In Conversation with Bret Weinstein’s Black Intellectual Roundtable
One of the most amazing things about the current discourse on race is how resistant it is to moving from the theoretical to the concrete; from explanation to practical prescription. This explains why it’s possible for a form of ‘anti-racism’ centered on race essentialism and ignoring the material needs of people dealing with racism to become so prominent. Once material questions are asked its uselessness becomes painfully apparent. I’d suggest that this is not only a problem with people like Ibram X. Kendi and his work, this disconnect from the material limits some of their critics as well.
Another thing that limits all sides in this discourse is that we use the words race and racism to describe a wide range of phenomena in arenas from the personal and individual to the workings of legal and economic systems. The words are so broad and describe so much as to lack any real utility beyond extending discourse and promoting a degree of confusion.
In early July Bret Weinstein hosted a 2 hour Black Intellectual Roundtable with Glenn Loury, John McWhorter, Chloe Valdary, Kmele Foster, Thomas Chatterton Williams, John Wood Jr, and Coleman Hughes. This is a group of scholars unlikely to be offered $10 million by Jack Dorsey or a MacArthur Genius grant, which seem reserved for people casting our history into simplistic racialized narratives.
One of the most telling aspects of this conversation, ostensibly about black people in the US, in which Williams asserts that he doesn’t believe race is real but racism is, was the struggle to define precisely who they were talking about. Were they discussing people of recent African extraction, as evolutionary biologist Weinstein put it? Were they discussing the descendants of the enslaved, as mentioned by Williams advocating for reparations? Were white people part of this conversation? What was telling is that even a conversation like this, predicated on nuance and intellectual integrity, can be somewhat hobbled by a lack of shared definition. I’d like to highlight some ways in which I think this lack of shared definition curtailed useful conclusions and practical prescriptions in this otherwise valuable conversation.
When I talk about racism I distinguish between individual bias and the systemic deprivation of wealth and power that race was created to ensure in the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion. I would suggest that, especially since the end of legal racial discrimination, what we call systemic racism effects disproportionately more black people while impacting more white people in sheer raw numbers. There are no mechanisms for enacting policies on the basis of race, despite the growing number of proponents for creating them. The impact of individual discretion in areas like policing and criminal justice deceives us otherwise. I believe anti-racism can only mean the pursuit of a massive redistribution of wealth and power from where it’s concentrated in the 1% down to the bottom 50%, which is disproportionately black.
There are compelling arguments to be made for systemic racism being as unreal as race. Rather than engage in that argument I prefer to posit a specific definition. I define systemic racism as I do, not because it’s “the right way” but because it offers a concrete way of understanding it which considers history and remains somewhat immune to discursive manipulation. And, most importantly, it centers the material well being of the people who we would say are negatively impacted by systemic racism.
Framing problems as racial issues invites racial solutions, which, in a race agnostic system are not solutions to actual problems. At best they are symbolic, at worst, they are distraction from true solutions and invite altogether different problems. As Hughes asks, “Reparations? How does that help police brutality? Hiring more black people in c suite positions at corporations? Where’s the link between that and fixing broken public schools? They appear in people’s minds to be real solutions.” When the solution is proposed first — reparations, abolish the police, positive discrimination — the solution becomes the point and the problem is framed to meet it. In essence, these symbolic solutions are designed to obscure existing problems.
Reparations is the best example of this because they (it?) are so emotionally attractive in reaction to our history. It seems like a rational response. It’s not. Williams and Valdary argue that reparations might be a way of healing black America without the cultural damage caused by welfare, as asserted by Loury. I’d suggest that pinning hopes on demands for something that’s not meant to be real might be more damaging than the current status quo. This completely ignores how people who are not black might react to a national argument over reparations for black people.
Rather than revisit all of my arguments on reparations I’ll note two things: if you share an opinion with Ibram X.Kendi, you should examine it closely. And the only way you move 10 trillion or more for 10–13% of the population is if it’s the wealthiest 10–13% of the population. There is no argument to be made for addressing poverty for just a quarter of those currently impoverished because of slavery, except as defense of reparations. And for what exactly are reparations meant to be a solution? The injustice of the past as if people are not currently dealing with massive economic injustice and material deprivation. What would be the solution for that?
