Monday, June 14, 2021

Convergence and Tension Between Kendi's Anti-Racist Critique of Uplift Suasion and Sandel's Anti-Meritocratic Critique of Rising

 by Michael C. Dorf

Two recent prominent books respectively address two of our most pressing ongoing crises: Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Anti-Racist, like his grander and more sweeping earlier book, Stamped From the Beginning, proposes a blueprint for racial justice; Michael Sandel’s The Tyranny of Merit purports to explain the global rise of right-wing populism as exemplified by Donald Trump’s election in 2016. I discuss them together in today’s essay because of a striking similarity in their diagnoses and a tension between their prescriptions.

Before doing so, I offer some caveats. First, today’s essay is not a book review of either book. Each contains a great deal of material that I do not discuss. Second, although most of what I have to say is critical, I admire each work and found much with which I agreed. My interest here is chiefly in exploring surprising connections.

Let’s start with Kendi. He uses the term “racist” to describe ideas rather than people. Anyone, he repeatedly says, can express racist ideas, including such noted champions of racial justice as Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois.

The notion that ideas, rather than people, are racist, ought to make Kendi’s work broadly appealing, because it appears to avoid finger pointing. In championing anti-racism, Kendi need not be taken to be vilifying white people, thus potentially enlisting them as allies. Yet while Kendi’s work has, in a very short time, achieved enormous influence among sympathetic (for lack of a better term) “woke” white allies in universities and other settings where progressives have institutional power, it has also sparked backlash. The laws being passed in red states limiting instruction in critical race theory are partly piling on to the Trump administration’s attack on sensitivity training but, insofar as they aim at ideas, are also a response to Kendi.

And that stands to reason. On reflection, it is hardly surprising that Kendi’s views have not gained much of a foothold among moderate-to-conservative whites, because his conception of racist ideas is so capacious as to include a great deal of what such people believe and are unlikely to stop believing. Here I’ll focus on one such idea.

Kendi describes “uplift suasion” as a pernicious racist idea. Readers unfamiliar with the term might think about the careers of people like Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, as well as similar figures in more recent times, who have argued that African Americans can best improve their lot through education, hard work, social responsibility, and other forms of individual and community self-improvement, which will be both beneficial in their own right and prove white racists wrong. The idea is that self-help will uplift those who engage in it, which in turn will be persuasive in eroding racism.

There is a well-known critique of uplift suasion that says that it overlooks naked prejudice and the systemic causes of racial inequality. There are, in turn, at least two well-known responses to that critique. One such response pessimistically asserts that racism is such a permanent feature of mainstream American institutions that reforming those institutions is essentially impossible; thus, African Americans (and other oppressed groups) do best by acting on their own behalf. Although not exactly proponents of uplift suasion and complex (as well as problematic in numerous respects), the likes of Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X before his split from the Nation of Islam can be understood as espousing a version of this view. In the more academic circles in which I travel, Derrick Bell’s pessimism sounded similar themes. 

A second and less pessimistic defense of uplift suasion might be associated with mainstream civil rights leaders and advocates, as well as successful African American politicians like Barack Obama. This view says that of course there is pervasive racism in America, that we as a society have made some strides combating it and have also periodically fallen back but that we can keep chipping away, and that in the meantime, individuals and communities can and should help themselves by striving for self-improvement.

Kendi does not really argue against either of these defenses of uplift suasion. Rather, he attacks the very logic of uplift suasion. Telling African Americans that they can and should improve their economic, social, or cultural conditions, Kendi says, implies that there’s something wrong with African Americans. But there isn’t. And saying (or implying) that there is, Kendi says, is racist.

Kendi’s argument has more pieces, and perhaps I’m not doing it justice here. My goal is not to refute it, but simply to set it out, because now I want to turn to Sandel. The Tyranny of Merit is partly a general purpose argument about the moral fallacy that underlies meritocracy. Many people tend to think that those who succeed in a system of equal opportunity deserve the rewards that come their way. Sandel makes two main (and well-known) arguments against this proposition. First, opportunities in our society are not evenly distributed. Second, even if they were, it is not moral desert but chance or fate that leads some of us to find ourselves in a society that values the particular talents we have (skill at throwing footballs rather than horseshoes, say, or at writing computer code rather than sonnets). In moral philosophical terms, Sandel's book is about moral luck.

What makes the book timely is Sandel's connecting an old set of arguments with a recent problem. He offers The Tyranny of Merit as a means of bridging the gap between the two leading theories of the rise of right-wing populism in the U.S. and elsewhere. One theory says it’s the economy. Neoliberal policies of center-left parties (Labour under Blair in the UK, the Democrats in the US under Clinton and Obama) failed to address the stagnation and/or decline in living standards of the working class as a result of globalization. Consequently, those voters abandoned center-left parties. A second theory says the driving force is cultural—that people holding anti-immigrant, racist, anti-feminist, homophobic, and conservative religious views felt that they were losing ground in increasingly multicultural societies. Sandel links the two theories by arguing that neoliberalism’s failures are causal but it’s not simply a matter of economics: the real reason non-college-educated white men supported/support Trump and Trumpism in such large numbers is that they have lost status, not just dollars.

