THE ELECT: THE THREAT TO A PROGRESSIVE AMERICA FROM ANTI-BLACK ANTIRACISTS
Serial excerpt No. 5: Why it won't do to admit this is a religion and "own" it - The Elect harbor a religion that harms black people in countless ways.
One response to a book like this might be to own that Electism is a religion. You might consider it a better one than, say, believing that God’s son died for our sins and was reborn, waiting to envelope you in his eternal grace if you believe in him. This new religion is about countering racism. Who could be against that?
But we must ask whether the Elect approach actually shows signs of making any difference in the lives of black people, other than making educated white people infantilize them. While purportedly “dismantling racist structures,” the Elect religion is actually harming the people living in those structures. It is a terrifyingly damaging business.
ELECT IDEOLOGY HURTS BLACK PEOPLE
The Bigotry Against Black Boys
Black boys get suspended and expelled from schools more than other kids. According to Elect ideology this must be because they are discriminated against.
Specifically, we are told to think that the reason these boys get disciplined more than other kids is because teachers hold biases against them. The white kid acting up is a scamp; the black kid acting up is a thug. There are scholar-activists who have founded whole careers on bringing this wisdom to America’s educators and beyond. In 2014, a “Dear Colleague” letter went out from the U.S. Department of Education concurring that black boys are disciplined disproportionately because of racism. In 2019, the United States Commission on Civil Rights released a briefing report making the same case titled “Beyond Suspensions: Examining School Discipline Policies and Connections to the School-to-Prison Pipeline for Students of Color with Disabilities.”
Noble notions from noble entities. But the simple fact is this. Black boys do commit more violent offenses in public schools than other kids. Period. This means that if we follow these prophets’ advice and go easier on black boys, we hinder the education of other black students. The Elect earnestly decry that most black kids go to school with only other black kids, because it fits into their agenda to point out “segregation.” But that “segregation” also entails that the black boys they think should be allowed to beat other kids up in school are handing out the beatings to other black kids.
For example, The Philadelphia Inquirer fanned out across the city’s public schools in 2012 and found that there had been 30,000 violent incidents in public schools between 2007 and then, which included robberies, rapes, and a pregnant teacher punched in the stomach (she was one of 4000 teachers assaulted by students between 2005 and 2010).
Out of desire not to stereotype black kids, one might interpret those numbers in various ways designed to take the focus off of black boys. However, these interpretations just don’t work out.
For example, one might imagine that a lot of these assaults may have been committed by white kids. But the numbers don’t square with it: in Philadelphia’s public schools, 2 in 3 students (70%) are black or Latino.
Or, one might imagine that just maybe, that one third of white kids are committing a disproportionate amount of the assaults? But other studies reveal that it is indeed black boys who are responsible for a disproportionate amount of school violence. The National Center for Education Statistics surveyed students nationwide and found that in 2015, 12.6% of black kids surveyed had had a fight on school grounds while only 5.6% of white kids had. It was not a fluke year: in 2013, the numbers were 12.8% vs. 6.4. In other words, black kids were over twice as likely to engage in violence at school than white kids.
A Fordham Institute study showed the same thing in 2019. It surveyed 1200 black and white teachers elementary and high nationwide, and found that teachers in high-poverty schools were twice as likely to say that verbal disrespect was a daily occurrence in their classrooms, six times as likely to say that physical fighting was a daily or weekly occurrence, and three times as likely to report being personally assaulted by a student, as in other schools. One might ask, to be sure, whether high-poverty schools are always predominantly black or Latino ones – and the answer is that they usually are. The Elect endlessly teach us that brown people are disproportionately poor in America, and if this report had been about hunger or lead paint, they would readily accept it as largely referring to brown kids. It would be inconsistent to suddenly read the Fordham Institute study through a studiously deracialized lens.
In fact, the teachers in this study often reported that in the wake of counsel from calls like the ones above to treat disciplining black boys as bigotry, underreporting of serious incidents was “rampant,” and that the higher tolerance for misbehavior was in part responsible for the recent decline in student suspensions.
