What, exactly, is critical race theory?

September 30, 2021 • 12:45 pm

All of us bandy about the term “critical race theory”, or use its initials, CRT. But how many of us really know what it is? And IS there really a widely-accepted canon of thought called CRT? If you were to ask me, I’d say CRT is the view that all life is a fight for power and hegemony of socially-constructed “races” that have no biological reality, that all politics is to be viewed through the lens of race, that the “oppressors” are, by and large, all biased against minorities and fight endlessly to keep them powerless, with many of the oppressors not even knowing their bias, and that different kinds of minority status can be combined into an “intersectionality” so that someone can be oppressed on several axes at once (for example, a Hispanic lesbian).

But not everybody agrees with that, and in fact there are widely different versions of CRT depending on the exponent (Ibram Kendi is perhaps the most extreme in his pronouncements), and also on the country. In the article below at Counterweight, Helen Pluckrose, co-author with James Lindsay of the good book Cynical Theories, tries to parse a meaning of CRT from all the diverse construals.

It turns out that because there are so many versions of CRT, perhaps (in my view) it’s best to stop using the term at all.

Click on the screenshot to read:

There’s Materialist CRT, Postmodernist CRT, the British Educational Association’s CRT, Critical Social Justice Anti-Racism, and even a version for higher education confected by Payne Hiraldo (a professor of the University of Vermont).  I won’t give them all here, and of course there’s considerable overlap. Here’s what Helen says are the tenets from the book Critical Race Theory: An Introductionwith her interpolations.  Her words are indented, and the tenets are doubly indented and put in bold:

Critical Race Theory: An Introduction describes it as a departure from liberal Civil Rights approaches:

Unlike traditional civil rights discourse, which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.

and sets out four key tenets:

First, racism is ordinary, not aberrational—“normal science,” the usual way society does business, the common, everyday experience of most people of color in this country.

This is a claim that racism is everywhere. All the time. It’s just the water we swim in. It’s also claimed that most people of colour agree with this.  In reality, people of colour differ on this although a greater percentage of black people believe it to be true than white people.

Second, most would agree that our system of white-over-color ascendancy serves important purposes, both psychic and material, for the dominant group.

This means that this system, which has just been asserted to exist everywhere, is valued by white people both psychologically and in practical terms. Many white people would disagree that they regard racism positively.

A third theme of critical race theory, the “social construction” thesis, holds that race and races are products of social thought and relations. Not objective, inherent, or fixed, they correspond to no biological or genetic reality; rather, races are categories that society invents, manipulates, or retires when convenient.

This argues that races are social constructs rather than biological realities which is true – “populations” are the biological categories and don’t map neatly onto how we understand race – and that society has categorised and recategorised races according to custom, which is also true.  [JAC: I’d take issue with the claim that there is no biological “reality” at all to populations, races, or whatever you call ethnic groups. The classical definition of “race” is incorrect, but the view that races have no biological differences and are thus completely socially constructed, is also wrong.]

A final element concerns the notion of a unique voice of color. Coexisting in somewhat uneasy tension with antiessentialism, the voice-of-color thesis holds that because of their different histories and experiences with oppression, black, American Indian, Asian, and Latino writers and thinkers may be able to communicate to their white counterparts matters that the whites are unlikely to know. Minority status, in other words, brings with it a presumed competence to speak about race and racism.

There is much evidence that there is no unique voice of colour, and although there is good reason to think that people who have experienced racism may well have more perspective on it, they tend to have different perspectives. CRTs are more likely to regard those who agree with them as authoritative than those who disagree – i.e  “Yes” to Derrick Bell and Kimberlé Crenshsaw but “No” to Thomas Sowell or Shelby Steele.

After you work your way through Helen’s long piece, you realize that you simply cannot use “Critical Race Theory” unless you specify exactly what version you’re talking about. In fact, I’d say it’s best to ditch the phrase altogether and just discuss the claims.  I believe that’s Helen’s conclusion as well:

If it helps to call the current anti-racist theories “contemporary critical theories of race” rather than “Critical Race Theory”, do so, but for goodness’ sake, let’s stop the endless quibbling about terminology and talk about the ideas that have deeply infiltrated universities, employment, education, mainstream media, social media and general culture.

This is vitally important for two reasons.  Firstly, we need to be able address racism in society ethically and effectively. Secondly and relatedly, individuals need to be allowed to have their own views about how racism works and their own ethical frameworks for opposing it. They need to be able to discuss and compare them. This will help with achieving the first goal.

