The death of George Floyd in Minneapolis unleashed a wave of protests, ostensibly provoked by anger at systemic racial injustice—and particularly by police brutality toward unarmed black men. Yet many of these “mostly peaceful” protests, as the media generally described them, have led to violence and widespread property destruction.
Is race really the central issue in what has been happening? Are white Americans simply incapable of recognizing their deep-seated racial prejudices? That’s what Black Lives Matter and its progressive supporters, black and white, claim. Racist individuals exist, of course, and always will. But most Americans are not racists. Most Americans are far less concerned about race than they are about providing for their families and living at peace with their neighbors. Something other than racism is driving these protests, even as rhetoric about racism is widely employed.
Here’s a thought experiment: would riots be occurring if America were overwhelmingly a middle-class, property-owning society? What if persistent, generational poverty disappeared tomorrow, replaced by propertied citizens possessing middle-class virtues such as self-control, independence, thrift, concern for the future, and neighborliness?
The profound suffering of the American underclass is being manipulated by self-righteous grievance professionals who graduated from elite colleges and universities, where they were indoctrinated into critical race theory by radical professors who despise America. They are using race as a weapon in a war to transform the United States, and they are willing to engage in intimidation, violence, and property destruction to achieve their ends. They detest middle-class Americans who work hard, acquire property, and care for it.
In attacking private property, the revolutionaries are striking at one of the bedrock institutions of a free society. The American republic was designed for a propertied citizenry; the ownership of property cultivates the independence necessary for self-government. Consider the words of Thomas Jefferson, from an 1814 letter describing American society to a British correspondent: “We have no Paupers . . . Most of the laboring class possess property, cultivate their own lands, have families, and from the demand for their labor are enabled to exact from the rich and the competent such prices as enable them to be fed abundantly, clothed above mere decency, to labor moderately and raise their families.”
Alexis de Tocqueville, a French visitor to these shores in 1831, noted that the battles over property and property rights so common in Europe were unheard of in America, which he attributed to the vast majority of Americans being property owners. Tocqueville noted that revolutions threaten property; thus, societies where property is broadly owned are naturally inoculated against revolutionary energies. Widely distributed property, according to Tocqueville, helps to cultivate a respect for the property of others—and this spills over into respect for the rights of others more broadly. A propertied citizenry is not given to rioting, revolution, or the wanton destruction of property.
No one understood this better than Karl Marx, who claimed that Communism could be summed up in a single sentence: “abolition of private property.” He argued that the first step in the Communist revolution was to “win the battle of democracy.” This victory would require a fundamental social change: the populace needed to become proletarian, which is to say, economically insecure and bereft of capital. Once that occurred, the revolution would be initiated at the ballot box, private property would be abolished, and society would be remade. The America that Tocqueville saw, however, had no such proletarian class.
This is no longer the case. Poor blacks know that something is amiss—but the problem is not systemic racism. It is systemic poverty, brought about by a complex array of social and political forces that affect poor whites as well as blacks: broken families, especially absentee fathers; schools that fail to educate, and an anti-education culture; welfare policies that create dependence and undermine an ethic of work indispensable for entry into the middle-class; regulations and cronyism that create barriers to entry and reward gigantic corporations at the expense of small businesses and entrepreneurs. It’s not hard to see how groups like BLM could manipulate these facts to create a narrative of systemic oppression where blacks, along with white progressives, join forces to “burn it down.”
America must strengthen its middle class; it must also mark out a clear path for the poor to reach the middle class, though the obstacles here are complex. They include social pathologies that can only be solved by individuals committing to personal responsibility, stable families, education, and hard work. In addition, failed policies ostensibly aimed at helping the poor have instead reduced them to a permanent—and understandably angry—underclass. No one wants to be permanently dependent on another, even if the object of dependence is not a person but the state. Resentment mixed with shame, fueled by a pernicious ideology of racial resentment, leads to chaos in the streets.
Assaults on private property will in the short term fortify Trump supporters and spur many undecided middle-class Americans to support a president who, despite his many flaws, forcefully condemns such violence and destruction. Yet this same destruction of property also fuels the revolutionary fervor of the proletarian underclass and its progressive accomplices. An obvious question presents itself: does the American middle class—along with those, black and white, not yet there but who identify with its values and aspirations—still constitute the majority of citizens? Or has a new kind of citizen risen to ascendancy on the debris of our smoldering cities? If the answer is the former, then our republic will remain intact, despite its deep wounds. If the answer is the latter, then we are witnessing the twilight of a noble experiment, and the coming dawn will bring a whirlwind of destruction, wiping out blessings that so many Americans have long cherished—including individual liberty and the institutions that have supported it.
This article originally appeared in RealClearPolitics.