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Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, contributing editor at City Journal and author most recently of The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe.
Mac Donald, the archetype of an unassuming academic, makes for an unlikely counter-cultural figure. She draws protests and outrage on college campuses across the country because she has the gall to challenge the prevailing progressive orthodoxy about subjects like identity politics, multiculturalism and criminal justice.
I interviewed the bold, provocative and courageous Mac Donald on her contrarian work in these areas.
What We Discussed
- How Mac Donald went from clerking for a leftist Ninth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals judge and the EPA to Manhattan Institute intellectual
- The contradictions of the Age of Virtue Signaling
- Why victim status is celebrated — and how detrimental it is for the victims
- What it’s like to walk onto American college campuses as a pariah
- How pernicious ideas in the academy manifest themselves in society
- The ramifications of Google’s firing of James Damore
- How to shatter the identity politics paradigm
- Parkland and the “specious school discipline crusade”
- Why the idea that the justice system is systemically racist is wrong
- What law-abiding citizens in American inner-cities tell Heather about law enforcement
- Lessons from New York City on its dramatic decline in crime
- The ongoing impact of the “Ferguson Effect“
Mac Donalds’ Recommended Reads
- Jane Austen
- Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana
- Middlemarch by George Eliot
- H.L. Mencken‘s memoirs
- Anthony Trollope
- The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander
- The Unmaking of a Mayor by William F. Buckley
- Marcus Tullius Cicero
- John Milton
- Friedrich Nietzsche
- The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser
Thanks for Listening!
Check out other episodes at benweingarten.com/bigideas.
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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ben Weingarten: It’s somewhat of a truism, but ideas really do have consequences, and the prevailing ideas that dominate in a society dictate the direction of that society. And so I wanted to ask you, Heather, your formative intellectual years were spent in elite academic institutions as well as in the political realm. You studied concepts like deconstructionism. You clerked for a Jimmy Carter-appointed U.S. Court of Appeals judge for the Los Angeles-based Ninth Circuit, which is a thorn in the side of the current administration, which has historically not been friendly to conservative jurisprudence, let’s call it. You worked in a legal capacity at the Environmental Protection Agency. How did you end up with the beliefs that you hold today, which are completely antithetical to those held in the institutions that you inhabited for most of your formative intellectual years?
Heather Mac Donald: Well, I’m very grateful, Ben, that I did have an evolving course correction and move away from what I think now is an interlocking set of delusions. I think one major impetus for my change was the fact that, despite being in default liberal environments all of my life, I nevertheless always adored the works of the Western literary tradition. And when I saw the 1980s’ multiculturalism taking over university campuses, and ignorant students who had never read the works of the Western canon feeling empowered to reject those works on the basis of the gonads and melanin of their authors, that to me was appalling.
Ironically, people I don’t think understand this distinction, in the 1970s, which was the height of this very abstruse literary theory known as deconstruction, that you mentioned, and that I was an uncritical acolyte of. However odd the theories of language were, holding that meaning is impossible, that the human self is just a fiction, a trope of language, we read the canon without ever once thinking to say, if I’m a female, “Oh, gee, I can’t read Milton because he’s a dead white male.” It never came up. So, I fortunately had a strong grounding in greatness, in beauty, in eloquence, in sublimity. And when that came under attack, that started to turn me away from the broader trends that were going on in academia.
Ben Weingarten: College campuses have been hotbeds of leftist radicalism for decades. Is there something fundamentally different about the campus today than the campus that you attended and the campus of the ’50s and ’60s?
Heather Mac Donald: That’s a very good and hard question because, arguably, the ’60s were worse. The degree of violence puts Antifa to shame. We are seeing an increase in elite-celebrated attacks on property and on people who are perceived as opponents. But the mass takeovers, the assassinations of law enforcement officers that were common in the ’60s, I think we haven’t reached that level yet. On the other hand, ’60s violence and ’60s revolutionary agitation were not embraced by the elites. The main difference today is that the ideology of the left is not a counter ideology, it is now mainstream. And I would say the other big difference is that a strong current in 1960s era protest was political in a very broad sense. There was an economic Marxist element to it, but obviously the Vietnam War was a strong impetus for that, and a sense of the long overdue nature of the civil rights struggle was deeply involved.
What we have today with, I would say, the triumph of civil rights legal change and a degree of tolerance that is unprecedented in human history being the dominant characteristic of universities. Today the dominant theme of protest is one of utter narcissism. It’s that, “I am a victim” because of an ever growing list of favored victim characteristics. It’s not really about structural, economic change, however much those goals in the ’60s were misguided. But it is a extraordinarily self-involved type of protest that is based on the triumph of identity politics that is now taking over and has been taking over for, I would say, two decades, the rest of society.
