Brian Leiter on the relative importance of racism

My Chicago law-school colleague Brian Leiter, who runs a well known website (Leiter Reports: A Philosophy Blog), has been relatively quiescent this summer, but has just shown a burst of activity with two posts, one on a signer of the Harper’s letter (the estimable Wendy Kaminer), who excoriates the letter’s critics, and the second on the bizarre, entitled, and over-the-top letter of Princeton staff, students, and alums demanding changes in their school in response to claimed structural racism. As a Marxist working on a book on Marx, Leiter has a class- rather than race-centered view of problems, and I’ll quote him below.

In that second post, Leiter makes a point that several others have made: the “star chamber” demanded by the Princeton protestors to monitor not just the behavior of faculty, but also their research and publication, is a palpable violation of academic freedom. Such a chamber would be unconscionable, as Leiter notes. Imagine a bunch of bloodhounds sniffing through c.v.s for anything racist or offensive!

Several dozen Princeton faculty call for massive and systematic violation of their colleagues’ contractual right to academic freedom…

...for the holy cause of “anti-racism.”   (“Anti-racism” doesn’t, in fact, mean opposition to racism any longer, for those who have not been paying attention.  And what is the connection between an abusive cop killing George Floyd in Minneapolis and alleged racism at Princeton?  There isn’t any, of course.)  Some portions of the letter are harmless and predictable–the standard opportunism of the moment to claim resources and positions–but this proposal is chilling:

11. Constitute a committee composed entirely of faculty that would oversee the investigation and discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty, following a protocol for grievance and appeal to be spelled out in Rules and Procedures of the Faculty. Guidelines on what counts as racist behavior, incidents, research, and publication will be authored by a faculty committee for incorporation into the same set of rules and procedures.

This is simply a call to violate the contractual academic freedom rights of faculty at Princeton.  Have any signatories, one wonders, even thought about academic freedom and its purpose?  Do they realize that the only review of “research and publications” by scholars that is consistent with academic freedom is one based on applicable disciplinary standards?  Vetting the moral or political bona fides of scholarship is what universities without academic freedom do.

Then Leiter says that racism isn’t the biggest problem facing America—in fact, he puts it well down on the list:

Even more remarkable is the moral myopia involved in seriously believing (as the letter appears to) that racism is the most important issue du jour, which hasn’t been true even in the U.S. in decades.   Sober reflection, and some knowledge of cause and effect, would suggest that racism is not even in the top five pressing issues confronting humanity.  Who, actually attending to the facts, would deem “racism” a more serious problem than, e.g., the pathologies of global capitalism and the neoliberal policy order that has arisen around it; the evisceration of the organized labor movement and the rights of working people; the nascent (or not-so-nascent) authoritarian and fascist tendencies of the Republican Party in the U.S. (and authoritarian movements abroad, in Russia, Hungary, Brazil, Poland, etc.); climate change; the pandemic and inequalities in access to medical care; the threat of nuclear annihilation due to the collapse of arms control agreements; and so on?  Racism is sometimes a spillover effect of some of these problems, but to treat the symptom as the disease reflects what is increasingly an endemic form of ideological delusion among academics.

I’ll conclude by quoting Bayard Rustin, who dealt with actual racism and made a Herculean contribution to defeating many of its manifestations in this benighted country:

[T]he division between race and race, class and class, will not be dissolved by massive infusions of brotherly sentiment. The division is not the result of bad sentiment, and therefore will not be healed by rhetoric. Rather the division and the bad sentiments are both reflections of vast and growing inequalities in our socioeconomic system–inequalities of wealth, of status, of education, of access to political power.

I’m not a Marxist and thus can’t weigh in on the relative importance of these problems, but I do think that climate change, for one thing, has the potential to damage more people, and reduce well-being more drastically, than does racism. Clearly, though, the liberal media see racism as the biggest problem facing America, as you can see from the number of items they publish.

Leiter, of course, is viewing the issues through his ideological lens, and I throw this out for readers to discuss.



h/t: Greg Mayer


  1. Posted July 11, 2020 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    For someone who, like myself, is old enough to remember when racism was indeed the most serious problem in this country, there’s something sadly desperate about current efforts to magnify its importance. It’s almost as if the civil rights chant has shifted from “We shall overcome” to “We shall undergo.”

