Why can’t you be transracial?

August 2, 2023 • 11:30 am

A while back there was some discussion about whether people could claim that they were members of a race/ethnicity other than the one they were born into. The paradigmatic example was Rachel Dolezal, a white woman in Spokane, Washington who claimed to be black, and altered her appearance to match her claims. She worked her way up to the presidency of the local NAACP before she was outed by her family and the press. She was thereby fired from the NAACP, and hugely demonized for pretending she was black. It became clear that “transracialism” was not something one could do, in huge contrast with claiming one is transgender, which is not only largely accepted but lauded.

My first reaction was to believe Dolezal’s claim that she did feel she was black, and so why was she demonized in contrast to a natal woman who claims that she really is a man trapped in a woman’s body? There doesn’t seem to be a fundamental philosophical or moral difference between transracialism and transgenderism so long as the claimant expresses honest feelings. Sure, you can make up reasons why slight differences would render the former unacceptable, but they’re just made-up reasons to somehow defend the sanctity of race. To see the lengths people will go to demonize transracialism, read some of the arguments in the NBC News article below.

The philosophical similarity of transgenderism and transracialism was thoroughly discussed by philosopher Rebecca Tuvel in the journal Hypatia in a 2017 article called “In Defense of Transracialism,” (see my take here), and Tuvel was instantly demonized, with the journal’s editor apologizing on Facebook and petitions circulating calling for the article’s retraction. This is all because, in a philosophical analysis, Tuvel didn’t find a substantive difference between transsexualism and transracialism. Here’s her abstract and a footnote:

(Note Tuvel’s footnote when you read the critiques of transracialism in the article below.)

And yes, I agree with Tuvel. If society deems it okay to assume the trappings of a sex other than your natal sex, then they should also accept one who assumes the trappings of a race different from their natal race, so long as the transracial persona comes from honest motivations. After all, both gender and race are said to be social constructs (they aren’t, but it’s irrelevant)(, so why is it okay to change gender but not change race? The only reason I see is that “race” is seen as somehow sacrosanct, even though, like sex, it’s something you’re born with (both natal sex and race actually have biological realities). Race is such a touchy and divisive topic these days that it’s apparently regarded as something that an individual cannot change, even if, like Dolezal, you’re transitioning from a “privileged” race to a “minoritized one.”  And this is often the direction in which it goes.

This controversy is the subject of this NBC News article. Click to read:

The upshot is that many people are now trying to assume a new race—most of them young women, and most of them trying to become East Asian.  This is often done by some numinous method called “subliminals,” whereby you can change your appearance by listening to audio files. That’s hokum, of course, but let’s ignore that and look at the arguments against people who feel they’re Asian and want others to accept them as such. Or against those who want to change their natal race to anything at all. NBC News doesn’t quote a single person in the article who says that this change is okay. Quotes from the article are indented:

Practitioners of what they call “race change to another,” or RCTA, purport to be able to manifest physical changes in their appearance and even their genetics to become a different race. They tune in to subliminal videos that claim can give them an “East Asian appearance” or “Korean DNA.”

But experts underscore that it is simply impossible to change your race.

“It’s just belief,” said Jamie Cohen, an assistant professor of cultural and media studies at Queens College, City University of New York. “It doesn’t ever really work, because it’s not doing anything, but they have convinced themselves that it works because there’s other people who have convinced themselves, as well.”

Well, maybe you’re not changing your genetics to correspond with the ethnic groups we call “races”, but neither are transgender (sometimes called “transsexual”) people changing their gametes. It’s changing your persona, and you can do that with race as easily as you can with gender. Cohen’s argument is simply incoherent, because both transgenderism and transsexualism are “just belief”!

Here’s another argument:

Experts agree race is not genetic. But they contend that even though race is a cultural construct, it is impossible to change your race because of the systemic inequalities inherent to being born into a certain race.

David Freund, a historian of race and politics and an associate professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, corroborates the idea that a “biological race” does not exist. What we know today as “race” is a combination of inherited characteristics and cultural traditions passed down through generations, he said.

In addition, Freund said, the modern concept of race is inseparable from the systemic racial hierarchy hundreds of years in the making. Simply put, changing races is not possible, because “biological races” themselves are not real.

Freund added that the idea of changing one’s race operates differently depending on a person’s racial background and that white people who seek to “transition” to other races can often sidestep the harms of racism.

First of all, as Luana and I show in our Skeptical Inquirer article, race (even in its crudest classification) does have a polygenic basis: races and ethnicities conform very well to cluster analysis based on many genes. And of course sex devolves to a activated genes that set off a pathway resulting in whether you have the equipment to make sperm or eggs. Biology is key in forming both one’s natal ethnicity and natal sex.  So if you can change one because you’re uncomfortable, why can’t you change the other? (By “change”, of course, I mean “change the claim of what you are”, not change the reality of your biological sex and race.)

So Freund is wrong about that.  But what about the sex hierarchy of women’s inferiority that was also hundreds of years in the making? Again, though, I don’t see the relevance of a “hierarchy” argument, especially because most people who want to change their race are going from white to a “person of color”—the direction of accruing more bigotry. (Apparently black people “passing for white” because of their light skin is not so bad, except in the Jim Crow South that adhered to the “one drop” rule.)

Another critic:

Kevin Nadal, a professor of psychology at City University of New York, said: “There is a privilege in being able to change your race or to say that you’re changing your race. There are many people who would be unable to ever change their race. Particularly, Black people in this country would be unable to say all of a sudden ‘I’m white’ and be treated with the same privileges that white people have.”

Again the argument doesn’t make sense. People who want to change their race, like Dolezal, meet with huge opposition.  While there are indeed transphobes, the general tenor of liberal thought is to accept someone’s claim that their self-identified gender differs from their natal gender.  Again, why does race differ? Sure, it’s hard for a black person to claim that they’re white if their pigmentation and other traits are obviously black, but that’s also the case for many natal men who claim that their identity is that of a women but still look like men.  In both cases one can accept the change of persona while still recognizing the natal origins of someone. (To be polite, though, one should address someone as they wish to be addressed and identified—except in cases like sports and prisons, where natal sex should be recognized.)

One more:

Tiq Milan, a Black transgender activist and writer, said it is a disservice to transgender people to compare the two. Race historically emerged as a social construct to establish a racial hierarchy with the white race at the top, whereas variances in gender identity have existed for thousands of years, he said.

“When it comes to who we are as racialized people, it is how we present to the world, but it’s also how people treat you,” Milan said. “It’s not just putting on the hair and the makeup and talking and walking [in] a kind of way. That is fetishizing, and it’s objectifying, and it reduces the beautiful and complicated cultures of people of color.”

First, I don’t think race was “constructed” to establish a hierarchy; as far as I know, race wasn’t used by the ancient Romans or Egyptians to rank ethnicities, and at any rate Egyptians aren’t white.  Of course recognition of different types of both ethnicity and gender have existed for thousands of years. But that seems irrelevant too, as does the “beautiful and complicated cultures of people of color” (is this an implication that people of no color have inferior cultures?).  All that matters to me is that people can claim either a gender or an ethnicity different from their natal condition, and if there are good reasons for this, and it’s not a hoax but a real feeling, why should race and sex differ?

It goes on, but not one person was asked to defend transracialism. (Why didn’t they call Rebecca Tuvel?)

In the end, my view is that if you’re going to go along with people’s claims that they’re of a different natal gender than their natal sex, then there’s no reason not to do the same with race or ethnicity. It may be harder for race if natal race is obvious, but it’s often hard for transgender people too, like accepting the claim of a natal man with a mustache and penis that he’s of female gender.

Now in neither case do we have to accept the reality of claims like “I’m a woman” from a natal man or “I’m an East Asian” from a natal white person. But I think it’s entirely possible to identify with a race other than your natal race, and we should treat those who do so the same as we do transgender folks.

