It takes little intellectual effort or courage in the circles I move in to inveigh against racism. One is also aided by a slew of new books (e.g., Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Anti-Racist,” Ijeoma Oluo’s “So You Want to Talk about Race” and Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow”) that analyze how racism permeates our history and social system, and by a liberal consensus that holds, in the words of sociology instructor Lailah Dunbar-Keeys, “Racism is not just uninformed people against others. It’s a policy that’s become the foundation. It’s the way we think as Americans because of our culture and conditioning.”
Everyone who opposes racism agrees that people of all races are equal because they share a common humanity and deserve equal respect and dignified treatment. They also agree that for much of our history, the U.S. white majority deviated from these principles, dominating and shaping a country where racism permeated both American institutions and attitudes. But not every Black thinker and intellectual agrees about how racism impacts the racial disparities in this country today.
Loury and McWhorter
There are Black intellectuals like the moderately liberal Columbia University linguist John McWhorter (new book “Nine Nasty Words”) and the more conservative Brown University economist Glenn Loury, who dissect anti-racist writing on Loury’s podcast, “The Glenn Show.” There are a number of other Black intellectuals who take a variety of positions that don’t fit into the anti-racism orthodoxy, and whose politics range from conservative to radical. What unites them into an emerging and distinctive voice is their rejection of the racial essentialism they view as dominant in American intellectual life — the idea that one must prioritize race over everything else to combat racism.
On a recent “Glenn Show,” the articulate and lively McWhorter rejects a Cassandra-like pessimism to define Afro-American life. Instead of “yes we can’t,” he affirms Barack Obama’s mantra ”yes we can.” In addition, both Loury and McWhorter dismiss the notion of victimhood, and deplore the belief that young Black people should attribute “every unpleasant incident to racism.”
When it comes to the issue of crime and the police, Loury states that police kill disproportionately more Blacks than whites because the crime rate is higher among Blacks (e.g., in Los Angeles, Blacks commit 44 percent of all violent crime but make up 9 percent of the population).
McWhorter provides a response with a touch more complexity by starting with the notion there are some racist cops, and inner-city poverty makes crime a more prevalent a life option. But he also asserts that the higher Black crime rate explains the greater frequency of killings by cops and other repressive police actions. The result is that Black people are killed by the police at a rate two and half times more than their portion of the population would suggest. The whole crime issue is so charged that from their perspective, nobody can write about the relationship between the police and American Blacks without coming under attack. Still, the emotional effect of police racism, brutality and murder (that has a long history) has an outsized impact on the Black community; and the kind of logical arguments that McWhorter offers carry little weight among the mass of Black people.
McWhorter is also willing to break taboos and critique what he views as the “religion of antiracism,” which he distinguishes from political and social action that will improve Black lives. McWhorter feels the new anti-racism movement leaves him feeling condescended to. Robin DiAngelo’s book “White Fragility” portrays “Black people as these hot-house flowers,” he said, “where everyone has to tiptoe around us ...” It describes Black people as delicate and easy to anger, a classification that he disagrees with. Blacks have to be protected from utterances seen as “supremacist.” And a repressive “woke culture” is perpetuated “whose purpose is to demonstrate that they’re not racist and to police the rest of us for racism.”
According to McWhorter, it has created a culture of fear among many people, especially academics, who break, even slightly, with the tenets of the “woke” left. McWhorter sees cancel culture as engaging in “punitive forms of moral judgment,” much what happened during the Salem Witch Trials and Mao’s Cultural Revolution, such as The Washington Post’s targeting of a private citizen for an egregious Halloween costume. However, McWhorter forgets that the right has also indulged in cancel culture over the years— think of the 1950s blacklist.
I appreciate that unpredictable voices like Loury and McWhorter’s exist. Neither of them can be reduced to being right-wing thinkers whose stake is in opposing any reform of racial inequity and injustice. McWhorter calls himself a “cranky liberal Democrat” and supported Obama, but lacks a complex political alternative to the pieties of anti-racism. In fact, though both men at times offer incisive critiques of anti-racism and cancel culture, they tend to leave out the profound role white racism has played in Black lives.
For example, Black workers live disproportionately in states that offer the least in unemployment insurance, because racist Southern senators in the 1930s prevented the creation of a federal system of unemployment insurance, so some states offer much lower aid than others. Or we can look at the policies introduced by the Federal Housing Administration in 1934 that lasted until 1968. Celebrated for expanding the accessibility of home ownership for whites by guaranteeing their loans, the FHA explicitly refused to back loans to Black people, undermining the possibility of home ownership for Blacks.
Loury and McWhorter are always worth watching and reading as they tilt against anti-racist opinion. But they also can be facile and tend to overstate the dangers of “cancel culture” that, though pernicious, seems much less ominous than, for example, voter suppression.