Anti-racist Arguments Are Tearing People Apart

What a viral story reveals about contemporary leftist discourse

D. Corson / ClassicStock / Getty

The viral YouTube video was cued to begin at 42:23, the moment most likely to elicit incredulity. A webcam was tight on the face of Robin Broshi, a middle-aged white woman. She was upset. The edge in her voice sought to explain, to emphasize, to insist, that a wrong had been done.

“It hurts people,” she said, “when they see a white man bouncing a brown baby on their lap and they don’t know the context!”

Wait. What?

“That is harmful!” she continued. “That makes people cry! It makes people log out of our meetings.” The video’s description mentions the “NYC Community Education Council for Manhattan District 2,” which serves more than 60,000 students spread across 121 schools.

I made a series of rapid assumptions about what I was watching. I surmised that Broshi was a college-educated, upper-middle-class progressive who sits on some sort of education council in the public-school system and owns copies of White Fragility and How to Be an Antiracist. I surmised that she was calling someone out. And I surmised that her white, male target was offscreen rolling his eyes. All of which turned out to be correct.

But I also felt confused. Why would a New Yorker in 2020 see an adult holding a baby with a different phenotype and presume something nefarious was afoot? Until recently, I would have expected that sort of retrograde attitude from the alt-right. Beleaguered curiosity prompted me to burrow down an unlikely rabbit hole: extended footage from several NYC Community Education Council District 2 meetings. I wanted to understand what seemed to be the latest confounding addition to the rapidly changing code of elite, “anti-racist” manners.

What I found was more complicated and troubling than one perplexing viral moment. All 11 members of the council are highly educated parents who volunteer time and energy in hopes of improving public schools. Council membership requires lots of tedious, mostly thankless work of a sort that no one undertakes for the power: The resolutions that pass at meetings aren’t even binding on the Department of Education. Yet this advisory body of well-meaning people is plagued by polarizing disagreements about the nature of anti-racism that undermine its ability to effect change. And if this particular incident is exceedingly strange––almost a caricature of how conservatives think identitarian leftists behave––it also illuminates how the fight over anti-racism could roil many other institutions all across the country.

The council’s June 11 online meeting––the meeting where the baby made his appearance, not the subsequent June 29 meeting, and its discussion of the incident, that went viral––focused on one of the most controversial issues in New York City education: When kids finish elementary school, what should determine which middle school they attend? Currently, fourth graders can apply to one of the selective middle schools that “screens” applicants on the basis of standardized-test scores, grades, and attendance records, or attend a non-screening school. In the meeting, which was open to the public, supporters of the screening system variously argued that it allows academically talented students to learn at an accelerated pace, affords kids who learn at a slower pace the extra attention they require, keeps more rich people in the public-school system, and benefits many Asian immigrants, members of one of the poorest demographic groups in Manhattan. They suggested that changing some of the best rather than some of the worst schools in the system is both unwise and unlikely to remedy the factors causing children from poor families to fall behind.

Critics of screening countered that the selective middle schools are mostly white and Asian in a system that’s mostly Black and Hispanic, that ending screening is necessary to hasten integration, that screening fuels systemic racism, and that all students benefit when schools are diverse.

The council members Broshi, Eric Goldberg, Emily Hellstrom, and Shino Tanikawa were co-sponsors of a resolution that advised an end to screening. Five other members voted the resolution down, citing their own beliefs and circumstantial evidence that a majority of parents favor screening.

Among the “no” voters was Thomas Wrocklage, the white man who would soon be embroiled in controversy. He said he favors other efforts to better integrate schools, but believes that screening should stay in place, because in classes that can exceed 30 kids, everyone learns better grouped with peers of similar ability. His own daughter applied to a “screen school” but wasn’t admitted, he said.

Several members of the anti-screening faction took exception to three things that Wrocklage did during the June 11 meeting: (1) Using a whiteboard, he noted that the four members who want to end screening all send their own kids to screened schools. (2) Three hours and eight minutes into the meeting, when another member characterized screening as “structural racism,” he rejected that characterization by flippantly interjecting, “My living room is integrated right now.” (3) About six minutes later, during an unrelated conversation among other council members about whether the NYPD or the Department of Education should employ school security, Wrocklage briefly held a Black baby on his lap, partly offscreen.

