Words have to mean things. That isn’t a glib, throwaway line. Many of the most vicious battles in modern American public life are, in their essence, purely semantic fights—often focused on postmodern attempts to redefine previously consistent terms. The Title IX debate on college campuses centers to a remarkably large extent on whether “rape” is a fair description of essentially consensual sex facilitated by alcohol or drugs, and later regretted. Even the contemporary philosophical squabble over human agency seems to boil down to the question: “We now know that people often make decisions at the conscious level of the brain/mind, on the basis of their own genetics and experiences—but is it correct to call that free will or not?”
Across these battles, the postmodern left often holds something of a natural advantage, because—speaking less than half-jokingly—they have all the English teachers on their side. And, while some of the intellectual fights in question are purely theoretical, others matter quite a lot in real-world political and social terms. Perhaps the most relevant of these is the ongoing attempt, by widely read academics and public intellectuals such as Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, to redefine the concept of racism. In foisting upon us a new understanding of such a consequential term, this campaign leaps from the semantic into the substantive and seeks to reevaluate our thoughts and actions as individuals and as a nation.
For Kendi in particular, racism is properly thought of not as simple out-group bias, but rather as any system that produces disparate outcomes between or across racial and ethnic groups. He says this openly. In his book How to Be an Antiracist and again in an interview with Vox just after he had been minted a MacArthur “genius,” Kendi argues that there are only two possible explanations for a measurable difference in performance between two large groups in a given undertaking—say, standardized testing. These are (1) some form of racism within a social “system,” no matter how hidden and subtle, or (2) actual (I read him as meaning genetic) “inferiority” on the part of the lower-performing of the two groups. “There’s only two causes of, you know, racial disparities,” Kendi said on a Vox podcast. “Either certain groups are better or worse than others, and that’s why they have more, or racist policy. Those are the only two options.”
Disparities, in the Kendi model, are de facto evidence of racist discrimination. Moreover, Kendi’s proposition sets a clever rhetorical trap: His logical implication is that anyone who argues against Explanation No. 1 is, by definition, agreeing with Explanation No. 2. If you don’t accept racism as the culprit in performance outcomes, you must be endorsing group inferiority. Thus, should we accept his framing, simply to argue against “anti-racism” is to identify oneself as a racist. For the nonconfrontational—who dodge this trap by agreeing that all group gaps are either evidence of racism or the dread thing itself—Kendi proposes some social-engineering solutions to fix our racist system. These include the formation of a federal Department of Anti-racism, tasked with ensuring proper representation of all groups across all fields of American enterprise, regardless of performance.
In order to determine the value of Kendi’s proposed definition of “racism,” we must first examine the logic of his claims. The old business-world canard that “the problem with this whole argument is that it is wrong” comes to mind. It is remarkable that such an easily disprovable idea has become so globally popular. The contention that the only factor that might explain group differences in performance, at any given time, is either genetic inferiority or hidden racism is simply wrong as a matter of fact. And if Kendi were saying that temporary cultural underperformance demonstrated genuine “inferiority” across an entire race, that too would be wrong as a matter of fact.
Serious social scientists—from Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams on the political right to William Julius Wilson and John Ogbu on the left—have pointed out for decades that large human groups differ in terms of performance because of dozens of variables. Yes, these include culture (i.e., hours of study time per day). But they also include factors such as environment, region of residence, and even stochastic chance (or luck, to state it a bit more plainly).
One particularly obvious and noncontroversial example of such an “intervening independent variable” is age. According to the Pew Research Center, the most common (modal) age of black Americans is 27, and the most common age for white Americans is 58 (the median age gap, approximately a decade, is smaller). The most common age for Hispanics in the U.S.—across all regions and among both males and females—is 11. Vast differences such as these, which have nothing to do with inferiority, are certain to be reflected in measured group outcomes.
