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Has Anti-Racism Become as Harmful as Racism? John McWhorter vs. Nikhil Singh

Watch the Oxford-style debate hosted by the Soho Forum.

Has the message of anti-racism become as harmful a force in American life as racism itself?

That was the resolution at a public debate hosted by the Soho Forum on November 14, 2018. It featured John McWhorter, associate professor of English at Columbia University, and Nikhil Singh, professor of social and cultural analysis and history at New York University. Soho Forum Director Gene Epstein moderated.

It was an Oxford-style debate in which the audience votes on the resolution at the beginning and end of the event, and the side that gains the most ground is victorious. In a close finish, Singh, arguing the negative, prevailed by convincing nearly 13 percent of audience members to come over to his side.

Singh is the author of Race and America's Long War (University of California Press, 2017), and Black Is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy (Harvard University Press, 2004).

McWhorter, who is a regular columnist for Time and CNN, is the author most recently of Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths About America's Lingua Franca (2017)

Comedian Dave Smith, host of the podcast Part of the Problem, opened the program.

The Soho Forum, which is partnered with the Reason Foundation, is a monthly debate series at the SubCulture Theater in Manhattan's East Village. On Monday, December 3, economists Kenneth Rogoff and Lawrence H. White will debate whether governments should phase out cash. Get your tickets here.

Edited by Todd Krainin.

Music: "Voyeur," by Jingle Punks.

Photo Credit: Brett Raney.

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  • Matthew Chalice||

    This sounds really interesting. I love McWhorter's work and think he strikes the ideal balance between opposing things like police brutality, which is obviously anti-libertarian, AND opposing things like language policing, which is also anti-libertarian.

  • buybuydandavis||

    McWhorter is mostly sane but for terminal TDS.

  • Deconstructed Potato||

    I think the TDS is necessary to sell his books. It's like an Oprah book club sticker.

  • rollerdisco||

    "opposing things like police brutality, which is obviously anti-libertarian"

    I think you might have some confusion on what libertarianism is.

  • a ab abc abcd abcde abcdef ahf||

    What the anti-racist-baiters miss is that their position depends on government coercion, to force people into repressing their feelings. Not only does this give government more power, it also makes it harder to find the real racists, and by cornering and suppressing those real racists, it confirms them in their racist attitudes. If, on the other hand, their feelings were out in the open, they'd find themselves isolated by honest public opinion, and some might actually have to think beyond "I hate being told what to do".

  • chemjeff radical individualist||

    What the anti-racist-baiters miss is that their position depends on government coercion, to force people into repressing their feelings.

    What? No one is forcing you to repress your feelings.

  • ||

    What? No one is forcing you to repress your feelings.

    So I can open my whites-only Southern-style Chicken and BBQ restaurant tomorrow then? And people will just 'DADT' about whether I'm actually a racist or not?

  • Mr. JD||

    No, but you could open one that's blacks-only, and if you open it in Portland, you'll get a lot of praise for it, and any critics will get beaten up.

    You won't have many customers, though, since Portland is the whitest city in America.

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    And I love Puerto Ricans and Negroes, as long as they don't move next door....

    Phil Ochs would have loved Portland.

  • Incredulous||

    True story!

  • dchang0||

    Portland might also be the most virtue-signaling city in America, so they would all demand a gov't subsidy for the blacks-only restaurant.

  • buybuydandavis||

    "It's only racist when Whitey does it"

  • chemjeff radical individualist||

    Oh. So you are describing actions, not feelings then.

  • dchang0||

    He should have said "force the repression of the EXPRESSION of one's feelings."

    Which is pretty psychologically unhealthy if taken to extremes.

  • ||

    No, I asked two questions, neither of which you answered.

  • GG00dmn||

    Twitter Liberals (mostly looked like White faces in the icons) harshly attacked this topic of debate as White Supremacy and Racism, and "bad reasoning", not realizing that they were "white-splaining" to a black professor what he ought to be thinking and saying. It is a serious microaggression in SJW circles for White Liberals to explain anything to Black People. The instructions are Listen (and agree and support).

    Exceptions apparently exist for White People to criticize Black People who do wrongthink and wrongspeak.

  • JWatts||

    "What? No one is forcing you to repress your feelings."

    Yeah chemjeff has a point. You don't have to repress your feelings. Just any actions or speech that might indicate what they are if they happen to be wrongthink.

