ICYMI McWhorter: Too often, we fail to credit our political opponents’ morality

Where his arguments break down is with respect to the political tactics involved and the moral bankruptcy of some who are more concerned with abortion than supports and programs after birth. But valid points on the dangers of assumptions regarding those who one disagrees with, whether on the left or right:

One year, when I was a graduate student, I ate twice a day with a group of other students that included about a half-dozen Republican law students. What I learned that year informs my take on the looming overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court — assuming something close to the draft of Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion, leaked to Politico, becomes final — affecting my reaction to it, despite remaining pro-choice and being, in the grand scheme of things, alarmed by the impending developments.

As an undergraduate, I had been minted under the idea — as prevalent on college campuses then as it is now — that Republicans are just wrong about most things. Then and perhaps now, there were, especially, middle-class and affluent people who sneered at and about them, even if not knowing or caring much about partisan politics.

But some years later, after having spent hours on end listening to these law students discuss issues political, against my inclination I could not help starting to notice that they usually made a kind of sense.

Mind you, none of them were talking about taking their country back, nonexistent voter fraud or conspiracy theories about the basements of pizza shops. The late-Reagan-early-Bush-41 era was different from this one. These were earnest, intelligent people who simply processed the world through a different lens than mine.

I didn’t become a Republican, but I considered my immersion in their worldview a part of my education. I’m glad fate threw me into getting to know them, and, indeed, it was part of why I felt comfortable being a Democrat working for a right-leaning think tank, the Manhattan Institute, in the aughts. A major lesson I took from those law students was to avoid a tempting, all-too-common misimpression: that if people have views different from yours, then the reason is either that they lack certain information or are simply bad people — that they’re either naifs or knaves.

This assumption hobbles a great deal of exchange on college campuses and beyond. As sociologist Ilana Redstone notes, “when we fail to recognize the moral legitimacy of a range of positions on controversial topics, disagreements about these issues inevitably become judgments about other people’s character.” In “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt describe this as the wrongheaded view that “life is a battle between good people and evil people.”

In the late 1990s, I started coming out, if you will, with my views against certain tenets of the traditional civil rights orthodoxy, such as the continuation of racial (as opposed to socioeconomic) preferences, or the insistence that racism and economics are the only determinants of performance gaps, and that it is meaningless to discuss culture. As a result, assorted people in my orbit assumed that there must be something wrong with me.

First came the naïve part: In my grad school days, many at first thought that I must be unaware of certain truths. A concerned sociologist pointed me to books about the racial wealth gap, assuming that, after reading them, I would understand that this was the sole reason for the gap between Black and white kids in test scores and grades. A kindly administrator came by my office to explain how determined her immigrant parents had been to succeed in the United States, pushing her and her siblings “tiger mother”-style, with the goal of showing me that it was unfair to expect that kind of drive from American-born Black people. When conservative and libertarian think tanks started inviting me to speak, a friend’s spouse invited me for a beer, which turned out to be a casual teach-in, warning about the histories of some of the Republicans in the Bush 43 administration.

Then came the evil part: When I would let such people know that I was aware of what they were telling me and that my views were unchanged, they were often quietly appalled. Hence the idea out there that I and people of like opinions on race issues are just plain baddies, out for bucks and attention.

But so often, the real issue in these situations is less ignorance or ill will than differing priorities. Take the common idea that to be a Donald Trump supporter is to be, if not a racist, someone who tolerates racism. Yes, some polls reveal that Trump voters were more likely than others to harbor unfavorable views about nonwhites — a 2016 Reuters-Ipsos poll found that Trump supporters were more likely than supporters of Hillary Clinton to view Black people negatively. But the idea that anyone who’s ever pulled the lever for Trump carries the odor of bigotry is facile.

I have known too many Trump voters, of various levels of education, to whom the “racist” tag could be applied only in a hopelessly hasty fashion. Too many of them have worked for civil rights causes in the past or are married to or seriously involved with people of color or are of color themselves, for the racist label to make any real sense. They, rather, do not rank Trump’s casual bigotry as being as important as others do. To them, this trait is unfortunate and perhaps even off-putting, but not a dealbreaker in comparison to other things about him. I see nothing evil in that. It puts me off a bit. It often seems a little crude — I sense some people being swayed, purely, by Trump’s podium charisma. But that is not the same as malevolence.

I feel the same way about those who are opposed to abortion. I am disgusted that the Supreme Court seems poised to make it more difficult in many cases, and practically impossible in others, for American women to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. I am aware of how opposition to abortion has been entangled in the nation’s history of racism, classism and sexism. I understand the fear that the reversal of Roe could be a prelude to future decisions threatening other rights involving private life.

However, I am also aware that opposition to abortion is often founded on a basic idea that it constitutes the taking of a human life, with many seeing a fetus at even its earliest stages as a person-to-be that morality forbids us to kill. I know people of this view of all races, classes and levels of education. For them, all the negative effects of doing away with Roe may fade in importance. To them, those things are a lesser priority than preserving life.

I find the scientific aspect of this position a bit unreflective. I also sense, in many who take this view, less interest in how humans fare in their lives as children and adults than in the fate of humans as fetuses. I have to work to imagine prioritizing a fetus as a person in the way that they do.

But I think I manage it, and with a deep breath, even though it’s not where I stand, I cannot view the equation of abortion and the taking of a life — or even, as some suggest, a murder — as an immoral position. For many, including me, the priority is what a woman does with her own body. As such, many suppose that to be against abortion is to be anti-feminist. But for pro-lifers, a woman’s right even to controlling her own body stops at what they see as killing an unborn child. To many of them, being anti-abortion is quite compatible with feminism.

I deeply wish that we were not on the verge of Roe being overturned — a decision that, if it came to pass, would be opposed by a majority of Americansand would disrupt or even ruin lives. It would represent further and grievous evidence of our broken political system, with the Electoral College a keystone anachronism, having put Trump into a position to recast the Supreme Court according to priorities unshared by most of the population. However, I cannot see opposition to abortion, in itself, as either naïve or evil. As much as I wish it were not, it is a position one can hold as a knowledgeable and moral individual.

Source: McWhorter: Too often, we fail to credit our political opponents’ morality

McWhorter: Don’t sleep: Linguistically, Black Americans can walk and chew gum at the same time

Of interest:

In March, at the annual Conference on College Composition and Communication, one panel presentation was of particular interest: It concerned requirements in first-year college composition classes and discussed the idea that for students whose home dialect is Black English, or another nonstandard dialect, requiring them to write in standard English is a potentially unjust, if not flatly racist imposition, forcing some students to suppress their true selves in favor of a hegemonic artificiality. This school of thought holds that writing instructors should allow — encourage — such freshmen to write either purely in their home dialect or to engage in “code-meshing,” mixing the home dialect and the standard.

It’s an approach that accomplishes the feat of both underserving Black English speakers and diminishing Blackness.

During the panel’s Q. and A., an attendee presented this question: “What do we do when the resistance to code-meshing, for example, in our writing classrooms, comes from our BIPOC students? I ask because, of my attempts to encourage students to use their home dialects in writing, Black students in particular often resist those practices as setting them up for failure. Which only reflects how ingrained they are in a system that is inherently racist.”

The question and the panelists’ answers were quite revealing, including one from Asao Inoue, a rhetoric and composition professor at Arizona State University, who responded that when he hears that kind of objection from a student, he asks himself:

Is it that I have to say, or I have to create a classroom, and a learning experience, that demeans the linguistic history of that student in order for that student to go into the world and go into unfair racist, white supremacist systems and succeed? … Because if that student says, “You’re setting me up for failure,” what they’re saying is, “I want to succeed in that unfair system. I want to game that system.”

But, Inoue continued:

You’re always still going to be Black, or you’re always still going to be Latinx, or you’re always still going to be something else. … you can mouth the words that are white, but they’re coming from a body that’s something else, and you may be read that way. And so, for me, my goal as an educator is to change the system.

Because, he said:

What they’ve been exposed to is capitalist-inflected [expletive] about education being the way in which we, you, become a nice little cog in the system and you get skills. So you can go out in the world and make Microsoft more money.

While not all writing professors would go that far, in terms of appending a critique of capitalist reality to teaching freshman composition, just the notion that standard English is exterior to Black students’ real selves requires a closer look, because it tracks with worrisome currents in the way we are encouraged to think about race, especially lately.

Few familiar with today’s academic world will find Inoue’s opinions especially surprising. The idea in education circles that standard English functions as an unjust “gatekeeper,” holding back students of color, has been around for a long time. Related has been the idea that at the grade-school level, Black students whose home dialect is Black English should be taught as bilinguals of a sort. Adherents of this philosophy don’t say standard English should be withheld but suggest that standard English and Black English should be presented as different languages, as it were. Recall the “Ebonics” debate that gained national attention in the 1990s.

