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Disputed Questions: Is America Good?

Disputed Questions is a new series from RealClearPolitics that brings writers of diverse viewpoints together to discuss and debate, with civility, the great issues of our time. Republishing this series is free with attribution to RealClearWire. Please republish these essays as one single posting.

The Moral Case for American Goodness Endures

By Wilfred Reilly

The modern United States of America is one of the richest, happiest, and most productive societies ever to exist. The U.S. is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with a per capita gross national income of $55,351 – ahead of power players like Germany, Bahrain, Canada, and France – and an overall annual GDP of $17.7 trillion (second only to Red China’s). Beyond mere wealth, the nation posts a .926 on the Human Development Index used by the U.N. to measure health, education, and general welfare within states – just .31 back from leaders like comparatively tiny Norway, and only .74 away from hypothetical perfection. For purposes of comparison, China, our primary rival these days, posts a .761 on the Index and comes in at 85th place globally. The U.S. utterly dominates world pop culture, bringing joy to hundreds of millions of people; competes annually for the global lead in new patents; and even scores as one of the top ten nation-states on IQ.

Our past was no less remarkable than our present. The United States was one of the first large modern democracies and one of the only nations ever founded specifically to uphold the principles of individual freedom and liberty. The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are among mankind’s historical treasures, and the American protections for free speech and the private use of arms remain unparalleled in the First World. Between our founding and today, the United States expanded from 13 constituent states to 50, won the Civil War and freed slaves in the South, broke Hitler’s Nazis, built the interstate highway system, and put the first man on the moon – among many other accomplishments. The U.S. draws millions of immigrants annually from around the world: we boast the highest foreign-born population on the planet by a factor of roughly four to one.

So, given all this, why is American greatness even debatable? The answer is that critics, ranging from well-intentioned academic idealists to angry radicals who genuinely dislike the country, have popularized a two-part critique of the United States. They argue, first, that the U.S. was a compromised – poisoned – society from the beginning. White supremacy (so the argument goes) was one of the nation’s founding principles, the Constitution classified black people as 3/5 of a human being, and slave labor made the nation rich. Second, none of this has ever fully been remedied: the legacy of this horrid past lives on in the America of today, where black men like George Floyd and Michael Brown are not infrequently murdered in the street, and where systemic racism, white privilege, “cultural appropriation,” and implicit bias oppress people of color (POC) in every imaginable context.  

This rejectionist narrative is often eloquently presented and guilt-inducing to many who hear it, but it suffers from a fundamental weakness: it is wrong.

Was the U.S. “founded” on white supremacy? It is worth noting that, as both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass pointed out, the word “slavery” is never mentioned in the Constitution. The critical topics discussed in the Bill of Rights include free speech, religious liberty, the right of peaceable assembly, the right to bear arms, and freedom from state quartering of soldiers. The importance of white supremacy, or how to maintain its existence going forward, is never discussed in the Bill of Rights or in the Constitution’s earlier articles. There is a critical difference between saying that the Founding Fathers were personally racist to one extent or another – by today’s standards, most of them were, as were virtually all human beings at the time – and saying that racism was an ideological or moral pillar of the nation they established.

Even the famous Three-Fifths Compromise, one of the few sections of the Constitution to discuss enslaved persons (Article 1, section 2), was quite different in intent and impact from how many understand it today. The Compromise was in fact the anti-slavery position. Representation in the House of Representatives is based wholly on state population. Southern slave states wanted slaves to count as “100% of a person” for demographic purposes – while those slaves did 0% of the voting. Delegates from free states opposed this. As retired Vanderbilt Professor Carol Swain has pointed out: “If one hundred percent of the slave population had been counted, slavery may well have lasted until the 20th century.”

