John Takes On Ibram X. Kendi
with John McWhorter
“The People with Three Names” are frequent topics of conversation here at The Glenn Show. These are antiracist writers and activists who crusade ardently for their cause and who, for some reason, have complicated names: Ta-Nehisi Coates, Nikole Hannah-Jones, Ibram X. Kendi, and others. John and I are being a bit tongue-in-cheek when we refer to “The People with Three Names.” Their names don’t really matter. But the influence they wield does matter, and so does the fact that, while they’re often quite critical of John and me, they tend not to engage our arguments directly.
So when, last week, Kendi—founder and director of the Center for Antiracist Research at Boston University, author of the National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning, and recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” grant—tweeted out a thread criticizing one of John’s recent New York Times columns, we had to talk about it. John writes about a petition now circulating that demands an end to the Association for Social Work Boards’ licensure exam on the grounds that racial disparities in exam results “prove” that the test is racially biased. John makes quick work of this baseless claim, arguing that disparities in test results likely indicate cultural differences in the learning styles of applicants rather than bias in the test itself.
John is also quite clear that he does not think disparities are the result of intrinsic intellectual inferiority in black people. And yet that is exactly what Kendi accuses him of saying. In the following excerpt from our most recent conversation, John and I trace out and rebut the flawed logic of Kendi’s position. If this were nothing more than a Twitter spat, it might not be worth discussing. But if Kendi’s position wins the day, the consequences could be enormous for how our society goes about seeking the truth and producing knowledge.
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GLENN LOURY: Okay. We're The Glenn Show. We're the Black Guys. We're back. And John, we've already—no, no. In the comments people have already been commenting. Like we didn't broadcast last week because we had a snafu. And so we're one week off schedule. We're just gonna continue every other week from here. And we'll be doing the Q&A soon, within a week or so for the month of August / September.
But people are already commenting. “I'm glad,” they say, “that you guys missed a week, because now you have the chance to discuss John's encounter on Twitter with Ibram X. Kendi.” You wanna tell us about that, John? And by the way, we should put up a link in the description of this post to the Twitter exchange between our own John McWhorter and the guy with three names, Ibram X.
JOHN MCWHORTER: You know, I just I wrote a piece …
[Laughs] I'm sorry, go ahead.
I wrote a piece where I was just saying that there's this movement afoot among certain social workers to get rid of the standardized test that they use for licensure for being a social worker because black and Latino people, proportionally, tend not to do as well on it. So there's the idea that, because black and Latino people don't do as well on it, the test “is racist”" And I just said that, no, unless you can look at the test and say, this question is biased against certain kinds of brown people—and nobody does that. At least not anymore, because you can't find any questions like that. [If] you can't say that, then we have to get beyond this idea that it's just somehow immoral or uncivil to subject brown-skinned people to tests. It's not sophisticated.
And what I was trying to do was not … like what I just said is like some editorial that would run in—I'm gonna insult somebody—it's something that would run in the New York Post, where you just say, “They're not biased!” But then I said, so nevertheless, black and Latino people do tend not to do as well on the test. Why is that? And I was making the simple point that it's not a choice between thinking that there's something wrong with the test and thinking that black people are dumb. I said, it's neither of those things. What is it?
And I talked about aspects of how language is used among people of different social classes and how language is used can be very rich in working-class culture, but it doesn't prepare you as well for the abstraction of tests as the way language is used among middle-class people. I used a classic study from the 1980s, a woman, an anthropologist who studied a white middle-class culture, a black working-class culture, and a white working-class culture and came to similar conclusions about the two working-class cultures. So I was just saying that the problem that we have is that that kind of working-class linguistic culture is wonderful in many ways, but it doesn't prepare you well for the abstraction of these tests.
And so I stressed—and I'm almost done—I stressed there's not anything wrong with anybody. I said, I am not calling out black culture. I said it twice in the piece. And then I also said in the piece, this is also true of white working class people. So then here comes Henry Rogers, I mean Ibram X. Kendi. And Henry Rogers basically writes this long thread, because the Atlantic I'm sure won't let him write the article he probably wants to write about me in the Atlantic. I'm sure they won't let him. So whenever he gets mad at me, he does some long Twitter thread. And he writes that I say that I'm not criticizing black culture, but then I go ahead and do it because I said, disproportionately, in even some black middle-class culture, because of cultural lag, which is universal, there is that old school way of using language. And that that lag is something understandable in any culture, and I am not saying it's a flaw, but the question is how you usher a culture into the new ways. Kendi doesn't get that.
