In defense of the old-fashioned idea of "racism"

Discrimination and bias are important concepts

To me, one of the weirder phenomena of the past 12 to 18 months in American life is the way that Ibram X. Kendi has become this widely quoted, widely interviewed, widely celebrated figure, and yet hardly anyone has asked him about the most provocative and distinctive ideas in his book.

When the book was first published in 2019, that’s not how it was received. Kelefa Sanneh’s excellent review in the New Yorker heads straight for what I think is the core weirdness of Kendi’s ideas. If we accept the definition that a racist is a person who supports racist policies, and what makes a policy racist is that it “produces or sustains racial inequity,” then determining which policies are racist requires exhaustive analysis of controversial empirical questions. Sanneh uses the example of “ban the box” laws which prohibit employers from asking about past criminal convictions. Many activists and the National Employment Law Center regard this as an important anti-racist measure since African Americans are more likely to have prior convictions and thus be disadvantaged by this question.

But Jennifer Doleac and Benjamin Hansen find that “ban the box” laws lead to worse employment outcomes for Black men because absent specific information about past criminal records, employers engage in statistical discrimination.1

“Are these laws and their supporters racist?” Sanneh asks. “In Kendi’s framework, the only possible answer is: wait and see.”

Sanneh’s review suggests, rightly, that neither Kendi nor anyone else can consistently stick with this empiricist concept of racism. That the visceral reaction to animus, bias, and discrimination is still with us and still works as the primary meaning of “racism,” even for people who would like to officially move to something more like Kendi-ism.

All of this is why I was glad to read the transcript of Ezra Klein’s most recent interview with Kendi because Klein really tries to tease out exactly what this racial equity lens amounts to.

This version of racism doesn’t add much to class

I do not believe that you can wholly subsume the concept of racial disadvantage to questions of economic class. But one interesting thing about Kendi’s analysis is that it basically transmogrifies racism into pure class politics.

At one point, Kendi says that we should have an institution like the CBO (or, I suppose, the CBO itself) “do an analytical assessment, of that same tax bill to understand, is this going to grow or reduce the racial wealth gap, as an example, or is it going to create more income inequality, whether that’s income inequality across racial groups or even between racial groups or even between genders.”

But as Kendi himself says, “it’s pretty obvious that Trump’s tax cut was going to increase the racial wealth gap. It’s pretty obvious that the Affordable Care Act was going to reduce the gap in uninsurance rates between Black, brown, and white Americans.”

I mean, that’s correct, it is obvious. And for the same reason, it’s generally obvious that any measure to tax the rich or spend money on the poor is going to close racial gaps. The only way to avoid that outcome would be to do something really weird like raise taxes exclusively on rich athletes. There are also regional targeting policies that can have disparate racial impacts — the rural population is very white, especially outside the South. But you don’t really need the CBO to tell you that a surtax on professional basketball players to fund rural broadband projects in the Big Empty Square States would have a disparate racial impact.

The other problem with this idea is that it’s not clear what level of analysis you’re supposed to apply it to. If a bill logrolls rural broadband subsidies with subsidies for urban mass transit systems, is that good or bad? A classic element of late-twentieth-century politics was for Farm State Democrats (that used to be a thing) to team up with Black Democrats to write a farm bill that rolled together subsidies for agricultural producers with money for food stamps. That’s how politics works.

And the whole thing strikes me as conceptual overkill relative to the point that formally race-neutral statutes can still mask discrimination.

Race-neutral discrimination is a thing

Back in the 1917 case of Buchanan v. Warley, the Supreme Court ruled that you can’t build racial discrimination into your zoning code.

Since being racist was not at all stigmatized in the 1920s, cities responded to this by hiring consultants to help them craft zoning codes that would generate and sustain de facto segregation. A more common example is that the HOLC maps infamously cited a high Black population as per se making an area too risky for federal mortgage subsidies. The policy wasn’t that Black people couldn’t get subsidized loans, just that the places where Black people might want to get loans, in practice, were ineligible.

The obvious issue here is these are cases where we have evidence of clear discriminatory intent, and that’s not the case with the “ban the box” people.

We all know that the vast majority of the people in the United States pushing for a less punitive criminal justice system do so in large part out of sincere anti-racism convictions. The question Doleac and Hansen are raising is “are they in fact correct?” rather than “are they secretly racist?”

This comes up squarely when Klein asks Kendi about “defund the police” and research showing that higher levels of police staffing save lives — disproportionately Black lives — by reducing homicide. Kendi pulls a sort of normal lefty move, dodges the question, and talks about how there are other research-backed strategies for controlling crime besides putting more cops on the beat. That’s totally true, and we should do some of that stuff. But I still think it’s absurd to think the people reacting to George Floyd’s murder with DEFUND THE POLICE Instagram memes are racist. What they are is mistaken.