Reports from a New York City initiative have even more explicitly located an especial problem with school violence among black boys. The initiative sought to reduce suspensions of black boys in response to the reports claiming that the suspensions were driven by racism. Teachers reported less order and discipline in their classrooms, particularly in black- and Latino-dominated secondary schools. Many black teachers said suspensions and similar kinds of discipline should be used more often, despite the fact that black teachers were slightly more likely to believe also that school discipline could be racially biased. In the high-poverty schools, 60% of African American teachers -- slightly more than the 57% of white teachers -- said that issues with student behavior made learning difficult.
Those are the facts. (Christopher Paslay’s Exploring White Fragility was my goldmine source for them.) You must consider them the next time you see an earnest, probably black or Latino person in business clothes claiming that “black boys” get a raw deal in disciplining. If they can’t defend themselves in view of the studies mentioned above, and/or give no evidence of having even learned of them, they are not teaching but preaching, and for a purpose that leaves legions of black and Latino kids not only improperly educated but beaten up. Note: I have spared you the accounts of physical assault these kids’ teachers often suffer as well.
The Elect will see only “racism” here, but only because their religious commitment numbs them to the harm their view does to real children living their lives in the real world. To insist that bigotry is the only possible reason for suspending more black boys than white boys is espouse harming black students.
Yale or Jail?
It's often thought that Affirmative Action at universities involves, simply, considering racial diversity only after assembling a pool of students with the same caliber of grades and test scores. The vision is that all candidates have the same scores, and then you fill out a certain pie chart. Few reasonable people would have a problem with that kind of system, even if the brown students are just a touch lower in scores, upon which there is what we could call a thumb on the scale. Just a thumb.
But the question is whether black and Latino students should be admitted with significantly lower grades and test scores than those that would admit a white or Asian student. This is how racial preferences in university admissions have tradtionally worked, especially beyond a few tippy-top schools such as the one I teach at, and there is no question that it has been common. It was most widely aired during the Gratz v. Bollinger case against the University of Michigan in the early 2000s, where it was revealed that being black alone gave applicants 20 out of 100 points necessary for admission, but this was one of many such cases that have been discovered nationwide. This means that there has been what has been called a “mismatch” between students’ dossiers and the schools they are admitted to.
Many insist that despite the initial mismatch, the students excel nevertheless and the mismatch has no actual effect. But this would mean that the admissions standards applied to other students are meaningless, and actual studies have shown, unsurprisingly, that this is not the case. At Duke University, economist Peter Arcidiacono, with Esteban Aucejo and Joseph Hotz, has shown that the “mismatch” lowers the number of black scientists. Black students at a school where teaching is faster and assumes more background than they have often leave a major in frustration, but would be less likely to have done so at a school prepared to instruct them more carefully.
In 2004, UCLA law professor Richard Sander revealed an especially tragic tendency in this vein, showing that “mismatched” law students are much more likely to cluster in the bottom of their classes and, especially, to fail the bar exam. Predictably, the study attracted much criticism, but no one has refuted its basic observations, as opposed to fashioning reasons why they should for some reason not concern us. It is similarly unlikely that anyone could tell Arcidiacono, Aucejo and Hotz that what they chronicled was mirages.
That students thrive at different paces is hardly rocket science. Because of the societal factors that dismay us all -- quality of schooling, parents denied good education themselves, complex home lives -- black and Latino students are often less prepared for how quickly students are expected to take in information at selective schools. But the question is: Do we respond to this by nonetheless placing them in schools teaching over their heads?
Plato's Republic runs about 300 pages. At Columbia, we assign it to every sophomore as the first reading of the year in the Contemporary Civilizations class all sophomores must take. They are expected to have been able to get through it, to discuss it for two or three two-hour classes, and refer to it in a paper or two after that, not to mention retain familiarity with it some weeks later for the midterm. Imagine being a student who is quite bright but is from a home without many books in it. He isn't the fastest reader in the world, and his schools didn't expose him to much discussion of disembodied ideas as opposed to matters relevant to daily life. All of a sudden, he's in a classroom where students marinated since toddlerhood in books and top-quality education are confidently discussing this book, blithely tossing off concepts he's barely heard of, all doing a fine job of at least faking having gotten through all 300 pages.
