Opinion | What Should We Do About Systemic Racism?

Here’s why some people aren’t onboard with the way Americans are taught to think about systemic racism: Even fully understanding that systemic racism exists and why it is important — persistent disparities between Black people and others in access to resources — one may have some questions. Real ones.

For me, the biggest question is not whether systemic racism exists but what to do about it.

A thorny patch, for starters, is figuring out whether racism is even the cause of a particular kind of disparity. One approach, well-aired these days, is that all racial disparities must be due to racism — a view encapsulated in a proclamation like “When I see racial disparities, I see racism.”

But that approach, despite its appeal in being so elementary — plus a bit menacing (a bit of drama, a little guilt?) — is often mistaken in its analysis, not to mention harmful to Black people if acted upon.

Here’s an example. Black kids tend not to do as well in school as white kids, statistically. But just what is the “racism” that causes this particular disparity?

It isn’t something as plain and simple as the idea that all Black kids go to underfunded schools — it’s a little 1980s to think that’s all we’re faced with. School funding is hugely oversold as a reason for schools’ underperformance, and the achievement disparity persists even among middle-class Black kids.

And middle-class Black kids are not just a mere sliver: Only about a third of Black students are poor. Yet the number of Black students admitted to top-level universities, for example, is small — so small that policies changing admissions standards are necessary for such schools to have a representative number of them on campus. This is fact, shown at countless institutions over the past 30 years such as the University of Michigan and recently Harvard. The key question is what justifies the policies.

One answer might be: “When I see racial disparities, I see racism.”

But in evaluating that idea, we must consider this: Black teenagers too often associate school with being “white.” Doesn’t such a mind-set have a way of keeping a good number of Black kids from hitting the very highest note in school? If many Black kids have to choose between being a nerd and having more Black friends — and one study suggests that they do — then the question is not whether this would depress overall Black scholastic achievement, but why it wouldn’t. The vast weight of journalistic attestations about growing up Black and how Black kids deal with school show the conflicting pressures they can face about achieving good grades and making friendships.

Now, my point here is not to simply accuse students of having a “pathology.” To be sure, the reason Black kids often think of school as “white” is racism. Just not racism today. Thus to eliminate systemic racism, our target cannot be some form of racism in operation now, because the racism operated several decades ago.

It took a while for Brown v. Board of Education to actually be enforced. When it was, starting in the mid-1960s, white teachers and students nationwide were not happy. Old-school open racism was still in flower, and Black kids in newly desegregated schools experienced it full blast — and not just in the South.

It was then that Black kids started thinking of school as the white kids’ game, something to disidentify from. While it hurts to be called a nerd when you’re white, the sting is worse when you are called disloyal to your race.

The source to consult on all of this is the book “Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation,” as key to understanding Black history as Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow.”

One might ask why the disaffection with school persists even though the racism that caused it has retreated so much — for certainly this kind of open racism diminished enormously in the 1970s and 1980s. But cultural traits can persist in human beings beyond what sparked those traits. The idea that school is not what “we” do settled into a broader function: ordinary teenage tribalism. White kids might choose to be, say, Goths or various things. So might Black kids — but another identity available to many of them is a sense of school as racially inauthentic. The “acting white” idea has persisted even in well-funded middle-class schools, where if anyone is discriminating against the Black students, it’s being done in ways too scattered and usually subtle to explain, indefensible though they are, to realistically explain the performance gap.

This sense of school as “other” can be covert as well as overt. A 1997 study by Clifton Casteel, a Black educator, showed that white eighth and ninth graders tend to think of themselves as doing homework to please their parents, while Black ones think of themselves as doing it for their teachers. That’s subtle but indicative — the idea that school stuff for Black students is outside of home and hearth. And in the 1980s, a mathematics educator, Phillip Uri Treisman, showed that Black college students do better in calculus if they are taught to work together in studying it (with high expectations and close professor mentoring also recommended). That Black students need to be instructed to share schoolwork rather than go it alone illuminates a private sense of school as not what “we” do — i.e., when we are together being ourselves.

I will not pretend that there has not been, for 20 years, people vociferously denying that Black kids often have an ambivalent attitude toward excelling in school. However, that Black kids don’t say in interviews that they disidentify from school reveals no more than that whites say they aren’t racist in interviews — why hit rewind and pretend psychology has no layers solely when Black students are involved? Then there is the idea that certain studies have disproved that this sense of disconnection exists when they actually found possible evidence of it, such as one documenting Black students saying that they like school and yet reporting spending less time on homework compared with white and Asian kids.

In sum, the sheer volume of attestations and documentation of Black students accused of “acting white” makes it clear to any unbiased observer that the issue is real, including the shakiness of the attempts to debunk the claim. The denialists are worried that someone like me is criticizing the Black students, upon which I repeat: The sense of school as white was caused by racism. It’s just that it was long, long ago now.

So, we return to “when I see racial disparities, I see racism.” This is a mantra from Ibram X. Kendi, and one of his solutions to the Black-white achievement gap in school is to eliminate standardized tests. They are “racist,” you see, because Black kids tend not to do as well on them as others.

And in line with this version of racial reckoning, we are seeing one institution after another eliminating or altering testing requirements, from the University of California to Boston’s public school system.

The idea that this is the antiracist thing to do is rooted in an idea that there is something about Black culture that renders standardized tests inappropriate. After all, Kendi certainly doesn’t think the issue is Black genes. Nor, we assume, does any responsible person think it’s genes, and it can’t be that all Black kids grow up poor because to say that is racist, denying the achievements of so many Black people and contradicting simple statistics.

So it’s apparently something about being a Black person. Kendi does not specify what this cultural configuration is, but there is reason to suppose, from what he as well as many like-minded people are given to writing and saying, that the idea is that Black people for some reason don’t think “that way,” that Black thought favors pragmatic engagement with the exigencies of real life over the disembodied abstraction of test questions.

But there is a short step from here to two gruesome places.

One is the idea getting around in math pedagogy circles that being precise, embracing abstract reasoning and focusing on finding the actual answer are “white,” which takes us right back to the idea that school is “white.”

The other is the idea that Black people just aren’t as quick on the uptake as other people.

Yeah, I know — multiple intelligences, “energy” and so on. Taking a test of abstract reasoning is just one way of indicating intelligence, right — but folks, really? I submit that few beyond a certain circle will ever truly believe that we need to trash these tests, which were expressly designed to cut through bias.

One of Kendi’s suggestions, for example, is that we assess Black kids instead on how articulate they are about their neighborhood circumstances and on their “desire to know.” But this is a drive-by notion of pedagogical practice, with shades again of the idea that being a grind is “white.” I insist that it is more progressively Black to ask why we can’t seek for Black kids to get better on the tests, and almost phrenological to propound that it’s racist to submit a Black person to a test of abstract cognitive skill.

To get more Black students into top schools, we should focus on getting the word out in Black communities about free test preparation programs, such as have long existed in New York City. We should resist the elimination of gifted tracks as “racist,” given that they shunted quite a few Black kids into top high schools in, for example, New York back in the day. Teaching Black kids to work together should be even more of a meme than it has become since Treisman’s study. And the idea that school is “for white people” should be traced, faced and erased, reified and rendered as uncool as drunken driving and smoking have been.

Boy, that was some right-wing conservative boilerplate, no? Of course not. Many would see these prescriptions as unsatisfying because they aren’t about wagging a finger in white America’s face. But doing that is quite often antithetical to improving Black lives.

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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever” and, most recently, “Woke Racism,” forthcoming in October.

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