FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 10, 2021
Why we made a mistake: When John McWhorter reviewed Robin DiAngelo, he highlighted Jackie Robinson.
To be more clear, he wasn't reviewing DiAngelo herself. He was reviewing her mammoth best-selling book, White Fragility, in an essay for The Atlantic.
His essay appeared last July. Along the way, he wrote this:
MCWHORTER (7/15/20): When writers who are this sure of their convictions turn out to make a compelling case, it is genuinely exciting. This is sadly not one of those times, even though white guilt and politesse have apparently distracted many readers from the book’s numerous obvious flaws.
For one, DiAngelo’s book is replete with claims that are either plain wrong or bizarrely disconnected from reality. Exactly who comes away from the saga of Jackie Robinson thinking he was the first Black baseball player good enough to compete with whites? “Imagine if instead the story,” DiAngelo writes, “went something like this: ‘Jackie Robinson, the first black man whites allowed to play major-league baseball.’” But no one need imagine this scenario, as others have pointed out, because it is something every baseball fan already knows.
We stumbled upon McWhorter's essay last weekend. We don't think we saw it in real time, when the pandemic was center stage.
McWhorter is extremely negative on DiAngelo's work; we're quite negative on her work too. That said, we were somewhat skeptical concerning his passage about Jackie Robinson, who was a sensational multi-sport athlete at UCLA before he became a professional baseball player.
(There was athletic talent in the family. Robinson's older brother, Mack Robinson, won the silver medal in the 200 at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. He beat every sprinter in the world, except for Jesse Owen.)
In her book, does DiAngelo really misstate the way Robinson is typically remembered? McWhorter's account seemed perhaps a little bit fuzzy to us, and so we decided to check.
When we checked, we ruled in McWhorter's favor. We found that DiAngelo, a stone-cold dogmatist, had written the following account, beginning with the requisite statement of dogmatic true belief:
DIANGELO (page 26): The story of Jackie Robinson is a classic example of how whiteness obscures racism by rendering whites, white privilege, and racist institutions invisible. Robinson is often celebrated as the first African-American to break the color line and play in major-league baseball. While Robinson was certainly an amazing baseball player, this story line depicts him as racially special, a Black man who broke the color line himself. The subtext is that Robinson finally had what it took to play with whites, as if no black athlete before him was strong enough to compete at that level. Imagine if instead, the story went something like this: ‘Jackie Robinson, the first black man whites allowed to play major league baseball.’ This version makes a critical distinction because no matter how fantastic a player Robinson was, he simply could not play in the major leagues if whites—who controlled the institution—did not allow it.
In fairness, it may be that DiAngelo doesn't follow baseball. But she's supposed to be an expert on race, and that is an absurd account of the way these widely-remembered events are typically remembered.
Robinson is always remembered as "the first black man...allowed to play major league baseball." Has he ever been remembered as the first such man who was "strong enough to compete at that level?"
We'd be surprised if anyone has framed it that way in, let's say, the last fifty years. We don't know whether anyone ever did.
Robinson is always remembered as "the first black man...allowed to play major league baseball." Quite often, it's major league owners, rather than "whites," who are fingered as the principal culprits in this widely remembered drama.
But DiAngelo is the type of person who wants to spread the stain of blame as widely as humanly possible. She wants to finger everyone in the targeted group.
Everyone has to be guilty; everyone has to be shamed. Only she herself will be left—she herself, seeing what no one else can see, as in the absurdly misdescribed case of the immortal Robinson.
We don't want to finger DiAngelo as the classic "bad person" or villain. In our view, we humans are all at the mercy of the ways our human brains are wired, and some people's brains are wired to produce dogma of the vastly overstated kind.
According to top anthropologists, our brains are all wired to produce tribally-pleasing dogmas at times of enhanced tribal conflict. According to these credentialed experts, we humans are strongly inclined to divide into tribes, then to create the Storylines which help us proceed to our latest war.
We mention DiAngelo to highlight a major mistake we ourselves made last weekend. Over that elongated holiday weekend, we encountered so much of the dogma which currently rules our own blue tribe that we backslid on a previous decision.
