Unconscious bias: your mental armpits

September 19, 2021 • 1:00 pm

Unconscious bias, also known as “implicit bias,” is the proposition that people (usually white people) have an unrealized degree of bias against people of other races or genders, and it is this unconscious bigotry that contributes to racism and sexism and their harmful effects.

One’s unconscious bias (UB) is measured via an implicit association test (IAT), characterized by Wikipedia as

“a controversial assessment intended to detect subconscious associations between mental representations of objects (concepts) in memory. Its best-known application is the assessment of implicit stereotypes held by test subjects, such as associations between particular racial categories and stereotypes about those groups.”

Both UB and IATs are controversial ideas for several reasons; I’ll give just a few:

1.)  If you are biased or bigoted, some say, it’s unlikely that it’s unconscious. (NOTE: See my comment below, I am willing to believe that some people are biased but absolutely have no awareness of it.)

2.) Most important, IATs, which supposedly measure your UB and then are used to promote implicit bias training is a scheme that doesn’t seem to work. While taking such a test may make you chastened or feel better temporarily, tests have shown that they have virtually no effect on either longer term bias or, more important, how you treat people who have been subjects of bigotry. In fact, the tests have been said to increase bias by alienating people by telling some of them that they’re bigots.

3.) The results are easy to fake. I took one some time ago, and while the results showed I was not prejudiced against blacks, and I tried to answer quickly and honestly, upon reviewing the test I could see that certain answers would either raise or lower your bigotry score.

You can see further critiques of these concepts and the tests here and here, while can find a list of articles critical of IATs and the idea of IB here.  Wikipedia also lists the problems in a section about “criticism and controversy” of IATs.

This is not meant to suggest, of course, that people aren’t biased, nor that organizations shouldn’t take steps to reduce bias and discrimination. Of course they should. It’s just that the evidence for the IATs and UB training actually doing anything to reduce bias is thin and unconvincing. Both the Guardian and Scientific American articles suggest more sustained, complex, and permanent ways to reduce bias in the workplace.

But of course when people perceive a problem, or manufacture one, like “the need to train people out of unconscious bias”, people come forward to profit, and now there is an industry of administering IATs to ferret out UB, followed by training to root out your UB.

Here’s one example sent by a reader (click on the screenshot to read). It’s part of a website advertising a firm that ferrets out bias and gives (paid) training to many professional scientific societies and organizations.

The title is unfortunate:

The unfortunate comparison from the head of the organization:

I love the “boots and sandals” analogy for understanding how to respond when called on your privilege. (If you don’t know about this, check it out here.)

It inspired me to come up with my own analogy that I’ve found useful in talking about unconscious biases.

Unconscious biases are like armpits.

  •  Everyone has them.
  •  It is not your fault that you have them.
  • Most of the time you are not aware of them.
  • Sometimes other people might point out to you that your armpits are offensive.
  • When that happens, it is your responsibility to clean them up.

The difference, of course, is that we know that armpits really exist.

The rationale goes on, using an evolutionary analogy asserting that we’re evolved to be biased. Well, we might have evolved to be xenophobic, but whether this leads to racism today is questionable. If this were the case, we’d be fearful and bigoted against people of every ethnic group, while bias is said to apply mostly to whites and their attitudes towards blacks and Hispanics. But there may be an element of tribalism that remains in our genomes. But even if this is the case, that doesn’t show that the biases are unconscious nor that the kind of testing and training that so many people are merchandising eliminate this atavistic “xenophobia”. In fact, they don’t seem to be:

Being good at pattern recognition is a valuable survival skill. When our ancestors confronted a large predator – a saber-toothed tiger, say – an individual’s chance of survival was heightened if they did not have to stand there thinking, “Hmmm, it’s big and furry and has stripes and these really big teeth and enormous claws and maybe I should consider leaving the scene. . . .” Those who recognized in an instant that the thing approaching them was a threat lived to produce the folks who produced us. Our brains are so good a this, we recognize patterns even where there are none to be found – just ask the people who find images of Elvis or Jesus or Kurt Cobain seared into their breakfast toast.

Preference for what is familiar is another survival skill. When it comes to avoiding predators, poisons, and other dangers, sticking with what you know has advantages. As you would imagine, it definitely gets in the way of making any diverse group of people truly inclusive. The flip side of preferring the familiar is a reaction ranging from mild discomfort to fear in the face of the unfamiliar. We prefer what we know well, even when sticking with the familiar doesn’t get us what we say we want, or what will bring us happiness. This is how life coaches can make a living nudging people out of their “comfort zones” to make real changes in their lives.

Read the Guardian and Sci. Am. articles to look at some better fixes for bigotry.

UPDATE: A friend read this and told me I lack a “conclusion.” I thought it was implicit in what I wrote, but perhaps it’s not. The most important lesson is to not automatically buy into implicit association tests as a measure of your bias, and especially not to fall for companies who try to sell you or your scientific organization “training” and “meeting monitors” based on the concept of pervasive implicit bias.

Too many scientific societies are now paying lots of money for this kind of training and even hiring people to walk around at meetings trying to sniff out offensive statements and interactions. Societies of course do need a procedure for investigating malfeasance, but now they are acting like a bunch of helicopter parents who must monitor the interaction of full-grown scientists assumed to be ridden with sexism and racism.

White Virginia Tech professor apologizes for her race (and racism) on course syllabus

September 14, 2021 • 9:15 am

(Note: this report comes from a right-wing college-monitoring site and I haven’t been able to verify it.  However, I don’t have reason to doubt it, either. Should I give similar caveats—from the opposite political direction—when citing PBS, the New York Times, and so on?)

This is what the madness on campus has come to: Crystal Duncan Lane, an “instructional faculty member” at Virginia Tech’s Department of Human Development and Family science, apparently handed out her syllabus for a course (I can’t find the exact course, but a student says it was “about disabilities” and the major lists “An Introduction to Disability Studies“, which must be the one).  At any rate, Campus Reform, which has carried many reports that I independently gave on this site, says that Lane’s syllabus included this introduction to the instructor:

I am a Caucasian cisgender female and first-generation college student from Appalachia who is of Scottish, British, and Norwegian heritage. I am married to a cisgender male, and we are middle class. While I did not ‘ask’ for the many privileges in my life: I have benefitted from them and will continue to benefit from them whether I like it or not. This is injustice. I am and will continue to work on a daily basis to be antiracist and confront the innate racism within myself that is the reality and history of white people. I want to be better: Every day. I will transform: Every day. This work terrifies me: Every day. I invite my white students to join me on this journey. And to my students of color: I apologize for the inexcusable horrors within our shared history.

