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.