  2. Mike
    Posted July 11, 2020 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    I’m not a marxist either, but I’m a peasant. I have the benefit of hard-working parents who helped me get a very good education that turned into a professional job and a middle-class lifestyle. But I’m a peasant at heart. And I see class distinctions everywhere. At my university there are tangible incentives for faculty members and administrators to enact affirmative action to favor people from underrepresented racial groups and sexual orientations or identities in our recruitment of graduate students, and our performance evaluations and grant proposal success depend on these efforts. But nobody is interested or incentivized to favor or recruit poor people. It’s maddening, and seems to reflect the successful capture of higher education administration by the critical theory folks (and not by the marxists).

    • eric grobler
      Posted July 11, 2020 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

      “I have the benefit of hard-working parents who helped me get a very good education that turned into a professional job and a middle-class lifestyle”

      I respect you and your parents.

      • Mike
        Posted July 11, 2020 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

        Well thanks, but my story is not unusual. My parents were/are baby boomers, and back then it was common for working-class people like them to have middle-class children. Not so much anymore.

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted July 11, 2020 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

          I too come from a very poor background, but my mother insisted all her children got a good education. (My father didn’t think girls needed one because they would get married and have kids.) My own health issues mean I’m little better off than them. All my siblings though have moved into the middle class and have far better, healthier, and happier lifestyles and careers than my parents could have imagined.

          As you say, that attitude of wanting more for your kids was fairly common back then. I notice that in the US, it’s less and less common because of the way society has gone i.e. more and more economic inequality. We’ve been going the same way too in NZ, though the difference between top and bottom isn’t quite so much here (yet).

    • Max Blancke
      Posted July 11, 2020 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

      But class distinctions fall so easily here.
      I cannot claim to belong to the peasantry, but my parents were both born sharecroppers. My mother literally has hands covered with scars from a childhood picking cotton.
      But their parents instilled in them the critical importance of a good education and a very strong work ethic.
      Of course the university environment was not particularly welcoming to them, with rural accents and coarse manners. My Dad put an extraordinary effort towards losing his accent, so that he would be taken seriously.
      Luckily, they were not the sort of people who expected to world to be welcoming or to provide advocacy services.

      Civil rights used to be a quest to be allowed to compete on a level playing field, or at least to be allowed to compete.

      • eric grobler
        Posted July 11, 2020 at 8:32 pm | Permalink

        “My Dad put an extraordinary effort towards losing his accent,”

        Interesting, from which state was he?

        • Max Blancke
          Posted July 11, 2020 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

          Eastern Tennessee.
          Because of his efforts, I have no identifiable accent, either.

          • eric grobler
            Posted July 11, 2020 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

            That is as the Appalachian Mountains? Must be beautiful.

      • Mike
        Posted July 11, 2020 at 11:17 pm | Permalink

        “But class distinctions fall so easily here.” Yes, for sure, they used to fall easily. One of my grandfathers was born in a sod shack on the prairie (a hole in the ground, with sod walls and roof); his parents were homesteaders. But he got off the farm, was a store clerk and then a manager, and his children (my mom) could go to college if they worked hard. Similar story on my dad’s side. Class distinctions between generations used to fall easily. But much less so now, and as Heather says upthread this is a widespread phenomenon. I think progressives should focus on class and poverty because it’s a problem in all cultures and societies, and because it captures the most elements of other groups who are most in need of help: Black university professors and trans NYT columnists don’t really face systematic discrimination or real violence as it’s commonly understood, but poor working-class Black and trans people do. I realize there is a walk-and-chew-gum-at-the-same-time response, so really I’m just arguing for a different emphasis (more class, less race and equality) not a one-or-the-other approach.

        • eric grobler
          Posted July 13, 2020 at 10:13 am | Permalink

          I was not aware of the poverty in the US before the depression.

          “I think progressives should focus on class and poverty”
          I have come to the conclusion that wealthy progressive just pretend to care.
          (they see the poor as deplorables)

  3. Randall Schenck
    Posted July 11, 2020 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    I suspect they are also confusing the bigger problem of inequality in our country. This can sometimes look like racism but on any close inspection is an economic condition that covers a whole lot more people than just black and brown persons. I would say these college folks do not know what they are doing.