The baby, Jamir, is the nephew of Wrocklage’s close friend, Myesha Moore, who later explained in a YouTube video that their daughters are best friends, they are often in each other’s home, and she initially placed the child on Wrocklage’s lap in order to free up her hands. The baby’s appearance seemed unremarkable to me, especially with the Zoom screen split into 20 tiny squares, so that no one loomed large. See for yourself how unobtrusive the moment was.

But days after the meeting, an open letter signed by scores of parents was sent to Maud Maron, the council president. It began: “Under your leadership, at the June 11, 2020 Zoom meeting of Community Education Council 2 that you chaired, which included discussion of a resolution to eliminate discriminatory screens and counter the effects of 400 years of systemic racism, a CEC 2 member, a white man, displayed a black baby on his lap on camera on more than one occasion.”

The letter went on to characterize Wrocklage’s comment on integration (made several minutes before the child appeared in his lap) as “mocking,” and declared that he “used the black baby as a prop.” Wrocklage told me that he had made the integration comment out of frustration with “the absurdity of these people from their, you know, $2 million Manhattan condos not going outside, not visiting friends in the South Bronx like I do, telling me that I don't understand this screened-admission process” and treating him as though he’s “supporting white supremacy” with his position.

The letter characterized the lap incident as harmful: “Imagine the insult and emotional injury any thinking person, especially a person of color, suffered when they witnessed this scene and heard that comment,” it stated, calling them “shocking, disgusting, offensive, and racially incendiary.” It demanded that Wrocklage resign, claiming that allowing such incidents to continue without consequences “will only further empower the perpetuation of similar racist behaviors.” Maron, the council president, was warned, “If you continue to tolerate such behavior from council members, we deem you unfit to lead the CEC and demand that you resign immediately,” though censoring the speech of other elected members is not her prerogative.

Wrocklage, feeling that his actions were being misrepresented, asked to be formally investigated by the Department of Education, which wisely demurred. The vice president of the council, Edward Irizarry, wrote an official reply to the letter in Maron’s stead, stating, “The most egregious and hurtful claim in your letter is that a councilmember held his dear friend’s baby as a ‘prop.’ Although it was explained in detail that the councilmember was helping a longtime friend … you minimized the explanation and chose to continue unfounded attacks. You do not, and could not, have any idea of the genuine relationship between Tom and those present in his household.”

That should have put an end to the matter, but it didn’t.

Shino Tanikawa is a first-generation American who immigrated from Japan as a child in the 1970s. She began working on education issues more than a decade ago, when her daughter was in elementary school. About five years ago, after attending a workshop, she started familiarizing herself with “the work of anti-racism and the pedagogy of the oppressed,” she told me in a Zoom interview. “I realized how little I knew. And I was interested. So I started taking workshops from different organizations. I’ve been reading a lot of books on what anti-racism is, what racism is. It’s not like you get a degree that you completed this anti-racism work. It’s a lifelong journey.”

As an East Asian person, she said, “if you really are interested in creating an equitable system, the only place to be is to be on the side of Black and Latinx families.” She sees the desegregation of New York City schools as a push “to dismantle a system of oppression” and rejects the common argument that screen schools help poor Asian immigrants by offering them a meritocratic pathway out of poverty. “We are still supporting the system by buying into this narrative that, one, the Asians are the model minority and, two, that meritocracy exists,” she said.

Tanikawa felt compelled to write her own letter to Maron about the June 11 meeting. She decried “dysfunction and division” on the council, blaming a “lack of racial literacy” among members. Many “do not know the difference between non-racist and anti-racist,” she complained, “or institutional racism and interpersonal racism.” And they show “no awareness that there is such a thing as internalized racism.” Then she gave Maron an ultimatum:

“You offered to collaborate with me on drafting resolutions. I have no interest collaborating with you on policy positions until you exhibit your commitment to anti-racism work … I am committed to anti-racism work and will not compromise to create a resolution that makes you comfortable and I must protect myself from harm caused by Non-racists.”