Ben Weingarten: Since you describe it as “utter narcissism,” would you say that progressivism, whatever qualifies as progressivism at a given time…because it is very hard to define what progressivism is. It’s ever shifting, changing, I would argue because in reality progressivism is more about a tactic and a strategy than an actual ideology. It’s about ultimately dominating with an elite class of technocrats harkening back, I would argue, to the kind of Wilson vision, Woodrow Wilson vision, of what progressivism is. But do you think that progressivism, however it’s defined, is a proxy for virtue, a perverse proxy for virtue but a proxy for virtue since, as you said it really isn’t about economic inequality or all of these other issues but about the self and “I’m a good person because I hold the right ideas?”
Heather Mac Donald: Yes, I would say that’s a big part of it. Certainly, the perverse insistence of university administrators on racial preferences of admitting black and Hispanic students with vastly lower academic qualifications than their peers which sets them up for very difficult times academically, a phenomenon known as the mismatch effect. The insistence of these administrators in implementing and maintaining and keeping out of the public eye their racial preferences is very much a virtue-signaling thing. They want to look out on their domain of allegedly diverse student faces and feel like they are superior to what they believe is the deplorable state of the rest of Red State America, and only on a college campus is it possible to escape America’s systemic racism. But to talk about virtue, yes, that’s the case. Of course, it still invokes echoes of an Aristotelian idea of virtue as something that you strive for, that is based on the careful cultivation of character through habit, through repetition, through the restraint of the impulse. I would say the flip side of saying what they’re striving for is the now holy status of being a victim….it is the drive for victim status that is such a remarkable feature of our society today.
Ben Weingarten: Why is victim status lauded?
Heather Mac Donald: Well, one argument that is very broadly historical, Nietzsche pointed out that the classical cultures, the ancient Greek and Roman cultures, celebrated strength. They celebrated accomplishment. They celebrated achievement, and perhaps to a fault. But you had a warrior culture where epics were celebrating the heroic warrior. Nietzsche said that the odd thing about Christianity was to now celebrate weakness, and to revile the strong and the powerful. Whether what we’re seeing now is the very long played out evolution of that reversal of traditional classical values, I don’t know.
Obviously it has a more local cause, which is the understandable guilt that America still feels about our long history of the most grotesque civil rights violations and betrayal of the nation’s founding ideals. And it turns out that Western culture is so self-correcting in its errors, unlike many other cultures, that now we are engaged in a frenzy of self-flagellation, and a bizarre continuous effort on the part of our culture to demean ourselves and accuse ourselves of sins that I would argue no longer really exist.
Ben Weingarten: Yeah. I’ve called it a self-righteously suicidal society in the past. And when you speak to that notion of the self-flagellation, the self-loathing, and then on the other end, if you hold the right ideas you are virtuous, however perverse that virtue may be, you, as an individual have been exposed to the mass outrage of these folks who claim that they are moral, virtuous, good, decent people — leave aside the fact that, in a morally relativistic society, what defines what’s good and what’s bad and right and wrong. When you go to college campuses and you get attacked as being racist, sexist, homophobic, throw out the litany of charges. What is it like to walk to a college campus today as a total pariah? Put us in your shoes.
Heather Mac Donald: Well, fortunately or unfortunately, I’m not always noticed, so I’m not as renowned as one might wish or fear. But there is most definitely, on many campuses, a concerted group that hates me. And I guess what I would feel…I can tell you this, when I was recently at the law school at Columbia University, giving a talk on policing and my book “The War on Cops,” and what was so striking to me was the utter self-assurance and scorn of these students that have not bothered to educate themselves about the data on crime and policing, and yet the contempt and just self-righteousness that they hurled at me was really quite stunning. And what I find so depressing about how multiculturalism in academia and identity politics and the humanities has evolved is that it gives ignorant students a license for their own ignorance. They don’t read the canon and yet they know in advance that it is not worth their attention and that they somehow are justified in rejecting it simply because they’ve been told that it’s oppressive and it is, by and large, with many notable exceptions, but it is still by and large the creation of whites and males. Who cares? Get over it. But what I’m struck most of all by is just the remarkable lack of humility towards their own, about their own ignorance.