A remorseful United States long ago expunged the legacy of slavery from our founding documents. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution are known as the Civil War Amendments. The 13th Amendment banned slavery and indentured or involuntary servitude, the 14th defined any person born in or naturalized into the United States as a citizen, and the 15th prohibited the denial of the vote to any U.S. citizen on the basis of color, race, or “previous condition of servitude.” Degrading and lamentable discrimination against blacks continued in the United States, of course, but such practices were at odds with the letter and spirit of American principles, now codified in the Constitution itself. Massive, Mt. Rushmore-scale upgrades to the nation’s legal bedrock followed in the twentieth century, including the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision banning school segregation and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. If “white supremacy” ever was a foundational principle of the United States, at the level of our primary legal documents, it is a massive understatement to say that this is no longer the case. 

And no, slavery did not make America rich. It is bizarre to argue that 10% to 15% of the population, held captive in the nation’s poorest region – and only until 1865 – “built the country.” It is true that the South, where most of the slaves were trapped, produced most of the cotton, which was one of the primary exports of the antebellum U.S. But it is also true that chattel slavery – feudal peon agriculture, reliant on the unwilling labor of captured warriors – is one of the least efficient means of producing anything, and the South was widely and accurately stereotyped as a backwater.  

And, any honest calculation of the positive or negative impact of slavery on the U.S. economy must take into account the costs of the war that freed the slaves. In addition to boosting the U.S. national debt from $65 million to the then-staggering figure of $2.77 billion (an increase of many tens of billions in today’s dollars), the Civil War resulted in the deaths of an estimated 360,222 Union soldiers and 258,000 Confederate men – and historian J. David Hacker has argued that these estimates are low. Roughly one Union troop was killed for every nine slaves freed, a substantial payment in blood for our sins. And, since that long-ago war and the end of the institution that allegedly made the country, the U.S. population has increased 874% (38 million to 333 million), and our GDP has increased 118,000% ($15 billion to $17.7 trillion).

There is a final point relevant to American behavior during the slavery era (and relevant as well to the Indian Wars): morality must, to some extent, be judged in context. Slavery was not merely legal but the norm across virtually the entire world. An Arab slave trade targeting Africa existed contemporaneously with the white-led Atlantic slave trade and transshipped far more captive people (perhaps as many as 17 million) into even harsher conditions. For that matter, both Arabic and black masters were more than willing to buy and sell Caucasians. The now nearly forgotten Barbary Slave Trade involved the sale of more than a million European captives into bondage in North Africa, and an earlier version of essentially the same trade likely gave us the global word for “slave” (eponymous with “Slav,” or East European).

Other forms of oppression, nearly as severe by our lights today – from the treatment of prisoners of war to the restricted rights of women – were commonplace everywhere on Earth while slavery existed, and even as it waned. These, too, are realities that must inform our moral judgment. It is unfair to criticize American historical figures, who behaved better than most historical figures elsewhere, for not meeting the moral standards of campus activists in 2021.


Almost as soon as these points are made, though, any competent left-wing debater will pivot to the second argument above: “But it’s not over – all this continues today!” Supporters of movements like Black Lives Matter contend that the U.S. remains a hellscape of race and class conflict.

Almost none of this is true, either.

Black Lives Matter advocates claim that hundreds or thousands of innocent black people are murdered every year by police officers. Many Americans believe this to be true as well. A survey from the Skeptic Research Center found that most citizens who identify as “very liberal” believe the typical number of unarmed black men shot annually by police is either “about 1,000,” “about 10,000,” or more. Another major study, from Eric Kaufman of the Manhattan Institute, found that 80% of blacks and 60% of educated liberal whites believe black men are more likely to be killed by cops than fatally struck by cars.

These beliefs are totally contradicted by the facts. According to the comprehensive database of police shootings maintained by the Washington Post, the number of fatal police shootings in a typical year is roughly 1,000, with perhaps 250 of these victims being identified as black. It is true that the percentage of police shooting victims who are black (22% to 25%) is higher than the percentage of blacks in the general U.S. population (12% to 14%), but adjusting for the fact that the victim-reported black crime rate is about 2.4 times the white crime rate entirely closes this gap. In the most recent year on record, critically, the total number of unarmed black citizens killed by police officers – across the country, during more than 35 million police-civilian interactions – was 17.