When it comes to discussing contemporary critical theories of race, we need to be able to talk about what the current theories actually say and advocate for and whether they are ethical and effective. Many people from a wide range of political, cultural, racial, religious and philosophical backgrounds would say “No” they are not, and they should be able to make their case for alternative approaches.

It is also vitally important that we are able to talk about how much influence these theories already have and how much they should have on society in general and on government, employment, mainstream media, social media and education in particular, and whether this influence is largely positive or negative. From my time listening to clients of Counterweight, I would respond, “Way too much” and “Largely negative” to these questions.

She ends with what are perhaps the most important questions, and can’t resist injecting her own opinion. Others may differ, but she says she has an open mind:

Most importantly, we need to be able to measure and discuss what effects these theories have on reducing racism, increasing social cohesion and furthering the goals of social justice. Are they achieving that or are they increasing racial tensions, decreasing social cohesion and being the driving force for many injustices in society while creating a culture of fear, pigeonholing people of racial minority into political stereotypes, and silencing the voices of those who dissent? I strongly believe, based on the reports coming into Counterweight, that it is the latter. However, I am willing to be persuaded to think differently, so let’s talk.

In the end, the theory is important only if we can get data supporting or contradicting it.

Bari Weiss interviews Glenn Loury

September 29, 2021 • 1:00 pm

All I’m intellectually capable of doing today is summarizing other articles for you. I’d do a lot better with a good night’s sleep.

Anyway, on her Substack site, Bari Weiss interviews Brown University economist and contrarian Glenn Loury. The edited print version is below; I think access is free but you should subscribe if you read often.  Click on the screenshot below to read the interview.

You can also hear the complete 1 hour, 42 minute video here, though I’m not sure you can hear it if you don’t subscribe. I haven’t yet listened to it.

Weiss, who also bucks the tide of wokeness, is a big admirer of Loury, who at one point—though he’s no longer religious—says that religion saved him from addiction problems.

She begins by pointing out a 1984 essay Loury wrote for The New Republic, “A new American dilemma” (see a pdf here), which partly blamed black poverty on black culture itself. When he read excerpts from that essay (which I haven’t read) at a meeting of civil rights leaders, it apparently made Coretta Scott King weep:

BW: Did it feel like you were saying something out loud and in public that many people you knew and probably many people you grew up with believed, but it just wasn’t allowed to be said out loud at a place like Harvard?

GL: I don’t want to get too partisan about it, but I just want to say I don’t think the people around that table who led those organizations were like: “Yeah, I agree with you. That’s the problem. But we can’t say it that way.” I think they were more like: “That’s not how we talk. That’s reactionary talk that gives aid and comfort to the enemy. We expected better of you than that.” That’s why I think Mrs. King was weeping. At the end of the day, I was standing right next to her. We’re only about 20 people in the room. And I’m standing up extemporaneously giving a 20 or 30 minute exposition. And I looked down and there are tears rolling down her cheek. And I think it was a disappointment. You know, I am this wunderkind, I’m 34 years old and I’m a tenured professor of economics at Harvard. I have all that cache. And there I am. That’s my message. That’s what I have to say.

Loury’s criticism of wokeness and his emphasis on education as a way of black empowerment, without lowering standards, resembles that of his friend John McWhorter (they often have discussions on Bloggingheads.tv).  Also similar is Loury’s analogizing wokeness to a religion. 

BW: I’d like for you to get specific. [About the decline in academic standards Loury perceives in American education]

GL: The diversity thing is going to be one of the things that I’m going to say. The hostility to American interest in the world is another thing that I could point to. The impatience with the fact that when you transform moral judgments about things like gender identity overnight in a country of 330 million people, where everybody is not going to be on the same page at the same time, and the way you decide to talk about that from some lofty, supercilious, self-righteous, sanctimonious moral posture and to condemn the people who are holding their bibles or holding on to their traditions as if they were know-nothings. That smugness infects the university. But I think the diversity thing is related to the standards thing.

Loury has some harsh things to say about newly appointed MacArthur genius grant recipient Ibram Kendi, but we’ll skip that to where Weiss asks Loury to envision a way for black lives to improve that differs from the program of Black Lives Matter (a movement Loury also disses pretty strongly)

BW: And yet corporations and the entire elite establishment has taken up the cause of Black Lives Matter. And the cynic in me would say it’s just about the cheapest and easiest thing that they could possibly do.

GL: Nothing that Black Lives Matter is about has any intersection with the things that actually matter in black lives. What about education? The gap in the cognitive development of the human potential of African-American youngsters relative to others in this country widens. It’s a yawning chasm.

