🎧 How (Not) to Think About Race

Kmele Foster and Yascha Mounk discuss the perils of essentialist thinking about race.

  
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Kmele Foster is a heterodox writer who hosts The Fifth Column podcast. He recently joined with David French and Thomas Chatterton Williams, members of Persuasion's Board of Advisors, to write in the New York Times opposing laws which seek to ban discussion of critical race theory from American schools.

In this week’s conversation, which was recorded with a live Zoom audience as part of the Persuasion festival, Kmele Foster and Yascha Mounk discuss the fixation on race in current political discourse, why it obscures important truths, and how to form relations with one another that recognize both human individuality and our shared experiences.

This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.


Yascha Mounk: You have a slightly unique position because you're a critic of critical race theory. And you are one of the coauthors of an op-ed in The New York Times, criticizing the banning of the teaching of critical race theory in many state legislatures. Tell me, first of all: how should we think about critical race theory and why is it something that concerns you?

Kmele Foster: On this particular issue, I think [my co-authors from across the political spectrum and I] all had some concern about the approach that people are taking to address what has become a central issue in America’s ongoing, ever-evolving culture war. I do think there's one culture war that's been happening, and just a bunch of different issues that slot in for the major point of contention. For the past couple of months, it's been critical race theory, which I think is the first problem. 

[Some] might talk about critical race theory and say, “Oh, you know, that’s just something they talked about in law school.” But as it happens in the culture now, “critical race theory”—like “alt right”, or any number of other phrases—has come to mean a bunch of different things, a universe of different concepts. They're all loosely associated with racial essentialism. And in the current debate, there are questions about the degree to which these things ought to be involved in K-12 education and the ways in which they can be involved in K-12 education. Unfortunately, rather than just having a conversation publicly about how we ought to be approaching education, this has become a circumstance where some people, some activists, have been advancing critical race theory—again, whatever that basket of things is—in different ways in classrooms. Sometimes [these] ways have been disturbing and concerning to some parents. 

The response on the right, largely, but not exclusively, has been “We're going to ban critical race theory.” Once you get into the process of outright bans on ideas—not methodology, not pedagogy so much, but on ideas—this becomes a really thorny issue. On K-12, there's obviously a lot of autonomy that states have to make determinations about what can be included in curriculum, and what can't, from a legal standpoint. But the Times opinion piece that we authored together was really about the principle.

We live in a society where we have very different values. And to the extent we have a project of public education that we are all corporately funding, then we have to have very serious conversations about what that institution is supposed to be doing, what its values are, and how we adjudicate actual disputes about what is true. What is the best way to talk about our history? What is the best way to deal with issues related to identity? And how do we address genuine concerns and actual abuses when it comes to racial discrimination, or any number of other things that may cause students discomfort, in an environment where they're necessarily going to be confronted with challenging topics? 

Mounk: [Let’s] focus on what's actually being taught in K-12 education. How is that changing? What about it is good? And what about it should we be worrying about?

Foster: Race has become a center point for so many different conversations [...] and considerations: our sense of the country's place in history, our sense of our individual responsibility to one another. We're framing it all with respect to race, [so] it only makes sense that in the context of public education, the same thing is beginning to happen. And I think there's a sense in which it is good to scrutinize these concepts, these ideas, that are a part of our milieu and often a part of our relationships with one another in the world and our institutions.

But I don't think that the conversations we've been having about race have become more sophisticated as a result. I think there's kind of this veneer of sophistication. We don't challenge the ideology of race; we assume it to be true. And there are a great many different essentialist threads that have been woven into the fabric of our conversations about these things: the inherent disadvantage of black people, the kind of “necessary” racist proclivities of white people, and a flattening of the world when it comes to outcomes. That is now pervasive in terms of beliefs about outcomes: [the belief that] when there are disparities in outcomes, all of those disparities are necessarily, by definition, racist. [It’s] essentially a changing of the definition of the word.