The only difference I can see is that there are racial set-asides, as in affirmative action, and it seems unfair to say you’re black when you were born white just to take advantage of these. But such set-asides are disappearing, and really shouldn’t exist at all. And remember that there are female set-asides as well, and those also seem unfair. Most of us think that a transgender woman should not be able to compete on female athletic teams.

Perhaps the readers can find a relevant philosophical difference for treating transracialism different from transsexualism.  I don’t fully understand why they’re treated differently, nor do the explanations above clarify things for me. It seems to pivot on the centrality of race in public discourse, but even that isn’t very helpful since biological sex and trangenderism are also hot topics these days.

For a sarcastic take on the NBC article, read the Not The Bee piece below (click to read, h/t Luana):


The National Academies post a position statement on affirmative action, followed by an email exchange between Steven Pinker and NA President Marcia McNutt

July 17, 2023 • 11:00 am

Note: This post originally was to include both Steve Pinker’s emails to National Academies President Marcia McNutt as well as her responses to Pinker (two from each), but in the end she decided that she did not want her emails reproduced here. (Both she and Pinker were sent my introduction given below.) Pinker, however, gave me permission to reproduce his.  You can try to infer McNutt’s response from Steve’s second email.

Steve sent the first email in response to the “National Academies Presidents Statement on Affirmative Action” below.


Intro (by JAC):

On June 30, the Presidents of our three National Academies issued a joint statement on the Supreme Court decision handed down the day before, the decision that found race-based admissions in universities unconstitutional. Affirmative action, at least as we’d known it for six decades, was dead.

In response to this decision, Marcia McNutt, President of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), John L. Anderson, President of the National Academy of Engineering, and Victor J. Dzau, President, National Academy of Medicine, issued the statement below. Because it’s on the home page of the National Academies website, was co-signed by all three presidents, is labeled “National Academies’ Presidents’ Statement” rather than “Opinion,” and lacks the standard disclaimer that the views expressed are those of the writers and not the organization, it’s natural to read it as an official position. I thus take it as an official position of the Academies and not just a personal expression of the Presidents’ sentiments.

National Academies Presidents’ Statement on Affirmative Action

Statement | June 30, 2023

Yesterday the Supreme Court issued a ruling to restrict affirmative action that will present challenges to efforts to diversify the nation’s colleges and universities. We strongly believe that the nation should remain committed to these efforts and find solutions that address racial inequities, including past and current racial discrimination and structural, systemic, and institutional racism in education.

A 2011 National Academies report stated that policies that have included affirmative action are fundamentally important to increasing the participation of members of historically underrepresented racial and ethnic minority groups at the postsecondary level across all fields (NASEM, 2011, p. 100). The report further states that increasing their participation and success contributes to the health of the nation by expanding the science and engineering talent pool, enhancing innovation, and improving the nation’s global economic leadership (NASEM, 2011, p. 3). A National Academies report issued in February 2023 recommends that leaders of organizations, including colleges and universities, take action to redress both individual bias and discrimination as well as review their own processes to determine whether they perpetuate negative outcomes for people from underrepresented racial and ethnic minority groups at critical points of access and advancement (NASEM, 2023, pp. 14-15).

It is essential that our nation extend the opportunity for a college education to all, enhance diverse learning experiences for all students, and create equitable pathways to grow a highly skilled workforce and to solve our most complex problems. Diversity is crucial to the success of our society and our economy.

We must also remain committed to advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts within our own institution. We will continue to examine the implications of the decision for our staff and our work as an institution, our relationships with partners and volunteers, and our essential work of providing evidence-based advice to the nation on issues related to science, engineering, and medicine.

Marcia McNutt
President, National Academy of Sciences 

John L. Anderson
President, National Academy of Engineering 

Victor J. Dzau
President, National Academy of Medicine 

This statement could not be issued by my own school, the University of Chicago, as it violates the position of institutional neutrality laid out by our 1967 Kalven Report, which forbids our school from making official statements about politics, ideology, and morality unless they are essential to bolstering the university’s function: teaching, learning, and researching. (Our own five-line statement supporting equal opportunity and access for minority groups, while saying that we’re committed to affirmative action, says nothing about the Supreme Court decision, nor have we issued a statement about it.) The Kalven Report was issued because official statements by University officials or departments could be seen as chilling the speech of those who disagree with these positions. (Unofficial and personal statements, of course, are encouraged as free speech, but official statements impede free speech.)

The National Academies’ (NAs’) statement violates institutional neutrality in several ways. First, it is clearly a response to the Supreme Court decision, and to any reasonable individual says “that decision was wrong”. The first two paragraphs lay out why it was wrong, including the NAS’s belief that the Court’s decision presents “challenges” to the NAs’ policy to address and rectify “racial inequities”, and notes the NAs’ previous claim that affirmative action was “fundamentally important” in rectifying these inequities.

Another reason why this political statement couldn’t pass muster at Chicago is because it asserts as fact tendentious propositions like the value of affirmative action and the causation of minority underrepresentation as “past and current racial discrimination and structural, systemic, and institutional racism in education.” Again, this statement can be debated, particularly the part about existing structural, systemic, and institutional racism.

Further, the last paragraph urges people—I presume members of the NA—to engage in advancing “diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts within our own institution.” That now-familiar phrase does not, of course, refer to the abstract goals of diversity, inclusion, and equity per se, which are unexceptionable, but to a specific set of policies employed in many universities and other institutions that include affirmative action, reporting of data on racial composition, and race-conscious orientation and training sessions.

As such, this call for action again establishes an official policy, which is especially problematic because NA members are being adjured to advance “equity” in the recent sense of representation of groups in proportion to their presence in the American population. Given other causes of deviations from the population average besides bigotry (e.g., differences in preference or education), it’s debatable whether “equity” in the statistical sense is what we should be striving for instead of equal opportunity. Either way, what we have here is apparently an official endorsement of a particular political position: affirmative action was right; the Supreme Court was wrong; all discrepancies from population statistics are caused by bias; and we must keep striving to match institutional racial proportions to national ones. In taking a particular moral position—and note that both Steve Pinker and I agree with more limited ways to boost ethnic diversity, but disagree with institutional statements about such issues—the NAS is violating institutional neutrality. The Academies were created and tasked (and are still tasked) not with taking sides on ideological issues, but, as Steve notes below, to provide “independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology”.

Finally, note the assertion that “diversity” is crucial to the success of colleges, our economy and society. What kind of diversity? The only kind mentioned is diversity of “racial and ethnic minority groups.” But other kinds of diversity may be even more important to the advancement of science, particularly diversity of viewpoints (the members of a given ethnic group, of course, don’t all share a single viewpoint!), political orientation, religion, and socioeconomic status.  Again, the Supreme Court made this point in its decision:

A benefit to a student who overcame racial discrimination, for example, must be tied to that student’s courage and determination. Or a benefit to a student whose heritage or culture motivated him or her to assume a leadership role or attain a particular goal must be tied to that student’s unique ability to contribute to the university. In other words, the student must be treated based on his or her experiences as an individual—not on the basis of race. Many universities have for too long done just the opposite. And in doing so, they have concluded, wrongly, that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned but the color of their skin. Our constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.

This joint statement, then, makes a number of tendentious points that, in toto, would chill the speech of NA members who disagree.  This violates any institutional neutrality that the National Academies have—or should have based on its mission statement, which says that the job of the NAS is not to promote ideological positions but to provide scientific advice to the government.

And, as Steve points out below, taking political positions like this (again, a position that both Steve and I agree with to some extent) runs the danger of alienating the public, whether those statements be Left- or Right-wing. I recently posted about a survey in Nature showing that the magazine’s political endorsement of Biden for U.S. President (a one-off endorsement) led Republicans to be more distrustful not just of the journal, but of science in general.