Given that this is a course on disabilities, it’s odd that she doesn’t mention that she’s also privileged by not being disabled (assuming she’s able bodied). But the most disturbing part is the implication that all white people are innately racist. This could have been written by the team of Kendi and DiAngelo.

The worst part is that education is supposed to teach people about things and about how to think and criticize, not propagandize them as Lane has done in her “introduction”. She tells them that she (and all the white students) are participating in a massive “injustice” right now. And really, is it a matter of student interest that she tells them that every day, in every way, she’ll get better and better? This is what the kids call “TMI“.

Yes, we have the written equivalent of a penitente, those Catholics who go around scourging their backs with whips until the blood streams down, all to imitate the Biblical trials of Jesus and to punish themselves for being sinners.

In the article, two students (one gives her name) beef about this statement, one saying this: “It hurts that someone says I was born with ‘innate racism’ because of my skin color. [It] makes me feel like I should hide and worry about everything I say.”

And well she should. The chilling of speech by colleges and professors setting forth what statements are ideologically acceptable on campus and in class severely diminishes the value of education. And we already know it’s widespread. Inside Higher Ed reports the results of a survey from September of last year and gives a disturbing graph:

Sixty percent of students have at one point felt they couldn’t express an opinion on campus because they feared how other students, professors or college administrators would respond, according to a survey report published Tuesday by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, a campus civil liberties watchdog group, and RealClearEducation, an online news service. The survey of 19,969 undergraduate students from 55 colleges and universities was administered from April to May by College Pulse, a research company.

Note below that all comfort levels are below 25%.  It’s instructors like Crystal Duncan Lane that create a climate like this.

CRT in schools endorsed by four U.S. mayors, including Chicago’s

September 9, 2021 • 11:15 am

Reader Luana sent me this tweet from conservative Christopher Rufo, and, as usual, citing conservative media to liberal readers on my site, I have to make sure that what’s reported is real. Well, it is; you can find this statement on the U.S. Conference of Mayor website. The statement is signed by the mayors of Louisville, Kentucky; Boise, Idaho; Portland, Oregon, and Chicago, Illinois: a strange melange of mayors, though Portland doesn’t surprise me. Neither does our own mayor, Lori Lightfoot, who is black and gay, and getting woker all the time. I’ve enlarged the statement below so you can see what the mayors are endorsing:

Enlarged. I’ll give my take below

This statement surprised me with its vehemence: it could have been written by a bunch of disaffected students at any woke school, though its “demands” apply to public school education.

The first half of the statement characterizes Critical Race Theory the way many people understand it these days. Although these look like statements of fact, most of them are contestable. That includes the first claim that race is not biologically real and “is not connected to biological reality.” Well, the conception of distinct races that are very different genetically, having individually diagnostic genetic traits as markers, with everyone belonging to one race or another, is not true, but as I explained in an earlier post, if the concept of racial groups or ethnic groups was purely a social construction, we would not find this:

As I said, there are groups within groups. Even within Europe, as a paper by Novembre et al. reported, using half a million DNA sites, that to place 50% of individuals could be place within 310 km of their reported origin and 90% within 700 km of their origin. And that’s just within Europe (read the paper for more details). Again, this reflects a history of limited movement of Europeans between generations.  Finally, in terms of “self identification”,  Tang et al., using just 326 markers, performed a genetic cluster analysis and identified four groups that matched nearly perfectly with the “racial” self-identification of people given four choices (white, African-American, East Asian, and Hispanic). Here’s what they found:

Of 3,636 subjects of varying race/ ethnicity, only 5 (0.14%) showed genetic cluster membership different from their self-identified race/ethnicity. On the other hand, we detected only modest genetic differentiation between different current geographic locales within each race/ethnicity group. Thus, ancient geographic ancestry, which is highly correlated with self-identified race/ ethnicity—as opposed to current residence—is the major determinant of genetic structure in the U.S. population.

That is, there is almost perfect correspondence between what “race” (or ethnic group) Americans consider themselves to be and the identification of groups using observed genetic differences. Because these are Americans, and move around more, the genetics reflect ancestry more closely than geography, though in Europe geographic origin is also important.

The fact that you can predict the self-identification of 99.86% of Americans as to one of four “major” racial groups from just 326 genetic markers shows that the four racial groups named above do have a biological reality in their genetic differentiation. They are not simply “social constructs”.

As far as the other tenets are concerned, I would take issue with the claim that system racism is both ubiquitous and embedded within the legal system (where?), and that basically everybody is a racist. Of course there’s still racism—nobody denies that. But its pervasiveness is a matter of argument, not an assertion of fact.

The idea that it the idea of meritocracy is racist, as is the idea that people should be colorblind (Dr. King, you’re a racist!), are arguable, and I would argue strenuously that we cannot jettison a meritocracy so that all racial groups can have equal achievement. It is not meritocracy that propagates inequality, but the holding back of groups by history and culture.

Finally, in tenet #4 you see the common claim that “lived experiences” should trump data, denigrated here as “deficit-informed research”.  Storytelling, while it has its uses, is no substitute for sociology. And storytelling is not a solution, but a weak form of data.

(I’ll mention in passing that Jews are omitted form the list of the oppressed, though on a per capita basis they suffer more from hate crimes than any of the other groups named.)

The document then addresses the achievement gap between races (which, remember, are social constructs), but that gap does need to be addressed. The inequality of ethnic and economic groups in America is embarrassing and intolerable. To reduce it, the mayors propose a change in curriculum to make it more inclusive, which is fine, but then the group decries a “deficit-oriented instruction that characterizes students of color in need of remediation.” But didn’t they just imply that by saying that there are racial inequities and education gaps?

I have no opinion on dress codes; as far as I’m concerned, students can wear what they want so long as they aren’t naked and any mottos on their clothing don’t violate the First amendment.  And yes, #5 and #6, about inequality in school funding and quality, are an important part of narrowing the education gap—you know, the one that the mayors say isn’t real.

Finally, at the end, the five mayor resolve that CRT be implemented in the public education curriculum, as well as devising “access to equitable programs that reflect history, decrease achievement gaps, and better ensure that BIPOC students receive resources to ensure their success upon the completion of their primary education.”  But these two solutions are not at all the same thing. The implementation of CRT as outlined in the statement is divisive and will marinate the students’ education in racial conflict. The second, reducing inequality of opportunity, is an admirable program.

