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When Anti-Racism Comes for the Anti-Racists
with John McWhorter and Vincent Lloyd
Earlier this month, Vincent Lloyd, professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University, published an article in Compact that ought to make “anti-racists” everywhere think long and hard about what they’re doing. While leading a summer seminar last year at the Telluride Association entitled “Race and the Limits of Law in America,” Vincent found himself accused of the very forms of anti-racism his course was designed to interrogate. Under the influence of a Telluride-appointed anti-racism workshop leader Vincent refers to as “Keisha,” his students turned against him. No longer able to teach effectively in an environment turned hostile, Vincent ended the seminar early.
The irony is that Vincent is a committed anti-racist. He is the director of Villanova’s Africana Studies program, he leads anti-racist workshops, and he publishes on the topic of anti-racism. And, not for nothing, he’s black. One would think that those bona fides would insulate him from charges of perpetuating white supremacy. Indeed, even after being treated so shabbily by Keisha, Vincent remains a staunch anti-racist. As John notes in the following excerpt from our conversation with Vincent, all of this was, in some ways, predictable. The anti-racist mindset divides the world into victims and oppressors. When no true oppressor can be found, one will be conjured from the materials at hand in order to reestablish the phantom social order that anti-racism requires to justify its existence.
In our conversation, Vincent says that, while he was a victim of anti-racism run amok, he views Keisha as a victim, too. Perhaps she is. But if so, then the oppressor is the very worldview that seeks to lock people those two very narrow, inhuman roles. A true commitment to social justice would demand that we relinquish any paradigm that operates by reducing intelligent, kind, dedicated people like Vincent to mere nodes in a structure of domination. If anti-racism truly defended the full humanity of black people, then its own premises would require it to wink out of existence. Vincent's story ought to be proof of that. Unfortunately, consistency seems too much to ask in this case.
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GLENN LOURY: You're also most recently author of a piece that was published in Compact Magazine, “Black Professor Trapped in Anti-Racist Hell,” which has engendered a lot of discussion. And we thought we might take that up with you here, if you don't mind. The article's gotten a lot of play. I've had a couple of friends send me reprints saying, “I was in the Telluride Association program when I was a kid. It's a great thing, and this is disturbing” and whatnot. So tell us about your experience.
VINCENT LLOYD: I was teaching in this program for elite high school students students with extraordinary abilities from all over the US. The program had, post-2020, reconfigured so that the focus was no longer on a sort of great books-type curriculum but on anti-oppressive studies and critical black studies.
Those are the two tracks that now exist in the Telluride summer program. It struck me as a great opportunity to think through, what are the ideas animating black justice struggles? What are the experiments happening about imagining new worlds and so on. As part of this program, I witnessed this growing toxicity on the left. It seemed as if the program was taking the spirit and vibrancy of justice movements and reducing it, flattening it into statements that the students were just supposed to repeat. And we couldn't have that kind of deep searching discussion that could allow students to make up their own mind and to deepen their commitment to intellectual life and to pursuing justice.
So it was a pedagogical dispute, at the end of the day, that you ran aground of. That is, you wanted to have kids come to conclusions with which your antagonists might have agreed, but you wanted them to reach them through a process of deliberation. And they wanted it dictated, as it were, to be nailed to the wall, and people would then know what to think.
VINCENT LLOYD: Yes. I think everyone in this situation was in an awkward position. The various figures I described in the article were also themselves victims. We were given a task. They were given a task to communicate this anti-racist curriculum and implemented it in a way that I wasn't happy with and, I thought, shut down seminar discussion. But it was ultimately the broader forces in the nation, specifically in the Telluride Association, that resulted in something that was actually not a seminar happening. I think we can all appreciate the richness of what a seminar can be, where we all come in with different assumptions, all of those assumptions are challenged over time, no one ends where they started, and we see that there's an unfolding of our own understanding of self and world that happens in the seminar.
JOHN MCWHORTER: Vincent, this is what everybody wants to know, and I think I would not be responsible if I didn't ask. And it's very simple. If I had been teaching that seminar, or any seminar—but no, that seminar—and Keisha had demanded that certain changes be made, my answer would've been, “Keisha, I know where you're coming from, but I'm running this class. It's going to go the way I wanna run it. I'm not going to accede to your demands. And I'm very sorry about how this is coming off, but if it doesn't work that way for you, you're gonna have to go work with someone else. And I have spoken.” What everybody wants to know is why you bend all. Why did you feel that Keisha needed to be adjusted to in that way?
