The Volokh Conspiracy

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1619 Project

Ross Douthat on Structural Racism


Brilliant column by Douthat:

What's really inflaming today's fights, though, is that the structural-racist diagnosis isn't being offered on its own. Instead it's yoked to two sweeping theories about how to fight the problem it describes.

First, there is a novel theory of moral education, according to which the best way to deal with systemic inequality is to confront its white beneficiaries with their privileges and encourage them to wrestle with their sins.

Second, there is a Manichaean vision of public policy, in which all policymaking is either racist or antiracist, all racial disparities are the result of racism — and the measurement of any outcome short of perfect "equity" may be a form of structural racism itself…

The impulses these ideas encourage take different forms in different institutions, but they usually circle around to similar goals. First, the attempt to use racial-education programs to construct a stronger sense of shared white identity, on the apparent theory that making Americans of European ancestry think of themselves as defined by a toxic "whiteness" will lead to its purgation. Second, the deconstruction of standards that manifest racial disparities, on the apparent theory that if we stop using gifted courses or standardized tests, the inequities they reveal will cease to matter… The [latter idea] extends structural analysis beyond what it can reasonably bear, into territory where white supremacy supposedly explains Asian American success on the SAT.

But precisely because they don't follow from modest and defensible conceptions of systemic racism, smart progressives in the media often retreat to those modest conceptions when challenged by conservatives — without acknowledging that the dubious conceptions are a big part of what's been amplifying controversy, and conjuring up dubious Republican legislation in response.

Back in 1991, I heard Derrick Bell, one of the founders of Critical Race Theory, defend the importance of making white people more aware of their whiteness, and congratulate himself on persuading some of his students, particularly a Jewish one, think of themselves as white. So at least some of this is deeply ingrained, but the idea that making Americans of European descent more inclined toward white identitarianism is going to have long-term positive consequences is, well, nuts.

I would add one more factor to Douthat's analysis. As with the 1619 Project and Kendi and Reynolds, Stamped: Racism, Antiracism and You, activist historians and journalists play fast and loose with facts to suit their historical narratives. They also seem impervious to acknowledging, much less correcting, even the most glaring errors when pointed out to them. For example (in honor of Independence Day), no, the American Revolution was not fought primarily to prevent Great Britain from abolishing slavery in the colonies. Those who insist that public schools should teach made-up nonsense as historical fact in service of radical ideologies that most Americans don't agree with will rightly get political blowback.