Ben Weingarten: Yeah. And I should say, I went to Columbia as an undergrad and we studied the Western canon — still study the Western canon — the core curriculum. It’s one of the reasons I chose the school and was lucky enough to be admitted to it. But to your point, you have people today, students who are so self-assured that they are right, and interestingly, always like to laud science and they say, “Let’s look to the data,” except when the data supports a narrative that they don’t like, that conflicts with their deeply held, though not well-studied and well-grounded world view. I think oftentimes, especially conservatives, look at college campuses and say, “Oh, the campuses are crazy,” but then don’t draw a line between the fact that the people who are at elite law schools and the like are the ones that are actually going to be, in many respects, in the positions of “power” for generations to come. Do you think that it is foolhardy or dangerous, the fact that we don’t take seriously what occurs on the campuses?
Heather Mac Donald: Oh, it most certainly is. Let me just backtrack a little bit. You were so prematurely wise to have sought out Columbia for its core curriculum. I applaud you for that.
Ben Weingarten: It’s my parents. I take zero credit.
Heather Mac Donald: Well, then please send them my gratitude. And I hope that, as a parent, you will do the same if it still exists because the few remaining core curriculum programs in the country, whether it’s Columbia or Yale’s Directed Studies program are in a year-by-year life support system because the young faculty that are teaching them do not believe in the mission of the Western curriculum any longer. They are constantly undermining them and teaching the students to be skeptical towards these works. So, it’s a very troubling and vulnerable situation.
As far as the left dismissing data that it doesn’t like, let’s be honest, everybody does that. I’m going to offend many of your listeners, but it is arguable that, say, when it comes to climate change, there may be dismissal going on in both sides and everybody does tend to cherry-pick data. So, I’m not gonna pretend that conservatives do not have their blind spots. I’m not saying it’s necessarily global warming but other things, and that is one of the great challenges of intellectual effort to try and overcome one’s existing belief systems.
But as for whether the public at large is naïve to dismiss the universities is simply a fringe movement that has no effect, absolutely. There is a direct transmission belt between the ideas on campus and now federal bureaucracies and corporate bureaucracies. The identity politics of this obsession with gender and race and the insistence on systemic bias as the defining trait of American society is now the governing assumption in the “Deep State” government bureaucracies and in most corporate HR departments.
And the defining moment of this was last summer when Google fired the computer scientist James Damore, who had the temerity to question the assumptions of Google’s diversity policies, those assumptions being that the lack of 50-50 gender proportionality at Google must be because Google’s engineers, who are responsible for hiring, are just so sexist that they cannot spot engineering talent if it comes in a female form.
Now, that premise, I would say, is preposterous on its face. It is demeaning to the managers at Google and yet, weirdly, typical of this self-flagellation that we’ve discussed. Google eagerly embraces the idea that its own personnel are blinded by sexism. Damore proposed an alternative explanation for the lack of 50-50 proportionality among computer scientists and engineers at Google. He said, “The science of human nature, as shown by evolutionary biologists, by psychologists, shows that, on average, men and women have different predilections, different career interests. Men, on average — doesn’t apply to everybody — gravitate towards more abstract ideas-based occupations; women towards more human, hands on, relational-based occupations.” Damore was saying nothing about the females at Google. What he was talking about is the females who were not at Google. Why is there not 50-50 proportion? So, he was fired and the language used by Google’s CEO in firing him was a direct import from the academy. It was the maudlin language of victimology that Google’s employees were hurting, that Damore had used harmful stereotypes and therefore he must be sacked.
The story doesn’t end there, Ben. The even more worrisome development happened in February of this year, 2018, when an associate general counsel from the National Labor Relations Board upheld Google’s firing of Damore against the charge that it was discriminatory against white males. And she, too, adopted the language of academic victimology. She said that, “For Damore to speak as he did about biological differences between males and females constituted sexual harassment.”
Now, think about this. This ruling, if it were to be universally applied, and fortunately it does not at the moment have the force of law, but if it were to become the standard position of the government, which it probably is, it would mean that vast areas of academic science would be shut down and that any academic scientist who is working on evolution, who is working on competition between males and females, economists, could be fired for harassment. So, this theory of gender feminism that is dedicated to denying known facts of human biology is now entering the real world, entering government and corporate bureaucracies, and is shaping how employees are allowed to speak in their workplaces, and how they get hired and promoted.
Ben Weingarten: It also bears noting there was allegedly a firing of a Google employee in 2018 for having the temerity to challenge a policy which was explicitly discriminatory, that policy being that you could only interview candidates of certain genders, backgrounds, ethnicities, and this employee challenged that. And he was laid off over it, and now there’s a suit that will be ongoing. We talk a lot about, in this victimology, the victims, and oftentimes, from the perspective of victimizer, it feels good to call yourself a victimizer in the society that we have today. There’s almost a perverse self-loathing but a love of this loathing that we have been historically horrible. And so the way to make up for that is to, in effect, discriminate against other people now to make up for past discrimination. Speak a little bit to what victimology does for the victims. How much does it stunt the growth of the “victim classes”?
