Thursday, April 15, 2021

A better approach to anti-racism

Heather McGee speaking at Citizen University in 2016

My school hired the diversity trainer Chloé Valdary to deliver an assembly on April 21, 2021. Valdary claims to have devised a better alternative to the dominant strain of diversity or anti-racism training, which she recently outlined in a Boston Globe article.  She offers a thoughtful critique of  the sort of trainings she seeks to replace, and which have become ubiquitous on America's campuses and in corporations in recent years, and especially since the killing of George Floyd.

They treat "black people and white people as political abstractions," she writes, and embrace racial essentialism.  The article includes links to studies that show trainings fail and says anti-racism consultants like Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo spread counter-productive ideas.

Her appearance at Exeter may sow some confusion on campus, since we have embraced many of the notions she criticizes.  Kendi delivered the Martin Luther King Day keynote address in 2019 and his book was given out to the faculty.  DiAngelo's work is widely read by members of the administration and faculty. 

Of course Valdary will not have the last word.  I did a Google search of her name and found an essay that claimed she was guilty of bolstering the "hard bigotry of soft racism." Roderick Graham, a professor of sociology and criminal justice at Old Dominion University includes Valdary in a list of "black messengers" who he says protect white people from acknowledging the modern antiracist consensus.

The terms "soft racism" and "black messengers" recall 1950s McCarthyism, when red baiters labeled any leftist they didn't like as a pinko.   And the notion of an "antiracist consensus" is antithetical to the open inquiry that is necessary to the process of understanding and addressing our social problems. 

And Black intellectuals who dissent from at least some elements of the “consensus” are not confined to the short list of conservatives Graham lists.  They are legion even on the left and range from Marxist scholars like Adolph Reed Jr. and Barbara Fields to mainstream liberal professors like Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Randall Kennedy (also a former PEA MLK keynoter). 

"Black messengers" are part of a long and fruitful tradition of disagreement and debate among the opponents of racism in America. 

For example, in 1966 Martin Luther King condemned “extremism within the civil rights movement.” His close adviser, Bayard Rustin, said advocates of Black Power were more interested in "emotional release than ... economic and political advancement," and he predicted they would help to provoke a racist backlash.

Today's ascendant anti-racists are more the inheritors of Black Power than of King and Rustin.  Where the mainstream civil rights leaders emphasized common humanity, Black Power and contemporary anti-racists call on people to affirm and embrace racial difference. 

And studies suggest their workshops may be generating more racial conflict than racial healing. Unfortunately, Valdary's alternative has not yet been show to have better results as far as I know.

Another type of diversity training, however, has shown some positive results. Inter-group contact theory involves setting up interracial working groups under three conditions: divergent identities are minimized rather than emphasized; the groups must be working together toward a cooperative goal; and members of the group must have equal standing.

To understand why inter-group contact theory works, it is helpful to look at studies conducted by two Democratic strategists, Ian Haney Lopez and Heather McGhee.

They have found that voters are less likely to pull the lever for candidates who blow racist "dog whistles" when their opponents emphasize the common humanity of people across racial difference.

American society, Lopez argues, is

suffused with the belief that racism is wrong and people deserve dignity no matter what race they are. Racist attitudes are pervasive but racial egalitarian values are also pervasive. The task is to convince people that racial egalitarian values are the best way to take care of their families (Klein podcast @42:30 & 52:27).

"We all want the same thing for our kids, no matter what we look like or where we come from," he says.  That message works with white voters.

But today's ubiquitous diversity workshops unwittingly reinforce a zero-sum message that pits different racial groups against each other and tells participants: when they win, you lose.  For example, when whites are asked to acknowledge their “white privilege," McGhee says, it sends the message that

racism is good for white people, so maybe they should actually keep it. If I’m told all the time that racism is to my benefit, the only thing I have to make me want to join with racial justice advocates to fight against racism is a sense of self-sacrifice. And at a time of widening insecurity, that’s not enough. (from Klein podcast transcript)

In the past decade I would guess that Phillips Exeter Academy has spent millions on professional development that embraces this zero-sum message, including frequent attendance at the annual White Privilege Conference.

Yet I’m not aware of any efforts to measure the effectiveness of that and the many other diversity programs we fund. 

So what should we do?

One critical study of diversity training argues that it doesn’t work simply because people don't like to be told what to think and that when you try, they end up thinking the opposite.

What if instead of advancing a nonexistent consensus on anti-racism, we exposed our students to the rich tradition of debate among advocates of racial justice and let them make up their own minds?  

After all, American history reads like one big anti-racism seminar, illustrating in compelling stories how, when Black and white people worked together to solve problems they refined and improved our democracy, but also how some political leaders have played the race card to divide the working class and deny the majority of Americans “nice things” as McGhee puts it. 

On a practical level this would require two things: more time in the history classroom than the stingy two-year requirement, and "respecting the pupil," to quote the title of an old book on the Harkness method.   


(Go here for a guide, with links, to the essays in my series on teaching anti-racism)

In a June, 2020, letter the Phillips Exeter Academy Board of Trustees wrote that racism "thrives on divisiveness and wants us to believe that it is too deeply entrenched and too pervasive to be reckoned with."  The approach of Valdary and McGhee seem better designed to overcome divisiveness and this sense of political futility. 