VINCENT LLOYD: One, one of the exciting things about the Telluride philosophy, which was not necessarily my philosophy or students' but the organization's philosophy, is that students should be empowered with this radical democratic authority to design things themselves. And if the majority of students want something, then that's what they get. Again, I'm staying neutral on whether that's a good or bad thing or whether it could be good if it had more constraints or more of a framework, but this is what the organizational philosophy was.
JOHN MCWHORTER: So it's part of a tradition at Telluride.
So what happened, Vincent, that the seminar blew up somehow and you ended up getting canceled or something? I mean, what happened?
VINCENT LLOYD: So the students had a list of grievances claiming that I was perpetuating anti-black racism. They had learned about these abstract principles of anti-black racism. They didn't have any substantial racism around them to apply those principles to. The instructors of the seminar were the only outsiders to which those principles could be applied.
It seemed like when that kind of claim was made—“You are perpetuating anti-black racism”—expecting an apology or some sort of course correction. One of the demands was that we switch from seminar-style instruction to lecture, which seems very ironic in various ways as well. I reached out to the Telluride Association leadership and said, “Now, as an organization, you need to step in and say, no, this class is supposed to be a college-level seminar. This is what a college level seminar looks like. That's why you're here. That's the purpose of your summer.” The Telluride Association was not willing to do that, and so the seminar ended prematurely.
Well, it is student governed, right?
VINCENT LLOYD: Yes. And the alumni board is all young alumni. They're usually in their 20s or so. So there's a lot of susceptibility to the currents of the time, for good and for ill.
Well, you talk about irony. I mean, having heard you for the first half hour or so of our conversation, I find it exquisitely ironic that you would be accused of anti-black racism.
VINCENT LLOYD: It does seem like one of the things that the left has to work on. That we need to be building allies and reaching out to folks who might have underdeveloped or, or just not thought so much about political views and cultivating the virtues and sensibilities that can help us work together in a struggle for justice rather than suspecting each other or personalizing disputes.
JOHN MCWHORTER: That whole episode, to me, it's so sadly ordinary, right down to the fact that the Telluride powers that be wouldn't do anything about it because it involved black people. It's so craven and it's so unreflective and it's so condescending to, in a way, all three of us and all black people to suspend judgment that way just because it's about racism and because they're afraid that an apparently rather intimidating person—I'm beginning to picture how Keisha must present—they're afraid of her. They're afraid of getting yelled at by her, and they're afraid of what she's going to put on Twitter.
But Vincent wants us to bear in mind that Keisha is caught up in the same problematic that everybody else is.
JOHN MCWHORTER: That's one way of putting it.
That's what he said.
VINCENT LLOYD: Yeah, I do. I think Keisha is a victim here as well. And, it's a product of the dynamics of the time, the larger cultural dynamics of the time.
Okay. So John, what do you think overall about the Vincent Lloyd's story?
JOHN MCWHORTER: Well, you know, seems like a great person. Seems like a very smart person. But honestly, I would have to say that, in terms of a defense of that domination-focused way of doing academic inquiry and the tenets of the new way of looking at social justice, I can't say that I was moved to feel much differently than I do now.
And in a way, I found him useful for presenting what the other side is, because he wasn't doing it out of anger. He wasn't trying to beat anybody over the head. And you could see that he is bright, he's nice, he's well-meaning. He is not a naive person at all. There's no demonizing people like that, but he is definitely—and I would say this in front of him—he is a beautiful instantiation of a frame of mine which in a different spirited person can be used quite abusively. But I do not saddle him with that description.
Well, I will admit to having been impressed by him, even though we disagreed about a lot of stuff. I did do a little research on his background, and he's an accomplished scholar. He's a serious, thoughtful person, I thought. He's an academic. One of the things I read about him, he's quoted, he's being interviewed, he says, “Black Studies as an intellectual enterprise within the humanities and today's university is like French theory was back in the '80s—you know, Derrida and Foucault and those people—because it's a fertile ground.” And then I read on a little bit more, and I realized this is a world that will make sense to somebody in an English department or something in a university, but it won't make much sense to anybody else.
JOHN MCWHORTER: It's a localized world. Yeah, definitely. Wow. This academia that I got myself into, sometimes I wonder whether I would do it again if I knew what was coming. Because you know, linguistics has in some of its sub-departments, which are increasingly influential, that framework of person and that's not why I'm interested in things.
It's not that I don't understand social justice, but the idea that you apply those hardest-firing brain cells to that one particular concern, to me, it would be like talking about nothing but taxes all day. There's so much more. And I guess that makes me either a dilettante or a baby or not significantly concerned with social justice, but that idea that academic thought is being a warrior for battling domination, just that—for me it's always just, “And what else?” Really? Is that all? And I'm very open to the idea that I'm missing something, that I never got over being five years old or something. But whenever I run up against that, I'm so disappointed.