10 Reader Views on the Varieties of Anti-racism

Plus: A case for schools as “a source of national pride”

children playing in a gym
Brian Shumway / Redux

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week I wrote, “A child born today will turn 18 in 2040. What attitudes and actions toward race and ethnicity would we adopt today if we had the best interests of that rising generation in mind?”

Bekke writes, “We just need to be kind to each other, and remember the Golden Rule, which is taught in many religions and societies: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Claire wants people to be judged based on the content of their character, not the color of their skin:

Matters of identity have no material relevance (other than the aesthetic texture of local details). One should learn to discriminate between: decency and cruelty, sublimity and vulgarity, liberty and oppression, and other relevant tensions. An individual’s work or action is simply to embrace Column A (decency; sublimity; liberty) and reject Column B (cruelty; vulgarity; oppression). However ostensibly well intentioned, those who traffic in racial tropes invariably veer into Column B (see especially: politicians). One’s moral clarity or individual talent cannot be accurately predicted by his skin tone, pocketbook conditions, whether one was born nearer to a palm tree or a glacier, or any similar detail.

Michele urges “a shift away from individual identity around race and ethnicity” toward “cultivating a common humanity that celebrates differences and varied excellence.” She expounds:

As my kids’ schools segregate classmates into “affinity groups” that force students to “pick their tribe” and separate from one another to “safely discover their inward identity,” I instead encouraged my children to look outward to cultivate their differences and recognize those wonderful bits of common humanity that help us connect with each other. In that process they learned to celebrate others’ differences with sincere appreciation and curiosity and to find ways to develop their own excellence without fear of not fitting in.

I am foreign-born and grew up with a foot in two very different cultures. I never aimed to “code switch.” I learned to not care so much about being different from my peers. That attitude served me well as I began to reach for achievements that made me stand out even more. I navigated against discrimination by being able to connect with the common humanity we are all able to find in each other, if we practice looking for it enough.

My upbringing shaped my parenting goals. Throughout the young lives of my boys, I pushed against the shallow “diversity, equity, and inclusion” programs that students marinate in to encourage my children to expect more of themselves than personal identity. My boys learned how to act and live to fearlessly pursue their own excellence and curiosity, and to constantly cultivate profound respect for a common humanity we all share, always discovering how varied and surprising such commonalities really are. My boys are young adults now. They truly stand out with these fine qualities. Thanks for the opportunity to share … busy living them, I had not spent time distilling these views before.

Two readers believe that ethnic and racial intermarriage is likely to result in progress. J. writes:

Be absolutely truthful. Tell youth that racism was not long ago an intractable problem. It began to ebb only after interracial marriage became common. This is because the most politically correct boss or neighbor can always be suspected of hiding their personal contempt for racial minorities. But people who marry lovers from minority groups are much more believable in their rejection of racism. Tell the youth of today to get behind interracial marriage. The surest way to get rid of racism is to get rid of races. That may be a problem for traditionalists, but it will be much better for generations of the future.

That viewpoint dovetails with Jerome’s experience:

“What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow” is good foundational advice. My recommendation to young people is to broaden their horizons and make an effort to acquire a diverse group of friends. Fifty years ago, I had the good fortune to marry a wonderful woman of a different race than mine. A subsequent generation has added even more racial and ethnic diversity to our family. Racial and ethnic antipathy are not an insuperable source of disagreement between people who truly care about one another. Within our family we live a post racial existence, no longer conscious of race among ourselves.

Jaleelah argues that “we shouldn’t raise children to immediately capitulate to any claims of offense,” as doing so allows others to weaponize concern for social justice in unreasonable ways.

She writes:

Take the issue of the Hong Kong protests. In 2020, the Students’ Society of McGill University released a statement expressing support for the pro-democracy protesters. A group of mainland Chinese students didn’t like this. They published a petition accusing the SSMU of causing “tremendous psychological distress” to Chinese [students].

