Truly, I don’t understand why author John McWhorter, professor of linguistics at Columbia University, hasn’t yet been the subject of a social-justice campaign to demonize and erase him. While he’s black, he’s also strongly opposed to what he sees as the “religion” of anti-racism promulgated by people like Ibram X. Kendi, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Robin DiAngelo, and McWhorter speaks plainly and passionately. The first piece below is an example of his strong and uncompromising views and language.
I suppose McWhorter is still afloat because his arguments against the more extreme forms of anti-racism, as evinced in the following two pieces, are both clear and hard to refute. He’s fiercely smart and writes really well, and if you come up against him with ammunition consisting solely of offense and outrage, you’re not going to fare well. This week, McWhorter published two pieces worth reading, one on his Substack site and the other at The Atlantic, where he’s a contributing writer. Ibram X. Kendi struck back at the second piece on Twitter, accusing McWhorter of distortion and confusion. I’ll maintain that Kendi didn’t read McWhorter very carefully.
Both pieces characterize recent anti-racist protests and strikes on campus as examples of “performances”—presumably rituals of the religion that McWhorter says anti-racism has become.
First, here’s a free article at McWhorter’s new Substack site, It Bears Mentioning. Click on the screenshot to read:
This piece recounts the suspension of a law professor, Jason Kilborn, at the University of Illinois in Chicago. Kilborn’s crime was citing the n- and b-words on an exam this way: “n*****” and “b****”. We all know what those redacted symbols stand for, and Kilborn was not using them to incite students, but as examples in an exam question about an employment discrimination case.
Kilborn has used this kind of expurgation on exams for a long time, but, the Zeitgeist being what it is, this year’s outcome was predictable: a group of students got highly offended and protested strongly. Kilborn was suspended from his class as well as from some of his university duties. He’s also now banned from campus because he supposedly poses a physical threat to the students:
One black student claimed that they experienced heart palpitations upon reading the words. During an hours-long Zoom talk with a black student representing the protesters, Kilborn made a flippant remark to the effect that the law school dean may suppose that he is some kind of “homicidal maniac” – upon which the student reported to the dean that Kilborn indeed may be one. Kilborn is no longer teaching the class, is relieved of his administrative duties, and because of the possible physical threat he poses to black students because of the Hyde-like tendency he referred to, he is barred from campus.
McWhorter goes on to say what few would dare to say, even though the point is worth arguing:
But let’s pull the camera back, take a deep breath, and look at something like this pillorying of Kilborn with clear eyes. If a black student is traumatized to such a degree by seeing “n*****” on a piece of paper, then that student needs psychological counseling. We all understand the history and power of the N-word, but we all also understand the simple issue of degree. That student who got heart palpitations needs help, and what the suits at the University of Illinois in Chicago should have done as gently direct this student to the proper services, which the school surely provides, for people who have fallen away from the ability to cope with normal life. . .
. . . To be a modern enlightened American is to have internalized a kind of cognitive shunt or patch upon our processing of cases like this. We are to pretend that until slurs of this kind no longer exist, we must accept it as ordinary and perhaps even healthy for smart young people to fall to pieces at the mere of sight of one even in writing and carefully expurgated. . .
. . . in all of this, we are taught not to make sense. We are taught to suspend our rational faculties in favor of larger, abstract, and often incoherent imperatives valued as demonstration of our moral fitness. In other words, we are taught to think about race issues religiously.
And has the following interpretation not crossed people’s minds—not just with protests against black racism, but protests against nearly all form of presumed “bigotry” on campus? It’s the overreaction of the offended that is so striking:
Yes, I am taking the students too seriously. As in, I am only pretending to take them seriously at all. As all of us can detect on some level, black students who purport upset of this degree, at passing things that their very equivalents just some years ago never even noticed, are faking it.
They are acting. It is a performance. The issue here is not “black fragility,” which is why there is a question mark after the title of this post. Such students are not fragile; they are histrionic. They are pretending to be hurt.
McWhorter, though, tries to empathize, and in fact he seems angrier at white people who bow to these protests than to the African-Americans who make them:
The formal expression is one of anger and injury, but behind this is a balm, the sense that you are worthy on some level of a cookie or a pat on the head just for getting through your days and weeks. It gives a person a sense of significance. It gives you a sense of significance as a member of a group on a fraught but epic trajectory towards justice. You, in times when civil rights can seem so much less dramatic a thing than it was 50 years ago and before, have a sense of being part of that “Struggle,” as it used to be put. That doesn’t make a person a monster.
