TIMES AND TOWN: Professor Kendi seems to agree with the Times!


But does his idea make sense?: Because of his writings on matters of race, Ibram Kendi has become one of Our Town's most influential public intellectuals.

That was already true in November 2019, when Andrew Sullivan wrote an essay about Kendi's work. 

How long ago was November 2019? The pandemic hadn't started yet—and Sullivan was still writing for New York magazine on a weekly basis.

Sullivan's essay appeared as part of his weekly Friday feature, "Interesting Times." As he started, he offered high praise for certain aspects of Kendi's work—and he cited the best-selling book which has made Kendi such an important figure in Our Town:

SULLIVAN (11/15/19): Near the beginning of Ibram X. Kendi’s celebrated best-seller, How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi writes something that strikes me as the key to his struggle: “I cannot disconnect my parents’ religious strivings to be Christian from my secular strivings to be anti-racist.” Kendi’s parents were “saved into Black liberation theology and joined the churchless church of the Black Power movement.” That was their response—at times a beautiful one—to the unique challenges of being black in America.

And when Kendi’s book becomes a memoir of his own life and comes to terms with his own racism, and then his own cancer, it’s vivid and complicated and nuanced, if a little unfinished. He is alert to ambiguities, paradoxes, and the humanness of it all: “When Black people recoil from White racism and concentrate their hatred on everyday White people, as I did freshman year in college, they are not fighting racist power or racist policymakers.” He sees the complexity of racist views: “West Indian immigrants tend to categorize African-Americans as ‘lazy, unambitious, uneducated, unfriendly, welfare dependent, and lacking in family values.’” He describes these painful moments of self-recognition in what becomes a kind of secular apology: a life of a sinner striving for sainthood, who, having been saved, wants to save everyone else.

He does not shy from the racist violence he saw growing up. He tells an anecdote of a black “crew” targeting an Indian kid for his Walkman (which they steal) on the bus one day...

As Sullivan continues, he quotes Kendi's account of this violent incident. The passage ends with Kendi seeming to chastise himself for his (wholly understandable) youthful inaction as this violence occurred.

Professor Kendi's book, How To Be an Antiracist, was already "a celebrated best-seller" as of November 2019. At the start of that essay, Sullivan praised Kendi for his ability to see the complexity of the very important part of American (and global) life his best-selling book addresses.

After that, the deluge! But before we see where Sullivan went next, let's visit the streets of Our Town:

In certain precincts of Our Town, Kendi's book has become a bit of a Bible. (So too with Robin DiAngelo's weirdly dogmatic best-selling book, White Fragility.)

You can't blame Kendi for the fact that his book is sometimes viewed in such ways. The fault, Dear Brutus, if a fault exists, lies with the rest of us—with our desire for simple, even simplistic, answers to questions which may be complex.

As he starts, Sullivan praises Kendi for the complexity of his observations. "And yet all this is deployed to deliver a message of total ideological simplicity," Sullivan writes.

You can sample Sullivan's broader critique for yourselves. Eventually, he cites a statement Kendi had recently made as part of a symposium for Politico.

In his statement, Kendi had proposed a constitutional amendment concerning racial inequities. His proposal would do this:

KENDI (2019): It would establish and permanently fund the Department of Anti-racism (DOA) comprised of formally trained experts on racism and no political appointees. The DOA would be responsible for preclearing all local, state and federal public policies to ensure they won’t yield racial inequity, monitor those policies, investigate private racist policies when racial inequity surfaces, and monitor public officials for expressions of racist ideas. The DOA would be empowered with disciplinary tools to wield over and against policymakers and public officials who do not voluntarily change their racist policy and ideas.

As Sullivan notes, this proposal is madness. It's a bolt from the far side of Neptune. The proposal makes no earthly sense. 

It isn't just that no such proposal could ever make it through the process by which the constitution can be amended. On its face, the proposal makes an obvious form of non-sense, straight outta Plato's Republic.

Who would decide who the "experts" were—the experts who would now be empowered to pass judgment on everything the nation's elected officials did? The "experts" who could take action against elected officials if they refused to "voluntarily change their ideas?"

Especially at times of confusion and turmoil, it can always seem like a good idea to put a "philosopher-king" in charge. But the idea is profoundly anti-democratic—Sullivan drops the T-bomb—and if you get the wrong philosopher-king, you can be in a world of hurt, as many of us have recently noticed here in the streets of Our Town.