Should we stop supporting democracy simply because someone claims it is traumatic to [members of] their ethnic group? Many progressives dismiss questions like this by claiming that very few marginalized people would take advantage of this benefit of the doubt. While I agree that most individuals who speak up about racism are truthful, it’s naive to assume that no one twists the truth. There are lots of conflicts between racial and ethnic minority groups. Some would jump at the chance to use social-justice ethos to turn Americans against their opponents. I’ve been called anti-Semitic for identifying myself as a Palestinian (on the grounds that the term is revisionist and “erases Jews”). If your reaction is “surely that never happened, because everyone is reasonable,” you have bought into a lie. There are unreasonable people, and they can cause great harm when people take their claims of offense as law.

Teresa wants to see better support for public education:

Several years ago my husband and I bought a house in an American city. Since that time, I’ve been astonished by how many people have told me, without me soliciting their opinion, how terrible the school district is; how we’ll probably change our minds and move once our kids start school (we did not even have kids at the time; we now have a 1-year-old); how we better get out if we want our kids to have a good future; and so on.

The city we live in is majority white. But the city school district is majority Black. And what I want to ask these people is, “Why should a school that isn’t good enough for your child be good enough for any child? If you believe that everyone deserves an equal shot in this country, shouldn’t that start as early as possible? Shouldn’t we be demanding that every school has ample resources to meet their students’ needs and offers opportunities so that all students can thrive?”

We should aim for our classrooms, and our nation’s ability to serve all children within their walls, to be a source of national pride, no matter the district. But we aren’t, and we don’t seem to want to, either. It’s almost tribal, the whole school-district thing, and it makes me feel icky. So that’s what I would change.

D.P.’s experiences as an immigrant inform his perspective:

I first arrived in California as a foreign student in late 1973, then became a refugee after the fall of Saigon, a permanent resident, and finally a citizen. At first I learned about the Asian American experience, then about other races, and finally about the immigrant experience of many white ethnics. I married late, so I have a 22-year-old and twin 18-year-olds.

I wish I could tell my children that we can optimistically look to a mixed-race future with a majority of American mestizos. That state of affairs would potentially be confusing, but the reality remains even more so. The vaunted future of “people of color” uniting to fight the “white” oppressors is an illusion pushed by self-appointed “leaders” who are, shall we say, in it for themselves. A century ago, the term white only included Anglos, and northern Europeans like the Dutch and Scandinavians. Later, it evolved to encompass Southern and Eastern Europeans, and now Iranians, Armenians, and Arabs. However, I doubt that the term white would ever include [Black Americans] or Asian Americans.

I think if there is a pause in immigration, this country will be able to better integrate newcomers. In the meantime, I caution young people not to make assumptions about what they see or think they see. Better to ask questions, and listen instead of thinking you have all the answers. Americans are notoriously unskilled when they discriminate—killing Sikhs because they wear turbans and “look like Arabs,” failing to distinguish between Pakistanis and Indians, mistaking Koreans for Japanese and Vietnamese for Chinese.

In the spirit of old American propaganda little observed in practice, we should celebrate differences as well as what unites us as Americans. We should try harder on both scores: learning about other cultures, and especially learning about the Constitution, the law, all those unique American concepts that kids are taught in high-school government class but don’t seem to retain. I would advise the young to embrace the Bill of Rights.

Alan describes and recommends his own attitudes toward identity, then explains why they are unlikely to be widely adopted:

I subscribe to the “Why Do I Care” philosophy. Why do I care if you’re Black, white, brown, yellow, purple, pink, or polka dot? Why do I care if you’re Catholic, Methodist, Muslim, Buddhist, agnostic, Baptist, Jewish, Romuvan, or atheist? Why do I care if you’re gay, straight, bi, trans? Republican or Democrat, American or Chinese, rich or poor, athletic or clumsy, it affects me not at all. I care how you treat me, how you treat others, how you impact the world. I don’t even care if your impact is neutral; as long as it's not negative, what do I care? I don’t even care if you’re an alien from another planet as long as your intent is not evil. It’s a largely selfish philosophy centered on how you impact me, which should make it quite amenable to the masses, though that is clearly not the case. And yet, were this to be fully realized, peace on earth might well reign.

