There are things that don’t—or can’t—get said when we talk about race in most venues in America. Readers of this newsletter will know what I’m talking about: crime in black communities, out-of-wedlock birthrates, academic underperformance. The list could go on. In academia, in many mainstream publications and media outlets, and increasingly in K-12 classrooms, what I’ve called “the bias narrative” holds sway. Any negative deviation from the norm in black life is attributable entirely or almost entirely to the nation’s history of racial oppression, which begins in the early seventeenth century and continues unabated to this day, or so the bias narrative goes.
That’s one story you could tell. And if that story was just one of many that circulated through our national discourse, it wouldn’t be the worst thing. But the bias narrative has become not just one of many stories, it’s become the only story. It’s the story told in newspaper opinion pages, in scholarly journals, and in educational materials disseminated throughout our schools. It’s the story told by the White House. It’s a story that ramifies out from the most elite precincts of our country and into ordinary conversations and relations between individuals. Its grip on so many areas of the public imagination has become so tight that anyone challenging it is viewed with suspicion and, often enough, outright contempt. When an alternate explanation for black underperformance is proffered, it’s not the explanation that gets challenged but the individual making it. For to challenge the bias narrative demonstrates, ipso facto, that one is a racist, a deplorable, an Uncle Tom.
This situation is untenable. How we talk and think about race has consequences that can be measured in dollars and cents, stagnant lives, and dead bodies. So to respond to any account of our current predicament not rooted in bias with mere ad hominem attack is not merely unfortunate, it is actively damaging. At this year’s Heterodox Academy Conference, in a conversation moderated by York College rhetorician Erec Smith, John McWhorter and I discussed what happens when ad hominem attack replaces actual debate. Below you’ll find an excerpt from that discussion (you can see the full conversation here).
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EREC SMITH: I always feel odd when people clap initially, because I haven't said anything yet. This could be horrible. You guys don't even know that. So before we get into it, I want to introduce our two special guests. And I actually feel odd introducing them because I'm pretty sure everyone in this room knows who they are.
ERIC SMITH: Right? Yeah. I would actually prefer to skip this part, but I was brought here for a reason, and I will do what I was told to do. Moderators gonna moderate. So, John McWhorter is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University and studies creole language sociolects and Black English. He is author of over 20 books on race relations, hip hop, and African American culture. Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America is his most recent book. You can clap for him.
SMITH: Glenn Loury is Merton P. Stoltz Professor of Social Sciences and professor of economics at Brown University. He has published over 200 essays and reviews—200?
GLENN LOURY: Yeah.
SMITH: No, it's not that. I mean, I haven't done 200 of anything.
You haven't been around as long as I have.
SMITH: Yeah. Good response. Okay. And his books include One by One from the Inside Out: Essays and Reviews on Race and Responsibility in America and The Anatomy of Racial Inequality, Race, Incarceration, and American Values, and Ethnicity, Social mobility, and Public Policy: Comparing the US and the UK. Round of applause, please, for Dr. Loury.
SMITH: You will know these two, perhaps most famously from The Glenn Show, hosted by Glenn. And they often start, well, you often start that podcast by saying you are the Black Guys formerly at Bloggingheads.com or .tv, and now just the Black Guys. And you know what? I'm a black guy. Let's be black guys together. Can we do that?
JOHN MCWHORTER: Let's do that.
SMITH: All right. Fantastic.
MCWHORTER: It's such an effort.
SMITH: Well, I mean, that's actually a good jumping off point, because being black together is not as easy as it sounds these days. There's a certain script and narrative you're supposed to abide by in academia, and if you don't abide by that, you're called things like sellouts and accused of performing Uncle Tom-foolery, right? So I would like to talk about that, especially being a co-founder of Free Black Thought, which is all about viewpoint diversity among black people. So let's start it off that way. John, how have you dealt with being called a sellout?
MCWHORTER: Well, the truth is that I can't say that it's ever hurt me. It's not something that I've learned to deal with because from the very beginning, when people used to say that, I thought that's so far from anything I've ever been or thought that it's as if they're talking about some cartoon character rather than me. My thought was just what would make somebody think that?
