The other day, a professor friend called, his voice shaky:
I just had a disturbing experience in class. We were discussing race and racism, and a white student asked if it’s possible for a white person to experience racism. I told her many people would say it’s different because white people have more power. I asked the class what they thought. Two other students in class, one white and one black, challenged me, stating that it was my duty to tell the white student who asked the question that she was out of line. They also insisted that I “center the discussion” on marginalized people. I invited them to share their views or experiences. “It’s not my job to share my experiences,” one of the students declared. Another told their white classmate that it is not possible for whites to experience racism. The white student came to me after class and apologized, vowing to keep her questions to herself in the future as she didn’t want to “cause trouble”. Not only has a hostile environment now been created for the white student, but I’m also worried I am going to get in trouble with the department chair.
Welcome to Anti-Racism 101. While this exchange may seem outlandish to some, such conversations are utterly commonplace in today’s hackneyed discourse on race, both on and off campus. The enforcers of the new racial orthodoxy–what Columbia Professor John McWhorter calls “Third Wave Anti-Racism”–shut down discourse and prevent true dialogue across racial and ideological lines.
The students who shut down the white student in class will likely complain to the chair of the department about the professor, and the chair will likely in turn weigh in on behalf of the students. We’ve seen this movie before. All of these actors–and they are all actors–are following today’s anti-Racist script to a T. The script treats one ideological camp’s opinions as facts and everyone else’s as beyond the pale.
It’s easy to see why Third Wave Anti-Racism holds appeal among a certain political tribe: it prescribes a simplistic set of explanations, immune from critique, to complex, multifaceted problems. And in so doing it actually exacerbates the very problems it claims to solve. We need a better approach to racial justice.
Without a doubt, America has fallen woefully short in living up to its own high ideals of equality. Slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, Redlining, etc. have left a sorry legacy of disparity and racism. Today’s criminal justice system continues to show bias, prosecuting minorities more harshly than whites for similar drug charges. I could go on and on. While there has been significant progress since the 1960s–a full two-thirds of black Americans now live in the middle class or higher–our society still has a long way to go.
Without a doubt, we can and should do more to reduce racial disparities.
We cannot, however, effectively address racial disparities by shutting down the discourse and invoking what scholar Julian Sanchez termed “epistemic closure”–the insistence that we have it all figured out. Whenever I criticize Third Wave Anti-Racism, critics ask why I am so preoccupied with the excesses of anti-racism and not more focused on racial justice. The answer is that I don’t believe Third Wave Anti-Racism constitutes racial justice. This version of anti-racism sets us back. In suffocating authentic discussion, it makes it harder to muster the collective will to overcome the racial divide and empower people of all races to make a difference.
Having been unceremoniously shut down, will that aforementioned white student be more or less likely to participate in efforts to reduce racial disparities? The answer is clear. Third Wave Anti-Racism needlessly alienates large swaths of the populations and polarizes our society when we should be bringing people together.
What would an alternative approach to racial justice look like?
A more compelling vision wouldn’t seek to institute an elaborate ideology about why there’s disparity in society, but rather offer a simple acknowledgement that there is disparity growing out of this country’s legacy of race and racism.
A more compelling vision wouldn’t seek to institute an elaborate ideology about why there’s disparity in society, but rather offer a simple acknowledgement that there is disparity growing out of this country’s legacy of race and racism. That acknowledgment would raise consciousness of our collective obligation to lift up disadvantaged people, whatever the historical and current causes.
Policy solutions would be vigorously debated. Both government and market-based solutions would be tried. The solutions wouldn’t seek “equity” in the here and now, which is thoroughly unrealistic, but rather long term closing of the gaps. These solutions wouldn’t, for example, demand a proportionate number of black scientists today but would invest in STEM programs that develop the young black scientists of tomorrow.
In this version of racial justice, we would engage in dialogue across differences, not force people into Chairman Mao-style struggle sessions or racially segregated “affinity groups.” We would take the data seriously on disparities in health, drug laws, policing, criminal justice, not insist on a series of explanations and interventions that fly in the face of the science.
We would make concerted efforts to identify, recruit, train, mentor, and support minorities in the workforce, but we wouldn’t undercut our meritocratic system in the process, which ultimately benefits all people, including minorities.
We would encourage ideas and solutions offered in good faith, not demonize them.
The stifling of dissent and insistence on a single view of race and racism evident in today’s college classrooms, K-12 education (particularly in California), corporate retreats, mainstream media outlets, and yes, even in Jewish organizations, will not create the political conditions for social change and equality.
We need a racial reckoning all right, just not the one on offer. We desperately need a Fourth Wave of Anti-Racism.