It is for these reasons that scientific journals and organizations should remain as far away as possible from ideological, moral, and political statements. While editors and scientists may feel compelled to inject their opinions into official venues, they are best made in statements clearly labeled as “opinion” (and distinguished from official positions of the organization), as their overall effect on science is negative—both in chilling the speech of scientists and eroding public trust in science.  While I encourage scientists to express their own views on these issues, it should always be done in personal-opinion statements that don’t carry the imprimatur of institutions like the NAS.

In response to the statement above, Steven Pinker, a Member of the National Academy of Sciences, had an email exchange with Marcia McNutt, the NAS President  (His emails were copied to the Presidents of the other two Academies as well.)

There were two back-and-forths between Pinker and McNutt. Steve gave permission to put up his emails here, but Dr. McNutt decided not to have her emails published.

Although it will become clear that I agree with Steve’s point of view in this exchange (after all, I’ve been defending the Kalven Report for years), I am posting this material to begin a discussion about diversity, about affirmative action, and about institutional neutrality. I invite readers to go through this post and give their opinions in the comments.  All I can say now is that McNutt and Pinker were in unanimity about some matters, but differed strongly about others.

Pinker’s emails:

From: Pinker, Steven <pinker@wjh.harvard.edu>
Sent: Monday, July 10, 2023 11:20 AM
To: McNutt, Marcia K. [JAC: I’ve omitted the NAS Presidents’ email addresses]
Cc:  Anderson and Dzau
Subject: NAS Statement on Affirmative Action

Dear Marcia,

I would like to express my disquiet at the recent NAS Statement on Affirmative Action. The desirability of racial preferences in university admissions is not a scientific issue but a political and moral one. It involves tradeoffs such as maintaining the proportion of African Americans in elite universities at the expense of fairness to qualified applicants who are rejected because of their race, including other racial minorities such as Asian Americans. Moreover it is a highly politicized policy, almost exclusively associated with the left, and one that majorities of Americans of all races oppose.

It’s not clear to me how endorsing one side of a politically polarizing, nonscientific issue is compatible with the Academy’s stated mission “providing independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology”.

The problem is worse than being incompatible with the Academy’s mission; it could substantially harm the Academy’s goal of promoting politicians’ and the public’s acceptance of science. Extensive research has shown that rejection of the scientific consensus on evolution, anthropogenic climate change, and other scientific topics is uncorrelated with scientific literacy but predictable from political orientation: the farther to the right, the greater the rejection of evolution and climate change.

In this regard, for the nation’s foremost scientific organization to identify itself with the political left is to all but guarantee that a substantial proportion, perhaps a majority, of politicians and the public will reject science as just another partisan faction with which they have no sympathy. This strikes me as unwise.

I wonder whether these considerations entered into the decision to issue the statement, and the Presidents decided to proceed nonetheless. Perhaps you considered the downsides and decided that the benefits outweighed the costs. Or, am I bringing up something that the Presidents did not even consider? If the latter, I urge you to at least take it into consideration in the Academies’ public communications, and other activities, in the future.

Steven Pinker
Member, National Academy of Sciences
Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology
Harvard University

Dr. McNutt teplied that day, and the next day Pinker wrote the following in response:

On Jul 11, 2023, at 11:15 AM, Pinker, Steven <pinker@wjh.harvard.edu> wrote:

Thank you, Marcia, for your swift reply. My concerns, though, have not been allayed.

First, if your goal in issuing the statement was not to criticize the Supreme Court decision, I believe you did not succeed. Nowhere did the statement distinguish legal from scientific issues, the first two sentences are:

“Yesterday the Supreme Court issued a ruling to restrict affirmative action that will present challenges to efforts to diversify the nation’s colleges and universities. We strongly believe that the nation should remain committed to these efforts …”

I don’t think any reader of the letter could read that as anything but a criticism. If the Presidents’ goal was to issue a statement that was not perceived as criticizing the Supreme court or defending affirmative action, was a draft shown to politically diverse commentators (that is, including ones who are not on the political left) to ascertain whether it would be understood that way?

It’s also hard to understand how the statement did not “defend the approach to diversifying the student bodies that was struck down by the courts.” The third sentence approvingly says, “A 2011 National Academies report stated that policies that have included affirmative action are fundamentally important….” But it is exactly the policy of affirmative action that the court struck down. Even more puzzlingly, the 2011 report in fact says little about affirmative action, does not review research on its effects on innovation or global economic leadership, and does not list it among its six “Recommendations” or two “Priorities.”  The citation on p. 100 merely lists it among a range of policies it deems “fundamentally important.”

Even more concerning, the statement could have been lifted out of the pages of any recent left-wing opinion magazine, since it reiterates the current conviction that racial inequities are primarily due to “past and current racial discrimination and structural, systemic, and institutional racism in education” and to “individual bias and discrimination.” Entirely unmentioned are other potential causes of racial discrepancies, including poverty, school quality, family structure, and cultural norms. It is surprising to see a scientific organization attribute a complex sociological outcome to a single cause.

Finally, the statement, and your letter, equate diversity of ideas with diversity of race. The advantages of intellectual diversity are obvious (though I have not seen any statements from the Academy addressing the shrinking political diversity among science faculty, nor the increasing campaigns that punish or cancel scientists who express politically unpopular views). The assumption that racial diversity is the same as intellectual diversity was exactly what the Supreme Court decision singled out and struck down, since it carries with it the racist assumptions that black students think alike, and that their role in universities is to present their race-specific views to their classmates.

Of course, citing rigorous empirical research that is relevant to the issues facing the court or guiding admissions policies going forward would be a highly appropriate role for the Academies. These might include comparisons of the outcomes of racial versus socioeconomic preferences, the effects of standardized test­-based admissions policies on student success, and the implications for scientific quality at institutions like UC Berkeley and the University of Michigan of mandates to eliminate racial preferences. But simply extolling the ambiguous word “diversity” would seem to be beneath the intellectual standards we expect of a scientific academy.

Our goals are the same: to enhance the progress and political and public acceptance of science. In that regard I urge the three of you to give more consideration to the way that communications from the Academies signal solidarity with a political faction rather than “providing independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology.”


Dr. McNutt replied soon thereafter, but the response is redacted at her request.

John McWhorter: a personal take on affirmative action

July 4, 2023 • 12:30 pm

Lately John McWhorter appears to be injecting more personal information about his life into his discourse. On a recent podcast with Glen Loury, McWhorter admitted sadly that because of his heterodox writing and ideas, he’s been more or less ostracized from the community of academic linguists, and will likely not be invited to go to meetings or give talks on his field.  In his column in the NYT today, he recounts how his blackness helped him rise in academia over people with better qualification. In other words, he talks about being a beneficiary of affirmative action.  And at the end he gives his views about the issue. Like me, he appears conflicted.

Click the screenshot below to read or, if you don’t subscribe to the NYT, someone has archived the piece here.

Here are three episodes from McWhorter’s academic career:

I was hired straight out of my doctoral program for a tenure-track job at an Ivy League university in its august linguistics department. It became increasingly clear to me that my skin color was not just one more thing taken into account but the main reason for my hire. It surely didn’t hurt that, owing to the color of my skin, I could apparently be paid with special funds I was told the university had set aside for minority hires. But more to the point, I was vastly less qualified by any standard than the other three people who made it onto the list of finalists. Plus, I was brought on to represent a subfield within linguistics — sociolinguistics — that has never been my actual specialty. My interest then, as now, was in how languages change over time and what happens when they come together. My dissertation had made this quite clear.

This still rankles, and especially did so when he met one of the better-qualified candidates who wasn’t hired.

McWhorter eventually chose as his academic niche the development of creole languages, which served him well. He did get tenure, but again he says that his race helped. Referring at first to his efforts to get up to speed into linguistics beyond than his speciality, he says this:

But it all felt like a self-rescue operation, an effort to turn myself into a good hire after the fact. That backfilling of needed skills is a lot to ask of someone who also needs to do the forward-looking research necessary to get tenure.