The overall narrative of rampant interracial crime and conflict turns out to be wrong as well. According to the 2019 Bureau of Justice Statistics report from the Justice Department, what might be called “classic” interracial crimes (violent offenses involving black perps and white victims, or the alternative) make up about 3% of crime: 607,725 of the 20,648,040 serious crimes occurring that year (2.94%) fit this description. The person most likely to kill you, as a typical non-criminal citizen, is your husband or wife, not a dangerous individual of another ethnicity.

Further, black-on-white crime appears to be overwhelmingly more common than the reverse: the 2019 BJS data set includes 547,948 black-on-white offenses, versus 56,778 white-on-black offenses. This roughly 90:10 ratio of black-on-white to white-on-black crimes is not typical, but the ratio has been at least 70:30 in every recent year that I examined. These data refute an erroneous but widely accepted narrative.

The broader narrative of systemic racism collapses nearly as thoroughly. The thesis of the systemic racism argument is simple: large gaps in performance between groups (as on the SAT) indicate the existence of substantial contemporary racism. The Boston University scholar Ibram X. Kendi (née Henry Rodgers) has gone so far as to argue that the only possible explanations for performance gaps between groups are racism, however hidden and subtle, and actual “inferiority” on the part of one of the groups. Kendi has won a MacArthur “genius” grant as one of America’s top thinkers.

He is egregiously wrong. As a litany of thinkers (John McWhorter, Amy Chua, John Ogbu, June O’Neill, Heather MacDonald, and me, among others), led by the great Thomas Sowell, has pointed out, large groups that differ in terms of notable characteristics like race and religion also inevitably differ on other traits that help explain performance. In most cases, adjusting for a few of these characteristics – like median age, region of residence, and average scores on the SAT or similar aptitude tests (the result of variables as simple as differences in study time) – almost completely closes the income gaps and other racial performance gaps so often attributed to racism or genetics. If this even need be said, it seems bizarre to refer to temporary cultural differences, much less the effects of pure happenstance like where members of different immigrant groups happen to live, as “inferiority.”

A particularly important cultural or environmental variable is family stability, indicated by the presence of a father in the home. Conservative writer Dennis Prager observes that the poverty rate is almost 25% for white children raised in single-mother households, and just 7% for black kids raised in married, two-parent homes. Characteristics like this – part of what is known as the Success Sequence – predict positive outcomes almost identically across white and minority populations. And, indeed, most of the ten highest-earning and most successful groups in the United States today are “people of color,” led by Indian-Americans, who boast a median family income of almost $130,000.

The primary argument against the goodness of America is that we were in the past and remain today a racist, classist dystopia. The truth is nearly the complete opposite: the United States of today is a nation where East Indian, Taiwanese, Nigerian, Persian, and Italian-Americans compete with, work alongside, and often marry direct descendants of the old English settlers – and succeed to almost exactly the same degree. That sounds like a good country to me.

The United States may still be a terrible place – as compared with heaven, that is. On any other scale of measurement, the moral case for American goodness endures.

Wilfred Reilly, a political scientist at Kentucky State University, is the author of “Taboo: 10 Facts You Can’t Talk About,” among other books. He writes regularly for a wide range of journals and magazines. 

The United States Is Great But Flawed

 By Xavier Bonilla

The United States is a great country, a testament to modern democracy. The United States is also saddled – like most other countries – with historical tragedies and flaws, the effects of which continue to be felt by its people. Both of these ideas can be true at once. We can celebrate the successes of the United States while acknowledging and learning from the painful chapters of our history. Accepting both premises is vital to building a successful American future.  

Many things contribute to making the United States uniquely great. Wilfred Reilly’s essay illustrates well the progress that has been made over the course of American history. I completely agree with his framing on the expansion of the nation from 13 to an eventual 50 states, ending the Civil War and freeing slaves, breaking Hitler’s Third Reich, building the interstate highway system, enshrining civil rights, and sending the first human beings to the moon. These are incredible achievements in a relatively short historical frame of time.

I agree with Reilly that one of the strongest arguments for American greatness is that the nation remains the number one destination for people leaving their own countries and starting a new life. We have seen multiple waves of immigration since our country’s origin. People from all backgrounds arrive here, knowing full well the nation’s past and current flaws but still eager to come for the opportunity for economic advancement and political liberty – opportunity unmatched anywhere else.

