McWhorter and Loury on equality vs. equity—and music

March 24, 2023 • 12:45 pm

Below is an hourlong of John McWhorter making his every-other-week appearance on Glenn Loury’s podcast, the “Glenn Show”.  The YouTube notes for this bit are indented (their bolding):

John McWhorter is back, and fresh off an appearance on Bill Maher’s Real Time that provides plenty of fodder for this conversation. It’s always an interesting experience comparing the relatively unrestrained version of John that I record with three times a month and the carefully crafted version of himself he presents on other programs, when he knows he only has a few minutes to make his point. This is something all of us who regularly appear in the media have to grapple with: How do we distill all of the thinking, reading, and writing we do within our areas of expertise into audience-friendly sound bites that will give some sense of our deeper reasoning? John has mastered this art, and I have to say, I think I’ve gotten pretty good at it, too!

We begin by discussing that Real Time appearance. John is turning into one of Maher’s regular guests, but he wasn’t always such a skilled communicator. He recounts an earlier Bill Maher appearance where he dropped the ball. John was invited on to talk about equity and equality, and we take the opportunity to talk more expansively about the difference between the two. We are both advocates for equality, and we both think that equity is a poor substitute. We also both think that black Americans have the potential to perform at the same level as everyone else, but the test scores tell a different story. So how do we know that potential is real and not just wishful thinking? It’s a tough question. The most zealous DEI advocates come from the ranks of educated middle and upper-middle-class blacks, and I’m reminded of E. Franklin Frazier’s classic critique, Black BourgeoisieWe move on to the question of standards in the arts, and John says it’s not such a big deal if African Americans don’t have proportional representation in classical orchestras and audiences.

We get a pretty unfiltered version of John in this one. Anybody who catches him only on TV or in the New York Times is missing out!

It’s a wide-ranging conversation, going from equity to music, and is well worth listening to. I’ll highlight just a few landmarks:

10:56: Equality vs. equity. McWhorter, who dominates this hour, argues that there’s a certain arrogance in pretending that “equity” just means “equality”, but it’s okay for the woke because the conflation “battles white power”.  He adds that only under equity is racial “tokenism” seen as okay, but the notion of equity creates a “wormy and arrogant social policy.”

16:57: Loury makes the devil’s advocate case for equity, saying that “equality” avoids the hard questions: how do you assess talent,  opportunity, and the moral obligations of society? What good, he asks, is equal opportunity if people start from different points of advantage and disadvantage? He then describes the cartoon below, which you’ve seen before:

19:30: McWhorter calls that cartoon not only misleading, but deeply insulting to black people, because it implies that people will think “black people are born dumb” (i.e., they start with a shorter box). My response is that the short box isn’t mental difference, but cultural difference that ultimately can be ascribed to slavery, oppression and bigotry and that results in lower performance on test scores.  McWhorter eventually does claim (and I agree) that black people are culturally rather than genetically disadvantaged. But his constant claim is that to overcome racial differences in achievement and test performance, black people must begin setting themselves standards and goals and meeting them—not kvetching that they’re disadvantaged by racism and need the compensations associated with equity.

It becomes clear that both Loury and McWhorter do believe that we should not relax standards of merit for promotion or achievement, but that black people, insofar as they don’t perform as well as whites, should simply work harder.  It sickens McWhorter, he says, to see the call for holding black people to standards different from those to which we hold white people.

McWhorter then mentions the tweet below, which I found on his website. He says he issued it deliberately, not to self-aggrandize but to make the point that “equity” is patronizing toward black people by holding them to different standards.  As he says (or maybe it was Loury), “we cannot exempt people from having to display competency.”

The last part of the discussion turns to classical music, one of McWhorter’s great loves. He deals with whether there should be equity in orchestras (no), whether symphonies should program music that more people of color would want to hear (no), and why classical music is so great.  But he then argues—and here I agree with him—that the only reason that opera is seen as more highbrow than many Broadway musicals is because opera is in a foreign language. He argues that there’s no reason to think Puccini any better than, say, the musical “Showboat,” and at that point I stood up and cheered.

Anyway, the hour is divided into two distinct parts: equity and music, and though they’re connected, it’s worth hearing the show simply because I love the way these guys interact.



And to show the greatness of musicals, here’s the inimitable Paul Robeson singing a song that always brings tears to my eyes. It’s “Old Man River,” and was written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, two white Jews. This is a scene from the 1936 movie version of “Showboat.”

18 thoughts on “McWhorter and Loury on equality vs. equity—and music

  1. It would seem as though the great ideological debate of the moment concerns the contemporary definition of two words, both of which are derived from Latin.

  2. “My response is that the short box isn’t mental difference, but cultural difference that ultimately can be ascribed to slavery and bigotry; and McWhorter does agree that black people are culturally disadvantages”

    I am pretty sure McWhorter’s idea is that it is a cultural difference as well. I very much doubt he thinks it’s genetic.