Sometimes I get the feeling that people like these mayors want race to be the center of all education in schools, so that every subject in public classrooms, including math and physics, must be infused with CRT-informed lessons. I don’t have to tell you that such a program would not bode well for the “success” of students of any race.

Equity vs. equality: a cartoon

September 7, 2021 • 10:45 am

The cartoon below, whose URL is linked to the drawing, has now appeared in a gazillion places (for examples, see the results of an image search). It clearly implies that there’s a difference between the outcomes of equality an equity. But of course that depends on how you define them. (The cartoon also appears on the Peace Corps site, and is credited this way: “Equality vs. Equity – by the Interaction Institute for Social Change | Artist: Angus Maguire.” Image Found: interactioninstitute.org)

To me, “equality” means “equality of opportunity”: everyone from the moment of birth has the same possibilities open to them. Given income and class inequality, however, that’s a practical impossibility. All we can do is try to ensure that nobody is discriminated against when making important decisions based on factors over which they have no control. Upper-class kids will have opportunities, like tutoring, vacations, and private schools, that simply aren’t available to those with less money.

“Equity” means the same thing to almost everyone: groups are represented in schools, in companies, and in various trades in the same proportion they occur in the general population. Achieving that may be impossible as well given group differences in culture and preferences (as a reader mentioned the other day, there are few blacks in hockey, but many in basketball). Many people, however, think that “equality” and “equity” mean the same thing. Not to me, or, I suspect, to most of us.

The cartoon implies that equality is unfair, and what we must strive for is equity. Now I could argue that the cartoon’s literal interpretation is wrong: there is in the left panel no “equality of opportunity to see the game.” The goal of equal outcomes in everything is what Ibram Kendi sees as the only evidence that racism has been eliminated, and I think that goal—equity—is what’s instantiated in this cartoon. On the other hand, you could argue that giving everybody the same thing (the box) does not seem fair when people start from different places (the different heights of the three people).

You might agree with the cartoon (I think it’s a tad misleading), or even with the striving for equity. This is really a discussion starter, so weigh in below.

h/t: Paul

McWhorter defends himself against charges of being a “sellout”

September 1, 2021 • 1:15 pm

John McWhorter’s latest New York Times newsletter, which one usually has to subscribe to (free with a NYT subscription), has appeared in the pages of the NYT, and if you subscribe to the paper you can read it without signing up for the newsletter. Click on screenshot below. It’s a spirited defense of his own views—and those of other blacks who don’t conform to “accepted” black ideology—against the charges that they’re sellouts and don’t really believe what they say.

If you’ve read McWhorter, you’ll know that he’s sincere in his beliefs and writings; there is not a scintilla of evidence otherwise. But the charge is that he, and other blacks, including conservatives like Thomas Sowell and Clarence Thomas, give contrarian talks and write contrarian books to make money.

McWhorter notes that genuine black “sellouts” have existed, like those who were FBI informants and infiltrated the civil rights movement, but he says that he knows many of the African-American “contrarians” criticized for being sellouts, and has found them all sincere. And I have no reason to contradict that. Whatever you say about Clarence Thomas, I don’t think you can say he issues his conservative opinions to make money! (He could speak up from the bench, though.

More important, to criticize people like Mcwhorter because their views go against the “acceptable” views for blacks is racism itself: it’s implicitly a denigration of black people for not being able to think for themselves.  One quote, and I’ll pass on.

And yet the stereotype — as if Black people don’t labor under enough of them already — lives on. For example, Robin DiAngelo, author of the book “Black Fragility” — oh, I meant “White Fragility” — thinks Black thinkers who don’t like her book are sellouts, for example. “Why can’t Black people think for themselves?” many think, watching the sellout charge lobbed like this. But this misses the nature of the beef here. No one is so obtuse as to think Black people aren’t allowed to think for themselves — per se, at least. Rather, the assumption is that when they think for themselves, all Black people will come to the same conclusions out of the exigencies of sheer reality.

Why? Because racism. The idea is that racism is so oppressive that a Black person who “decenters” the decrying of it could have only ulterior motives. That’s not crazy — but it’s also wrong.

For one, this take on conservative Black thought — i.e. that no sane Black thinker could be conservative — is naïve. Many Black thinkers are quite aware of racism and how it works and yet question the efficacy of focusing racial uplift efforts on changing white minds. Many know of Booker T. Washington, but there are many others — one must address Thomas Sowell, for one. Or George Schuyler, for two. I’ll stop there for now.

Second, one can know about racism and its effects but disagree with the orthodoxy on what one does in response to it. For example, the current consensus prescription for social racism is to ask a nation of people to look inward and examine themselves for even subtle kinds of racist bias. But this is a revolutionary approach to social change as human history goes. And it is true that a form of it worked once, after the 1960s when America learned to revile racism in a basic sense in a way that would have looked like science fiction just 20 years before. But today we are asking America to look much, much deeper — and some of us question how realistic or even necessary that is.

Now the column isn’t near as absorbing as his barnburner “University of Wisconsin’s racist rock” piece, but one can’t expect such passion every week.  And a defense of contrarian black thought needs to be mounted. The question is whether McWhorter was the one to do it, as it smacks a wee bit of defensiveness. On the other hand, he manages to turn a piece that could easily have reeked of victimization into a general critique of those African-Americans (and whites) who think that there’s only one acceptable set of ideas for black people.

The racism of chemistry at Barnard

August 30, 2021 • 1:15 pm

I can’t really think of any academic field of study, including math, sociology, physics, mathematics, English, history, music, medicine, art history, classics, biology (including evolutionary biology), and so on, that hasn’t been indicted for systemic racism. Remember, “systemic racism” is not individual racism, and nobody denies that there are bigots in every area of academia. The question, which is one that motivated this course, is “is there systemic racism”? That is, is there a pattern of practices, or a set of policies, that are designed to discriminate against minorities?

Actually, that question didn’t motivate this new course at Barnard’s chemistry department, for it’s taken for granted from the outset that the Barnard Chemistry Department is systemically racist, and the course was designed to get rid of it.

You can read about this course at the American Chemical Society publication website (click below), and obtain the full pdf on the course here (if that doesn’t work, try a judicious inquiry). This is a description of a course offered for half a credit, one hour a week, in the fall of last year. Beyond the summary, there’s also a list of student reactions (positive) and recommendations.