BW: Glenn, if one really cared about black lives and wanted to insist on a movement that actually fulfilled the promise of black lives mattering, what would be the top three priorities of that movement?

GL: I think self-determination and taking responsibility for our lives. I’d say education. I’m sorry this is partisan, but the public-school unions are poorly serving, on the whole, the places where black students congregate and the intellectual needs of those students. Now, there are other people to be faulted as well. But opening up that system to innovation is absolutely imperative to improving the quality of black life in this country.

And the public safety piece of this narrative, that the police are out to get black people, this contempt for law, the lawlessness of the George Floyd protests, the celebration of that lawlessness, the silence in the face of it. Patriotism. And by that I don’t mean blind loyalty to a flag salute, I mean seeing yourself as an integral part of the American project. This is our country. We don’t stand off from it. There is no United Nations where black claims will be negotiated. We must make our peace with our fellow citizens. That has corollaries: two national anthems is a terrible idea, reparations for slavery is a mistake. It wrongly places the nature of the moral problem. It creates these parties as between which a negotiation and a deal is being cut. There are not two parties here. There’s only one party.

And then he makes a statement which I see as largely true but is rejected by much of the left: that race relations in America have improved markedly in the last eighty years. Of course we have a long way to go—the inequalities in education, wealth, and housing are glaringly obvious—but I suppose I’m also Pinkerian in also emphasizing the progress, as Loury does here, with an interesting take:

I could go down the litany of evidence to the effect that the race-relations situation in America in the 21st century is completely and radically different and improved relative to what it was in the mid 20th century. And I think we have to begin to entertain a possibility, which is that the actual success of American history, the fact that we overcame the warts, is the problem. Because the fact of that success in the face of the continuing failure of a large chunk of black society to get on the escalator of opportunity, which defines this country, is just too much cognitive dissonance for a lot of people to grapple with. It’s the presidency of Barack Hussein Obama. It’s the fact that black women are the mayors of a half dozen big cities that I could name. It’s the fact that there are black billionaires. That Oprah Winfrey is Oprah Winfrey and that LeBron James is LeBron James. It’s the fact that every corporate office has an Ibram X. Kendi-loving executive running it. These are the realities of America. Now, in the face of that, you still got jails overflowing with black people. You’ve still got massive poverty and disparity. People do not know the goal in the 21st century with those facts. So they end up, like infants, throwing tantrums in the corner.

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.”


“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.

Scientific American (and math) go full woke

August 29, 2021 • 12:15 pm

As we all know, Scientific American is changing from a popular-science magazine into a social-justice-in-science magazine, having hardly anything the science-hungry reader wants to see any more. I urge you to peruse its website and look for the kind of article that would have inspired me when I was younger: articles about pure science.  Now the rag is all about inequities and human diseases.

In the past couple of months, there have been some dire op-eds, and here’s another one—not as bad as some others, but (especially for a science magazine) riddled with unexamined assumptions. Click on the screenshot to read it. Apparently the “racial reckoning” that began last year has now crept into mathematics.

After reading it, I have two questions: Is mathematics structurally racist? And why has Scientific American changed its mission from publishing decent science pieces to flawed bits of ideology?

The article, of course, claims that mathematics is a hotbed of racism and misogyny, which explains why there are so few women and blacks in academic mathematics.

The article begins with stories of thee women mathematicians, all of whom report that they felt discriminated against or at least looked down upon. All of them have academic jobs, two as professors and one as a postdoc. I don’t doubt their stories, but what we have are three anecdotes. At face value, they show that there is some racism or sexism in academic math, but these are cherry-picked anecdotes that demonstrate little except that, like all fields, math is not entirely free of bigotry. I also procured two anecdotes with no effort. First, I asked one of my female math-y friends, Professor Anna Krylov,  a theoretical and computational quantum chemist at USC, who deals extensively with mathematicians, if that had been her experience, and she said what’s indented below. (I quote her with permission; we’ve met Anna before.)

 I was often a single women in a room — but so what? It did not turn me away from the subject I was passionate about.  I experienced some forms of discrimination throughout my career and can tell stories… But — as McWhorter often says — “there was then and there is now”! These anecdotes [from Sci. Am.] are blown out of proportion and completely misrepresent the current climate.

She also worried that these narratives, which don’t resemble her own, cultivate a victim mentality in women. (Anna is no anti-feminist, either: she helped initiate a protest against an all-male speaker agenda at a chemistry conference.)