  • Ed Grinberg||

    Chemjeff and his ilk vacillate between "What are you talking about? There is no 1984-like totalitarian control!" and "1984-like totalitarian control is OK, as long as the right ideas are being promoted / suppressed."

  • ||

    Anti-racism has always been as harmful as racism. It just wasn't as widely practiced.

  • Mr. JD||

    You give them more credit than they deserve if you imagine that their membership's only flaw is honest error.

  • commentguy||

    You really think that racists would feel ashamed of being racist and change their ways if only they could figure out for themselves that racism is repugnant to the majority of people? Interesting theory.

  • buybuydandavis||

    "to force people into repressing their feelings"

    They are fundamentally a totalitarian religious cult that uses State power to push the One True Faith and punish Unbelievers.

  • DajjaI||

    A core antifa belief is that racists are fundamentally violent and irrational and you can't reason with them or educate them or even humiliate or shame then into compliance. Instead you can only 'crush' them - meaning isolate them, round them up, punish them, even kill them. Well this is completely wrong. All people are fundamentally rational and reasonable even if it takes some effort. The reason antifa is so misguided on this issue is that they mute/block/ban their opposition. So they don't understand their true views, and they self-radicalize in their echo chambers. Actually both sides do this. In the past you had to pick one newspaper or the other, and the viewpoints rarely mixed. But these days you can source your news from many different kinds of sites, even talk back assuming they don't ban you (ahem). Most people don't do this, but fortunately enough of us do that I think we'll be ok. Also yeah, I really like McWhorter, at least from what I've seen of him. He's one of the few people I haven't yet figured out where he goes off the rails.

  • Last of the Shitlords||

    A tifa's core Belief describes progressives.

  • buybuydandavis||

    "A core antifa belief is that racists are fundamentally violent and irrational and you can't reason with them or educate them or even humiliate or shame then into compliance."

    SJWs Always Project

  • ravenshrike||

    "All people are fundamentally rational and reasonable even if it takes some effort."

    Um, no. Most people are, and their level or rationality and reasonableness isn't inherent to how racist they are or where they are on the political spectrum, but to say that all people are is false.

  • Dillinger||

    what am i thinking right now?

  • Eddy||

    OMG those are the filthiest thoughts I've ever heard!

  • Eddy||

    Oops, that was just me, never mind.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Only white red neck people in flyover country are racist, so I don't see how anti-racism hurts America.

  • JWatts||

    Reverend? Is that you?

  • Rich||

    the message of anti-racism

    I have no idea what that could be. Does that make me a racist?

  • Ryan (formally HFTO)||

    If you're white is does matter because the answer is yes

  • Rich||

    *** scratches head ***

    And if I identify as a Black?

  • Ryan (formally HFTO)||

    You can't be racist. DUH!

  • End Child Unemployment||

    Um, pretty sure from my PHD in People Of Color Intersectional Feminist Social Justice Victimhood Studies that any white person self-identifying as black is racist. That's how "whiteness" works, or something. Self-identifying gender is allowed and encouraged in the current thought regime, but self-identifying ethnicity is double plus bad.

  • Deconstructed Potato||

    Unless Elizabeth Warren does it?

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    She's female so we have to treat her like an adorable little kitten

  • Mr. JD||

    There is no comparison. So-called "anti-racism" is much, much worse.

    To achieve "anti-racism", you start with racism in all its glory, then add dishonesty.

  • Jerry B.||

    Based on the commenters ranting on the WAPO's article about Cindy Hyde-Smith winning the Mississippi Senate seat, everyone in Mississippi is a racist. I'm sure this comes as a surprise to the 36.3% of Mississippians who are Black.

  • SimonP||

    Given the racially polarized politics of the deep south, I don't think it would surprise those black Mississippians at all. I doubt a majority of them voted for CHS.

  • Ryan (formally HFTO)||

    I'm still waiting for the "women who marry white men are racist" article. We can't be far from it. ENABLERS!