It goes on, with McWhorter ending by saying that people who sympathize with people so easily offended should not only refer those people to counseling (that’s incendiary enough!), but, by refusing to call the students out, are themselves being racists:
Protests of this kind test us on how committed we really are to assessing black people according to the content of their character. Normal people don’t fall to pieces when seeing “n*****” on a piece of paper, regardless of their race. The neoracists who have barred Jason Kilborn from campus in pretending this isn’t true are operating upon an assumption that black people are morons. This is a rather fascinating rendition of “antiracism,” and to treat it as “allyship” is nothing less than a cultural sickness.
I doubt that you could get away with writing words like that in a magazine like The Atlantic; they’ll have to be on your own website. But surely hyperfragility—which is not new; remember Haidt and Lukianoff’s 2018 book, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure? (See my post on it here.) That book advances the thesis that modern parents and educational institutions have instilled three guiding principles in the young: “What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker; always trust your feelings; and life is a battle between good people and evil people.” It’s a book well worth reading, and explains a lot of the outrage and claimed hyperfragility (indeed, it’s not just claimed, it’s often internalized) among the young.
But I digress. This week’s fracas is between McWhorter’s piece in The Atlantic (below), and Ibram X. Kendi’s response on twitter. Click the screenshot to read:
I can be briefer here, as McWhorter summarizes anti-racism protests that I’ve described many times on this site: protests at Princeton (here and here), Bryn Mawr, New York City’s private Dalton School, and Northwestern University. (There are others that McWhorter doesn’t mention, including Smith College, Harvard, Middlebury College, and, of course, the poster boy for knee-jerk offense, The Evergreen State College.
What the anti-racism protests have in common at these schools is that the students have indicted the institutions for pervasive, ubiquitous and clear “structural racism”, despite the fact that none of the schools are really that way at all. (Neither is the University of Chicago, which hasn’t yet been shaken by nationally-publicized accusations.) Yes, of course some people are racists at these institutions, but one would be hard pressed to find “structural racism”: that is, policies and practices embedded in the institution that predictably lead to discriminatory outcomes. In fact, all of these schools, my own included, are deeply engaged in trying to admit students and faculty of color and to create programs that give support to minority students.
McWhorter is evenhanded on the issue, but will not admit that such schools have a deep problem with racism (and, as far as I can see, he’s right):
As extreme as these documents and actions seem, they would qualify as legitimate if these campuses actually were bastions of social injustice. This is doubtful.
My colleague Conor Friedersdorf has documented that even some of the faculty who signed the Princeton petition were not necessarily united in adherence to its specific demands, or in agreement as to the depths of the university’s depravity. Many wanted, simply, to deliver a nebulous acknowledgment that some anti-racist efforts would be beneficial. Although racism surely exists at Princeton, as it does throughout American society, Princeton is not the utter sinkhole of bigotry and insensitivity that the letter implies. American universities have long been more committed to anti-racism than almost any other institutions. Princeton is where, for example, Woodrow Wilson’s name was recently removed from the name of the School of Public and International Affairs in acknowledgment of his implacably racist beliefs—albeit in response to student pressure.
The issue, as so often, is degree. Most liberals will acknowledge that it is useful and even urgent for institutions such as Princeton to be vigilant against subtle biases in attitudes and procedures. The question is whether, despite this modus operandi having been well established in such places for a few decades now, they remain so infested with entrenched racism that transformational manifestos such as the Princeton letter constitute progress as opposed to manipulation.
Dalton and Princeton in particular have, even before the recent protests began, been examining themselves for racist practices or policies, and have made substantial changes in the last decade. Indeed, all of those schools have.
You can read McWhorter’s Atlantic piece yourself, but his message, at it was in the Substack piece, is that administrators and rational people must stand up to irrational protests and demands, for there is never any end to them. Demands that are reasonable, of course, should be accommodated, but every list of “demands” that I’ve seen is at least 60% “unreasonable.” The point is that if you cave into unreasonable demands, as Bryn Mawr, Evergreen State, and the Dalton School has (or is set to), the protestors learn that making demands is not just a way to assert power, but to institute both the programmatic and ideological changes they want. As McWhorter concludes,
The writers of manifestos might classify resistance as racist, denialist backlash. But the civil, firm dismissal of irrational demands is, rather, a kind of civic valor. School officials must attend to the fine line between enlightenment and cowardice—for the benefit of not only themselves, but the Black people they see themselves as protecting.