Of course, not everyone endeavors this Sisyphean task, and the culture I refer to has a way of ensuring others don’t have to. There is a widespread cultural assumption in academia that Black people are valuable as much, if not more, for our sheer presence as for the rigor of what we actually do. Thus, it is unnecessary to subject us to top-level standards. This leads to things happening too often that are never written as explicit directives but are consonant with the general cultural agenda: people granted tenure with nothing approaching the publishing records of other candidates, or celebrated more for their sociopolitical orientations than for their research.

Above we see him suggesting, as he has before, that it is patronizing to hold black academics to standards lower than you hold white ones. He makes this explicit when he talks about his own experience on admissions committees.

I had uncomfortable experiences on the other side of the process as well. In the 1990s, I was on some graduate admissions committees at the university where I then taught. It was apparent to me that, under the existing cultural directive to, as we have discussed, take race into account, Black and Latino applicants were expected to be much more readily accepted than others.

I recall two Black applicants we admitted who, in retrospect, puzzle me a bit. One had, like me, grown up middle-class rather than disadvantaged in any salient way. The other, also relatively well-off, had grown up in a different country, entirely separate from the Black American experience. Neither of them expressed interest in studying a race-related subject, and neither went on to do so. I had a hard time detecting how either of them would teach a meaningful lesson in diversity to their peers in the graduate program.

Yes, that’s a good question, and one that deserves an answer. As for the last bit, where he sees affirmative action as patronizing and condescending, there are black academics who would disagree with him—not just ones who didn’t need affirmative action to achieve their positions, but also ones who admit they did, but don’t care:

Perhaps all of this can be seen as collateral damage in view of a larger goal of Black people being included, acknowledged, given a chance — in academia and elsewhere. In the grand scheme of things, my feeling uncomfortable on a graduate admissions committee for a few years during the Clinton administration hardly qualifies as a national tragedy. But I will never shake the sentiment I felt on those committees, an unintended byproduct of what we could call academia’s racial preference culture: that it is somehow ungracious to expect as much of Black students — and future teachers — as we do of others.

That kind of assumption has been institutionalized within academic culture for a long time. It is, in my view, improper. It may have been a necessary compromise for a time, but it was never truly proper in terms of justice, stability or general social acceptance. Whatever impact the Supreme Court’s ruling has on college admissions, its effects on the academic culture of racial preference — which by its nature often depends less on formulas involving thousands of applicants than on individual decisions involving dozens — will take place far more slowly.

But the decision to stop taking race into account in admissions, assuming it is accompanied by other efforts to assist the truly disadvantaged, is, I believe, the right one to make.

And yet, at the beginning of the piece, he says that by the time of the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard decision, “I’d personally come to believe that preferences focused on socioeconomic factors — wealth, income, even neighborhood — would accomplish more good while requiring less straightforward unfairness.” There’s a good case to be made for that, as it seems fairer, though some readers here think that using socioeconomic standards—giving a leg up to those most disadvantaged, regardless of race—won’t advance diversity at all.  I’m not ready to give up and go by a procedure that completely ignores race, and though we can’t take race into account, we can, perhaps, eliminate the complete erasure of ethnic diversity in elite colleges via using socioeconomic standards.

Another advantage of socioeconomic considerations is that, to me at least, they’d seem to create more intellectual diversity than would simply upping ethnic diversity. For some reason I think that mixing disadvantaged people from all groups (and also taking account of political and ideological diversity during admissions) would generate more useful discussion among students than simply race-based admissions. Those late-night bull sessions were pivotal in my education, and you don’t have them without discussion and disagreement.

Finally, I do agree with McWhorter’s views expressed elsewhere: the time is coming when affirmative action for race has to come to an end, for if it hasn’t done what it was supposed to after sixty years, it’s time to contemplate other methods, methods that involve creating equal opportunity from birth. And I also agree with him that, as far as we possibly can, we should not lower admissions standards for some ethnic groups. As McWhorter notes, “it is somehow ungracious to expect as much of Black students — and future teachers — as we do of others.”

The end of affirmative action

June 27, 2023 • 10:45 am

Here’s a prediction that’s a no-brainer: this week the Supreme Court will override the Bakke decision and rule that race-based school admissions are unconstitutional. (Several states, including California, have already done this.) This will leave schools in a quandary, since nearly all universities have declared that they’re in favor of “diversity” (they mean ethnic diversity), but they’ll no longer be able to attain it using race as one criterion for admission. (Bakke prohibited “quotas”.)

The title of the article below, from the Free Press, is a bit misleading, as we already know what will happen: schools will try to do an end run around the Court’s ruling by eliminating or downgrading indices of “merit” like grades or test scores, and concentrate intead on “holistic admissions”, a backet of intangibles that includes skin color, ethnicity, and “personality”.

And it’s the “personality” issue that ultimately brought this case to the Supreme Court. Investigation of Harvard’s admissions policy revealed that assessment of personality scores was used, probably deliberately, to lower the apparent “merit” of Asian American Applicants. As the article below notes:

A 2018 analysis of 160,000 applicant records uncovered during discovery in the suit showed that Asian Americans, while outperforming every other group on academics and extracurriculars, received low marks from Harvard admissions officers when it came to personality traits—lowering their odds of admission. Asian American students were consistently deemed less “likable, courageous, kind, and respectable.”

That this method was invidious was revealed by showing that when applicants were interviewed in person by Harvard alums or other university people, their scores were not lower than those of other groups.  They were lower only when Asian Americans were assessed on paper by admissions officers who never met them. To me, this gave little doubt that there was deliberate discrimination going on here, though two sets of Federal courts unaccountably ignored this and ruled for Harvard. An appeal took the case to the Supreme Court.

As I’ve said before, affirmative action is a tough one for me.  I am pretty much a merit-based admission person, but I don’t want to see colleges—especially “elite ones”—devoid of people of color. There’s something about the “optics” of that situation that bothers me.  We are a multicultural and multiethnic America, and that should be reflected in higher education. On the other hand, I don’t favor using “holisitic” admissions, which, in the Harvard case (and probably others) led to palpable racism against Asian Americans.  One solution I’m gravitating towards is class based admissions, which acts to give up a leg to all the socioeconomically disadvantaged regardless of ethnicity, and it’s legal.

I do not, however, favor lowering the merit bar so much that people unqualified to attend a college get in. After all, there are tons of colleges with widely varying admission standards, there are also technical colleges, and, as John McWhorter claims, perhaps not everyone needs to go to college. But in effect, there’s higher education for everyone.

At any rate, this article tells you what you really know: “holistic admissions” is in the offing. Click to read

Quotes from the piece are indented. The article begins by recounting what UC Berkeley did to boost diversity after affirmative action was banned in California, first by university rules and then by law:

Ultimately, the task force concluded that, to achieve racial diversity and not violate University of California policy, it had to deemphasize quantitative yardsticks like grades and test scores and focus on other things. “The prevailing opinion was that if we focused on these qualitative assessments of a person’s interests, lived experience, that would contribute to the diversity of students,” Carson said.

The task force’s conclusion was borne out when, in the spring of 1997—after affirmative action had been prohibited at the University of California but before Boalt could implement the task force’s recommendations—the numbers of minority students admitted to the law school plummeted.

That year, the number of black students admitted to Boalt declined from 9.2 percent the year before to 1.8 percent. Latino admits dropped from 4.2 percent to 2 percent. Meanwhile, the proportion of Asian American students jumped from 15.5 percent to nearly 19 percent, and that of white students, from 57.3 percent to nearly 68 percent.

Which made the task force’s proposal all the more urgent.

