The same Republicans championing free speech and deploring “cancel culture” are trying to pass laws criminalizing protests, bar classroom discussions of the New York Times’ 1619 Project on slavery and penalize people who advocate boycotts to oppose Israeli settlements. Combine that with the idea that we’ve got more important issues to deal with, from the pandemic to the Jan. 6 insurrection, and many progressives think they don’t have to engage with the argument that the left is too conformist and dogmatic on certain topics involving race. They don’t want to hear about the San Francisco Board of Education stripping Abraham Lincoln’s name from a high school, or Oregon teacher-training materials claiming that asking math students to “show their work” reinforces white supremacy.
“One of America’s major parties has turned against democracy,” Vox’s Zack Beauchamp tweeted Feb. 9, after a Times reporter who had used the n-word in a discussion with students about racism was compelled to resign, “and we’re talking about . . . the Times’ staffing decisions?”
But it would be a significant mistake for mainstream progressives to duck the substance of these controversies. After all, it is progressives who in recent years have attempted to increase the stigma attached to racist speech while also expanding the scope of what’s “racist.” That double move introduces complications into discussions of racism that should invite more argumentation, not less.
In educated liberal circles these days, everyone knows that racism is not just a question of individual prejudice or hatred. The conversations are about “structural” or “systemic” racism — impersonal properties of systems, embedded in processes. Certainly it’s true that race and racism have shaped many legal, political and social institutions, since America’s earliest days. But when you make the scope of racism so expansive, that necessarily means pushing the conversations into contestable terrain.
The shift from dismantling monuments to the Confederacy to erasing homages to Lincoln, for example, raises important questions about how to balance the praiseworthy and lamentable aspects of political figures. (The school board noted that during Lincoln’s presidency, the military hanged 38 rebellious Native Americans in Minnesota.) But whether to cancel Lincoln is — for most people — a fairly easy case. Consider a more challenging one, involving land use restrictions in American cities. Having studied the issue, I believe that excessively strict regulations embody structural racism in housing: Such rules price low-income people, who are disproportionately Black and Brown, out of many areas. To me, it’s clear that the sensible (and progressive) course of action is to allow denser construction in the most expensive neighborhoods; increasing housing supply will have ripple effects that reduce housing prices for everyone. But I’m also aware that many people sincerely believe that allowing real estate development fuels gentrification and displacement — and that the key to racial justice is even more stringent regulations.
Nothing is gained if the different parties in this debate call each other racists or invoke the specter of “white supremacy” to discredit their opponents. The affordable-housing question requires dispassionate analysis, not the censoriousness and scolding that might be appropriate for combating expressions of traditional prejudice, such as redlining.
Yet many commentators urge a more fiery approach. Ibram Kendi, author of the bestseller “How to Be an Antiracist,” argues for an extremely expansive concept of racism that pushes the boundaries of structural analysis to the limits. According to Kendi, any racial gap simply is racist by definition; any policy that maintains such a gap is a racist policy; and — most debatably — any intellectual explanation of its existence (sociological, cultural and so on) is also racist. He has famously argued that anything that is not anti-racist is perforce racist.
This reaches its most radical form in Kendi’s conflation of measurements of problems with the problems themselves. In his book — ubiquitous in educational circles — he denounces not the existence of a large Black-White gap in school performance but any discussion of such a gap. Kendi writes that “we degrade Black minds every time we speak of an ‘academic-achievement gap’ ” based on standardized test scores and grades. Instead, he asks: “What if the intellect of a low-testing Black child in a poor Black school is different from — and not inferior to — the intellect of a high-testing White child in a rich White school? What if we measured intelligence by how knowledgeable individuals are about their own environments?”
We certainly could do that. But the fact remains that if African American children continue to be less likely to learn to read and write and do math than White children, and less likely to graduate from high school, then this will contribute to other unequal outcomes down the road. Education is not a cure-all for labor market discrimination, and educational disparities don’t fully account for the Black-White earnings gap. But they partially account for that gap while also leaving people less able to organize politically, protect themselves from financial scams and otherwise navigate the modern world. Stigmatizing the use of test scores and grades to measure learning undermines policymakers’ ability to make the case for reforms to promote equity — from providing air conditioning in schools to combating racially biased low expectations among teachers.
More broadly, identifying a racial gap and declaring it to be racist is often insufficient. Such an approach impedes actually thinking about problems — particularly in media, academic and nonprofit circles, where the accusation of racism can carry severe consequences. And so to avoid controversy, people avoid important debates rather than risking offense.
For example, maps of various American cities now sail across social media depicting higher vaccination rates in White neighborhoods than in Black ones. A Kendi-type analysis would conclude that gap is racist, full stop. And certainly it is often framed that way, as if city officials were making vaccinations available on a discriminatory basis.
Perhaps that is true, in some cases. But surveys also show that Black Americans are considerably less eager than White Americans to get vaccinated. That’s a serious problem on its own terms. But it’s not a problem of overt discrimination (although the distrust gap may stem from past medical discrimination). Insisting that all gaps reveal racism elides the critical question of what’s actually happening and how to fix it.
Imprecision in the definition of racism can have unintended consequences, and it can also be weaponized. An essay by activists Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones, “The Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture,” for instance, has been widely disseminated in progressive nonprofit circles: It alleges that such things as “perfectionism,” a “sense of urgency” and an emphasis on “measurable goals” are manifestations of white supremacy. The intent is to subvert and disrupt malign hierarchies, but a side effect may be to disrupt the normal conduct of work, where goal-setting, urgency and avoiding mistakes are in fact important. Wielding such essays, workers can transmogrify intellectual disputes or banal office politics into high-stakes conflicts with the allegation that certain ideas or statements make them feel “unsafe.”
Meanwhile, schools, nonprofits and businesses increasingly embrace diversity training programs that, Columbia University sociologist Musa al-Gharbi argues, meet public relations goals without actually accomplishing anything worthwhile — and may even make it harder for people from diverse backgrounds to work together. You don’t need to “internalize left-progressive views on inequality and identity issues” to effectively collaborate on the job, al-Gharbi points out, and people of color may themselves not embrace the left perspective. Debate over such programs should be encouraged, not deemed taboo, even if conservatives oppose them in knee-jerk fashion.
By all means, let’s dispense with the frustrating and at times hypocritical meta-debate about “free speech” (in the context of racism) and “cancel culture.” But the newly fashionable anti-racist thinking contains a mix of good ideas and bad ones — including some that are dangerously counterproductive for the people they are intended to help. Bland agreement that “racism is bad” does not suffice when racism is reconceptualized as an abstract attribute of policies and systems, as opposed to bigoted individual behaviors. Understanding complicated social phenomena is difficult. Solving social problems, almost all of which involve race, is contentious. Liberals can’t respond by ceding huge swaths of the political landscape to the hardcore right — or to whichever activist happens to have most loudly proclaimed their own anti-racism.