Tanikawa concluded, “I see no peaceful or constructive path forward for our Council so long as you remain in the leadership position and are resistant to this work,” adding, “I am willing and ready to help you find a path to become anti-racist but I cannot make you want this. You have to do that part.”

Maron, a public defender with four kids in Manhattan public schools, was frustrated. While she disagrees with Tanikawa on the screening issue, she is also leading an effort to use grant money to better integrate schools, and the two women’s priorities and positions do overlap. Maron replied that the letter “makes plain that you are now using your political appointment to this council not to advocate for the families of this district, but rather to advance an ideological position.”

Maron rejected Tanikawa’s ultimatum and criticized her for threatening to withhold a constructive working relationship “until I, and others, adopt your belief system,” deeming the condition “inexcusable.” Neither council members nor public-school parents “owe fealty to your ideologies,” Maron wrote. She stated that, conversely, Tanikawa has a responsibility  “to listen to those who have different ideas and beliefs than you in a respectful and open-minded manner,” and “to withdraw your threats and affirm that you can work peacefully with the elected members of this council.”

I asked Tanikawa about the impasse. Trying to capture why she finds it difficult to work with Maron, she recalled a time when she believed that something was racist, and Maron disagreed, rather than deferring to her perspective. “She thinks she can deny my experience as a person of color, and I don’t want to spend a lot of one-on-one time with somebody who denies my reality,” she said, alleging a “seeming lack of acknowledgment that [Maron] has privilege” as the biggest hurdle. “Within the anti-racist sphere that I work in, we don’t always agree on the same policies. It’s not about disagreement over what to do or how to fix the problem. It’s really the fundamental understanding of the framework we want to operate in, which is the framework of anti-racism.”

When I asked how she and Maron might overcome that hurdle, Tanikawa said: “If I had an answer to that, I would be the happiest person on Earth. I have no clue. Because I know that Maud has taken these workshops, an all-day workshop with an organization called Center for Racial Justice in Education. She attended that six-hour training. This was maybe two years ago. And this executive superintendent from Manhattan hosted a two-day training last October, and she attended that as well. So clearly, attending workshops isn’t sufficient.”

All that conflict at the June 11 meeting and the open letters that followed led to the dysfunction during the June 29 council meeting that went viral.

Early in the June 29 meeting, Maron said, “We owe it to the families of this district to at least try to find ways to work more collaboratively and to respect the broad array of convictions and beliefs parents in this district have shared.” Those words rang hollow to Broshi, a white woman who has served on the council since 2014, including three years as its president, and has long felt a duty to desegregate schools and advocate for anti-racism. “I generally try to keep my advocacy focused on policy and not individual council members,” she later told me. But she spoke up at the meeting in question because she felt that community concerns hadn't been appropriately addressed.

“We had over 100 parents write you a letter explaining why a member of this council was extraordinarily offensive and racist,” she said to Maron. “And you did nothing. And I did nothing. I’m ashamed … I’m sorry, I made a mistake; I didn’t speak out verbally when multiple times during a meeting one of the members on our council engaged in behavior that made me ache and hurt for the nonwhite people that were logged in.”

That was an allusion to Babygate. Wrocklage burst in with frustration.

“Robin,” he said, “I would like to directly ask you a question. You alleged racist behavior. What exactly was that racist behavior about having my friend of five years over at my house in my living room with her daughter who is best friends with my daughter and her nephew? What is racist about that?”

