Even setting aside economics, policing, and other matters of huge import, you cannot live in a world of microaggressions and cultural appropriation without having overcome awful, horrific sentiments like those expressed by Senator Tillman.  Denying this progress has become something of a fetish on progressive circles, some even call it a myth as they look to any inequality to justify this belief.  For example, Ivy Oyeador is a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.  She believes that white Americans overestimate the progress we’ve made and that we need to correct this perception gap.  “We wanted participants to read about the persistence of racial discrimination in the United States so we could see whether that would improve their perception of racial inequality in the present,” she said.  Her plan was to conduct a study that began with white people reading about racial inequities rather than instances of discrimination, hoping that would prime the pump.  She found the inverse, however, that people reconsidered their view of the past rather than the present.  “A number of factors might be at play,” Professor Onyeador explained. “These include a belief in a just world, the myth of racial progress, and the perception created in the media and our national discourse of high-status Black individuals who may not reflect the economic condition of most Black Americans in the real world.”  Again, outcomes are the only thing important now, one need only show a difference in result and that difference is racism with bigger government as the only remedy.

The comedian and social commentator Bill Maher has described this fear of acknowledging real progress, Progressaphobia, a word originally coined by neuroscientist Steven Pinker.  “That’s the phrase coined by Steven Pinker to describe a brain disorder that strikes liberals and makes them incapable of recognizing progress,” he said while broaching the topic two years ago. “It’s like situational blindness, only what you can’t see is that your dorm in 2021 is better than the South before the Civil War…Acknowledging progress isn’t saying ‘we’re done’ or ‘we don’t need more,’ and being gloomier doesn’t make you a better person.”  “There is a recurrent theme on the far left that things have never been worse,” he continued. “Kevin Hart expressed a view many hold when he told The New York Times, ‘You’re witnessing White power and White privilege at an all-time high.’ This is one of the big problems with wokeness — that what you say doesn’t have to make sense or jibe with the facts or ever be challenged, lest the challenge itself be conflated with racism. But saying White power and privilege is at an all-time high is just ridiculous.”  “Higher than a century ago — the year of the Tulsa race massacre?” Mr, Maher asked. “Higher than the years when the KKK rode unchecked and Jim Crow went unchallenged? Higher than the 1960s when the Supremes and Willie Mays still couldn’t stay in the same hotel as the White people they were working with? Higher than slavery? And I mean actual slavery, not ‘Prince doesn’t like his record contract’ slavery.”  The topic came up again on a recent episode of his Club Random podcast with guest Andrew Sullivan.  “Just don’t gaslight me. Don’t be like, the world is irredeemably racist or it can’t change. Because we have the statistics, it can. We’re not people who should be deprived of the joy of celebrating our progress. But then they equate it with, you can’t say we’ve done all this without them going, ‘There’s still work to do.’ Yea, adults assume that before the conversation started, that’s why you’re not adults and you’re so fucking tedious,” he said.  Mr. Maher and Mr. Sullivan mentioned the rapid transition that has occurred in London over the past half century, going from 86% white to only 39% in fifty years and yet there are no white supremacists marching to take back the city.  “So, yes, is there work to be done? And then you’ve also written about this, I love the kind of attitude that some wokesters have about, well, if only the older white people would die, like you’re perfect at handling the world, I’m sure, darling. Hurry up, die. Hurry up and die. It’s like, what a terrible attitude to have,” Maher said to Sullivan. “And people essentially on your side politically even. But also of course the Trumpsters, if they would just die then things would be perfect.”

Of course, they would not be perfect because the world is not perfect and neither is progress, but we should have no fear of celebrating either, especially when it is easy to see how far we have come.  Indeed, our very horror at the past is one of the clearest indicators out there, and yet that horror is frequently used to condemn the present, acting as if the way people thought and acted a century or more ago is the same as today.  This perversion is not without consequence.  Generation X, for example, grew up in a world after the Civil Rights movement when racial equality was obtained under the law in principle, and yet far from it in practice.  A casual racism still permeated the culture, lingering in the representations in movies and on TV, in the books we read, the music we listened to, when even the N-word was still whispered by school children.  It is only because we recognized this was wrong and sought a different path that the world changed.  To deny that substantial change is to deny the work of millions of people, sometimes quiet, questioning our own surroundings and culture, even the thoughts in our own head, other times more vocal, but happening nonetheless.  We can see the output everywhere around us now, from perceptions of interracial marriage and relationships, to representation in the media, to who we work for, are friends with, love and cherish.  This is real, having happened before my own eyes in my own lifetime, but suddenly the world has shifted and being on time for a meeting or having standards in communication is a hallmark of white supremacy.  This is not a plan for progress.  It’s a bomb that will explode into a backlash.  You cannot solve the world’s problems by lecturing everyone that they are the cause of them, though that appears to be what progressives are attempting to the peril of their own causes. We have made progress, and that’s a good thing. We should be proud of it and use that pride to make even more progress on the road ahead.


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