In 1993, English Leadership Quarterly, a publication of the National Council of Teachers of English, published a piece by two Indiana University of Pennsylvania English professors, Donald A. McAndrew and C. Mark Hurlbert, arguing that:

Writers should be encouraged to make intentional errors in standard form and usage. Attacking the demand for standard English is the only way to end its oppression of linguistic minorities and learning writers. We believe this frontal assault is necessary for two reasons: (1) it affords experienced writers, who can choose or not choose to write standard English, a chance to publicly demonstrate against its tyranny and (2) if enough writers do it regularly, our culture’s view of what is standard and acceptable may widen just enough to include a more diverse surface representation of language, creating a more equitable distribution not only of the power in language and literacy but also, ultimately, of the power in economics and politics that language and literacy allow.

Later, as The Washington Times reported in 1995, the N.C.T.E. discussed eliminating “English” from its name. That year, a delegate to its annual convention said, “If we are to offer diversity, there can be a conversation about language arts, but not about English.”

But in the same way that the idea of eliminating references to “English” strikes most as overboard, the idea that for Black people standard English is something wholly apart is simply inaccurate. For most Black Americans, both Black and standard English are part of who we are; our English is, in this sense, larger than many white people’s. In “The Souls of Black Folk,” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, “I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not … I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension.” On a less exalted level, a great many Black people toggle endlessly between standard and Black English, day in and day out — we code-switch. I always liked how Gloria Naylor was able to get this across, as in this scene from her novel “Mama Day”:

“We ain’t staying long,” Ruby says, pulling up a chair. “But I thought it would be nice for us to meet Cocoa’s new husband.”“It’s a pleasure,” George says.“Doubly mine,” says Ruby. “And this here is my new husband, Junior Lee.”“Pleasssurre.” Junior Lee manages a nod. “Hear you a big railroad man.”“No, I’m an engineer.”

In that exchange, the characters aren’t dipping in and out of what they think of as a cold, alien dialect. They are sounding subtly different notes according to which dialect they render each thought or gesture in. Standard English forms are as much theirs as Black English ones.

Communicating in this way, Black Americans are doing what other people do worldwide, living between two varieties of a language. Swiss people’s formal Hoch Deutsch is almost a different language from the Swiss German they speak informally. The Arabic speaker typically controls both the Modern Standard Arabic derived from the language of the Qur’an and used in formal settings and a local dialect used for real life, like Egyptian or Moroccan.

People in these countries and beyond would find familiar Maya Angelou’s observation in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” couched as completely unremarkable:

In the classroom we all learned past participles, but in the streets and in our homes the Blacks learned to drop s’s from plurals and suffixes from past-tense verbs. We were alert to the gap separating the written word from the colloquial. We learned to slide out of one language and into another without being conscious of the effort. At school, in a given situation, we might respond with “That’s not unusual.” But in the street, meeting the same situation, we easily said, “It be’s like that sometimes.”

To give some credence to those freshman-comp panelists, we might say that Angelou could have turned away from the “That’s not unusual” and that Du Bois could have considered that in real life Shakespeare, Aristotle and Marcus Aurelius might have looked down on him as some kind of “Aethiope.”

But subordinated and even despised people can, over time, with full awareness of the unjustness of racism, embrace even a foreign language, as opposed to a dialect, that is initially forced upon them. They can come to process it as a part of who they are, as people existing at a particular time, amid a dynamic synergy between the then and the now, the us and the them, the imposition and the resilience.

Many Indians, for instance, cherish English as one facet of the expression of modern Indianness, despite its imposition under colonial rule. Not long ago, I took in Netflix’s Bollywood romantic comedy “Love Per Square Foot,” in which the characters speak “Hinglish,” a neat blend of English and Hindi, a common linguistic phenomenon among many people in India and throughout the Indian diaspora. In the movie, there is nary a suggestion that the English feels to the characters like a spritz of cold water on every second sentence from a mustachioed British imperialist. In the same way, Congolese people go back and forth between French, their African lingua francas such as Lingala (memorably featured in, for example, the documentary “When We Were Kings”) and local indigenous languages few have heard of beyond where they are used.

Too often, what we’re presented with as authentically Black is a kind of essentialization. The idea that people’s authenticity stops at their home dialect does not reflect how people operate linguistically or their experience. Foisted on Black Americans, this idea of the standard dialect as a quiet menace, whatever its progressive intentions, is limiting. Even if the idea is not to ban the standard from a curriculum, if standard English is presented with an eye roll as the province of The Man, this is based in a conception of Blackness needlessly smaller than the reality of it.

Linguistically, Black Americans can and do walk and chew gum at the same time, like countless people around the world — and like it.

Source: McWhorter: Don’t sleep: Linguistically, Black Americans can walk and chew gum at the same time

McWhorter: Vocabulary imposed from on high sometimes just can’t catch on

Before the Canadian government considers embracing the US term BIPOC in its review of the Employment Equity Act, a useful reminder that it is no better than visible minorities in terms of how people see themselves, beyond academics and activists:

“BIPOC” has been with us for a few years now, and a certain verdict would appear to be in. Beyond academic and activist circles and some corners of social media, the acronym, which stands for “Black, Indigenous and people of color,” seems to strike most as rather peculiar. Clumsy, even. The Black academic and San Francisco Examiner columnist Teresa Moore wrote that the term “means well, but I want it to go away,” calling it “a solution to a problem that hadn’t needed solving,” a “‘New Coke’ of a word.”

I agree. Yet this does not mean that the term is, in itself, a mistake or a failure.

To be sure, the term has major problems, despite the good intentions of those who have broadcast and embraced it. The “POC” part is a frustratingly broad category, implying that Latinos and Asians (umbrella terms that are, perhaps, also too broad) constitute a coherent set — not to mention one that is somehow separate from Black and Indigenous people denoted by the “BI.” And “BI” is confusing, in that the term sounds at first as if it refers to bisexual people. Then, even when we are clear that it doesn’t, “BI” still sounds like a prefix of some kind, leading one to wonder just what a “POC” is. When spoken, “BIPOC” sounds like pocks who are bi in some way. And in English at least, “pock” doesn’t sound much like a person. Or, to my ear, if it did refer to a person, it would be in derision: “You pock!”

Although this isn’t how the term actually emerged, “BIPOC” sounds like one in a bunch of names thrown out amid a brainstorming session but never taken seriously, passed over in favor of something better that came up later. And that’s just it: “BIPOC” emerged — or, at least, broadly gained traction — not via a gradual consensus but via abrupt imposition amid the racial reckoning that began two springs ago, when many Americans were determined to renew our commitment to approaching race and racism in constructive ways.

Now, this kind of imposition does not automatically prevent a term from catching on. The problematizing of the term “master bedroom,” out of a sense that we should retire “master” as a relic of plantation slavery, arose from the same impulse as the usage of “BIPOC” and seems to be a success: “Master bedroom” is becoming non grata among some adjuncts of the real estate industry. Issues relating specifically to Black people seem particularly likely to dig a term in, as we also saw with how quickly “African American” caught on around three decades ago.

However, we are not merely passive supplicants at the mercy of prelates imposing lexical fiats from on high. Not everything settles in. For example, we are seeing that proposals for group names are less likely to be embraced when imposed from outside the group itself. When the Rev. Jesse Jackson called for the use of “African American,” his status and authority in Black America were roughly equal to Oprah Winfrey’s today. “African American” would have been much less likely to get around if it had been proposed by academics or lesser-known activists.

That kind of imposition from the outside has meant that “Latinx,” a gender-neutral alternative to “Latino” and “Latina,” is hardly used by the people it purports to refer to. In 2020, Pew Research found that only 3 percent of Latinos use the term. “BIPOC” isn’t doing much better. Too often, we take terminology proposals from academics and journalists as if we will henceforth be penalized — even if only socially — for going against their prescriptions. But their suggestions do not automatically affect language as it is used by ordinary people making themselves understood casually and comfortably.

It can seem that way because academics and journalists do a disproportionate amount of public writing and talking. For example, I suspect that normal people will continue saying “master bedroom”; I certainly will. Thus, there is no need to bristle at the proliferation of “BIPOC” as some kind of glowering fiat. Very few BIPOCs use it, and as Amy Harmon reported last year for The Times, in one national poll, “more than twice as many white Democrats said they felt ‘very favorably’ toward ‘BIPOC’ as Americans who identify as any of the nonwhite racial categories it encompasses.” And that is unlikely to change.