Very, very early on, I remember, I was dealing with an ABC reporter, a black woman, very intelligent and compassionate and fun black woman who nevertheless seemed to think that I was—she didn't use the word “sellout,” but the idea was that I had written my book Losing the Race in order to make money. And I asked her, because back then, you know, I'm like 11 years old at this point. Literally I'm probably rounding 40. Her name was Carol Simpson, I'm gonna say now. She was somebody who was more prominent then than she is now.
But I said, Carol, you clearly think that I'm trying to make a buck in saying these things, rather than that I really believe them. What is it that you think is gonna happen? What do you think I'm trying for? And I meant it. And she said—she's the first person who ever said it—she said, “People like you are trying to make money from conservative organizations and right-wing think tanks. And they're gonna give you about $20,000 a pop. And that way you get rich.” And she meant it. She looked me right in the eye.
And I said, Carol, do you realize that that's not what I'm doing? As brilliant as she was, I could just see there was this opacity in her eyes. She couldn't see past it. And that led me to think not what a terrible person she is, how sad it is that people don't like me. I thought, why would somebody that bright actually have that vision of me? And I thought, okay, what it is is that someone like her thinks that when it comes to race issues, there's only one truth. That if you're talking about you relativity or why the Revolutionary War started or various other things that there are many truths. But when it comes to race, there's only one. And so if somebody says something different, they must be evil.
So I thought she sequesters a part of her mind on race, and therefore naturally I come off as a cynical villain. That makes perfect sense. I could imagine someone thinking that way. Many of you will know that that's probably the seed of what I started calling “religion” in about 2015. But my thought was not that she was a terrible person, but it sure as hell wasn't me looking into my myself one day while I'm rubbing lotion on my hands or something and thinking, “Am I a sellout? Am I?” It never occurred to me.
And so to this day, if somebody says that I'm a shill, I think they're talking about this cartoon character because of this limited way that so many people, unfortunately, think of as the enlightened take on race. But it's perfectly understandable. And therefore it doesn't make me mad. I want to read about my dinosaurs and I just kind of move on.
SMITH: Yes, yes, yes. And you, you make a good point that otherwise intelligent people just devolve into guessing when it comes to this kind of thing. It's like they're not thinking so much as they're abiding. They're abiding by a particular narrative that they've been told and convinced is the only narrative.
MCWHORTER: And they sincerely believe that.
SMITH: Yeah. And they sincerely believe it. Yes. Enough about me. Glenn?
It pisses me off. The stakes are way too high. The truth of the matter is that those of us who take the risk of speaking out as best we can about these issues on race are the ones who are showing that they actually care about the wellbeing of our people. So this move—this high-handed move of ad hominem attack, which doesn't actually bother to rebut your argument but instead calls you a name—pisses me off.
We can't afford it, if you'll allow me the first-person plural here in reference to African Americans. We can't afford it. The prison's overflowing. The classroom's not functioning. The family's in disarray. We can't afford it. We need clear-headed straight shooting. Now I can be wrong. Okay. Argue, facts, evidence, reason. Show me that I'm wrong, but don't tell me to shut up.
Eric Smith: Okay …
And I think one of the things that's going on is it's a call for solidarity. Aren't we on the same team here? By challenging our central beliefs, you're betraying us in some sense. I think that's part of it. I think part of it is, don't you know that other people will hear you saying this? And whatever the merits are of what you're saying, others will distort it and use it for their own purposes. The right wing, the white supremacists, the anti-anti-racists, they'll they'll be encouraged by what you're doing. So you need to think about that. I think that's what people are saying.
But I'll say this. To be called a coon, an Uncle Tom, someone performing in blackface, a Stepin Fetchit hurts. I can't just shrug it off. It hurts. And maybe that's one of the reasons why it makes me angry. It hurts.
MCWHORTER: Doesn't hurt me. Really, Glenn? Glenn, does it really get to you? Because for me it's like listening to somebody dressed in a strange cartoon suit. It's from another world. Does it get to you?
It does. And I mean, I can tell you a story. After One by One from the Inside Out came out, this is all the way back in the ‘90s, I went to Chicago to a book fair at Haki Madhubuti's bookstore on 75th Street and Cottage Grove avenue on the South Side of Chicago.