What's important is that we've changed the way that we use [the word racism] in a practical way. But we haven't taken away any of the sting of “racist”. I think that's created no shortage of problems in virtually every context. And in the context of public education, it's certainly no different.

Mounk: You mentioned the term “essentialism,” which I think is important in this context. How should we be thinking about the real way in which race structures our social relations, but without reifying a concept that can be very harmful?

Foster: For me, I think it's about engaging with the genuine complexity of the world, and the genuine complexity of the historical circumstances that bring us into [our] present context. And I think, unfortunately, rather than engaging with that complexity, it's very convenient to allow ourselves to slip into thinking it's just about the primacy of race: “Race has been [...] the principal [factor] with respect to oppression and repression and disadvantage in this country. So we'll talk about things in that way, primarily, from now on, for the rest of time.”

[But] the reality is that it's always “race, and…” [We must] engage with that complexity, rather than allowing ourselves to slip into a sensibility where all privilege is kind of derived in this fundamental hierarchical way. And if you are, in the intersectional sense, a woman, your sexuality is one thing, plus your race is another thing, then that gives us a sense of your “disadvantage score.” It's obviously fraught to go about trying to understand the world in that way. You necessarily lose a lot of the nuance that's really important for understanding things. 

I've been thinking about the notion of education more broadly. What is that project about? It seems to me that it's about helping young people to discover the world and make sense out of it, not merely transmitting our beliefs from one generation to another—giving them kind of an approved catalogue of things that we know to be true—but really allowing them to get particular tools about art, culture, [and] science, so that they can probe those different subjects. And I think race is another social concept that we ought to be probing and asking serious questions about. What does this mean to who we are? How does it work? How does it inform our understanding of different contexts and different circumstances? It's interesting that that's what a project like the 1619 Project is supposed to do. But unfortunately, it only gives you one lens.

Mounk: It seems to me that there are broadly four positions, two that are on the very essentialist end: [the first is] the ethno-nationalist, white nationalist position that race is real and it will always be there, and societies will thrive insofar as the supposedly superior group manages to stay in charge. That's obviously something that neither of us has any sympathy for. There’s a second position that's actually in some ways, structurally, surprisingly similar, which is that race is so essential and so deeply baked in that it will always define communities and societies, and rather than having a liberal democracy in which we primarily are seen as individual citizens with the same rights and duties, we should primarily be seen as members of our racial or perhaps religious communities. That tends to have a more left-wing valence, but I think it shares some ontological commitments, as it were, [with the former]. I think neither of us has much sympathy for that position, either. 

I want to hear where you fall between the third and the fourth. The third position is something [to the effect of]: humans are deeply tribal creatures, and so questions like race or religion deeply structure society, and likely will for a long time. But the project of institutions is to push against that, to allow us to have solidarity with each other, to allow us to maintain a complicated project like the United States of America that is a multi-ethnic, multi-racial democracy. And so yes, we need to recognize these groups, and the fact that they will never go away, but we need our institutions, to some extent, to push against them precisely so we don't end up with one of the first two scenarios, neither of which is attractive. The fourth position is even more sanguine about the possibility of pushing back against groups in saying “No, actually, ideally, we should aim for an America 50 or 100 years from now, where people really don't, in any significant sense think of themselves as a member of an ethnic or racial group, or perhaps not even a religious group.” How do you feel about options three and four? Would you put it differently?

Foster: No, I think that's a fabulous delineation. And I especially value the way that you talked about the first two categories together, which is essentially the racist and anti-racist paradigm. The unifying concept there is the primacy of race. [In those worldviews] that is the most important thing about our experience, or among the most important things about our experience. And yes, I reject it wholesale, because it's obviously false.

I think the third one is interesting. And I think it does pay attention to the reality that people do have a natural proclivity to gravitate towards those differences, that we're innately tribal in some sense, that perhaps this will always be with us. The difficulty I have with that is that [it contains] a bit of the naturalistic fallacy: “it will always be there, so we can get used to it.”

