Social history is complicated. It’s why people spend eons in training in it, and doing it well requires more than simply identifying how whites have been racists and leaving it there. The real social historian gets, for example, that a meme can be especially tenacious when it happens to be useful for other purposes. Teens of all stripes seek ways of defining their subgroup, fostering a sense of group membership, and even of acting out. In black teen culture, one way of doing this is to embrace the idea that studying is white, passed on from previous peer cohorts even if the openly racist teachers of the 1960s and early 1970s are now long gone. Even if you never knew those teachers, the idea that hitting the books isn’t “us” feels good regardless because you are a human being with naturally tribalist impulses.
One response to a book like this might be to own that Electism is a religion. You might consider it a better one than, say, believing that God’s son died for our sins and was reborn, waiting to envelope you in his eternal grace if you believe in him. This new religion is about countering racism. Who could be against that?
But we must ask whether the Elect approach actually shows signs of making any difference in the lives of black people, other than making educated white people infantilize them. While purportedly “dismantling racist structures,” the Elect religion is actually harming the people living in those structures. It is a terrifyingly damaging business.
Elect Ideology Hurts Black People
The Bigotry Against Black Boys
Black boys get suspended and expelled from schools more than other kids. According to Elect ideology this must be because they are discriminated against.
Specifically, we are told to think that the reason these boys get disciplined more than other kids is because teachers hold biases against them. The white kid acting up is a scamp; the black kid acting up is a thug. There are scholar-activists who have founded whole careers on bringing this wisdom to America’s educators and beyond. In 2014, a “Dear Colleague” letter went out from the U.S. Department of Education concurring that black boys are disciplined disproportionately because of racism. In 2019, the United States Commission on Civil Rights released a briefing report making the same case titled “Beyond Suspensions: Examining School Discipline Policies and Connections to the School-to-Prison Pipeline for Students of Color with Disabilities.”
Noble notions from noble entities. But the simple fact is this. Black boys do commit more violent offenses in public schools than other kids. Period. This means that if we follow these prophets’ advice and go easier on black boys, we hinder the education of other black students. The Elect earnestly decry that most black kids go to school with only other black kids, because it fits into their agenda to point out “segregation.” But that “segregation” also entails that the black boys they think should be allowed to beat other kids up in school are handing out the beatings to other black kids.
For example, The Philadelphia Inquirer fanned out across the city’s public schools in 2012 and found that there had been 30,000 violent incidents in public schools between 2007 and then, which included robberies, rapes, and a pregnant teacher punched in the stomach (she was one of 4000 teachers assaulted by students between 2005 and 2010).
Out of desire not to stereotype black kids, one might interpret those numbers in various ways designed to take the focus off of black boys. However, these interpretations just don’t work out.
For example, one might imagine that a lot of these assaults may have been committed by white kids. But the numbers don’t square with it: in Philadelphia’s public schools, 2 in 3 students (70%) are black or Latino.
Or, one might imagine that just maybe, that one third of white kids are committing a disproportionate amount of the assaults? But other studies reveal that it is indeed black boys who are responsible for a disproportionate amount of school violence. The National Center for Education Statistics surveyed students nationwide and found that in 2015, 12.6% of black kids surveyed had had a fight on school grounds while only 5.6% of white kids had. It was not a fluke year: in 2013, the numbers were 12.8% vs. 6.4. In other words, black kids were over twice as likely to engage in violence at school than white kids.
A Fordham Institute study showed the same thing in 2019. It surveyed 1200 black and white teachers elementary and high nationwide, and found that teachers in high-poverty schools were twice as likely to say that verbal disrespect was a daily occurrence in their classrooms, six times as likely to say that physical fighting was a daily or weekly occurrence, and three times as likely to report being personally assaulted by a student, as in other schools. One might ask, to be sure, whether high-poverty schools are always predominantly black or Latino ones – and the answer is that they usually are. The Elect endlessly teach us that brown people are disproportionately poor in America, and if this report had been about hunger or lead paint, they would readily accept it as largely referring to brown kids. It would be inconsistent to suddenly read the Fordham Institute study through a studiously deracialized lens.
In fact, the teachers in this study often reported that in the wake of counsel from calls like the ones above to treat disciplining black boys as bigotry, underreporting of serious incidents was “rampant,” and that the higher tolerance for misbehavior was in part responsible for the recent decline in student suspensions.