The pdf with all the info (click):

It’s assumed from the outset that chemistry in general, and Barnard’s department in particular, are systemically racist. That occurs in the first sentence of the abstract:

To explore the myriad ways in which systemic racism diminishes chemistry, and to recommend changes to our home department, a seminar-style course was created that provided a structured venue in which to collaborate with students.

And they had a dream:

The dream was to dismantle racism in chemistry. The goal was to participate in dismantling racism in chemistry at Barnard College.

To dismantle systemic racism in a field or department, you first have to establish that it exists. Sadly, the article fails to do that, and I suspect it’s because systemic racism doesn’t exist in chemistry at Barnard (or practically anywhere in the U.S, though surely racists and bigots do. Instead, assuming that there was this kind of racism, and that the purpose of the seminar was to dismantle it at Barnard, if not everywhere, the course included the usual material: personal anecdotes or “lived experiences”, documentation of inequities as evidence for ongoing racism, à la Kendi, and so on:

Secondary readings included a recent letter from the 2020 ACS President Luis Echegoyen on ACS commitments and actions to diversity, inclusion, and respect and a recent essay in the Journal of the American Chemical Society written by Professor Melanie Sanford about an “actions not words” approach to equity and inclusion in the chemical sciences. Students learned about career stages, academic ranks, tenure, and the process of receiving grants as well as the career implications associated with grant funding. This information provided an important context for the demographic information provided, where students observed the obvious discrepancies.

Now these students and the professor are well meaning, for who wants to perpetuate racism? But before you start accusing departments of being infested with racism (with the downside being that if they’re not, students of color will still be discouraged from applying there), try adducing some data. As I said, none are given. This thus appears to be a performative course, a course designed to show that the department was doing something about the problem. 

There is also the usual denigration of meritocracy, here in comments from students:

“In our past few meetings, a lot of people discussed their frustration at the fact that the sciences are known notoriously for being used to unfairly weed out those who are deemed less capable. Working to implement growth mindset practices everywhere could help dismantle this exclusive stereotype that looms over the field of science and deters prospective scientists from entering.”

and

“I thought our discussion about how STEM classes are often set up to ‘weed people out’ and how this creates even more exclusion in the field was interesting.”

These are tacit admissions that increasing inclusion and diversity will lower formal academic standards, and nobody who’s honest will deny that. The question is how much compromise with merit should be done to avoid “weeding people out”? And it is really bad to weed some people out if they have no talent for going on in a field? Remember, academic jobs are far scarcer than candidates. (See below.)

At any rate, this is what the course summary says it accomplished:

These three major takeaway ideas emerged from the class:

• We need to talk about racism and inclusion (a lot).

• Institutions need to truly prioritize inclusion and diversity, weave it into the core mission and budget.

• Structural racism exists, but can be dismantled

You can be the judge if the game is worth the candle here.

Now not everything the course did is questionable. For example, they’ve recommending holding seminars in chemistry that “invite seminar speakers who are not academics in an effort to make clear that training in chemistry provides a strong foundation for work in many different fields.” In the sciences, where academic jobs are far scarcer than Ph.Ds, it’s good to let people know other areas in which you can profitably use a doctorate.

But in the end, it’s not the job of science departments to give credit to students to show how their disciplines are racist—even if they can establish, as they haven’t here, that their disciplines are racist. The solutions are all the same in every department: the three points above, which aren’t really solutions that eliminate racism. What about sending students out to inner-city schools to tutor or lecture kids in chemistry? And, of course, there is always the hard problems of ensuring equality of opportunity, which is the overweening factor at play in every accusation of racism in STEM. The solution to that certainly does not lie in courses like this one. The problem is that the entry to the pipeline is narrow for some minorities, not that departments deliberately narrow the terminus of the pipeline to prevent exit.

Do we really want a color-blind society?

August 26, 2021 • 10:45 am

We all know this famous line from Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

But what sounded so glorious, so right, and so moral in 1963 isn’t going down so well today.  There are two issues.

First, is this a realizable dream given that we’re evolved and taught to see race? We’re probably also evolved to be suspicious of those who are different, but I’m confident that this can be overcome. The fact is, though, that it’s been 58 years since King limned his dream, and although there’s been substantial progress in racial equality, clearly people are still judged by the color of their skin. Those of us who grew up in the Sixties hoped, though, that even if we saw race, we could instantly ignore it, and before too long we’d have a just society—one with equal opportunity for all. We’re still far from realizing the dream. (When I say, equality, by the way, I always mean “equality of opportunity”, not, like Ibram Kendi, equality of outcome.) In other words, when you’re assessing King’s dream, ask yourself this: Would it really be good for society if we all donned magical spectacles that prevented us from knowing the race of people we encounter? (I guess we’d have to have a way to block out self-identification as well.)

More important, the activist wing of anti-racism, which I take as the view outlined by Kendi, does want people judged by the color of their skin, and then given advantages for being black. And, as far as I can see, he sees this requirement as persisting indefinitely.

In the article below, Coleman Hughes, a writer, podcaster, and fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, outlines the two opposing views of antiracism delineating them them as polar opposites. He argues that the Kingian view is far better than the Kendian view. When I started thinking about it, I thought I adhered to the Kingian side. After all, I was a child of the Sixties and demonstrated for racial equality. But in the writing of this short piece, I realized that neither view is the best way to go forward.  We have to see race, we have to take it into account, and we have to do something about it (just as we must also do something about class differences), but we don’t have to see only race, as Kendi would have it. A person is not defined by their ethnicity, or assumed to share certain traits with others of the same ethnicity, but there are still average inequities between groups. To fix them, you have to see race.

This essay is one of several that the Persuasion site is particularly proud (the list is here), and is being republished.  Click to read it.

Here are the two opposing forms of anti-racism as outlined by Hughes:

For fifty years, the American left has been torn between two different answers. The first was best encapsulated by Martin Luther King Jr. in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. King looked forward to a day when “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers”—a day when race would be seen as an insignificant attribute.

The competing vision—let’s call it race-consciousness—was best encapsulated by the Black Power movement. The end goal of this movement was not, as King once put it, to bring about a “new kind of togetherness between blacks and whites.” Rather, it was to demand that black people, understood as a collective, receive more recognition, more respect, and more resources. Underlying this vision was the assumption that society is a zero-sum power struggle between oppressed groups and oppressor groups—and that a win for the former requires a loss for the latter.