    Making tests easier for black people does, in my view, come across as extremely condescending, and it does imply that black people are “dumb”, or at least dumber than other groups.

    McWhorter seems to be saying that the tests should remain the same; black people just need to study harder. You seem to be saying that somehow slavery and bigotry has lowered their IQ.

    I apologize if I’m misinterpreting your views, but this is what I, and I’m sure many other readers, are gleaning from your post. Do correct me if I’m wrong.

    1. No, I am not saying that slavery and bigotry has lowered their IQ; it’s made their culture such that they can’t perform as well on standardized tests, not that they’ve somehow accumulated “low IQ genes.”. This is what I’ve been saying all along, and I have NO idea where you got the idea that I thought that. Anybody who gleans that this is my idea from the post is dead wrong. I’ve added a bit just to clarify matters; in this issue, McWhorter and I are in full agreement.

      1. I’ve never understood what this means. How, mechanistically, does a cultural force (what exactly is this? how can we measure it? how does it propagate?) affect every county in the U.S. to produce the same rank ordering of test score results?

        Looking at international adoption studies ( we see that kids adopted into a Swedish family in Sweden and then tested at age 18 display the same order. This cultural theory seems quite similar to theories of institutional racism.

  3. I think the cartoon is what Mencken meant by (or this was my cue to share) this quote :

    “Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem–neat, plausible, and

    H. L. Mencken
    From “The Divine Afflatus”, section IV in
    Prejudices : Second Series

  4. Some cultural questions:

    Why are the freeloaders drawn with brown skin?
    Who was taxed to buy the boxes they are standing on? Were they stolen from someone who paid for them?

    How do we know the tall guy is willing to give up his (free) box? Standing on the box he doesn’t “need” he can still see better and has a better chance of catching a souvenir foul ball.
    Why doesn’t the owner of the ballpark build a higher fence so all three freeloaders have to buy tickets? (as one of the many parodies suggests.)

    What if there is a shortage of boxes? Do you saw the tall guy’s legs off and let the short guy use them as stilts? (As another parody suggests.)

    I’m not trolling. These questions have to be answered every time someone wants to give someone extra resources to achieve equity. I think that’s what annoys McWhorter about the cartoon. Equity is fundamentally theft and it implies black (and brown) people can’t get ahead without thievery.

    1. Care always needs to be taken not to read more into an analogy that necessary. Analogies are important to human understanding, but no analogy is perfect- otherwise it wouldn’t be an analogy, but the thing itself. The cartoon message that there is unearned inequality in society that the beneficiaries of that inequality ought to help resolve sounds about right to me. Plus I like the cheerful helpfulness and creativity the cartoon demonstrates.

      One gripe I have with the wokists, however, is how they apply a set of analogies, explanations and terminology, Procrustes-like, to every situation. For instance, an act of genuine human kindness by a white person towards a black person is often written off as “white saviorism”. I find the extreme oversimplification, cynicism and lack of charity, as well as the basic falsity, of that view disturbing.

      1. Any argument that rests on analogy is not an argument at all. It’s because analogies are fundamentally misleading that I enjoy seeing them ripped apart by skilled parodists. Google “equity vs equality” and select “Images” to see lampoons of this particular cartoon.

        That beneficiaries of inequality “ought” to help resolve it is a sentiment not always shared by the actual owners of the inequality who would be plundered, more by owners of other inequalities conveniently being left off the table for division. How much force do the “ought”-wielders get to use on the recalcitrant?

        Both Robin DiAngelo and Scott Adams agree that black and non-black people should have nothing to do with one another. This should end grumbling about white saviourism.

        1. I’m not sure how you conclude that analogical argument is not argument. It doesn’t lead to conclusions that are necessarily true, of course- only deductive reasoning does that, and the applicability of deductive reasoning is largely limited to formal systems like mathematics. But in terms of utility, reasoning by analogy has always been the workhorse of human reasoning. The utility depends on the degree of relevant similarity that exists between descriptions of two cases.

          Of course there are bad analogies- that’s one of my main complaints about woke reasoning – but there are also good analogies. A computer virus really is a virus, because the descriptions are the same when you abstract away some physical details. Legal reasoning utilizes precedent, based on the similarity of the current legal case with a case in the past on which a ruling was made. Case based reasoning has a long and honorable history in AI. In the cartoon, the idea of helping another person “enjoy the show”, so to speak, of “lifting someone up” who is at a disadvantage, is clearly metaphorical, but something human minds (mine at least) grasps fairly intuitively. In fact, the intent often becomes more clear through the use of an apt metaphor, visual or linguistic, than with a more abstract description.

          1. Lee, if you think productive people should be taxed (or held back from hiring and promotion) in order to make black unproductive people better off at the expense of white unproductive people, just say so. In words with ordinary meanings. Not with cartoons and words with made-up meanings. Remember, the people you are trying to convince are the people with money, education and success. We can read and we know when we are being conned with pictures.

