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Free Black Thought: A Manifesto
To build a truly antiracist society, we need to listen to all black voices, not just those deemed "authentic."
By Erec Smith
In a now-deleted tweet from May 22, 2020, Nikole Hannah-Jones, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times, opined, “There is a difference between being politically black and being racially black.” Hannah-Jones’s tweet came in support of then-candidate Joe Biden’s remark to the black radio show host Charlamagne tha God: “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.” The implication of Hannah-Jones’s tweet and candidate Biden’s quip seems to be that you can have African ancestry, dark skin, textured hair, and perhaps even some “culturally black” traits regarding tastes in food, music, and ways of moving through the world. But unless you hold the “correct” political beliefs and values, you are not authentically black.
There are standards of black racial authenticity beyond the political, too. Shelly Eversley’s The Real Negro suggests that in the latter half of the 20th century, the criteria of what constitutes “authentic” black experience moved from perceptible outward signs, like the fact of being restricted to segregated public spaces and speaking in a “black” dialect, to psychological, interior signs. In this new understanding, Eversley writes, “the ‘truth’ about race is felt, not performed, not seen.”
This insight goes a long way to explaining the current fetishization of experience, especially if it is (redundantly) “lived.” Black people from all walks of life find themselves deferred to by non-blacks—as if, in one black philosopher’s words, “my racial category tied me more ‘authentically’ to an experience that neither of us had had.” But of course, black people are not all the same. Most of them have not been victims of police violence, and most of them don’t live in inner cities or in poverty. Thus, black people certainly don’t all “feel” or “experience” the same things. Nor do they all "experience" the same event in an identical way. Finally, even when their experiences are similar, they don’t all think about or interpret their experiences in the same way.
What the current obsession with a spurious black authenticity and the actual fact of black diversity suggest is that we must begin to attend in a serious way to heterodox black voices. This need is especially urgent given the ideological homogeneity of the “antiracist” outlook and efforts of elite institutions, including media, corporations, and an overwhelmingly progressive academia. For the arbiters of what it means to be black that dominate these institutions, there is a fairly narrowly prescribed “authentic” black narrative, black perspective, and black position on every issue that matters.
To be clear, nobody questions the value of contributions of black authors and creators in mainstream idea spaces such as CNN, HBO, Netflix, and The New York Times. But as these contributors tend to congregate around “acceptable” viewpoints, they tend to limit our conceptions and imaginations as to what it could mean to be or to “think” black. When we hear the demand to “listen to black voices,” what is usually meant is “listen to the right black voices.” Many non-black people have heard a certain construction of “the black voice” so often that they are perplexed by black people who don’t fit the familiar model. Similarly, many activists are not in fact “pro-black”: they are pro a rather specific conception of “blackness” that is not necessarily endorsed by all black people.
This is where our new website, Free Black Thought (FBT), seeks to intervene in the national conversation. FBT honors black individuals for their distinctive, diverse, and heterodox perspectives, and offers up for all to hear a polyphony, perhaps even a cacophony, of different and differing black voices. The creators of Free Black Thought believe, in the words of Brittany Talissa King, “there isn't a narrative, one black narrative—there's 40 million.”
The practical effects of the new antiracism are everywhere to be seen, but in few places more clearly than in our children’s schools. This is worth attending to because children trust us. They take to heart the messages we send about who they are, how others regard them, and what degree of self-efficacy they should feel in their encounters with the world. Of course, one might reasonably question what could be wrong with teaching children “antiracist” precepts. But the details here are full of devils.
To take an example that could affect millions of students, the state of California has adopted a statewide Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum (ESMC) that reflects “antiracist” ideas. The ESMC’s content inadvertently confirms that contemporary antiracism is often not so much an extension of the civil rights movement but in certain respects a tacit abandonment of its ideals. It has thus been condemned as a “perversion of history” by Dr. Clarence Jones, MLK’s legal counsel, advisor, speechwriter, and Scholar in Residence at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Institute at Stanford University:
It is a fact that the Black Freedom Movement of the 1950s and 1960s under Dr. King's leadership transformed our country, overthrowing a century of Jim Crow segregation and white supremacist terror throughout the former Confederate States. This fact, which I had thought was well known to all educated persons, has been removed from the ESMC. This is morally unacceptable and renders the entire curriculum suspect. Moreover, it appears that this omission was deliberate.
