Earlier this year, in an interview on a CNN podcast, one of the figureheads of contemporary so-called antiracism, Ibram X. Kendi, unwittingly described the effect of his own work and that of others in his movement: “And so, I mean, the attack on history, the attack on education opens the door to mass ignorance. And when you have mass ignorance, it allows people to be better manipulated for political gain.”
Among the many destructive effects of antiracist education is the inability to recognize and appreciate ideological diversity among black Americans. The assumption of Kendi’s ideology is that, inevitably, all blacks will—by virtue of their experience in racist America—come to adhere to the antiracist ideology.
Indeed, the mainstream media never tire of emphasizing statistics that note that the majority of black Americans vote Democrat and lean heavily left. Yet, there is considerable evidence too of greater ideological diversity among black Americans beyond the simple marker of voting behavior in a two-party system. And even on matters of racial identity politics, it is not hard to find black Americans who diverge from woke views on race.
As a college professor with a quarter century of experience under my belt, I have had the opportunity to encounter a wide range of different kinds of students. Some of the black students I have known have embraced Kendi’s antiracist position. Such students are often quick to reduce every question of inequality to racism and white supremacy. They are also frequently aggressively confident in the truth of their view and uninterested in seriously entertaining other viewpoints.
But it would be incorrect to say there is anything obviously distinctive in how antiracist black students handle intellectual debate. White antiracist students, who are much more numerous in my teaching experience, present as equally assured of the a priori correctness of their perspective. And they are at least as emotional and aggressive about asserting it. When the George Floyd case was first unfolding, I saw examples of such students on the verge of tears as they spoke reverentially about the meaning of the Floyd story.
I have also had numerous experiences over the years with black students who were among the most vehement challengers of the left’s political orthodoxy on race.
One young man a few years ago took a number of classes with me. He told me one day how uncomfortable it made him when white students in class talked about white privilege and systematic racism.
He said: “It’s like they’re denying that I’m in here with them. If everything in America is so well designed to stop people like me, why am I here? Can’t you all see me? I’m sitting right over here on the other side of the room!”
The way he portrayed it was hilariously funny and powerfully poignant at the same time. The image is remarkable: He’s sitting there in the room a few feet away from these white students, all of them from the very comfortable upper-middle class. They are talking incessantly about the “fact” that there’s no way he can ever hope to elude the inescapable tentacles of structural racism. They seemingly do not even see him while they purport to be selflessly advocating for him.
The blindness produced by this antiracist ideology is unavoidable in examples like this. It is a fact that has to be accounted for by all, black and white, who buy the antiracist package. Undeniably, there are black Americans, and significant numbers of them, in positions in American society that can only be characterized as privileged. To occupy a chair in a classroom on the campus of a liberal arts college with a four-year sticker price of around a quarter of a million dollars is itself a marker of such privilege. The student I am discussing here uses his example—and that of his fellow black students in the class, who may or may not share his analysis of their situation—to challenge the totality of the antiracist view.
The existence of students like the young man I’m discussing presents itself as an opportunity for antiracists to hone and clarify their viewpoint. But the opportunity is seldom taken. More typically, this student and others like him are simply ignored.
The woke white students in my classes certainly demonstrate great reticence to an honest attempt to understand his existence. They often talk about racial matters with palpable, simmering anger.
By contrast, this young black student never showed the slightest emotional turmoil in discussing any topic related to race relations in the country. Indeed, he had a smile on his face just about every time I looked at him in class. This dire situation being described by the white middle-class students who were not experiencing it had no power to affect him.
He calmly returned, over and over again, to the fact that he and many others he knew were evidence that hard work and perseverance pay off. His demeanor was unwaveringly upbeat and positive. He was perhaps the single most courteous young person I’ve ever met at this school. He arrived in class every day with a “Good morning, sir!” and left at the end of the hour with a “Have a great day, sir!” Absolutely nothing perturbed him.
It was remarkable to watch how he handled such discussions. It was just as remarkable to note how invisible he was to the white radical students. They would wait patiently for him to have his turn speaking and then return to the same thread they had left before he started speaking. None of them ever acknowledged him or any of the efforts he made to inject his existence, and that of other black students in the class, into their assumptions about the operation of racism.
How I would’ve liked to get inside of their heads—and the heads of other students who were silently observing—in order to see how they made sense of what they must have seen but could not bring themselves to discuss. It’s a conversation from which we would all profit.
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