  4. Historian
    Posted July 11, 2020 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Whether or not racism is as important a problem as the five Leiter lists depends upon where you sit. If you are a black person who has been the subject of racist attack then the immediacy of the incident would in that person’s mind be more important than the other issues. Ranking the world’s problems cannot be a totally objective exercise. I would argue that the problem of racism has become so important in recent months is because that in contrast to the other issues, people believe it is something they have the power to influence. Most people feel rightly that they are powerless to have any influence in tackling the other issues. Except for whom they vote for, they are the play things of powers outside their control. For example, for well over a century Marxists and socialists have railed against capitalism and its supposed inherent ability to quash the lower classes. One can argue about the validity of the assertion, but regardless where one stands on the issue, there is little evidence that in the U.S. such a system can be overturned. Perhaps it can be reformed to a degree, but its essence will remain. In contrast, racism can be fought through mass action.

    • eric grobler
      Posted July 11, 2020 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

      ” Ranking the world’s problems cannot be a totally objective exercise. ”

      I will settle for largely!

  5. Posted July 11, 2020 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    I actually think racism is a crucial aggravating factor in a lot of America’s problems. It’s why we don’t have universal health coverage (*those people* would get freebies!). It’s why our justice system is so harsh and barbaric. It’s a large part of why we have a war on selected drugs.

    Sure enough, climate change is going to kill more Americans than racism over the next century. But I think we can work on many problems at once.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted July 11, 2020 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

      Focusing racism as the reason for the problems you are stating is just not correct and you would be very hard pressed to prove them. I think it is more likely a convenient excuse for some but does not hold water. A health care for all would be at the top of the list. The underlying problem is this countries love affair with the health insurance industry and how that becomes racism is really a strange leap. It would be like saying our huge spending on defense is because of racism.

      • Posted July 12, 2020 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

        If Americans felt that every American was in our “ingroup”, as savage put it in his reply to me, we would be able to overcome the influence of the health insurance industry. Meanwhile – as this article points out, Southern states form the majority of those that have refused to expand Medicaid. Those states have a disproportionate share of both African Americans, and racism. Coincidence?

        The New York Times provides more historical evidence covering a longer span. The NYT piece is part of the 1619 project, but I don’t think you should dismiss it without consideration.

    • savage
      Posted July 11, 2020 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

      > *those people* would get freebies!

      I think this goes beyond blacks and whites.
      Imagine being a white man who barely gets by and sees himself despised by coastal elites who do not refrain from applying the crudest redneck stereotypes to him and plainly view him as an outgroup. Would you trust that these people have your best interests in mind when promoting universal health coverage?

      Despite the importance of patriotic displays in the US, the country overall seems to me a lot less cohesive than most European states.

      The criminal justice system got tougher in response to a crime epidemic that began in the 1960s. Currently, it’s getting softer.

      I do not believe that America is a particularly racist country. But it pays a high price for its obsession with race. The educational system in particular has suffered from (unsuccessful) attempts to close the achievement gap. Meanwhile, East Asian students are years ahead of their American peers in STEM fields.

  6. Greg Esres
    Posted July 11, 2020 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    I’m also inclined to think our biggest problems are more class-oriented than race-oriented. But they are intertwined: you can accomplish almost nothing to benefit minorities without having more public funds available and that means higher tax rates on the richest people in the country. And probably reducing the amount of money spent on the military.

  7. Jon Gallant
    Posted July 11, 2020 at 4:02 pm | Permalink

    Racism could be considered supremely important as a distraction from all the other matters in Brian Leiter’s list. This could be related to the alacrity with which the media and the corporations have latched onto Racism along with Sexism and transism (is there such a word?) as their hobby-horses of the day.

    Moreover, the issues in Mr. Leiter’s list, such as inequality and climate change, have the defect that they can be seen in concrete, measurable manifestations. Racism, in contrast, takes so many secret forms in implicit bias, microaggressions and white privilege and fragility, that it requires such highly trained specialists as Robin DiAngelo and her fellow career consultants to detect its presence and guide the rest of us.

