Posted on March 3, 2021

Not All ‘Anti-Racist’ Ideas Are Good Ones

Matthew Yglesias, Washington Post, February 23, 2021

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.


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.


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. {snip}

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.