Immigration has been at the core of our history. Most of us trace our family histories to people coming from other parts of the world. We move toward a healthy American nationalism by respecting our history of immigration and the traditions and symbols that have grown out of it. Immigrants and those of multiethnic backgrounds will continue to play a key role in the nation’s future.

Yet, at the same time, America is filled with undeniable flaws. The historical transgressions and imperfections of a young country continue to have aftershocks. And we must not minimize or forget them.

I agree with Reilly that portraying the United States as a “white supremacist” country is inaccurate and wrong, but we need to remember the historical context in which our founding documents were created. We cannot ignore that the Bill of Rights, the Constitution, and subsequent amendments to the Constitution were written by white men, primarily for the protection of white men. Our founding documents did not include or protect women, black slaves, immigrants, or indigenous people. The Founding Fathers themselves admitted to flaws in their system.

While Reilly offers much evidence of real moral progress in the United States, we cannot ignore that such progress has been uneven, to say the least, for various groups. Consider the treatment of Native Americans, who have lived in the Western Hemisphere for 14,000 to 18,000 years. And yet, the history of the United States and Native Americans is one of wholesale displacement of these original inhabitants from their tribal lands, decades of warfare, economic and spiritual disinheritance, and subsequent impoverishment. Despite public apologies and the establishment of tribal sovereignty on reservations, the United States cannot be regarded as a champion of progress for Native Americans.

I do agree with Reilly that the United States has made tremendous progress over many decades in extending full protection under the law to many groups not initially so recognized. But such progress owes heavily to activist movements and the sacrifices that many Americans made to push lawmakers to recognize these rights. It was abolitionists (white and black) who pushed President Lincoln to pay attention to the evils of slavery. It was activists (Native and non-Native) who pushed President Grant to ensure protections for Native Americans. Men and women in the suffragette movement pushed for the right of women to vote. Latino and non-Latino activists worked to ensure fair labor laws for Hispanic farmers. Activists, black and white, pressured President Johnson to sign the Civil Rights Act. Gay and straight activists worked to build public support for same-sex unions. It is the beauty of the United States – and very few other places – that it allows for such activism, which, when it intersects with pragmatic institutionalism, can forge changes in the social life of the country.

Yet we cannot rest on our laurels. We must not become complacent.

The United States is a country worthy of our respect and affection, and it remains a beacon of hope for millions around the world. Americans cannot ignore the dark chapters of our history, but we can speak out against injustice and work within our institutions to create a more perfect union. We are great because of our achievements – and despite our flaws. When we acknowledge both, we can continue to grow and improve. That is the America I know and love, a nation that can be an inspiration for anyone.\

Xavier A. Bonilla is a Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) and clinician who has over 15 years of clinical experience. He is also an adjunct professor of counseling and psychology. He is the host of the podcast, Converging Dialogues, which features long-form conversations with scientists, researchers, and writers in the physical and social sciences.  

America’s Moral Exceptionalism

By S. Adam Seagrave

Wilfred Reilly makes an excellent case in his article. I, for one, am persuaded of the greatness of American accomplishments and the magnitude of American progress. The only problem is that all of this has little to do with the article’s title and aim of showing “the moral goodness” of America. Judged according to moral principles rather than geopolitical or economic ones, the U.S., I would argue, is in fact both better and worse than Reilly’s article suggests.

In my high school valedictory address at Vintage High in Napa, California, I suggested to my fellow graduates that “success” in life does not consist in career accomplishments or moneymaking. Succeeding as a human being involves, rather, practicing moral virtues like kindness, love, and fairness. One might argue that America’s existence as an independent nation  can be traced to our having a similar standard for national success. Writing in 1825 about “the object [i.e., the goal] of the Declaration of Independence,” Thomas Jefferson didn’t invoke Machiavelli or Mandeville on wealth and power. He didn’t cite statistics on GDP growth or list milestones of American geopolitical progress since 1776. Instead, he cited “the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, etc.”