Now imagine this student at a school where about 40 pages of the Republic is assigned, likely including the passage about the cave, with the professor making sure to usher students through the contours of the argument, aware that most of the students have rarely engaged a text of this kind. Which class is this student going to be most comfortable in, and which class are they likely to get a better grade on their paper in? And given that regardless of education level, nobody remembers much about 300 whole pages four years later, has this student really gotten a raw deal in terms of education? Some Columbia students would be quite happy if we only assigned 40 pages and went over them with a fine-toothed comb.
Yet the discussion of Affirmative Action implies that the choice is somehow between Yale or jail, as if the few dozen highly selective universities were the only ticket to lifetime success. But here’s what happens on the ground. At the University of California, San Diego the year before racial preferences were banned in the late 1990s, exactly one black student out of 3,268 freshmen made honors. A few years later after students who once would have been “mismatched” to Berkeley or UCLA were now admitted to schools such as UC San Diego, where one in five black freshmen were making honors, the same proportion as white ones.
There is a reason few ever heard about things like that. The ban on racial preferences at University of California schools witnessed proto-Electness 101, with endless oratory about how the ban meant that kids from poor black neighborhoods would be “denied education,” as if Berkeley and UCLA were the only schools available. Supposedly a Berkeley would revert to “segregation,” with the implication that privately this is what white people running the place really wanted.
Never mind that this “segregated” Berkeley never happened. That black kids were not being consigned to eventual unemployment by attending UC Santa Cruz instead was not discussed. The guiding impulse was to cry racism, reason be damned. One way this was Proto-Elect was a tacit idea that to apply reason as opposed to emotion to the issues was unsporting, too “white”: it was Critical Race Theory in action. That we needed to make it so that more black kids truly qualified for Berkeley and UCLA was considered a sideline point, with it also in the air that for black kids to perform at that level was a little suspicious, as if they had given in to the “white” ethos too fully.
If that sounds impressionistic, I taught at Berkeley back then, and must note a black undergraduate after the ban was legalized who told me, outright, that she and others working at the minority recruitment office were afraid that black students admitted without racial preferences would not be interested in being part of a black community at the school. It was the baldest affirmation of the idea that being a nerd isn’t authentically black that I have ever heard: May, 1998, circa 4 PM on a weekday afternoon.
It is sentiments of that kind, as well as self-involved white guilt and its lack of genuine concern with black people’s fate, that conditions the fierce allegiance to exempting black students from the level of competition other kids have to deal with regardless of their background. The data on the calamities the mismatch policy creates are now overwhelming, and yet are indignantly swatted away or swept under the rug because they are inconsonant with announcing one’s awareness that racism exists. The result: black undergraduates and law students in over their heads nationwide as an influential cadre of people intone lines about “dismantling structures.”
Condescension as Respect
In Between the World and Me, required reading for millions of undergraduates nationwide for years now, Ta-Nehisi Coates states that he had no sympathy for the white cops and firemen who died at the World Trade Center on 9/11. They were just “menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could – with no justification – shatter my body.”
Good writing. But Coates wrote this of people with families. Spouses and especially children never saw Daddy again. Even in view of the relationship between cops and black men, which surely informed this pitilessness in Coates, the numbness to personal grief, the dehumanization of the family members those people left behind amidst a titanic and unusual tragedy, was stunningly cold. It was unexamined and irresponsible for someone billed as a public intellectual.
Yet the white punditocracy at most tsked-tsked at him for it. In our society where a person can be roasted as a moral pervert and fired for wearing blackface makeup as a joke (the Washington Post employee) or for Criticizing One-and-a-Half Asian Celebrities While White (Alison Roman), Coates was allowed to say that those white public servants deserved to die but continued to be celebrated as America’s lead prophet on race.