By all accounts and indications, Kendi is a thoroughly decent person. Beyond that, he's read a thousand books, most of which seem to share a general point of view.

The problem begins when the reader of books decides where to take things from there. The reader's judgment may be very good—but often, such judgments are imperfect or cloudy, as Kendi's seems to be here.

So too perhaps with his view concerning public schools. Rather, with his views concerning the way we should report and discuss our public schools and the lives of the children within them.

On Sunday, in the Washington Post's Outlook section, Matthew Yglesias offered an essay under a challenging headline. Not all ‘anti-racist’ ideas are good ones, the improbable headline declared.

Can that possibly be the case? Before too long, Yglesias quoted something Kendi has said about the ways we should and shouldn't and mustn't discuss our public schools:

YGLESIAS (2/28/21): Ibram Kendi, author of the bestseller “How to Be an Antiracist,” argues for an extremely expansive concept of racism that pushes the boundaries of structural analysis to the limits. According to Kendi, any racial gap simply is racist by definition; any policy that maintains such a gap is a racist policy; and—most debatably— any intellectual explanation of its existence (sociological, cultural and so on) is also racist. He has famously argued that anything that is not anti-racist is perforce racist.

This reaches its most radical form in Kendi’s conflation of measurements of problems with the problems themselves. In his book— ubiquitous in educational circles—he denounces not the existence of a large Black-White gap in school performance but any discussion of such a gap. Kendi writes that “we degrade Black minds every time we speak of an ‘academic-achievement gap’ ” based on standardized test scores and grades. 

In discussing our public schools, we shouldn't report or discuss those (painful) "achievement gaps?" We shouldn't "speak of" those (painful) gaps? They shouldn't be mentioned at all?

According to Yglesias, Professor Kendi's book  is "ubiquitous in educational circles." Is it possible that the book also serves as a guide at the New York Times? 

For ourselves, we share Professor Kendi's concern about the pain, and the possible harm, involved in reporting those painful gaps. 

(On average, white kids outperform black kids in reading and math by what seems to be a large margin. On average, Asian-American kids outperform white kids by almost as large a gap.)

Those very large gaps can be painful; from a certain type of liberal perspective, they can also seem embarrassing. We've long assumed that that explains why the New York Times has long disappeared those painful gaps—has long refused to discuss or even report them. 

The world is simpler, and less embarrassing, when we just hide such facts. And also, of course, we don't care!

The world is simpler—life is less awkward—when big newspapers follow Kendi's prescription on this particular point. They won't get assailed for being racist—and also, nobody cares!

On the down side we end up with type of coverage of urban schools one finds in the New York Times. In our view, this coverage comes from the far side of the planet Neptune, with the nation's millions of good, decent lower-income kids being kicked to the curb in the process.

The Times' reporting pon public schools strikes us as disordered, delusional. We expect to spend a week in the near future reviewing the frameworks of that reporting, as put on display in a series of recent reports.

These frameworks have controlled public school reporting in Our Town since the 1960s. Im this matter, as in so many others, it's hard to believe that our problems will be solved when we agree that we mustn't "speak of" those problems, though we do understand why a food, decent person like Kendi might react to this as he does.

Our nation's achievement gaps are painful. They speak to a brutal racial history which no living person created. It started in 1619, as Professor Bennett noted a long time ago, in a high-profile book.

The children involved are good, decent kids. As with all other groups of kids, very few will be going to Yale. 

How do we serve the bulk of those kids—the kids who won't be going to Yale? We should start by considering the possibility that, on one matter after another, the "experts" and journalists here in Our Town may perhaps, on occasion, be wrong.

Could that be our "citizen's duty?" To speak up if our experts are wrong?


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  2. Somerby implied that violence against Asian Americans has been exaggerated by criticizing an op-ed by an Asian female lawyer. Today's NY Times has another article about violence against Asian Americans, which says: "From March 19 to Dec. 31 last year, the organization Stop AAPI Hate received 2,808 firsthand reports of violence against the Asian community from 47 states and the District of Columbia."

    The increase in acts of hate directed at minorities and immigrants is being attributed to Trump's creation of a favorable climate for bigotry. It is unclear whether Somerby is trying to wish this away or defend Trump, but trying to ignore race doesn't make racism disappear. It enables it.