Reports from a New York City initiative have even more explicitly located an especial problem with school violence among black boys. The initiative sought to reduce suspensions of black boys in response to the reports claiming that the suspensions were driven by racism. Teachers reported less order and discipline in their classrooms, particularly in black- and Latino-dominated secondary schools. Many black teachers said suspensions and similar kinds of discipline should be used more often, despite the fact that black teachers were slightly more likely to believe also that school discipline could be racially biased. In the high-poverty schools, 60% of African American teachers — slightly more than the 57% of white teachers — said that issues with student behavior made learning difficult.
Those are the facts. (Christopher Paslay’s Exploring White Fragility was my goldmine source for them.) You must consider them the next time you see an earnest, probably black or Latino person in business clothes claiming that “black boys” get a raw deal in disciplining. If they can’t defend themselves in view of the studies mentioned above, and/or give no evidence of having even learned of them, they are not teaching but preaching, and for a purpose that leaves legions of black and Latino kids not only improperly educated but beaten up. Note: I have spared you the accounts of physical assault these kids’ teachers often suffer as well.
The Elect will see only “racism” here, but only because their religious commitment numbs them to the harm their view does to real children living their lives in the real world. To insist that bigotry is the only possible reason for suspending more black boys than white boys is espouse harming black students.
Yale or Jail?
It’s often thought that Affirmative Action at universities involves, simply, considering racial diversity only after assembling a pool of students with the same caliber of grades and test scores. The vision is that all candidates have the same scores, and then you fill out a certain pie chart. Few reasonable people would have a problem with that kind of system, even if the brown students are just a touch lower in scores, upon which there is what we could call a thumb on the scale. Just a thumb.
But the question is whether black and Latino students should be admitted with significantly lower grades and test scores than those that would admit a white or Asian student. This is how racial preferences in university admissions have tradtionally worked, especially beyond a few tippy-top schools such as the one I teach at, and there is no question that it has been common. It was most widely aired during the Gratz v. Bollinger case against the University of Michigan in the early 2000s, where it was revealed that being black alone gave applicants 20 out of 100 points necessary for admission, but this was one of many such cases that have been discovered nationwide. This means that there has been what has been called a “mismatch” between students’ dossiers and the schools they are admitted to.
Many insist that despite the initial mismatch, the students excel nevertheless and the mismatch has no actual effect. But this would mean that the admissions standards applied to other students are meaningless, and actual studies have shown, unsurprisingly, that this is not the case. At Duke University, economist Peter Arcidiacono, with Esteban Aucejo and Joseph Hotz, has shown that the “mismatch” lowers the number of black scientists. Black students at a school where teaching is faster and assumes more background than they have often leave a major in frustration, but would be less likely to have done so at a school prepared to instruct them more carefully.
In 2004, UCLA law professor Richard Sander revealed an especially tragic tendency in this vein, showing that “mismatched” law students are much more likely to cluster in the bottom of their classes and, especially, to fail the bar exam. Predictably, the study attracted much criticism, but no one has refuted its basic observations, as opposed to fashioning reasons why they should for some reason not concern us. It is similarly unlikely that anyone could tell Arcidiacono, Aucejo and Hotz that what they chronicled was mirages.
That students thrive at different paces is hardly rocket science. Because of the societal factors that dismay us all — quality of schooling, parents denied good education themselves, complex home lives — black and Latino students are often less prepared for how quickly students are expected to take in information at selective schools. But the question is: Do we respond to this by nonetheless placing them in schools teaching over their heads?
Plato’s Republic runs about 300 pages. At Columbia, we assign it to every sophomore as the first reading of the year in the Contemporary Civilizations class all sophomores must take. They are expected to have been able to get through it, to discuss it for two or three two-hour classes, and refer to it in a paper or two after that, not to mention retain familiarity with it some weeks later for the midterm. Imagine being a student who is quite bright but is from a home without many books in it. He isn’t the fastest reader in the world, and his schools didn’t expose him to much discussion of disembodied ideas as opposed to matters relevant to daily life. All of a sudden, he’s in a classroom where students marinated since toddlerhood in books and top-quality education are confidently discussing this book, blithely tossing off concepts he’s barely heard of, all doing a fine job of at least faking having gotten through all 300 pages.