  • Ryan (formally HFTO)||

    Not here, thank god. Probably WaPo

  • JWatts||

    "Why white women should marry white men" - Completely racist article

    "Why black women should marry black men" - Intriguing cultural point of view

  • Eddy||

    "White women should marry white men so black women have a better chance" - non-racist article

  • buybuydandavis||

    "It's only racist when Whitey does it"

  • Eddy||

    I wish they'd choose a term other than "anti-racism." What's the opposite of anti-racism? Pro-racism? Indifference to racism? Anyway, it's hard to make "anti-racism" sound bad, much less worse than racism. Why not say "racial demagoguery"?

  • TJJ2000||

    Its so good to see this subject coming into the public news. One might ask themselves where the line between racism and flipped racism exists. History does a really good job.
    ---------------
    The Civil Rights act of 1863; stated, "All persons .... without regard to race, color or previous status."
    Bill was pushed/passed by the Republicans.

    Severely opposed by the Democrats - Even Vetoed by Democratic President Johnson
    Democratic Veto was overturned by Republican Congress
    ---------------
    The Civil Rights act of 1964;
    - "Prohibited" states ability to test voters for literacy
    - "Prohibited" a PRIVATE BUSINESS OWNER the ability to deny service to people of X-color, X-sex, X-Religion or X-Origin (Private "Club" may be exempt) but "Club" was never defined.
    - "Prohibited" states/municipals from deny X-color, X-sex, X-Religion or X-Origin any school or service of their choosing.
    - "Prohibited" any measure that denied the X-color, X-sex, X-religion federal funding no matter if it was based on the pre-mentioned or not.
    ** AND THE KICKER -- 10-years later an Act that made it illegal for Banks to Deny Women a Credit Card **
    Bill was pushed/passed by the Democratic Party
    Opposed by the Republican Party

    Now; If you cannot find the difference between those two bills; Well then, you're probably a Democrat.

  • Red Rocks White Privilege||

    Bill was pushed/passed by the Democratic Party
    Opposed by the Republican Party

    What? The Republicans in Congress voted for it by 80-20 margins. The Democrats voted for it by 65-35 margins. The bill had bipartisan support, but the real split was between northern and southern states. Almost every single southern congressman, Republican AND Democrat, voted against it.

  • TJJ2000||

    Yes - My mistake. It did have much more Republican support. Interesting to find out it was actually filibustered by 5-Democrats. I guess I just assumed because the 1964 Civil Rights Act was Introduced by Democrat Celler and root bills were all introduced by Democrats it was opposed by Republicans. From my perspective it should've been opposed - I don't think it did anything but entitle X-color, X-sex and X-origin at the expense of anyone who wasn't X-color, X-sex or X-origin ( I think it went too far controlling private business ).

  • Samshile||

    A calculation of 26 major civil rights votes from 1933 through the 1960's civil rights era shows that Republicans favored civil rights in approximately 96% of the votes, whereas the Democrats opposed them in 80% of the votes! These facts are often intentionally overlooked by the left wing Democrats for obvious reasons. In some cases, the Democrats have told flat out lies about their shameful record during the civil rights movement.

  • buybuydandavis||

    Dems write the history books

  • Mezzanine||

    You seem to be intentionally overlooking the fact that both political parties have had radical and dramatic shifts in ideology over their history. Anyone that tries to compare the present day to many decades in the past is showcasing an impressive amount of intellectual dishonesty.

  • TJJ2000||

    I don't see any dramatic shifts in platform ideology. I do see the left trying to say 'reversed' since people are starting to find out how unstable the left is and sure particular Senators/Representatives have violated party platforms here and there ( after all R-McCain killed the repeal of Obamacare ).

    But we can trace party line ideology all the way back to the U.S. foundation in the 1700s.

    Where all founding fathers, EXCEPT ONE, could accurately read the 'general welfare' clause as taxing uniformly enough for the general welfare of the U.S. Gov (i.e. The federal government and its operations) which should be common-sense because that's where it contextually lye's in the writing. The Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Adams, etc... etc... ALL KNEW the federal government was LIMITED with enumerated powers and at the signing point included Alexander Hamilton.

    ONE founder, after the Constitution was completely ratified, did a back-tread manipulated move in trying to make 'general Welfare of the U.S.' into 'general Welfare of The People'. Alexander Hamilton. And thus was born the Democratic Party.

    Then there was FDR (Democrat) in the early 1900s who stuffed the supreme court to violate the U.S. Constitution and grow the governments 'welfare state' RIGHT IN-LINE with Alexander Hamilton.