[...] I think we have to have aspirational values. And I think only the fourth one really contains that. The fourth one that you just laid out is about granting one another the dignity of our individuality. [It’s] an aspiration towards a world where we are regarding race in precisely the same sort of way that we regard height, or hair color, because you can change your eye color and hair color with some assistance, and no one comes to think, “Oh, no, now you're a totally different person, you’re blue. You’re blue today.” This is remarkable. 

And it's not colorblindness as an aspiration. I've always thought that colorblindness didn't quite go far enough. Also, [it] sounds like a defect, like we're trying to ignore something, which I think is very different from recognizing racecraft for what it is, which means appreciating the ways that it sort of altered us and altered the way that we thought about the world and had an impact on people's actions. 

The aspiration [is] to move towards a world where we recognize those phenotypic traits for what they are, and the degree to which they may correlate with certain outcomes and patterns and social realities that we have to exist alongside. But we understand that they can be completely meaningless. In many instances, when we add race to the conversation, we are obfuscating things that are actually true about the world. And various thinkers have a very difficult time actually getting to the point where they can make that recognition. It's what leads you to a world where Ibram Kendi becomes a leading thinker and intellectual by giving you all sorts of clumsy solipsisms and circular logic as bold insights. [...] The fourth is the only option for me, for sure.

Mounk: You said something on Twitter recently that resonated with me. [You said that] many people [who] aren't driven by their own substantive beliefs don't look at a particular political controversy in light of their values and try to think how the value should inform a response to it. They simply look at what people they dislike say and try to say the opposite. Tell us how you, as somebody who's a committed libertarian, look to your guiding principles in a way that, hopefully, allows you [not] to fall into the trap of what I, at the suggestion of Emily Yoffe, have started to call “180-ism?”

Foster: “180-ism” is a great term for that. I'll start by saying [that] after writing the Times editorial, I got some interesting, very intense feedback. In a couple of instances [I] received text messages from friends who felt deeply betrayed, and who were outraged that I would do this. And I've had to kind of tick through what the reasons are, because my perspectives haven't changed. 

But I've also noticed that there are things that happened beyond the occasions where I'm getting some sort of substantive, interesting, critical feedback, arguments that make me genuinely reconsider my position and wonder if there [aren’t] specific ways in which the other side of this might be right. Beyond that, it's guilt by association. It's folks misleadingly interpreting things in a way that I think is misguided. It's a misreading, and sometimes those things are kind of willful and deliberate misinterpretations that, I think, veer into being misrepresentations. And some of them seem pretty deliberate, maybe even strategic in kind of a Bannonite sort of way, where you're flooding the zone with shit, you're publishing a screed, a tirade, against [my] editorial, in the hopes of making sure certain people don't read it. 

[...] I think you and I both talked to Martin Gurri about this, and I'm very partial to his observations about the decline of our ability to trust in institutions. As a result, I think people’s ideological commitments, commitments to particular partisan factions, [have] been reinforced, and have replaced some of the other mechanisms that they might have used to determine what's true and not. As a result of that, policing the boundaries of your group, and enforcing loyalty has become really indispensable to people; that creates some real problems. And interestingly, for me, being someone who has heterodox politics (I describe myself as a libertarian, anarcho-capitalist in other contexts—a Spoonerite, for anyone who knows who Lysander Spooner is), that tribe is sufficiently small and diverse that I don't have the same tribal loyalties that [might] motivate me to rush to defend a position on behalf of my team.

I have friendships and partnerships with people and associations across the political landscape, and we disagree vehemently on a ton of stuff. And as a result, I think that there's a necessary bit of pragmatism that comes to the forefront of [almost] all of my thinking about different political issues. I know that very good, smart people disagree with me forcefully on virtually everything. And as a result, naturally curious person that I am, I'm always trying to understand their point of view. And that commitment to trying to understand this very smart person's disagreement makes it very difficult to lurch into the kind of deliberate presumption that someone is operating in bad faith. 