Within a few years, admissions officers across the country started to call the new ideas “holistic admissions” or “holistic review.” It sounded more palatable than affirmative action, but really it was a way of achieving the same outcome without saying so explicitly.

Over the past three decades, colleges across the country—public and private—have adopted this approach in an effort to boost their student bodies’ racial diversity.

“Holistic” now includes as a criterion “lived experience”:

Yvonne Berumen, the vice president of admissions and financial aid at Pitzer College, east of Los Angeles, shared Green’s perspective. “One of the most important things in the admission process is the lived experience,” she said. “Race is a part of that.” (“Lived experience,” affirmative action critics said, is like “holistic admissions” or “diversity.” It’s a way of signaling a preference for black and Latino students, while not appearing to be discriminatory.)

If schools are barred from taking all that into account, Berumen said, “it would really change the demographic landscape of higher education.”

The “Green” above is Sonia Green, a black student at Duke, who makes no apologies for using “lived experience” as a criterion:

Green said that the old, meritocratic way of determining who gets into elite universities was actually discriminatory. “Being colorblind is racist, because it erases part of somebody’s identity,” Green said. “By saying that you don’t see someone’s race or you don’t see their color and you just see them as a person, it tells black students that you don’t see the communities that they’ve grown up in and you don’t see the experiences that have made them who they are.”

She suggested that Asian Americans who felt as though they’d been discriminated against by elite universities should rethink that. “I don’t think it’s just because you’re Asian,” Green said. “It’s probably because the school didn’t see you as being a good fit, or the school didn’t get to know enough about you as a person.”

But the problem with this is that ethnicity is not a great indicator of “lived experience”. Does a well-off Nigerian student, or a black student from a middle-class home, have the same “lived experience” as, say, a kid from an impoverished home on Chicago’ South Side? I doubt it, yet I don’t doubt that race will be an important component (if not the only component) of “lived experience.”  Green’s view seems to be that there is a relevant commonality of the communities that black student grew up in that should give them a leg up in admissions.  Well, you can make the argument that ethnicity is a good index of lived experience, but you don’t need it if you use socioeconomic status, combined with merit, as criteria for admissions.

Further, the “holistic” route was exactly what was used to keep Jews out of places like Harvard in the earlier 20th century:

In the 1920s, he recalled, Ivy League schools introduced “holistic admissions” to keep out high-achieving Jewish newcomers—only then they simply called them quotas. The much revered Harvard Man (or, for that matter, the Yale Man or Princeton Man) was a type: WASPy, athletic, well-connected, well to do.

After World War II, the old antisemitism gave way to the new meritocracy, which emphasized quantitative metrics like the SAT and grade point average to ensure that discrimination against Jews or any other unwanted minority wouldn’t rear its ugly head.

One asks: why do we consider it odious to have used holistic criteria to keep Jews out of schools, but perfectly fine to use the same criteria to keep Asian Americans (or whites out of schools)? You can respond that “discrimination like that is okay if it allows for more blacks and Hispanics to get into college,” but the whole problem is moot if you use socioeconomic criteria, which of course are correlated with ethnicity, but not perfectly. And to me, the imperfect correlation makes the whole process fairer, for there are disadvantaged people in every group.

The article winds up by noting that Asian Americans are pretty divided on the “holistic admissions” issue, but are gradually moving against this kind of affirmative action as they’re gravitating more towards the political right. In fact, as a new YouGov poll reveals, “considering race at all in the admissions process is viewed as unacceptable by 65% of Americans, while 25% say race should be allowed to be considered among other factors. About half of Democrats (48%) and Black Americans (47%) reject allowing colleges to consider race in admissions decisions.”

The graph:

I didn’t realize that so many Americans were opposed to any consideration of an applicant’s race. Surprisingly, 9% more black and 34% more Hispanics oppose using race as even one of several criteria. Even 8% more Democrats oppose affirmative action than support it. (The gap, of course, is much larger among Republicans, who don’t differ much from Independents.

Well, the decision will come down, perhaps today but almost surely within a week. Affirmative action will be dead, singing with the Choir Invisible. And colleges are already plotting workarounds.  This will involve devaluating data like grades and test scores, and more “holistic” admissions. But I don’t think that, in the future, universities will be able to get away with what Harvard did: using bogus “holistic” criteria to achieve the ethnic mix they want.  Let’s just think about to socioeconomic status, with more consideration of measurable “merit” and less “holism”.

h/t: Rosemary, R.

Berkeley, DEI, and FIRE

June 20, 2023 • 10:45 am

A while back (I’m too lazy to look this up), I reported on the University of California at Berkeley’s requirement for all job applicants to submit a DEI statement with their application. The statement was to cover three areas: the applicant’s knowledge of about DEI, track record in advancing DEI, and plans to advance DEI at UCB were they hired.  I also recall that the statements were given numerical scores on these areas, and if the total number was below a certain cutoff, the application was ditched without being further considered.

I am opposed to mandatory DEI statements because I think they’re illegal: a form of compelled speech that, at least in state schools like Berkeley, violates the First Amendment. There are other reasons to oppose them, including the possibility that really good candidates might have spent their time doing other non-DEI but useful activities like writing books, giving lectures to the public, and so on. (Or, just doing good science, which doesn’t seem enough these days.)  Further, candidates often have worked so hard during their postdocs and Ph.D.s (jobs are hard to get, and you need a good record), that even if you’re sympathetic to the aims of DEI, you have no time to compile a record. I think it’s sufficient for the university to post a statement that they do not discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity, disability, or other protected characteristics. In other words, they should simply say that there is no discrimination in hiring (or in student applications)

Moreover, there is ample opportunity to game the system: you can copy statements of successful candidates, make stuff up, and even pay someone to write your diversity statement for you! This, perhaps, is why Berkeley didn’t want its scoring system revealed, but, under law, it had to do so. Now all candidates can use it to write high-scoring statements.

Finally, the use of these statements is designed to turn universities into ideological juggernauts, with professors conforming to the preferred narrative of the university (there are many ways to be in favor of diversity and inclusion). The job of a professor is to teach, promote learning, and advance knowledge by doing research. If you want to save the world, that’s fine, but, as Stanley Fish said (it’s a book title), save the world on your own time.

Required statements are particularly invidious when, like the ones used at UC Berkeley (see below), they are given scores, and candidates are rejected right off the bat if their DEI scores are too low.  Think of all the famous and accomplished professors that wouldn’t make the cut today! If you answer, “well, Einstein should have been doing diversity work,” then I don’t know what to say.

While we knew that Berkeley was requiring DEI statements for its science faculty, and that they scored them numerically as the first cutoff for applicants, we didn’t know what the scoring rubric was.  Now we know, thanks to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), which filed a request for Berkeley’s records (it’s a public school and must disclose these) and for its scoring rubric.

Berkeley sat on its hands for more than TWO YEARS before complying. And it’s no wonder, because the rubric and scoring system really is embarrassing. It’s also embarrassing because candidates are rejected if their statements aren’t up to snuff, no matter how great their scientific work has been. (These statements will probably also become illegal after the Supreme Court bans affirmative action.) Only a diehard DEI proponent would not cringe at seeing how the three areas are scored.

First, see FIRE’s new report by clicking on this screenshot:

Below: some stuff from FIRE.  Note that the rubric that Berkeley sent is from 2018-2019, but I suspect they’re still using it, as are other UC campuses (though I don’t know whether they use cutoff DEI ratings).

The University of California, Berkeley used diversity statements to weed out candidates for faculty positions, according to public records the university finally released more than two years after FIRE requested them.

Many universities now require or invite current or prospective faculty to demonstrate their commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion — often through written statements that factor into hiring, research, evaluation, promotion, or tenure decisions.

As FIRE explained in a public statement last year, these diversity statement requirements can too easily function as ideological litmus tests and cast a pall of orthodoxy over campuses.