Now, Haki Madhubuti, otherwise known as Don Lee, was a Black Arts star during the ‘60s and ‘70s, a poet. And he's an Afrocentrist. He has a bookstore. I went there to talk about my book. In the audience was my daughter and my son-in-law. And during the question and answer period, my son-in-law confronted me and basically said that I was a black sellout. That hurt.
MCWHORTER: If my daughter's—mine are too young—but if my daughter's spouse pulled that, it would just remind me of how easy it is for an intelligent person to settle for this ideology. I don't know if I'd be hurt, I'd be angry that that person did that in front of a bunch of people, given how close we were supposed to be and that that person is intimately involved with one of mine. But it wouldn't make me sad.
What hurt, John, was that you don't see me in what I'm doing with my life on behalf of our people? You reduce me to a cartoon character and then you dismiss me because I didn't spout rhetoric? I'm your father. In-law.
You know, take me seriously enough to pause for a minute and think, well, if he's saying that, which is so foreign to what my own understanding might be, maybe I need to rethink some of the received wisdom that I've been operating on. Show me some respect for being a free thinking black man. I didn't stop being black when I thought for myself.
MCWHORTER: We could do the whole hour on this, but Eric, I know you want to go different places. And so what are you thinking?
SMITH: I'm a flexible guy. You know, we can talk about this.
MCWHORTER: Well, then I want to say that if ... I'm imagining this. My oldest is 10. Let's say in 20 years, Lord forbid she marry somebody like this, but let's say in 20 years, I'm picturing this guy standing up and saying this to me. My thought would be that guy unfortunately has founded his whole sense of being special on the pleasure of that victim-based ideology.
That victimization mindset makes many human beings feel good. Psychologists are familiar with it. We tend to overdose on it. And he's one of those people. He doesn't have another way of feeling good about himself. And it's not his fault, because he maybe was mentored by people like that. Unfortunately, if he went to college, he learned it there, you can be quite sure.
So he's standing up and he's doing this because he thinks that's why he's in this world. It's him like a bird stretching the wings. It's his living. He's expressing himself. It's his word. I get that. I can't be too angry at him for that because it's other people who put him on that path. He really thinks he's doing the right thing. He's not just faking it. He thinks that makes sense.
And so for me it's, gosh, I wish you would knock this off, but I get it. You can't see outside of your box. And so for me it would be that. I know why he doesn't respect his father. Because it makes him feel good to call out racism and he thinks that's what makes being black significant. He can't help it.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Thank you all for this really interesting conversation. So we're in a room full of people who, compared to the general public, are disproportionately prone to cancellation and disproportionately into academic pursuits for their own sake. And so I think we tend to focus on the loss of the latter and the existence of the former as some of the big stakes in this thing.
But I want to come back to something that Glenn said about the tragedy. I'm wondering if you can elaborate on how some of these bad ideas are harming real people on a large scale. Because I think that's the thing that's both the most important aspect of the problem and what focusing on is gonna turn the tide.
Yeah. I mean, let's be concrete. So violence, murder, homicide, carjackings, assault, rape. So the scale of victimization in the communities where large numbers of relatively disadvantaged black people live is just unimaginable. It's astronomical. We spoke a bit to this previously. There's no magic bullet here. You're not gonna just pull on a string and everything's gonna be okay. But if you don't get a sense of the nature of the problem, if you don't take it as sufficiently seriously as it deserves to be, if you don't center it, you're never going to be able to get your hands around it. You're never [going to] be able to address it.
Now, the racial aspect of this is just hard to avoid. It's right there in the stats. There are clear order-of-magnitude differences in the intensity of this problem by race. And we could go into the reasons why. I'm not gonna say I've got my head entirely around it. But to sweep it under the rug, to come with cover stories about it, to make excuses for it, to fail to voice values, attitudes, and beliefs that affirm a different way of living for your people, to not call them to higher ground, to equivocate in the face of this tragedy? There are other things that are like that. Two in three babies born to a black woman in this country are born to a woman without a husband.
Again, this is not a simple, straightforward issue. Again, one could adduce historical and ongoing reasons, structural reasons that are relevant to the problem. I'm talking about the foundation of human development of young people and the role that the family and its organization and the resources that are brought to bear on that monumentally important task of shaping the next generation and how it is disparate by race.
