Recent travels sent me again to the inter-web in search of podcasts that inform, provoke, and keep me awake. My latest favorite source for vigorous exchanges is The Glenn Show at bloggingheadstv.com. You can watch the discussion on-line — it’s the weird images of talking heads in Skype session. Or you can download a show as an audio recording. (Who knew that mp audio formats had climbed to 4?)
Glenn Loury is an economist who teaches at Brown University, an on-and-off-again black conservative intellectual who broke with the Republic establishment (as I understand it) over the reception of Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve. A frequent guest on Glenn’s show is John McWhorter, an African-American linguist at Columbia University who wants to defy political categories but because he is often critical of the left he gets pigeon-holed a conservative. (Full disclosure: the missus and I heard McWhorter at a book festival in Philadelphia a few years ago and from the audience I asked him if he had seen The Wire and if so who is favorite character was. He became enthusiastic about The Wire in a George Whitefield way and declared Omar his favorite character. I was delighted in my frigid Old Life way.)
The reason for asking about the PCA is that the sort of ideas about race relations you hear from Glenn and McWhorter you don’t hear in NAPARC circles. Consider, for instance, a couple of columns that McWhorter wrote this summer at the Daily Beast. First, McWhorter opines that all the talk of structural racism may be well meaning but it doesn’t actually do anything (and whenever I read the African-American pastors I am left wondering what I’m supposed to do):
No, the fact that Hillary Clinton is referring to structural racism in her speeches does not qualify this as a portentous “moment” for black concerns. Her heart is surely in the right place, but talking about structural racism has never gotten us anywhere significant. Hurricane Katrina was 10 years ago; there was a great deal of talk then about how that event could herald some serious movement on structural racism. Well, here we are. There was similar talk after the 1992 riots in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict and, well, here we are.
The old-time Civil Rights leaders did things; too often these days we think talking about things is doing something. But what, really, are we talking about in terms of doing?
Who among us genuinely supposes that our Congress, amidst its clear and implacable polarization, is really going to arrive at any “decisions” aimed at overturning America’s basic power structure in favor of poor black people?
So instead of merely talking about structures that to abolish would require a slate almost as clean as the one the Puritans encountered when the landed at Massachusetts Bay (and yes, I know they weren’t the first ones there), McWhorter recommends real policy. Reformed Protestants won’t like these but they do give specifics to those who want to know what might be done:
1. The War on Drugs must be eliminated. It creates a black market economy that tempts underserved black men from finishing school or seeking legal employment and imprisons them for long periods, removing them from their children and all but assuring them of lowly existences afterward.
2. We have known for decades how to teach poor black children to read: phonics-based approaches called Direct Instruction, solidly proven to work in the ’60s by Siegfried Engelmann’s Project Follow Through study. School districts claiming that poor black children be taught to read via the whole-word method, or a combination of this and phonics, should be considered perpetrators of a kind of child abuse. Children with shaky reading skills are incapable of engaging any other school subject meaningfully, with predictable life results.
3. Long-Acting Reproductive Contraceptives should be given free to poor black women (and other poor ones too). It is well known that people who finish high school, hold a job, and do not have children until they are 21 and have a steady partner are almost never poor. We must make it so that more poor black women have the opportunity to follow that path. . . .
4. We must revise the notion that attending a four-year college is the mark of being a legitimate American, and return to truly valuing working-class jobs. Attending four years of college is a tough, expensive, and even unappealing proposition for many poor people (as well as middle-class and rich ones). Yet poor people can, with up to two years’ training at a vocational institution, make solid livings as electricians, plumbers, hospital technicians, cable television installers, and many other jobs. Across America, we must instill a sense that vocational school—not “college” in the traditional sense—is a valued option for people who want to get beyond what they grew up in.
Note that none of these things involve white people “realizing” anything. These are the kinds of concrete policy goals that people genuinely interested in seeing change ought to espouse. If these things seem somehow less attractive than calling for revolutionary changes in how white people think and how the nation operates, then this is for emotional reasons, not political ones. A black identity founded on how other people think about us is a broken one indeed, and we will have more of a sense of victory in having won the game we’re in rather than insisting that for us and only us, the rules have to be rewritten.
In another column, McWhorter explains why we don’t hear specific policy proposals in church circles but instead hear a lot about the vagueries of white supremacy. He argues that anti-racism is a religion (and that plays directly to the Reformed case against racism) and it is dogmatic:
The Antiracism religion, then, has clergy, creed, and also even a conception of Original Sin. Note the current idea that the enlightened white person is to, I assume regularly (ritually?), “acknowledge” that they possess White Privilege. Classes, seminars, teach-ins are devoted to making whites understand the need for this. Nominally, this acknowledgment of White Privilege is couched as a prelude to activism, but in practice, the acknowledgment itself is treated as the main meal, as I have noted in this space. A typical presentation getting around lately is 11 Things White People Need to Realize About Race, where the purpose of the “acknowledgment” is couched as “moving the conversation forward.” A little vague, no? More conversation? About what? Why not actually say that the purpose is policy and legislation?
Because this isn’t what is actually on the Antiracists’ mind. The call for people to soberly “acknowledge” their White Privilege as a self-standing, totemic act is based on the same justification as acknowledging one’s fundamental sinfulness is as a Christian. One is born marked by original sin; to be white is to be born with the stain of unearned privilege.
The proper response to original sin is to embrace the teachings of Jesus, although one will remain always a sinner nevertheless. The proper response to White Privilege is to embrace the teachings of—well, you can fill in the name or substitute others—with the understanding that you will always harbor the Privilege nevertheless. Note that many embrace the idea of inculcating white kids with their responsibility to acknowledge Privilege from as early an age as possible, in sessions starting as early as elementary school. This, in the Naciremian sense, is Sunday school.
This will keep you awake on a long drive to Baltimore.
No one has to agree. But if some folks want us to have a conversation about race in the Presbyterian and Reformed churches, are those same people calling for the conversation willing to listen to the comments of Glenn Loury and John McWhorter? And if others are wanting the church to confess their sins, might they want to consider Anti-Racism as the religious source more than the gospel?
Let the conversation go on but make sure we include all the voices. They are only a download away.