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Demagoguery in the Race Debate
with John McWhorter
In this excerpt from our April 2021 Q&A session, John and I discuss the rhetoric of the race debate. Why, we were asked, do so many anti-racist writers and intellectuals resort to rabble-rousing rhetoric in addressing questions about race? Why do these thinkers so often resort to demagoguery rather than logic and reason?
My own answer to this question is that rhetoric is all they’ve got. When racial disparities persist decades after the dismantling of institutionalized racism, we should be looking seriously at the determining factors. How are we raising and educating our children? Are there community-driven incentives for studying, finding and maintaining employment, and staying on the right side of the law? Is affirmative action helping or hindering the goal of equal opportunity? But instead of the search for real answers, all we get from so-called anti-racists are cries of “Racism!”
I wasn’t buying it when John and I recorded this conversation in 2021, and I’m not buying it now. On the one hand, it’s disheartening to see that our critiques of this outraged pose are just as applicable now as they were then. On the other hand, I think there are more people now than there were then who see this hollow demagoguery for what it is and are willing to say so in public. When this rhetoric finally ceases to be effective, will the anti-racists change their tune?
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JOHN MCWHORTER: Evan Griffith says that he's noticed that certain thinkers—and he lists Robin DiAngelo and Michael Eric Dyson, those are his examples, not mine—he says that they have a methodology of, one, starting with a foundation of largely indisputable facts; two, emotionally igniting their implications; and three, concluding that extreme measures are the only practical solution to hot button issues.
And Evan Griffith says that this has become tired and painfully obvious. He asks, “What is the genesis of this methodology? And is this new to our public discourse? Is it more successful now than it's been in the past due to some new cultural factors that might be at play lending them power?”
I found that an interesting question, because I think that what he means is there's a certain rabble-rousing aspect of this. I'm not sure Michael Eric Dyson does it, but I would certainly say that you could read that as what somebody like Robin DiAngelo is doing. I think that there are two things to remember. One of them is that stirring up the crowd with passionate discourse and maybe even slightly exaggerated claims, I wouldn't say that that's new. It's that talking about race issues that way has acquired a certain purchase on our discourse, especially since roughly June of last year.
And I think that part of the reason for that is, you know, the passions that were ignited by everybody having been inside for so long, and then you have a particularly egregious cop killing of George Floyd, and then you have also something that hasn't been charted that much yet, I think, is the rather bizarre circumstance of living most of your life on Zoom. I think that that has a way of igniting passions in a way that might not have happened if more of these meetings were taking place in rooms with people breathing each other's air. But yeah, we see more of this kind of exaggeration in the discourse.
Now it pains me to say, race has been talked about that way since 1966 by certain representatives of black thought. What's happened recently is that a critical mass of white people, instead of just a few fellow travelers, are now adopting that way of looking at race issues, too, and giving it their imprimatur, so to speak. To me, I don't hear Robin DiAngelo's way of looking at these things in Michael Eric Dyson so much as maybe in Nikole Hannah-Jones. I'm not saying that she's walking around whipping up crowds.
But still, that rather apocalyptic way of looking at things? That has acquired a real purchase of late, because now mainstream organs are treating it as truth rather than it being the philosophy of certain interesting but only so influential and mostly black thinkers from universities. So yeah, there is a sea change going on, but no, this isn't new, and frankly, this goes back to Huey Long. There have always been people who stirred up the crowd. But in terms of race, now more mainstream organs are pretending to agree with the philosophy.
GLENN LOURY: Okay. I'm translating that question as, “Why so much demagoguery in the race debate?” And I wonder how you would respond to this speculation, which is basically, because people have such a weak hand, they're driven to screaming. Argument is not going to get them out of the box.
When I say a weak hand, I mean, when you talk about mass incarceration, the racial aspect of that really is a reflection, isn't it, of a very high rate of criminal offending, of violence, of lawlessness in certain quarters of the black community. Not only there, but there disproportionately so. I'm giving just one example, mass incarceration, of the general thesis that the actual facts back people into a corner. Out of desperation, they're lashing out. The demagoguery and the over-the-top character of the rhetoric is in part a reflection of the weakness, not the strength, of the hand that they're playing.
This is a tantrum that's being thrown, a protracted enactment of a tantrum. It's a fit, and people are driven almost mad by the unbearable weight of the facts. I'm giving mass incarceration as one example. Other examples could be given. But if you actually looked at homicide rates, if you looked at criminal offending rates, if you looked at what's actually going on, these encounters with the cops are always or often tainted by malfeasance, by resistance, by violence on the part of the person who is wrongly treated by the police, and so forth and so on.