Berkeley is no exception. The university expects all new faculty hires to “be committed to advancing diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging[.]” During the 2018-19 academic year, Berkeley’s life sciences departments launched an initiative to advance faculty diversity. As part of the initiative, applicants for full-time faculty positions were required to submit statements on their “contributions to diversity, equity and inclusion,” including information about their “understanding of these topics,” “record of activities to date,” and “specific plans and goals for advancing equity and inclusion.”

These statements informed the hiring committee’s first round of review: If applicants’ contributions to DEI did not meet a high standard, they were eliminated from consideration.

On Berkeley’s dilatory behavior:

FIRE wanted to know more. So in March 2021, we filed a public records request seeking information related to how, exactly, the university was using and evaluating these diversity statements.

And then we waited. And waited. And waited.

Two years later, Berkeley still hadn’t handed over the records.

California’s Public Records Act requires that public agencies make records “promptly available.” Berkeley finally produced the records in May 2023 after FIRE sent a demand letter threatening legal action. It took Berkeley 795 days to comply with its duty under the act. Hardly prompt.

I have no explanation for a delay of nearly 800 days save that Berkeley was doing everything it could to NOT turn over its records, and, given that it had to under the law, delayed and delayed and delayed.

And now the rubric, which was required for all five life science departments at the University. Click below to see how each of the three areas was scored.

Here’s FIRE’s summary:

According to the rubric the hiring committee used to evaluate the statements, candidates who “discount the importance of diversity,” or who don’t feel personally responsible for advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion, received lower scores. As would anyone who “[d]efines diversity only in terms of different areas of study or different nationalities, but doesn’t discuss gender or ethnicity/race.” The rubric even penalizes candidates who “state that it’s better not to have outreach or affinity groups aimed at underrepresented individuals because it keeps them separate from everyone else, or will make them feel less valued.”

But read for yourself. Each of the three areas—knowledge, track record, and plans to advance DEI—are scored on a scale from 1 to 5, so the minimum score is 3 and the maximum 15.  No cutoff point is given here.

I’ll quote the rubric from only one of the three areas: the candidate’s track record:


These will get you the low scores of 1-2:

• Participated in no specific activities, or only one or two limited activities (limited in terms of time, investment, or role).

• Only mentions activities that are already the expectation of faculty as evidence of commitment and involvement (for example, “I always invite and welcome students from all backgrounds to participate in my research lab, and in fact have mentored several women.” Mentoring women scientists may be an important part of an established track record but it would be less significant if it were one of the only activities undertaken and it wasn’t clear that the candidate actively conducted outreach to encourage women to join the lab.

• Descriptions of activities are brief, vague, or describe being involved only peripherally. Or the only activities were oriented toward informing oneself (for example, attended a workshop at a conference)

This will get you a bit higher score: a 3

• May have participated extensively in a single activity. Less clear that there is an established track record.

• Limited participation at the periphery in numerous activities, or participation in only one area, such as their
research to the exclusion of teaching and service.

• In describing mentoring of underrepresented students, mentions specific strategies used for effective
mentoring, or awareness of the barriers underrepresented students face and how to incorporate the ideas into
their mentoring,

• Membership in a student or professional organization that supports underrepresented individuals

And if you want the highest score, between 4 and 5, you have to have done these things. 

• Describes multiple activities in depth, with detailed information about both their role in the activities and the
outcomes. Activities may span research, teaching and service, and could include applying their research skills or
expertise to investigating diversity, equity and inclusion.

• Consistent track record that spans multiple years (for example, applicants for assistant professor positions can
describe activites undertaken or partcipated in as an undergraduate, graduate student and postdoctoral scholar)

• Roles taken were significant and appropriate for career stage (e.g., a candidate who is already an assistant
professor may have developed and tested pedagogy for an inclusive classroom and learning environment, while a
current graduate student may have volunteered for an extended period of time for an organization or group that
seeks to increase the representation of underrepresented groups in science).

• Organized or spoken at workshops or other events (depending on career stage) aimed at increasing others’
understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion as one aspect of their track record.

• Served as a leader in a student or professional organization that supports underrepresented individuals. 

In other words, to get a high score you must have a record in DEI activity showing that it was a major priority during your doctoral or postdoctoral work, and must have spent a lot of tim—over multiple years— engaged in such activities. Merely saying that you treated all students fairly and equally regardless of their ethnicity, gender, disability status, and so on will get your application rejected.

It’s no surprise that Berkeley wanted to sit on these requirements. If they were proud of them, or even not ashamed of them, why the long delay?

Two discussions of reparations

May 29, 2023 • 10:45 am

Here are two videos discussing whether African-Americans should be given reparations because many of their ancestors were slaves.  I haven’t written about this subject because I haven’t come down on what I think about it.  This is my inchoate thinking so far: there is a good case for reparations, but if they’re given, they should be in the form of investments in opportunities for minorities, not simply checks cut and handed out.  And if they are given by states or by the federal government, that should—as John McWhorter emphasizes in the discussion with Glen Loury below—bring an end to all forms of racial preference and affirmative action. It is a one-time “reckoning” that should eliminate for the future all other advantages given to minorities over non-minorities.

I of course realize the terrific problems involved with reparations, particularly those of who gets them, who decides who gets them, and how much they will be.

But don’t listen to me: watch Loury and McWhorter below. Loury is dead set against reparations, while McWhorter is on the fence but seems to favor them. (If you want to see the full-on case FOR reparations, the most famous is Ta-Nehishi Coates’s 2014 Atlantic article, “The case for reparations.”)

If you want to see the two guys chew the fat in general, you can listen to the full hour, but if you want to hear just their vigorous discussion of reparations, start at 37:40 with Loury’s tirade and listen to the end of the video.

A summary of the earlier parts includes McWhorter beefing about being a pariah because he’s antiwoke, so he’s suffered professionally for his heterodox ideas as a black man. He says, for instance, that he’s not going to be invited to any more professional linguistics meetings, nor will he be inducted into the AAAS. I’m a member, and believe me, if I could get in, McWhorter certainly deserves it!

They then discuss the incident in which Jordan Neely—a mentally ill black man who was harassing people on the NY subway—was killed after being held in a chokehold by Daniel Penny, an ex-Marine.  Most people fault Penny for restraining Neely, but McWhorter, in his NYT column on Jordan Neeley, demurs (he doesn’t favor the killing, though!):

I am going to venture an idea that may be unpopular: Jordan Neely, in all of his innocence, did deserve restraint. Only that. He deserved neither injury nor any more discomfort than necessary, and certainly not death. Where precisely Penny’s actions and intentions fall on this spectrum is a question for the legal system to interrogate aggressively. But society has a problem on its hands when mentally ill people are terrifying innocent citizens trying to get to work or back to their homes. The system needs to help both the Jordan Neelys and the rest of us. And this means there should be an honest discussion about the role of cops and subway officers in confronting and even detaining the mentally ill more frequently. Our mental health system, too, needs to better ensure that people who present symptoms of the kind that Neely did are more rigorously restricted from menacing or threatening others.

The reparations discussion begins at 37:40 with Loury so exercised about the idea that he nearly blows an artery. McWhorter listens attentively, and they note that some reparations have already been given, though not entirely to blacks; these include affirmative action, the Great Society, and the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977.  McWhorter also emphasizes—and here I agree—that if reparations are given, that must be the end of any form of racial preference: there would, for example, be no more DEI initiatives.


Addition: I should have said (see comments below) that McWhorter appears to be in favor of reparations in principle, but doesn’t’ think they’d work in practice. And on that I agree with him.

Have a listen, at least to the last 24 minutes, and see if you agree.

A quote from Loury’s discussion above. Note that he begins the show by announcing that he’s retiring.