  3. Andrew Sullivan is no liberal. He also has an odd view of racism. Back in 2004, he was editor of The New Republic when it created a firestorm by publishing excerpts from Herrnstein & Murray's "The Bell Curve," a book that argued for innate racial difference that made programs like Head Start a waste of money. Sullivan also published a variety of rebuttals in the same issue, but one must ask why he chose to feature that conservative attack on social programs at all.

    Today Somerby and Sullivan are upset because Kendi wishes to dismantle institutional racism, defined as any policy that results in racial gaps. Sullivan objects because Kendi is uninterested in changing hearts and minds, a phrase that hearkens back to Eisenhower and Brown v Bd of Education, a decision that changed school segregation without bothering to address hearts and minds either. (The phrase itself was used in the context of the Vietnam war.)

    Sullivan, in his article, complains that Kendi doesn't want to talk about gaps on educational tests, but if one believes the tests are biased and only signify the existence of racism, not ability, then such gaps show the need to eliminate racism in schooling. Sullivan and racial bigots interpret those gaps to mean that black children are inferior and that programs like Head Start do nothing to change that. It is Sullivan returning to his old attack on liberal views of the potential of black children. It would seem that Kendi himself shows the falsity of such views, but Sullivan ignores the very complexity that he lauds in Kendi's book review. When you use test scores as a measure of children instead of racism, you are clearly being racist. Sullivan is fuzzy on that point.

    Somerby calls Kendi one-note, but why shouldn't he be? He finds himself in a society in which many aspects of life are rigged against him based on skin-color. If he has chosen to devote his life to changing that, why is that wrong? It seems pretty obvious that a fair society would not show racial differences emerging in measurements of any kind and yet our society produces many such differences. Eliminating these, as a means of eliminating bias that harms people, seems like a worthwhile goal to me. And it cannot involve persuasion because individual attitudes are not causal -- institutional policies are. Kendi's approach has integrity and Sullivan doesn't argue with it. He claims instead that Kendi is leaving something out. I don't find that a legitimate argument. Sullivan is welcome to change his own heart and mind, but his doing so isn't going to eliminate racism on a larger scale.

  4. “Our nation's achievement gaps are painful. They speak to a brutal racial history which no living person created.”

    The issue isn’t whether any living person created it. The issue is whether living people are perpetuating it.

  5. “How do we serve the bulk of those kids—the kids who won't be going to Yale?”

    What about the ones who would like to go but can’t because of the legacy of a brutal racial history? Does Somerby care about those kids?

    1. Schools exist to serve all kids. The build of white kids are not going to Yale either, but Somerby never asks about them. Those who work with gifted kids believe that schools exist largely to serve the bulk of kids, not those with high academic aspirations.

      There exists a bias among some teachers against gifted programs, if not the kids they serve. Sometimes Somerby sounds like one of them. But making education into a zero-sum game in which the needs of different children are pitted against each other, only serves those who do not want to fund education at all. All kids deserve to be educated to their highest potential, including white and black kids who want to go to Yale (or some similar university).

    2. Somerby often rags on AP exams, but for kids going to college, they save a great deal of tuition money. If a students takes AP courses steadily in high school, they can test out of GE and intro courses at the college level and reduce their time toward their degree by as much as 1-2 years. At a school that charges $30-50,000 per year, that is a considerable amount of savings.

      But Somerby, for some odd reason, thinks AP courses are merely status indicators or badges of elitism. He also ignores the value of challenging top students at their highest level of accomplishment instead of letting them coast through easier classes in high school. Where AP classes are not available, it is not unusual for a gifted student to drop out of high school, take the GED test and go straight to college without completing the last few years of high school. That seems like a less desirable alternative because of age and independence considerations, but Somerby isn't concerned with the welfare of top students. He sees this as only a game of one-upsmanship played by parents in the Hamptons. Cutting a few years off the long road to a medical career is a good idea for all students with such goals.

  6. “In discussing our public schools, we shouldn't report or discuss those (painful) "achievement gaps?" We shouldn't "speak of" those (painful) gaps? They shouldn't be mentioned at all?”

    It’s an odd position for Somerby to take. On the one hand, he has denounced the idea of race, claiming that it is a myth. But here, he is all in favor of figuring out the race of students taking tests like the naep, and then comparing/pitting the results of the different racial groups against one another.

    It is also of no small consequence that these kinds of tests are used to evaluate and punish schools and teachers, and lo and behold, guess which schools are disproportionately deemed “underperforming?”

