The Dangers of Racial Thinking

Dan Subotnik

Angry student protests over the last few years have shaken the academic community and evoked much commentary. What led to the current turmoil on campus? How will it end? We can start with the 1980s and 1990s and the growth of critical race theory, an identity-soaked movement that influenced many in the law schools and outside them.

Harvard law professor and critical race theory icon Derrick Bell proclaimed at the time that “a racist society continues to exert dominion over black men and their maleness in ways more subtle but hardly less castrating than during slavery,” 1 a point he fleshed out with the notion that “[r]acial discrimination in the workplace is as vicious…as when employers posted signs ‘no negras need apply.’” 2 According to another critical race theory hero, Richard Delgado, whites at that time were trying to start a “race war.” 3

Pronouncements like these aimed to “energize” and unify blacks.4 Such declarations are like “a scab that forms over a sore,” wrote black University of California, Santa Cruz, folklore professor and political commentator Patricia Turner, “an unattractive but vital mechanism by which the cultural body attempts to protect itself from subsequent infection.” 5 In the same spirit, Georgetown sociology professor Michael Eric Dyson would soon urge black people to treat rumors as true in accordance with “Pascal’s Wager.” 6

Critical race theorists insisted that no benefit could flow from interracial dialogue on charges of racism or conditions besetting black people. “The racial problem in this country,” wrote Bell, “is not people of color but whites.” 7 One of the best-known Afrocentrists of the day, Molefi Asante, similarly held, “There is no such thing as black racism against whites; racism is based on fantasy; black views of whites are based on fact.”8 Asian education and psychology professor at Columbia’s Teachers College Derald Wing Sue later warned fellow minority group members that “we must rely heavily on our intuitive and perceptual reality. Never allow White folks to make us doubt our perceptual wisdom!” 9

Whatever steps black people could take to better their condition, it would not do to tell them. According to Bell, what “blacks…need is reassurance that others, not they, are the cause of the wretched circumstances in which they live.” 10

For whites demanding a fair hearing for their views, Asian lawyer, activist, and University of Hawai‘i law professor Mari Matsuda warned that she “would give special credence to the perspective of the subordinated,” 11 while Delgado was announcing that “minority status brought presumed competence to speak about race and racism.” 12 Whites “may believe that their opinions and judgments are as fully informed and cogent as those of victims of racism,” wrote law professors Trina Grillo and Stephanie M. Wildman, but “In this circumstance something approximating a lack of standing to speak exists because the insight gained by personal experience cannot easily be duplicated—certainly not without careful study of the oppression under scrutiny.” 13

Fearing that black people might try to cut their own paths through the racial thicket, law professor Deborah Post forbade “[t]he public criticism of those who have chosen to confront the majority, to condemn cultural domination and the more coercive elements of the politics of assimilation” (never specified).14 Showing such independence was “an act of betrayal tantamount to treason” 15 (for which offense black Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy was attacked and even ostracized).16

Paving the way for—and giving their professional imprimatur to—sentiments like these, famed black psychologists William Grier and Price Cobbs had earlier held that “it is necessary for a black man to develop distrust of his fellow white citizens….If he does not so protect himself,” they continued, “he will live a life of such pain and shock as to find life itself unbearable. For his own survival, then, he must develop a cultural paranoia in which every white man is a potential enemy…and every social system is against him unless he personally finds out differently” (emphasis in original).17

Such polarizing views emerged in the general culture as well and helped keep the whole country on racial edge. In 1987 Tawana Brawley, a young black woman, claimed that she had been raped by several white men. Notwithstanding the lack of any physical evidence of sexual contact in support of her claim, Brawley elicited an outpouring of sympathy. For her supporters, Brawley had shown that conditions for black women were no better than under slavery. Perhaps in keeping with Post’s honor code, few if any black academics stepped up to check the rush to judgment, even when the episode was definitively exposed as a hoax.

Dissenting views were not entirely crowded out. But in a context where (1) black academics were admonishing fellow blacks against “treason” and (2) white academics were instructed that they had little if any standing to speak on racial issues, (3) racial paranoia became regnant, and racial conversation inside and outside the academy became stultified and specious. Black Stanford law professor Richard Thompson Ford wrote about this phenomenon in The Race Card:How Bluffing about Bias Makes Race Relations Worse (Picador, 2008).

The cumulative effect of the perception of unending racism was rage. “My rage burns…in my psyche with an intensity that creates clarity,” wrote author, feminist, and social activist bell hooks in 1995. “It is a constructive healing rage.” 18 If rage can produce such benefits internally, would it not be useful to cultivate it externally?

That rage was exemplified by the 1994–1995 murder trial of black former football legend O.J. Simpson—the “Trial of the Century.” When Simpson’s attorney Johnnie Cochran attempted to introduce evidence of Detective Mark Fuhrman’s use of the N-word to show the latter’s racism, Los Angeles County assistant district attorney Chris Darden strongly objected on the ground that exposure to the word would “inflame the passions” of the jury and thereby “blind” and render it unable to do its job of determining Simpson’s guilt.19

At this point, defense attorney Johnnie Cochran hit the roof, calling Darden’s argument “the most incredible remarks I’ve heard in the thirty-two years I’ve been practicing.” 20 “It’s demeaning to our jury to say that African-Americans who’ve lived under oppression for 200-plus years in this country cannot work in the mainstream. African-Americans live with offensive words, offensive looks, offensive treatment every day of their lives. And yet they still believe in this country.” 21 Referring to Fuhrman, Cochran expostulated: “I’m ashamed for Mr. Darden to allow himself to become an apologist for this man.” 22 Darden thereupon backed down, and the testimony was admitted, which probably contributed to Simpson’s acquittal.