But by having elevated racism into this plane of high-level empiricism, Kendi leaves himself unable to really explain what the whole fuss is about police in the first place.

People really do not like being discriminated against

My former colleague Sean Collins wrote last June about the wide range of concerns he has about policing as a young Black man that go beyond the most egregious cases or the things that are easy to quantify in statistics: “feeling you have no recourse for complaints about police, the calculus that can go into the decision to call 911, the sense that an investigation into a reported crime won’t be prioritized, the nervousness and fear that must be tamped down as one works to stay calm and keep an officer calm — all while wondering if you are living your final moments.”

This is an extremely common sentiment among Black men and their families.

And it’s frequently been a huge flashpoint. Barack Obama once pointed out that “if I had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin.” Bill de Blasio spoke of his conversations with his multiracial son about the need for caution in dealing with police. Nobody in my neighborhood lets kids play with toy guns because nobody wants to see another Tamir Rice.

Sen. Tim Scott has spoken movingly about being racially profiled by the Capitol Police.

A key aspect of this that keeps making it so contentious is that the complaints are personal, and they come from Black men who are successful in America. But that’s the whole point. It’s a distinctively racial concern that a Black person, just in virtue of being Black, is going to be treated worse even if he’s the mayor’s son or a U.S. senator. In other words, it’s racism in the normal pre-Kendi view of the world. And people really don’t like it. At times they get so fired up about it that they embrace ideas that are unsound and counterproductive. But having a bad policy idea is not the same thing as stereotyping Black men and treating them as presumptively criminal.

And it seems like everyone should know that.

“Privileged” groups can experience hatred and racism

I kept waiting for someone to make this point back when everyone was fired up about anti-Asian hate crimes, but it’s really bad to be a member of a community that’s targeted for hate crimes, and that’s true even if your community is, on the whole, doing well in America. That Asians are richer on average than white people is an interesting sociological fact. That Asians are sometimes assaulted in virtue of their ethnic identity is racism.

Personally, I get a little freaked out any time antisemitic hate crimes are in the news even though rationally, I know I don’t walk around with any external signifiers of Jewishness or have a Jewish name or anything like that.

The hate crimes themselves are bad, but they also feel shitty, which indeed is the point — it’s intended to send the message that you don’t really belong.

And the reason that racially discriminatory conduct by police officers is so especially troubling is that they are the official representatives of the state. So their misconduct carries a heavy symbolic and practical burden.

Structural racism has its place

It feels almost absurd to write a column about how, you know, hate crimes are bad and discrimination is bad and nobody likes to be subjected to bigotry.

But something very odd happened in the Trump years. A lot of people had a visceral reaction of disgust to his bigoted rhetoric — implying that Mexican immigrants are typically murderers or offhand references to “shithole countries,” but at the same time, more people than ever were insisting that this actually isn’t what racism is, that real racism is what Kendi says it is.

Yet it seems inescapable that the reason white liberals started talking more about racism isn’t that we suddenly became aware of gaps in economic conditions — it’s because Trump was saying all this racist stuff.

That’s not to say that there’s no place for a structural account of racism. My go-to example is the U.S. Senate, which not-really-by-design systematically down weights the preferences of Black voters. Things then flow downstream from that. A more equitable Senate would have confirmed Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. A more equitable Senate would have passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. A more equitable Senate would not need to swap rural broadband money to get mass transit money.

This is different from how other political systems work. Finland’s political institutions create a situation where the small party representing the country’s Swedish-speaking minority is almost always useful to have as a coalition partner. As a result, even though Swedish-speakers are in some sense marginalized in a majority-Finnish-speaking country, their concrete interests are safeguarded. But a lot of America’s governance institutions (including the aforementioned zoning ordinances) were created in a much more aggressively racist time and become ongoing sources of disadvantage.

That being said, remember when Donald Trump spent years making “jokes” about how Barack Obama was secretly Kenyan? That was really racist. And then when those racist jokes catapulted him into being someone whose endorsement Mitt Romney would court, and someone who was on Fox News a lot, and then suddenly someone leading in the polls for the GOP nomination, that was really disturbing. Because it was super racist. And racist in a very banal, commonsense way that I think is actually very important relative to the more fashionable and largely unworkable version of racism that Kendi is trying to sell us on.


I personally do not love this economics term of art, which I think is an annoyingly bloodless version of the already available idea of stereotyping.