Is classical music racist?

You might be forgiven for thinking so after articles appeared in the New York Times and The Washington Post decrying the lack of “diversity” in the nation’s orchestras.

“Data collected from 500 American orchestras for a 2016 study by the League of American Orchestras paints a starkly white picture when it comes to diversity in classical organizations,” Michael Andor Brodeur writes in the Washington Post. The “proportion of nonwhite musicians represented in the orchestra workforce—and of African American and Hispanic/Latino musicians in particular—remains extremely low.” Brodeur endorses the League’s call “for White people and predominantly White organizations to do the work of uprooting this racism,” and their confession that “we have tolerated and perpetuated systemic discrimination against Black people, discrimination mirrored in the practices of orchestras and throughout our country.”

The assumption, unquestioned by either the League or Brodeur, is that, absent “systemic discrimination,” every orchestra in America would mirror the exact percentage of each race in the population at large. Brodeur argues, “The systemic racism that runs like rot through the structures of the classical music world exists somewhere between broad statistical data and intimate personal disclosure.” Though he provides only a few specific examples of actual discrimination, he demands the total transformation of the classical music world to combat it: “Initiatives, statements and studies, call-outs, cancellations, and cantatas—they’re all pieces of the work that has to be done.”

Anthony Tommasini, the classical music critic of the New York Times, argues that the solution to systemic racism is the elimination of blind auditions, the practice where musicians audition behind a screen so that the hiring committee cannot see their race or gender. As Tommasini concedes, blind auditions have achieved great change: “The percentage of women in orchestras, which hovered under 6 percent in 1970, grew. Today, women make up a third of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and they are half the New York Philharmonic. Blind auditions changed the face of American orchestras.”

“But not enough,” Tommasini argues, because blind auditions did not yield enough racial diversity. “In a 2014 study, only 1.8 percent of the players in top ensembles were Black; just 2.5 percent were Latino,” he writes. “The status quo is not working. If things are to change, ensembles must be able to take proactive steps to address the appalling racial imbalance that remains in their ranks. Blind auditions are no longer tenable.”

It’s worth noting that, by the standard set out by Brodeur and Tommasini, achieving “anti-racist” orchestras would require setting aside a certain number of seats by race in every ensemble to correspond to the percentage of each racial group in the larger population. Presumably, if this is the new “anti-racism” standard, then it should be applied throughout entertainment and the arts, which raises the question: What is to be done about the fact that African-Americans are over-represented in much of popular music, and in many professional sports? (approximately 70 percent of players in the NFL are African-American, as are players in the NBA, for example). If systemic racism is the explanation for racial disparities, then shouldn’t that explanation be applied consistently?

More notable is the absence from both Brodeur’s and Tomassini’s arguments of the one minority group that has, in recent decades, succeeded at the highest levels of classical music and supported a thriving culture of childhood musical training and achievement: Asian-Americans.

As Michael Ahn Paarlberg has written in Slate, this isn’t the first time in the country’s history that one racial or ethnic group dominated classical music. He quotes violinist Joshua Bell, who said, “There was a time when practically every major soloist was Jewish . . . Every Jewish kid grew up wanting to play the violin. Now it’s true among Asians.”

As Paarlberg notes, “This shift became apparent within conservatories and orchestras in the 1970s, when the ranks of Eastern European and Jewish musicians, who had long dominated the field, began to decline, while those of Asians started to swell. Asians make up just over 4 percent of the U.S. population, but 7 percent of U.S. orchestra musicians are Asian, and the figure rises to 20 percent for top orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic.”

Asian-Americans are also more enthusiastic consumers of classical music. In one survey cited by Paarlberg, “14 percent reported attending a classical concert in the past year, more than any other demographic in that age group. Despite classical’s deserved reputation as the whitest of genres, Asian attendance rates match or surpass the national average up through the 45- 54 age range.”

Very few people of any race have the talent and discipline to succeed at the highest levels of professional music. By any measure, Asian-Americans’ achievements in classical music are a success story; why do Brodeur and Tommasini ignore it?

Because it contradicts a larger narrative about the value of western culture that goes well beyond abolishing blind auditions or establishing race-based quotas for orchestras. It used to be a mark of bourgeois respectability to have a working knowledge of classical music (and of classical literature and the Western canon) and its values.

The rejection of those values (like the rejection of the Western canon) is now a hallmark of The Great Awokening, with its eagerness to topple the statues of the country’s founders and ban books that fail to pass their ideological litmus tests. One need only look at the behavior of this group of protestors in New York who harassed a police officers, not for the officers’ excessive use of force but for the supposed deficiencies of their educational credentials; a sampling of what they yelled at the cops: “You know, a hairdresser has to go to school for longer than you do . . . Half of you don’t even have a college education . . . You can’t even read a fucking history book . . . You guys go to clown college for twenty-six weeks.”

These protestors might have attended college, but their behavior reveals that they aren’t educated. And their sensibility is all too common in our culture at present. Taught to identify their personal grievances rather than appreciate works of genius (because genius itself is suspect as it implies a hierarchy of talent), they are unlikely to oppose efforts to apportion jobs and rewards by ideologically approved racial categories rather than merit.

If they succeed in their ideological campaign, the future of classical music will include less Mozart and Beethoven and more “collaborative choral pieces” like “Nigra Sum Sed Formosa: A Fantasia on Microaggressions” (a piece that, ironically, draws on the very classical choral forms so many are attacking to pursue its contemporary ideological agenda). It will see the end of blind auditions and merit-based hiring in favor of race-based awarding of jobs, rather than directing resources at the much more worthwhile project of recruiting and supporting young musicians from lower-income and minority communities so they can have a pathway to future professional success. It will, like all cultural revolutions, narrow the range of acceptable human experience, and not for the better.

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