Again, I don't have a magic bullet here. But the discourse around the question is divorced from the reality of the problem. Public education. The failure to fully develop the intellectual potential of generation after generation, because institutions with a monopoly on the provision of educational services are not functioning as well as they might. We could talk about it. There will be a lot of political disagreement. But the extent to which we will get to the middle of the twenty-first century and still be dealing with the academic performance gaps that we are confronted with today because we have failed to take seriously the challenge of reforming those institutions is tragic.
Now, I'll just finish this. The world is not going to stand still while black people fail to get our acts together. The world is going to move on. It is a fast-moving, dynamic, globalized technologically revolutionary environment that we are embedded in. The twenty-first century is not going to wait. The Chinese are not going to wait. So if we don't actually get this right, we're gonna be looking for generations at a blighted, dysfunctional, subordinate element of our population. And I'm not talking about a few people. I'm talking about millions of people. It's fodder for demagoguery. And I think we're seeing it.
That that's what I would say. The irony of the fact that I'm saying it to a room of 500 people with a handful of black people in it has not failed to be noted in my attention. That's not an accusation. It is another tragic dimension of the circumstance that we confront ourselves with. You don't think there are black people who are also concerned about what's happening to these institutions? Where are they?
I am old enough to remember when casual racism was fairly common in a wide cross section of white society – blacks are lazy, blacks are criminals, black hates whites, etc. When I was younger, I had no real way of assessing these statements because I didn’t know any black people until I went to high school. And even then, the small number of blacks mostly kept to themselves and only white boys in sports mingled with black boys. I was not in sports.
I was not especially virtuous so I can’t say I objected precisely to those statements, but I did notice that people who said these things also said a lot of demonstrably incorrect things about other topics. As a good beginning intellectual, I thus began to doubt these statements on race and countered these “arguments” with my own take along the lines of slavery and Jim Crow have left a negative legacy in the black community and we have to give the new (late 1970s) order of integration a chance to work, including appropriate uses of affirmative action.
I continued to make these arguments even as I went to college in a big city and, having a blue-collar background, lived off-campus in a tough part of town during the crack epidemic and soaring crime rates. I rarely had to worry about groups of whites or Asians accosting me on some street corner, but way more than once did I have to rely on some good situational awareness to avoid black guys on the street corners. And when I took mass transit, it wasn’t white guys who frequently tried to manufacture a fight by bumping into me and then claiming I bumped into them.
But I was able to compartmentalize this ongoing situation as mere anecdotes of my experience and not historical events supported by data. Not so most of the people I debated with because most people are not intellectuals. They do not form their ideas and opinions by carefully examining all sides of an issue and seeking out contrary facts and reasoning to test their conclusions. No. Most people are empiricists and pragmatists driven by emotional connections to their tribe, however conceived, and rather easily pick up those conclusions that keep them successfully oriented and emotionally satisfied in their environment. In a word, pathos.
As the 80s wore on into the 90s it was clear that the pathos was changing, and I less frequently was debating these issues. This was true in all settings, but most especially true in upper middle class, highly educated settings. It was apparent to me that by the end of 90s, any discussion of the plight of blacks could now follow a fairly predictable path, but it was no more founded on facts and evidence than the previous casual racism. It was simply what was done. Any deviation was typically met with some version of social class gate-keeping along the lines of “we don’t think like that,” meaning quite clearly that only lower class people concern themselves with any dysfunction in the black community.
“We” either ignore the topic (because we have much better and more lucrative things to focus on) or we utter the proper platitudes with no real concern whether those platitudes are helpful or not.
Thus the situation we find ourselves in now seems less to be the great “left” takeover of the minds and hearts of the upper middles classes than a fairly slow progression of changing attitudes towards race (and homosexuality for that matter) which has become integral to what it means to be the educated, upper middle class – that is, “we” are better than “them,” and if you persist in talking in certain ways, you are not one of us.
“Again, this not a simple straightforward issue…” In other words, it’s a complex issue. Any complex issue can be understood from a systems perspective in terms of multidimensionality, connectedness, and dynamics. In this case, racism and conversations about racism can be understood in terms of multiple, connected, and dynamic parts. For example, there are multiple and connected forms of racism that have been played out in varied in changing ways throughout American history and now. This newsletter points to multiple, connected, and dynamic ways of talking about racism. And the comments already posted suggest multiple, connected, and dynamic ways of addressing racism in the US.