Again, this doesn’t mean “BIPOC” is a failed term. It has simply become part of a burgeoning register of English favored primarily by certain professors and political activists. This is no more a problem than another register, the academese favored by many scholars of literature and the social sciences. People of this realm have a way of writing and even speaking to one another on academic subjects that seems almost exotic to the outsider. For example, the renowned critical theorist and University of California, Berkeley, professor Judith Butler was granted first place in the journal Philosophy and Literature’s tongue-in-cheek bad-writing contest in 1998 for her prose in a 1997 essay, “Further Reflections on Conversations of Our Time,” that included this passage:

“The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”

I find it a little facile to dismiss this genre, even in jest, as simply bad writing. Its practitioners intend it as studiously objective and precise. And the main thing, despite how unaesthetic this writing may be, is that it has no effect on how most of us communicate. It’s an in-group practice that people look upon from the outside with a certain bemusement. It is a jargon.

People who refer to hegemony and structural totalities have a jargon. These days, there is what we could call, yes, a woke jargon. That is where “Latinx” and “BIPOC” live. These terms are not mistakes or misfires in not being taken up by most of the people they refer to, then. Who, after all, has an issue with there being jargons?

As Sandra Garcia reported for The Times in 2020, Sylvia Obell, a host of the podcast “Okay, Now Listen,” said, “We are asking for a lot of things, and being called BIPOC is not one of them.” She added, “Stop making decisions for us without us.” She need not worry: The decision cannot be, and will not be, forced on her or anyone else. People will be referred to as BIPOC among a certain contingent who, like all contingents, have ways of speaking that signal membership in their group and dedication to the group’s fundamental commitments.

There isn’t a thing wrong with that, but the rest of us can — and will — happily continue speaking and writing of Black people, Latino or Hispanic people, Native American or Indigenous people, people of South Asian or East Asian descent and all the other kinds of people, including, if we please, people of color.

Source: Vocabulary imposed from on high sometimes just can’t catch on

McWhorter: Stay Woke. The Right Can Be Illiberal, Too.


The characterization of the problem on the left strikes me as somewhere between uninformed and willfully blind. Yes, left-leaning students might demonstrate their free-speech intolerance within the cozy confines of their campuses, but one day they graduate into the real world and take that rehearsed intolerance with them. Superprogressive views may predominate in certain settings, but the presumption, held by too many, that their woke outlook doesn’t even warrant intellectual challenge in the public square is an extension of the broader “dis-enlightenment” I described back in October.

That said, I’m genuinely open to the idea that censorship from the right is more of a problem than I have acknowledged. The truth may be, as it so often is, in the middle, and two legal cases from the past week have made me think about it.

Making sense of things requires synthesis, identifying what explains a lot rather than perceiving a buzzing chaos of people suddenly crazed, which is an implausible and even effort-light approach to things. In that vein, our problem today is illiberalism on both sides.

We will salute, then, U.S. District Court Judge Mark Walker, who last week ruled, in a 74-page opinion, in favor of six professors at the University of Florida who were barred by school officials from acting as expert witnesses in cases challenging state policy on issues ranging from restrictive voting laws to Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’s attempt to withhold funds from schools with mask mandates. (There are also recent reports that U.F. faculty members have been cautioned against using the words “critical” and “race” in the same sentence to describe the curriculums they teach, apparently to head off discussion of critical race theory and its effects on education in a way that might draw a backlash from state legislators or others in the Florida government.)

Judge Walker analogized the actions of University of Florida officials to the removal in December of a statue commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre from the campus of the University of Hong Kong. He echoed the plaintiffs’ argument that “in an apparent act of vorauseilender Gehorsam,” or anticipatory obedience, “U.F. has bowed to perceived pressure from Florida’s political leaders and has sanctioned the unconstitutional suppression of ideas out of favor with Florida’s ruling party” — admonishing the defendants in a footnote that “if those in U.F.’s administration find this comparison upsetting, the solution is simple. Stop acting like your contemporaries in Hong Kong.”

The judge summed up by noting that “the Supreme Court of the United States has long regarded teachers, from the primary grades to the university level, as critical to a healthy democracy.” He added, “Plaintiffs’ academic inquiry ‘is necessary to informed political debate’ and ‘is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned,’” emphasizing that “when such critical inquiry is stifled, democracy suffers.”

Let’s not forget, either, what happened to the schoolteacher Matthew Hawn last summer: He was fired by school administrators in Tennessee for leading classroom discussions with high school juniors and seniors (in a course called Contemporary Studies; it’s not as if this had been a chemistry lab) on concepts such as white privilege and implicit bias, not long after passage in the state of a ban on teaching critical race theory. As I’ve argued, ideas rooted in that theory do, in refracted form, make their way into how some schoolteachers teach, and it’s legitimate to question the extent of this. But that hardly justifies Hawn’s getting canned for things such as assigning a widely read article by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Hawn is pursuing an appeal of his dismissal, and if justice is on his side, he should win it.

I’m not doing a 180 here or letting those I term the Elect off the hook. The illiberal tendency on the left is just as oppressive and requires equal pushback: The University of North Texas music professor Timothy Jackson, a founder of his school’s Center for Schenkerian Studies, studies the work of the German Jewish music theorist Heinrich Schenker, whose early-20th-century work figures prominently in music theory. In a 2019 speech to the Society for Music Theory, Philip Ewell, a Black music professor at Hunter College characterized Schenker as a racist and wrote in a 2020 article for Music Theory Online (a publication of the Society for Music Theory) that “Schenker’s racist views infected his music theoretical arguments,” that “there exists a ‘white racial frame’ in music theory that is structural and institutionalized” and that by extension, music theory and even the academic field of musicology are racialized, if not racist.

In 2020, Jackson led the publication of an issue of The Journal of Schenkerian Studies dedicated to addressing Ewell’s case, publishing five articles defending Ewell’s case and 10 critiquing it. As The Times reported last year, Jackson was hardly gentle in his pushback, arguing that Ewell’s “denunciation of Schenker and Schenkerians may be seen as part and parcel of the much broader current of Black antisemitism” and partly attributing the dearth of Black classical musicians to fewer Black people who “grow up in homes where classical music is profoundly valued” and that fostering music education in public schools is the proper remedy.

The result was, by today’s standards, predictable: Hundreds of students and scholars signed a letter condemning the issue. After an investigation, the university relieved Jackson of his supervision of the journal and, according to Times reporting, didn’t rule out further disciplinary action.

The point here is less whether Jackson’s argument and the issue it appeared in were the quintessence of tact on race issues than whether he deserves to lose his career status and reputation because of them. Nor is the point whether Ewell’s argument was enlightened; one is (or should be) free to subscribe to it. Or not. My view is that while the field of musicology is correct, generally, in examining itself for remnants of racist bias, Ewell’s specific take is flawed.

No, the point is that the through line between Jackson’s treatment at North Texas and the treatment of the Florida law professors is that instead of their views being addressed as one side of heated, complex debates, their views were squelched as unutterable heresies.

Jackson has sued, and if justice is on his side, he should win. I could cite a great many cases similar to his.

To many, I suspect, what happened to the University of Florida professors and to Hawn is more frightful than what happened to Jackson. However, that sentiment is a matter of one’s priorities, not a neutral conception of what justice consists of. Too many of us suppose that people should not be allowed to express opinions they deem unpleasant or dangerous and are given to demonizing those who have such opinions as threats to our moral order.

On the right, even if you’re wary of critical race theory’s effect on the way many kids are taught, it is both backward and unnecessary to institutionalize the sense that discussing race at all is merely unwelcome pot stirring (and if that’s not what you mean, then you need to make it clear). On the left, illiberalism does not become insight just because some think they are speaking truth to power. Resistance to this kind of perspective is vital, no matter where it comes from on the political spectrum.

Source: INSERT

McWhorter: Abandoning complexity, abstraction and forgiveness is unenlightened

Another good nuanced discussion:

The University of Chicago’s Dorian Abbot is a climate scientist with some vital observations about the sustainability of life on other planets. He planned to share them at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in its esteemed annual Carlson Lecture. But Abbot has also advocated race-neutral university admissions policies, including co-writing an essay in Newsweek arguing that race-conscious admissions criteria (as well as admission preferences for children of alumni and for athletes) should end.

Abbot’s invitation drew opposition from some students and faculty, and this year’s Carlson Lecture was subsequently canceled. In response, Prof. Robert George, who leads Princeton University’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, invited Abbot to speak at Princeton. But M.I.T.’s message had already been sent and seems hard to misinterpret: Abbot was not suitable for general consumption.

I’m less concerned with the particulars of Abbot’s case here than how it demonstrates our broader context these days. I refer to a new version of enlightenment; one that rejects basic tenets of the Enlightenment, as exemplified by Prof. Phoebe Cohen, chair of geosciences at Williams College, who downplayed Abbot’s apparent disinvitation with the observation, as reported by The New York Times, that “this idea of intellectual debate and rigor as the pinnacle of intellectualism” — the idea, presumably, that the widest possible range of perspectives should be heard and scrutinized — “comes from a world in which white men dominated.”