Mounk: What do you think about the way in which, in the current discourse, that pressure is sometimes especially strong for black, Asian or Latino writers when there’s this idea that who you are in terms of identity should determine how you see the world?

Describe what that sort of in-group pressure is like and how we can go against it, but also how we can disabuse, frankly, white liberal journalists at places like The New York Times from the notion that a black intellectual has to be somebody who agrees with Ibram Kendi rather than somebody who might agree with Kmele Foster or Thomas Chatterton Williams or any number of other writers and thinkers?

Foster: We've seen this dynamic before, [with] What's the Matter with Kansas? In this particular case, it's “What's the Matter with Brooklyn? They're voting against their own interests.” I think there is a pair of problems there: one is the ideologically-driven presumption about what is imagined to be best for a collection of people in a particular area by some elites who [only] have their opinion. And then the second thing is what we've been talking about here: the essentialist aspect of it, and presumptions based on the [physical] characteristics of those individuals. There's the fact of people who self-identify as black voting in a particular way, over time, and then there's the reality of the many distinct reasons why they choose to vote in those ways, and the degree to which having a two-party system creates a false sense of cohesion, a sense [that] their beliefs and convictions are easily discernible. That's just wrong. It’s factually inaccurate.

[...] I'm a first-generation American as well. My family is from Jamaica. I happened to be born in the country, and as a result, I've always had a tension between (I thought of myself as a black person for many, many years before reaching the epiphany that I reached, at some point, to disregard all that kind of racial nonsense) black-as-African American and black-as-Jamaican. And as time has gone on, I went even further to have this real tension between any kind of rigid identity that's imposed on me, versus an identity that's born out of things that are actually relevant, and that are necessarily true about my life and experience. 

I'm a father, and I'm a husband. These are things that are literally true. I'm an entrepreneur, literally true. I'm a libertarian. These are my actual beliefs. To say [that] I'm black... What on earth does that mean? Even to say [that] I'm Jamaican… Well, not nationality-wise, but yes, some of my ancestry comes from there. These are very crude concepts that we often treat in a very serious way. [It speaks to] the lack of serious scrutiny that we're actually attributing to these things that we've given them so much power and prominence in our society. We imagine we're being sophisticated when we talk about criminal justice and criminal justice reform and structural racism. We forget that race is just our instinct to categorize things. We've done absolutely nothing when we recast a reality that we discovered in the world, these racial disparities that may even be repeating patterns, as systemic racism, and imagine that we've arrived at some kind of eureka moment. “All your work is still ahead of you,” to quote Christopher Hitchens.

Mounk: How should we balance the recognition that not every difference of outcome, by group, is in itself pernicious, with the awareness that in the American case, one of the reasons why a large portion of a black population of United States continues to be less well off and have less wealth is rooted in the history of slavery? And what does that mean for what kind of policies we should adopt?

Foster: [...] I don't have any desire to prioritize suffering on the basis of how it was arrived at. To the extent you are a child who lives in an impoverished household, and you lack resources, and you have only access to a crappy school—it doesn't matter to me, if I'm describing a kid who lives in East New York or Appalachia. The concern is equivalent. These are fellow human beings who are suffering; this is a societal problem that needs to be addressed. And the fact is that a greater proportion of black young people find themselves in that circumstance than the proportion of white people that find themselves in that circumstance. I think there's something obscene about presuming that [it] is kind of more or less important to kind of address the disparity between the racial groups, and not regard those children as individuals and to think collectively about how we can address really hard social problems. And for that reason, my fixation is on the problems themselves and what we can do technically to address them. 