    You can trace back all you want. Republicans have ALWAYS believed in the Constitution and Democrats have always ignored it for more socialism and communism.

  • GG00dmn||

    Interesting on Hamilton.
    As counterpoint, I would mention that Mao and Stalin enacted hyper aggressive industrialization that was "for the good for the govt" or "for the good for the nation-state vis-à-vis international standing", but NOT so good for the welfare of the people of those countries ... considered expendable.

    Not an accident nor even "communism" per se, but a conscious decision by the Party (leader) to impose high quotas and confiscation of food, in order to raise foreign capital and to purchase inputs they needed to jump-start modern scientific economy faster.

    At best, one can say Stalin's hyper-industrialization was to ready for looming threats of current and future hostile military actions, though killing all his top generals didn't help w readiness. Mao, I don't think he had that excuse. He wanted to pay back a loan from Khrushchev faster. He didn't even accept Comrade K's advice to *not* follow Comrade Stalin's example of mass starvation, by lightening up on those quotas.

    The role of "communism" = strict top-down management in a dictatorship, ostensibly a dictatorship of those people themselves. The ability to unleash masses of people against "enemies" including top party leaders who were "measured" (not hostile) critics of Mao's starvation policies, by means of Cultural Revolution and "out with tradition" frenzy.

  • epochehusserl||

    The civil rights act of 1964 created a bureaucracies that did the following:
    It prohibited employers from using literacy tests to screen employees
    it prohibited employers from using high school diplomas to screen workers,
    it prohibited employers from using IQ tests and other objective standards to screen candidates,
    It prohibited employers from using criminal background checks to screen employees.
    It coerced loans into otherwise unqualified candidates.
    And so on...

  • Incredulous||

    If you are a good anti-racist today, you have to be racist against white people. If you aren't racist against white people, then you are racist.

    So you have to be racist to be anti-racist.

    If you believe all lives matter, you are a racist.

    Isn't that clear?

    Ok, what are we debating anyway?

  • libertynugget||

    That was interesting and I'll be looking more into McWhorter's articles and other Soho debates.
    Singh, to me at least seemed to be regurgitating the same old talking points but he won the tootsie roll so what do I know? I guess I get annoyed with the whole arrogance in academia (i.e. paraphrasing "middle America will vote against their own economic interests to be a racist Trump supporter") and he strongly represented that to me.

    The real contention I have is the acceptance of the GA elections, taking talking points from the Stacy Abraham's campaign and presenting them as facts (being a GA resident).

    It seems hard to stray from the scope of 'Trump racism', when the previous 8 years, if you ideologically disagreed with the previous administration, you did so out of your racism and not your values or beliefs. That seems to frame the 'woke' sense that if you voted against Obama's legacy, then you're a racist. How does that not partly invoke some backlash that gets us an idiot like Trump in office?
    I guess I'm just a privileged white guy who didn't vote for Trump kind of racist... who knows?

    I did find myself being more supportive of McWhorter's political platforms than posting on FB how racist everyone is and our 'wokeness'

  • SimonP||

    I don't really have the time, patience, or interest to listen to a two-hour debate on this.

    Comparing anti-racism to racism is, first of all, misleading. Anti-racism isn't some systematic, institutional way of oppressing a broad class of people defined according to intrinsic, unchangeable characteristics. At its worst and most extreme, it represents an aggressively ideological opposition to such institutional discrimination. One causes harm. The other is an impolitic way of addressing that harm.

    Being an anti-racist isn't about making friends, and indeed it is awfully peculiar to be faulted for insufficient political correctness by a group of people who view "political correctness" to be a self-evidently awful epithet. If you are offended by anti-racist rhetoric - good! Maybe you should examine why you're threatened by it.

    And, yes, being anti-racist in many ways means being "anti-white" - not anti-"white race" so much as anti-"institutionally perpetuated whiteness as a badge of privilege and respect." It means being attentive to the explicit and implicit ways that our public discourse favors and validates the "white" point of view. And that means, yes, recognizing that calls for decency and pretending that racists are basically reasonable people are a way of perpetuating that system.

  • GG00dmn||

    Anti-racism is more than that, when viewed thru recent history of a campaign demonizing white professors and white liberals at one of the more extreme left wing social justice warrior colleges, Evergreen.