The only reason for this pass given to Coates was condescension: brute denigration (word chosen deliberately) of a black human being. To not hold Coates responsible for the horror of a judgment like that -- imagine it coming from, for example, John Lewis -- and to even assign the book containing it to impressionable young people nationwide, is to treat him as someone not responsible for his actions. It is to treat Coates as a child. He is being patted on the head the way Benny Hill did to bald little Jackie Wright. Pat-a-pat-pat, you’re cute.
Black journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones insists that the Revolutionary War was fought to preserve slavery. She got a Pulitzer for it. The 1619 Project included more, indeed, but the claim about the Revolutionary War, and the resultant redating of America’s birth to 1619, was the main thing that attracted so much attention to it. Hannah-Jones would have won no prize for a series without that central claim.
An enlightened America is supposed to hold a public figure accountable for her ideas. On the issue of the Revolutionary War, Hannah-Jones’ claim is quite simply false, but our current cultural etiquette requires pretending that isn’t true -- because she is black. Someone has received a Pulitzer Prize for a mistaken interpretation of historical documents upon which legions of actual scholars are expert. Meanwhile, the claim is being broadcast unquestioned in educational materials being distributed across the nation.
Few things suggest the encroaching permutation of The Elect into the gray matter of this country than how few see the utter diminishment of Hannah-Jones that this entails. White people patting her on the head for being “brave” or “getting her views out there,” rather than regretting that she slipped up and wishing her better luck next time, are bigots of a kind. They are condescending to a black woman who deserves better, even if the Zeitgeist she has been minted in prevents her from knowing it herself.
Racist too are those who actually hear out black scientists claiming that the reason there are so few black physicists is “racism.” Unless these people point out black scientists doing the same work of the same caliber as their white colleagues and being refused PhDs, or postdoctoral fellowships, or jobs, they are out of court. If the claim is not that this is the “racism” keeping the number of black people in STEM fields so low, then it must be the institutional racism that affects people before college. But allowing that point, what kind of sense is there in indicting universities and research labs for it, as if they can address the inadequate science teaching in public schools in black neighborhoods? To not ask this of these complainants, directly and requiring a real answer, may feel like a kind of courtesy but is actually patronization.
And as for the proposal that, say, physics needs to change what is considered real work so that a “black” perspective is allowed, to even allow this at the table is more condescension. Presumably the “alternate” perspective would eschew the tough, uncompromising higher mathematics that the serious physicist is supposed to command. Surely, for example, the idea isn’t that black physicists will command the math but do it “blackly” or “diversely.”
If I sound rhetorical, consult an interesting paper by black physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, in which she condemns “white empiricism” as keeping black women out of physics. You will work to glean what she considers a viable alternative, but it is clear that she thinks reasoning from A to B to C is just one way of being a scientist. So, we must cultivate a cadre of physicists without real chops so that STEM isn’t “so white.” Never mind that when other physicists cannot help but treat these “diverse” physicists as lesser achievers in subtle ways, there will be more reason to cry racism.
That’s just thinking too far ahead. The imperative is to be able to identify racism and have white people nod sagely that physics is racistly biased against brown faces and needs to “address” it. This is yet more treating black people like dolts in the name of something called decentering whiteness. Moreover, to address these things in this way is to not “get it.” But actually, what there is to “get” is that this is religious thought, which allows guiding commitments that do not make worldly sense.
In other words, if to be black is really to spend all of life running up against racism, as often as not it is in the form of this kind of patronizing dismissal. The KIPP academies, a charter school network devoted to giving poor brown kids a solid education and getting them into college, have decided that they’ve been being too hard on the children. Their sin: the slogan “Work hard, be nice.”
KIPP has announced that to expose their charges to that mantra “diminishes the significant effort required to dismantle systemic racism, places value on being compliant and submissive, supports the illusion of meritocracy, and does not align with our vision of students being free to create the future they want.”
