Sunday, May 02, 2021

Being "Asked to Recount an Experience" is Nazism, McCarthyism, and Communism All Rolled Into One!

Robert Steinbuch, a law professor at Arkansas-Little Rock, has some thoughts on an academic event on anti-racism he recently attended featuring Ibram X. Kendi. The event itself he found interesting -- "I found some of the dialogue valuable. We scratched the surface of a real substantive debate. It was an important beginning. More real discussion is needed." But problems emerged once the conversation shifted to Zoom breakout rooms, where Kendi encouraged participants to share instances where they had made "affirmative efforts at being Anti-Racist."

This, apparently, is one of the greatest affronts to human dignity and academic integrity that has ever shadowed a university campus. It is, we're told, reminiscent of Nazism, and McCarthyism, and Stalinism. No, I'm not exaggerating -- all of those analogies are made, even as Steinbuch admits that there was absolutely no statements that participation was compelled nor any penalty for noncompliance. This is, believe it or not, just a taste of how Steinbuch describes what he was asked to, er, endure:

Sadly, academics across the country engaging in such activities often don't recognize the meaningful similarity between socially coerced statements of Anti-Racist activities and the anti-communist oaths of the McCarthy era—evincing the failure, regularly repeated, to appreciate tragic histories so often justified by good intentions. Indeed, the McCarthyites were actually right that Communism is evil—its adherents having directly killed tens of millions of people—notwithstanding that such proclamations might not be de rigueur today.

The McCarthyites were wrong, however, in forcing the public adoption of that view through sworn allegiance, as is well recognized today. Being allowed to be wrong, particularly in the political context, ironically leads to improved democracy and enlightenment. Learning good citizenship is not like memorizing multiplication tables. It must actually be done to be mastered.

Such community shaming exercises surely weren't restricted to conservatives during the Red scare, but conservatives have been branded—perhaps not exclusively but certainly disproportionately—with that ignominy, nonetheless. While McCarthyites well deserve to share that label, in reality those actions were emblematic of the archetypal totalitarianism of both the far left and the far right during the last century that resulted in the most homicides in human history.

Indeed, Soviets and Nazis readily adopted mandatory oath taking and social shaming as methods of forced conformity in addition to imprisonment, torture, and murder. My father lived under the former during World War II; many other relatives died under the latter.

During that instance in which I was caught in Zoom's version of Gene Roddenberry's transporter buffer, I was afforded a fleeting moment to reflect on my options regarding what I perceived as a social conformity exercise: I feared that not responding would garner the now seemingly acceptable label of White Fragility, much like those who refused to chant the mantra of having never been a member of the communist party were effectively tattooed with a scarlet "R."

Again, there's even more in that vein. 

My first thought on reading the account of Kendi's event was that Kendi frames the question in such a way that presupposes all participants, many if not most of whom are White, have done something actively anti-racist that they can share -- with the purpose of elucidating  those experiences presumably to encourage and validate them. I flag that because of how it flies in the face of how the popular discourse attacking such events presents their treatment of White people. In contemporary anti-racist discourse, White Americans, we are told, are viewed as little better than maggots, whose only contribution to anti-racism discourse is to loudly announce their status as human garbage and plead for forgiveness and grace. Kendi's event does exactly the opposite of this -- it is predicated on the presumption that everyone is trying and we should encourage them in their efforts. Alas, some folks are impossible to please, I guess.

But my main observation on reading Steinbuch's lament was that he perhaps can be asked to grow a slightly thicker skin here. McCarthyism? Nazism, totalitarianism? Because one was asked -- not even compelled, but asked -- to share a life experience? If ever there was a moment for "our grandfathers stormed the beaches at Normandy ..." generational shaming, this is it.

Let's be clear: I have been part of educational spaces, as either a student or a teacher, for most of my life. Exercises of the form "recount a time when you ..." are not exactly unheard of, nor are they typically perceived as an exercised in authoritarian compelled speech and mandatory ideological rituals. "Recount a time when you were proud of your community." "Recount a time when you were treated unfairly." "Recount a time when you stood up for others." Using such recollections as a starting point for further discussion strikes me as perfectly normal, and I fail to see how "recount a time when you were actively anti-racist" is any different. And if one honestly, genuinely, cannot think of any moment in one's life where one has done anything anti-racist, I'm not convinced that isn't a valid subject for further thought and discussion either.

But that tees up Steinbuch's other problem, which is that he does not think the actions he most associates with "anti-racism" will be accepted as such in this milieu. Steinbuch's self-identified "most significant Anti-Racist academic endeavor.... has been my effort to reduce racial disparities by recognizing the harm caused by mismatch resulting from highly race conscious admissions programs in higher education." His findings represent an "unpopular and inconvenient truth" that "is not generally welcomed discourse in our overwhelmingly leftist academia across the country."

I've written quite a bit on mismatch theory myself -- see here, here, here, here, and here -- and I'm not going to rehash all my points again. What I will say is that, if Steinbuch thinks it is impossible to present the relevant data in such a way that it could be included in an anti-racist discussion (even in "overwhelmingly leftist academia"), he's not trying hard enough. Observing that even after implementing race-based affirmative action programs in law schools we continue to see disparities in success rates for racial minority lawyers compared to Whites -- a finding which suggests that such programs are at the very least not a sufficient condition for eliminating racial disparities and at most need to be substantially retooled or even replaced with something different -- could easily fit into these conversations.

After all, "anti-racist" discourse rarely is accused of being too pollyannaish about the ability of This One Weird Trick to end racism, whether that trick is affirmative action or anything else. The stereotype is if anything the opposite -- being very concerned about the resilience of racial disparities in spite of concerted efforts to contest them. There's no reason why this resilience should evaporate in the face of affirmative action programs, any more than it does in the face of any other proposed intervention. So I'll say that as data, the findings of the mismatch theorists are important factoids that should be considered; which is not the same thing as saying that their normative implications are self-evident or one-sided (there are all manner of reasons why one could accept the raw data behind the mismatch hypothesis and still think race-based affirmative action programs are justifiable and/or desirable -- I go into some in the above-linked posts).

Of course, saying that Steinbuch's data should be considered is not the same thing as saying it (to say nothing of whatever normative upshots he draws from it) must be accepted on faith or without criticism. Allowing for critique is an important part of open discussion too. And perhaps these criticisms will sometimes be challenging or harsh (as, no doubt, proponents of affirmative action -- who hear Steinbuch as saying that they are in fact contributors to the harm of generating racist disparities in higher education -- perceive his critiques to be in relation to themselves).

But that returns us to the matter of growing thicker skin. Simply put, if this is the contribution Steinbuch wants to make to the anti-racism discourse, it isn't unfair -- or McCarthyist, or Nazi-like, or totalitarianism of any stripe -- to ask him to actually make it, and stand behind it, and participate in the conversation about it, even if that conversation isn't one where all participants fall over themselves to agree with every conclusion he's made.

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