A major problem with this new mood, this dis-enlightenment, in which Abbot is denied a prominent forum seemingly because his views on racial preferences don’t suit a certain orthodoxy, is that it demands that we settle for the elementary in favor of the enlightened. Among the ultra-woke there seems to be a contingent that considers its unquestioning ostracizations as the actualization of higher wisdom, even though its ideology, generally, is strikingly simplistic. This contingent indeed encourages us to think — about thinking less.

For example, affirmative action and its justifications are a complex subject that has challenged generations of thinkers. A Gallup survey conducted in late 2018 found that 61 percent of Americans generally favored race-based affirmative action. But in a survey taken a few weeks later, Pew Research found that 73 percent opposed using race as a factor in university admissions. In a Supreme Court decision in 2003 allowing a race-conscious admissions program, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor surmised that 25 years hence, racial preferences in admissions would no longer be necessary — which would mean we have only seven years to go.

Clearly some cogitation is in order. Yet it appears that Abbot was barred from a more august podium out of an assumption that his views on racial preferences are beyond debate. Even though he was to speak on an unrelated topic. This “deplatforming” — if we must — was, in a word, simplistic.

Simplistic, too: Cohen points to a time when white men, exclusively, were in charge. Yes, but the obvious response is: “Does that automatically mean that their take on intellectual debate and rigor was wrong?” The implication that the questions Abbot raised are morally out of bounds forbids basic curiosity and rational calculation and stands athwart the very purpose of the small-L liberal education that universities are supposed to provide.

Another sign of this dis-enlightenment: the modern fashion that treats stereotyping as sophisticated analysis. We’re told much about a vague monolith of white people ever ready to circle the wagons and defend white interests. Robin DiAngelo’s best-selling “White Fragility” is Exhibit A of this trope, and her latest book, “Nice Racism,” includes a chapter titled “Why It’s OK to Generalize About White People.” But the existence of racism does not, as DiAngelo suggests, make it valid to propose that there is a kind of undifferentiated body of white people with indistinguishable interests.

White America consists of myriad groups and individuals, whose actions and non-actions, intentional and not, have a vast range of effects whose totality challenges all thinking observers. Writers like DiAngelo, who wield enormous influence in our current discourse, encourage the assumption that white people act as a self-preservationist amalgam. This notion of a pale-faced single organism stomping around the world is a cartoon, yet smart people hold this cartoon up as an enlightened way of thinking, and it has caught on.

I also suspect I am hardly alone, when hearing the term “systemic racism,” in quietly wondering how useful it is to use the same word, racism, for both explicit bigotry and inequality, even if the latter is according to race. In his similarly best-selling “How to Be an Antiracist,” the Boston University professor Ibram Kendi begins by defining a “racist” as “one who is supporting a racist policy through their actions or inaction or expressing a racist idea.” He then defines an “antiracist” as “one who is supporting an antiracist policy through their actions or expressing an antiracist idea.”

His simplistic definitions declare a dichotomy between racism and antiracism with naught in between — quite a blunt instrument to apply to something as complex as the sociology and history of race in our nation. The looming implication that a system, a society, can be racist is not accidental: It tempts, in anthropomorphizing the complexities of race-based inequalities, how they emerge, and what to do about them.

A symptom of these less-reflective, too-reflexive approaches is the zeal for banishing apostates so common today, when it is accepted as appropriate and cutting-edge to tell those who dissent from the woke take on race to hit the road. Abbot was but one example, prevented from speaking to a broad audience at a university on a topic that has nothing to do with racial preferences, as if his opinions about racial preferences irrevocably taint his climate science work. As if his views on racial preferences themselves are unworthy of reasoned discussion.

Consider, also, cases in which some obviously non-malicious breach of woke liturgy results in some degree of shunning: The week before last, you’ll recall, I wrote about the University of Michigan professor Bright Sheng. We are back to the age of Galileo’s inquisitors.

This treatment of different opinions and approaches as heresies is one of many signs that a new religion is afoot. (And hoping you, dear reader, don’t mind a shameless plug, I’ll add that this also happens to be the main theme of my new book, “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”)

I’m not kidding about religion. The Emory University philosophy professor Robert McCauley, for example, teaches that religion tends to anthropomorphize. He sees a major difference between religious belief and science as the tendency for the former to attribute agency and intentionality to things we may not be able to explain. I’m thinking of how one might say that a guardian angel facilitated good fortune, or even how a natural disaster may be seen as an “act of God.” In the new woke religion, society is described as “racist,” a term originally applied to people.

Note also the eerie parallel between the conceptions of original sin and white privilege as unremovable stains about which one is to maintain a lifelong concern and guilt. Religions don’t always have gods, but they usually need sins, which in the new religion is the whiteness that supposedly bestrides everything in our lives.

There is a pitchfork aspect to how this way of thinking is penetrating our institutions of enlightenment. With an unreachable pitilessness, a catechism couched in an elaborate jargon is being imposed almost as if sacred: privilege, decentering, hegemony, antiracism. Nonbelievers, sometimes even agnostics, are cast out, leaving a cowed polity pretending to agree. This is a regrettable kind of religion, aiming to run the state. That’s not how this American experiment was supposed to go.

The only thing that will turn back this tide is a critical mass willing to insist on complexity, abstraction and forgiveness. As a Black man, I am especially appalled by the implication that to insist on these three things in thinking about race issues is somehow anti-Black.

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McWhorter: What I See in the Latest Blackface ‘Scandal’

Misguided wokeness:

At the University of Michigan recently, the music professor Bright Sheng — who’s had a superlative career as a composer, conductor and musician — wanted to share with his students how Giuseppe Verdi transformedShakespeare’s “Othello” into the acclaimed opera “Otello.” That transformation is a rich and instructive topic in music composition.
In September, Sheng showed his undergraduate composition seminar the 1965 film based on the Royal National Theatre’s stage production of “Othello,” with Laurence Olivier playing the title role in blackface makeup, in line with the custom of the era.
Some students took offense: One told The Michigan Daily that she was “shocked” and that Sheng failed to first contextualize what the class saw. Sheng apologized. Days later, the dean of Music, Theatre & Dance wrote that “Professor Sheng’s actions do not align with our school’s commitment to anti-racist action, diversity, equity and inclusion.” Sheng apologized again, and in an apparent effort to mitigate, offered examples of his professional support over the years for people of color. That drew criticism from grad students, undergrads and faculty, who, according to The Daily, called it “inflammatory” in an open letter calling for Sheng’s removal as course instructor.
In a Medium post, a writer identifying as a member of the class took Sheng’s department chair to task for, reportedly, recommending that the issue “may be something you ought to first discuss with Professor Sheng.” (The audacity.) The same post implied that Sheng’s alleged transgressions were as grave as, for instance, incidents of sexual harassment and abuse. If you want to read more, Cathy Young has provided invaluable coverage of what she correctly describes as yet another “moral panic.”
Sheng has left the class.
A common response to occurrences like this is to condemn the students involved as being overly delicate — snowflakes, in today’s parlance. However, merely leveling that charge doesn’t facilitate a constructive discussion about what fuels these sadly routine events. The underlying issue isn’t the students’ fragility, it’s that their approach illustrates the difference between radicalism and progressivism. It’s an example of a strain of thought permeating campuses (our whole society, really), one that blithely elides that difference in favor of preaching only of “social justice.”
Start here: What happened to Sheng would have been much less likely a generation ago. In the late 1990s, I showed a class of white, Black and Asian American students a scene from a film with white performers in blackface. Beforehand, I mentioned that this was a very old movie and that we were going to see a practice that nobody would venture today, but that the film was instructive for other reasons. None of the students batted an eye, at least that I could see. If anything, some of the Black students (and maybe some of the non-Black students) snickered at the performers for how ridiculous they looked.
So, here’s our query: Is the response of Sheng’s students an advance on those of my students a generation ago? Were me and my students missing something upon which our modern era is more enlightened?
Before we tackle that, there are two important points to address. First, as Young notes, Olivier’s performance does involve a degree of cartoonish swagger beyond what some blackface performances of the era entailed. But it’s reasonable to assume that Sheng’s students would have had a similar response to more restrained blackface portrayals of Othello, such as Orson Welles’s.
Second, Sheng should indeed have made clear that he was about to show his students something that would require them to put on their “history glasses,” as I sometimes put it. But the question involves degree: Should he now be barred from the class amid rhetoric that makes him sound like a pitiless bigot, unfit and out of step with an enlightened society? I’d say no.
Now: Let’s break down what the crux of objections to showing a blackface performance ever at all are.
The typical idea is that blackface is a reminder of the reign of minstrel shows, in which white performers wore blackface makeup and engaged in clownish distortion of Black speech and dance styles. Minstrel shows were core American entertainment for most of the 19th century, and well into the 20th. It was a filmic depiction of a minstrel show, in fact, that I showed my class: Al Jolson in 1930’s “Mammy.”
Minstrel shows were disgusting, all the more so in how utterly central they were in American entertainment for so very long. But is there no statute of limitations on how long a people will feel actual injury about such a thing? In 2021, there is barely a person alive who attended a minstrel show performed as mainstream, professional entertainment. Even those who may have caught ragtag amateur groups keeping the tradition alive are likely now quite elderly.
The idea seems to be that we (relatively) younger Black people and our non-Black fellow travelers are nevertheless so viscerally stung by seeing any manifestation of this bygone tradition that to show dated footage of a white British actor in blackface, as part of an academic colloquy, qualifies as a grievous insult. But I like to think of Black Americans as a people of pride and forward thinking. I miss those qualities in this submission to an insult leveled by perpetrators now very, very dead. And since no one can seriously argue that Sheng’s intent was to revive or exalt the practice of blackface — and not to teach something about the operatic adaptation of a seminal literary work — to treat him as an accessory to those dead perpetrators seems more a kind of performance in itself than a spontaneously felt insult.
Another idea would be that to imitate a Black person by trying to darken the appearance of one’s skin is, inherently, to ridicule that person. But is it impossible in the logical sense that someone might costume oneself as a Black person one admires and put on makeup to darken one’s face simply as part of seeking to look like that person? Many will heatedly object: “Impossible!” But we must attend to why. If the answer is minstrel shows, then see above.
These days, we’re expected to recoil, under any circumstances, at the idea of a white person attempting to make their skin look like the color of a nonwhite person’s, as if this were the automatic equivalent to using a racist slur, or worse. But context matters. A lot.
Is blackface being shown as part of a collegiate-level discussion, as in the Michigan case? College students shouldn’t need protection from an old film used to help them think about and debate the conversion of a classic over time. Sheng was using the film to stir and inform artistic consciousness. To read that situation otherwise is deeply anti-intellectual.
Is blackface being deployed comedically, not to make fun of Black people, but to lampoon the absurdity of racism? For example, in one episode of the sitcom “30 Rock,” Jane Krakowski’s character is made up in blackface and wears men’s clothing; Tracy Morgan’s character is made up in whiteface, a blond wig and wears women’s clothing in a “social experiment” to see who has it harder in America — white women or Black men. In another episode, Krakowski is made up in blackface and dresses as the Pittsburgh Steelers great Lynn Swann, who’s not derided in any way, the bit being a clever play on the movie title “Black Swan.”
Last year, not long after George Floyd was murdered, three “30 Rock” episodes that involved blackface, including those two, were taken out of syndication. The show’s producers, including its star, Tina Fey, may have concluded they had no choice. But we might ask why the sheer matter of the makeup was an insult to Black people. It’s not self-evident that pulling those episodes was morally necessary in 2020 because of careers like Jolson’s. The shows’ flashes of wit didn’t set Black people back in any way. It’s hard to see how a lighthearted plotline about racism and sexism, even with blackface, harms Black people — or how taking it off the air helps us. My horse sense tells me that the vast majority of us get that a joke can be a joke.
These are my own observations. They are up for debate. But those condemning Sheng seem to consider their ideas not just opinions, but truths — the predicate for an inquisition. Yet, the view that blackface makeup is so uniquely revolting that a professor should be hounded from his class for showing, in a scholarly setting, decades-old scenes of an actor wearing it is a point that many find extreme. It is a position that requires some serious lifting and a vast transformation in common modes of thought, even among people with good-faith concerns about race relations, and would look odd to time travelers from just a few decades ago. A position like that is not simply “antiracist,” but radical.
This radical proposition, like so many on race of late, is being put forth as if it were scripture that no moral actor could question. It misses the point, then, to dismiss the students as fragile. Their claim entails that people were injured by such usages of blackface before, therefore must still be now, and that we should redefine the bounds of permissibility to bar such images from general experience. They think their recoil from the very sight of decades-old racist imagery is uniquely enlightened, a resistance to abuse endemic to our society’s past, present and future. To them, their response isn’t only appropriate, it’s mandatory.
But that’s a proposition they must assert in the public square and assume as subject to discussion and dissent.
And let’s face it, in that discussion, this radical proposition would likely be voted down. Its adherents would deem this as racism winning out. But many others would see it as a victory for common sense, seeing the current fashion as a performance, a kind of, yes, virtue signaling.
Or just maybe, the people who witch-hunted Sheng could defend their position better than I am imagining. I’d be happy to observe the attempt. But from where I sit, we’re seeing a radical agenda not proposed, but imposed. Upon what authority are they allowed such primacy of influence in how we speak, think and teach in our times?
Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/15/opinion/blackface-michigan-sheng.html?searchResultPosition=2

McWhorter on Redlining

Good reminder of the importance of considering socio-economic factors along with racism, bias and discrimination:

“He thinks there’s no systemic racism.”
No, it’s just that I think we overstate its role in American society today.
“But what about redlining? What about the cops? Can he really …?”
Yes, he can — because things like that just aren’t as simple as we are taught to suppose.
One recent study of redlining is Exhibit A.
First, some background: Redlining was a policy in which certain neighborhoods — coded in red on maps — were considered too risky for mortgage lending. In a great many American cities, Black people were essentially corralled into these red zones, unable to build equity in better housing found elsewhere.
Redlining is now widely seen as a major justification for reparations for Black Americans, especially in light of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s famous Atlantic article, “The Case for Reparations.” In Evanston, a suburb of Chicago, the City Council in March approved a plan to pay out $25,000 grants for home repairs, down payments or mortgage payments to Black people who suffered housing discrimination or whose family lived in the city during the years of active redlining. However, as with so many matters of race, the redlining story is more complicated than many know.
For one thing, there’s the matter of how many white people owned homes and lived in the redlined areas. An interesting National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by the economist Price V. Fishback and co-authors matched households in the 1930 and 1940 censuses to their locations in neighborhoods in “residential security” maps of 10 major Northern cities produced by a New Deal mortgage entity, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. The researchers found that white people accounted for 82 percent of individuals living in the lowest-rated areas. White people also owned 92 percent of the homes in these areas. The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation made a higher share of its loans to Black people than the other lenders at the time (a better-known New Deal agency, the Federal Housing Administration, insured a substantially smaller share of Black mortgages).
I know where you may think I’m going. One approach to this data is to say that redlining was about class, not race, and treat it as a refutation of arguments such as Ta-Nehisi Coates’s.
But not so fast. Black people were still represented disproportionately in the lowest-rated neighborhoods: More than 97 percent of Black people — in other words, almost all of them — rented or owned homes in redlined neighborhoods in the 10 cities surveyed.
One reason for that was almost all Black people were poor, a disproportion due certainly to manifestations of other forms of racism at the time and historically. And this disproportionate representation in redlined communities helped keep them poor. Plus, there is plenty of anecdotal and fragmentary evidence that people working on the ground for the F.H.A. and the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation had not only classist but also racial biases. And of course within neighborhoods, homeowners themselves openly barred Black people from becoming neighbors via the racially restrictive covenants memorably depicted in Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” (I recommend Charles Shields’s forthcoming Hansberry biography).

However, the Redlining 101 story — that cigar-chomping bigots in suspenders drew lines around where Black people happened to live while giving loans to poor whites — doesn’t fully hold up. I am not arguing that systemic racism isn’t real overall, but rather I am scrutinizing one commonly addressed case of it to show that the facts are more complex than they seem. Namely, large numbers of poor whites — recall from above, some four-fifths of the people living in redlined neighborhoods in the cities surveyed by the study I cited — dwarfed the numbers of Black people and were stuck in the redlined neighborhoods too, getting old and having to move in with their grown kids elsewhere as the neighborhoods fell apart. We just don’t hear that part of the story.
Nor do we tend to hear that the cops kill vastly more white than Black people. Or, if we do, the issue of disproportion comes up, just as it must on redlining. But then comes poverty — leaving us again with a more complicated picture than many seem to find convenient.
In 2020, a plurality of the more than 1,000 people shot and killed by the police, according to data compiled by The Washington Post, were white (459); Black people were about a quarter. That is typical year after year. From these statistics some people might wonder why we consider killings by cops a Black problem.
But not so fast. Black Americans account for about 13 percent of the country’s population, but they are more than two times as likely as white Americans to be fatally shot by police officers. This must be attended to, even if it isn’t that Black men are all, or even most, of those killed. The disproportion is typically taken to suggest that racism leads cops to value our lives less.
So: Just as racism was why most Black people lived in redlined, even if mostly white, neighborhoods, racism is why Black people are killed by cops disproportionately, even if they kill more white people numerically. Right?
Yet poverty is germane in the police-killing case as well. Black Americans are two and a half times as likely as white Americans to be killed by cops, and also more than twice as likely to be poor. And crucially, as a report on policing, poverty and racial inequity in Tulsa makes clear, policing is concentrated in poorer neighborhoods, which are more frequently communities of color and which receive more frequent calls for service. And the horrors of modern “war on crime”-style policing are focused on poverty.