Ibram Kendi begins his book, How to Be and Antiracist, by doing exactly what Lopez and McGhee says will prevent "cross-racial solidarity": He defines a racist as someone "who is supporting a racist policy." And he defines as racist any policy that leads to a racial disparity. Is Valdary correct in saying Kendi and other anti-racists are guilty of "racial essentialism"?  No credible person in America today would admit to "the belief that races are biologically distinct groups with defining core 'essences.'" What Valdary likely means is that they have replaced biology with "culture" as the source of the core racial essence.

Heather McGhee, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together (2021). McGhee’s book is blurbed by Kendi, who calls it “the book I’ve been waiting for.”  A must-read companion to The Sum of Us, which shows what can happen when white and black people overcome the divide-and-conquer strategy and form an unstoppable alliance, is Touré Reed, Toward Freedom: The Case Against Race Reductionism (2020), especially Chapter 1.

Police violence harms white people too: The liberal press, antiracist activists, and Democratic politicians make it seem like only people of color are killed by police. But according to the Washington Post database on police shootings, from 2015 to 2021 2,884 white people were shot and killed by the police. That’s more than all people of color combined, and 1,387 more than Black people. If the press publicized black and white killings in proportion to their number of occurrences, perhaps more white voters would support policing reform. Or perhaps people of all colors could unite against the apparent bias against men, who make up 95 percent of all police shooting deaths.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Where do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community (1967).

Bayard Rustin, Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin (2003, 2015).

David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1999). Chapter 9 includes the debate over Black Power.

On the influence of Black Power on diversity training, see Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, Race Experts: How Etiquette, Sensitivity Training, and New Age Therapy Hijacked the Civil Rights Revolution (2001).

Ian Haney Lopez spoke about the left’s race strategy on the Ezra Klein podcast Nov. 19, 2020. He also defended Critical Race Theory on the Weeds podcast, with Jane Coaston, Oct. 13, 2020.  Lopez and Coaston point out the positive contribution of CRT but only hint at how it can sometimes be used in diversity training in ways that do more harm than good.  A virtual cottage industry has sprung up in opposition to CRT, however.  For example, this piece offers a critique of “viewpoint epistemology,” an important aspect of CRT.  This describes one school’s antiracism program that is steeped in CRT.

Chloe Valdary’s article appeared Feb. 3 2021 in the Boston Globe.  The first principle of Valdary’s approach is “Treat people like human beings, not political abstractions.”  She writes:

The worst thing a business or school can do is alienate its employees or students by treating people as political abstractions and making them feel insecure. Instead we ought to be asking ourselves how to create conditions that lead everyone to flourish. What is needed is an anti-racism training rooted in a framework of abundance, not a framework of scarcity that puts white people into the reductive category of oppressor and black people into the equally reductive category of oppressed.

The website of her organization, Theory of Enchantment, can be found here. The Atlantic has a complimentary article on her work. 

In this You Tube video, Roderick Graham interviews Cedrick Simmons who offers a critical perspective on two of the most prominent anti-racism authors/consultants, Robin DiAngelo and Ibram Kendi.  Simmons is a graduate of Ithaca college were he does diversity work, and is a PhD candidate in sociology at Boston College.  He lists his interests as Inequality Studies, Qualitative Research, Race and Ethnicity, Sexuality, Education, Social Justice/Social Change and is writing a dissertation on “the challenges and resources for diversity workers in higher education.”  Simmons endorses the ideas of Barbara Fields and Adolph Reed Jr.

In another Weeds podcast Matt Yglesias interviews political scientist Ruy Teixeira whose analysis of the 2020 election results supports  Lopez’s argument for Democratic strategy and suggests that what Graham calls an anti-racist consensus has purchase only among the tiny minority of Americans categorized as progressive activists by the Hidden Tribes survey.  

This study by a Yale political science professor and a Ph.D candidate found that a universal message on housing policy was more appealing to voters--including Blacks and other nonwhites--than an message that emphasized racial justice.

The "Hidden Tribes" survey found that 80 percent of Americans thought political correctness was "a problem."  Only the group they identified as progressive activists thought it wasn't a a problem.  Only 8 percent of Americans fall into that group and they are more educated, whiter, less religious, and more affluent than most other Americans.

See my blog, Thinking While Teaching, for essays on politically neutral teaching and Black history.  I spent a good deal of the past summer reading and writing about black history and the contemporary struggle for racial justice.  The essay that came out of that study, "White allies and the ‘gauntlet of blackness" goes on at great length and includes several addendums that address some of the issues discussed above. Use the control/F function to find the section on politically neutral teaching by searching for “Teaching in the BLM Era”; for studies assessing diversity training, and describing “inter-group contact theory,” search for: “Effectiveness of Diversity and Anti-bias Training.” On that note, Martin Luther King, in Where do we Go From Here, wrote:  “The ability of Negroes and whites to work together, to understand each other, will not be found ready made; it must be created by the fact of contact” (28).

1 comment:

  1. Very smart, sensible approach to a complex and persistent problem. Bravo!