Heather Mac Donald: It stunts them completely. It stunts them while in college, because if you are being brainwashed into believing that, say, reading Edmund Spenser’s “Faerie Queene,” a Renaissance British long allegorical poem, is somehow going to threaten you because the author is white and male. You are gonna lose the opportunity to lose yourself in the cool, shady, secluded groves of pastoral poetry. You are going to lose the opportunity to read books that take you out of yourself. That has always been the goal of education. If you wanna find real diversity and real difference, plunge into the past; try to absorb different narratives, different ways of experiencing the world. The medieval chivalry, courtly ethics of behavior between man and women, that’s real difference. And that’s what the Renaissance human is hungered for in trying to revive and recall the greatness of classical literature, and they spent their adult lives traveling from one European monastery to another, going through libraries, trying to find the works of Quintilian and Cicero that had been lost for centuries. But it not only stunts opportunities while you were in college, that chip on your shoulder of seeing yourself everywhere the victim of racism and sexism is gonna prevent you from seizing opportunities in the real world, because students and the products of the academy are so immersed in looking for a fence that they cannot see opportunity.
Ben Weingarten: Do you think that is actually — whether recognized and acknowledged or not, whether it’s conscious or subconscious — do you think that the damage done to victims which then, if you’re a Democrat, creates potentially a voter for you…do you think that is actually the intent? In other words, of course, you have the useful idiots and the dupes that actually believe in these ideas and will fight to the death in academia and elsewhere, but then you have the people that actually profit from these beliefs and that’s, in part, college administrators that staff all these departments that otherwise would not exist, but then also in large part the progressive energy in the Democratic Party itself is right there. If you didn’t have people being pitted against each other on the basis of all sorts of characteristics that they have no control over whatsoever, would the Democratic Party die and do you think this is all a cynical political effort above all else?
Heather Mac Donald: Well, I’m frankly rarely in sympathy with conspiracy narratives. And so it depends on how you think about causation. I think your description of how this works is absolutely accurate. Certainly on university campuses, there is a co-dependency between the campus bureaucrats, the burgeoning diversity bureaucracy that is sucking up hundreds of millions of dollars of tuition dollars and taxpayer dollars every year and these self-engrossed, whining students acting out wholly delusional psychodramas of oppression. And so for sure the campus bureaucrats have a vested interest in multiplying victim categories and keeping those members of those victim categories agitating for more diversity bureaucrats, ’cause…inevitably bizarrely that’s one of the things these students always ask for, which is “We need another vice chancellor of equity, diversity and inclusion.” It’s very curious.
And you also rightly described how it works with the Democratic Party catering to victim groups and setting itself up as the foil for Republican racism. But I don’t think that it began with a clear goal like that. I think most aspects of our life, to return to your opening, Ben, are the result of ideas and ideology, and that those ideas tend to be sincerely held. So, I think that the left really does believe in the systemic racism of American society and systemic sexism and systemic homophobia, and you can add an ever-growing list of “isms” to that. And what motivates them is as much a crusade for what they believe is justice in some way as it is any kind of cynical power ploy.
Ben Weingarten: William F. Buckley in Unmaking of a Mayor, a book I’m sure you’ve read, about his failed mayoral campaign, and if he had won he probably would have stepped down anyway, he describes in one part of that book the fact that he didn’t want to campaign among “different groups.” So, he didn’t wanna go to a Polish Day Parade and eat pierogies. He didn’t wanna go to a Jewish parade and eat blintzes. What he was getting at basically was he didn’t like the idea of pandering to specific groups in large part because we’re all individuals. You’re not defined by what group you come from. You’re defined by your hopes, dreams and ambitions and your merit, your character, what you bring to the table as a person. Who wants to be defined by a group? In order, if we ever get anywhere close to achieving that kind of vision where it’s basically unimaginable that you would have candidates not pandering to “specific groups,” but to move at least closer to that vision, how in your view, if you found it, do you break the cycle of identity politics? What is the Achilles heel that can destroy this system, which is really poisonous for victim and victimizer alike?
Heather Mac Donald: Boy, what a question. And I completely agree with you in that I think even the more relatively benign forms of ethnic celebration in America are possibly just regrettable, but we’re all supposed to believe that we should have the Irish-American parade, the German-American parade. Again, I know that, partly for me, it’s just a psychological predisposition, which is that I am, in fact, perhaps too individualistic, and don’t necessarily identify with groups outside of myself. And that can be a cut-you-off, I think, from a major aspect of human identity, which, frankly, probably evolutionarily, was tribal, and…most people do get strength and solace from identifying with a group. So, that’s a tough one.