Just as racism certainly operated within the housing loan system, racial bias certainly operates within policing. Solid evidence shows racial bias in who gets pulled over (Black people are less likely to be pulled over after dark, when the driver’s race is harder for officers to discern), searched (the bar for searching Black drivers is lower than that for searching white drivers) and verbally abused.

Yet data also suggests that when it comes to police shootings, with all factors taken into account, such as whether the suspect was armed and whether the officers had just cause to fear for their lives, cops kill white people in greater numbers than Black people, but they kill Black people to a disproportionately far greater degree. White cops may not like Black people much in many cases — and they show it — but when it comes to ending Black lives, just maybe we can open up to the possibility that they hold back on resorting to shooting just as much as they do with white men?
That was the finding of the Harvard economist Roland Fryer, who in 2016 found that while Blacks were more likely to experience some form of force in their interactions with the police after they were stopped, there was no racial bias when it came to officer-involved shootings.
Overall, the Cops and Black People 101 story — that police officers casually mow down Black men while letting white men pass with a summons or a slap on the hand — doesn’t hold up. Many more white men than Black men die at the hands of cops. We just don’t hear that part of the story very much.
So on that gloomy old map you see illustrating articles about housing bias, most people living within the redlined perimeter were likely white, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research study, but we don’t hear that part of the story either.
None of that means that racism hasn’t existed or doesn’t exist. But it also suggests that socioeconomic factors matter as well, and a lot. This is a point made by the historian Touré Reed, who wrote an important book to this effect; his father, the political scientist Adolph Reed Jr., is of similar mind, as is the historian Barbara Fields — all three want us to think more about class than “antiracism.”
In a nutshell, one of my takeaways from redlining and shootings by the police is that alleviating Black poverty makes Black people less susceptible to ills that disproportionately befall those who are poor — ills in which racism surely plays a part, but my interest is in the fact that being poor makes you encounter these things so much more.
Some will still prefer to focus their battle on racism, but no one is going to tell me that focusing more on poverty is anti-Black or disloyal.

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McWhorter:What Should We Do About Systemic Racism?

Interesting and nuanced discussion and the need for a more sophisticated discussion of different outcomes:

Here’s why some people aren’t onboard with the way Americans are taught to think about systemic racism: Even fully understanding that systemic racism exists and why it is important — persistent disparities between Black people and others in access to resources — one may have some questions. Real ones.

For me, the biggest question is not whether systemic racism exists but what to do about it.

A thorny patch, for starters, is figuring out whether racism is even the cause of a particular kind of disparity. One approach, well-aired these days, is that all racial disparities must be due to racism — a view encapsulated in a proclamation like “When I see racial disparities, I see racism.”

But that approach, despite its appeal in being so elementary — plus a bit menacing (a bit of drama, a little guilt?) — is often mistaken in its analysis, not to mention harmful to Black people if acted upon.

Here’s an example. Black kids tend not to do as well in school as white kids, statistically. But just what is the “racism” that causes this particular disparity?

It isn’t something as plain and simple as the idea that all Black kids go to underfunded schools — it’s a little 1980s to think that’s all we’re faced with. School funding is hugely oversold as a reason for schools’ underperformance, and the achievement disparity persists even among middle-class Black kids.

And middle-class Black kids are not just a mere sliver: Only about a third of Black students are poor. Yet the number of Black students admitted to top-level universities, for example, is small — so small that policies changing admissions standards are necessary for such schools to have a representative number of them on campus. This is fact, shown at countless institutions over the past 30 years such as the University of Michigan and recently Harvard. The key question is what justifies the policies.

One answer might be: “When I see racial disparities, I see racism.”

But in evaluating that idea, we must consider this: Black teenagers too often associate school with being “white.” Doesn’t such a mind-set have a way of keeping a good number of Black kids from hitting the very highest note in school? If many Black kids have to choose between being a nerd and having more Black friends — and one study suggests that they do — then the question is not whether this would depress overall Black scholastic achievement, but why it wouldn’t. The vast weight of journalistic attestations about growing up Black and how Black kids deal with school show the conflicting pressures they can face about achieving good grades and making friendships.

Now, my point here is not to simply accuse students of having a “pathology.” To be sure, the reason Black kids often think of school as “white” is racism. Just not racism today. Thus to eliminate systemic racism, our target cannot be some form of racism in operation now, because the racism operated several decades ago.

It took a while for Brown v. Board of Education to actually be enforced. When it was, starting in the mid-1960s, white teachers and students nationwide were not happy. Old-school open racism was still in flower, and Black kids in newly desegregated schools experienced it full blast — and not just in the South.

It was then that Black kids started thinking of school as the white kids’ game, something to disidentify from. While it hurts to be called a nerd when you’re white, the sting is worse when you are called disloyal to your race.

The source to consult on all of this is the book “Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation,” as key to understanding Black history as Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow.”

One might ask why the disaffection with school persists even though the racism that caused it has retreated so much — for certainly this kind of open racism diminished enormously in the 1970s and 1980s. But cultural traits can persist in human beings beyond what sparked those traits. The idea that school is not what “we” do settled into a broader function: ordinary teenage tribalism. White kids might choose to be, say, Goths or various things. So might Black kids — but another identity available to many of them is a sense of school as racially inauthentic. The “acting white” idea has persisted even in well-funded middle-class schools, where if anyone is discriminating against the Black students, it’s being done in ways too scattered and usually subtle to explain, indefensible though they are, to realistically explain the performance gap.

This sense of school as “other” can be covert as well as overt. A 1997 study by Clifton Casteel, a Black educator, showed that white eighth and ninth graders tend to think of themselves as doing homework to please their parents, while Black ones think of themselves as doing it for their teachers. That’s subtle but indicative — the idea that school stuff for Black students is outside of home and hearth. And in the 1980s, a mathematics educator, Phillip Uri Treisman, showed that Black college students do better in calculus if they are taught to work together in studying it (with high expectations and close professor mentoring also recommended). That Black students need to be instructed to share schoolwork rather than go it alone illuminates a private sense of school as not what “we” do — i.e., when we are together being ourselves.

I will not pretend that there has not been, for 20 years, people vociferously denying that Black kids often have an ambivalent attitude toward excelling in school. However, that Black kids don’t say in interviews that they disidentify from school reveals no more than that whites say they aren’t racist in interviews — why hit rewind and pretend psychology has no layers solely when Black students are involved? Then there is the idea that certain studies have disproved that this sense of disconnection exists when they actually found possible evidence of it, such as one documenting Black students saying that they like school and yet reporting spending less time on homework compared with white and Asian kids.

In sum, the sheer volume of attestations and documentation of Black students accused of “acting white” makes it clear to any unbiased observer that the issue is real, including the shakiness of the attempts to debunk the claim. The denialists are worried that someone like me is criticizing the Black students, upon which I repeat: The sense of school as white was caused by racism. It’s just that it was long, long ago now.

So, we return to “when I see racial disparities, I see racism.” This is a mantra from Ibram X. Kendi, and one of his solutions to the Black-white achievement gap in school is to eliminate standardized tests. They are “racist,” you see, because Black kids tend not to do as well on them as others.

And in line with this version of racial reckoning, we are seeing one institution after another eliminating or altering testing requirements, from the University of California to Boston’s public school system.

The idea that this is the antiracist thing to do is rooted in an idea that there is something about Black culture that renders standardized tests inappropriate. After all, Kendi certainly doesn’t think the issue is Black genes. Nor, we assume, does any responsible person think it’s genes, and it can’t be that all Black kids grow up poor because to say that is racist, denying the achievements of so many Black people and contradicting simple statistics.

So it’s apparently something about being a Black person. Kendi does not specify what this cultural configuration is, but there is reason to suppose, from what he as well as many like-minded people are given to writing and saying, that the idea is that Black people for some reason don’t think “that way,” that Black thought favors pragmatic engagement with the exigencies of real life over the disembodied abstraction of test questions.

But there is a short step from here to two gruesome places.

One is the idea getting around in math pedagogy circles that being precise, embracing abstract reasoning and focusing on finding the actual answer are “white,” which takes us right back to the idea that school is “white.”

The other is the idea that Black people just aren’t as quick on the uptake as other people.

Yeah, I know — multiple intelligences, “energy” and so on. Taking a test of abstract reasoning is just one way of indicating intelligence, right — but folks, really? I submit that few beyond a certain circle will ever truly believe that we need to trash these tests, which were expressly designed to cut through bias.