Translation: schools committed to kids making the best of a bad hand now feel uncomfortable teaching their charges that following rules and putting forth effort will have beneficial results. Rather, there are apparently other, woker pathways to creating a successful future, as in the “future they want.” Apparently this is a future you can have without following rules, while distrusting effort as playing the white man’s game.
The KIPP people are suspending common sense as well as true compassion, in a fashion that its teachers would never consider for their own children at home. This is The Elect at work, espousing a charismatic but senseless dogma as a public posture of moral goodness. Their religion supplants earlier ones in which, rather often, “Work hard, be nice” would have qualified as wisdom. The Elect’s needlepoint homily instead is “Battle racism, be indignant” – even at the expense of the well-being of black American people, including black children.
ELECT PHILOSOPHY FILLS BLACK HEARTS AND MINDS
WITH DEFEATIST NONSENSE
Effective sociopolitical revolutions are founded on objections to the ruling order that make sense. Few today argue that the commitments of the New Deal were mistakes. Those who do are in the ticklish situation of implying that the America of 1931 was preferable, or would have changed quickly enough for it qualify as humane to wish Herbert Hoover had stayed in power. For that reason we hear little from such people.
Further back, we do not condemn the Progressives of the turn of the twentieth century as crackpots. Those muckrakers, reformers, and suffragists were on to something real and we are in their debt.
Few today can make a coherent case that Lyndon Johnson should have let the Great Society legislation go, with the market resolving how widespread abject poverty and hunger were in America even by the 1960s.
The sociopolitical grievances of the Elect are different. They are less an address of reality than a web of rhetorical planks serving for performed indignation. Jane Addams, W.E.B. DuBois, Eleanor Roosevelt, A. Phillip Randolph, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King are turning in their graves at this kabuki in the guise of continuing what they worked so hard for.
The Elect will not accept the description. They will claim that I have oversimplified. But if a society is supposed to change on the basis of certain ideas, how “complex” are they realistically going to be? Last time I checked, figures like Wittgenstein and Heidegger had not changed the world much.
The Elect will also duck by claiming that these issues must be carefully discussed in “conversations” before we draw any conclusions, although by conversation they mean conversion. They intend nothing most of us mean by exchange, because they have no intention of learning anything from the rest of us – except possibly how to anticipate our objections to what they regard as truth we are too “fragile” to receive gracefully.
Sometimes they will simply assert that racism exists in our society, as if this invalidates all genuine objections. And for them, it does: the central driver of Electness is to show that you know racism exists regardless of intent or result.
We might classify this as diversity of opinion. But we might also classify it as distracting word magic. The Elect see the aforementioned as their politics, their beliefs, their commitments, their guiding stars. But those under the impression that joining the Elect is the way to a brave new world need a tour of what they will be expected to believe – including what they will be expected to teach black people to believe.
“UNEQUAL OUTCOMES MEAN UNEQUAL OPPORTUNITY”
Perhaps the star message received by whites “doing the work” of mastering Elect ideology in 2020 was that if black people lag behind whites in some way, the only reason must be racism, even if it’s hard to perceive its role.
Since the 1960s, that idea has been central in debates over race, and is much of why they are considered “complex.” With racism no longer as overt as it was in the old days, it is considered a mark of sophistication to understand that the black guy having problems in 2020 is shackled by racism just as his grandfather was under Jim Crow, or his great-great-great grandfather was under slavery. The nut of the issue has always been that if we don’t trace the problems to racism, then the only other possibility must be that black people are inherently deficient somehow. Given how vastly unlikely that seems, we must point to racism.
That, for example, is a fair summation of the philosophy of Ibram Kendi. When The Elect hold up his work as essential, the thumbnail sketch reason is this point of his, which parallels Ta-Nehisi Coates’ famously eloquent tweet that “There’s nothing wrong with black people that the complete and total elimination of white supremacy would not fix.” Anyone reading this book must internalize this basic idea as a principal sticking point in why race debates get so fruitlessly heated. The implication is that if you don’t think racism was the culprit, then you are a racist.
