Living by the Race Card
with Rajiv Sethi
In recent conversations, John McWhorter and I have noted that some of the less reputable initiatives put forward by progressive educators, administrators, and elected officials in the name of social justice seem to be losing traction. There is a concerted pushback among parents to reinstate blind admissions testing in elite public schools and banish CRT-type programs from K-12 education, among voters living in cities run by district attorneys who favor overly lax sentencing for felons, and among ordinary people who feel like their ordinary political views can no longer be uttered in polite society.
“Resistance” is one word that describes this trend. “Backlash” is another. In the following excerpt from my conversation with my friend the economist Rajiv Sethi, he worries that this backlash is harming people who did nothing to deserve the ire of those who are fed up with the progressive line on race. I have no doubt there are such innocent victims, and that is regrettable. But we shouldn’t be surprised that the backlash has its excesses; the progressive insistence on injecting race into seemingly every facet of public life is itself excessive. As I say below, you live by the race card, you die by the race card.
When our policy decisions and political movements are premised on the notion that we as human beings are reducible to our race, that our responsibilities and experiences begin and end in race, we are in deep, deep trouble. I hope that those who are resisting the progressive race hustle in the schools and on the ballot are successful, and that those defeats can ratchet down the atmosphere of division and grievance we’re living in now. If not, I fear the backlash will continue, and that a few wrongfully terminated teachers will be the least of our problems.
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GLENN LOURY: I just want to ask you something about the general discussion of racial inequality issues in the country. Since the publication of your book, these last two, three years, the fervor around Black Lives Matter has reached fever pitch in  with the killing of George Floyd and has since, it seems, ebbed. We're starting to see some political pushback against the progressive DAs in one place or another. There's grumbling and some signs of a shifting tide. And I'm wondering if you think that's a good thing or how you're processing.
We may have reached a kind of peak anti-racism wokeness, and we may be in retreat from some of those intense affirmations of the diversity equity and inclusion. The Supreme Court, I don't know, again, what you would say, but I would bet money that they're going to significantly undercut racial affirmative action in the decision that they'll be coming to in the fall. What do you see by way of the drift? We both write about and think about these issues a lot.
RAJIV SETHI: Well, as you know, I'm a great admirer of you work on self-censorship. At your conference in your honor last month, I spoke about this paper. And certainly you can see a lot of that playing out on campuses and in communities in terms of discussion of issues, where people are very guarded in what they feel that they can say and talk about. And so there is that, there's no question.
But Glenn there's also something very, very disturbing going on in terms of the reaction to what has been labeled critical race theory. In fact, the label has been applied so broadly as to be dealing with sometimes just basic historical fact, sometimes I get the impression. And I just read a piece, I think it was yesterday or today, in ProPublica about an educator from Maryland. Her name is Cecilia Lewis. I don't know if you saw this, but she was hired into, I think, Cherokee County, Georgia you know, by the school district. She happens to be black. The position itself was defined to some degree in the language of diversity, equity, and inclusion, although her background, I mean, she actually initially thought CRT meant something totally different. She's really not aware of any connection to this kind of legal scholarship. But in any case, be that as it may, she accepted a position in Georgia and was completely hounded out to the point where I think the position was retracted, went to a neighboring county, Cobb County, and was followed over there. And really a whole bunch of people are swarming, and partly through a coordinated national campaign, where a script is being distributed.
So the anti-CRT attacks, in fact, are just as disturbing to me as the self-censorship and the unwillingness to discuss certain issues and certain things that you have pointed out that may well be disturbing that might be happening in classrooms. I think there are legitimate points to be made about what our educators are doing in the classroom, but that's not what I see going on. What I see going on is that there are things that ought to be debated and questioned and brought to the surface. But instead of that, there's a very active, nationally coordinated campaign to mob school districts in ways that that get innocent people who are trying to just basically do right by the children hounded out of jobs or school boards, and so on. So I'm disturbed by what's going on and not just disturbed by the content of instruction and the unwillingness to discuss it openly. I'm also disturbed by the reaction to it. So it's a depressing time with regard to the education system for me, personally.
Yeah. Okay. I don't know if I agree in every respect. I mean, I do acknowledge the existence of this reaction that you're talking about, and it can be disturbing. As disturbing as the underlying predicate? I don't know. We'll have to see. I mean, there is a kind of McCarthyist thing. You say a coordinated campaign. Christopher Rufo's name is going to come up here. He's the journalist, writes at the City Journal, Manhattan Institute, who's made a big deal out of uncovering the excesses of critical race theory. Critical race theory, going from a very discrete Kimberlé Crenshaw, Derek Bell kind of legal scholarship thing into a broad umbrella that includes everything from teaching the 1619 Project in schools to anti-racism seminars for kids to make them aware of, et cetera, or Ibram X. Kendi books that are adopted. Do we read these books?