For Sandel, meritocracy is the bridge between the flaws of neoliberalism and the resulting status anxiety. In our market, consumer-focused economy, Sandel argues, we equate economic success with status. In terms that strikingly overlap with the themes Kendi sounds, Sandel repeatedly denounces “the rhetoric of rising,” which tells people that the way to succeed in the modern economy is to get as much education as they can and rise to the level that their talents and hard work take them.

For Kendi, the culprit is “uplift;” for Sandel it’s “rising.” For Kendi, the problem with uplift is it implies that the current state is somehow degraded. For Sandel, the problem with rising is it implies that those who do not rise, who are left behind, are not just unlucky but losers who deserve their fate. The two views are, if not exactly isomorphic, close cousins—despite the fact that Kendi is talking about African Americans combating racism, whereas Sandel is talking about the non-college-educated white working class people most responsible for voting for racist politicians.

Now let’s turn to prescriptions. Sandel, true to the civic republican/communitarian principles he has espoused for decades, would like to see a society that measures people’s contributions to the public good by something other than market logic. He cites MLK’s speech to striking Memphis sanitation workers on the importance and dignity of their work. He approves of national policies adopted during the pandemic of subsidizing employers that kept employees on their payroll more than he approves of expanded unemployment insurance. However, Sandel mostly offers relatively small-bore proposals that seem unlikely to change a consumer-welfare orientation in the U.S. that emerged in the late New Deal (as documented in Alan Brinkley’s The End of Reform), long before the Democratic Party started losing working-class voters. Sandel's few broader prescriptions--like shifting taxes from payrolls to consumption and especially to short-term financial transactions--are sensible but politically infeasible for now.

Sandel seems most enthusiastic about a proposal that strikes close to (his and my) home: he wants elite universities like the ones at which he and I both teach to stop playing the role they do in the ostensibly meritocratic sorting into haves and have-nots. In particular, he would like to see admissions at now-elite institutions proceed by lottery among applicants who are reasonably qualified.

As Sandel notes, his proposal would likely have some benefit for the mental health of the most ambitious high school students. Knowing that the difference between a GPA of 3.9 and 4.2 or an SAT score of 1390 and 1500 is not going to make a difference in their chances of admission to Stanford or Duke, such students will be able to relax and enjoy their adolescence rather than filling up their resumes with impressive-looking activities that don’t really interest them and spending their parents’ money on test prep.

That’s not nothing, but it would only affect a small fraction of the population. The vast majority of college students do not go to highly selective colleges. And anyway, the proposal faces a collective action problem. Antitrust law may forbid colleges from agreeing to admit students by lottery, and even if it doesn’t, the rewards to defecting (“apply to Dartmouth, where an Ivy League degree still means something!”) might make it impossible to keep the system in place. In the Netherlands, which has used a lottery for university admissions to over-subscribed courses and programs of study, all of the top universities are state-run and face no real competition from private institutions, so a lottery system did not face market pressure (although it has been politically controversial).

Whereas Sandel’s college admissions reform very likely won’t be implemented, Kendi’s work is already influencing college and university curricula, as anti-racism becomes the focus of new courses, and faculty are encouraged to include anti-racism in courses in other subjects. Many instructors (like me) who are sympathetic to the goal of combating racism and whose courses (like constitutional law) include subjects that are a natural fit, will have no difficulty enthusiastically implementing something that might be called an anti-racist curriculum, even if it doesn’t exactly correspond with everything Kendi means by anti-racism. Given the extension of academic freedom to the classroom, that is all that can reasonably be expected, although there will nonetheless be controversies at colleges and universities with more aggressive policies.

Whatever one thinks of the costs and benefits of implementing anti-racism on campus, it seems at odds with Sandel’s project. One of the more striking trends that Sandel reports is how over time, Republicans have come to see colleges and universities as harmful to society. He diagnoses the problem in terms of his critique of meritocracy: the people who vote Republican are disproportionately whites who don’t go to college; they are told that going to college means “rising”; therefore, they resent the colleges as symbols of the fact that they didn’t rise. No doubt there’s some of this. Rick Santorum gave (absurd) expression to this particular ressentiment some years ago when he accused President Obama of being “a snob” for suggesting that more people should be able to go to college.

But the role that colleges and universities play in meritocratic sorting is not the only reason why conservatives feel alienated from higher education. They also view colleges and universities as bastions of liberal, multicultural, and anti-religious ideas. They’re not entirely wrong. Many college towns are blue enclaves surrounded by deep-red rural areas. The fear of traditionalists that the academy corrupts the youth—in the sense of exposing them to ideas that differ from those with which they were raised—dates back at least to Socrates.

