Monday Reading List: Can I Go Off for a Minute?

I was going to keep the reading list short and sweet today, but I ended up going off. I hope you'll bear with me.

As someone who works at the intersection of education policy and racial justice work, I often get questions that sound something like this:

"Hey, why do you talk about race so much?"

"Don't you care about education and social justice?"

"Isn't discussing race a distraction from the core policy issues at hand?"

My initial reaction to those questions:

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I realize, though, that the lasting impact of race on social policy is not self-evident to all Americans. Many of my peers haven't grappled with the fact  that the very concept of race is a product of social policy, and has no real biological or scientific grounding.

So, I strive to provide context. For example, this recent study by Professor David Quinn, from USC's Rossier School of Education, on the racial attitudes of educators, is helpful:

In 2014, 31% of preK-12 educators believed that inequalities were mainly a result of African Americans lacking motivation or willpower to pull themselves up out of poverty, and 20% of postsecondary educators believed this. Considering the mechanisms discussed earlier through which such a belief can negatively impact students, these are high numbers. While educators are more likely than non-educators to believe that inequalities are due to African Americans not having adequate educational opportunities (with 56% of preK-12 and 72% of postsecondary educators expressing this belief in 2014, compared to 42% of non-educators), students would be better off if fewer educators explained inequalities through racial differences in motivation or willpower, and if more perceived education as playing a corrective role. 

To some people, these numbers are stunning. (NB: my colleagues of color, on the other hand, have said to me, "This is what we've been trying to tell you.")

Quinn's research focuses on inputs, while decades of measuring the various opportunity gaps experienced by non-white children are sufficient evidence that race also has an impact on outcomes. Those outcomes extend well beyond education: college graduation rates, high school graduation rates, test scores, post-graduation earning potential, household wealth, health, etc. All of this is dreadful, but it's incredibly troubling that Quinn's work suggests that a huge number of our country's educators view these outcomes as a product of race-driven ability, not of broader social forces.

So, given all of this evidence, it's clear that race has an impact on inputs, outcomes, and everything in between. We obviously ought to be talking about race.

But how? Do we tiptoe around the issue? Or do we have an honest discussion about the fact that most American social policy was created to preserve a racial hierarchy?

I shared a piece from Ta-Nehisi Coates last week, which pointed out that most Americans do not have a solid grasp of the definition of racism and "white supremacy." He argues that discussions about race are difficult, not just because some people want to preserve the social hierarchy, but also because of information gaps.

Coates's perspective, which is that white supremacy is a defining characteristic of American culture and social policy, is an expansive one. Vann Newkirk II goes deeper in The Atlantic:

... criticism of a broad definition of white supremacy isn’t new ... The provenance of that definition of white supremacy does not alone guarantee its usefulness, and 30 years is still relatively new in the academia-to-modern parlance frame ... The media likewise should not be merely a mirror of consensus; rather it should challenge groupthink any time it runs up against truth. And if consensus is that white supremacy is a thing that only exists in the hate-group fringe, that claim should be held in skepticism against the reality that many of the racial outcomes—income gaps, housing and education segregation, police brutality, and incarceration—of the era of naked white supremacy persist, or have even worsened. And when it comes to Trump, or any other politician for that matter, the knee-jerk consensus reaction that a mainstream politician cannot possibly be a white supremacist should be balanced with the truth that many or most American politicians have been, and that they were voted in by real Americans, many of whom are alive, well, and voting today.

I happen to buy Newkirk's - and by extension, Coates's and Baldwin's and Dr. King's - broad definition of white supremacy. I agree with their position, not because it feels good ... because let's be honest, as a white dude, it feels awful.

I agree with their position, both because it is a moral one, and because it is supported by data. As Newkirk reminds us, that data exists in housing, schooling, policing, and virtually every other corner of American culture.

The rebuttal to this broad view of white supremacy comes in many forms, but for centrists and progressives, a favorite trope is the idea that discussing white supremacy gives it power. Here's Thomas Chatterton Williams in The New York Times offering that genre of counterpoint:

I have spent the past six months poring over the literature of European and American white nationalism, in the process interviewing noxious identitarians like the alt-right founder Richard Spencer. The most shocking aspect of [Ta-Nehisi] Coates’s wording here is the extent to which it mirrors ideas of race — specifically the specialness of whiteness — that white supremacist thinkers cherish. This, more than anything, is what is so unsettling about Mr. Coates’s recent writing and the tenor of the leftist “woke” discourse he epitomizes. Though it is not at all morally equivalent, it is nonetheless in sync with the toxic premises of white supremacism. Both sides eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories, all the while feeding off of and legitimizing each other, while those of us searching for gray areas and common ground get devoured twice. Both sides mystify racial identity, interpreting it as something fixed, determinative and almost supernatural.

First, it's worth noting that the vast majority of people I saw nodding along to this article over the weekend are white.

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Second, Williams's argument is impossible to swallow if you agree with the idea that race is a factor that affects American life. He says later in his article that discussing race in this manner is tantamount to "fetishizing" race. It's an interesting choice of words.

Are we "fetishizing" the climate when we discuss the escalation of global temperatures?

Are we "fetishizing" the concept of wealth when we discuss income disparities?

You cannot discuss an issue without naming it. I know many policymakers who have no problem discussing social outcomes in racialized terms, but they get dismissive when we start asserting that race might be an important factor in creating those outcomes. Just as common are the commentators who acknowledge that race is a factor, but they're so afraid to talk about it, that they reach for euphemisms or other cultural signifiers to replace race. The former is ignorance, while the latter is obfuscation.

The bottom line is this: you can't stand in the middle of a conflagration, screaming, "WE SHOULD BE TALKING LESS ABOUT THIS FIRE!!"

This week, be sure to address the fire consuming the room.

Have a great day!