And yeah, some of the banning of books and the broad heavy-handed, “You wanna teach people about the history of race in this country, I don't trust you to do it, because I think you're gonna indoctrinate our kids, you're gonna make the white kids hate each other” and whatnot. Sure, sure. There's some of that going on.
But what I would say is ... I wonder how you react to this. I say this with respect to the discussion of crime and policing and violence. You play the race card, you live by it, you die by it. Don't defund the police, deracialize the discussion about police. If you insist on making race the predicate of every discussion about social obligation and justice, you're going to get a backlash, because how can you make white people into the sole morally responsible agents of the persistence of racial inequality? How can you presume of a person, in virtue of the fact that they're white, that they're somehow privileged and not expect the reaction amongst some white people to be, “You're calling attention to my race? You're making race the subject? Okay. Then let's talk about race. Let's talk about race. You don't like Western civilization? Where's your civilization? You think that the United States of America has blood on its hands? Well, how did the modern world get made, and what other world would you rather live in? Go anywhere and you're gonna find a mess of blood, et cetera, et cetera.”
I'm not surprised that if you call attention to white cops beating up black kids, somebody else is going to call attention to black thugs beating up innocent white people. And do you know, there are a lot more of the latter than there are of the former. You can't control the racial thing. You play that card and the whirlwind is what you'll reap. Best to talk about people in their universal humanistic statuses as those deserving of the dignity of other humankind than to racialize every discussion.
The fact that Brown doesn't have the same percentage of black kids majoring in physics as majoring in sociology needn't constitute an indictment of Brown as a racist institution. The fact that a kid is uncomfortable when someone makes an argument about a relevant political issue, Ketanji Brown Jackson's status as the most qualified person to be appointed to the us Supreme Court, for example. You're gonna make a federal case out of Ilya Shapiro at the Georgetown Law School? You're gonna harden the hearts of many, many people in the legal profession who don't want that kind of racial indoctrination imposed upon themselves, and they're gonna fight back, et cetera. I mean, in other words, I think we are reaping, to a certain extent, what we have sown in this backlash
Again, but who is reaping and who is sowing? The people doing the sowing, in the context of the ideas that you have just described, are not the ones who are experiencing the backlash. They are celebrated. Their careers are perfectly fine. They're inoculated against the backlash. The backlash is against these educators, the frontline workers who really don't know what on Earth is going on. They don't even know what critical race theory is. And they're being attacked in school board meetings and basically told that they're indoctrinating the kids. Honestly, a lot of them are bewildered by this. The backlash is not falling on the people who, in your telling, have triggered the backlash. Backlash has spread far and wide on folks who have no idea how on Earth this came to be. So I think it's not reaping and sowing.
You were just at Barry Weiss's Common Sense Substack.
Yeah, I was.
So you have followed, I assume, her reporting on what is going on in American K-12 education, especially—not only her personally, but her column—especially in the elite schools in New York City where parents have been in revolt. Some parents, so-called conservative parents because they are— These are not McCarthyite fascists who are trying to get Toni Morrison's books out of the library. These are people who object, when a teacher says, “I want to show Glenn Loury and John McWhorter and Roland Fryer's work to my students to counteract Nikole Hannah-Jones, to balance Ibram X. Kendi and Ta-Nehisi Coates,” and are told by the headmaster, “No, you can't do that because then the kids will be, et cetera”
And I'm sorry for the personal reference, but I do take it personally. I take it personally that Clarence Thomas, a black man, one of the most significant figures in American history of the last 50 years, whose whose story is absolutely iconic—he happens to be a conservative—is remembered in a single ... If you ask one of these progressive teachers to talk to their kids about Clarence Thomas, can you imagine what they're gonna say to them? In other words—I'm sorry, I'm rambling—the narrative is contested. In educational circles, and certainly in higher education circles, but I think it's also true in K-12, the progressives have by far had the upper hand. The backlash is calling to account people who have abused their power to enforce a particular way of looking at these racial issues on these kids. And it's fair ground. That's where I'm going with this. Let's fight it out. It's fair ground.
There's no question that in some schools, especially elite private schools, yes, it's fair ground. But this has gone way beyond that. And I would urge you and others to read this ProPublica report on Cobb County and Cherokee County, Georgia. The extraordinary level of malice directed towards somebody who's completely undeserving. It's just a case. You talked earlier about anecdotal evidence versus statistical evidence. But it's deeply researched and, okay, maybe there is an agenda there. Maybe there's a bias there in the reporting. But I believe that focusing on the sort of elite Manhattan institutions where certain changes to curricula may have unsettled parents in a way that's entirely justified and where the pushback is itself justified, is, I think, focusing on too narrow a range of phenomena, that this backlash goes way beyond that.
It's the folks who are generally centrist, maybe right-of-center, left-of-center, doing their jobs as educationists. There are darts being thrown that are hitting people who are really undeserving, way beyond the elite Manhattan school cultures. I'm sure that the phenomenon you're describing is accurate. I just don't think that's really all that widespread, and where the backlash is coming is not discriminating or not distinguishing between where it's deserved and where it's not.