Broshi stated, “Proximity to color does not mean you’re not racist,” adding, “Did you read Ibram Kendi? Did you read How to Be an Antiracist? All people are capable of racist behavior. We apologize when we offend people of color and they get upset and log out of a meeting immediately because they see white people exhibiting their power over people of color. How can I convince you if you won’t even read a book about white fragility or Ibram Kendi?” Shortly after, Broshi delivered her soon-to-be-viral monologue:

It hurts people when they see a white man bouncing a brown baby on their lap and they don’t know the context! That is harmful! That makes people cry. It makes people log out of our meetings. They don’t come here. They don’t come to our meetings. And they give me a hard time. Because I’m not vocal enough. And I’m not trying to be a martyr. I am trying to illustrate to you that you think I’m a social-justice warrior. And you think I’m being patronizing. And I’m getting pressure for not being enough of an advocate. I take that to heart. That hurts me. And I have to learn how to be a better white person. Read a book. Read Ibram Kendi. Read How to Talk to White People. It is not my job to educate you. You’re an educated white male. You can read a book. And you can learn about yourself.

If a member of a civic body expressed frustration that a colleague refused to read the Bible, the Quran, The Wealth of Nations, The Communist Manifesto, Atlas Shrugged, or Dianetics, and couldn’t understand an accusation until they did, most observers would see the problem. Drawing on outside concepts is fine. But if you can’t explain your position unless everyone reads your source material, then the fault lies with you. No one in a public meeting should have to read the books you consider important, much less accept that the ideas in those books are sacrosanct.

Emily Hellstrom, another council member who wants to end screening, criticized Wrocklage as well. “What you did, it was purposeful, it was knowing,” she said in the meeting that went viral. “The premeditated obnoxiousness you started off with, with the whiteboard … You had a smirk and a grin on your face when you pulled that child in, and … in a joking tone, you said, ‘My living room’s integrated right now,’ as if the hundreds of years of segregation were nothing, because you happened to have a Black friend. It was so belittling. It was so snide … Perhaps you didn’t intend it to be racist. And that does not matter. It was perceived as racist by many people … You need to look deep inside and say ‘I hurt a lot of people.’”

If Wrocklage hadn’t annoyed them with the whiteboard, made the flippant comment, and taken a position on the resolution that they see as racist, other council members may not have perceived the mere act of holding a baby in his lap as harmful.

Wrocklage retorted, “I was laughing at the absurdity of the cognitive dissonance of people like you who are telling people of color how they should feel.” As he sees it, integrated elementary schools and interracial friendships like his own are how desegregation starts. “I suggested that schools should be integrated during elementary school,” he reminded everyone. “We’re starting too late. I was not laughing at the thought of integration. I was laughing at the absurdity of your position.”

Another council member, Vincent Hom, who is Asian American, said: “I likewise did not understand what the racist behavior was that initiated all this … There was nothing I saw that was overtly racist … I would like to hear exactly what was racist about what happened, without having to read a book.”

Tanikawa responded that his confusion illustrates the need for anti-racism training. “All of us, including myself, don’t have the language to really talk about this in a way that’s constructive,” she said. “I have done my own work. And some of you have done work … but clearly we need more of it.” She told Maron, “I don’t see you doing the work,” explaining, “your actions have not shown to me that you understand what racism is at the structural and institutional level––which is fine because I don’t claim to understand it. I’m still learning.” If Tanikawa doesn’t believe she fully understands the nature of structural racism, then how can she be so confident that others don’t understand it, or that “work” will help them see the light? Turning back to Hom, she said, “Vincent, there’s no way around it, you have to read. If you’re not willing to read, then you’re not doing the work.”

For the record, I have read White Fragility and How to Be an Antiracist, and I don’t recall any passage in either text that clarifies why it would be racist for a white man to hold a Black baby in his lap. Tanikawa continued, “You can disagree with people. But this is not an ideological difference. This is how Black and Indigenous people and people of color see the world. It’s not for you and me, an East Asian, affluent person, to deny that reality, to deny what these people are telling us.” In fact, anti-racism as Tanikawa understands it is an ideology––it is “assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program”––and it is not “how Black and Indigenous people and people of color see the world,” as all those groups are ideologically diverse.