In the race-conscious vision, racial harmony is an afterthought. At times, it is actively shunned. Race-consciousness seeks to “problematize” relations between members of different ethnic groups in a variety of ways. In 2017, for instance, the New York Times ran an op-ed entitled “Can My Children Be Friends with White People?” written by a black father who planned on teaching his sons “to have profound doubts that friendship with white people is possible”—a near-perfect reversal of Dr. King’s message.

I’d maintain that, in the end, both groups are aiming for racial harmony, but differ in how it’s to be attained.

For Hughes, only the Kingian view can “deliver on its promises”, which turn out to be “more status and more access to opportunity” for minorities. He adds that it also gives white people guidelines about what to do instead of sitting around mired in guilt (I’m not sure, though, which way to act Hughes is thinking of), and also gives society a way to move forward with problems like “mass incarceration and police brutality.”

I don’t see that. Not only do we see color, but, more important, we shouldn’t ignore it, for solving these problems requires seeing it and doing something about it. Yes, a racist cop can’t beat up a black traffic violator if he “can’t see race”, but saying that “we shouldn’t see color” is not going to help us reduce the inequalities among groups. We’re a long way from seeing color but completely ignoring it.

And that’s where we have to incorporate a bit of the Kendian view (this is not a blanket endorsement of Kendi’s view on racial relations, most of which I disagree with). For if we ignore color, how does Hughes’ vision of providing equal opportunity come about?  I don’t see how it can unless we recognize that, on average, blacks and other minorities are disadvantaged by history, and that history continues to hold them back today. How do we give black children more exposure to STEM fields without explicitly going into black communities and trying to fix the problem? You can’t do that without the notion of “a black community.” Now certainly there are some privileged black kids from well-off families who don’t need a leg up, but starting with the idea that “I don’t see color” is not going to do squat about the big racial disparities.

We must act to eliminate these disparities, not just by ensuring equal opportunity, but by giving extra opportunities to minorities through some form of affirmative action. I still haven’t worked out in my head how much affirmative action is required to ensure justice, but I’m sure that without any such action, we will have no justice. Affirmative action, as I see it, is a species of reparations that are due to disadvantaged minorities to begin assuring them equal opportunity. The goal is to eventually create an equality of opportunity (not outcome, which may depend on group-specific preferences) so that affirmative action is no longer required.

Now I agree with Hughes that the way to give people equal opportunity is not, as some anti-racists suggest, to dismantle the meritocacy and lower standards so that all groups achieve Kendian “equity”: his view that groups must be represented in organizations in the same proportions they occur in the population, for if they’re not, says Kendi, this is prima facie evidence for ongoing structural racism. Of course that’s not true, as anybody in modern academia can attest, but we now have less equity than is seemly for a liberal democratic society. Whatever the solution to inequality of opportunity we adopt, it cannot involve a gross lowering of standards and expectations.  So I partly agree with this statement from Hughes, which could also have been said by John McWhorter:

Yet race-consciousness cannot deliver on its promises because its foundational assumptions are flawed. For one thing, it does not reject the old rigid racial categories so much as it transforms them, sneaking them in through the back door. If someone said that black kids should not be encouraged to work hard a hundred years ago, it was probably because they were racist. If someone says the same thing today, it’s almost certainly because they are “anti-racist.” But any political program that insists that black people be held to a lower standard will never be able to bring black achievement up to those same rejected standards—and thus will struggle mightily to address racial disparity.

The solution is not to hold minorities to lower standards, but to remedy any disparities in education, treatment, and the like, until everyone cam be held to the same high standards.

The other thing I agree with Hughes about is that we’ve made substantial progress in race relations in eighty years:

But this underplays how much progress we have already made. Back in the early 1970s, the NYPD killed 91 people in a single year. In 2018, they killed five. Since 2001, the national incarceration rate for black men ages 18-29 has been cut by more than half. Most people don’t know this. As a result, they imagine that the system must be overturned in order for progress to occur. But though there are, of course, still a lot of injustices in today’s America, they are wrong.

The current system, warts and all, has enabled huge progress for black people in recent decades. Overturning the liberal principles on which our institutions are based would not hasten progress towards racial equality; it would threaten the very stability that is required for incremental progress to occur.

But which way do we go to push that progress to King’s goal line:? I see a compromise between the Kingian and Kendian paths. We must recognize racial differences between people, for without that recognition we can’t arrive at equality of opportunity.  And then we must roll up our sleeves and do the really hard work: reallocation of funds, tutoring, and sensitive but rigorous teaching. And yes, reparations, but in the form of affirmative action, not money or housing vouchers. It will take years, and it will take sacrifice—substantial financial sacrifice by white people. Moving rocks or renaming buildings, however well intentioned these actions be, is not the way forward.

But if we do these things, will we eventually realize King’s dream? My youthful optimism is no longer so strong. Not only are people more interested in performative gestures than in substantial social reform—reform that requires sacrifice—but the diversity and equity industry is so well established in the media, in the arts, in business, and academia, that I believe they’re here for keeps. Even if, some fine day, we do arrive at an equality of opportunity that has nothing to do with pigmentation, the people in the DEI industry will be unwilling to admit that we’ve arrived, for they have to keep their jobs. And as we’ve learned, almost anything can be judged racist in an attempt to gain power, and the fear of being so judged will also contribute to impeding racial equality.

These are random thoughts, and I had no idea what I’d write when I started this. (It is, after all, a website, not a magazine piece.)

I’d recommend reading Hughes’s piece and then I’d ask you to weigh in below.

McWhorter back in form, speaks truth to wokeness in the NY Times

August 25, 2021 • 9:15 am

I was afraid that when John McWhorter ditched his Substack site to write twice weekly for the New York Times, he would tone down some of his strong critiques of woke anti-racism. Apparently he hasn’t, as you can tell from his latest op-ed. (Try clicking below; it’s supposed to be for NYT subscribers but you might get free access, or see it via judicious inquiry).

This piece was even the top of the editorial column yesterday afternoon:

You probably know the story. On the University of Wisconsin campus there used to be a big glacial boulder (I’ve seen it) that was called “niggerhead rock”—exactly one time, by a local newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal, in 1925.  Here’s that single reference, and archivists have been unable to find another printed usage of that racist name:

Since then, the 42-ton hunk of stone has been known as “Chamberlin Rock” after Thomas Chamberlin, a geologist and former university president. It’s sort of a local landmark, and this is what it looked like in situ.

Photo: Wisconsin State Journal archives

Despite the n-word being used once, and 96 years ago, it apparently has rankled some black students, as the Wisconsin State Journal Reports:

The Wisconsin Black Student Union called for the rock’s removal over the summer. President Nalah McWhorter said the rock is a symbol of the daily injustices that students of color face on a predominantly white campus.