On the bright side, state laws banning critical race theory are not going to be enforced through the threat of hemlock. On the less bright side, implementation of Kendi’s anti-racist program in higher education will likely exacerbate the divide that concerns Sandel.


kotodama said...

Nice post! There definitely seems to be some logic Kendi's argument that "uplift suasion" is hopelessly flawed. It brings to mind a little that great line from Office Space spoken by Michael Bolton—"Why should I change? He's the one who sucks!"

Now, I'm just going to offer a few of my own critiques at random, for whatever they're worth (probably quite little).

Why is the label "populist" unquestioningly applied to the right-wingers in the U.S., at least their legal and political "leaders" and figureheads? There doesn't seem to be much foundation for that. If you look at all the reactionaries' favorite judges/Justices and politicians, one big unifying theme is elite educational credentials, typically Ivy league. On the legal front, Alito, Thomas, Gorsuch, and Kavanaugh are pretty much Ivy through and through. The latter two even went to the same elite prep school—it's like the writers are just phoning it in. (Barrett is an outlier, for sure.) In the lower courts you also have Ho, Newsom, Oldham, and Menashi, just for example. (Willett is something of an outlier, but Duke is hardly a no-name school either.) With politicians it's the same. Hawley, Cruz, Cotton, etc. And of course, you can't forget Mr. UPenn/Wharton himself, T*p.

Don't get me wrong, I have no grudge against Ivies or other elite schools per se. This is just to point out the extreme hypocrisy of right wingers consistently worshiping and selecting as their "leaders" folks hailing from those very same places.

(I could also throw out many more non-examples of supposed right-wing "populist" bona fides. Just off the top of my head: (1) MTG, T*p, and Tucker Carlson, and many others all inheriting/being born into (considerable) wealth and privilege; (2) the 1/6 insurrectionists taking vacation from their white collar jobs, chartering private jets, and booking hotels; and (3) the two major legislative "accomplishments" while Republicans had full gov't control being tax cuts predominately for the rich and repealing the ACA individual mandate.)

In a similar vein, how does a consumption tax automatically get labeled as "sensible"? By default, such a tax is highly regressive. Maybe there's a proposal somewhere to structure it in a way that mitigates the regressive effects, but (1) I haven't seen that pointed out anywhere and (2) even if (1) exists, it's still a waste of time and effort because you're starting with something inherently flawed. In any event, the point is that, just like the "populist" label, whether something like a consumption tax is actually "sensible" is quite disputed.

Finally, this is more of a criticism of Sandel, but I'm highly skeptical of his lottery proposal—not that it has any realistic chance of being adopted. I bet I could think of many downsides given the time, but one jumps out right away. As I see it, the proposal would have the side effect of doing away with affirmative action (oops, I meant "diversity"!). Not having read the book, I wonder if that effect is addressed anywhere. And even if it is, eradicating AA is a top goal of the reactionary set. So I'm automatically suspicious of a proposal that would have that result, even if only as a side effect. Moreover, a lottery seems like overkill, given that one big problem with elite schools is a lot narrower—legacy admissions.

kotodama said...

BTW, did you mean to say "moral desert"?

Invisible Man said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Invisible Man said...

Interesting comparison of Sandel and Kendi. Your essay suggests to me that Sandel appears to assuage white working class in a way that I don't believe is condescending, but practical. Yet, it validates Kendi's pessimistic supposition -- racism is somewhat intractable and uplift, by definition, assumes Black People are doing something wrong.

But maybe the pessimism of Professor Bell and the incrementalism of Obama, as they relate to Black People, are not diametric. Both, I believe, want the same things -- black actualization -- but only one has the added feature of wanting to integrate by getting buy-in by a majority white population. That "buy-in," while pragmatic, assumes deference or concession to a white population by black people. That is the crux -- what does that deference mean? What does it assume? What does it cost black people?

Michael C. Dorf said...

Yes, moral desert. Typo corrected. Thanks.

Thanks to hardreaders and Invisible Man for interesting comments.

Michael A Livingston said...

Two not-particularly-trenchant points:

1. I think “meritocracy” was originally a satiric term (Michael Young). I don’t think it’s ever had a really coherent definition.
2. If Cornell (say) started doing admissions by lottery, it would attract some positive attention, but fall out of the rankings in a couple of years.

I think the problem with people like Kendi is that, whatever they actually say, they are perceived as telling while or non-black people that they are bad. It’s not a good strategy to tell 80? Percent of the population that they’re bad. It’s wiser to tell them that we’re in it together, even if it is to some degree untrue. Nations are “imagined communities” (Ben Anderson, Cornell), which is a polite way of saying they’re based on lies. Sometimes you have to lie a little bit to get to a higher truth.