The New York Times Magazine has a very long article on Robin DiAngelo, her white fragility hypothesis (and her best-selling book about it), and her methods of training people in government, colleges, and businesses to be anti-racist and promote diversity in the workplace. As the article notes, she’s made a ton of money off her hypothesis, but I don’t begrudge her that. After all, the Kardashians, who are completely useless, make much more. Rather, I’ll focus on the efficacy of her methods and whether her very message is consistent. If you read this site yesterday, you’ll have seen a post about John McWhorter’s take on DiAngelo’s book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, a take that was not only highly critical, but accused her methods of fostering a bigotry of low expectations towards African-Americans.
The NYT piece, which is pretty positive, raises some of these questions, but they’re examined in depth—and criticized—in a piece by Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine. The two pieces are below; click on screenshot to see the articles.
I’ll deal with just four issues here.
Is “white culture” wrongly imbued with rationality, science, and linear thinking? After reading the NYT piece, I realized that the chart from The National Museum of African American History & Culture, which I posted the other day, actually has a long history behind it, a history of listing the traits supposedly characterizing “white culture”. To review, here’s what the Museum had on its website until they realized they let their mask slip and removed the graphics:
The “emphasis on scientific method”, with “rational linear thinking,” “cause and effect relationships,” and quantitative emphasis” in “white culture” had puzzled me, as I didn’t think that these were particularly white traits. But both pieces say that this trope has been around for a while:
Borrowing from feminist scholarship and critical race theory, whiteness studies challenges the very nature of knowledge, asking whether what we define as scientific research and scholarly rigor, and what we venerate as objectivity, can be ways of excluding alternate perspectives and preserving white dominance. DiAngelo likes to ask, paraphrasing the philosopher Lorraine Code: “From whose subjectivity does the ideal of objectivity come?”
. . . [Glenn Singleton, a diversity trainer] talks about white culture in similar ways. There is the myth of meritocracy. And valuing “written communication over other forms,” he told me, is “a hallmark of whiteness,” which leads to the denigration of Black children in school. Another “hallmark” is “scientific, linear thinking. Cause and effect.” He said, “There’s this whole group of people who are named the scientists. That’s where you get into this whole idea that if it’s not codified in scientific thought that it can’t be valid.” He spoke about how the ancient Egyptians had “ideas about how humanity works that never had that scientific-hypothesis construction” and so aren’t recognized. “This is a good way of dismissing people. And this,” he continued, shifting forward thousands of years, “is one of the challenges in the diversity-equity-inclusion space; folks keep asking for data. How do you quantify, in a way that is scientific — numbers and that kind of thing — what people feel when they’re feeling marginalized?” For Singleton, society’s primary intellectual values are bound up with this marginalization.
Glenn Singleton, president of Courageous Conversation, a racial-sensitivity training firm, tells Bergner that valuing “written communication over other forms” is “a hallmark of whiteness,” as is “scientific, linear thinking. Cause and effect.”
This is not some idiosyncratic oddball notion. The African-American History Museum has a page on whiteness, which summarizes the ideas that the racism trainers have brought into relatively wide circulation. The museum’s page summarizes what it calls “white culture” in this astonishing graphic [JAC: chart above, now removed.]
“White” values include things like “objective, rational thinking”; “cause and effect relationships”; “hard work is the key to success”; “plan for the future”; and “delayed gratification.” The source for this chart is another, less-artistic chart written by Judith Katz in 1990. Katz has a doctorate in education and moved into the corporate consulting world in 1985, where, according to her résumé, she has “led many transformational change initiatives.” It is not clear what in Katz’s field of study allowed her to establish such sweeping conclusions about the innate culture of white people versus other groups.
We’ll get to the other aspects of “white culture” below, except to say that Chait gives a telling counterexample (granted, just an anecdote) about Trump contravening all the “white values” while Obama, a black man, preached and lived them. Regardless, though, to say that “black values” are the opposite of these white values is to implicitly denigrate and stereotype blacks.
Is DiAngelo’s message consistent? Both the NYT and Chait point out some internal contradictions. If “the meritocracy,” “hard work”, “planning for the future”, and having goals” are aspects of white culture that, according to DiAngelo, are part of white supremacy, and are to be rejected, then how do black people succeed within American culture?