Consider Myesha Moore’s position. In the YouTube video telling her side of the story, she declares, “I feel like if you were in the living room with us that night, you would know that nothing wrong happened.” Everyone knows that “it takes a village to raise a child,” she says. “I just—not even asked—placed Jamir on his lap … there were even times when Jamir would motion or insinuate for Tom to pick him up.” She takes offense at board members who upbraided Wrocklage:

I don’t think there’s anything wrong that went on that night but the fact that middle-aged white women are telling me how to feel. I’m a strong Black woman. I’m a strong, Black young mother. I don’t need anyone to tell me how I feel. I wouldn’t let anyone disrespect my nephew … This is my friend. This is going to continue to be my friend. I’m just a little thrown back that people who are not even Black are telling me that he is offending. Who is he offending? Because there’s not one Black person on the board. So please realize you do not have to speak for me.

Irizarry, the council vice president and its only Latino member, later told the Atlantic contributor Yascha Mounk in a podcast interview that he, too, is frustrated by the faction that “insists others view the world as they do.” He doesn’t understand how their focus on introspection addresses the real problems that public schools face. “I am going to vote ‘no’ when I see all of these nonsensical diversity positions that lack substance, that are really cosmetic in nature,” he said. “Leadership is about building coalitions with people you disagree with … It’s not about showboating and white fragility and all this nonsense that doesn’t make a child learn.”

Imagine a large family, perhaps your own, undertaking a series of four-hour road trips every month in a 12-person van. Even if everyone loved one another unconditionally and had no argument about anything more consequential than where to stop for lunch, passengers would get on one another’s nerves. Small annoyances would build up over time until tiny transgressions touched off major rows. Being on a civic council is like that, except you don’t love the other people, the arguments are about the most intractable problems faced by your community, and everything is done in public.

Merely watching the council meetings, I grew frustrated when someone was grandstanding or droning on or oversensitive or needlessly combative. At times, Broshi was on the receiving end of antagonizing behavior rather than dishing it out. At times, Wrocklage antagonized others or presumed bad motives. I had to remind myself that no one is at their best in tedious meetings held remotely months into a global pandemic, and whatever their relatively minor imperfections, these people dutifully show up, far more than most, to do civic work. On substance, I remain undecided as to which faction has the better position on screening policy. Both sides aired concerns that seem reasonable and defensible to me.

But no civic council that meaningfully represents a diverse community will ever be unanimous in how it defines anti-racism, what that definition implies for policy making, any other notion of what is just or true, or the proper framework through which to decide. The self-identified “anti-racist” camp seems convinced only one way forward exists, and everyone must “train” to arrive at the same understanding of race in America. That’s a recipe for conflict.

“If we want better schools for all kids, if we are to work together for children, to remedy the disproportionate outcomes we see … we adults have to talk to each other about race,” a District 2 superintendent, Donalda Chumney, told council members at the end of the June 29 meeting. “We need to permit ourselves to be comfortable in the imperfection of this work. We cannot wait to talk until everybody knows the right words and has assessed the least terrifying public stances to take.” That’s right. In civic life generally, policing perceived microaggressions should never take priority over or distract from the shared project of improving policies and institutions. “I’m still learning how to have effective conversations about race in settings like this, where both or all parties do not share the perspective of the other,” she added. “We have to call each other into conversations, not push each other out … We need structures and protocols to do that.”

I’d offer one rule of thumb: Anti-racism is a contested concept that well-meaning people define and practice differently. Folks who have different ideas about how to combat racism should engage one another. They might even attempt a reciprocal book exchange, in which everyone works to understand how others see the world. A more inclusive anti-racist canon would include Bayard Rustin, Albert Murray, Henry Louis Gates, Zadie Smith, Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, Danielle Allen, Randall Kennedy, Stephen Carter, John McWhorter, Glenn Loury, Barbara and Karen Fields, Thomas Chatterton Williams, Adolph Reed, Kmele Foster, Coleman Hughes, and others.

As long as sharp disagreements persist about what causes racial inequality and how best to remedy it, deliberations rooted in the specific costs and benefits of discrete policies will provide a better foundation for actual progress than meta-arguments about what “anti-racism” demands.