            Tell us how much you think it will cost to produce those equitable outcomes, why you think it will work, and why we should want it to work badly enough to spend the money on them instead of our own families. Then, having spent it, demonstrate how effective that confiscation was in achieving it before you come back at us for another bite.

            Ditch the boxes. If you need deceptive propaganda to make people think the social engineering is magically cost-free — boxes conjured out of nowhere and a ballpark owner who puts up with freeloaders –, then you should reconsider the whole project. Trivial analogies like computer viruses are just, well, trivial.

            Equity falls apart once you scrutinize it. Analogy and metaphor don’t save it.

            1. Not a big fan of “equity” as defined in the article, or of the cartoon. But should “productive” people be taxed for the benefit of the “unproductive” – depends on how the “productive” person got their wealth, and why the ‘unproductive” person can’t afford tickets for his kids. Good chance the owner of the team got rich with government subsidies, government enforced monopolies, laws that helped him bust their father’s union, etc. Corrupt by my definition, but perfectly legal – he and his billionaire buddies own congress to a great degree. Not all rich people are corrupt, of course, and even the corrupt billionaires probably deserve a good part of their wealth – most likely they had a key insight that no one else had. So yeah, in a just world, the team owner would be paying the father a decent wage, but in the world we have, it’s fair to take back some of that wealth for the benefit of less well off. Oh, by the way, in the real world, that ball park is probably owned by some government entity, and its construction and upkeep subsidized by the taxpayer. [My problem with the cartoon is that it should not be the tall kid, obviously also poor, who has to sacrifice his box, rather than the team owner paying a fair wage to their dads.] Yeah, it’s complicated – more complicated than I can really handle in a comment posting.

              1. Looking harder at the cartoon, it seems that the tall guy is balding (older) middle has full head of hair (teen) and last one’s body seems to be a toddler (and not a midget). In which case the point should be common sense or basic manners, but not “equity.”

    2. “How do we know the tall guy is willing to give up his (free) box? Standing on the box he doesn’t “need” he can still see better and has a better chance of catching a souvenir foul ball.”

      Ha! Nice call. He (they?) look so out of place, poking way up like that.

      This cartoon is childish, but serves as a great critical thinking exercise. The thing crumbles at the slightest.

      1. It all depends on what meanings you pull from the picture, and how far you push the analogy. Pictures aren’t true or false per se.

    3. “Some cultural questions:”

      But you’re not supposed to do that!


      Well, just like Dawkins about religion :

      “Because you’re not!”

    4. Just one more on this, I promise. I accept the sincerity of all the people who argued with me.
      But getting back to why John McW doesn’t like this cartoon. To him, it says that blacks are dumber and have to be given unearned A’s or hired for jobs they aren’t qualified order that they can enjoy a middle-class or senior civil-service income. This is bad for blacks because their poor performance reinforces stereotypes that they are dumber and causes resentment among non-blacks who were discriminated against. It’s bad for society if incompetent people are hired to jobs that require competitive competence….or at least where everyone has to meet a high standard or the lights won’t stay on.

      Jerry, on the other hand, sees (I think) the cartoon as pleading for some repairing or re-engineering of black underclass culture so that achievement means the same to black people as it does to non-blacks, including the idea that achievement itself is worth striving and delaying gratification for.. (Indigenous Canadians call that cultural genocide. We’ll let that pass, but we do have to be careful not to assume that blacks want to become more like Asians as the cost of getting ahead.)

      So I suppose it comes down to, What are the “boxes” that have to provided to the currently unproductive to help them succeed? And, importantly, w
      who is to provide the boxes? Some good-hearted outsiders? Or do black people need to build the boxes themselves? If they build their own boxes to stand on, the little guy can have two without having to grab one from the tall guy. It doesn’t have to be zero-sum, the way the cartoon makes it look.

  5. I’ve only come across this book recently. Loury has cited Sowell before, so I think it is worth noting – I give a couple quotes:

    Affirmative Action Around the World – An Empirical Study
    Thomas Sowell
    239 pages incl. index.
    Yale U. Press

    “Many – if not most – people who are for or against affirmative action are for or against the theory of affirmative action. The factual question of what actually happens as a result of affirmative action policies receives remarkably little attention.”

    “Today, it is programs for the less fortunate which are called affirmative action in the United States or by such other names as “positive discrimination” in Britain and in India, “standardization” in Sri Lanka, “reflecting the federal character of the country” in Nigeria, and “sons of the soil” preferences in Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as in some states in India. Group preferences and quotas have also existed in Israel, China, Australia, Brazil, Fiji, Canada, Pakistan, New Zealand and the Soviet Union and its successor states.”

    [end quote]

    The book focuses on India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, and the United States. Sowell says “The experience of more than 30 years of researching and analyzing affirmative action policies in the United States has gone into this book.”

  6. Also:

    “Equal” is in the constitution. “Equity” is not.

    I think that omission means something to some people.

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