  8. Tim J Reichert
    Posted July 11, 2020 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

    Well as the resident Marxist who isn’t actually a Marxist I guess I should chime in here.

    Buddha wasn’t a Buddhist, Jesus wasn’t a Christian, and Marx wasn’t a Marxist. I would never call myself a Marxist but I am always happy to assert that the philosopher Karl Marx was right about almost everything he wrote on capitalism. And I’d be hard pressed to find disagreement with Leiter on any of his views outlining the folly of capitalism. Every major human problem Leiter puts on the list above racism and including racism is because capitalism.

    In my view the alternative to capitalism is not Marxism or even workers cooperatives it’s something much deeper than that which eliminates the true root of virtually all human born evil(aside from clinical psychopathy and lovers quarrels) and that is money. Money is the root of all evil. That adage has stuck for very good reason.

    I take the Gene’s eye view on this. No I did not just mistakenly capitalize “gene” I’m talking about Gene Roddenberry. In this Gene’s eye view the future will be moneyless. In the Gene’s eye view, the idea that humans will still be using money to organize society 250 years from now is preposterous. He’s right. By then we will have replicators and AI driven machines that will replace all unwanted human labour. Humans will only need to do what they want to do and you won’t need to pay them for it they will gladly contribute to the advancement and betterment of society for the pleasure and praise that will come with it.

    But then there are those who think that capitalism, at least of some sort, is critically necessary and will remain so seemingly forever. To them the problem is clearly that humans that are bad. Capitalism is a perfect system if only humans would behave properly. I honestly do not know how to talk to or deal with such people, at least on this subject. I have no problems talking with them about other things, like the problems of wokeness and cancel culture and religion and belief in free will, on which we we agree. But those who lament the problems climate change, nuclear war, poverty, and racism, and wokeness, and tout capitalism as the only way forward I am at a loss. They promote the very root of the problems they wish away.

    Too deep to go into more detail here but not because I have no more detail to offer. On capitalism and it’s unfixable folly read Leiter. I wish he would drop the moniker “Marxist.” Even though Marx was right about the problem, “Marxism” is not the answer. So don’t call me a Marxist but you may call me Bernie Bro all day long. I will raise my hand every time and say “present.”

    • eric grobler
      Posted July 11, 2020 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

      “Money is the root of all evil.”

      Let’s all be poor then.

      • Tim J Reichert
        Posted July 12, 2020 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

        “Poor” is a condition that only exists in a money system. You meant “money poor” right?. because there’s no reason for anyone to be resource poor in a moneyless system.

        • Posted July 12, 2020 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

          You’ve been watching too many Star Trek episodes. While they portray a money-less utopia, they don’t give a hint as to how their society works. I suspect you and all the rest of the utopians suffer that problem. The “solutions” that have been tried have all failed but the explanation is always that they just didn’t do it right or that they were missing something. Perhaps but I’m not at all convinced.

          Capitalism works for good reasons. It takes advantage of innate human traits. It has problems, for sure, but most have gradually been solved and will continue to be solved. Currently we have rampant inequality and we should fix it but it is no reason to throw the baby out with the bath water.

          • Tim J Reichert
            Posted July 12, 2020 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

            “It has problems, for sure, but most have gradually been solved and will continue to be solved.”

            Hmmm, sounds utopian.

            “All solutions have been tried”

            lol. We tried all civil organization solutions possible before the invention of the internet. The best societal system we will ever have was invented before the automobile, air travel, and the internet. Makes sense.

            • Posted July 12, 2020 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

              I was making an argument similar to Steven Pinker’s “Enlightenment Now”. We have made continual progress. It doesn’t mean we don’t have problems or that we’ll always make progress. Still, progress is progress. Anyone who suggests the current overall direction of society is completely wrong has a lot of explaining to do before they’ll be taken seriously.

              Marxists seem to hang around, waiting for bad things to happen, as they inevitably do, and then they stand up to tell us that things would be so much better with their economic system. They prey on the myopia and pessimism that Pinker’s book was meant to address.