“This is a huge accomplishment for us,” she said on Wednesday. “We won’t have that constant reminder, that symbol that we don’t belong here.”

McWhorter also faulted the Wisconsin State Journal for printing the vulgarity in a 1925 news article.

University historians identified the news story as the only known instance of the offensive term being used. It’s unclear whether or for how long people on campus referred to the boulder as “Niggerhead Rock.” The term itself appears to have fallen out of common usage by the 1950s.

Kacie Butcher, the university’s public history project director, told the Campus Planning Committee that there may be other records beyond the State Journal story, but locating them is difficult because archived records are not well organized. What is well-documented during that time period, however, is the Klu Klux Klan’s active presence in Madison. Campus satire publications and comedy skits also mocked and dehumanized people of color.

Butcher told the committee that the rock’s removal presents an opportunity to prioritize students of color and engage in complex conversations.

Do you get a whiff of dissimulation here?

So the University administration ordered the rock, apparently now seen as a “racist monument” to be removed so the students could “begin healing.” As Spectrum News 1 reports, this was done on orders of the Chancellor herself. The rock now reposes in a distant locale:

After a process of recommendations, Chancellor Rebecca Blank approved removing it from its home on Observatory Hill. Her approval was necessary because it’s within 15 feet of a Native American burial site.

“Removing the rock as a monument in a prominent location prevents further harm to our community, while preserving the rocks [sic] educational research value for our current and future school students,” Brown said.

Friday morning, a crew started the process using harnesses around the boulder to lift it with a large crane. They began just before 7 a.m., and finished up after 11 that morning.

The rock will be moved to UW-Madison property on Lake Kegonsa, where university geologists and researchers can still have access to it.

Here’s the offending boulder being removed, probably at substantial cost (photo from the University of Wisconsin News):

The removal was a painstaking process that lasted just over four hours. Here, workers from JP Cullen and Dawes Rigging & Crane Rental maneuver the rock into position above the flatbed truck that would haul it to  university-owned land southeast of Madison near Lake Kegonsa. PHOTO: BRYCE RICHTER

To anyone with sense, removing the rock because it offends students based on a name used just once, is insane. The normal reaction to those students, and to the chancellor who ordered the rock’s removal to placate the offended, would be “Get a grip, people!”.  And, in fact, that’s exactly McWhorter’s message in his NY Times piece. He even calls it a “niggerhead” rock, printing out the word that, said the Times not long ago, couldn’t be used because intent doesn’t matter, only the effect of the word on people.

McWhorter’s piece is excellent, full of sarcasm, thoughtful analyis and good writing. And most of all, it says the thing that we all want to say when we see such reprehensible and ineffective acts of performative wokeness (but can’t say it unless we’re black):

The students essentially demanded that an irrational, prescientific kind of fear — that a person can be meaningfully injured by the dead — be accepted as insight. They imply that the rock’s denotation of racism is akin to a Confederate statue’s denotation of the same, neglecting the glaringly obvious matter of degree here — as in, imagine pulling down a statue upon finding that the person memorialized had uttered a single racist thing once in his or her life.

. . . If the presence of that rock actually makes some people desperately uncomfortable, they need counseling. And as such, we can be quite sure that these students were acting. Few can miss that there is a performative aspect in the claim that college campuses, perhaps the most diligently antiracism spaces on the planet, are seething with bigotry. The Wisconsin rock episode was a textbook demonstration of the difference between sincere activism and playacting, out of a desire to join the civil rights struggle in a time when the problems are so much more abstract than they once were.

How many of us, even though most of us believe it, would stay that the offending were acting, weren’t really offended, and were engaged in a grab for power? Or that they need counseling if they were that offended?  But of course a big share of blame falls on the cowardly administrators who caved into the students’ ridiculous demand (all bolding is McWhorter’s).

The true fault here lies with the school’s administration, whose deer tails popped up as they bolted into the forest, out of a fear of going against the commandments of what we today call antiracism, which apparently includes treating Black people as simpletons and thinking of it as reckoning.

True wokeness would have been to awaken to the tricky but urgent civic responsibility of, when necessary, calling out Black people on nonsense. Yes, even Black people can be wrong. As the Black professor Randall Kennedy of Harvard Law puts it in his upcoming “Say It Loud!”: “Blacks, too, have flaws, sometimes glaringly so. These weaknesses may be the consequence of racist mistreatment. But they are weaknesses nonetheless.” To pretend this is never the case where racism is concerned is not to reckon but to dehumanize.

But wait! There’s more!

Let us remember: The point here is treating a rock as psychologically damaging because of something someone dug up written about it at a time when people lived without antibiotics, television or McDonald’s. And yes, people often called big rocks and other things that ugly name in those days. But by that logic, we should be lifting away thousands of rocks nationwide. Note the perfect absurdity of an idea that America is “coming to terms” with racism by having cranes laboring all over the country moving boulders to different spots.

. . .My message here is not that the students should have just hit the books and kept their chinny chins up. Black America has problems that cannot be solved via personal initiative alone, and young people eager to help change the world are to be lauded for addressing them. If the Black students who had that rock pulled away do tutoring with Black kids in Madison’s more challenged public schools or get behind police reform efforts in the same city, then they deserve all due support. (I’d even consider giving them school credit for it.)

But the rock episode was settling for performance art and calling it antiracism. Kabuki as civil rights — it’s fake, it’s self-involved, and it helps no one. Yes, racism persists in our society in many ways, and administrators serving up craven condescension as antiracism are fine examples of it.

Them’s strong words, especially from the New York Times. In fact, I haven’t seen anything even close to it in several years. Remember, the NYT fired science reporter Don McNeil for simply saying the n-word in a didactic manner on a New York Times foreign excursion with students. He didn’t even print it, but here McWhorter prints “niggerhead”, and the word stays as a whole. How did he get away with it? Well, for one thing, McWhorter is black.

But the important thing is not just that he got away with it, but he got away with slapping down The Pretend Offended and calling them what they are: students who act out an outrage that’s not really felt. And the University of Wisconsin Administration also gets a trip to the woodshed. How refreshing to see a piece like this published in the New York Times! Is this a harbinger of change? Will the paper let McWhorter say exactly what he wants from now on, or is he doomed to be let go? (I can’t imagine he’d follow any orders to “tone it down.”) Stay tuned.

