Part 3—The nation’s racial scold: This morning, we punished ourselves.
We forced ourselves to reread all four parts of Nicholas Kristof’s series of New York Times columns, “When Whites Just Don’t Get It.”
(Yes, that headline has appeared at the top of each column.)
The analysts wept in their carrels, sensitive to the punishments they knew we were absorbing. For ourselves, we were somewhat surprised:
Upon rereading, Kristof’s columns were even less impressive than we would have supposed. We were struck by how little he had to say about race that can’t be memorized.
Don’t get us wrong! Kristof possesses strong technique. In two of his columns, Part 2 and Part 4, he kicked things off by scolding readers who were rejecting his vision.
Those whites! Headline included, this is the way our racial scold started his second column:
KRISTOF (9/7/14): When Whites Just Don’t Get It, Part 2Nils and Nancy were at it again, exhibiting white delusion! Other white comments were toxic!
In my column a week ago, “When Whites Just Don’t Get It,” I took aim at what I called “smug white delusion” about race relations in America, and readers promptly fired back at what they perceived as a smugly deluded columnist.
Readers grudgingly accepted the grim statistics I cited—such as the wealth disparity between blacks and whites in America today exceeding what it was in South Africa during apartheid—but many readers put the blame on African-Americans themselves.
“Probably has something to do with their unwillingness to work,” Nils tweeted.
Nancy protested on my Facebook page: “We can’t fix their problems. It’s up to every black individual to stop the cycle of fatherless homes, stop the cycle of generations on welfare.”
There was a deluge of such comments, some toxic, but let me try to address three principal arguments that I think prop up white delusion.
Last Sunday, Kristof started Part 4 in this endless series with a similar set of jibes aimed at delusional readers. We can think of few approaches which are less likely to be helpful about such a difficult topic.
Kristof is full of scolding remarks, seems to have few proposals. For ourselves, we’re always most struck by his vacuous comments about the nation’s schools, which he says should be improved, possibly even fixed.
Few people are going to say that our public schools shouldn’t be improved. On the other hand, Kristof never seems to have much to say about the ways we could do this.
Last Sunday, he offered his latest discussion of the public school problem. More precisely, Kristof said this:
KRISTOF (11/15/14): The inequality continues, particularly in education. De jure segregated schools have been replaced in some areas by de facto segregation.That was the whole discussion! Oh sorry: a bit later on, Kristof added this:
KRISTOF: We all stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. We're in a relay race, relying on the financial and human capital of our parents and grandparents. Blacks were shackled for the early part of that relay race, and although many of the fetters have come off, whites have developed a huge lead. Do we ignore this long head start—a facet of white privilege—and pretend that the competition is now fair?If we’re reading that correctly, Kristof was suggesting that we should “provide disadvantaged black kids an education as good as the one afforded privileged white kids.”
Of course not. If we whites are ahead in the relay race of life, shouldn't we acknowledge that we got this lead in part by generations of oppression? Aren't we big enough to make amends by trying to spread opportunity, by providing disadvantaged black kids an education as good as the one afforded privileged white kids?
We think that’s an outstanding idea! But how should we accomplish that task?
Having wasted space by scolding those whites, the Buddha didn’t say. Through the years, the truth has become rather plain—the Buddha doesn’t know.
In truth, Kristof doesn’t seem to have any real ideas about our public schools. (There’s no reason why he should.) This was his discussion of public schools in the first column in this series:
KRISTOF (8/31/14): All this should be part of the national conversation on race, as well, and prompt a drive to help young black men end up in jobs and stable families rather than in crime or jail. We have policies with a robust record of creating opportunity: home visitation programs like Nurse-Family Partnership; early education initiatives like Educare and Head Start; programs for troubled adolescents like Youth Villages; anti-gang and anti-crime initiatives like Becoming a Man; efforts to prevent teen pregnancies like the Carrera curriculum; job training like Career Academies; and job incentives like the earned-income tax credit.That was the whole discussion! Kristof seemed to say we should fix those “broken schools.” But he forgot to say how!
The best escalator to opportunity may be education, but that escalator is broken for black boys growing up in neighborhoods with broken schools. We fail those boys before they fail us.
(By the way: Does Head Start really have “a robust record of creating opportunity,” whatever that means? We favor universal free early education. But as it’s been practiced down through the years, does Head Start have such a record?)
In his second column, Kristof started by scolding Nils, as shown above. Soon, though, he extended his discussion of schools:
KRISTOF (9/7/14): Slavery and post-slavery oppression left a legacy of broken families, poverty, racism, hopelessness and internalized self-doubt. Some responded to discrimination and lack of opportunity by behaving in self-destructive ways.We need to get rid of those broken schools, the cock said, crowing again. He seemed to think that he had listed “programs with robust evidence showing that they bridge the chasm.”
One study found that African-American children on welfare heard only 29 percent as many words in their first few years as children of professional parents. Those kids never catch up, partly because they’re more likely to attend broken schools. Sure, some make bad choices, but they’ve often been on a trajectory toward failure from the time they were babies.
These are whirlpools that are difficult to escape, especially when society is suspicious and unsympathetic...
So instead of pointing fingers, let’s adopt some of the programs that I’ve cited with robust evidence showing that they bridge the chasm.
We’re not sure what those programs are. We didn’t see all that evidence.
In the third column in his series, Kristof focused on the justice system. He said we need our own Mandela, even saying, somewhat oddly, that “Bryan Stevenson may, indeed, be America’s Mandela.”
It’s strange to think that we the people have never heard of our own Mandela, but that’s the way this series tends to work. Late in his column, Kristof briefly complained about underfunding for “public schools serving disadvantaged children.” He linked to an earlier column by Eduardo Porter to provide some sort of support.
Last Sunday brought Part 4 in the series. Once again, Kristof started by scolding whites for their white delusion. He proceeded to s scatter-shot series of claims, not excluding this:
KRISTOF (11/15/14): Of course, personal responsibility is an issue. Orlando Patterson, the eminent black sociologist, notes in a forthcoming book that 92 percent of black youths agree that it is a “big problem” that black males are “not taking education seriously enough.” And 88 percent agree that it’s a big problem that they are “not being responsible fathers.” That’s why President Obama started “My Brother’s Keeper,” to cultivate more prudent behavior among men and boys of color.Our question: If 92 percent of black youth agree that it’s a “big problem” that black males are “not taking education seriously enough,” how many black males aren’t taking education seriously?
Such questions don’t occur to Kristof when he ascends his throne.
Kristof memorizes well, scolds enthusiastically. Beyond that, he seems to have little to say about race that anyone else couldn’t say.
He seems to know nothing about public schools except that we should fix them. He’s also eager to scold those whites who don’t accept his greatness.
Kristof’s columns on this topic strike us as very lazy. In the main, he provides a road map towards an angry, disjointed nation.
These columns are so easy to write that they virtually write themselves. Commenters then rush to the Times, praising our king for his greatness.
How do we fix our public schools? Kristof doesn’t seem to know.
He does know how to excite the tribes. Does this lead to progress?
Tomorrow: Another brave new voice