      • Tim J Reichert
        Posted July 12, 2020 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

        I don’t think I saw any poor people in Star Trek. Utopian fantasy I guess. Not possible for us dumb apes I guess.

        • Posted July 12, 2020 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

          I love Star Trek but you have to give us a break here. They didn’t at all explain how their system would work. And how did their system interface with the ultra-capitalist Ferengi? Again, not a hint. I’m not suggesting the makers of the TV show should have revealed their secrets. I’m sure there weren’t any. It was just an appealing story. Just like the one you are trying to tell us here.

    • eric grobler
      Posted July 11, 2020 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

      Let’s call a spade a spade; capitalism vs socialism is moot:
      the planet is overpopulated by stupid apes.
      We left the Savannah 1 million years too early.

      • Tim J Reichert
        Posted July 12, 2020 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

        This is classic. Humans are dumb. Capitalism is genius. We don’t deserve capitalism. lol.

    • savage
      Posted July 11, 2020 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

      I’m sure humans were more equal before farming, money, or the steam engine were invented. I still would prefer not to live back then.

      • Tim J Reichert
        Posted July 12, 2020 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

        No one is going to make you go back in time. Getting rid of money will be a monumental move forward. It will be like Star Trek.

    • Mike
      Posted July 11, 2020 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

      “Humans will only need to do what they want to do and you won’t need to pay them for it they will gladly contribute to the advancement and betterment of society for the pleasure and praise that will come with it.” The flip side of this is that currently many many humans do work that is of almost no value. The evidence for this is the extraordinary contraction in employment for people who do work of so little value that the whole society can do without it for months (or maybe years) during an economic and health emergency. I hope one silver lining of the pandemic might be the realization that too many people do work and spend money on things that are approximately worthless. And that the planet and the culture would be better off without that work and spending. The coronavirus could be a small step toward UBI.

      • Posted July 12, 2020 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

        I disagree. All achievements collectively called civilization are things outside the basic necessities. Many of them would not exist without government subsidies (or, in past eras, rich nobility patrons), and all of them are periodically lost when civilizations collapse. Sure, we can do without opera, art exhibits, universities, libraries etc. But I consider myself lucky for living in a world with them.

        • Tim J Reichert
          Posted July 12, 2020 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

          Until the bomb drops, or climate disaster occurs, of course.

        • Mike
          Posted July 12, 2020 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

          @Maya sorry my comment was not clear: that’s not at all what I meant. I agree with you about jobs in music and other arts are valuable and the loss of those jobs is a great loss. I mean the many many lost jobs in service and retail industries, and lost jobs in sales and middle management in industries that provide optional or useless or luxury goods and services.

      • Tim J Reichert
        Posted July 12, 2020 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

        Agreed. What you are talking about is called “rent seeking” and it is one of capitalism’s greatest and most glaring and unfixable flaws.

  9. rickflick
    Posted July 11, 2020 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    Generally, I agree with Leiter. However, while race may not be the highest priority on some objective scale, sometimes issues can only be dealt with incrementally whenever there is the gift of an opportunity to grab people’s attention. The Floyd murder was a trigger that might result in some progress in race relations or police reform. Next years trigger might be when the Washington monument begins to melt into a puddle.

  10. Posted July 11, 2020 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

    While I like some of the things Brian Leiter says on his blog, I have to disagree with a lot he says here. I am not black, yet I can imagine the psychological devastation caused by racial discrimination. Does anyone remember what it was like to be bullied? It could get pretty bad but it was relatively easy to solve by just staying away from the bullies. You also mostly had to just survive into your late teens after which you pretty much didn’t care about the bullies. With racism, all of these solutions fail. Instead, any black person that tries to engage with the rest of society gets almost daily reminders of their lower class status in the eyes of many of their neighbors. Many thought that racism in the US was largely behind us but then Trump’s election proved that a large fraction of the population is either racist or tolerant of it.

    Racism is way worse than climate change unless you just happen to be someone whose home is washed away or burned down. Most of results of climate change are off in the future and may never come at all for most people. That’s a problem in itself, of course, but it doesn’t make it worse than racism.

    As far as the economic stuff, I’m not a Marxist and don’t see all the devastation they see with globalization, etc. I do think income inequality is a bad thing. I’m not saying there aren’t problems with global capitalism but they aren’t worse than racism, IMHO.