JAMA and race

August 23, 2021 • 10:45 am

The Journal of the American Medical Association has published a 6-page article about how to incorporate race and ethnicity into medical reporting. It’s not bad as far as it goes; in fact there’s only one thing wrong with it, but to me it seems like a big thing. Read by clicking on the screenshot below; you can also download a pdf file at the site.

They first define “race” and “ethnicity” by using the Oxford English Dictionary, which is the way I’d go about it. Here are their definitions:

The Oxford English Dictionary currently defines race as “a group of people connected by common descent or origin” or “any of the (putative) major groupings of mankind, usually defined in terms of distinct physical features or shared ethnicity” and ethnicity as “membership of a group regarded as ultimately of common descent, or having a common national or cultural tradition.” For example, in the US, ethnicity has referred to Hispanic or Latino, Latina, or Latinx people.

Although these definitions are overlapping, since they both incorporate people of “common descent”, one (or at least I) tend to think of “race” as the assertion, now known to be wrong, that humanity is divided up into a finite number of physically and genetically well-demarcated groups. (This claim historically went along with the assertion that there’s more genetic variation between “racial” groups than within those groups, we now know that that is absolutely wrong; within-group variation hugely predominates). Nevertheless, one can show by using data from many genes and gene sites, and clustering algorithms, that humanity can be shown to form genetic clusters that correspond to geography, which of course corresponds to evolutionary history.

But the issue is that there are clusters within clusters within clusters, and where you draw the line and say “this cluster” is a “race” is purely subjective. That’s why I don’t like the term “race”, as it’s too freighted with biological misconceptions as well as social assumptions and, of course, the use of “race” as a way to divide and rank people. .

“Ethnicity” is a different matter, as it’s not freighted, and although the definition above conflates ancestry with “cultural tradition”, they’re often connected. But for biological purposes I’d stick with ancestry, which of course refers to shared genes.

What I object to in the JAMA article is this sentence (I’ve put it in bold):

Race and ethnicity are social constructs, without scientific or biological meaning.

This is not so much flat wrong as grossly misleading. For example, I just cited the paper of Rosenberg et al., which shows that the genetic endowment of human groups correlates significantly to their geographical location (for example, if you choose to partition human genetic variation into five groups (how many groups you choose is arbitrary), you get a pretty clear demarcation between people from Africa, from Europe, from East Asia, from Oceania, and from the Americas. (To show further grouping, if you choose six groups, the Kalash people of Asia pop up). This is one reason why companies like 23 And Me stay in business.

This association of location with genetic clustering (and these geographic clusters do correspond to old “classical” notions of race) is not without scientific meaning, because the groupings represent the history of human migration and genetic isolation. That’s why these groups form in the first place. Now you can call these groups “ethnic groups” instead of “races”, or just “geographic groups” (frankly, you could call them almost anything, though, as I said, I avoid “race), but they show something profound about human history. The statement in bold above could be used to dismiss that meaning, which is why I consider that statement misleading.

As I said, there are groups within groups. Even within Europe, a paper by Novembre et al. reported, using half a million DNA sites, 50% of individuals could be placed within 310 km of their reported origin and 90% within 700 km of their origin.. And that’s just within Europe (read the paper for more details). Again, this reflects a history of limited movement of Europeans between generations.  Finally, in terms of “self identification”,  Tang et al., using just 326 markers, performed a genetic cluster analysis and identified four groups that matched nearly perfectly with the “racial” self-identification of people given four choices (white, African-American, East Asian, and Hispanic). Here’s what they found:

Of 3,636 subjects of varying race/ ethnicity, only 5 (0.14%) showed genetic cluster membership different from their self-identified race/ethnicity. On the other hand, we detected only modest genetic differentiation between different current geographic locales within each race/ethnicity group. Thus, ancient geographic ancestry, which is highly correlated with self-identified race/ ethnicity—as opposed to current residence—is the major determinant of genetic structure in the U.S. population.

That is, there is almost perfect correspondence between what “race” (or ethnic group)  Americans consider themselves to be and the identification of groups using observed genetic differences. Because these are Americans, and move around more, the genetics reflect ancestry more closely than geography, though in Europe geographic origin is also important.

I needn’t point out that the morphological traits that we use to distinguish people from different areas also reflect genetic differences, including facial characteristics, hair color and texture, eye shape, and, of course, pigmentation. These are based on genetic differences. Of course this doesn’t mean there is a “Caucasian race” distinguishable by morphology, but simply that the way we have divided up humanity is not without biological meaning. (What these differences mean, and how they evolved, is of course, obscure.) Again, there is biological meaning in ethnicity, if you see ethnicity as reflecting groups having common evolutionary descent.

Finally, as we all know, different ethnic groups have different incidence of genetic diseases, and these reflect genetic differences among groups. West African blacks and their descendants in the U.S. are, for example, more prone to sickle-cell disease than those of other groups. Ditto for Tay-Sachs disease and Ashkenazi Jews. Of course these diseases are not found only within the ethnic groups, but there are significant difference in the incidence of diseases, and thus in the gene forms causing those diseases, among these groups. If you consider West African or Ashkenazi Jews as “ethnic groups”, which they are according to the definition above, then yes, ethnicity has a biological meaning, which reflects evolutionary history and common ancestry (if you don’t know the sickle-cell story, you should look it up).

The article goes into all kinds of nuances about how to report race (self-report seems to be the best way), and I don’t have much of a beef with their classification or how it’s to be used. EXCEPT that they recommend recording race not as a way to aid in diagnoses and genetic counseling (if two Ashkenazi Jews came to an obstetrician, she’d probably recommend they be tested to see if they were Tay-Sachs carriers, but she wouldn’t recommend the same for blacks) but as a way to ensure “equity” of treatment and accurate reporting of the incidence of diseases.

The article’s underlying rationale for recording race at all is that although (as they claim) race or ethnicity has nothing to do with biology, it does have to do with socioeconomic factors like racism, “disparities and inequities” and “intersectionality”, and those factors may play a role in disease.  Note that class is not even mentioned, even though that surely plays a big role as well. But to ignore ethnicity except insofar as it (supposedly) closely correlates with health-related socioeconomic conditions is to not only overlook genetic data correlated with disease, but also to make unwarranted assumptions—that all members of an ethnic group are likely to share socioeconomic factors causal in disease.

