Published: April 27, 2021
These days, I (as well as my Bloggingheads sparring partner Glenn Loury) am asked several times a day what we can do to prevent the modern distortion of antiracism from destroying our schools. The desperation from parents, teachers and even students is heartrending – and quite challenging, given that I am a linguistics professor and editorialist rather than an educational administrator.
However, I consider myself responsible for at least trying to offer solutions instead of doing nothing but analyzing from the sidelines (the new organization FAIR has a similar mission.) And as I develop a sense of how we might reverse this anti-intellectual tide of pious, self-congratulatory nonsense from depriving generations of children of true education, I have settled upon a sense that black people will have to play a major role in the pushback, and that this can only happen if we get honest about a certain obstacle to black America’s doing so.
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On what we need to push back against, we must first drop in on, for example, one Tom Taylor. He’s the head of the upper school at Riverdale Country Day school, and has penned an article where he serenely lays out his educational philosophy. You know the drill from the title alone: “Independent School Rhetoric and its Role in the Neoliberal Construction of Whiteness.” Some choice passages from Mr. Taylor’s opus:
In light of the deeply embedded and largely unexamined neoliberal ideologies in the foundation of NAIS [National Association of Independent Schools] (and thus in independent schools as a broadly constructed segment of the education landscape), it would appear that such schools are fundamentally problematic spaces.
Get ready, though: to people like this, problematic means blasphemous, and blasphemy requires desperate, and even hostile changes of procedure.
Neoliberalism and its attendant beliefs about the market, individual control, and meritocracy are existential elements of independent schools and, thus, any attempt at constructing an inclusive space or decolonizing community will face immediate challenges.
That is, the problems people like Taylor have with what they call neoliberalism justify deriding the idea of anyone having control over their fate (who isn’t white), and the things we consider it a positive trait to excel in – i.e. “meritocracy.”
Thus, private schools who find parents unwilling to accept moves toward culturally responsive schooling are free to draw a line in the sand, so to speak, and assert firmly and positively a philosophy of education that is explicitly anti-racist, decolonizing, and culturally affirming.
That is, parents’ objections are not to be heeded because today’s “antiracism” is a higher morality these “Nice White People” are too benighted to understand (although quite a few of them are South Asian and African, but never mind).
In light of the problematic elements of neoliberal ideology evident in the structures of independent schools, it is not merely a freedom they have to construct their environment in this way, but in fact an obligation.
Again, the school is channeling Jesus and will not be questioned. Thou shalt not question Tom Taylor.
Given the buzzwords, the period of composition, and current practice at such schools nationwide, we are reasonable to assume that the program Taylor is espousing will include excusing black students from real standards, teaching students to distrust one another across racial boundaries, narrowing scholastic coverage to “center” issues of oppression and inequity, “decentering,” well, just plain school as “too white,” assigning KenDiAngelonian texts as scripture, and creating an atmosphere where students and teachers are afraid to take issue with any of this because they don’t want to be rhetorically roasted alive and socially excommunicated.
And Taylor’s position is “If parents don’t like what we’re doing they can go fuck themselves. We’re right and they’re wrong.”
This man, despite his sport coats and probably pacific demeanor, is a zealot.
And of course, I am only focusing on him as an example of a type. The rest of us can say all we want about free speech, the exchange of ideas, the Enlightenment, and John Stuart Mill. But this can only serve to unite us in recollecting what progress is. We can be under no impression that any of it can touch people like Taylor. He is under the sincere impression that he is on to a larger truth beyond discussion. His mind will never change – or, the chance of it changing is too slight to merit effort.
More broadly, consider: he is 1) intelligent, 2) educated, and 3) seeking moral absolution for being white. Plus: 4) These days he’s on the defensive and thus he’ll only dig in deeper upon challenge, to avoid having to admit he’s been wrong. But that’s only if he can perceive that he has been, which is unlikely.
Cynical sorts might add that on top of all of this he’s white – he’s a member of the ruling class and tacitly (complicitly, as his own gospel has it?) sees his predilections as bearing a certain gravity. Make of that what you will; whether I believe that part varies from day to day, but it is worth consideration.
But he’s as irretrievable as a Stepford Wife – this is Invasion of the Body Snatchers territory. To attempt reaching this person would be as futile and backwards as the educational philosophy he is mistaking as wisdom. He is the squid who, when threatened, squirts a cloud of black ink and flees. (Strained analogy alert: like the ink used to print copies of White Fragility and How to Be an Anti-Racist! If only Getty Images had a picture of that I’d use it for this piece.)
* * *
And this leads to my second proposition. This KenDiAngelonianism, in its infantilization of black people for purposes of white self-congratulation, is racist, as I have discussed in this space recently. Perhaps the only way to discourage its takeover of our educational institutions will be for black people to start protesting against it on those terms, because abjuring being racist is what The Elect consider a paramount, dealbreaker reason for living. But there is a crucial obstacle to this.