At another juncture in the same trial, Darden explained to presiding Judge Lance Ito why he should allow testimony that, at the time of the murder, a witness had heard the voice of an older black man close to the crime scene. Here, too, Cochran protested:

You can’t tell by somebody’s voice whether they sounded black…and I resent that [as] a racist statement….This statement about whether [a voice] sounds black or white is racist and I resent it, and that is why I stood and objected. And I think it is totally improper that in America, at this time in 1995, we have to hear this and endure this.23

Again Darden backed down; evidence of the disembodied voice was not presented.

How did a highly trained attorney—a person who is or should be skilled in the use and abuse of rhetoric—allow himself to be browbeaten? Race is felt and expressed viscerally, not rationally. The problem is compounded when the parties know how to push buttons and are not afraid to do so. Cochran and Darden may not have believed what they were saying. They both took internally inconsistent positions on the issues in question; each was arguing that black people were both more sensitive to affront than others and at the same time less so.

The 2006 Duke University rape case in which three white members of the lacrosse team were falsely accused of raping a black woman was similarly marked by racial hype and paranoia. Here, too, no evidence of the woman’s having had sexual contact with the accused was presented, but, perhaps in an effort to protect themselves from charges of “treason,” black academics offered little if anything to slow the rush to public judgment. Some white academics joined in the attack on the young men.

The racial paranoia cultivated in the 1980s and 1990s can clearly be seen in the scores of angry campus protests around the country today. Student demands for resignations, shutting down speakers, bias-response teams, minority faculty hiring, and diversity training have, in some cases, even led to vandalism. In May 2016, students at the University of Seattle called for the dismissal of Dean Jodi Kelly, who eventually resigned. Her offense? Pursuant to a black undergraduate student’s request, the previous year, for reading material on race, Dean Kelly had cited black comedian Dick Gregory’s 1964 book by title, Nigger:An Autobiography, evidently repeating the word aloud more than once.

The incident reprised one that arose some months earlier at the University of Kansas, which I discussed in “Honest Talk about Race” in the Fall 2016 Academic Questions. In that case, a discussion of why black students were taking longer to graduate led to an uproar after the professor held that it was neither the N-word graffiti spray-painted on the university walls nor campus racism but under-preparation for university-level work that hampered their academic development—a claim that cannot be completely implausible given wide racial gaps in educational achievement.

Though many will surely want to debate whether Cochran, Darden, and the students were right or wrong about the substance of their arguments, what is important here is that Darden was persuaded to capitulate to Cochran, and the Universities of Kansas and Seattle to their students. Cochran and the students won the day.

But at what cost? If Darden had not been transfixed by Cochran’s rebukes, he could have cited research available at the time showing that 80 to 90 percent of blacks are identifiable as such by their voices. He might also have claimed it as a badge of honor, not a stigma, that blacks had developed their own speech inflections as a rebellion, as a sign of independence from “the man.” Similarly, the universities could have told the protesting students that just as their speech was protected, notwithstanding its offensiveness to others, the same protection had to be given to the accused professor. As it was, Cochran and the student protestors triumphed: the jury acquitted Simpson, the universities in effect terminated a dean and a professor, and it has become risky to look carefully into the issue of preparation for graduate school. For many people, as Vince Lombardi remarked, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” 24

Anyone paying attention to campus life knows that balanced judgment is desperately needed on a spectrum of current issues (in addition to those mentioned above), including campus statuary, reading lists, bias response teams, sports programs, cultural misappropriation, basic conversational etiquette, and, to close the circle, under-preparation of students. Faculty have been complaining about this last item for years. Academia has come to treat identity as so central as to override all other considerations.

A simple syllogism threatens the epistemic process on today’s campus: “I hurt, therefore you must be wrong.” What this means is that students must be heard. But shoving important issues under the rug cannot help. James Baldwin stressed that “nothing can be changed until it is faced.” 25

How should people counter those claiming victimization by institutions such as the University of Seattle? Will responses be seen only as new microaggressions? Not by all black thinkers. For Yale law professor emeritus Harlon Dalton the focus should be on the big picture: “We will never achieve racial healing if we do not confront each another, take risks….say all the things we are not supposed to say in mixed company.” 26 Vanderbilt political science and law professor Carol Swain pointedly predicted that the stifling of white voices would fuel a dangerous “new white nationalism.” 27 And former Brown University president Ruth Simmons would tell students that except for cases of harassment or threats, the university’s goal was not to buttress students’ feelings and convictions but to challenge them. The University of Chicago recently showed its support for these positions by announcing that it does not condone “trigger warnings,” cancellation of invited speakers, and “safe spaces” that allow students to “retreat from ideas and perspectives that are at odds with their own.” 28

To find a productive path through the turbulence, one hard truth must be faced: just as youngsters today are urged to develop “resilience,” our college students need to take the “red pill”—to prefer “the truth, no matter how gritty and painful”—as well as to administer it.29 The takeaway, to clarify, is not that when University of Seattle-type protests arise, students can be ignored, but only that heightened scrutiny must be applied to expressions of their pain.

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