    You probably know, lifelong left activist Bret Weinstein responded via email to a unilateral decision to flip an anti-racist demo based on a play in which "Black people go on strike (and absent themselves to an off-campus location), thereby proving their value to White comm" (not so relevant at this college, far from a Sundown Town), to a new demo of "PoC stay here in conferences while White People are asked -- required -- to go away".

    BW replied this was like forced expulsion which would elevate racial animus, resonant wrt Jews ordered to vacate disappear from German life.

    Correct or not, a dialectic was never had, bcz his group email was fwd to ALL teachers and students. Result was a hostile mob at his classroom door. Police warnings that a bat-wielding mob might attack him.

    BW was "unsafe" due to threat of physical violence. Activists were "unsafe" and had their "existence threatened" due to "emotional violence" based on their least-charitable and non-up-for-discussion interpretation of BW's stance.

    THAT was only one famous ongoing struggle, including Diversity admins haranguing other White teachers with profanity and threats.

  • buybuydandavis||

    Social Justice is identity politics targeted to sow fear, hatred, and resentment against white men, the *only* people who are not allowed to engage in identity politics.

    Calling it "anti racism" is the usual Leftist Big Lie of accusing the people they attack of attacking them.

  • mschultz||

    So am I the only one that noticed that Singh sneaked the, "they aren't voting for their best interests, we have to teach them to vote right" line at 1:04:50?

    I hate that.

    Also, on the GA stuff - weren't the registration purges and polling place closures authorized at the county level? Did I miss something there? I was skeptical about the factual claims being made regarding that.

  • JoeJoetheIdiotCircusBoy||

    This was a fantastic debate! One of the best Soho Forum has done so far

  • CDRSchafer||

    People who are unkind to other people, don't choose one or two races to be mean too - they're mean to everybody. Today it stands out more when they're mean to POC, but I would argue you are either an asshole to pretty much everybody or you're a decent person. You don't turn it on and off, especially these days when there's so much of a downside to being perceived as a racist.

  • I am the 0.000000013%||

    They wouldn't be mean if the rest of the world simply changed so they could be happy

  • Azathoth!!||

    I think that the most important thing that undermines the cause of 'anti-racism' is that the people applying that label to themselves and using it as a club to beat down all dissent are, in fact, the racists. They have always BEEN the racists--whether they were using firehoses on people marching for civil rights or using bikelocks on people marching for civil rights.

    Their goal is always the same--them, in power, over everyone else.

  • PCGUY||

    It was a good discussion which highlights the dangers of both agendas when thoughts lead to actions that infringe on others' rights. It's ridiculous to me that looks and labels lead to extremism in the US. And this extremism on either side just fuels the other side. Both groups want to perpetuate racism in my opinion.

  • vek||

    Didn't watch the thing, too long to bother with.

    Here's the thing: There are valid reason for many "racist" opinions. I'm part Mexican myself... But I'd NEVER want to live in a majority Hispanic neighborhood. Why? Because they're the second highest crime rate group in America, after blacks of course.

    So is one racist for not wanting to live in a Hispanic/black neighborhood? Or are they simply SMART, and know how to read statistics.

    Is it racist to expect blacks to have the same academic scores to get into a college as a white or Asian student? Methinks not. Methinks it is racist to deny whites and Asians who are better qualified so a lesser black student can get in, where they tend to perform poorly due to mismatch of abilities vs curriculum.

    I could go on for 100 years. Bottom line is most things people call racist, aren't racist... There are legitimate reasons to hold certain stereotypes about a lot of groups as far as at the group level... When dealing with an INDIVIDUAL you should always take them as you find them, but when you're dealing in the abstract, not all stereotypes are wrong... They're in fact often quite correct.

    I think Americans do an AWESOME job at taking people as individuals, but just because some people still accept that some groups have XYZ traits... That doesn't make them horrible people, OR wrong.

  • Mr. JD||

    There are many different concepts lumped together by the word "racist":

    1. I won't hire a qualified candidate because he's black
    2. As a kid playing team hide-and-seek at night, I chose the black kid for my team because he's harder to see
    3. I published crime statistics, including some showing that black people commit more crimes on average
    4. Given the names "Sarah" and "LaTasha", I assumed that "LaTasha" was the black one

    SJWs lump these together, using the existence of any as a cudgel for socialism. But only the first is actually immoral.

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