race “science” and shoulds

I am and have always been cool with people not liking me or what I write; being disliked is as comfortable for me as my old coat. But I would really, truly appreciate it if people would stop attacking me for a position that I don’t hold and didn’t express on the issue of TNR and The Bell Curve. People claiming that I’m making an argument about having untrammeled debate; people saying that I’m claiming that we should “teach the controversy”; people claiming that I’m defending The New Republic‘s role in all of this, when I find that role as odious as I do everything else the magazine has done in my lifetime; people claiming that I’m saying that we should follow the truth wherever it may lead, in this situation, as though I think it might lead to the conclusions of The Bell Curve; the out-and-out claims that I think race science is correct, when I’ve probably written more words on why it’s incorrect than I have on any other subject — those are wrong, running to dishonest.

What I believe is pretty simple: despite claims that the basic argument of The Bell Curve is so rare and so debunked that it represents no threat, the notion is in fact prevalent in our deeply racist culture, though it is expressed carefully, as we have entered an era where racism is endorsed quietly and through codes. Further, I think it’s wrong to believe that race science lived and died with that particular book. I particularly find it flatly wrong to suggest that by merely mentioning the fact that race science is incorrect, I somehow support it. This is the notion that, by working hard to establish that race science has no credible basis in fact, I am in fact “signal boosting” the concept, as if absent my mentioning it, no one would ever even think to hold that opinion. I instead believe that racism encoded in the terms of science is common enough and pernicious enough to merit fighting. I truly would love to live in the world that these people live in; one of the most persistent and pernicious of racist tropes has been defeated there, long ago. But I don’t live in that world, and neither do they.

We live in a world where 44% of white respondents to a large, rigorous, and very well-respected survey report that they believe white people are more intelligent than black people. We live in a world where just a few years ago, Slate ran a multi-part series endorsing the basic arguments of race and IQ, by a writer who is still employed there and given a position of great prominence. We live in a world where Nicholas Wade was writing for the New York Times just a couple of years ago. We live in a world where the number of people who utilize the anonymity of the internet to express what they quietly believe about black people’s supposed lack of intelligence are legion. We live in the world that produced literacy tests and has not moved that far from their basic logic. And we live in a world where I encounter, in far too much academic work that touches on intelligence testing and race, a kind of tip-toeing, sotto voce agreement to look the other way, a refusal to really look at the question that comes not from the agreement that it has been dispositively disproven but rather from the fear that it has not been disproven at all, so best not to look, and into that lacuna rushes in the worst sort of people.

Along with this discussion comes attendant questions that are meant to demonstrate the obvious absurdity of my position,  but which are not nearly so obvious at all. “Would you bother to fight against astrology?” Sure, and have. Many charlatans and cranks extract a lot of money from the credulous with astrology, and the potential ill-effects of racist science are far worse than those of astrology, and thus more worthy of being rebutted. “Would you waste energy rebutting creationism?” Yes! I would! I have! Creationists have power in our society! They get their mythology written into textbooks! They take seats on school boards of large states and huge school systems, the worm their way into the sciences. How can you be so assured of the popularity of your own ideas as to fail to see the need to fight bad ones?

This whole issue is almost a perfect parody of the current state of the American left, which is a state of enclaves and echo chambers. What could be a better indication of liberal delusion than statements of the kind “this attitude does not exist within my sphere, thus there is no need to fight it”? Your Twitter feed is not the world. Your Tumblr dashboard does not reveal all types of people to you. Brooklyn is not America. Though it may seem that way from your vantage, not everyone alive acquired left-wing theory at Sarah Lawrence or Oberlin. Your enclave, so studiously defined, so easily pruned by the many digital tools that allow you to deny the existence of attitudes you don’t like, cannot and will not protect you. And it cannot and will not protect those who are less privileged and more oppressed than you.

The response that I both respect the most, and which discourages me the most, is this one: black people should not have to debate their intellectual equality. And indeed, it’s true. They shouldn’t have to. But I don’t know what that “should” means. I don’t know what it refers to. I don’t know what valence it has. What does should have to do with anything? Eric Garner should be alive. Chelsea Manning should be free. The poor should be clothed and fed. Racism should be over. Of course black people shouldn’t have to debate their intellectual equality, and it’s nice that in progressive environs, they largely don’t have to. But America writ large does not operate by the social norms of lefty Twitter, and the effects of the presumption of black stupidity are pernicious and destructive, and so that should has no meaning, to me. Lots of things should be, and aren’t, and so you are forced to deal with the world as it is.

The word “should” is the worst thing that ever happened to the left. “Should” has become a virus in the contemporary left, a word that is more effective at defeating left-wing resistance than any right-wing argument ever could be. It seems like every day I read fellow leftists telling me what they should and shouldn’t have to do, rather than what they are compelled by injustice to do. “Feminists should not have to teach people the importance of feminism; it’s their responsibility to educate themselves.” Perhaps it is. But they won’t educate themselves. No one will make the world a just place but us. That’s why there is such a thing as feminism. The struggle exists precisely because the world does not fix itself and its people do not educate themselves. That’s such a basic statement of political principles it frightens me that it has to be said at all.

I ask this basic question of young leftists I meet all the time, the ones who insist to me, with great passion, that my suggestion that we have a duty to fix a broken world is itself oppression: are we winning, or are we losing? That’s what I want to know. Do you think we’re winning or losing? I cannot imagine a leftist or progressive who thinks we’re winning. Not in a world of Tamir Rice and campus rape and Barack Obama’s Wall Street presidency. Yet the attitude that we need to change anything at all, that we need to consider our tactics and our strategy, that we have a responsibility to adapt to our movement’s failures to better succeed, is anathema. That contradiction cannot stand. It is incoherent to say that your movement has failed and yet has no obligation to change. Only those who are protected by privilege from the consequences of this failure could ever be so opposed to overcoming it. Continuing to repeated the word “intersectionality” to the same small group of the already-converted, in the face of so much failure, is to endorse the conditions that you call unjust.

All of it — the misrepresentation of my position, the echo chambers, the shoulds– all are indicative of a political movement that is incapable of looking at the world as it is and dealing with its challenges. You are perfectly free to disagree with my belief that the best way to invalidate these arguments is to debunk them, rather than to ignore them in the hope that they’ll go away. You are perfectly free to disagree with me on the best tactics and strategy to oppose racism. But when you feel compelled to lie about what I believe in disagreeing with me, what does that say about your ability to engage with the broader world, given that on the fundamental issue of substance here I agree with you completely? How could you ever engage with those who don’t agree with you about anything, and who have power, and are inclined to use it against you?

Unless you prefer to pretend that those people don’t exist at all.

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