Now imagine this student at a school where about 40 pages of the Republic is assigned, likely including the passage about the cave, with the professor making sure to usher students through the contours of the argument, aware that most of the students have rarely engaged a text of this kind. Which class is this student going to be most comfortable in, and which class are they likely to get a better grade on their paper in? And given that regardless of education level, nobody remembers much about 300 whole pages four years later, has this student really gotten a raw deal in terms of education? Some Columbia students would be quite happy if we only assigned 40 pages and went over them with a fine-toothed comb.
Yet the discussion of Affirmative Action implies that the choice is somehow between Yale or jail, as if the few dozen highly selective universities were the only ticket to lifetime success. But here’s what happens on the ground. At the University of California, San Diego the year before racial preferences were banned in the late 1990s, exactly one black student out of 3,268 freshmen made honors. A few years later after students who once would have been “mismatched” to Berkeley or UCLA were now admitted to schools such as UC San Diego, where one in five black freshmen were making honors, the same proportion as white ones.
There is a reason few ever heard about things like that. The ban on racial preferences at University of California schools witnessed proto-Electness 101, with endless oratory about how the ban meant that kids from poor black neighborhoods would be “denied education,” as if Berkeley and UCLA were the only schools available. Supposedly a Berkeley would revert to “segregation,” with the implication that privately this is what white people running the place really wanted.
Never mind that this “segregated” Berkeley never happened. That black kids were not being consigned to eventual unemployment by attending UC Santa Cruz instead was not discussed. The guiding impulse was to cry racism, reason be damned. One way this was Proto-Elect was a tacit idea that to apply reason as opposed to emotion to the issues was unsporting, too “white”: it was Critical Race Theory in action. That we needed to make it so that more black kids truly qualified for Berkeley and UCLA was considered a sideline point, with it also in the air that for black kids to perform at that level was a little suspicious, as if they had given in to the “white” ethos too fully.
If that sounds impressionistic, I taught at Berkeley back then, and must note a black undergraduate after the ban was legalized who told me, outright, that she and others working at the minority recruitment office were afraid that black students admitted without racial preferences would not be interested in being part of a black community at the school. It was the baldest affirmation of the idea that being a nerd isn’t authentically black that I have ever heard: May, 1998, circa 4 PM on a weekday afternoon.
It is sentiments of that kind, as well as self-involved white guilt and its lack of genuine concern with black people’s fate, that conditions the fierce allegiance to exempting black students from the level of competition other kids have to deal with regardless of their background. The data on the calamities the mismatch policy creates are now overwhelming, and yet are indignantly swatted away or swept under the rug because they are inconsonant with announcing one’s awareness that racism exists. The result: black undergraduates and law students in over their heads nationwide as an influential cadre of people intone lines about “dismantling structures.”
Condescension as Respect
In Between the World and Me, required reading for millions of undergraduates nationwide for years now, Ta-Nehisi Coates states that he had no sympathy for the white cops and firemen who died at the World Trade Center on 9/11. They were just “menaces of nature; they were the fire, the comet, the storm, which could – with no justification – shatter my body.”
Good writing. But Coates wrote this of people with families. Spouses and especially children never saw Daddy again. Even in view of the relationship between cops and black men, which surely informed this pitilessness in Coates, the numbness to personal grief, the dehumanization of the family members those people left behind amidst a titanic and unusual tragedy, was stunningly cold. It was unexamined and irresponsible for someone billed as a public intellectual.
Yet the white punditocracy at most tsked-tsked at him for it. In our society where a person can be roasted as a moral pervert and fired for wearing blackface makeup as a joke (the Washington Post employee) or for Criticizing One-and-a-Half Asian Celebrities While White (Alison Roman), Coates was allowed to say that those white public servants deserved to die but continued to be celebrated as America’s lead prophet on race.
The only reason for this pass given to Coates was condescension: brute denigration (word chosen deliberately) of a black human being. To not hold Coates responsible for the horror of a judgment like that — imagine it coming from, for example, John Lewis — and to even assign the book containing it to impressionable young people nationwide, is to treat him as someone not responsible for his actions. It is to treat Coates as a child. He is being patted on the head the way Benny Hill did to bald little Jackie Wright. Pat-a-pat-pat, you’re cute.