It's an effort to control the discourse through emotion, rage, and anger, because the objective fact on the ground is that affirmative action is failing in many, many places like Georgetown Law School. I press this thesis. I know I’m being very arch in the way I'm saying it, but people are sitting in constitutional law, they're sitting in contracts, they're sitting in torts, they're sitting in civil procedure. This stuff is hard. They're in over their heads, some of them, and anybody who points out the actual objective fact pulls a scab off of a wound. It's gaping, it's painful.
And the reaction—let's sit and look at the facts, let's consider the implication or the policy of admitting students with lower SAT scores, let's examine the career prospects, let's weigh the relative equities, let's on balance try to decide if we're doing good or if we're doing bad here, let's be honest—that's a very, very, very painful conversation. Much more satisfying to scream, “Racist, racist, racist!” And on the other side of that transaction, much easier to capitulate, apologize, bow, and scrape than to actually grapple with the difficulties.
So reality is just too painful. Tantrum-throwing and playacting demagoguery, seizing microphones from people, telling people to shut up, telling them what they can and can't say about an issue, calling them names, calling them racist, trying to cancel them, drive them out of the conversation: This is the last refuge of a scoundrel.
I don't know, Glenn. I really don't know. Your analysis assumes that there's a certain kind of, say, student who knows that they're in over their heads and therefore tries to compensate or distract from it by making a lot of noise. I can imagine that person, but I'm not sure that's what's going on in their heads.
Because—and this is what hurts to say—a lot of them have never been asked to do what it is that they're not doing as well as the other students. Frankly, the system keeps on lifting them through, and with a lot of them, I don't think it's that they feel inadequate to performing the legal analysis that they're asked to do. Because remember, with a lot of them, they've never been required to do anything like that.
It's a mode of thought that education has not ushered them into. If anything, I think they really might genuinely think “this is racist” rather than “this is something that I'm not good at.” I can imagine that a person like that really would think that what makes them significant, what makes them important is decrying racism, not doing their law school work just like everybody else. That wouldn't be different enough, and it wouldn't be black enough. I think with some of them, they feel like it would be turning their back on their blackness to just sit there and do the work in a race-neutral fashion.
So I don't know. But yes, if they're in over their heads, maybe they're thinking, “Wow, I can't do this. That's undignified. So what I'm going to do is I'm going to become dignified by becoming a race warrior. We're going to talk about how racist everything is and therefore people won't know that really I can't quite do the work the way the white person next to me could.” But I don't know if that's necessary. I think a lot of them come primed to be good black people by decrying the racism in the system as opposed to doing something so dull as just sitting and participating in it. I don't know. I'd have to know them.
I'm speculating. I don't know. My students and I, in one of my courses, are reviewing the summer of 2020 and the George Floyd phenomenon and the protests and rioting afterwards. And so we went back to the debate about looting. You may remember, there was a piece in the New York Times by a woman called Vicky Osterweil who had a book called In Defense of Looting, which was written after the Michael Brown affair in Ferguson.
And so I'm reading these pieces. Robin D. G. Kelley has one in the New York Times. They're making arguments, and as they write, looting is going on, arson is going on in cities all across the country, dozens of cities. People are breaking through shop windows and walking off with stuff, setting fires, throwing projectiles at police officers, and so forth. Peaceful protests sometimes turn into riotous disorder. And they're saying things like, “This country is founded on looting. We looted the land from the Native Americans. We looted the labor.”
Now, the idea that the United States of America was founded on looting is a one-dimensional, stick-figured, cartoon-like, laughable account of the development of the American social and political economy. It's laughable. I'm talking about scores of millions of immigrants coming to the country, for example, and settling it. I'm talking about the development in the nineteenth century of a China-like emergence of a major economic force, manufacturing and trading power which matures in the early twentieth century, which is the United States of America. Ultimately, after the Second World War, displacing Britain and so forth as the global hegemon.
Founded on looting? That's your account? Your account of American history is looting? Your answer to people burning down bodegas on the corner and going into Targets and clearing off the shelf is that the country is founded on looting? It's not serious. It's not serious history, it's not serious ethics, it's not serious politics. And what I was wondering was, how does that end up on the pages of the New York Times? How did it end up as a master narrative for a certain self-consciously progressive and supposedly enlightened critic?
Because white people like it when we jam.
Because they ain't got no cards to play! They're bluffing.
It's because it's music. It's a movie. And that's what we're supposed to do. It's a variation on us as entertainers. Somebody who writes that kind of thing knows that that will get more attention than anything else that they might write. It's a very black thing to write. They think of it as their duty.
And then you have these people who pretend to agree with it, or they'll say, well, this view should be at the table. They know damned well that they would never put forth that view, and they'd be appalled if their children did. But we jam. We're colorful. We're Funkadelic. That's what that is. It's a pat on the head, but we're supposed to pretend that it's prophecy. It's disgusting.
There is John making one of his master points. I assume you elaborate again in The Elect, John.