Indicative of the sea change is that while in 2002 the Representative who called for taking Jefferson Davis’ name off of a highway was from Washington State, in 2020 in that same state, a conference of science teachers were treated to an assertion emblazoned in PowerPoint that “If you conclude that outcome differences by demographic subgroup are a result of anything other than a broken system, that is, by definition, bigotry.”
Throughout Kendi’s prose runs a sense that he is doing us a favor in stating this very point without raising his voice, metaphorically turning his palms out with a quiet shrug as if to say “What else can I tell you, and why should I have to ask?” This, folks, is why you are are supposed to not just respect, but worship him – as in treat his “ideas” as beyond criticism.
But the reason we ask him whether all racial disparities are due to bigotry – if we have the guts to -- is because the assertion is oversimplified (as almost all of us know good and well). Much of the reason we warily refer to race discussions as “the race thing” is because anybody knows, if only deep down, that “racism” does not explain everything the ails the black community – and not even “systemic” racism. Much discussion of “the race thing” is a compact that educated Americans make to perform exchanges that step around logic in favor of placation and virtue signalling.
To the reader who feels like I am reaching them but feels conflicted to say it out loud, let’s look at real life.
In 1987, a rich donor in Philadelphia “adopted” 112 black sixth graders, few of whom had grown up with fathers in their home. He guaranteed them a fully-funded education through college as long as they did not do drugs, have children before getting married, or commit crimes. He also gave them tutors, workshops, after-school programs, kept them busy in summer programs, and provided them with counselors for when they had any kind of problem.
45 never made it through high school. Of the 67 boys, 19 became felons. Twelve years later, the 45 girls had had 63 children, and more than half had become mothers before the age of 18.
So what exactly was the “racism” that held these poor kids back that could have been erased at the time and created a different result for these children? The answer is none. Social history is too complex to yield to the either-or gestures of KenDiAngelonian propositions. What held those poor kids back was that they had been raised amidst a different sense of what is normal than white kids in the ‘burbs.
That is, yes, another way of saying “culture,” and the sky will not fall in to say so. Those cultural factors can certainly be traced to racism in the past, such as dehumanization leading a people to see themselves as separate from the norms of their surrounding society. Or, less comfortable to point out – black people in the late sixties encouraged by white Marxists to sign up for welfare payments they didn’t previously think they needed, out of an idea that this would cause the collapse of the economy and force a restart. In the wake of this, future generations of poor black people came to think of it as a normal choice to not work for a living. Not that this was the choice anything like everyone made in poor black communities – but only after this hard leftist drive to make as many black people sign up for welfare as possible did it become one of many norms in poor black communities to not work 9 to 5, whether you were a man or a woman. Even poor black people before about 1966 would have seen the norm afterwards as bizarre.
Whew! Yes, I know that sounds like I am making it up, but it is simple fact, and I must refer you to, well, sources like my Winning the Race for presentation of the details. I can tell you in full confidence that so very much of what perplexes many readers here traces to what these supremely effective Marxists accomplished via the National Welfare Rights Organization in the late 1960s – do look up the NWRO.
But it means that through no fault of their own, it was not resources, but those unconsciously internalized norms in the wake of what whites taught them to embrace, that kept those kids from being able to take advantage of what they were being offered. That same problem runs throughout endless ethnographies of inner city folk up to right now, such as Katherine Newman’s No Shame in My Game, Jason DeParle’s American Dream and Alice Goffman’s On the Run.
The Philly story was not a fluke. Kansas City, same era: twelve new schools were built to replace crummy ones black students had been mired in for decades. The effort cost 1.4 billion dollars. The new schools included broadcast studios, planetariums, big swimming pools, and fencing lessons. Per-pupil spending was doubled, while class size was halved to about 25 students per class. Elementary school students all got their own computers, and there were now 53 counselors for them when before there had been none.
Fade out, fade in: dropout rates doubled, the achievement gap between white and black students sat frozen, and the schools ended up needing security guards to combat theft and violence. The reason for this was nothing pathological about the kids, but it wasn’t a “racism” that anyone could simply “eliminate” either. The racism in question had been threaded subtly throughout the endless currents and eddies of decades of social history leading to that moment.
