The Racial Impasse
Over the past few years, the conversation around race in America has hit a brick wall. While racial disparities have persisted between black Americans and other groups, in terms of income, housing, incarceration and education, the political discourse on racial inequality has continued to operate along the same lines for the past sixty years—despite the fact that outright racism has been in measurable decline in terms of laws, hate crimes and other relevant polling data. The paradigm is implicit but blunt: any racial disparity must either be a consequence of racism in our society or mean that there is something wrong with black people. You either believe the issue is racism or you must be a racist—a double bind that leads many people to leave the conversation altogether.
Ta-Nehisi Coates encapsulates the racial impasse in a question posed to Shelby Steele at the Aspen Institute in 2008: “The way we talk about African Americans there is always this sort of either or, either it’s white people or it’s us; either the white man has his foot on your neck or we are slitting our own throats.” Although this paradox is the inevitable fall out of the civil rights era, the natural response to the evils of segregation, this dynamic has culminated in a precarious situation. There are problems to be solved, and any attempt to solve them carries the stain of historical racism—rendering any honest observation outside the realm of mainstream aphorisms anathema.
But something is changing. While Ta-Nehisi Coates’ memoir is being given to college freshman all around the country and the amorphous war on racism wages on in academia and the media, a new strain of heterodox black thought is emerging beneath the fog—one that is changing the narrative around racial politics and opening up some much needed space between blaming racism, on the one hand, and blaming the victim on the other. Deep and thorough problems call for even deeper and more thorough solutions, and although racism obviously remains a profound concern in our society, the cultural and political stalemate has created an even greater obstacle to racial progress. Luckily, a collection of refreshing thinkers of both liberal and conservative predilections are carrying the torch and leading us toward a more open-ended dialogue, one that could melt the discourse on race that has been frozen solid since about 1965.
A New Conversation
In a recent podcast on modern anti-racism, Kmele Foster, Coleman Hughes, Glenn Loury, John McWhorter and Thomas Chatterton Williams—all of whom have publicly challenged the progressive narrative on race and racism— came together in solidarity around a new vision of how to talk about race in America. All these men are of black American descent, but diversity of opinion was the defining factor in the room. Kmele Foster, host of the podcast, a former analyst for Fox, who refuses to identify as black (denying racial identity altogether), sat next to John McWhorter, famous linguist and writer for the Atlantic (Coates’ former digs), who expressed amazement that any black person could be so bold (or crazy).
There was a nearly fifty year age gap between the eldest and the youngest in the room, one generation seamlessly rounding into the next. While Coleman Hughes has been writing brilliant articles on controversial subjects like the racial wealth gap and the colorblind ethos of old school civil rights leaders, following in the prodigal footsteps of Glenn Loury and John McWhorter (who teaches at Columbia where Coleman is an undergraduate), Thomas Chatterton Williams has been putting together a book on the fleeting utility of race as a construct in modern life.
All the men come from very different places, yet have arrived at a very similar conclusion: the war on racism has lost much of its meaning in modern life. Unless we open up the racial dialogue, drawing on historical, economic, and cultural forces in our suggestions for changes to public policy, disparities will persist. There is much agreement around the growing disconnect between the dogma of racial separatism and victimology preached on elite university campuses and the harsh realities of daily life for black bodies on display in inner cities across the country — a yawning gap that heterodox black thinkers have been attempting to bridge.
The Necessity Of Heterodox Black Thought
To borrow an idea from Glenn Loury, there are two separate narratives on racial inequality that have been competing for exposure and power over the past three decades: a racism narrative and a development narrative. Either the racial gap is being perpetuated by ongoing racism and the legacy of white supremacy, or it comes from the structural underdevelopment of the black community as an indirect consequence of historical racism. In the first narrative, racism is the central obstacle to racial equality and the object is to politically eradicate all vestiges of lingering racism in our society—and our collective refusal to come to terms with historical injustice has been the essential stumbling block to racial progress. Nikhil Singh, professor at NYU, voiced this argument in a debate with John McWhorter:
I don’t believe that we can necessarily convince racists through reason or through shame, I think we have to crush them politically. We continue to have a society that is divided and unequal in racial terms and those inherited racial inequalities do come from a deep past that we have never fully reckoned with in our public policy.
The alternative or heterodox narrative—that development is the single greatest barrier to black progress and racial equality—asserts that nursing stale grievances and dredging up the horrors of age-old racism tend to obscure the developmental problems of the present. How is the knowledge of early twentieth-century lynchings or post-World War II red-lining going to help us derive solutions to pressing concerns involving incarceration policy, education initiatives or policing? Does every problem we face in 2019 that carries a whisper of racism need to be approached explicitly through the lens of history in order to be solved? If, as Nikhil Singh and many scholars like him suggest, America has yet to “reckon” with the deep racialized past from whence we came, what will that reckoning consist of, precisely? As John McWhorter has put it, “What does ‘coming to terms with the history of racism’ actually mean today?”