There are any number of right-of-center arguments against reparations. I’ve made them before. Now, with cities around the US considering cash reparations payments to black Americans, I’m dismayed to find that I have to make them again. But why do we most often hear objections to reparations coming from conservatives? The left, if it was thinking about its broader long-term electoral viability, ought to reject reparations claims as well.

Imagine, for example, a white working-class voter in a Rust Belt state that is suffering the effects of deindustrialization, inadequate public services, and the opioid crisis. Such a voter might be quite receptive to a senatorial candidate calling for class-based solidarity in order to address these serious problems with large-scale structural reform, a more robust social safety net, and higher taxes on the wealthy. But if the candidate, at the same time, also promises to distribute huge cash payouts to this hypothetical voter’s African American neighbors while leaving him to fend for himself, the voter might question how serious those calls to solidarity really are.v

As well he should. We hardly ever hear this contradiction addressed by progressives calling for reparations, and yet it violates the very premise on which the likes of Bernie Sanders and John Fetterman have based their appeals to voters. Perhaps, as John McWhorter suggests in this excerpt from our most recent conversation, people would be willing to go along with reparations if they would finally end calls for race-based benefits. But, as John also suggests, reparations wouldn’t be the end. And if the payments go out and race remains a divisive issue, our hypothetical white working-class voter, and millions like him, may decide the only thing that’s finished is the left.

Below is half an hour of a 2001 debate on slavery reparations involving both Loury and the late (how it stings to write that word!) Christopher Hitchens. I didn’t listen to it today, though I did before, but, as I recall, they take opposite positions, with Hitchens favoring reparations. Loury speaks first, then Hitch (with his usual panache), and then Loury gets a rebuttal.

Glenn Loury rants, McWhorter apparently agrees

May 12, 2023 • 11:30 am

I was watching a one-hour episode of “The Glenn Show” the other day titled “Tucker Carlson and the Dysfunction of Black America” (full video now here), when all of a sudden Loury got really exercised about  dysfunctionality in the black community and started raising his voice. He even said “fuck!” with great vigor—something I’ve never heard come out of his mouth before. His pal John McWhorter listened patiently, and seemed to agree with Loury, but in a low-key way. (Loury does allude to the fact that he “was a little bit on edge these days”.)

Then, on Loury’s Substack site yesterday, he posted that bit of his rant™, which lasts only about 5 minutes. He put it up because McWhorter told him to (see below).  Here’s Loury’s short introduction to his rant™, which you can read by clicking below. You don’t really have to click, though, as I’ve posted the short intro below.

Loury’s intro:

Sometimes, when trying to articulate my views on the show, I go into rant mode. This one, from a discussion of the social dysfunction plaguing black America, got away from me a little. I had to admit in the end: I overdid it a bit.

Still, I stand by the substance of my remarks. I see in the crime statistics and in the rioting and looting perpetrated by black American youth a failure to raise our kids properly. Regardless of the complex historical reasons that led to this failure, we urgently need to do something about it instead of finding new ways to excuse it. History may have gotten us here, but we can no longer afford to let it define us.

My friend John McWhorter has enough patience to listen to me rant, and agrees with me enough to say in conclusion: “To be honest, if a clip of exactly that gets out there and gets re-run over and over, it needs to be.” So be it. I asked my team to make this clip, and I offer it to you here.

And The Rant™.  At the end of the tirade, Loury does raise the Big Problem: how can we actually provide equal opportunity for marginalized people? And that question, regardless of “violent and antisocial behaviors”, needs an answer. And this is the question that the DEI initiatives don’t seem to address.

In the second part of his Substack column this week, Andrew Sullivan discusses the reason for one aspect of this dysfunctionality: high homicide rates and quotes Loury’s expletive:

. . . On the most serious violent crime, murder, the stats are also staggering: in 2021, of all murderers in America whose race was known, a full 60.4 percent were black — overwhelmingly male and young. So if you narrow it down to young black men, around 3 percent of the population is responsible for well over half the murders in America. In Minnesota, African-American males make up 3.2 percent of the population and commit 76 percent of the homicides and 87 percent of the burglaries. That’s a ratio that is resilient and persistent.

. . . Biden’s woke Department of Justice actually wants to bar law enforcement from using any of these racially specific crime statistics in “making decisions about where and how to focus their activities.” The aim is deliberately to ignore the 3 percent committing over half the murders in the country, and focus randomly on the 97 percent (including the vast majority of African-Americans) who don’t. It’s insane — the kind of racial equity for criminals that leads to grotesque racial inequity for victims. African-Americans are 13 percent of the population and make up more murder victims than every other race combined. In Chicago, for example, 79 percent of murder victims are black.

Why exactly are young black men uniquely responsible for this level of violence? The whole Twitter debate — and elsewhere, of course — is dedicated to changing the subject. (The old blogosphere was far better at debating such topics.) The answer is obviously, like many social phenomena, multi-determined: class, region, a collapse of religion, a lack of inherited wealth, predatory lenders, a subculture within black culture that celebrates violence and adultery, the glorification of guns in hip-hop, an aversion to “acting white” in school; unstable family structure; absent fathers; some racist cops — and, yes, a horrific history of white supremacy — are all surely implicated. It would take a grueling long national discussion to come to some agreement on this, and then to grapple with some way forward to tackle it.

But we’d rather accuse each other of crude racism, suggest distractions, offer yet more largely irrelevant context, blather about abstractions like “structural racism” 60 years after Jim Crow, blame all cops, or promote denial, than do any of this. “I don’t give a fuck whose fault it is,” Glenn Loury fumes. “We’re going to have to deal with the reality that this is a social dysfunction.”

Just not any time soon.

NYT op-ed: Cleopatra was black because her lived experience made her “culturally black”

May 11, 2023 • 11:30 am

You’ve surely heard the argument that Cleopatra (“Cleopatra VII Philopator“, the Queen of Egypt, 70/69 BC – 10 August 30 BC) was “black”, an argument that has long turned on her genetics and genealogy. It’s generally been made to fold her into the group of sub-Saharan Africans and their descendants, especially when the argument is made in the U.S., where Cleopatra is appropriated by descendants of black African slaves. In other words, the “black Cleopatra” argument maintains that she was pigmented like modern Africans, with a dark skin, and, if we could see her DNA, it would group her with sub-Saharan Africans.

The “was-Cleopatra-black” argument, as you can see by reading the very long article about it in Wikipedia, has been persistent, but the consensus of scholars, based on historical analysis (and to a lesser extent from depictions in painting and statuary) is that Cleopatra was Macedonian Greek, the last ruler of the Ptolomeic dynasty going back for nearly three centuries. Her father, Pharaoh Ptolemy XII, was of that ancestry, and although her mother was not absolutely identified, she may have been the Queen Cleopatra VI Tryphaena.  There is no evidence that Cleopatra’s mother was black, ergo that Cleopatra herself would be half black. Genetically, I suspect she would probably group with ancient Greeks and Persians, not with sub-Saharan Africans. (No mummy is available, so we can’t know for sure.) But as Wikipedia notes, the dispute about Cleopatra’s race takes place among the populace in general, not among scholars:

The race and skin color of Cleopatra VII, the last active Hellenistic ruler of the Macedonian Greek Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt, has caused some debate, although generally not in scholarly sources.

Further, as many scholars have pointed out, the ancients, including Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, didn’t even have the same concept of “race” as we do. Rather, although they were xenophobic, they considered “outgroups” based on other factors, mainly that they belonged to populations that were ethnically, culturally, and geographically different from the three main groups above, and were therefore inferior. Greeks and Romans, for example, enslaved conquered peoples and their descendants, and those were generally not sub-Saharan Africans.

Having no time to look this up, I doubt that the these three civilizations even had a concept of “race” that bears any resemblance to the concept people have today, which is generally based on genetic composition and geographical origin. (I’m using the old usage of race; I actually prefer “ethnicity” because we know now that the human species comprises groups within groups, and one could, on the basis of genetics and geography, demarcate any number of “races”.)