Of course it matters why a car accident happens. But obsessing over that to the detriment of our ability to actually address the injuries of the parties involved—where you're not even loading up the injured people onto gurneys and getting them into ambulances and getting them off to the hospital—just gets me a little worked up. [...] I think it is insane that in a country where we have so many underperforming schools. In cities like LA, New York, Atlanta, the greatest cities in America, we have school systems that are failing, in some instances, more than half of the students that go to them. They can't teach them to read or do mathematics. And instead of talking about that issue, that very hard problem, we are obsessing over whether or not we're talking about the Tulsa Race Massacre in school. I imagine most of these kids don't know anything about Bacon's Rebellion, either. Is that a function of us trying to hide the truth from them and obscure facts? Or is it a function of something else that is actually gravely wrong with our educational system? And are we able to marshal the resources and the will to address those fundamental difficult problems as opposed to engaging in this preposterous theater? [...]

This is to the detriment of children, and it allows the teachers’ unions and other factions to try and impose [essentialism] through the schools, and the response from people angry about this is, for the most part, “We have to ban critical race theory and get our schools back.” They weren't working before! They were broken. This is an inadequate solution.

Mounk: How optimistic or pessimistic are you about where America is going? Progress is not as fast as we might wish, but there's a lot more intercultural, interreligious, interracial friendships, marriages, there's a lot more people founding businesses together [and] being in each other's lives in a real way.  [...] Perhaps in 50 years, it will all look quite antiquated, and we'll have moved more towards what you call option four? 

Foster: I have to be optimistic, I think, for the reasons that you indicated. When I think about the enormous progress that we've made as a species, the fact that we've spent so much of our history collectively at war with ourselves, the profound disadvantage to ourselves, not collaborating, not innovating, not building things [...] When you think about the horrible conditions of Revolutionary America, the profound disadvantages that were placed on people who didn't own property, who had the wrong gender, who had the wrong skin color, who came from the wrong family backgrounds, who didn't have access to the profound, aspirational vision that is outlined in the founding documents of this country. There's a way to look at that and [think], “Oh, that's really sad. It's sad that this country didn't live up to its promise at that point in time and hasn't lived up to its promise throughout most of its history.” But look at that in the right light: it's profoundly inspiring that out of the millennia of subjugation and awfulness and superstition [that was] dominating our species and keeping us down, there was an ideal that took root, and that has constantly and steadily been improving outcomes for us and making our lives better. 

Mounk: There's a lot of cynicism at the moment about what kind of diverse democracies we can build. And a lot of that cynicism comes across as a kind of world wise-ness. It's [people saying]: “you want to move away from these groups being important, you want to have a society in which we emphasize the commonalities and the shared interests—but that's not how the world works. We're always going to be divided into these groups, these groups deeply structure society to such an extent, and that's just the world [to] which we have to resign ourselves.” But I've been doing a lot of work in history and comparative politics and social psychology. Most of those societies in which people's loyalty was more strongly to the ethnic or religious group than to the state or nation ended up in really violent forms of conflict over time. 

Is there a conflict between idealism and the best chance to create a fair, diverse democracy?

Foster: [Few] can appreciate the degree to which [people’s] good intentions—when they segregate children by race and tell one group of kids, “You're privileged, and there's a problem with that, and you need to do something about it,’ [while] the other group of kids is encouraged to say, “I'm disadvantaged, and there's so much wrong, and everything is working against me,”—will breed resentment and a lack of self esteem and less empathy. [...] I have a very difficult time with that. And again, I have smart friends who disagree with me. I want to understand their perspective, and I try to. But I think that they're profoundly wrong about this. And I think that anyone who is concerned about racial issues and thinks that we need to place more emphasis on those things… what I would ask them to contemplate is: What does it look like when we're doing too much of that? What are the drawbacks of over-concern with respect to race in particular?

There doesn't seem to be any appreciation whatsoever for the degree to which there could be some adverse unintended consequences related to this push. [Race essentialists] just need to think a bit more clearly about what their project is, and how best to help people. Perhaps it's appropriate to view people as people, and not to imagine that focusing on original sin in the garden can help to liberate us today from the challenges that we actually face.


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