The story of how black inner cities got to the state they were in by the 1980s is complex and has nothing to do with blame. As I have not argued but frankly shown, a lot of it came from what genuinely concerned whites made poor black people do, during a period now forgotten and underdocumented, that ended up decisively grounding what it was to be black during the 1970s and 1980s, in ways those happy white Marxists never anticipated, as they were hoping the muh-fuckah was about to just burn down.
However, to simply term the issue as a “racism” that requires “elimination” simply solves no problems. For example, one might say that one cause of the problems was that the War on Drugs sent so many men to prison and left boys growing up in poverty without fathers. But to call the War on Drugs racist ignores that the laws it has been based on had hearty support from serious black people, including legislators as well as people living in poor communities. This time read Michael Fortner’s Black Silent Majority (Fortner is black).
Are we really going to say that those black people were too dumb to see the “racism” in the laws they supported as helping make them safer in their daily lives? Now, Kendi would object that it isn’t that these black people “were racist,” but that they unwittingly did something that “was racist” in creating a problem that disproportionately affected black people. But the black people who supported these laws were quite aware that they would mostly affect black men doing awful things regularly in their very communities. How compassionate, how moral, how even logical is it, to brand what they did as “racist” given the reason that they did it? Yes, the question remains even if we allow that the “racism” was unintentional. The kind of question Kendi serenely refuses to countenance is this: Should those frightened black community residents not have supported those laws?
That Kendi is not up to grappling with the complexities and nuances of sociological reality reveals a racism of its own, in the disproportion between how much he is consulted and the quality of the counsel he has to offer. However, what is more important is that the failure of so many thinkers to understand the difference between the effects of racism in the past and racism in the present has strangled discussions about race for decades. The issue is so urgent to understand that we must visit one more example.
Black students tend to lag behind others in scholarly performance.
Many have argued that this is because of an idea among black teens that to embrace school is “acting white.”
Much of the black punditocracy cringes to see white people reading anyone calling attention to this.
That is because it could taken as implying that there is something wrong with black kids just in themselves, rather than with society and its racism. But they miss that deficiency and racism are not the sole two possible explanations for the discrepancy.
The best demonstration is in Stuart Buck’s Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation. Despite its obscurity, this book is as key to understanding race in America as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Many black students placed in previously all-white schools in the 1960s encountered white teachers either overtly or covertly hostile to their presence, at best thinking of them as hopeless prospects for success. Many of the white students, while hardly as starkly belligerent toward them as the sneering kids in photographs of Little Rock Central High School, were distinctly unwelcoming to the new black kids in countless ways.
This will surprise few of us today, and it was hardly limited to the South: recall the famous shot of the angry white woman at the meeting on busing in Boston. The pique she displayed did not magically evaporate once black kids were settled into these white schools. It became the substrate of the black kids’ new schoolroom experience, week in and week out. That kind of rejection can make a person disidentify from a whole environment, and one result was a sense that school was for white kids, something outside of the authentic black experience.
This, to be sure, was because of racism. But over time, open white resistance to black kids in these schools receded as attitudes on race changed. Nonetheless, a cultural meme casting school as “white” had set in and has become self-perpetuating since.
Here is where the Kendi type of analysis – that black kids’ problem with grades today are because of a “racism” that we need to simply “eliminate” -- stubs a toe. I sense that people like him genuinely suppose that all cultural traits constitute direct responses to current conditions, such as that a diet heavy in fats and sugar must be because it is hard to obtain fresh vegetables in the neighborhood.
But in reality, cultural traits often persist beyond their original stimulus, having become subconsciously transmitted habit. This basic aspect of what it is to be human is as counterintuitive even to many social scientists as that a particle’s speed and location cannot be measured at the same time, or that all of the world’s creatures evolved from an initial amoeba. But the “acting white” charge is one of these cultural traits that has lasted beyond what created it. It can thrive today even in extravagantly funded schools where nonwhite teachers are as exquisitely sensitized about racism as humans can be, quite unlike the nasty, dismissive teachers that black kids encountered decades ago. This has been conclusively documented in rigorous ethnographic studies such as anthropologist John Ogbu’s Black American Students in an Affluent Suburb.
