FRIDAY, MARCH 11, 2022
Discussing this topic is hard: We're prepared to admit it:
By the time we finished Professor Gates' guest essay, we weren't fully sure what he'd said.
The guest essay appeared in Sunday's New York Times. It seemed to concern an important topic—to advance an important belief.
"We need a new language for talking about race." That's what the headline said.
We're strongly inclined to agree with that view. But in what would that language consist?
Early on, Professor Gates and his colleague, Professor Curran, offered a nugget statement with which we're inclined to agree. But what did the professors mean when they advanced this view?
"The fact that race is a social invention and not a biological reality cannot be repeated too much."
We're strongly inclined to agree with that view. But what did the professors mean when they advanced that statement?
We didn't think their meaning was clear by the end of their highly erudite guest essay. For today, we'll offer two thoughts about that unfortunate state of affairs.
We'll start with CNN's Don Lemon.
Back on February 2, Lemon spoke with Cornel West and Yascha Mounk about one of the same foundational concepts found in Sunday's guest essay. Sadly enough, the discussion had been triggered by the flap about Whoopi Goldberg's claim that the Holocaust had nothing to do with race.
In our view, Goldberg's statement had been strikingly unsophisticated, but her meaning had been easy to decipher. In our view, the furious discussion which followed wasn't a whole lot more helpful or informed than the comment which set off the flap.
On the brighter side, Lemon had convened a star-studded, two-person panel. West is late of Princeton and Harvard; Mounk is at Harvard today.
By the standards of cable news, this was a brainiac panel. And sure enough! After Goldberg's statement was dissected, Lemon moved on to this:
LEMON (2/2/22): The interesting thing is that we have this idea, what I said earlier, this sort of modern idea about what race is. What exactly is race? Is it a social construct? Many people see it as color. Is it something that's visible? What exactly is it?
Let's have that conversation. We'll take a break, and we'll talk about it on the other side. We'll be right back.
"What is race?" the cable star asked. "Is it a social construct?"
(Also, "Is it something that's visible? What exactly is it?" Lemon now said.)
Already, our youthful analysts were moaning and tearing their hair. But even we were surprised by the muddled discussion which took place after commercials had aired.
After the commercial break, Professor West was forced to discuss Goldberg's comment again. But then, the rubber seemed to hit the road as Lemon came out with this:
LEMON: Race is a social construct. Do you guys agree with that or disagree with that? Yascha?
Lemon had asked if race is a social construct without attempting to explain what that term might mean—what a social construct is.
Monck was asked to respond to this fuzzy question first. As he responded, Mounk seemed to assume that everyone pretty much shares an understanding of that murky term.
We're willing to guess that isn't the case. Below, you see what happened next in this wonderfully muddled discussion:
MOUNK (continuing directly): Yes, I agree with that. I mean, I think that people think about social construct as something that I have—you know, I have something that's completely real and biological, or it has no basis in reality at all. And that's the wrong way to think about it.
Race is a social construct not because—
LEMON: It is a social construct, but there are real world consequences for it. People died because of their race even though it is something that people constructed for.
By now, several analysts were catatonic—were locked in thousand-yard stares. Little clarity had emerged. Mounk continued as shown:
MOUNK (continuing directly): No. And of course, there are certain ethnic differences that you can see. You can mostly guess whether somebody has ancestors in Asia or somebody has ancestors in Africa or somebody has ancestors in Europe.
The way in which we think about the difference between races is socially constructed. And that's what's relevant in this context.
It isn't so much that race is a social construct. It's more that the way in which we think about the difference between races is socially constructed.
Also, you can usually guess where a person's ancestors lived. You can guess that they lived in Africa, or that they lived in Asia.
Mounk continued on from there. Mercifully, his computer soon froze, so Lemon threw to West:
LEMON: I think Yascha froze. Do you want to continue with that, Professor West? Is this what construct—
WEST: No, what this I think—
LEMON: But have our definitions of racism changed over the years?
WEST: —of the social construct, Brother Don.
One, it is institutionalized and legalized. It takes on a life of its own, you see. So white supremacy is a construct, but you ascribed in the laws and ascribed in how you perceive black people and ascribe in the attacks on black beauty and black intelligence, same is true with indigenous people, and Spanish, brown, and so forth. it gets institutionalized in your society.
It isn't just race which is a social construct. White supremacy is a construct too, whatever a construct is.
West's oration continued from there. We're showing you what the CNN transcript says, but we were amazed, as we watched in real time, by how disjointed and useless this rambling, three-way pseudo-discussion actually was.
Watching at home, we weren't sure we'd ever seen a muddier pseudo-discussion. We weren't surprised by the relative haplessness of the moderator. But West and Mounk are leading academics, and they seemed completely unable to discuss this topic in a way which might be subject to understanding and coherent paraphrase.
Is race a social construct, Lemon asked. Things went straight sideways from there.
We were truly surprised by the depth of the muddle which emerged from Lermon's muddled questions. Innocently, Lemon had wanted to know if race is "a social construct." We were surprised by the lack of clarity two ranking professors were prepared to provide.
In their guest essay in the Sunday Times, Gates and Curran started out with this very concept:
It can't be repeated often enough. Race is a social invention.
We're inclined to agree with that statement—but what did they mean by their statement? By the time we finished Sunday's guest essay, we had no strong sense that we actually knew.
Tomorrow, we'll tell you what we suspect they meant, and we'll try to suggest where their discussion falls short. Also, we'll visit another member of the actual greatest generation—Mary Frances Early, the first black person to receive a degree from the University of Georgia.
Early is 85 years old; she earned that degree in 1962. We'll quote her from this C-Span tape as she describes what she and her peers once believed about matters of this very important type.
According to Professor Gates, we need a new language for talking about race. We completely agree with that statement—and we think that important new language might take us back to some older ideas.
We said we'd share two thoughts today, We only got to one.
Tomorrow: Remembering Jesse B. Semple