Are Cultural Explanations of Racial Disparities Always Racist? Only By Conflating Race and Culture

Are cultural explanations of racial disparities always racist? A WordPress user self-identifying as an “educator and aspiring writer currently residing in Robbinsdale, Minnesota,” recently posted a blog titled “What Critical Race Theory looks like in my Social Studies classroom.” He cites a USA Today op-ed he uses in class that “enumerates the significant racial disparities that still exist today, particularly in regards to economic and education.” The author insists that “[t]hese disparities are not ideological inventions.” Indeed they are not. Blacks as a group trail whites as a group in every significant category of social endeavor.

“They are measurable and objective facts,” he continues, “and as I say to the kids, there are two ways to explain them.” I present below those two ways in the teacher’s words, with Explanation #2 said to be “a great representation of what Critical Race Theory looks like in practice—seeking to explain how structures and systems work to produce the racial inequities that have existed throughout history and that continue to exist today.” He adds, “It also shines a light on the absurdity of one of the primary attacks levied against Critical Race Theory by its opponents: That it teaches white students that they are all a bunch of racists.” It is not an absurdity. The portrayal of all whites as racist lies at the heart of critical race theory.

Explanation #1: The racial inequality that still exists today exists because there is something wrong with black people.  There is something about their race or their culture that prevents them from achieving educationally or economically at the same level as whites. The problem with this explanation is that it is literally racist.  It literally ascribes to black people some sort of shortcoming or inferiority that is rooted in the color of their skin.  Luckily, for those who believe in the inherent equality and potentiality of all human beings regardless of skin color—who believe that, everything else equal, black people, white people, and people of any race or color would all succeed and struggle at roughly the same rates—there is another explanation. 

Explanation #2:  The racial inequality that still exists today exists as a result of the historical and/or modern-day societal forces that produced it.  The racial disparities that exist in our country are not and have never been ‘natural.’  They were intentionally manufactured by a country literally founded on the idea of white supremacy—an idea that was built up and fortified over centuries through the history outlined above.  And while achievements during and since the Civil Rights Movement have dealt great blows to the system of white supremacy, we still very much live with that system’s legacy, and live with a current system that, despite many well-intentioned actors, continues to produce racist results.”

The teacher’s Manichean formulation fails. The United States was not “literally founded on the idea of white supremacy.” It was founded in the context of world slavery to establish a nation based on individual liberty and rights, promising within two decades to abolish the slave trade—and keeping that promise. It is a nation so not white supremacist that it fought a civil war to emancipate blacks from bondage, a war that saw three-quarters of a million Americans, the vast majority of them white, lose their lives, with millions more left without limbs and sound minds. I won’t pursue this here, since I have at length documented that historical arc of justice that proves the validity of American ideals. I want to take up Explanation #2.

Explanation #2 rests on an utterly false premise, namely that cultural explanations in the realm of race relations are racist. Recall the author’s words, “The problem with this explanation is that it is literally racist. It literally ascribes to black people some sort of shortcoming or inferiority that is rooted in the color of their skin.” The teacher’s argument presupposes that cultural differentiation is rooted in racial differences, which he explicitly defines by a phenotypic marker, the degree of melanin in the epidermis. The irony here—and this irony obtains whenever anybody reduces culture to race—is that the author is literally ascribing to black people the culture that in may, at least to some extent, explain the disparities he identifies as resulting from racism.

Racism is a belief and practices based on this belief that the human species is objectively divisible into racial groups differentiated not only by phenotypic markers, but also by innate behavioral proclivities, cognitive abilities, and moral aptitudes. Like religion, racism is an ideology. It uses language not to describe but to construct a reality. It invents constituents of an imaginary world. When one says that criticism of attitudes, customs, habits, norms, and values, i.e., culture, is racist, the necessary assumption is that culture is a projection of racial types that don’t actually exist, at least not in the way it presumes they do. Culture is not a projection of differentiated genotypes. Culture is socially constructed, learned, and transmitted. Even if we agree that there is such a thing as “black culture,” it is certainly acquired by blacks and members of any other race who are socialized in that environment.

The criticism of culture is not an attack on a person’s immutable attributes. It is a criticism of that which the person can abandon or change. Cultural criticism is concerned with attitudes, customs, habits, norms, and values that harm or limit individuals. There are cultures with features that are destructive and moribund, that deny human rights and degrade human dignity, and these cultures may be taken up by people of any race. In order for individuals to develop to their full potential, they need to throw off that culture, at least throw off those elements that prevent self-actualization.

Consider whites for whom culture is a barrier to success. For every poor black person, there are three poor white persons. Does one suppose the attitudes, customs, habits, norms, and values that fails them are an expression of skin color? There’s a word for that supposition (I think you know what that word is). When I raise children, I work very hard to shape their attitudes, conduct, and values in a manner that logic and experience show are valid and sound ways to live a successful life. If they take up action and belief that are contrary to this, my role as a parent is to intervene and make a course correction.

Like everybody who pursues this, frankly, racist line of thinking, this high school teacher is confusing individuals with abstract categories. He is stereotyping. But people are not personifications of demographic categories. Demographics are aggregates—generalizations based on assumption and induction. He insists that he never teaches his students that all white people are racist. Yet he collapses culture into race (selectively, of course, since he would have no hesitation criticizing what he would identify as “white culture”). The white kids in his class must be racist because their skin color associates them with the culture of white supremacy. Critical race theory literally identifies white culture as the “perpetrator’s perspective.”

There are black capitalists and managers who exploit the labor of white proletarians. There are affluent blacks in all walks of American life. Academics. Lawyers. Scientists. Were they able to achieve these things while maintaining the cultural sensibilities that scholars (such as Glenn Loury or Roland Fryer) find hold back other blacks? Or did those blacks who transcended the impoverished conditions of their birth achieve these things because they adopted the cultural norms and values that lead to success in life? They surely would not have found advantage in adopting the cultural sensibilities that hold back so many whites. 

The question of disparities is answered by asking questions about class and culture. Race has little to do with the achievement gap—except for those who believe in innate racially-differentiated cognitive capacity or who want to change standards to rationalize the failure of our educational system to close the racial achievement gap, a problem exacerbated by telling black kids that they live in a world that means to oppress them and that their rise or fall has nothing to do with norms and values. How else is one to account for the fact that six percent of the US population commits more than half of the homicides in America? That has nothing to do with culture? So the white oppressor makes black men kill other black men? How does that work? Or do blacks have a greater propensity to kill other people? Sounds racist, doesn’t it?

The choices we make in life affect the trajectory of our biography

The above video is a powerful illustration of the failure to address the role of culture in derailing the lives of our young people. The program suggests that he is touched by running into somebody with whom he attended middle school. That’s not what is happening here. This is a grief reaction. The regret and shame this man is made to feel by seeing clearly, probably for the first time, the end points of two different life trajectories overwhelms him. He has failed himself and those who believed in him and he realizes it.

Are cultural explanations of racial disparities always racist? Only if you conflate race and culture.

* * *

Over at the Manhattan Institute, Heather Mac Donald has been examining a controversy about classical music. (I wrote about this controversy back in February; see Whiteness in Music Theory. Yeah, It’s a Thing.) The controversy is that, because classical music is a European tradition, and because Europeans are white, classical music is an expression of white supremacy. The reality that few black musicians make it to elite symphony orchestras confirms the racist character of classical music. The fact that the Europeans who invented classical music happen to have less melanin in their epidermis is lost on the identitarians. For them, this proves the assumptions that race is real and that differential cultural expression is a project of innate differences between the races.

Conductor and violinist John McLaughlin

In a recent essay (“For the Love of Music”), Mac Donald writes about conductor and violinist John McLaughlin Williams who has a question for the advocates of removing to longstanding practice of blind auditions. Blind auditions is where musicians auditioning for a chair perform behind a screen while judges assess their playing ability independent of their identity. Those in pursuit of diversity, equity, and inclusion realize that this practice disproportionately excludes blacks, so they argue for a paradigm shift. They seek to change the selection criteria from excellence to identity. Deliberately put more blacks on orchestras so the composition of the orchestra looks like the composition of the United States is the idea. “Why hold an audition at all?” McLaughlin Williams responds. “Why not just send in a head shot?”

“I never gave race any thought and never used it in my career,” Williams says. Mac Donald elaborates: “His colorblindness was an inheritance from his family. His parents—both accomplished pianists—met as music students at Howard University. Williams grew up hearing Chopin nocturnes and études, Bach partitas, and Beethoven sonatas on the family piano. Did it matter that those composers were white males? ‘It never came up,’ he answers. Williams’s parents also played William Grant Still, Ulysses Kay, and other black composers. But they acknowledged the greatness of the musical canon. ‘It’s why we play these things. All great ideas that have ever been born in the world were meant for everyone.’”

Was there a time when the music business was racist? Of course. There was time when sports and many other things were racist. Williams tells Mac Donald that the classical music industry was “racist in the day but not now by any means.” He does, however, understand the “reflexive charge of discrimination.” He opines that history makes it almost impossible for “black people to believe that any reverse in fortune or progress is not rooted in racism, because in the past, it always, always was.” Williams puts his finger on something I have talked about on Freedom and Reason, for example with respect to the 1619 Project, the idea that what is hailed as progress is white supremacy merely adapting itself to changed circumstances. This will be the subject of my next blog

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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