Yet it truly confounds a great many to imagine that a meme would persist beyond what caused it. They are perplexed (and annoyed) at the proposition that this “acting white” charge could live on if racism weren’t the stimulus. Let’s try this:
A. Blood feuds among Albanians began because of concrete causes, but over time persisted as simply what new generations felt as “what we do, what we are.” Human behavior can be more habit-bound than pragmatic.
B. Black people are humans.
C. Black people can harbor habit-bound rather than pragmatic traits as well.
For people who find this peculiar or sinister, perhaps the term legacy, usually familiar and comfortable to them, is useful? The Tuskegee experiment, leaving black men untreated for syphilis, understandably left many wary of hospitals up until the present day, despite that the medical system despite its flaws would never subject people to such barbarity now. The “acting white” meme has survived for exactly the same kind of reason.
The only possible objection is that the logic somehow does not apply because until 1863 black people were slaves and until 1964 lived under Jim Crow. But this doesn’t work: why exactly would a tragic history render a people immune to ever developing problematic cultural traits? We in fact know that slavery and Jim Crow do not explain the “acting white” trope, because as Stuart Buck outlined, black Americans a step past slavery were overtly famished for schooling, to a degree that seems almost odd given the wariness of it that would hobble their distant descendants.
Social history is complicated. It’s why people spend eons in training in it, and doing it well requires more than simply identifying how whites have been racists and leaving it there. The real social historian gets, for example, that a meme can be especially tenacious when it happens to be useful for other purposes. Teens of all stripes seek ways of defining their subgroup, fostering a sense of group membership, and even of acting out. In black teen culture, one way of doing this is to embrace the idea that studying is white, passed on from previous peer cohorts even if the openly racist teachers of the 1960s and early 1970s are now long gone. Even if you never knew those teachers, the idea that hitting the books isn’t “us” feels good regardless because you are a human being with naturally tribalist impulses.
Yes, white kids get made fun of for being nerds, too, but this does not deep-six the point. As law professor Kimberly Norwood (who is black) has noted in her study of the “acting white” charge, it’s one thing to be called a nerd, but another to be told you are disqualifying yourself from your race. That lends a particular sting.
Let’s pull the camera back. Is the reason black kids often think of school as white that white people today don’t like them, or that the system is somehow set against black kids learning? No: that analysis makes no sense, period. Only a heedless, numb kind of fealty, a quiet refusal to engage the actual individuals we are talking about, would insist that “racism” is why a black kid decades after 1966 gives a black nerd trouble for studying hard. Racism sparked this problem originally, to be sure – but the solution today cannot be to simply “eliminate racism” because the teachers who exerted racism upon black kids three generations ago are now mostly dead.
But the Elect analysis must see racism, and thus comes Ibram Kendi’s “idea” that our whole metric for evaluating scholarly success must be overturned in favor of pretending that black kids should be measured as smart on the basis of “desire to know.” For all of the warmth that notion may seem to have in being labelled as antiracism, it leaves black kids nowhere. That vision of antiracism means no George Washington Carver, whose miracles with the peanut were not driven by idle curiosity or some kind of alternate science of the streets. He worked within the Euro-American paradigm. The later, snazzy-looking little View-Master of our memories was designed by a black man, Charles Harrison. He used the same skills as white designers of his time. Savory black spontaneity, in-touch-ness, and what Kendi airily describes as “desire to know” would have done nothing to help him.
To be Elect is to insist that unequal outcomes mean unequal opportunity, which is false.
IN TWO WEEKS: OTHER WAYS THE ELECT DISTRACT AND DISABLE THE MENTALITY OF INNOCENT BLACK PEOPLE, AND WHY IT MATTERS.