At long last, we'd made the leap! We had finally come to see that the die has been cast. We had come to accept the fact that there is no reasoning with the way our self-impressed tribe currently deals with issues of gender and race. Or with the way we use our dogmas to distinguish ourselves from The Others.
Last weekend, we encountered so much of the ugly, low-IQ guff which currently drives our own tribe that we decided to backslide and attempt to discuss it. That was a very large mistake. Our tribe has passed the point of no return. These matters can't be discussed or debated in productive ways at this point.
There's simply no point in discussing these matters. As our nation slides toward the sea, our tribe loves Our Stories too much.
DiAngelo lies on the far edge of our tribe's current dogmas. Last weekend, C-Span rebroadcast the tape of her recent hour-long discussion with Eddie Glaude, and we watched the bulk of their discussion again.
As we watched, we saw Glaude bow and scrape to one of the strangest figures we've ever seen in the American discourse. This doesn't mean that DiAngelo is a "bad person." It means that she lives in the realm of denunciation in a way few others do.
She lives in the realm of scorn and blame, and in the realm of shaming. According to experts, our brains are wired to accept the role of guilty party when we're confronted with such figures.
DiAngelo believes the various things she says, but we've never seen anything like her. In the end, she seems to have no sense of our species' inbred limitations—no sense of understanding.
She's cultural revolution / re-education all the way down. In whatever way, her brain seems to be wired to create a drama in which she herself is cast as the Last Righteous White Person Standing.
That stance strikes us as quite unhelpful. It also strikes us as dumb. That said, it's part of the stance Our Town has chosen as the current war takes shape.
We actually saw a lot of garbage proceeding from Our Town last weekend. Some of Our Town's comment threads spilled with human loathing, they now typically do.
"This is the way we're wired to play," disconsolate scholars all told us.
This led us to make a mistake in our choice of topics this week. We were wiser when we had come to see that there's no point discussing such matters.
We'll close with a note about Jackie Robinson, the former UCLA great:
We began following major league baseball at the very end of Robinson's relatively short career. (Due to his prior exclusion, he joined the Dodgers at age 28. His career ended at age 37, in part due to some physical problems.)
Robinson was no longer a great player at the end of his career. It wasn't until later that we learned how great he had actually been.
Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947. Two years later, he hit .342, with 124 TBIs and 37 steals. For full career stats, click here.
He was named the National League's Most Valuable Player. It's an award which was, and still is, bestowed by the nation's baseball writers. Robinson got 12 of 24 first-place votes, outdistancing Stan Musial's five.
Those writers have been known to punish candidates they disfavor. In the famous 1947 case, Ted Williams won the triple crown in the American League, but wasn't elected MVP. One writer excluded Ballgame from his full list of ten picks.
Two years later, that same group went ahead and honored Robinson. It's a bit surprising to us that they did, but it also seems that it might be somewhat instructive.
DiAngelo isn't a "hater," but she's very much a loather. Mainly, she's a dogmatist, an apostle of guilt and shame. The glass can never be one percent full. The novelized account of the world is built upon nothing but blame.
The rest of us are wired to accept our mandated guilt even as we build our own tribal dogmas. We can see how dumb The Others are, but we seem unable to stop creating and churning such novelized dogma as this:
GIVHAN (9/8/21): Trayvon Martin was a kid carrying candy when he was killed and a toxic public tried to use his childish missteps and impetuousness as evidence of malevolence.
In that tragic incident, he was just a kid carrying candy, full and complete total stop! Other facts have been disappeared. We prefer our stories this way.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but our own blue tribe is unmistakably human. We love to repeat our tribal tales. Disconsolate experts keep suggesting that in this case, as in all other historical instances, there may be no turning back.
As this story has taken shape, our logicians have been on sabbatical somewhere on Neptune, debating the Theaetetus!
For the record, there will be no recovery from that lack of intellectual leadership. It's just an interesting story, one involving a bit of pushback from the later Wittgenstein, who was barely coherent.
Professor Glaude bows and scrapes on that C-Span tape. By the rules of the game, DiAngelo's presentations simply have to be right, even when she's telling him how he feels each day.
More politely, he defers. Our wiring is very much like that, despondent top experts insist.