About fifteen minutes into the podcast, Glenn Loury breaks down the current state of affairs—in his powerful voice, which is somehow both uplifting and saddening, suggesting the vibrant glow of logos and a dash of pathos simultaneously:
Why are we all here? I note that we are all black. And I note that we are all, in some sense, iconoclastic, off the reservation. I can tell you why I’m here: because I am distressed. After a half century, fifty-four years after the civil rights act of 1964, that’s longer than the distance between Appomattox and Versailles, that’s a long time. And when you look at the gaps, at the numbers, at the number of people in prison, at the test scores, at the family structure, at the wealth gap, etc. The gaps are persistent and they don’t show any sign of going away. Now that’s a first order, fire alarm ringing circumstance. We are well into the twenty-first century, the world is not standing still, it’s moving on. The country is very dynamic, its character is being made and remade every decade. Meanwhile, we’re stuck with the same old story. We’re still talking about Jim Crow; we’re still talking about slavery. This is an intellectual failure, as well as a political failure. We don’t know how to think about these problems anymore. One of the reasons I think we are all around this table is because we recognize this is so and are determined to do something about it.
The Next Step
And do something about it they have. This handful of black heterodox thinkers have been coalescing their views into a broader discourse—a message that makes more sense in the context of our swift moving, dynamic society that seems to be heading towards further political tribalism. There is a broad acceptance of interracial marriage and growing resistance toward inter-party marriage between political opponents—it’s as though we had exchanged one form of tribalism for another. Such observations lend themselves to a heterodox style of thought, which is becoming more popular, and which presents modern problems with modern solutions.
It feels like we have reached the pinnacle of what Shelby Steele has referred to as “race fatigue”: an existential inertia that follows from seeing other people and ourselves through the optics of past injustice—bound by historical forces beyond our control—rather than as autonomous human beings. Most people would prefer, to borrow a line from Coleman Hughes, to live in a thriving multiethnic society instead of a balkanized hotbed of racial and political tribalism—and this vague coming to terms with the history of America’s racial terror is beginning to feel like an empty turn of phrase, which ambiguously diagnoses a problem it has only a fleeting interest in solving.
Although I would not associate the evolution of black heterodox thought with the rise of the black conservative movement, lead by the likes of Candace Owens, there is a common thread between them: a distaste for the fact that a perpetual history lesson has come to take the place of public policy on crucial issues. Many people, particularly blacks according to numerous polls, are beginning to feel disenfranchised by the predominant anti-racism narrative and the veneer of paternalism it casts over the lives of black Americans—treated as the eternal victims of history.
Progressive identity politics, which gives precedence to group identity over individual sovereignty, is beginning to be seen for what it is: superficial, though paved with good intentions, meant to fill the vacuum of moral authority that opened up during the civil rights era to allow us to dissociate from historical injustice. The next phase in the evolution of black heterodox thought involves bringing a new conversation into the mainstream—even amidst those who are inclined to resist viewing the elements of racial inequality from outside of the looking glass of historical racism.
John McWhorter discusses the future of black heterodox thought in another podcast with Glenn Loury on The Glenn Show at the very end of 2018:
What I would like to see in 2019 is this. It’s one thing if somebody like you or me or Coleman reaches somebody who already prides themselves on being some sort of contrarian. The truth is, those of us who are black heterodox thinkers are all people who march to our own drummer. None of us are joiners. I remember in 2002, me, Shelby Steele, Larry Elder, Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams all in a restaurant. The idea was we were going to build something, and nothing came of it—I think we all knew that deep down. It was because all five of us are not joiners. That’s part of why we don’t end up thinking like the other people. If that sounds a little condescending towards them, I’m sorry, maybe it is. Part of what we are talking about is a kind of groupthink, where you learn to suspend your disbelief when it comes to the local topic of race. It’s one thing if we convince people who are also that type, not joiners, kind of contrarians, not inclined to follow what other people think because they don’t have that basic need for the warmth of human concurrence—sitting on the outside of the playground. I want to start reaching the people who are joiners. I want to start hearing from the people who do need the warmth and the love of large numbers of people agreeing with them. People who just think, “ya know what, I am a group person. I am part of a larger entity, but I am tired of this old way because it’s an insult to the people I’m claiming to help.”
Glenn responded succinctly, “I’m not going to hold my breath.”