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.