    1. Punishment is often financial, for both teachers and schools.

  7. Yglesias writes that standardized tests are important for showing how students are performing.

    But what he doesn't address is what we choose to do with that information. Bob shows these tests consistently reproduce race. That's actually a big problem if you use those tests to segregate people. Here's why.

    Statistics show that students who attended segregated schools where at a risk of developing prejudiced attitudes and living in segregated neighborhoods when they grew up.

    Statistics also show that students given a simple reading test in Middle School were able to perform adequately in AP level tests and classes.

    What does this mean for standardized tests? Because they are an ineffective at predicting outcome, but are effectively a means of sorting by race their outcomes used in high school for sorting for AP classes create racism with little reason to allow it to continue.

    Here is testimony from a school that did just that:

    "We’re now five years into the freshman restructuring. Our first group of students to take earned honors English and history graduated in 2015. That group posted the highest average ACT score (23.9) in school history (a score of 20 is the national ACT average), took the most AP courses in school history, and earned the highest number of college-ready scores of 3 or more on AP exams. More important, each subgroup posted the best results they’ve ever seen on each of these measures.For our 2016 graduating cohort, across all historic placement groups, there was an increase in the percentage of students enrolling in at least one AP course in 11th grade. The greatest increase — 113% — involved students who would normally have placed into a regular-level course freshman year."



    1. Correction:

      Statistics also show that students given a simple reading test in Middle School were able to perform adequately in AP level tests and classes LATER ON.

    2. Excuse my typos I was narrating to the phone.

      Where > were etc

  8. Somerby could let Kendi speak about the achievement gaps for himself, rather than through the words of Sullivan or Yglesias. I shared this in comments here in early January:

    “Why the Academic Achievement Gap is a Racist Idea”


  9. “Professor Kendi seems to agree with the Times!”

    This is a fundamental mistake that Somerby makes. He thinks the Times doesn’t talk about “achievement gaps” and that Our Town doesn’t discuss them, and he’s saying that Kendi “agrees” with whatever reason the Times has for supposedly not discussing them, which must be the same reason “Our Town” doesn’t discuss them.

    Somerby has no idea why the Times won’t discuss the gaps. (They actually have, by the way). But it simply isn’t true that liberals ignore them. There are many liberals (see Yglesias, Matthew and Duncan, Arne) who make a big deal out of the “achievement gaps” and use them to promote school reforms that often don’t work or are harmful, not to mention people like Johnathan Chait, whose wife uses the existence of these “gaps” to advocate charter schools.

    I have also mentioned Peter Greene here, whose blog is called “curmudgucation”. He is a liberal, but he is also an opponent of what he calls the Big Standardized test (he calls them BS tests) and is almost as critical of liberal school reformers as he is of conservatives and their anti-public school crusade.

  10. "We should start by considering the possibility that, on one matter after another, the "experts" and journalists here in Our Town may perhaps, on occasion, be wrong."

    Experts are not the same as journalists. Experts are sharing their own knowledge, either from their own research, or summarizing what is known in their field. Journalists are reporting information based on interviews or investigation. They do not originate knowledge and they are not experts, even if they have specialized in a particular field. For example, Don McNeil may be an experienced public health reporter, but he is not a public health expert because he has never worked in that field.

    Why this distinction? Because one should be slower to criticize an expert than a journalist. Journalists can get things wrong, because they are passing along information second hand and do not have the same training as an expert in a field. You take very different college courses to work in public health than in journalism. The work experience of a public health worker is different than someone in journalism, no matter how many articles on public health they might read, or how many people they interview, or how many public meetings they attend.

    Somerby's idea that anyone should be critical of experts without any basis for their criticism than that they disagree with a conclusion drawn, is kind of ridiculous. It leads to people rejecting science and "inconvenient truths" on complicated subjects for specious reasons.

    This is one reason why we have people refusing to accept truths about important topics, such as covid vaccine, a variety of health fads, and climate change. It is why anyone feels entitled to disbelieve whatever they want, such as that Biden won his election, the earth is not round but flat, dogs have telepathy, pedophiles operate out of pizza shops. And Somerby invites this by equating journalists with experts and then telling us to challenge those experts whenever we feel like it. The "Our Town" bit is a distractor. Somerby's attack is on truth, expertise, knowledge, because if people are free to believe whatever they choose, then Trump has his foot in the door again.

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