Black journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones insists that the Revolutionary War was fought to preserve slavery. She got a Pulitzer for it. The 1619 Project included more, indeed, but the claim about the Revolutionary War, and the resultant redating of America’s birth to 1619, was the main thing that attracted so much attention to it. Hannah-Jones would have won no prize for a series without that central claim.
An enlightened America is supposed to hold a public figure accountable for her ideas. On the issue of the Revolutionary War, Hannah-Jones’ claim is quite simply false, but our current cultural etiquette requires pretending that isn’t true — because she is black. Someone has received a Pulitzer Prize for a mistaken interpretation of historical documents upon which legions of actual scholars are expert. Meanwhile, the claim is being broadcast unquestioned in educational materials being distributed across the nation.
Few things suggest the encroaching permutation of The Elect into the gray matter of this country than how few see the utter diminishment of Hannah-Jones that this entails. White people patting her on the head for being “brave” or “getting her views out there,” rather than regretting that she slipped up and wishing her better luck next time, are bigots of a kind. They are condescending to a black woman who deserves better, even if the Zeitgeist she has been minted in prevents her from knowing it herself.
Racist too are those who actually hear out black scientists claiming that the reason there are so few black physicists is “racism.” Unless these people point out black scientists doing the same work of the same caliber as their white colleagues and being refused PhDs, or postdoctoral fellowships, or jobs, they are out of court. If the claim is not that this is the “racism” keeping the number of black people in STEM fields so low, then it must be the institutional racism that affects people before college. But allowing that point, what kind of sense is there in indicting universities and research labs for it, as if they can address the inadequate science teaching in public schools in black neighborhoods? To not ask this of these complainants, directly and requiring a real answer, may feel like a kind of courtesy but is actually patronization.
And as for the proposal that, say, physics needs to change what is considered real work so that a “black” perspective is allowed, to even allow this at the table is more condescension. Presumably the “alternate” perspective would eschew the tough, uncompromising higher mathematics that the serious physicist is supposed to command. Surely, for example, the idea isn’t that black physicists will command the math but do it “blackly” or “diversely.”
If I sound rhetorical, consult an interesting paper by black physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, in which she condemns “white empiricism” as keeping black women out of physics. You will work to glean what she considers a viable alternative, but it is clear that she thinks reasoning from A to B to C is just one way of being a scientist. So, we must cultivate a cadre of physicists without real chops so that STEM isn’t “so white.” Never mind that when other physicists cannot help but treat these “diverse” physicists as lesser achievers in subtle ways, there will be more reason to cry racism.
That’s just thinking too far ahead. The imperative is to be able to identify racism and have white people nod sagely that physics is racistly biased against brown faces and needs to “address” it. This is yet more treating black people like dolts in the name of something called decentering whiteness. Moreover, to address these things in this way is to not “get it.” But actually, what there is to “get” is that this is religious thought, which allows guiding commitments that do not make worldly sense.
In other words, if to be black is really to spend all of life running up against racism, as often as not it is in the form of this kind of patronizing dismissal. The KIPP academies, a charter school network devoted to giving poor brown kids a solid education and getting them into college, have decided that they’ve been being too hard on the children. Their sin: the slogan “Work hard, be nice.”
KIPP has announced that to expose their charges to that mantra “diminishes the significant effort required to dismantle systemic racism, places value on being compliant and submissive, supports the illusion of meritocracy, and does not align with our vision of students being free to create the future they want.”
Translation: schools committed to kids making the best of a bad hand now feel uncomfortable teaching their charges that following rules and putting forth effort will have beneficial results. Rather, there are apparently other, woker pathways to creating a successful future, as in the “future they want.” Apparently this is a future you can have without following rules, while distrusting effort as playing the white man’s game.
The KIPP people are suspending common sense as well as true compassion, in a fashion that its teachers would never consider for their own children at home. This is The Elect at work, espousing a charismatic but senseless dogma as a public posture of moral goodness. Their religion supplants earlier ones in which, rather often, “Work hard, be nice” would have qualified as wisdom. The Elect’s needlepoint homily instead is “Battle racism, be indignant” – even at the expense of the well-being of black American people, including black children.