Geography is another powerful factor. Near-majorities of both American blacks and Hispanics still live in the South or Southwest, but a far smaller percentage of whites live in the same regions. This matters because test scores for all groups living in those regions have traditionally been lower than for those elsewhere in the country. Any analysis of group outcomes—from wealth and income statistics on the left to crime rates on the right—that fails to take obvious factors like these into account is dishonest or willfully ignorant.
Almost invariably, analyses that do take such factors into account find what might seem intuitively obvious to most thinking people: These variables explain group-performance gaps far better than “invisible racism” does. While she is sympathetic to arguments about the lingering effects of past oppression, the economist June O’Neill pointed out decades ago in the Journal of Economic Perspectives that the sizable gap in raw income between American blacks and whites shrinks to just 1 to 2 percent when adjustments are made for variables such as test scores, median age, and work experience. And the business-data company PayScale came to similar conclusions just last year regarding a range of commonly discussed race and gender pay gaps. Leaving aside its reductive circularity, a definition of racism as “group gaps” fails utterly if 98 percent of the gaps in question vanish when we adjust for basic non-raced variables such as “how old people are” or “what scores on the big test look like this year.”
One would think that analyses such as these make an airtight case against theories of overriding systemic racism. And they do—which is why those who believe in such theories make a fighting retreat toward a god-of-the-gaps argument when faced with data that shrink racism as a factor. According to this argument, perhaps even those secondary metrics (age, regional difference, and so on) reflect some still deeper and more dispersed form of racism. This is one of the reasons we are told that standardized exams that test mathematics and similar academic skills are culturally biased against blacks. This is what activists began to argue in the 1970s and what some scholars are beginning to reassert once more. They’re both wrong. Putting to one side the fact that mathematics developed historically in multicolored Mediterranean and North African regions (we still use Arabic numerals today) rather than in, say, Norway, we know what predicts test scores: They track closely with patterns of study time for members of all racial groups. This has been the core “culturalist” argument against IQ hereditarians, who believe in group differences in intelligence, for decades.
In 2017, the liberal-centrist Brookings Institution released a widely circulated article demonstrating that white high-school students study nearly twice as much as black high-school students, with Hispanic students falling in between the two. There are a variety of complex reasons for this, including social class, family stability, the prioritization of other activities such as athletics, and—no doubt—the effects of racism in the past. Perhaps unsurprisingly, grades and test scores follow exactly the same pattern. What’s more, Asian students out-study and thus outperform all white groups—an important phenomenon, in that theories such as Kendi’s provide no coherent way to explain it. Can anyone seriously argue that contemporary U.S. society is institutionally biased toward Korean or Indian-American kids (or Jews) and against blond-haired Anglo-Saxon gentry sprigs?
At least a few left-leaning thinkers are currently dealing with the confusing reality of high performance and successful minorities by hiding it. One recent method has been to formally reclassify Asian Americans as “white” in official documents. For those of us who are more confident in our theories, however, there is no mystery here to decipher: The same set of variables, influenced by past and current bias but also by many other things, explains why some minority groups are currently “beating” whites and why others are not. And one more than suspects that these factors largely explain the distribution of white income in the U.S., where wealthy white groups such as Australian Americans take in 200 to 300 percent more in annual household income than poorer ones such as Appalachian Americans. There is no coherent woke response to these points, beyond moving the causal focus of the original argument back one step and then calling anyone who still disagrees with them a racist.