When I say that these symbolic solutions are meant to obscure existing problems it works on critics as well as proponents. In challenging the framing of BLM/Robin DiAngelo/Nikole Hannah Jones the panel’s arguments seem to take on some of their underlying assumptions, as when Hughes asks Weinstein, “how do you know our racial tensions are caused by artificial scarcity?”
My immediate desire was to concretize these racial tensions. How do ‘racial tensions’ manifest in our incredibly racially segregated country? What shape and form do ‘racial tensions’ take? Has there been ongoing racial conflict? Do ‘racial tensions’ describe any real state of conflict or just a discursive one? Are we describing conflict between people or between people and the state? Are we just talking about the tribalism and affinity bias native to humans?
Loury offers an idea, “I don’t think these events we’re observing are even properly classified as racial events. I think the unreflective imputation of racial animus to people who happen to be in one group or another and find themselves in conflict is a deep problem for our society”
What exactly is the “race problem” we’re addressing? Foster notes, “the reality is that there are particular behaviors, perhaps particular pathologies, that we want to address and those behaviors and pathologies exist in all manor of groups…perhaps we concede too much when we only have the conversations in terms of these disparities, the fact that blacks are over-represented in certain categories.”
Wood Jr. considers that we may be discussing two different issues at once, “it really is a cluster of systemic forces interacting with our culture in a way that has pinned us into self-destructive behavior and the most anyone can say about this is, ‘well this is just systemic white supremacy’ or, on the other hand, ‘this is just black people not living up to what they should be doing for themselves.’” Tying these ideas together, we are talking about negative things which disproportionately impact black people and negative behaviors black people engage in disproportionately. As Foster suggests, this disparity framework might be counter-productive.
In a sense, a focus on disparity is a focus on a symbolic problem. It’s an observation that feigns explanation, and the explanation is usually racecraft; this disparity is created because of race. Thus, the solution is to fix the disparity, not the underlying dilemma. So the issue, for example, with maternal mortality that must be solved becomes the higher possibility that a black woman might die due to childbirth, not that the rate of maternal deaths continues to rise in the US unlike the rest of the developed world. The problem is not one that can be resolved, you can’t fix a racial disparity by focusing on the racial disparity.
The underlying ‘race problem’ we’re attempting to resolve may be cast as the negative impacts of the ways in which black culture interacts with and is informed by material conditions. This would obviously only be a facet of the underlying problem. One of the consequences of racializing a discourse not dependent on race is that it removes context to focus on a group in a vacuum rather than considering how the same forces may impact different groups.
For instance, McWhorter asks what about black culture leads to the annual orgy of summer violence in black urban communities. No one ever asks what about white culture has led to the epidemic of opioid deaths lowering the life expectancy for the country as a whole. The closest the panel comes is when Williams points to the growing rate of white out of wedlock childbirths and Loury reminds that, “white people are in terrible shape in America right now.” Rather than just look at black Americans, a better idea may be to weigh the positive and negative responses to the same conditions from cultural groups across different geographical areas.
Before attempting to add this context that I believe is missing, it’s important to acknowledge McWhorter’s consideration that “whatever you’re trying to come up with about a race problem, whatever analysis you’re trying, you have to always keep in mind that every summer, in big cities across the United States, black teenagers and 20somethings start killing each other in alarmingly high numbers over nothing at all…your analysis has to cover that.” The fact that this question would be dismissed as a right wing talking point in the current discourse speaks to how insidiously toxic Black Lives Matter is in highlighting a symbolic problem.
Of the millions of police interactions that occur every year in the most heavily armed country on Earth, approximately 1000 result in civilian deaths, 6% of which are unarmed. We’re told that unarmed black men are 3 times more likely to be killed by police. This is a graphic representation of the data:
I think it’s fair to say that the amount of focus placed on those deaths far outstrips the size of the actual problem. Those maybe half dozen annual deaths are a fraction of the black gun deaths in a single US city over a bad weekend. Abolishing/defunding the police would do nothing to impact those deaths except make the problem worse, illustrating how symbolic solutions obscure existing problems.