[Leslie Chislett, former executive with the New York City Board of Education] is also concerned about something larger. “It’s absurd,” she said about much of the training she’s been through. “The city has tens of millions invested in A.P. for All, so my team can give kids access to A.P. classes and help them prepare for A.P. exams that will help them get college degrees, and we’re all supposed to think that writing and data are white values? How do all these people not see how inconsistent this is?”
This apparent inconsistency, which seemed to lurk within all the workshops I attended, might feel peripheral in a moment dominated by video of a white police officer’s knee jammed fatally against the neck of a Black man for more than eight minutes, but the implications may be profound and even crippling. I talked with DiAngelo, Singleton, Amante-Jackson and Kendi about the possible problem. If the aim is to dismantle white supremacy, to redistribute power and influence, I asked them in various forms, do the messages of today’s antiracism training risk undermining the goal by depicting an overwhelmingly rigged society in which white people control nearly all the outcomes, by inculcating the idea that the traditional skills needed to succeed in school and in the upper levels of the workplace are somehow inherently white, by spreading the notion that teachers shouldn’t expect traditional skills as much from their Black students, by unwittingly teaching white people that Black people require allowances, warrant extraordinary empathy and can’t really shape their own destinies?
DiAngelo really had no response except to reject “rationalism” as a hiring for criterion and to blather on about capitalism.
Chait raises the same issue after giving the Trump/Obama anecdotes:
Now, every rule has its exceptions. Perhaps the current (white) president happens to be alienated from the white values that the previous (Black) president identified with strongly. But attaching the values in question to real names brings to life a point the racism trainers seem to elide: These values are not neutral at all. Hard work, rational thought, and careful planning are virtues. White racists traditionally project the opposite of these traits onto Black people and present them as immutable flaws. Jane Coaston, who has reported extensively on the white-nationalist movement, summarizes it, “The idea that white people are just good at things, or are better inherently, more clean, harder working, more likely to be on time, etc.”
In his profile, Bergner asked DiAngelo how she could reject “rationalism” as a criteria for hiring teachers, on the grounds that it supposedly favors white candidates. Don’t poor children need teachers to impart skills like that so they have a chance to work in a high-paying profession employing reasoning skills?
DiAngelo’s answer seems to imply that she would abolish these high-paying professions altogether. . . .
The problem remains: if we reject a meritocracy, rationalism, hard work, and so on, will we get the society we want? There may be diversity, but ditching any ideas about quantity and quality of work seems counterproductive. Indeed, it’s unimaginable that we could change America so much that “white values” as limned above (they’re not really “white values”!), will disappear. And if that’s the case, notions like working hard and having goals will be a way for African-Americans to succeed. I’m not arguing here that we should eliminate race-based programs like affirmative action—just that DiAngelo’s jettisoning of traditional qualities leading to success seems inimical to her program.
Do “white fragility” or other forms of anti-racist training work? That is, do they reduce racism? Here the results are mixed. While the NYT article’s author, Daniel Bergner, speaks highly of DiAngelo’s sessions and how deeply they moved him in a positive way, it’s another thing to determine whether DiAngelo’s one-day sessions, or reading her book, will really promote equality. And, at present, the results are not that positive, even according to the NYT:
One critique leveled at antiracism training is that it just may not work. Frank Dobbin, a Harvard sociology professor, has published research on attempts, over three decades, to combat bias in over 800 U.S. companies, including a 2016 study with Alexandra Kalev in The Harvard Business Review. (As far back as the early ’60s, he recounts in his book “Inventing Equal Opportunity,” Western Electric, responding to a Kennedy-administration initiative to enhance equity, presented lectures by Kenneth Clark and James Baldwin to company managers.) Dobbin’s research shows that the numbers of women or people of color in management do not increase with most anti-bias education. “There just isn’t much evidence that you can do anything to change either explicit or implicit bias in a half-day session,” Dobbin warns. “Stereotypes are too ingrained.”
When we first talked, and I described DiAngelo’s approach, he said, “I certainly agree with what she’s saying” about our white-supremacist society. But he noted that new research that he’s revising for publication suggests that anti-bias training can backfire, with adverse effects especially on Black people, perhaps, he speculated, because training, whether consciously or subconsciously, “activates stereotypes.” When we spoke again in June, he emphasized an additional finding from his data: the likelihood of backlash “if people feel that they’re being forced to go to diversity training to conform with social norms or laws.”