The idea that a new nation’s independence would be justified with reference to “public right” was unprecedented – and, as far as I’m aware, unrepeated. So when Reilly says that the U.S. was “one of the only nations ever founded specifically to uphold the principles of individual freedom and liberty,” he understates his case. The U.S. is arguably still the only nation ever founded specifically to uphold moral principles. The central importance of moral principles to American political society is shown clearly in our written Constitution – the first in recorded history. As Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall explained in Marbury v. Madison, the theory of the “original right” of the people is “essentially attached to a written Constitution” and is “the basis on which the whole American fabric has been erected.” As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 84, “the Constitution is itself, in every rational sense, and to every useful purpose, A BILL OF RIGHTS.” In placing self-evident moral truths at the heart of its political system, America has always been exceptionally good.

Now for the bad news. Recent years have seen an explosion in the popularity of arguments that diminish the moral culpability of American slaveholders and the moral depravity of the American slave system. Such arguments are misguided. I agree wholeheartedly with Reilly’s contention that white supremacy was not an American founding principle. It was a practice misaligned with American founding principles. But it is difficult for one who believes in America’s exceptional moral goodness, as I do, to look clearly at the exceptional evil of American slavery.

What do I mean by the “exceptional” evil of American slavery? Hasn’t slavery existed throughout human history? And doesn’t America’s dramatic and costly abolition of slavery, and its subsequent landmark achievements in civil rights, count for anything? The answers to the last two questions are “yes” and “yes.” The answer to the first is more complicated.

One could point to numerous stories of horrific cruelty that illustrate the evils associated with American slavery, or American racism – episodes involving Madame LaLaurie or Emmett Till come to mind – but such examples don’t, by themselves, get to the heart of why American slavery and racism are uniquely or “exceptionally” evil. This can only be argued with reference to certain distinctive features of American slavery not found together in any other example of widespread injustice. American slavery (1) was associated with race, as determined primarily and originally by skin color; (2) was a permanent status, i.e., not for a determinate period of time or until payment of a debt; (3) was a hereditary condition; (4) treated the enslaved as property or “chattel”; and (5) existed within a legal system based on the principle of equal human dignity. These features are not, to my knowledge, combined in any other example of slavery in history. Taken together, they add up to the removal, in thought and practice, of a person’s very humanity. American slavery was uniquely predicated on the deliberate dehumanization of enslaved people.

It is difficult, and perhaps inadvisable, to compare egregious evils; but dehumanization – viewing and treating human beings as non-human – is certainly both an egregious evil itself and the root of many others. By engaging in deliberate dehumanization, the American system of slavery was thus uniquely evil.

So America is both better and worse than Reilly thinks. The U.S. remains the only nation founded explicitly on true moral principles; yet the U.S. still struggles with the effects of gravely immoral practices diametrically opposed to these principles. This combination of exceptional goodness and exceptional evil is itself, well, exceptional.

S. Adam Seagrave came to the study of race in American history from a background in American political thought, the history of political philosophy, and an intellectual formation in the Great Books. He is the author of “The Foundations of Natural Morality: On the Compatibility of Natural Rights and the Natural Law” and “The Accessible Federalist,” as well as editor of “Liberty and Equality: The American Conversation.”

Uniquely Disgraceful, or a Good Place to Live?

By Wilfred Reilly

The responses to my RealClearPolitics essay on American goodness and greatness (“East of Eden, but Better than Russia”), from Dr. Bonilla and Dr. Seagrave, contain much of value but fail to debunk my argument. Both replies are elaborations upon what I freely concede to be the major American weakness: our history of racial conflict and oppression. While both are skillfully written, they break down, like most such arguments, to this claim: “The USA did evil things which many other countries did, sometimes to a slightly greater extent. This is uniquely disgraceful, given our claims of moral superiority.” But this is not an effective argument against American goodness.