I guess what bothers me the most about this article, besides the ignoring of genetic factors in favor of socioeconomic ones, is the claim that there is no biological significance of “race” or “ethnicity”. Depending on how you define these terms, that’s misleading. And if you use a “common ancestry” definition of either word, it’s just wrong. The claims that race and ethnicity are social constructs having nothing to do with biology overlooks a whole world of genetics, evolution, and demographics. It’s a phrase that hides what interests many of us about variation among groups in the human population. (For another take on genetic differences between groups that reflect evolution via different local adaptations, see this short note by Sarah Tishkoff, which shows that many interesting and important adaptations vary among ethnic groups.)

In other words, what bothers me is the idea, reflected in the statement in bold above, that all humanity is genetically the same. This is a mantra of much of the Left, reflecting a repugnance towards biological determinism and a sense that humans are almost infinitely malleable. But humans are genetically not the same, whether you’re talking about differences between ethnic groups or between men and women. It’s time that we face the data and admit this, and also realize that recognizing group differences is not at all the same as admitting that some groups are “better” than others. The assumption that the recognition of differences will automatically lead to ranking and then to bigotry is the mistaken conflation that produces articles like the one in JAMA.

As Richard Feynman said in another context (the Challenger disaster), “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.” .

h/t: Bill

_______________

Flanagin A, Frey T, Christiansen SL, AMA Manual of Style Committee. Updated Guidance on the Reporting of Race and Ethnicity in Medical and Science JournalsJAMA. 2021;326(7):621–627. doi:10.1001/jama.2021.13304

McWhorter’s second NYT column: better, but still no cigar

August 22, 2021 • 12:15 pm

John McWhorter, on top of everything else he does, has agreed to write two substantial essays a week for the New York Times. I discussed the first one recently, and found it wanting. It was about the origins of the term “woke,” and while it was worth reading and surely instructive, it was simply too long. And that is the problem with this week’s column, too, which is about the tortuous history of a black opera that fell into the hands of white lyricists and musicians.

McWhorter, who writes very well, surely deserves a column in the NYT, and not just as a palliative for the paper’s toxic wokeness, but because he has thoughtful things to say. But, as I feared, writing two longish pieces per week for the paper simply can’t be done well on top of all the other columns, video podcasting, and book writing he does, not to mention his regular academic duties at Columbia.  It’s simply too much. I have my fingers crossed, but I fear that for McWhorter, something’s gotta give.

His “newsletter” at the NYT is accessible only to those who subscribe to the paper, and you won’t be able to see it even as part of the five-free-articles deal they have (or whatever the number is now). But if you do subscribe, you can see the article by clicking on the screenshot:

 

The answer to McWhorter’s question is “yes”, but he doesn’t think black people will necessary like the opera (it has music written by white men, and uses a lot of black jargon), which in its present incarnation McWhorter loves. Let’s briefly go through the gyrations of this piece:

a. Black writer Arna Bontemps wrote a novel called God Sends Sunday in 1931. Its subject was the love between a black jockey and a beautiful woman. It’s not seen as his best work.

b. In collaboration with Harlem Renaissance authors Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes, the book was made into a play, as many popular novels were at the time. The play was called “St. Louis Woman” and it fizzled.

c. The authors decided to gussy up the play with music, and called in the great musical writers Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, both white men. But the musical version fizzled as well, though, as McWhorter said, the music is sublime, and “When I first heard this recording at 24, if I had hairs on the back of my neck they would have been standing up.”

d. In the late 1950s, Arlen and Mercer turned “St. Louis Woman” into a piece called “Blues Opera.” According to McWhorter, this was a really good work:

Anyone could hear that this music deserved another chance, and in the late 1950s, Arlen and Mercer transformed “St. Louis Woman” into “Blues Opera.” And I mean “transformed” — we’re talking recitatives, leitmotifs, ensembles and even a murder: opera. There are times when you’d almost think you were at Strauss’ “Salome,” the scoring is so rich; there is even an atonal tango, for goodness’ sake. And a sword dance.

Yet all of this is written in the musical language of the blues and jazz. The motifs are ever morphing, as if improvised — Arlen was good at this, writing pop songs like “Right as the Rain,” that feel organic and accessible and yet never repeat a phrase. Black-born music served up with a busy classical orchestra? You first think of “Porgy and Bess.” But this is different: Blacker, frankly. With “Porgy and Bess,” George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward grafted Black idioms onto the idioms of Debussy and Ravel. Arlen and Mercer let the Blackness flow purely — my synesthetic take on the score is that it’s Maryland blue crab so flavorful it makes you sneeze.

e. Sadly, “Blues Opera” didn’t come off, and was actually shown only in Europe.

f. Now, the opera has been partly reworked by John Mauceri and Michael Gildin, and it still is in statu nascendi. As McWhorter says, “when do we get to see it?”.

Well, we don’t know. McWhorter says that a lot of “Black English” is used in the play and the songs, and perhaps people would object to that, even though he says that “Blues Opera” got it about 99 percent right, and Mauceri and Gildin have brought someone in to fix the rest” (it was McWhorter!)

McWhorter finishes by discussing previous attempts by white writers to create black plays, like “Porgy and Bess” (they should also mention “Showboat”). He argues that “Porgy and Bess” does not deserve damnation for being written by whites, as the music is great. His point is that we shouldn’t demand that “black art” be created only by black artists, just as white art shouldn’t be created only by white artists:

“Porgy and Bess” and “Carmen Jones” have both had their days in the sun recently, and as the world opens back up, producers, directors, and performers are likely to be on the hunt for other shows that speak to the Black experience. And to be sure, there are operas written by Black people that are also deserving: I recommend H. Lawrence Freeman’s “Voodoo,” William Grant Still and Langston Hughes’s “Troubled Island,” and Anthony Davis’s opera about Malcolm X (yes, in 1986!).

But there’s also “Blues Opera” waiting for us. It deserves — nay, needs — a good look and listen. To experience it as merely something “white” is to deny the roiling essence of what America has been — and is.

As far as McWhorter’s essay goes, it’s okay, well written and fairly absorbing, but perhaps not of general interest. It’s too long and a bit discursive. I hope McWhorter finds his groove in his biweekly essays, but I think that he’ll have to let some other stuff go if that’s to happen.

By the way, the page where you’re supposed to sign up to get access to his column at the NYT doesn’t seem to show his column. It should be under “newsletters,” so I don’t now what’s going on.

To end: a great song from the opera “Porgy and Bess”, written by George Gershwin “with a libretto written by author DuBose Heyward and lyricist Ira Gershwin.” (Gershwin, by the way, died at only 38 of a brain tumor. Imagine the music that we would have if he’d lived!)