As far as how to deflate, finally, the identity politics bubble, I don’t know if this is gonna work. But what I do is simply take on head-on the basic premise, which I’ve stated many times now, which is that America remains endemically bigoted. And I think that is demonstrably false. And I can start out at the sort of…or source of this, which is the American college campus. So, let’s at least take it on there. It is demonstrably false that colleges are discriminating against males and females. The opposite is demonstrably provable. There is not a single faculty search on an American college campus today that isn’t one desperate struggle to find females and minorities to hire who haven’t been already scooped up by other better endowed campuses. So, how anybody can get away with saying that there is a systemic discrimination going on, when if you sat in on, I don’t care if it’s an engineering faculty search, a sociology one, an economics department faculty search, that is what they are all doing. It is an obsession. It applies to admissions as well. Again, there is not a single college campus today, that is remotely selective, that is not employing massive racial preferences to bring minorities in. And so the claim that these campuses, which are peopled by the most tolerant adults in human history, are discriminating is just a complete lie.
I would say that the same applies for America, writ large. It’s hard to believe, given our history, but I think we have, by and large, purged the evil of racism from the body politic. I’m generalizing here greatly and, of course, there are exceptions, but I think most white Americans are well-meaning people, and they just wanna get along, and they don’t give a damn about race. You can go to workplaces today, whether it’s police precincts, or sanitation workers, or a call center, and by and large people are bonding, they’re getting along, and Americans don’t give a damn. Look at the Tea Party. It’s had one long love affair with conservative black politicians. It doesn’t care about their skin color. What matters to them is their belief system. So, I think that it’s…we have to take on this claim that is the myth of bias.
Ben Weingarten: This is a good transition point to an event that happened recently, which was the Parkland School shooting. And I think, sadly and tragically, this situation represents the unique intersection of two areas that you are acutely focused on: One being law enforcement, and the other being the racism, sexism, homophobia, etcetera, sort of rhetoric of the progressives, and then how that manifests itself in our political system, seeing everything through these various prisms. Here, in the case of Parkland, the shooter supposedly had been in trouble numerous times, committed numerous infractions, and it appears, based on the reporting, that the reason he wasn’t taken out of school in the first place was because of a federal directive from the Obama administration that would have penalized schools who did not, in effect, cook the books when it came to infractions. In other words, the goal was, “We need to show that, essentially, minorities are not being discriminated against, based upon the numbers of infractions committed in schools.” And to get those numbers down, schools did all sorts of things to artificially drive them down, at the cost of the safety of the students. What is your takeaway from Parkland on this count?
Heather Mac Donald: Well, it’s, again, ideas matter. And the specious school discipline crusade, which its keywords, if you wanna do a search, is the “school-to-prison pipeline,” which is one of these conceits that’s generated by the academy, that then takes over public policy, is very dangerous. And it is based on, as so many things, sadly, when it comes to race today, the left looks out at America and sees that there are still socioeconomic differences between blacks and whites. The fundamental divide, I would say, between conservatives and liberals in their worldview is that liberals will always look for a structural explanation of reality and refuse to consider behavior as an explanation for social outcomes. Whereas conservatives are much more focused on behavior and, a liberal would say, are blind to structural inequalities.
So, in the case of school discipline, it is true that black students are disciplined at higher rates than white students. They are suspended at higher rates and they’re expelled at higher rates. A liberal looks at that and says, “It must be racism” because a liberal is not going to even consider the possibility that there are behavioral differences on average between black and white students.
Ben Weingarten: Or that people are responsible for their actions in the first place, society is responsible.
Heather Mac Donald: Well, that’s true too. You cannot impose personal responsibility. I’ve looked at the data and we need much more observational studies of student behavior. But I can tell you this, Ben, black male teens, between the ages of 14 and 17, commit homicide at 10 times the rate of white and Hispanic male teens between the ages of 14 and 17. 10 times. It is completely unrealistic and fanciful to think that the behaviors and the lack of socialization that is leading to crime disparities of that magnitude do not also show up in the classroom. And you can talk, you can read accounts of the teachers that are being beaten up, beaten unconscious by their inner-city kids, by the chaos in those classrooms. And it is apparent that there are behavioral differences, which is precisely what you’d expect when you look at the crime differences. And yet the education establishment refuses to acknowledge that and has created these rules that say that any disparity in discipline between black and white students must be the product of teacher racism, again, teachers being probably the most left-wing profession in the country. Every teacher at school in the country is one long brainwashing into white privilege and multicultural math methods, because teaching math is itself a form of white privilege.