But bad history and sketchiness about civil rights are not the only consequences of the rush to embrace elite mainstream antiracism. Essentialist thinking about race has also gained ground in some schools. For example, in one elite school, students “are pressured to conform their opinions to those broadly associated with their race and gender and to minimize or dismiss individual experiences that don’t match those assumptions.” These students report feeling that “they must never challenge any of the premises of [the school’s] ‘antiracist’ teachings.”
Or consider the third-grade students at R.I. Meyerholz Elementary School in Cupertino, California. They were guided in “mapping” their racial and other immutable characteristics. The children with “white” in their identity map were taught that they were part of the “dominant culture” which has been “created and maintained…to hold power and stay in power.” They were also taught that they had “privilege” and that “those with privilege have power over others.” In contrast, the non-white students were taught that they were “folx (sic) who do not benefit from their social identities,” and “have little to no privilege and power.”
Or take New York City’s public school system, one of the largest educators of non-white children in America. In an effort to root out “implicit bias,” former Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza had his administrators trained in the dangers of “white supremacy culture.” If you think this means the culture of neo-Nazis and the KKK, your antiracism needs an update. A slide from a training presentation listed “perfectionism,” “individualism,” “objectivity” and “worship of the written word” as white supremacist cultural traits to be “dismantled,” as the title of the workbook from which they were drawn puts it.
Finally, some schools are adopting antiracist ideas of the sort espoused by Ibram X. Kendi, according to whom, if metrics such as tests and grades reveal disparities in achievement, the project of measuring achievement must itself be racist. Thus, some schools are changing the way they grade, including taking measures that may mask low achievement rather than improve it. There’s probably nothing magical about the way testing and grading have traditionally been done, but Kendi’s proposal does not appear likely to improve the numeracy and literacy of black students. He writes:
What if the intellect of a low-testing Black child in a poor Black school is different from—and not inferior to—the intellect of a high-testing White child in a rich White school? What if we measured intelligence by how knowledgeable individuals are about their own environments?
Parents are justifiably worried about such innovations. What black parent wants her child to hear that grading or math are “racist” as a substitute for objective assessment and real learning? What black parent wants her child told she shouldn’t worry about working hard, thinking objectively, or taking a deep interest in reading and writing because these things are not authentically black? We are beginning to see the consequences of this new educational paradigm. A black parent in the Evanston, Illinois, school district reports the following of her son:
My son has wanted to be a lawyer since he was 11. Then one day he came home and told me, “But Mommy, there are these systems put in place that prevent Black people from accomplishing anything.” That’s what they’re teaching Black kids […]. The narrative is, “You can’t get ahead.”
Clearly, our children’s prospects for success depend on the public being able to have an honest and free-ranging discussion about this new antiracism and its utilization in schools. Even if some black people have adopted its tenets, many more, perhaps most, hold complex perspectives that draw from a constellation of rather different ideologies.
So let’s listen to what some heterodox black people have to say about the new antiracism in our schools.
Coleman Hughes, a fellow at the Manhattan Institute, points to a self-defeating feature of Kendi-inspired grading and testing reforms: If we reject high academic standards for black children, they are unlikely to rise to “those same rejected standards” and racial disparity is unlikely to decrease. Ian Rowe, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, characterizes the “antiracist” approach to grading of San Diego’s public school system as “the unintended, modern-day version of the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Faced with a 20% failure rate for black students, the school board declined to “attempt to replicate the factors empowering the 80% of black students who achieved passing grades” in favor of “dumb[ing] down” grading across the board in a misguided effort to erase disparities.
Other black thinkers are troubled by the potential psychological and social effects of antiracism. It may, for example, produce “a feeling of victimization or, at times, infantilization and learned helplessness in people of color.” Chloé Valdary, the founder of Theory of Enchantment, worries that antiracism may “reinforce a shallow dogma of racial essentialism by describing black and white people in generalizing ways” and discourage “fellowship among peers of different races.”
This essay, although it has only my name in the byline, was a collaborative effort of the whole FBT team. We hope it’s obvious that the point we’re trying to make is not that everyone should accept uncritically everything these heterodox black thinkers say. Our point in composing this essay is that we all desperately need to hear what these thinkers say so we can have a genuine conversation. Free Black Thought’s goal is to facilitate that conversation. We promote no particular politics or agenda beyond a desire to offer a wide range of alternatives to the predictable fare emanating from elite mainstream outlets. At FBT, Marxists rub shoulders with laissez-faire libertarians. We have no desire to adjudicate who is “authentically black” or whom to prefer. Only by recognizing and attending to the full diversity of black thought can we truly realize Valdary’s maxim to “treat people like human beings, not political abstractions.”
Erec Smith is an associate professor of rhetoric at York College of Pennsylvania.