Returning to the idea of context, it’s not enough to just ask why so many young black men are turning guns on each other. We must also ask why so many white people are turning guns on themselves.
Rather than treat these gun deaths as categorically different or categorically different from the epidemic in opioid overdoses, I see them all as deaths of despair. These are different cultural responses to the same material conditions. Since black culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it’s not helpful to look at black culture alone. It’s not a question of changing black culture, but changing the negative ways in which culture interacts with and is informed by material conditions.
I have the impression from this roundtable that these symbolic solutions, as well as past failed policies have led several of the participants to argue against material redistribution. Weinstein argues for re-distributing opportunity, making the point that he’s not explicitly arguing for a redistribution of wealth. It’s not clear what that means concretely. I’m not sure how you expand opportunity without redistributing wealth. Let’s consider the context, the material conditions.
Remember, for obvious historical reasons, that bottom 50% is disproportionately black and very white in terms of sheer raw numbers. Prior to the pandemic $31k per year would have been a raise for 40% of black workers and a smaller percentage, but much higher number of white workers. Nearly half of all workers were in low wage jobs. That $31k is only possible in DC with its $15 minimum wage for non-tipped workers. The majority of states have a minimum wage below $10, many of those at the national minimum of $7.25.
A recent study from the Rand Corporation found that if income had maintained the equitable distribution of the period from 1945–1975 the median income would now be double. They calculate the annual upward redistribution of income to the upper 1% to be $2.5 trillion. Cumulatively, that amounts to $50 trillion. Last year, looking at Federal Reserve data, Matt Bruenig of The People’s Policy found that between 1989 and 2018 the upper 1% increased its wealth by $21 trillion dollars while the bottom 50% lost 900 billion in wealth. The pandemic has only grown this economic inequality:
At this point a downward redistribution of wealth would just be a reversal of the past 40 years.
Some on the panel might say that this re-distribution of wealth won’t change culture, taking into account past failures. Of past policy failures, Loury points to welfare as being psychologically damaging for black people. This is possible, but I would note that ending welfare as we knew it didn’t result in healthier culture, just greater child poverty and hunger. It seems likely that forcing more mothers to struggle with low wage work instead of caring directly for their children has caused more harm than good. Wood Jr. makes a more compelling argument when he suggests that while welfare helped in eliminating hunger, it lacked any avenue for social mobility. The problem with welfare is that while it re-distributed some wealth to the poorest it did nothing to change the concentration in power. For anyone suggesting that economic re-distribution is not the answer to “the race problem” I challenge them to explain what is. How do you change people’s culture without changing their material conditions?
Before closing I feel compelled to comment on one of the few prescriptions that came out of the discussion which I feel is completely wrong. Several of the panelists point to school choice as a solution for education, which seems ironic in the current moment. I suspect that all of them would instantly see through a goal of “police choice” if proffered by BLM, in much the same way they see the goal of defunding the police as ultimately harmful.
McWhorter mentions a school that made a huge investment in its students and notes that ten years later the culture of the school remained unchanged as evidence of investment not being enough. Why would anyone expect a one time investment to change the culture of a school rather than possibly improve the trajectory of those specific students? That investment wouldn’t impact the culture of the community in which the school exists. It wouldn’t change the readiness of new students enrolling.
School choice is a call to defund public education. We don’t have the national will to fund two separate school systems, we refuse to even fully fund one. Charter school results don’t justify the continued divestment in traditional public education. We know that lower income students enter school with lower early math skills and language mastery than their well-off peers. They also enter schools with less per pupil funding. We expect a standardized outcome from our vastly inequitable education system, while being ideologically opposed to trying to standardize inputs.
The Scandinavian countries with more robust social safety nets invest more in their economically disadvantaged students to acquire the results we covet. If we want to improve education, make it more adaptable to current students, and more innovative, then, as with policing, we need to invest more. We also need to be more deliberate in where we invest.