Namely, many black people – and especially more educated ones, overrepresented in education, academia, and the media -- accept being treated the way Tom Taylors prefer to treat us.
Why do so many of us accept this condescension as a compliment, almost enjoying being told we are too dumb to be truly educated, to be specific, or to be subject to genuine competition? Psychology has an answer to this question: a personal trait called the tendency for interpersonal victimhood, or an embrace of victimhood status.
In a word, there are people who exaggerate the degree of their victimhood, and by extension, groups of people who do. For clinical details, this article is useful; I also recommend this overview. There is a whole literature on this syndrome.
The syndrome manifests itself according to these four facets:
1) Constantly seeking recognition of one’s victimhood
2) Frequently ruminating about past discrimination
3) A sense of moral elitism, as a way to maintain a positive self-image
4) Lack of empathy for the pain and suffering of others
It is impossible not to recognize a certain strain of thought in the black American community in those four tenets, let’s face it. The parallel is almost eerie, and too close to be insignificant. The constant seeking of recognition as a victim – i.e. beyond what reality would lead one to expect – is, unfortunately, most writing on race today: the guilty sense you may have that racism exists but a great many thinkers exaggerate about it is stimulated by this facet of the victimhood identity. Too, the sense one may have that black people resist the basic coping strategy of getting beyond the past is due to the ruminating aspect.
3) and 4) may seem somewhat unfair to level at people who have been through so much, but in truth, they also apply to modern black America. The moral elitism is behind the essentialization of whites as a monolithic clump of evil (with whites like Robin DiAngelo encouraging it), while the lack of empathy for others’ suffering comes out in, for example, indignation that Asians battle the discrimination against them in elite university admissions policies, the idea being that it is “racist” for them to resist this bias because it benefits black admits.
What causes a person to embrace the victimhood mindset? What is called anxious attachment, stemming from doubts about one’s social value. The question is why black people would not have doubts about their social value given our history. The Elect cannot claim I am just making that up, as they found their whole approach to black people on the very idea that the society is built upon devaluing us socially.
Importantly, psychologists specify that the victimhood mindset need not come from actual victimhood: trauma may, but may not create the mindset, and the mindset may, but may not come from trauma. Rather, one can be socialized into embracing the victimhood mindset because, on a day to day level, it can function as a source of comfort and even belonging.
Psychologists have noted this tendency in various groups worldwide. Claims that somehow this analysis is mysteriously inapplicable to the descendants of African slaves in America will require careful argumentation, and will be unlikely to stand.
* * *
A part of grappling with race in our current moment will be to get past a sense of recoil we may have at applying this psychological analysis to a critical mass of black American people. The idea is not that such people are insane; however, this victimhood mindset is a mental quirk which, among other things, makes too many black people listen to people like Tom Taylor and smile.
However, our approach here cannot be to simply call out the syndrome and leave it there. Name-calling doesn’t change people. Rather, we must focus on what a person, or a people, gain from letting go of the temptations of this victimhood mindset.
For example, as Scott Barry Kaufman notes, the moral elitism forces us to turn away from the complexity of the real world, as in, the only world in which we can forge actual solutions to actual problems. Overall, Kaufman asks:
“What if we all learned at a young age that our traumas don’t have to define us? That it’s possible to have experienced a trauma and for victimhood to not form the core of our identity? That it’s even possible to grow from trauma, to become a better person, to use the experiences we’ve had in our lives toward working to instill hope and possibility to others who were in a similar situation? What if we all learned that it’s possible to have healthy pride for an in-group without having out-group hate?”
Note that this is perfect common sense, and yet that a Tom Taylor reads such a thing and glumly shakes his head. Kaufman’s humanistic wisdom is exactly what a Tom Taylor is opposed to, because it isn’t about showing that you aren’t a racist.
A Tom Taylor wants black people to embrace a victimhood mindset because it makes him feel anointed.
Black people, black parents, black students, must understand the nature of this victimhood mindset, the fact that we suffer from it disproportionately, and get out from under it, whether Tom Taylor likes it or not. We must get past the idea that for the descendants of African slaves and only us, studied defeatism is a strategy for success and contentment.
Now: how to turn a call for action like that into reality is something I am still thinking about. Actively.
For decades, schools have been under fire from Xtian religionists who have made fighting against secularization of education (”taking god out of school”) and opposing the teaching of evolution their moral imperative.
But where Xtian religious fanatics have (thus far) failed to undermine education by implementing their program of Xtian creationism, Woke religious fanatics have had far more success. Their program and moral imperatives of authoritarianism, puritanism, and their own brand of outright pseudoscience and mythology - such as “Mathematx” and ”The 1619 Project” - have been not just allowed in, but given full-throated and enthusiastic endorsement from ideologically possessed activists posing as teachers, who are more than willing to sacrifice the mental health and future prospects of their students in pursuit of churning out junior activists.
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