One of Kendi’s suggestions, for example, is that we assess Black kids instead on how articulate they are about their neighborhood circumstances and on their “desire to know.” But this is a drive-by notion of pedagogical practice, with shades again of the idea that being a grind is “white.” I insist that it is more progressively Black to ask why we can’t seek for Black kids to get better on the tests, and almost phrenological to propound that it’s racist to submit a Black person to a test of abstract cognitive skill.

To get more Black students into top schools, we should focus on getting the word out in Black communities about free test preparation programs, such as have long existed in New York City. We should resist the elimination of gifted tracks as “racist,” given that they shunted quite a few Black kids into top high schools in, for example, New York back in the day. Teaching Black kids to work together should be even more of a meme than it has become since Treisman’s study. And the idea that school is “for white people” should be traced, faced and erased, reified and rendered as uncool as drunken driving and smoking have been.

Boy, that was some right-wing conservative boilerplate, no? Of course not. Many would see these prescriptions as unsatisfying because they aren’t about wagging a finger in white America’s face. But doing that is quite often antithetical to improving Black lives.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/10/opinion/systemic-racism-education.html

How the N-Word Became Unsayable

Interesting history:

In 1934, Allen Walker Read, an etymologist and lexicographer, laid out the history of the word that, then, had “the deepest stigma of any in the language.” In the entire article, in line with the strength of the taboo he was referring to, he never actually wrote the word itself. The obscenity to which he referred, “fuck,” though not used in polite company (or, typically, in this newspaper), is no longer verboten. These days, there are two other words that an American writer would treat as Mr. Read did. One is “cunt,” and the other is “nigger.” The latter, though, has become more than a slur. It has become taboo.

Just writing the word here, I sense myself as pushing the envelope, even though I am Black — and feel a need to state that for the sake of clarity and concision, I will be writing the word freely, rather than “the N-word.” I will not use the word gratuitously, but that will nevertheless leave a great many times I do spell it out, love it though I shall not.

“Nigger” began as a neutral descriptor, although it was quickly freighted with the casual contempt that Europeans had for African and, later, African-descended people. Its evolution from slur to unspeakable obscenity was part of a gradual prohibition on avowed racism and the slurring of groups. It is also part of a larger cultural shift: Time was that it was body parts and what they do that Americans were taught not to mention by name — do you actually do much resting in a restroom?

That kind of concern has been transferred from the sexual and scatological to the sociological, and changes in the use of the word “nigger” tell part of that story. What a society considers profane reveals what it believes to be sacrosanct: The emerging taboo on slurs reveals the value our culture places — if not consistently — on respect for subgroups of people. (I should also note that I am concerned here with “nigger” as a slur rather than its adoption, as “nigga,” as a term of affection by Black people, like “buddy.”)

For all of its potency, in terms of etymology, “nigger” is actually on the dull side, like “damn” and “hell.” It just goes back to Latin’s word for “black,” “niger,” which not surprisingly could refer to Africans, although Latin actually preferred other words like “aethiops” — a singular, not plural, word — which was borrowed from Greek, in which it meant (surprise again) “burn face.”

English got the word more directly from Spaniards’ rendition of “niger,” “negro,” which they applied to Africans amid their “explorations.” “Nigger” seems more like Latin’s “niger” than Spanish’s “negro,” but that’s an accident; few English sailors and tradesmen were spending much time reading their Cicero. “Nigger” is how an Englishman less concerned than we often are today with making a stab at foreign words would say “negro.”

For Mandarin’s “feng shui,” we today say “fung shway,” as the Chinese do, but if the term had caught on in the 1500s or even the early 1900s, we would be saying something more like “funk shoe-y,” just as we call something “chop suey” that is actually pronounced in Cantonese “tsopp suh-ew.” In the same way, “negro” to “nigger” is as “fellow” is to “feller” or “Old Yellow” is to “Old Yeller”; “nigger” feels more natural in an Anglophone mouth than “negro.”

“Nigger” first appeared in English writings in the 1500s. As it happens, the first reference involved “aethiops,” as it had come to refer to Ethiopia, or at least that term as applied sloppily to Africa. We heard of “The Nigers of Aethiop” in 1577, and that spelling was but one of many from then on. With spelling as yet unconventionalized, there were “neger,” “nigur,” niger,” “nigor” and “nigre” — take your pick.

It was, as late as the 1700s, sometimes presented as a novelty item. Scottish poet Robert Burns dutifully taught, referring to “niger,” that it rhymes with “vigour, rigour, tiger.” Note, we might, that last word. If “tiger” rhymes with “vigor” and “rigor,” that means that “tiger” could once be pronounced “tigger,” which then sheds light on the rhyme:

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe
Catch a tigger by the toe
If he hollers, let him go
Eeeny, meeny, miny, moe.

“Tigger,” then, was a polite substitute for the original “nigger.” After all, do we really imagine a tiger hollering in protest? So, for one, we gain insight into why the Winnie-the-Pooh character is called “Tigger” and the books are so vague on why it’s pronounced that way. That was an available alternate pronunciation to A.A. Milne. But more to the point, the original version of the “Eeny, meeny” doggerel is a window into how brutally casual the usage of “nigger” once was, happily trilled even by children at play. For eons, it was ordinary white people’s equivalent of today’s “African-American.”

Someone wrote in passing in 1656 that woolly hair is “very short as Nigers have,” with the term meant as bland clinical reference. “Jethro, his Niger, was then taken,” someone breezily wrote in a diary 20 years later. And this sort of thing went on through the 1700s and 1800s. Just as “cunt” was a casual anatomical term in medieval textbooks, “nigger,” however spelled, was simply the way one said “Black person,” with the pitiless dismissiveness of the kind we moderns use in discussing hamsters, unquestioned by anyone. After a while, the current spelling settled in, which makes the contrast with today especially stark.

Its use straddling the 19th and 20th centuries is especially interesting: While America was becoming recognizable as its modern self, its denizens said “nigger” as casually as today we do “boomer” or “soccer mom.” Frank Norris’s anthropological realism is an example. In his “Vandover and the Brute,” set at the end of the 1800s, the white protagonist in San Francisco squires a gal about town who has been doing some teaching and tells him

about the funny little nigger girl, and about the games and songs and how they played birds and hopped around and cried, “Twit, twit,” and the game of the butterflies visiting the flowers.

Annals of popular dancing shortly after this era gaily chronicled dances such as the bunny hug, turkey trot and grizzly bear but discreetly left out that a girl like the one in “Vandover” were equally fond of one called the nigger wiggle, named as if Black people were just one more kind of amusing animal. (This dance entailed, for the record, a couple putting their hips together and holding each other’s rear ends.)

Of course, the word was also used in pure contempt. Not long after “Vandover,” William Jennings Bryan, the iconic populist orator, as secretary of state, remarked about Haitians, “Dear me, think of it, niggers speaking French.” Meanwhile, the Marine in charge of Haiti on the behalf of our great nation at the time, L.W.T. Waller, made sure all knew that whatever their linguistic aptitudes, the Haitians were “real nigs beneath the surface.”

There was a transitional period between the breeziness of “real nigs beneath the surface” and the word becoming unsayable. In the 20th century, with Black figures of authority insisting that Black Americans be treated with dignity, especially after serving in World War I, “nigger” began a move from neutral to impolite. Most Black thinkers favored “colored” or “Negro.” But “nigger” was not yet profane.

Film is, as always, illuminating. We have been told that early talkies were splendidly vulgar because, for instance, Barbara Stanwyck’s character openly sleeps her way to the top in “Baby Face.” But linguistically, these films are post-Victorian. That character never says “fuck,” “ass” or “shit” as the real-life version would, and in films of this genre, that reticence includes “nigger.” It is, despite the heartless racism of the era, almost absent from American cinema until the 1960s. Rather, we today can glean it in the shadows: There it reigned with an appalling vigor.

So in the film “Gone With the Wind” no one utters it, but in the book it was based on, which almost everyone had read, Scarlett O’Hara hauls off with, “You’re a fool nigger, and the worst day’s work Pa ever did was to buy you.” And she then thinks, “I’ve said ‘nigger’ and Mother wouldn’t like that at all.” As in, there was now a veil coming down, such that one was supposed to be polite — approximately in the book, conclusively in the movie. But still, it was always just under the same surface that our Marine saw “nig”-ness through.

Same period, 1937: a Looney Tunes cartoon (“Porky’s Railroad”) has Porky Pig as the engineer in a race between trains. Porky’s rival zooms past a pile of logs and blows them away to reveal a Black man sitting, perplexed. Today we wonder why this person was sitting under a pile of logs. The reason is that this was a joke referring to the expression “nigger in the woodpile,” an old equivalent of “the elephant in the room.” No Looney Tunes character ever utters “nigger,” but this joke reveals that their creators were quite familiar with the word being used with joy.