Most readers would agree that it is better to be an occasional hypocrite than openly evil, and those were basically the two options that nation-states faced historically. The United States, and some other Western countries such as France, engaged in ancient evils like slavery while simultaneously giving birth to influential movements opposing these vices, and indeed while attempting to eradicate them globally. Most other great human societies, from the Ottoman Empire to the magnificent Aztecs to the serf-breaking Russians to the ancient Spartans, engaged in these practices, too, while debating them rarely, if at all. Logically, it makes no sense to describe the second approach as morally superior to the first.

Seagrave’s essay is an excellent example of the “sins of America” genre. He eloquently describes some of the “stories of horrific cruelty” that litter our history, providing examples ranging from Madam LaLaurie to Emmett Till. He also contends that U.S. slavery was a distinctly brutal relative to most other slave systems worldwide, noting its permanent and generally hereditary status, and perhaps especially the fact that enslaved blacks in America were treated as property, or “chattel” (thus the term “chattel slavery”). Bonilla, for his part, notes also the treatment of American Indians, who suffered “displacement . . . from their tribal lands, decades of warfare, economic and spiritual disinheritance, and subsequent impoverishment.”

Wrenching stuff. But more than a few of these claims can be empirically rebutted. Chattel slavery, involving the buying and selling of human beings in markets, and often extending from parent to child, was common historically. Many of America’s Caribbean and New World neighbors engaged in the practice for decades or centuries. And, as Dan McLaughlin notes in an excellent recent article for National Review, the ancient Romans were chattel slavers whose laws became the very basis of Southern slave codes, and historical African slavery often extended for at least three generations.

The particular white and black civilizations just named were not unusual. The Arabs, located between the latter two, were likely the most prolific chattel slavers in history. As I note in my original essay, one reputable African scholar estimates that the Arabic Slave Trade shipped an astonishing 17 million black Africans into foreign bondage. Arab states, which often operated large multicolored slave markets, also had no objection to the selling of white ferengi: 1 million to 1.25 million captured Caucasian warriors and travelers were bartered to Muslim or African masters during the Barbary trade alone. Arab slaving captains sold so many human beings that they gave the world both the word slave – taken from “Slav,” the term for a white East European – and the rival term “abeed,” for specifically a black slave. Arabic chattel slavery also endured far longer than its white Western counterpart, with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia not legally banning the peculiar institution until 1962.

I have focused here on powerful peer states like Rome and Arabia, but it’s also disingenuous to argue that slavery in tribal societies was less brutal because of its “non-hereditary” nature. While some brave captured fighters were certainly adopted into rival tribes, one obvious reason most battle captives in stone- or bronze-age warrior societies did not pass their slave status on to their children was that they were quickly and horrifically killed. Sometimes, their new masters ate them: Marvin Harris, in his aptly titled “Cannibals and Kings,” has argued that the Aztecs actually waged war to acquire captives for meat, to supplement their low-protein diet.

While I maintain that Seagrave and Bonilla fail to prove the “ours was worse” case, these scholars do make one fascinating and undisputable point. American slavery existed within what Seagrave calls “a legal system based upon the principle of equal human dignity.” A typical, bad-as-the-average, Roman-style slave system existed in a country “founded specifically to uphold moral principles,” and which boasted the first English-language republican constitution in history. This was indeed an “exceptional” evil, not in scope – Russia and Brazil are obvious comparators – but in terms of its extraordinary misalignment with American founding ideals.

But, again, in no logical world does the United States being a morally and empirically better place than most other states, while at the same time tolerating an evil common in most other states, make the country worse than those others. The existence here of almost universal human vices is shocking only in context, and only because we are such a damn good place to live. If we look at what is happening today in heavily Uighur regions of Communist China, that country arguably has slavery now – and little is said about it, because no one expects the Red Chinese not to hold slaves. Such consistency between perception and reality is hardly a mark in our great rival’s ethical favor.

I, proud American, propose a compromise with this nation’s activists. They can rattle on about America’s historical sins, with one caveat: they should acknowledge that most of these evils are remarkable in an American context only because we are an unusually good country.

Wilfred Reilly, a political science professor at Kentucky State University, is the author of “Taboo: 10 Facts You Can’t Talk About,” among other works. He writes regularly for a wide range of journals and magazines.

This article was originally published by RealClearWire and made available via RealClearWire.
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