That was too much for Ibram Kendi, who, in a series of nine tweets in this thread, highlights and attack’s McWhorter’s piece. Here you go.
In fact it is Kendi who misrepresents McWhorter. As you see above, McWhorter notes that all these campuses probably have some residual racism; but they’re not festering hotbeds of structural racism where crosses get burned on a regular basis.
Kendi argues, for example, that McWhorter praises a professor who said that student and faculty demands will lead to a “civil war on campus.” Here’s what McWhorter said about that professor.
Thus the model must be classics professor Joshua Katz at Princeton, who last summer took issue with the Princeton letter in a Quillette article, pointing out that the demands would lead to “civil war on campus,” and calling out a Black student association that serially harassed several Black students who disagreed with its philosophy. (Inadvisedly, he referred to the association as a “terrorist” group.) Predictable calls on social media for his dismissal were not successful because his tenure would have made it difficult, but in September, the American Council of Learned Societies withdrew his recent appointment as one of the federation’s two delegates to the Union Académique Internationale, on the basis of the social-media response to his article.
This is not McWhorter agreeing that there will be a civil war at Princeton, but quoting Katz, and even disagreeing with him about calling the black student association terrorists. McWhorter does agree that continual bowing before extreme anti-racist demands will eventually destroy the reputation of colleges (see his piece), but that’s all, and that’s his point. Evergreen State has already gone down the tubes, and I suspect that Smith and Bryn Mawr are circling the drain.
Kendi adds that “white supremacist violence is being fomented” by pieces like McWhorter’s. That’s the same kind of hyperbolic overreaction that we see in the students themselves. Remember that McWhorter is a black man and certainly not a white supremacist. But even so, I defy you to read his piece and point out places where he’s fomenting “white supremacist violence.”
Kendi argues that all the institutions have “widespread and pervasive inequities and injustices,” and that McWhorter overlooks these. Well, as far as the “inequities” are concerned, yes, there are inequalities of outcome (that’s my definition of “inequities”), but those are surely the results of historical injustice that have set back African-American, not of present “structural racism” at these schools. And what are the injustices? I can’t think of any, though I’ve tried. Remember, they have to be “pervasive.”
In a later tweet, Kendi unfairly lumps McWhorter with Trump and “white supremactists” when asserting that bowing to anti-racist demands will destroy or damage universities. But it will surely damage them, just as it’s fatally damaged Evergreen State. Perhaps places like Harvard and Princeton won’t go down completely, for their names are so revered, and the education there is still top notch, but eventually this kind of catering to student demands—and here I mean the unreasonable ones—changes the mission of American universities from allowing students to learn and debate freely into engineering social justice along the lines of critical theory (Critical Race Theory, in fact). Even as I write, curricula are being molded to the tenets of Critical Theory, and that will eventually create a culture of ideological conformity and an output of students not trained to either argue or think for themselves. The universities may endure, but they won’t be the places of learning that have attracted students from throughout the world.
The problem with Kendi is that he thinks one has to accept the whole hog of Critical Race Theory, and if you don’t you’re a racist. And if colleges don’t, they are racist. In response, McWhorter probably thinks that Kendi himself is a racist by adhering to the soft bigotry of low expections and the assumption that minorities are hyperfragile in a way that must to be catered to. Kendi simply can’t grasp McWhorter’s contention that these issues are “matters of degree,” which is true. To Kendi and his minions, you’re either a Kendian antiracist or a racist; there is no in between.
And so the debate continues, and it’s fascinating. The important thing is that it remains a debate (and one in which I’m participating). Many students and faculty, however, would construe McWhorter’s words as “hate speech” and demand that they be censored. And that would end the debate. And that’s what they want when they hedge about “free speech”. The last thing the “free speech, but. . .” crowd wantw to hear is McWhorter’s claim:
The neoracists who have barred Jason Kilborn from campus in pretending this isn’t true are operating upon an assumption that black people are morons. This is a rather fascinating rendition of “antiracism,” and to treat it as “allyship” is nothing less than a cultural sickness.
If anything would be construed by the Offended as “hate speech”, that is it. But it isn’t: it’s a strong claim that McWhorter buttresses with evidence.
And so the debate goes on.