Donald Green, a professor of political science at Columbia, and Betsy Levy Paluck, a professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton, have analyzed almost 1,000 studies of programs to lessen prejudice, from racism to homophobia, in situations from workplaces to laboratory settings. “We currently do not know whether a wide range of programs and policies tend to work on average,” they concluded in a 2009 paper published in The Annual Review of Psychology, which incorporated measures of attitudes and behaviors. They’ve just refined their analysis, with the help of two Princeton researchers, Chelsey Clark and Roni Porat. “As the study quality goes up,” Paluck told me, “the effect size dwindles.”
Still, none of the research, with its dim evaluation of efficacy, has yet focused on the particular bold, antisupremacist consciousness raising that has taken hold over the past few years — and that may well become even more bold now. “I’m not afraid of the word ‘confrontational,’” Singleton said, and he predicted, in one of his more optimistic moments during our post-Floyd talks, that the society will be all the more ready for this because “the racism we’re seeing is so graphically violent,” leaving white people less willing or able to “operate in delusion.”
Is DiAngelo’s form of training racist? John McWhorter maintained so yesterday, saying this:
[DiAngelo’s] answer to white fragility, in other words, entails an elaborate and pitilessly dehumanizing condescension toward Black people. The sad truth is that anyone falling under the sway of this blinkered, self-satisfied, punitive stunt of a primer has been taught, by a well-intentioned but tragically misguided pastor, how to be racist in a whole new way.
The NYT doesn’t take up this issue, of course, but Chait echoes McWhorter’s argument from a different angle:
The ideology of the racism-training industry is distinctively to the left of that. It collapses all identity into racial categories. “It is crucial for white people to acknowledge and recognize our collective racial experience,” writes DiAngelo, whose teachings often encourage the formation of racial affinity groups. The program does not allow any end point for the process of racial consciousness. Racism is not a problem white people need to overcome in order to see people who look different as fully human — it is totalizing and inescapable.
Of course, DiAngelo’s whites-only groups are not dreamed up in the same spirit as David Duke’s. The problem is that, at some point, the extremes begin to functionally resemble each other despite their mutual antipathy.
I want to make clear that when I compare the [diversity-training] industry’s conscious racialism to the far right, I am not accusing it of “reverse racism” or bias against white people. In some cases its ideas literally replicate anti-Black racism.
. . .Ibram X. Kendi, another successful entrepreneur in the anti-racism field, has a more frontal response to this problem. The achievement gap — the long-standing difference in academic performance between Black and white children — is a myth, he argues. The supposed gap merely reflects badly designed tests, he argues. It does not matter to him how many different kinds of measures of academic performance show this to be true. Nor does he seem receptive to the possibility that the achievement gap reflects environmental factors (mainly worse schools, but also access to nutrition, health care, outside learning, and so on) rather than any innate differences.
Kendi, like DiAngelo, argues that racism must be defined objectively. Intent does not matter, only effect. Their own intentions are surely admirable. But the fact is that their insistence on denying that America provides its Black children worse educations inhibits working toward a solution. Denying the achievement gap, like denying the gap in how police treat white and Black people, seems to objectively entrench racism.
It’s easy enough to see why executives and school administrators look around at a country exploding in righteous indignation at racism, and see the class of consultants selling their program of mystical healing as something that looks vaguely like a solution. But one day DiAngelo’s legions of customers will look back with embarrassment at the time when a moment of awakening to the depth of American racism drove them to embrace something very much like racism itself.
I’m surprised that New York Magazine let Chait say stuff like this, given how they muzzled Andrew Sullivan. Is Chait going to get the pink slip as well?
As I said yesterday, I haven’t read DiAngelo’s book, and won’t pronounce on whether her program is racist or not. But that even a pretty worshipful profile like the one in the NYT can bring up the problems of internal contradictions and lack of efficacy of the “white fragility” program—and other forms of anti-racist training—means that we shouldn’t wholeheartedly endorse them without learning more about them and, more important, seeing whether they work.