So, it’s preposterous on its face to say that teachers and administrators, who have massive due process procedures imposed upon them, are willfully and gratuitously and arbitrarily suspending black students. And yet that’s what the Obama administration said and threatened school districts across the country with federal lawsuit, an enormously costly thing, if they had different rates of discipline. And Broward County, where the Parkland School shooting occurred, was one of the premier schools to revamp itself along the lines suggested by the Obama administration, which is instead of suspending students for violence or insubordination, if they’ve had multiple incidences, keep the student in the classroom; use various fanciful ideas of mediation and peer discipline and whatnot, none of which have been proven to work. And Nikolas Cruz, although he was white, was still part of a system that insisted on not suspending students because it could lead to a criminal record and contribute to the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. So, yes, these ideas have real world effects.
Ben Weingarten: Why is the idea that the justice system is systemically racist wrong?
Heather Mac Donald: There’s simply no evidence. The argument for it is, as always, disparate rates of incarceration of blacks, different rates of arrests of blacks. All of those claims rest on a fundamental requirement: Turn your eyes away from behavior. We have independent sources of measuring crime. If you’re so convinced that the criminal justice system is so racist that it cannot accurately gauge who is committing robberies at 2AM, the homicide data is universally recognized even by the left, except perhaps from the students I confronted up at Columbia Law School, as being the gold standard. And what they show us is that blacks die of homicide at six times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined. That is a massive civil rights disparity that we should be concerned about. And the reason is, is that blacks commit homicide at eight times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined.
We know this by witnesses. If you do a criminal victim survey — there’s a national criminal victimization survey that the federal government does periodically — the victims’ identifications of their assailants match exactly in their racial proportions the people who the police arrest. If the police were somehow so benighted that they were ignoring all of those white guys robbing black female senior citizens at 125th Street at 2AM, the victim survey would pick that up, but it doesn’t. So, it turns out that what drives the racial disparities in the criminal justice system, which is Exhibit A and Exhibit Z for alleged systemic racism, those disparities are driven by rates of crime not by police, prosecutor and judge racism.
Ben Weingarten: When you go up to the South Bronx, or the South Side of Chicago or the inner city in Baltimore and you talk to citizens on the street, law-abiding citizens, what do they say about what life is like in a system where the kind of progressive ethos prevails around systemic racism and a racist justice system which leads to policies then of police essentially backing off. What do law-abiding citizens say in these neighborhoods to you?
Heather Mac Donald: I have never been to a police community meeting in a high-crime black or Hispanic neighborhood where I do not hear those good law-abiding bourgeois residents of that precinct beg the police for more police protection. They are the ones who are driving enforcement strategies, it’s not the racist police. There’s been a war in recent years on so-called “quality of life policing,” otherwise known as “broken windows policing.” This is the public order offenses, the kids hanging out on the block fighting, the guys urinating in public, public drinking and drug dealing. And we’ve been brainwashed into thinking by the left that the “War on Drugs” was a conspiracy fomented by Nixon to try and keep blacks down. This is the thesis of a very dangerous but wildly influential book called “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander which is, of course, read on college campuses religiously. In fact, the impetus for cracking down on open-air drug dealing came from black communities themselves. It came from the black newspapers. It came from black pastors who said that not just drug dealing but drug use was a scourge on the black communities. And you can still hear that.
I have heard, in the 41st Precinct of the South Bronx, people complain the following complaints: “I smell weed in my hallway, why can’t you do something about it?” They’re asking the police to come into their apartment because they don’t like the idea of someone smoking weed illegally. Or I see guys hanging out of a nightclub outside my window at 2AM smoking weed, “That gets them into all sorts of trouble, please do something about it.” Now, what are the police supposed to do about this? Are they supposed to listen to the good people in their neighborhood who have taken the time to show up to the community meeting and say, “Please give us the same surcease from street disorder as people on Park Avenue take for granted as their birthright”? Or are the police supposed to listen to Michelle Alexander and an academic at Columbia Law School, Bernard Harcourt, who has been also waging a war on public order enforcement, and say, “Sorry, guys, we can’t do that because it would be racist to listen to you black people.” It’s a real dilemma, but this is the unheard voice in the black community that the mainstream media refuses to pay attention to.