Even into the 1970s, the word’s usage in the media was different from today’s. “The Jeffersons,” a television sitcom portraying a Black family that moves from working-class Queens to affluence in a Manhattan apartment tower, was considered a brash, modern and even thoughtful statement at the time. Here was the era when television shows took a jump into a realism unknown before, except in flashes: The contrast between the goofy vaudeville of “Here’s Lucy” and the salty shout-fests on “The Jeffersons” is stark. So it was almost a defining element of a show like “The Jeffersons” that loudmouthed, streety George Jefferson would use “nigger” to refer to Black people with (and without) affection.

George freely hurled it while playing the Dozens in an early episode. (“Take this elite nigga, wolfin’ at my door / With your yellow behind, I’m gonna mop up the entire floor!”) On the show the character began in, “All in the Family,” while bigoted Archie Bunker does not use the word, as his real-life counterpart would, George uses it, such as when he rages about the possibility of having (white) Edith Bunker help out at his dry-cleaning location. (“The niggers will think she owns the store, and the honkies will think we bleached the help!”)

Nor are only Black people shown using it; the writers air the “real” “nigger as well. White men use it a few times on an episode in which George meets modern Klansmen. But white people aren’t limited to it only in very special episode cases like this. George calls his white neighbor Tom Willis “honky,” and Tom petulantly fires back, “How would you like it if I called you ‘nigger’?” Then, that read as perfectly OK (I saw it and remember); he was just talking about it, not using it. But today, for Tom to even mention the word at all would be considered beyond the pale — so to speak.

The outright taboo status of “nigger began only at the end of the 20th century; 2002 was about the last year that a mainstream publisher would allow a book to be titled “Nigger,” as Randall Kennedy’s was. As I write this, nearly 20 years later, the notion of a book like it with that title sounds like science fiction. In fact, only a year after that, when a medical school employee of the University of Virginia reportedly said, “I can’t believe in this day and age that there’s a sports team in our nation’s capital named the Redskins. That is as derogatory to Indians as having a team called Niggers would be to Blacks,” the head of the N.A.A.C.P., Julian Bond, suggested this person get mandatory sensitivity training, saying that his gut instinct was that the person deserved to simply be fired. The idea, by then, was that the word was unutterable, regardless of context. Today’s equivalent of that employee would not use the word that way.

Rather, the modern American uses “the N-word.” This tradition settled in after the O.J. Simpson trial, in which it was famously revealed that Detective Mark Fuhrman had frequently used “nigger” in the past. Christopher Darden, a Black prosecutor, refused to utter the actual word, and with the high profile of the case and in his seeming to deliberately salute Mr. Read’s take, by designating “nigger” “the filthiest, dirtiest, nastiest word in the English language,” Mr. Darden in his way heralded a new era.

That was in 1995, and in the fall of that year I did a radio interview on the word, in which the guests and I were free to use it when referring to it, with nary a bleep. That had been normal until then but would not be for much longer, such that the interview is now a period piece.

It’s safe to say that the transition to “the N-word” wasn’t driven by the linguistic coarseness of a Los Angeles detective or something a prosecutor said one day during a monthslong trial. Rather, Mr. Darden’s reticence was a symptom of something already in the air by 1995: the larger shift in sensibility that rendered slurs, in general, the new profanity.

This occurred as Generation X, born from about 1965 to 1980, came of age. These were the first Americans raised in post-civil-rights-era America. To Generation X, legalized segregation was a bygone barbarism in black-and-white photos and film clips. Also, Generation X grew up when overt racist attitudes came to be ridiculed and socially punished in general society. Racism continued to exist in endless manifestations. However, it became complicated — something to hide, to dissemble about and, among at least an enlightened cohort, something to check oneself for and call out in others, to a degree unknown in perhaps any society until then.

For Americans of this postcountercultural cohort, the pox on matters of God and the body seemed quaint beyond discussion, while a pox on matters of slurring groups seemed urgent beyond discussion. The N-word euphemism was an organic outcome, as was an increasing consensus that “nigger” itself is forbidden not only in use as a slur but even when referred to. Our spontaneous sense is that profanity consists of the classic four-letter words, while slurs are something separate. However, anthropological reality is that today, slurs have become our profanity: repellent to our senses, rendering even words that sound like them suspicious and eliciting not only censure but also punishment.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/30/opinion/john-mcwhorter-n-word-unsayable.html?action=click&module=Opinion&pgtype=Homepage

ICYMI: Professor Criticizes Book, ‘White Fragility,’ As Dehumanizing To Black People

Valid criticism regarding over simplification and categorization:

Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility, published in 2018, has shot up bestseller lists after protests over the death of George Floyd reignited discussions about racism in America.

DiAngelo is white and regards racism as “the foundation of the society we are in.” She says white people become defensive and exhibit “fragility” when challenged on their underlying and, often unconscious, racism.

White people will never be rid of their biases, DiAngelo has told NPR, saying their necessary work “will be lifelong: really thinking deeply about what it means to be white, how your race shapes your life.”

But as DiAngelo’s corporate lecture requests and book sales have grown, so too has criticism of her work.

The Washington Post‘s Carlos Lozada said the book employs “circular logic.” Lozada writes that White Fragility views people of color as “almost entirely powerless, and the few with influence do not wield it in the service of racial justice.”

Columbia University professor and linguist John McWhorter, who is Black, echoes that criticism, writing in The Atlantic that the book “openly infantilized Black people” and “simply dehumanized us.”

He argues that for “DiAngelo, the whole point is the suffering” of white people, who are “taught that pretty much anything they say or think is racist and thus antithetical to the good.”

McWhorter spoke with Morning Edition‘s Steve Inskeep about his criticism of the book and what he thinks is needed to change racist institutions.

Here are excerpts of the interview:

What are some examples of the way that she talks in the book and also talks in her seminars that you think miss the mark?

Well, I understand where she’s coming from. I don’t think she’s a hustler. I know that she’s sincere. But my question is, is it necessary for every good white person to walk around feeling uncomfortable about themselves as abstractly complicit in a racist system before we see political change?

And so a white person is supposed to learn that there are all sorts of things that they can’t say. You can’t say, “I marched in the civil rights movement,” because that would make you too comfortable. You can’t say, “I don’t see race,” because you almost certainly do. You can’t say, “it’s about class,” because it’s about race.

And she’s got about 25 proscriptions that make it so that any good white person is essentially muzzled. You just have to be quiet.

If you think about human history, there have been great and wrenching changes not only in this country, but in a great many others, but especially in this one, — say, a few things that happened about 50 years ago — without there needing to be this rather Orwellian indoctrination program. So the question is, why do we need this now?

She’s trying to, you argue, fix white people’s souls when in reality the place that people should look is at institutions. What are the rules for police? What are the rules for fair housing? That sort of thing.

You have said exactly what I believe. I think that what Robin DiAngelo is doing is well-intentioned, but I think ultimately, it’s idle. Ultimately, the result of what she would create is a certain educated class of white person feeling better about themselves. And frankly, that’s antithetical to her goal, because no matter how she wants it to go, people are going to think that they’ve done some kind of work. It’s going to be hard to get people to truly feel as endlessly culpable as she’s seeking.

And in the meantime, what’s the connection between that and forging change? You can say that all of this is a prelude to changing structures. But the question will always be, why don’t you just go out and change the structures? And why do you think that you couldn’t until doing this?

You say this book that is dedicated to eliminating racism in white people is racist. Why do you say it’s racist?

It is racist, and I don’t mean that Robin DiAngelo is a racist. I’m not calling her that. But I’m saying that if you write a book that teaches that Black people’s feelings must be stepped around to an exquisitely sensitive degree that hasn’t been required of any human beings, you’re condescending to Black people. In supposing that Black people have no resilience, you are saying that Black people are unusually weak. You’re saying that we are lesser. You’re saying that we, because of the circumstances of American social history, cannot be treated as adults. And in the technical sense, that’s discriminatory.

I also want people to know that you’re a linguist. And here we are using this word racist. What is a proper definition of racist?

Well, racism is a very confusing word these days. But when I say that White Fragility is a racist book, what I mean is it does not allow Black people to be full human beings, because full human beings deal with the imperfections of life.

This is important: by the imperfections of life, I do not mean somebody stepping on your neck until you’re dead. I’m not talking about actual abuse. I’m talking about the more abstract sorts of things that we’re familiar with, especially over the past several decades as part of our racial landscape, where I think that the solutions are going to be more subtle than the kind of mental and spiritual straitjacketing that DiAngelo seems to think are necessary. It’s an interesting proposal, but it’s by no means as self-evidently wise as she implies, and that many people tragically seem to be agreeing with her about.

Source: Professor Criticizes Book, ‘White Fragility,’ As Dehumanizing To Black People