Anna also mentioned another female math professor in the U.S. who agrees with her own experience. So we have two anecdotes on one side, and three on the other. (I have to add that, as I’ve said before, I myself felt inferior and suffered from “imposter syndrome” for several years in graduate school, constantly thinking about dropping out. But I finally realized that I could find my own niche.)

Author Crowell also gives two examples of undeniable racial discrimination against black mathematicians, but those took place in the early 20th century and in the Fifties, and it’s undeniable that at that time there was academic racism. But, as Anna said, “there was then and there is now”. If we’re to accept that mathematics is now structurally racist and misogynist, with an endemic culture of bigotry that leads to inequities, we need to do better than that.

So beyond the academic data, the article adds this:

Racism, sexism and other forms of systematic oppression are not unique to mathematics, and they certainly are not new, yet many in the field still deny their existence. “One of the biggest challenges is how hard it can be to start a conversation” about the problem, Sawyer says, “because mathematicians are so convinced that math is the purest of all of the sciences.” Yet statistics on the mathematics profession are difficult to ignore. In 2019 a New York Times profile of Edray Herber Goins, a Black mathematics professor at Pomona College, reported that “fewer than 1 percent of doctorates in math are awarded to African-Americans.” A 2020 NSF survey revealed that out of a total of 2,012 doctorates awarded in mathematics and statistics in the U.S. in 2019, only 585 (29.1 percent) were awarded to women. That percentage is slightly lower than in 2010, when 29.4 percent of doctorates in those areas (467 out of 1,590) were awarded to women. (Because these numbers are grouped based on sex rather than gender, that survey did not report how many of those individuals identify as a gender other than male or female.)

This is the Kendi-an idea that inequities in achievement are prima facie evidence of bias. But if you think about it for both women and African-Americans, that need not be true. This is a true case of begging the question: assuming that there is structural racism and misogyny in math and thus the lower representation is simply its result.

The problem with this, as we’ve discussed before, is that there are reasons for these inequities beyond structural racism, so you can’t just assume its existence. (As I said, nobody with any sense would deny that there are racist or sexist mathematicians; the claim is that the field is permeated with bigotry._

Regarding women, we’ve learned that the sexes differ in interests and preferences, with men being “thing people” and women being “people people” (these are of course average differences, not diagnostic traits!). As Lee Jussim points out in a Psychology Today op-ed, on the advanced high school level, men and women do about the same in math, but women do better than men in demonstrating verbal and reading skills.  In other words, women are better than men at everything, but many choose areas that are more word-heavy than math-heavy. That itself, combined with different preferences, causes inequities. As Jussim writes,

This same issue of differing interests was approached in a different way by Wang, Eccles, and Kenny (2013). Disclosure: Eccles was my dissertation advisor and longterm collaborator; I am pretty sure she identifies as a feminist, has long been committed to combating barriers to women, and is one of the most objective, balanced social scientists I have ever had the pleasure to know.

In a national study of over 1,000 high school students, they found that:

1. 70 percent more girls than boys had strong math and verbal skills;

2. Boys were more than twice as likely as girls to have strong math skills but not strong verbal skills;

3. People (regardless of whether they were male or female) who had only strong math skills as students were more likely to be working in STEM fields at age 33 than were other students;

4. People (regardless of whether they were male or female) with strong math and verbal skills as students were less likely to be working in STEM fields at age 33 than were those with only strong math skills.

Thus inequities in academic math may be a matter of differential preferences or other factors not reflecting bigotry. And this may be one explanation for why, although Sci. Am. notes that only 29.1% of doctorates in math were awarded to women in 2019, it looks from Jussim’s bar graph that about 35% of first time graduate enrollees in math and computer science are women. That bespeaks only a slightly higher attrition rate among women than men—something that needs to be addressed. But again, the go-to answer is not automatically “misogyny.”

As for African-Americans, yes, there’s way too few doctorates awarded in mathematics. To me this does bespeak racism, but racism in the past, not necessarily now. The situation is that due to inequality of opportunity, blacks almost certainly lack easy entry now into mathematics studies. This is a narrowing of the pipeline from the outset that needs to be rectified. But again, the figures do not show that the low output at the pipeline’s terminus is due to racism.

As to what happened to Scientific American, well, it’s gone the way of all the science journals. It is doing performative wokeness.

One more item: Have a look at MathSafe, an organization hired by the American Mathematical Society to police meetings like beagles sniffing out impurities. It’s as if we are no longer adults who can police our own behavior at meetings, and need to pay others to do it for us.

h/t: Anna

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.