Ben Weingarten: A thing that bears noting also, since you were mentioning the “War on Drugs” and mandatory minimum sentencing, that it was actually members of, I believe at the time, the Congressional Black Caucus who were the ones supporting that legislation in the first place. It’s something lost in history.
Heather Mac Donald: Absolutely. Right, the so-called racist penalties for crack cocaine as opposed to heroin, as opposed to, excuse me, powder cocaine that was Charles Rangel, it was Major Owen…these were people saying this is the worst oppression that our community has known since slavery, the crack epidemic.
Ben Weingarten: And I wanna apologize to our audience for the sirens in the background, but I 100 percent attribute that to the de Blasio administration not listening to you, Heather, and reading all the reports and research you’ve done over the years when it comes to policing and crime. But since we’re in New York City and New York City is such an interesting microcosm and maybe a leading indicator for what happens in the country, over the last few decades, New York, for those listeners who don’t know, has changed dramatically. There used to be rampant crime, streets were dirtier than they are today, they’re still a little bit dirty but less so. All sorts of issues where your quality of life was significantly inferior to where it is now. It was a less booming, dynamic sort of place, a place that you wouldn’t wanna live. And now, today, we see a city essentially thriving in spite of the challenges the last few years under this administration. What is the story of New York City? What is the lesson of the dramatic decline in crime and the increase in living standards here?
Heather Mac Donald: There are several lessons: Policing matters, public order matters, and a city cannot survive unless it enforces civility. But I would say the most radical message is that policing matters because for most of the century in the ’50s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, it was received wisdom among police commissioners themselves that the police could do nothing about crime. Crime was a social phenomenon. It was caused by poverty, racism, and income inequality. And unless society coughed up another trillion dollars in welfare spending to eradicate these alleged root causes of crime, all the police could do was respond after the fact by getting as quickly as possible to a crime scene and taking a crime report.
When Mayor Rudolph Giuliani came into City Hall in 1994, and brought in Police Commissioner William Bratton for his first tour of duty as New York police commissioner, they engaged in a revolutionary idea, which is that actually the police would lower crime. And Bratton did something that no police commissioner has ever done. He set himself a first year goal of crime reduction. No commissioner would ever do that because the assumption was, “We can’t do anything about it.” He not only met his goal of a 10 percent reduction in crime, he beat it, bringing in a 12 percent reduction in crime. The next year, he upped the ante, set himself a 15 percent crime reduction target, beat it again at 16 percent. He did so by insisting on using data, crime data, to determine where crime patterns were breaking out, and developed strategies to meet those crime patterns by holding police commanders in local precincts accountable, again something that’s never been done, and paying attention to public order.
One of the early triumphs was the eradication of the so-called “squeegee men.” These were the slovenly guys that would position themselves at the mouths of tunnels and bridges, and purport to ask if somebody wanted his windshield cleaned, when…this felt like absolute extortion. And people were terrified, and you were stuck in your car, and you felt that order had broken down the same. And within a couple months, simply by enforcing law and saying, “You can’t do this,” the problem disappeared.
We learned that enforcement works, that a society that sets a norm and sets consequences for its violation, and enforces those consequences can actually have an effect on human behavior. The urban violence that was taken for granted as the constitutional condition of American cities, it turns out, was the result of society simply laying down helplessly and saying, “There’s nothing we can do about crime. It’s a “cri de coeur” against racism, and we just have to suck it up and accept it.” No. Enforcement works, and that is an incredibly radical and powerful message.
Ben Weingarten: Define the Ferguson Effect. And do you believe that the events that occurred in Ferguson will be an inflection point in history with crime rates essentially increasing now for years to come as a result of those events?
Heather Mac Donald: Well, the Ferguson Effect is the dual phenomenon of officers backing off of the type of policing that prevents crime, not just reacts to it, known as proactive policing, and the resulting emboldening of criminals that happens when the police back off. And I developed this idea and spread the term in 2015 after the Ferguson riots in August of 2014 that were triggered by the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, by Officer Darren Wilson. And this shooting was universally misportrayed by the media as a active, cold-blooded murder when, in fact, Michael Brown, the shooting victim, had attacked the officer, tried to grab his gun, which is basically putting an officer on notice that the guy wants to kill you. If a perpetrator grabs an officer’s gun, there’s one reason he’s doing so…to shoot him. But the narrative took hold, and it gave increased volume and oomph to a narrative that had been percolating in academia for a long time, which is the police are systemically racist. The Obama administration ran with it. And Obama repeated at virtually any opportunity the idea that policing is systemically racist.