The irrelevance of the modern “race” concept to Cleopatra is also what Gwen Nally and Mary Gilbert, the two authors of the NYT op-ed below, argue: they say that it’s futile to bicker about the phenotype and genetics of Cleopatra because we simply don’t know enough about her and that the idea of “race” was irrelevant to ancient Egyptians (though most scholars, again, think she was Macedonian/Greek, which would be counted as “white” in the old definition of race).

The reason this controversy has resurfaced is, as Nally and Gilbert (henceforth “N&G”) note, is that there’s a new Netflix docudrama called “Queen Cleopatra”, produced and narrated by Jada Pinkett Smith, who is black.  In the film, Cleopatra is played by the British actor and screenwriter Adele James, who is also black. Here’s one of James’s tweets:

This has led to considerable controversy, particularly among modern Egyptians who claim Cleopatra was “one of ours” and not black. CBS News, for example, says this:

In the latest official response to the controversy, Egypt’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities issued a long statement at the end of April stressing that “Queen Cleopatra had light skin and Hellenistic (Greek) features.”

The statement criticized Netflix for casting James, whom the ministry said has “African features and dark skin,” to play Cleopatra.

Well, is it important? Even if Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans didn’t have a conception of race similar to ours, why can’t a black woman play Cleopatra? Racially mixed casting has been going on for a while now, and I don’t really see anything wrong with it.

But N&G do care: for in this op-ed they claim that Cleopatra is really “culturally black”, and thus can be claimed by blacks as a member of their group. But she can also be claimed by modern Greeks and Egyptians as members of their group, too! (Are you confused yet? Read on.)  I’m not sure why N&G make this claim, which seems to be deeply muddled given that they don’t even outline what “black culture” is. Somehow it involves oppression and exploitation, but also “triumph and survival”—but that’s as far as it goes. Under their view, we’re all culturally black.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Click to read (someone also archived the piece here).

Below is N&G’s note that ancient conceptions of race don’t even come close to ours. (I would maintain that even the very idea of “race” isn’t to be seen in these cultures, at least as their way of hierarchically ordering human  groups. Rather, they had an idea of “groups” that were based on geography and culture.)

What debates like this miss is that current notions of race are relatively recent inventions and do not necessarily speak to how people of Cleopatra’s day saw the world or themselves. Classicists tell us that although the Greeks and Romans did notice skin color, they did not regard it as the primary marker of racial difference. Other concepts — environment, geography, ancestral origin, language, religion, custom and culture — played bigger roles in delineating groups and identities. So regardless of the material a sculptor may have chosen to use to summon Cleopatra’s powerful visage, there is no meaningful sense in which she — or anyone else of her era — would have identified as white.

The question that follows is: How, then, can anyone, including a Netflix dramatization, claim that Cleopatra was Black?

Good question, indeed!  My answer would be that scholars say Cleopatra was probably Macedonian/Greek, which would make her “white” in today’s parlance. But really, who cares what actress portrays her? This would seem to be a sensible view that would end the controversy, but N&G don’t agree: the main point of their piece is that Cleopatra was indeed black, but “culturally black”:

Dr. Haley has said that she was struck by the experience, early in her life and career, of encountering Black American communities that seemed to view Cleopatra as one of their own. Building on that experience, Dr. Haley’s academic work on Cleopatra adopts a more complex criterion for racial identification than skin color alone. “When we say, in general, that the ancient Egyptians were Black and, more specifically, that Cleopatra was Black,” Dr. Haley wrote, “we claim them as part of a culture and history that has known oppression and triumph, exploitation and survival.”

Why was Cleopatra oppressed? She doesn’t seem to have been, so were her ancestors oppressed? It doesn’t look like it: they were Pharaohs and Queens!  So where can you find oppression in Cleopatra’s persona?  You can’t really, though N&G dig hard looking for it:

Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII, was a member of the family that conquered Egypt over 200 years earlier. He was routinely referred to as an illegitimate child. His mother is unknown, as is the identity of Cleopatra’s mother, though several clues suggest she may have been Egyptian, including Plutarch’s claim that Cleopatra was likely the first Ptolemaic ruler to speak that language.

When the Roman poet Propertius famously called Cleopatra a whore queen (meretrix regina), he laced his misogynist tirade with allusions to Egypt, such as the “noxious” city of Alexandria and the “yapping” Egyptian god Anubis. The intersection of Cleopatra’s race and gender resulted in a form of oppression that cast her heritage and sexuality as particularly dangerous. Regardless of her lineage or appearance, it’s clear that Cleopatra’s actions were not perceived as the typical behavior of a Greek or Roman woman.

Note the “intersectionality” here, as well as the term “gender” instead of “sex.”  But one poet’s slur does not oppression make; remember that Cleopatra was QUEEN OF EGYPT. Yes, she had life and love troubles, but so do we all.  Here’s more of N&G’s unconvincing argument that Cleopatra was oppressed:

Throughout her reign, Cleopatra was also careful not to depict herself as a wife or consort but rather as Isis, the great Egyptian goddess who raised her son alone, without her slain husband, Osiris. Cleopatra was a pragmatist, doing what it took to survive, aligning herself first with Caesar, then with Mark Antony, before fleeing Actium when the tides turned. Finally, when it became clear to her that Octavian would let her live only in order to march her through Rome as a war captive, she took her own life by poison.

But that doesn’t say anything about oppression, at least of the type the authors are discussing. They further argue that modern Egyptians and Greeks can also claim Cleopatra as part of their culture:

Dr. Haley argues that Cleopatra’s experience was part of a history of oppression of Black women. Reclaiming Cleopatra as Black and choosing to portray her now as a Black woman highlights this history — and is consistent with contemporary Egyptians or Greeks identifying with Cleopatra on the grounds of their own shared culture. Unlike racial assignments based on physical characteristics, which seek to distill people into rigid and recognizable categories, shared cultural claims can easily coexist.

But Cleopatra wasn’t black. So N&G have to argue that she, like black women today, had a history of oppression but also “a culture and history that has known oppression and triumph, exploitation and survival”.  If these are the criteria that make Cleopatra “culturally black,” and also make Egyptians and Greeks culturally black, then they also make the Irish, modern Hispanics, and Jews “culturally black.” Indeed, every group on Earth, whether it be demarcated by genes or culture, has had its moments of oppression and of triumph. If everybody is culturally black, then nobody is.

This makes the whole “culturally black” argument into complete nonsense. Cleopatra was, if anything, privileged, though her life was tough at times.

Why, then, was this article written? The only reason I can think of was to somehow enable American blacks to still claim Cleopatra as one of their own. (If her portrayal by a black actress wasn’t intended to do that, then why are the Egyptians objecting so vehemently?) But why can’t we adopt the more sensible view that all humans can find something of Cleopatra in themselves: she was part of humanity and shared human emotions, love. and experiences (granted, not experiences that largely coincide with mine)?  In an attempt to shoehorn Cleopatra into an ethnic group in order to boost group esteem, N&G fail miserably. The NYT should have put this piece in the circular file.

But there’s a lesson here: regardless of what color Cleopatra was, she was part of the confluence of humanity, not to be claimed by any living group as “one of theirs”—any more than I can claim George Washington as “one of mine”.

In the end, was Cleopatra not a woman and a sister? And isn’t that enough to end these stupid and divisive arguments about her “race”, at least among the public?


Supplementary material: If you want to see what Cleopatra may have looked like, this page has lots of pictures of the “Berlin Cleopatra,” a sculpted portrait made when she was alive. Wikipedia describes it as “a Roman sculpture of Cleopatra wearing a royal diadem, mid-1st century BC (around the time of her visits to Rome in 46–44 BC), discovered in an Italian villa along the Via Appia and now located in the Altes Museum in Germany.” Here’s a face-on view: