Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Roseanne, Amy Wax, and Two Kinds of Racism

by Sherry F. Colb & Michael C. Dorf

On a recent episode of the television show Roseanne, the main character and her husband Dan fall asleep in front of the television. They miss Black-ish, a show about a wealthy Black family, and Fresh Off the Boat, a program about a Chinese American immigrant family. Both shows, like Roseanne, air on ABC. When Dan wakes up and tells Roseanne that they did not see the shows about "Black and Asian families," she replies, "They're just like us. There, now you're all caught up."

This scene feels offensive at a gut level. But what makes it offensive? Most straightforwardly, it implies that shows about African Americans and Chinese immigrant families have nothing interesting to offer an audience, beyond the stale observation that people of all races, colors, and creeds are essentially the same. Viewing the two programs in this way, one would conclude that watching Black-ish and/or Fresh Off the Boat would be pointless and would not enrich one's understanding of anything. This very dismissive attitude toward two of the small number of network television shows in which a minority group predominates is offensive.

There is an alternative way to understand the scene in Roseanne, however, but this way is also offensive. Roseanne may be telling Dan that the message of the two shows--a message with which both the actor and the character Roseanne perhaps disagree--is that "they're just like us." On this reading, the programs are not just prosaic but traffic in Hollywood propaganda urging the liberal article of faith that all of us are alike. Even if the facts are different, then, even if white people are actually special--as Roseanne the character and Roseanne the actor may believe--the two shows make it seem like Black people and Asian people are just like white people. The shows, then, are giving us politically correct pablum, and they are simpleminded enough to be summarized in the words "They're just like us."

There is little reason to doubt that Roseanne and her character mean to communicate one or both of these ideas: either that nonwhites are the same as whites (and therefore uninteresting) or that the liberal media are using the shows to communicate the propagandistic message of equality. But let us consider a third possibility--that Roseanne meant to level an anti-racist critique of Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat.

How would such a critique work? To make it plausible, we probably have to imagine that someone other than Roseanne Barr, a Trump supporter who peddles preposterous conspiracy theories, made the statement. Imagine, then, that Dr. Ibram X. Kendi was the critic. Kendi, a professor at American University, is the author of the National Book Award-winning Stamped From the Beginning, a fascinating history of racism in the US.  He identifies three approaches people have taken toward race in this country: segregationist, assimilationist, and anti-racist. The segregationist believes that Black people (and, presumably, other nonwhite people) are inherently and forever inferior to white people, so whites and Blacks should be kept separate. The enslavement of African Americans was typically justified with the segregationist idea that Blacks are suited for enslavement by and to superior whites. Biological racism is a common form of segregationism.

Assimilationists are, in some ways, more interesting. They acknowledge that discrimination has interfered with Black success, but they maintain that the solution to the challenges facing Black Americans is for them to become more like white people. It is easiest to see how assimilationism is a racist idea when one thinks about physical characteristics. The notion that Black people, especially women, should straighten their hair or even bleach their skin rests upon an idea that racial characteristics are mutable but that those associated with whiteness are superior.

Kendi shows that assimiliationism with respect to physical characteristics has long gone hand in hand with assimilationism with respect to cultural and social practices. Thus, Daniel Patrick Moynihan was an assimilationist for pathologizing the Black family in an influential article called The Negro Family: The Case for National Action. The article suggested that the way forward for Black people was to alter their family structure to better resemble that of white families. Writing in 1965, Moynihan pathologized cultural patterns he traced to past practices under slavery and then-current social welfare programs that, he said, rewarded dependency on government and single-parent households. If this sounds like a bigoted stereotype, it is, even though Moynihan, who would later serve as a US Senator from New York, was a liberal Democrat.

That fact turns out not to be all that surprising, however, because Kendi argues that many people whom we properly regard as civil rights champions held racist ideas, especially assimilationist ones. William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, the young W.E.B. DuBois, and many other rightly celebrated figures believed in assimilationism at various times and in various ways. Kendi's point is not necessarily to condemn these people but to identify the seductive power and the problematic nature of assimilationism.

Kendi contrasts both segregationism and assimilationism with anti-racism, which says that the various racial groups are equal to one another. Each contains diverse individuals who are good, bad, ordinary, and exceptional in different ways, but there is nothing "wrong" with the ways in which nonwhites form families, raise their children, or do anything else of import. To the extent that some racial groups have less income, less wealth, and less access to benefits in our society, that inequality of opportunity is a result of racism and discrimination, not the failure of nonwhites to conform their behavior to the white model.

If Kendi were to watch shows like Black-ish and Fresh Off the Boat, he might say that the message  "They're like us" means that Blacks and Asians are like whites. The people who make it in our society are and ought to be those who act just like (successful) white people do. The African Americans in Black-ish are "Black-ish" rather than "Black," because they are acting just like the white rich people do, and we are supposed to see that as a good thing, to be encouraged and rewarded. They go to mostly white schools, they wear white clothes, and they move through their lives like whites. Having seen a fair number of episodes of Black-ish, we think that is a not entirely fair, but also not entirely unfair, characterization. We have not seen Fresh Off the Boat, but we assume that some of the adjustment pains involve learning how to act less like an immigrant and more like a white person who already lives here. In assessing the two shows together, Kendi might say just what Roseanne said but mean something entirely different--namely, that these shows fail to reflect the real experience of most Black people and most Chinese Americans. The shows are instead a kind of propaganda for assimilation, whereby whoever best emulates the whites in America succeeds the best. The ideal is for everyone to become white.

Kendi's classification of assimilationism as a racist idea can also shed light on an ongoing controversy in the legal academy. In an article last year in the Philadelphia Enquirer entitled "Paying the price for breakdown of the country's bourgeois culture," law professors Amy Wax (U. Penn.) and Larry Alexander (U. San Diego) argued that people who are failing to thrive in this country would do well to try to copy bourgeois cultural values. The original article said nothing explicit about race, although by appealing to "cultural precepts [that] reigned from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s," Wax and Alexander evoked a pre-Civil Rights era period that seems suspiciously like the last time that Donald Trump imagines America was great.

Whether or not racial assimilationism was the sub-text of the article with Alexander, Wax subsequently made it explicit. She attacked what she herself called "anti-assimilation ideas," justifying assimilation based on European cultural "superior[ity]," and leaving no doubt about the racial element of her view by adding that "[e]veryone wants to go to countries ruled by white Europeans.”

But wait, there's more. Although Wax did not say that the non-white people seeking to be "ruled by white Europeans" were fleeing "shithole countries," she did manage to defame her own students. In an interview with Glenn Loury, Wax said that she knows of no African Americans who graduated in the top quarter of the Penn Law School class and that it is rare for an African American to graduate in the top half of the class. Needless to say, students and colleagues of Professor Wax found her assertions offensive. When you come right out and say that Black people should strive to behave more like white people, you are bound to attract some negative attention. Moreover, Wax's assertions about Black student performance at Penn appear to be just flat-out wrong.

The best that one can say about Wax's statements is that she does not endorse biological racism. She accounts for the racial differences that she thinks she sees by pointing to conduct and values rather than to biology and genes. Yet, viewed through the lens of Kendi's categories, that is not a strong defense.

There is a long history in this country of racists who reject the segregationist notion of biological or genetic inferiority. Yet they remain racists because they start from the premise that white people have done well because they have done something right; they are disciplined and hardworking, they avoid out-of-wedlock births, and they marry and remain married.

Racist assimilationism, whether practiced by people with good or bad intentions, overlooks the forces that have historically rendered "uplift suasion" a dubious strategy. For nearly all of our history, these forces were obvious. They included: the kidnapping of Africans; the enslavement and rape of them and of their descendants; the refusal to give land or money to freed slaves after hundreds of years of free labor; the passage of Black Codes and Jim Crow legislation to exclude African Americans from the places where they might accumulate wealth and social capital; and systematic lynchings of Black people who were perceived as threats to white supremacy (and not just in the South). Then, fast forward to 1964, when Civil Rights legislation finally passes, and white people almost immediately begin "wondering" why African Americans have not "achieved" equal status, and resenting any efforts at affirmative action. When Professor Wax says that everyone just needs to become more like whites, she is drawing on a tradition of kicking people hard in the gut and then, when they are doubled over in pain, saying that they would do better for themselves if they would only just stand up straight.


Postscript: In relying on Kendi's categories, we do not mean to endorse his approach in its entirety. For one thing, we do not share Kendi's Marxism, in either sense of the word. Kendi appears to be what is sometimes called a Marxian in that he argues that ideologies, including racism, arise and operate as rationalizations for economic exploitation. We think that's often true but that it overlooks the power of ideas--including racist and anti-racist ideas--in and of themselves. We also do not share Kendi's sympathy for the 20th-century communist regimes and movements that were, not to put too fine a point on it, genocidal and more generally evil. And perhaps most relevantly, we think that Kendi paints with too broad a brush in labeling all forms of assimilationism racist. At least some of the heroes of the past (including Dr. King) who preached assimilationism did so tactically, not in the belief that (as Kendi puts it) there is something "wrong" with Black folk, but instead in the hope that progress towards an anti-racist future could be achieved through such a message. That may or may not have been a tactical error, but we think it unfair to label it racist.

All that said, we found Kendi's book eye-opening in calling attention to the fact that assimilationism is at least very often a kind of racism, and we make use of his classificatory schema for that reason.


Diane Klein said...

You don't need Kendi for this (problematic as he may be). A basic premise of critical race theory was always already this: that the conventional civil rights narrative is an assimilationist narrative that contains no critique of White norms. I sometimes summarize it this way (which seems to capture Wax's racism also): everyone should have the opportunity to grow up to be a straight White man. Many, many (White) American liberals who think of themselves as "supporters of civil rights" have this exact view, and are thus shocked and appalled when it is suggested to them that they are racists. But the people who held such views uncritically are those who came of age before the mid-80s - I don't think anyone under 50 thinks it's "OK" to be a White liberal who thinks people of color just need to assimilate to solve America's racial problems.

Joe said...

There is a certain trend in film that suggests "we are all alike" on some level -- while retaining some special aspects -- that is seen in films like "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and multiple movies (some ethnic) involving gay and lesbian characters. In such films, we have people from different cultures coming together and usually the "ethnic" [figure Americans play that role in films overseas too] partner worries about how their family will respond. In the end, there is some sentiment that "we are all alike" though they do retain some individuality.

I have not really watched these two shows though have seen a bit of "Fresh Off the Boat," which seems amusing and perspective about human nature. "They are like us" doesn't seem to be the message except that one some level they are like us. They are Americans. And, people. But, there are differences. The same can apply to Roseanne's milieu, I gather. I did not watch the original show -- was such a dismissive sentiment expressed by her there?

Anyway, what is this "white model" specifically? I gather, if pressed, it is a specific one, middle class somewhat conservative, probably Christian and so on.

Shag from Brookline said...

On the subject of racism (not involving TV sitcoms), see at the NYTimes website "Walter Mondale: The Civil Rights Law We Ignored" dated April 10, 2018 on the Fair Housing Act enacted 50 years that then Senator Mondale co-authored. Very interesting "legislative intent." that the Trump Administration under the leadership of Dr. Ben Carson is ignored. Mondale addresses the role of housing in assimilation.

Michael C. Dorf said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments. One small thought about the relevance of Kendi's work. I certainly agree with Diane that many other scholars have criticized assimilationism. What makes his book interesting and useful, I think, is the historical through-line. It's very easy to see how the assimilationism of Cotton Mather, Thomas Jefferson, and even William Lloyd Garrison is racist, but not as obvious to everyone that more contemporary assimilationism is. By tracing the lineage of assimilationism and showing its through-line, Kendi puts contemporary positions in useful context.

Shag from Brookline said...

I have yet to watch a Roseanne episode (nor have I watched the other two sitcoms mentioned in the post). Had the characters Roseanne and Dan watched prior episodes of the other two sitcoms that they slept through? Were they anxious that evening to watch them" If so, why? Assuming Dan did not comment on Roseanne's response, was there body language that might give a viewer an idea of what Dan thought about her response?

This post is an effort by the poster-viewers to interpret/construct actor Roseanne's reply to actor Dan:

"They're just like us. There, now you're all caught up."

I don't wish to get wrapped up in a concept of originalism. Rather, I would take the approach of Hans Georg Gadamer's "Hermeneutics" in his "Truth and Method" for evaluating plays/performances. Roseanne is "only a sitcom" (H/T Seinfeld's George Costanza). But consider the writers' intent, director's view, actors' interpretations of the writers' words, how the audience interprets the performance. Yes, there's some collective intent with the writers (I assume there may be a number of them), the actors, and especially the audience. There may be a lot of subjectivity to consider. There is the matter of context, looking at the "history" of the sitcom, including information about the writers, directors, actors, both professionally and personally. As for the audience for Roseanne, it's quite large. So with this post we have the views of two audience members. Racism is a huge subject that has a lot of supporting, opposing and various views. To what extent is the post subjective? After all, Roseanne is "only a sitcom," just as "All In The Family" was only a sitcom that had its supporters and detractors in spades. Roseanne may go in the opposite direction of "All In The Family." To what extent are the posters' views based upon the personal Roseanne who supports Trump? Keep in mind that the personal John Goodman has often, elsewhere, portrayed an antipathy towards Trump, most recently on SNL. The quoted language from Roseanne doesn't have the complications of the 2nd A. Some may take that language as actor Roseanne saying "We're all up s**t's creek." Gadamer would call for applying the hermeneutic circle addressing personal biases and providing further consideration to the meaning of those two short sentences.

Asher Steinberg said...

I'm disappointed that you would link to Joe Patrice's bilge for any proposition, but it certainly isn't authority for the proposition that what Wax said was "flat-out wrong," as the post you link to contains no information, or even unsupported assertions, about where black students have graduated at Penn Law. It is true that the school's dean said in a statement in response to Wax that "black students have graduated in the top of the class at Penn Law," belying Wax's claim that she's never "seen" any graduate in the top quarter and "rarely" seen them graduate in the top half. But those remarks by the dean aren't in Mr. Patrice's post, which mostly consists of a rant about her "reptilian brain" and other comparable contentless slurs (e.g., Richard Sander's work on racial preferences in higher-education admissions is described as "laughable and discredited" on the basis of a short critical review in LARB), which I hope you aren't endorsing.

I also have to say that, besides the misattribution of your claim that she's flat-out wrong to an asinine rant on Above the Law, I don't know that the dean's remarks prove she's flat-out wrong. In the first place, she only made a claim about what she's "seen," which may well be perfectly accurate; for example, at some law schools students' honors are publicly read at graduation, and she could have never "seen," at the graduations she attended, black students receiving honors. She could also have partial knowledge of how a large number of students have done from participation on her school's clerkship committee, and never have seen any black students in the top quarter of the class in that context.

Second, while I'm sure the dean's statement that some black students have historically graduated at the top of the class at Penn Law was truthful, at least on whatever definition of "the top" he had in mind, it hardly addresses what I take to be her point, which is that black students rarely do very well at Penn Law. Of course, it would probably be inappropriate for the dean of a law school to state exactly how many black students have graduated in the top tenth or quarter of the class, or what percentage of black students have done so. But nevertheless, it's just as possible given his statement that Wax's remarks were only slightly exaggerated as it is that they're flat-out wrong (and perhaps more likely that they're slightly exaggerated given his silence on her claim that black students "rarely" graduate in the top half of the class). Assuming the latter on the basis of a statement that some indeterminate number of black students have historically graduated in "the top" of the class at Penn Law seems like wishful thinking.

Asher Steinberg said...

Finally, as for Wax saying that everyone wants to go to countries ruled by white Europeans, obviously everyone doesn't feel that way, but I do think that if one wants to live in a prosperous and democratic nation, it is just a fact that countries that happen to be ruled predominantly by white Europeans or their descendants are where one would want to go, with the exceptions of Japan and South Korea. I take it that Wax would further claim that that fact isn't an historical accident but has something to do with superior European values. And here I guess I would say that some parts of that claim shouldn't be too controversial; it obviously isn't happenstance that governments in Asian countries tend to be much less democratic and respectful of human rights than governments in Europe, North America, and Australasia. On the other hand, there's obviously a fair argument that Africa's troubled economies and politics are less a function of European superiority than the legacy of colonialism. But I don't view the initial comparative observation that countries ruled by white Europeans are more prosperous and democratic than other countries as a racist one; rather, it's a truism the reasons for which should be investigated by people who study comparative politics and economics.

Joe said...

I'm disappointed that you would link to Joe Patrice's bilge for any proposition, but it certainly isn't authority for the proposition that what Wax said was "flat-out wrong," as the post you link to contains no information, or even unsupported assertions, about where black students have graduated at Penn Law.

The link provides video to "the interview" (which is the first link) cited & "Above the Law" as I understand it is generally seen as a credible source.

As to "assertions," the article at least "asserts" (claims without argument) that Wax (to quote Dorf/Colb) "appear[s] to be just flat-out wrong." This would address the "where" point to some degree. Also, the article argues her answers in the interview make her "appear" wrong. Again, there is video, which is helpful. It also references others which again at least "asserts" there is a problem with her conclusions.

The article doesn't say "her" reptilian brain -- the "part of the reptilian brain controls explicit bias" is referenced. The "laughable and discredited" is not merely on the "basis" of one thing; one thing is linked to show what he is talking about.

she only made a claim about what she's "seen,"

Seen? Her "point" is "taken to be" that "black students rarely do very well at Penn Law" -- are these merely the ones she saw? She in an article and interview (again, the link usefully provides it) seems to be making some general arguments, not just what she "saw." In this fashion, she very well can be "flat out wrong" as far as that term reasonably means something. Why this heavy lifting is being done is unclear.

Finally, after we are told "obviously" Wax is wrong to say "everyone," apparently this should be handwaved along with other things pointed out [such as perhaps the "cultural precepts [that] reigned from the late 1940s to the mid-1960s" flag] and some core of her remarks deemed agreeable. I guess if we skip over various things, many people criticized can be similarly copacetic.

David Ricardo said...

Wow, I interpreted that exchange in the Roseanne show as just the opposite.
And I think there are several reasons why the comment was not only not offensive but possibly a slap at white people.

1. Sarcasm is a hallmark of the Roseanne show. When she said 'they are just like us' she could have been being sarcastic, meaning that they were really not 'just like us'.

2. If the comments were to be taken literally they reflect on the ignorance of the white person in the show, not the minorities.

3. The Roseanne show does a lot of 'wink-wink, nod-nod' stuff at the audience, like with the two Becky's. If that was taking place Roseanne was slyly saying 'hey, there are shows on the air that are not just like us' in a vein of humor consistent with how the show has worked in the past.

It's best not to over-think this stuff, and I wonder if the reaction that this was offensive was in part a reaction to Roseanne the person's political views and support of Trump. As a Jewish person I experience a lot of offensive comments and I think I know 'em when I see 'em. I didn't see 'em this time.

Shag from Brookline said...

Perhaps this post, as it relates to Roseanne, might inspire the writers/casts of the sitcoms "Blackish" and "Fresh Off the Boat" to address the situations/plights of working class whites in comparison to the respective racial group of these sitcoms. All three sitcoms are on ABC, e.g., all in the same (network) family. (By the way, at ABC is there a firewall between its news and entertainment divisions? I notice the news division has been "plugging" Roseanne. Maybe the news division will "plug" equal time for "Blackish" and "Fresh Off the Boat.") Late night comics have been drumbeating on Trump practically in lockstep. Why hasn't Fox come up with a late night show "protecting" Trump, as apparently there is no "firewall" between Fox's news and entertainment divisions; although some "cynics" might say that Fox's news division is actually entertainment. Might NBC and CBS try to emulate ABC with new sitcoms with different ethnic/racial groups? Might American TV focus, via sitcoms, on assimilation? If so, I doubt that it would inspire many Americans to leave here for a European country. Actually, some of us have lived with assimilation, both before and after Brown v. Bd. of Educ. (Unanimous, 1954). Over my lifetime, progress has come two steps forward, one step back, but the current one step forward, two steps back due to Trump is short term.

Michael C. Dorf said...

There's a lot here, but I'll only respond to two points made by Asher: (1) The link was solely for the purpose of the quote from Dean Ruger, which, fairly read, does indeed show that Wax was "flat-out wrong." (2) Your close parsing of Prof. Wax's comment about what she has "seen" bends over backwards way too far. I don't know what the practice is at Penn, but at Cornell, faculty only "see" class rank by name when we vote to approve graduation honors. If I wanted to do so, I suppose I could correlate the names of students with their respective races (per my best guess) and then calculate where they fall with respect to the top quartile and half of the class. It has never occurred to me to do so and I would bet dollars to doughnuts that Prof. Wax has never done anything like this either. I would be shocked if the Penn administration regularly provided faculty with a breakdown of class rank by race. So Wax was almost certainly speculating about the performance of Black students at Penn based on her completely impressionistic recollections as filtered through the racial stereotypes that inform nearly everyone's thinking but hers more than most, it seems.

In any event, as should be obvious from the post, we're not really interested in the substance of Wax's provocations for their own sake. Our point is that disavowing biological racism doesn't necessarily disavow racism of other sorts.

Shag from Brookline said...

Polishing Wax may require bending over backwards.

Joe said...

I think David R.'s comments are interesting. Not necessary correct but quite reasonable. I do find it best not to over think some things of that nature.

Michael Livingston said...

Points well taken, but by retaliating personally against Wax, Penn makes it seem that it is afraid of what she's saying. Why not refute the claims instead? The idea of confidentiality is not convincing when discussing aggregate numbers. In my experience there was a gap between white and black students 30 years ago but much less so, if any, today. Why not say so?