    • eric grobler
      Posted July 11, 2020 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

      “yet I can imagine the psychological devastation caused by racial discrimination”
      I am glad you emphasize than we are all human.

      “Trump’s election proved that a large fraction of the population is either racist or tolerant of it.”
      Maybe or perhaps the swing voters disliked Clinton and the political establishment.

      “Racism is way worse than…”
      Worse than poverty?

      • Posted July 11, 2020 at 7:11 pm | Permalink

        “perhaps the swing voters disliked Clinton and the political establishment”

        You are really going with this at this point in time? Sure, go ahead and defend Trump over Clinton. I have no respect for swing voters who voted for Trump. They should be made to wear a sign around their neck, “I have really poor judgement”, and be made to sit out several elections.

        I didn’t say racism was worse than poverty. The two aren’t easy to compare anyway. Whose poverty compared to whose experience of racism?

        • eric grobler
          Posted July 11, 2020 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

          “You are really going with this at this point in time? Sure, go ahead and defend Trump over Clinton. ”

          Paul, you know this is an unfair and ridiculous accusation.
          If I state that many psychologically unstable people use alcohol as self medication, it does not mean I support the abuse of alcohol – does it?

          “I have no respect for swing voters who voted for Trump. ”
          You have no empathy for a working class voter who mistakenly believes that it is in his/her best interest?

          If the answer is no, then let me ask you; how many brilliant intellectuals in the 20th century supported communism?

          I think you should rather try to change people’s minds than insulting them.

        • eric grobler
          Posted July 11, 2020 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

          “They should be made to wear a sign around their neck, “I have really poor judgement”, and be made to sit out several elections.”

          Paul, if I did not know you better I would have said you sound like a rich intellectual snob who look down upon working class people and where moral superiority trumps empathy.

          Not all people who voted for Trump are racists. Many working class people feel that the Democratic Party deserted them and support big global corporations and decisive identity politics.
          In that sense it is a pity than Sanders is not the nominee.

          • Posted July 12, 2020 at 9:35 am | Permalink

            “Not all people who voted for Trump are racists.”

            No, but the rest were ok with electing a racist.

            “Many working class people feel that the Democratic Party deserted them and support big global corporations and decisive identity politics.”

            IMHO, that was always a BS excuse for voting for Trump. A case can certainly be made that Dems didn’t do enough for working class people, but the idea that any Republican candidate, let alone one that will tell you about his billions and show off his mansion to anyone who asks, will look after the working class better than a Democrat, has to be joking.

            If Sanders was the nominee, Trump would be much higher in the polls now. Trump would have scared a lot of people with accusations of socialism and communism directed at Sanders. Plus, Sanders’ policies are too far to the left for even most Dems. Trump wanted to run against Sanders and that should tell us all we need to know. Biden is the best candidate to beat Trump.

  11. Max Blancke
    Posted July 11, 2020 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    One thing about the terminology-
    My job involves defense against terrorism. When we engage in anti-terrorism, that involves passive or purely defensive measures. Counter-terrorism involves active or offensive measures against terrorists.

    In that respect, what is happening should be seen as an attempt at counter-racism. I say attempt, because it does not seem that many of the targets are actually engaging in racism.

    I sympathize in sort of an ironic way at Marxists in the modern US. Agitating for class struggle is a poor strategy when a large proportion of Marxists seem to be from the upper classes, and their political opponents are largely middle or working class.
    The race thing seems like the only viable alternative, but even so, there is not really much oppression to be found. We have discussed at length here the lack of clear evidence that minorities are being especially targeted by police.
    With all the rhetoric about nooses and lynch mobs, one would likely fall under the false impression that individuals or groups of one race targeting individuals of a different race for violent attack is a White on Black problem, where the reality is very different.

    I really think that universities in the modern US are probably the least oppressive places for Black people that can be found, even if one scours the whole world and all of human history.

    Inequality is much easier to find, but I am not sure that anyone can eliminate it. As far as I know, no two people have ever been perfectly equal in any category. Even if you found two people with an equal ability in some contest, one of them would be willing to work harder than the other.