Yeah. On my reading of his reaction, if it's a detriment to the performance, it is a flaw with the culture. You're trying to have it both ways. You're trying to say the culture doesn't prepare people to do well on this particular kind of test. Then you're trying to say there's nothing wrong with the culture. Well, he thinks that's just a contradiction.
Right. And that doesn't make him insane, but it does frankly make him a poor reader. I'm sorry. Because I anticipated people thinking that way, because it's a fair thing to think at first. And if you read the piece, I make it very clear that I am not finding fault. And if he thinks that my saying, there's an aspect of the culture established in the past that is disconsonant with the requirements of modernity right now, if what he hears in that is me dissing black people? What that is is crude. It means that he doesn't understand sequential reasoning. And I'm sorry to say that about him, but that thread was almost willfully uncomprehending. And the sad thing is I know it's the best he can do. So that's what it was.
Somebody commented on his SAT score in the comments in response. Did you see that?
I did not.
Apparently you can search for it and you can find it. I am not giving this of my own account. I am only repeating what someone said in the comment, that there's evidence that his combined SAT score was about 1000. That's about 500 on the verbal and on the math. That's near the median. It might even be below the median of the distribution of performance. It's definitely not particularly high.
I think he says that about himself somewhere, actually, to give him credit. He doesn't like tests.
Comports with his position that the tests are not measuring very well the abilities of people and that there's something wrong with the test, which is exactly what you're contradicting in your argument. He's saying, look, I'm smart. I have succeeded. I've written books, including books that have won prizes. I've gotten big grants. I'm a professor at the university. I have a following. I have an influence on the culture. You're telling me I'm not smart? I'm smart. And he's not saying this on my account, I'm just telling you what someone said about him. Maybe he said it himself. I don't know.
He had a relatively unimpressive performance on the standardized test himself. Not everybody tests well. The tests don't measure our true ability. His default position is, if you've got a big racial difference in the proportion of people who are passing, given that we know that blacks are just as capable as any other group, your default position should be to question the instrument, because the instrument is reporting back to us information that we know is not true based on our lived experience.
And this is the problem. That was a brilliant summary of his impression, including making him sound like the sane person that he is. But the problem is this. Someone like him stops at “the test is racist.” Just stops there. It's like throwing down a gauntlet. He doesn't seem to feel any need to specify, how is it racist? And that is frankly evidence of a certain kind of incuriosity, because frankly anybody watching the discussion wants to know, okay, how is it racist? To not explain how the questions are racist today—and let's face it, nobody on those tests is asking what wine goes with chicken these days. It's nothing like that. So what is it?
It's like if you read some story about you're at a zoo. And so you read that, “I walked by the walrus cage and I heard the walrus talk. So then I went and I told the zookeeper that the walrus was talking. The zookeeper tripped over his shoelaces and had to go to the emergency room. And then I remember that I needed to go to the ...” And you're thinking, but wait, wait, what did the walrus say? Why would you write that story about the walrus talking and not say what the walrus said? In the same way, “Well, the test is racist.” How? And somebody like him never says. That is an incomplete style of reasoning, and frankly you wonder whether he could specify how. And then you have simple questions.
Did I read the comments this time? I must admit that I did look at a fair amount of the comments. Because what's interesting about this on Twitter—and I try not to do too much Twitter these days—I got more love on Twitter than him, and I did not get my love only from people who read the National Review. He got a trickle. I kind of won that one. And I found it interesting. One person was saying, "So okay, are spelling bees biased against non-South Asian people because of who wins them these days?" And then the old question, “Is basketball biased against white people because black people are better at it?”
And the thing is, it's this incompleteness. People like Kendi never have an answer to that question. Maybe there's an answer. You could probably get into their head and come up with what their answer might be. Why is it different with tests? But they never even answer. And then they claim that it's racist to contradict them or to not think of them as great thinkers. It won't do.
Okay. I think a couple of things. I mean, I'm an economist. We have a PhD program. We teach students. We have a choice about how much technical emphasis to put in our curriculum. How much math, how much statistics, how much abstraction versus how much more sociological and historical information to put in our curriculum. You know, how does the society work, the economy fit within it?
There are subfields in economics which are more or less demanding of technical specialization. So the people who want to do statistics as their main thing could specialize in mathematical statistics. The people who want to do a more historically descriptive and rich kind of detailed account about the history of this industry or whatever, the emergence of that, they could do a less technical program. It turns out that if I were just looking at head counts on the Graduate Record Exam mathematics parts, there are not so many blacks who do extremely well. Men are overrepresented relative to women amongst those who do extremely well on the quantitative. I could design my curriculum and my instruments of selecting graduate students to put less emphasis on the quantitative.
It would change the field. It would make it a different experience. It would make for different kinds of dissertations, different kinds of research questions, deemphasizing the mathematics and emphasizing the historical, social-theoretic, philosophic-sociological dimensions of economic study. And if I did so, “the relevant scores on the relevant test” of applicants would show more blacks in the right tail, and I'd end up with more black economists, more female economists, et cetera.
So if a member of that group comes along and says, “We are looking at the test that you use, we are looking at the outcome, and we are underrepresented amongst those whom you're selecting. We think that's unfair. We think it locks in historical privilege. We think it is a reflection of a particular narrow and arbitrary view about things. Here's another way of doing social work. Here's another way of doing economics. Here's another way of teaching people about society, that if you used those instruments would be more favorable in the selection process to our group. And we think that's justice.” I think that that's kind of what's being said here. Although, I don't think quite as clearly articulated. But, you know, the test is bad by virtue of the fact that it generates disparate results is just a way of saying the thing that the test is measuring should not be getting so much emphasis, because when you put the emphasis on that thing, you exclude our people.
And if he or she, whoever is making this argument, were to put it that way, then we would get down to talking about, in my case, in the case of my example, exactly what is economics? Can we really discover the root causes of inflation by avoiding the immersion in time series econometrics, where you have to take masses of data and tease out causal relationships? Can we really solve the problem of how to regulate Silicon Valley tech monopolies if we don't have complex, intricate, game theoretic representations of the imperfect competition that goes on amongst those? And that kind of thing. And I think, actually, I can defend the contemporary practice of economics on those grounds, but that's where we would have the fight.
And the problem is that the people who make the kind of claims that you're making—and I think you are explaining exactly what's going on in their heads, exactly what they mean—they never even broach this next part. The issue is, okay, if we didn't do it the old fashioned way, would we lose anything? And I honestly think that what a lot of those people are thinking is, “Well, we don't like numbers. We find all of that dry. It would be putting an awful lot of effort into something that we don't cotton to as much as we cotton to studying a history, rooting out injustice, writing about our feelings, writing about other people's feelings.”
And I'm sorry, but that's just not fucking good enough. I think they expect us to intuit that and all do high fives. No, that is a rejection of the Enlightenment and modernity and complexity. You have to at least have the conversation. And frankly, I think they'd lose it. But even if they wouldn't, the idea that we're not supposed to talk about what the field would lose if you did it in a different way suggests that they're going more on the gut.
I don't think—and I'm anticipating you—I don't think they're standing there with guns in their holster daring anybody to say anything else. I think that they genuinely think—and this is the most recent piece that I wrote—they genuinely think that [decrying] the racism is as valid and important an action as proving what you can do despite the racism. And they figure they've done their job and they don't like numbers, and so they don't really feel like grappling with the other thing. They figure that's the answer, because among them, none of them have any problem with that.
But they're not thinking about the larger picture, or if they do, they're trained to think that anybody who has anything to say but "amen" who is not one of them is biased against them, or somehow just is trying not to understand. That's a paranoid view of other people. That's exactly how not to have constructive engagement or argumentation. So with social work, my very simple question is, if you can't ask test questions, what's the other way? Is it true that you would really get the same result in terms of quality of care of vulnerable people? Would you get the same result by just clocking how many hours somebody did and supervising them? Is it really true that being able to pass a test doesn't matter? And who said? And what's the argument?
I cannot stand people who don't make the argument and just toss around the word racism and figure that they have done their job and are looked at by outside observers who pretend that that makes sense, because it's okay when somebody has dreadlocks. That's not the way things should go.