In addition to its insufficient explanatory power, another weakness of the newly proposed definition and theory of racism is its lack of any coherent causal mechanism. To provide an example, Michelle Alexander argues in The New Jim Crow that black and Hispanic overrepresentation in the criminal-justice system is due to bigotry. To this claim, a quantitative scholar of political science or criminal justice would respond by saying that group crime rates explain the gap in incarceration rates. The next argument, chess-match style, would be that some form of subtle racism must explain the crime-rate gap. But we then have to ask: How? What is the mechanism that inflicts a given set of social problems on black Americans today (and often afflicts working-class whites to the same degree)? And why did this mysterious mechanism have far less influence on genuinely abused black folks in the past—with all “non-whites” making up 24 to 27 percent of sentenced prisoners even during the 1930s (blacks make up 52 percent of non-Hispanic prisoners today)? What’s more, how is it that this mechanism is ineffective when it comes to virtually all African and South Asian immigrants in the U.S. today? During the fairly typical year of 2018, all Asian Americans combined—including dark-skinned South Asians—committed just 127,651 violent crimes in the U.S. versus 2,531,480 for non-Hispanic whites and 1,087,895 for the smaller black population? On a per capita basis, the Asian violent-crime rate breaks down to one such crime annually for every 153 citizens or residents of Asian descent, versus one crime per 79 among white Americans. And according to a somewhat classic but methodologically sound 1998 article produced by the National Bureau of Economic Research, native-born black Americans are “much more likely to be incarcerated” than black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean. Why? Such questions are never answered, and the argument dies on the spot.
The Kendi definition of racism so popular today simply fails when subjected to logical analysis. This leaves thinking people facing an obvious question: “So what does racism mean?” Fortunately for us, this is a query with a simple answer: Racism continues to mean what it has always meant. Tribalism is an ancient human vice, dating back to before the Bible, and virtually every dictionary, at least until the Great Awokening of the past few years, has defined “racism” in much the same way for decades: genetically or ethnically based animus against members of a human out-group. The Free Dictionary definition is typical of the genre and quite good. It says that racism is the belief that genetic race “accounts for differences in character or ability” and that “one race is superior” to one or more other races, and it is almost always combined with dislike, prejudice, or “discrimination.”
Racism, in this real sense, is not a vague synonym for reverse karma, as it often seems to be in contemporary writings on the left. It is not “that thing that makes those who have previously suffered continue to struggle today.” It is a practical phenomenon that can be quantified and opposed. Further, and significantly, it is a vice that members of all races are capable of, and that is often expressed at the level of the individual. A major, if rarely discussed, problem with defining racism as a matter of statistical output at the systemic level is that it moves society’s focus away from most actual and demonstrable manifestations of racism—the slurs, fistfights, and muggings, and the simple refusals to promote someone “not quite like us”—that citizens do occasionally face in their pursuit of a good life. Using the older and better definition, we can categorize a range of individual statements and attitudes (“blacks/whites/Jews are inferior”) as definably racist and focus on opposing them as they arise.
Real racism is evidenced not by performance gaps alone but rather by proven discrimination. And such discrimination can be measured in a multitude of ways in this era of sophisticated statistical methods. Any facially racist laws or policies that remain in place—and there may be a few—constitute unethical discrimination and demand that we rid ourselves of them. It can be argued that the same is true for statutes that seem to treat otherwise identical people of different races differently after all major nonracial characteristics have been adjusted for (urban marijuana laws might be an example of this). We, as a society, might even choose to be skeptical of policies that produce large pre-adjustment racial gaps and that do not seem to serve any necessary purpose. There’s a fascinating debate around exactly this issue as it pertains to a string of legal cases dealing with workplace qualifications such as aptitude testing. The point is, bias is bad, and we should fight it.
We’ve seen enough of the fashionable arguments about racism to know that they’re only detrimental to that fight. The claim that “we know significant racism exists because the thing we have defined as significant racism exists” is not serious. If we were to accept it wholesale, it would mean, among other things, that the United States is a Korean-supremacist country. According to the proposed definition of racism, there’s no other way to interpret the outsize success of Korean Americans. This is why words must mean something. Rather than embracing the absurd, or choosing to deny the reality of continuing residual racism, thinking liberals, centrists, and conservatives need to reclaim the classic meaning of a critical term. If not, the proposed definition will become the definition. In a haunting indication of what’s to come, Merriam-Webster revised its definition of “racism” in 2020 to include “systemic racism.”
Ibram X. Kendi was born Ibram Henry Rogers. It is time we left Mr. Rogers’s intellectual neighborhood and got back to consensus reality before the real meaning of the word becomes a cultural artifact.
Photo: Joe Mahoney/VCU Libraries
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