    • savage
      Posted July 11, 2020 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

      > I really think that universities in the modern US are probably the least oppressive places for Black people that can be found, even if one scours the whole world and all of human history.

      In terms of discrimination, yes. They massively lower their standards to accomodate black students, after all.

      But at the same time, these students often drop out and are incentivized to learn grievance studies. These breed resentment and make them feel more oppressed.

      • Max Blancke
        Posted July 11, 2020 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

        Agreed on both points.
        My viewpoint has always been that the time for intervention is in early childhood, but I cannot see an effective mechanism that has not already been tried.
        I am not saying there is no such process, just that I have not heard of it.
        A lot of the difference between successful and failed students is good parenting. We certainly have a system to intervene when abusive parenting is suspected, but no number to call if one suspects that a neighbor is not reading to his kids, or not teaching them good manners and a strong work ethic.
        When the state has tried such interventions, it always seems to end in actual oppression.

    • Tim Harris
      Posted July 11, 2020 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

      Yes, of course, individuals differ in their abilities, but that is surely to (wilfully?)miss the point and is of no genuine political significance if we want to understand political (and economic) systems, though it has political consequences in its avoidance of what is genuinely at stake. That is the point of Leiter’s & Historian’s arguments.

      • Max Blancke
        Posted July 11, 2020 at 9:18 pm | Permalink

        I was trying to suggest that the results in the differences in effort or aptitude can be mistakenly seen as evidence of bias.

  12. revelator60
    Posted July 11, 2020 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    As Kenan Malik has pointed out, the politics of identity has supplanted the politics of class. Under the former, economic inequality is okay as long as the top 1% is racially diverse!

    This shift in thought is undoubtedly tied to the rise of globalized hyper-capitalism in the 1980s. We have done a lot to pull citizens of places like China out of poverty, but too many of the profits from globalized trade have gone to undertaxed multi-national corporations.

    Meanwhile our government is left underfunded and gridlocked thanks to lobbyists and gerrymandering. Most people’s wages have not substantially risen since the 1970s. The system does not have enough jobs for the educated and blue-collar work has become scarcer thanks to automation and outsourcing.

    Under all these conditions racial resentment and a climate of hysteria will continue to flourish. No matter how diverse society gets, it will never be diverse enough because some will still have privilege and new classes and intersections of oppressed people will be devised. The truly privileged will hold on to their privilege by feeding anyone less established to the wolves.

    Unless we find a way to revamp our economy, bring greater prosperity to all, strengthen the safety net, and allow our government to make meaningful change, the current poisonous atmosphere will only get worse. Race intersects with economics and class—real intersectionalism would acknowledged that.

  13. Tim Harris
    Posted July 11, 2020 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    I to quite a large extent agree with Brian Leiter’s views, but more fully agree with Historian’s point. I wonder about the desire to play down endemic racism, since it is genuine racial inequalities (which are also, I agree, class inequalities)and their consequences that have at last drawn stronger attention to the huge inequalities in, particularly, the USA and the UK, inequalities that have grown in consequence of the application of destructive economic dogma, as well, in the USA, the aftermath of slavery, Jim Crow, sundown towns, and ridiculously punitive laws that affect black Americans far more than white Americans, and which, far from providing a deterrent, compound injustice.

  14. aburstein
    Posted July 11, 2020 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

    Slight error: Both Leiter links point to the same article. Second one should point to

  15. tomh
    Posted July 11, 2020 at 11:22 pm | Permalink

    Ranking problems all depends where you sit. I wonder how many black people would rank racism way down on the list. Or how many wealthy people would rank wealth distribution high on the list.

    • A C Harper
      Posted July 12, 2020 at 3:46 am | Permalink

      I asked myself a similar question. People motivated by politics appear to view their world through a political lens, which reinforces their views…

      Interestingly Wikipedia has a list of global issues ( ) and although it is almost certainly imperfect the issues involve risks to existence rather than the concerns about ‘racism’ or ‘class’.

  16. openidname
    Posted July 11, 2020 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

    The interests of police unions are directly antithetical to the interests of black people.

    The interests of teachers’ unions are directly antithetical to the interests of black people.

