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Weekend reads: On the aim of 'unlearning race'
Is it really wise for the left to abandon the ideal of colourblindness?
One of the big shocks of my adult life has been watching the leftist values that I grew up with rapidly fall out of fashion with the left. In an era of political polarization and escalating culture wars, freedom of speech — a principle upon which my entire worldview, and career, depends — is now coded as a right wing issue.
As is skepticism of Big Pharma and corporate power and government, resistance to globalization, advocacy for sex-based rights for women, and, increasingly, advocacy for rights based on same-sex attraction. Class analysis is perceived as populist at best and white supremacist at worst. Open inquiry is out, too; “just asking questions” is read as the “toxic denialism” of provocateurs and tolerance for diverse viewpoints has been replaced with calls for de-platforming. Even the industrialization of our food supply and its impacts on the planet and human health has become a far-right talking point, if Mother Jones is to be believed.
All of this is profoundly disorienting. And for many, it begs the question: Do you abandon your principles, or do you abandon the left?
I thought of all of this again this week, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action, in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard. The ensuing public conversation highlighted the fact that another formerly-cherished principle of the left, colourblindness, has now officially been deemed regressive.
Colourblindness is the ideal, advanced by none other than Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that we judge our fellow citizens based on the content of their character and not the colour of their skin. Throughout my life, this has been sacrosanct on the left.
But as writer and podcaster Coleman Hughes has noted at The Free Press, the ideal of colourblindness has recently become controversial, recast as a reactionary idea:
Not seeing race is the surest way, these days, to signal that you aren’t on the right side of this divide. Indeed, the term “color-blind” has become anathema to rightthink, and if you live in elite institutions—universities, corporate America, the mainstream media—the quickest way to demonstrate that you just don’t get it is to say, “I don’t see color” or “I was taught to treat everyone the same.”
Once considered a progressive attitude, color-blindness is now seen as backwards—a cheap surrender in the face of racism, at best; or a cover for deeply held racist beliefs, at worst.
But color-blindness is neither racist nor backwards. Properly understood, it is the belief that we should strive to treat people without regard to race in our personal lives and in our public policy.
Diving into the affirmative action debate in particular, Hughes advocates instead for a class-based approach to public policy:
… eliminating race-based policies does not mean eliminating all policies aimed at reducing the gap between the haves and the have-nots. It simply means that such policies should be executed on the basis of class, not race. Not only is class a better proxy for true disadvantage, but class-based policies also avoid the core problem with race-based ones: to discriminate in favor of some races, you must discriminate against others. This discrimination creates an endless cycle of racial grievance and resentment in every direction. Income-based policies—such as progressive taxation, earned-income tax credit, and need-based financial aid—tend to be more popular and less controversial than race-based policies, in part, because they do not penalize anyone for immutable, biological traits.
I would add — as this New York Times profile of Richard Kahlenberg, a “liberal maverick fighting race-based affirmative action,” makes clear — that taking a race-based approach does not cost wealthy white liberals a thing. And tends to be unpopular with the wider electorate. (According to the Times: “Today, as in the mid-1990s, polls show that a majority of people oppose race-conscious college admissions, even as they support racial diversity.”)
Richard Kahlenberg, an expert witness in the Harvard and UNC litigation, argued persuasively in the Times this week that we should focus on class, not race.
The problems with implementing race-based policies are, to my mind, manifold.
The first issue, as Hughes notes, is that favouring one race requires disfavouring others. (Read this op-ed by Canadian youth climate activist Calvin Yang, who is part of SFFA v. Harvard.) The basic unfairness of such a practice breeds resentment and backlash. We need to ask ourselves some critical questions here: Do we want to live in a world where our basic rights exist at the whim of which racial group happens to be in favour? Moreover: Would you be comfortable with your political opponents deciding which race takes priority?
The second issue with race-based policies, as Eli Steele has pointed out, is that they encourage us to see people as proxies for racial groups, thereby eroding our ability to recognize people for the unique individuals that they are. This is, at heart, dehumanizing. And we have seen the disastrous consequences of this type of thinking throughout history. “Racial thinking is a way to reduce people to certain boxes in order to execute whatever action you want,” Steele told me. “The danger of racial thinking is that you are looking at the world through a racial lens. That’s a very reductive way of thinking. And that does not put you in good company.”
Racism, past and current, is certainly implicated in the distribution of inequalities in the U.S. Blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately represented among the poor and the economically precarious, and therefore disproportionately represented among those of greatest risk for COVID-19 problems and death. The fundamental sources of that heightened vulnerability are not because of the racial classification. They are because of the economic structure. The problem isn’t simply that Blacks are disproportionately represented among low wage workers and the economically marginal. The problem is that there are so many low wage workers and economically marginal people. And that those numbers are growing.
The fourth issue with race-based policy is the possibility of unintended consequences, for the very groups that such policies purport to serve. John McWhorter published a personal essay on this, this week in the Times, highlighting the collateral damage of affirmative action policies throughout his own career, including the promotion of the view that “it is somehow ungracious to expect as much of Black students — and future teachers — as we do of others.”
All of this leads me to believe, as another public intellectual I admire, Thomas Chatterton Williams, has argued, that we are far better off working to “unlearn race.”
The fact that this now puts me at odds with the left never ceases to astonish me.
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