And if you tell police that they’re racist for engaging in pedestrian stops, that is also known as “stop, question and frisk,” a police officer drives by a corner, known drug corner at 2AM and sees a guy hanging out, hitching up his waistband as if he has a gun, the officer is legally entitled, if he has reasonable suspicion that a crime may be in the works, to stop the guy and ask a few questions. And if he thinks he may have a weapon, he’s also legally entitled to frisk him. If officers are being told, which they have been by the academy and then by the Justice Department, that they’re racists for making those stops, it is understandable that they will cut back on that type of proactive policing. And that is exactly what happened across the country. A poll from Pew found that 72 percent of officers said that the officers in their department were less likely to engage in proactive policing, thanks to the anti-cop climate. When the cops backed off, what we saw in 2015 and 2016 was one of the largest two-year increases in homicide in 50 years. There was a 20 percent increase in our homicide rate. That is massive. The victims of that homicide increase, — overwhelmingly black — an additional 2,200 black victims in 2015 and 2016, compared to what there would have been had homicide rates remained to their 2014 levels.
Black Lives Matter shifts into action, is the darling of the mainstream media and further amplifies this narrative of racist policing. While we don’t have yet the numbers for 2017, it looks like the massive homicide increases are leveling off, homicide is still increasing. We are definitely entering a moment of de-criminalization and de-incarceration, even though the narrative out of the White House is massively changed and it has taken a lot of the wind out of the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s amazing what a difference it makes who’s in the White House because Trump, whatever his other faults are, is not serving as a mouthpiece of Black Lives Matter.
So, we don’t have the same media attention to that narrative. Nevertheless, at local levels they continued to be pushed back against the enforcement of the law against stricter penalties for repeat crimes and for violent crimes, so it’s a little soon to say, but it is completely conceivable that we are going to see a gradual winding backed of the 20-year triumph of crime that this nation did experience, thanks to the spread of the data-driven proactive policing out of New York City to police departments across the country.
Ben Weingarten: Yeah. This slide back is a good illustration of why I always say that progressivism is the most regressive of all ideologies. And, of course, it’s never focused on the outcomes, it’s only focused on the what the inputs are. And if the inputs are viewed as right, it’s right. We started this conversation acknowledging that ideas are paramount and ideas really dictate everything else. And again, it’s a truism, but it is so critical because those prevailing narratives are really what dominate every conversation and every policy that occurs in society. So, with that lead-in, first I wanted to ask you, what are the publications or who are the authors that you read on a regular basis? Because that obviously has to be the animating factor behind a lot of your work.
Heather Mac Donald: Well, actually the animating factor behind my work has been reality. I didn’t become more of a conservative by reading some of the great conservative treatises, or political theory or our current political commentators. As much as I honor them and respect them now, it was really due to journalism. And I started doing reporting, and went out to welfare centers and homeless shelters and talked to the so-called “clients” who sounded like Ronald Reagan in his most caricatured fantasy of the left. You’d get welfare mothers saying, “Oh, they should have done this welfare reform decades ago. There’s women here having babies just to get a larger welfare check.” And again, these are welfare mothers themselves speaking. I heard, “These welfare mothers are so lazy, they can’t even change the 40-watt bulb in their apartment building. Again, please do not attribute this to me. This is them.” I heard people at homeless shelters saying, “Government aid is a narcotic. It will destroy you.” So, for me, it was going out and exactly seeing the consequences of these allegedly well-intentioned policies that got me to rethink my too easily, uncritically adopted set of liberal beliefs.
Ben Weingarten: So, the facts of life proved conservative and that was what led you to your positions. What were the books that had the greatest influence on your political philosophy and career more broadly?
Heather Mac Donald: Again, I cannot say that necessarily…The books that I have loved to read are Middlemarch, Trollope, Jane Austen, a range of authors. I recently was astounded by a book a friend gave me, Two Years Before the Mast, by Richard Henry Dana, which recounts the…It started in 1830. It’s his chronicle of working as a merchant marine on a ship that rounded South America and then spent two years going up and down pre-Gold Rush California, trading and accumulating hides for trading. This book is the most astounding description of social capital in different cultural differences between, say, the Anglos that were there, and the Spanish-Mexican aristocracy that then dominated California.
I recently read Mencken‘s memoirs, which are astounding in their humor and wit but open you up into a world of urban difference and a richness of a childhood, a boy’s childhood that is not allowed any longer, but also a lack of technological sophistication. So, I would say to listeners, seek out books that offer the greatest of the English language, that offer beauty, that offer insight into human character. And political theory is extremely important. Certainly de Tocqueville is important, but I think you can learn as much by reading literature and philosophy.
Backed Vibes (clean) Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
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