    As Leiter is pro-union, I’m not surprised that the pooh-poohs the contrary concerns of black people.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted July 12, 2020 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

      I don’t think Leiter pooh-pooh any specific concerns, just that he lauds one letter and criticizes another for myopic pooh-poohing.

      To wit:

      “Even more remarkable is the moral myopia involved in seriously believing (as the letter appears to) that racism is the most important issue du jour, which hasn’t been true even in the U.S. in decades.”

      It is a discussion that can, and should, be had. The discussion on race that you want to have is another such discussion. We can have both.

      • rickflick
        Posted July 12, 2020 at 11:59 pm | Permalink

        I think important issues are undeniably in the eye of the beholder, so, of course racism is worthy of discussion, if nothing else. Remember though that while race is not a front burner issue right now because there is less violence that in past racial kerfuffles, the president of the United States is an acknowledged racist as is the party he heads. So, even as the embers of burning buildings are fading, America has not risen far from it’s roots. For many, this is at the forefront of their lives.

  17. phoffman56
    Posted July 12, 2020 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    Very well and succinctly put by Wendy Kaminer:

    “This is what citizens of cancel culture have apparently learned from Donald Trump: confound your critics by accusing them of precisely the sins you’re busy committing.”

    I only wish I could write that clearly.

  18. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted July 12, 2020 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    I recently learned that a Swedish author proposes that Sweden has “structural benevolence” and asks what that means for anti-racism.

    Today’s anti-racism seems, rather than looking beyond skin tones, to consider that race determines everything. Therefore, they find racism everywhere where people look different. If you talk about Sweden being structurally racist, you have to present solid evidence. But what can actually be demonstrated in Sweden is the opposite, a structural benevolence … Nowadays, tolerance in Sweden is institutionalized …

    [ ]

    As for class in Sweden, I think that too is dying. The class oriented Social Democratic party have been doing ever more poorly for decades, until the pandemic hit.

  19. Celia
    Posted July 20, 2020 at 4:27 am | Permalink

    “I’m not a Marxist and thus can’t weigh in on the relative importance of these problems, but I do think that climate change, for one thing, has the potential to damage more people, and reduce well-being more drastically, than does racism.”

    Based on this, people affected by racism should keep waiting until ‘the bigger problems’ that affect more people are solved before they’re served?

    “To which I sigh and say, “That’s the promise that’s been made to us for hundreds of years. Those are the words of every labor movement that managed to help white America so much more than everyone else. Those are the words that ‘move everybody forward’ but in the exact same place, with the exact same hierarchy, and the exact same oppressions. Those words are why the wealth gap between whites and blacks is just as bad as it was when Dr. King was leading marches. We’re still waiting. We’re still hoping. We’re still left behind.”

    Oluo, Ijeoma. So You Want to Talk About Race (p. 11). Basic Books. Kindle Edition. “

    • Posted July 20, 2020 at 4:32 am | Permalink

      You clearly didn’t comprehend what I wrote, or are ignoring it. I did NOT say that we have to solely work on the most pressing problems and then to the less pressing. The point was simply which issues that we face are the most serious. Where on earth did either Leiter or I say anything like what you’re interpreting here?

      • Celia
        Posted July 20, 2020 at 8:26 am | Permalink

        I must have misunderstood. My apologies.

        “The point was simply which issues that we face are the most serious.”

        Issues caused/aggravated by racism are killing people of color now whereas climate change will kill all people in the future.

        Can you see why your saying which issues ‘we’ face are the most serious is problematic?

        In essence you’re saying POC dying now is not as serious a problem as white people and POC dying in the future.

        Can you see how it’s a luxury (or dare I say privilege) for you to say that climate change (definitely a big problem) which will affect future generations is more serious than problems affecting other people (not you) now?

        • Posted July 20, 2020 at 8:51 am | Permalink

          Problematic? Privilege? A luxury to think about which issues may cause the greatest long-term reduction in well being? Thank you for your enlightened lecture.

          Sorry, but your thinking is deeply muddled here. It’s not at all a luxury to think about items, and opine that an issue that may destroy millions of people regardless of race is more severe than racism in the U.S.

          And your apology is not sincere.

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