Of course, such an attitude is antithetical to the functioning of the human brain. We are wired to see differences, largely because the portions of our brain that retain our animal beginnings see different as dangerous. The brain is a threat-detection machine built to maximize survival. If it is different and unfamiliar, initial processing returns a value of red, meaning danger. Additional instances of different things that are similar to other different things create a category (a feral cat sees a human and classifies it as dangerous; the next human is sufficiently similar to the first and so will be added to the category and judged as dangerous). A single negative interaction with an instance of a different thing will cause all instances of that category to be judged negatively (the feral cat is beaten by a human and thus sees all humans as dangerous). The initial judgment, particularly if reinforced even once through a negative interaction, remains until there is sufficient positive interaction to disprove it. Anchoring heuristic makes overcoming that initial judgment very difficult; the power of consciousness is not enough. It requires great effort to overcome such intrinsic, instinctual brain function. In today’s polarized world, that much more effort is needed to break out of the echo chambers so many of us live in.  While I believe that wide adoption of such an attitude would greatly benefit future generations, I’m not sure it’s a realistic option. But it helps me, so I cling to it.

Finally, Pierre agrees that humans evolved to be aware of difference and identifies as “post-racial,” an approach he describes as attuned to our evolutionary psychology and how to overcome it. He goes on to describe an ambitious program of anti-racist acculturation that is significantly different from what progressives who call themselves anti-racists tend to champion.

He writes:

[The year] 2040 is a good time frame because it invites creative thinking that might take an entire generation to accomplish. Americans have much to be hopeful for if we can define our future as a post-racial meritocracy—and focus on mindsets and actionables that fit that vision.

Post-racials are intellectually curious, proactive, and highly committed to further developing America as a post-racial meritocracy. We are highly attuned to what experts in cognitive science have learned about inborn “self-similarity preference” in infants. We are aware that our own behavior is not 100 percent under conscious control, and therefore that automaticities become an important part of the equation. Post-racials are self-aware and realistic (not romantic or ideological) about sources of racial bias—it is a matter of commitment to furthering a post-racial meritocracy that we first develop ourselves as post-racials. After that, it becomes a matter of how to raise our children for the future we want them to inhabit—to grow up to cooperate and compete in a meritocracy where immutable characteristics like race and ethnicity are largely inconsequential—and where a biologically based immutable like sex retains its distinctions (in dating, marriage, reproduction, child rearing, and kinship-system replication across generations) while otherwise affording maximal career freedom to men and women.

Babies are not born as tabula rasas. We come with a broad range of innate social instincts—not optimized for the 21st century but for survival in nomadic tribes of 20 to 300 individuals. Knowing what we know about DNA and genetics, why would you expect anything else? Tribal affiliation and loyalty posited great survival value 200,000 years ago when our current social instincts were being shaped … every human infant inherits that legacy “us vs. them” instinct and will live with it to varying degrees for their entire lives.

Cognitive scientists have established that three-month-old babies not only are aware of racial differences when placed in mixed company; they show preference for self-similar adults and children. Karen Wynn and Neha Majaran published these findings starting in the 1990s. While progressives rail against accepting this kind of science, post-racials welcome it as a concrete step on the path to enlightenment. It opens the door to actionables not yet attempted—relevant to raising post-racial children.

For example, if we assume that an infant’s racial bias at three months results from a combination of innate wiring and early imprinting, then we would explore having parents expose newborns to a post-racial social environment starting shortly after their baby has bonded with them. I call these occasions “post-racial imprinting parties,” festive events where adults of various racial backgrounds socialize in close quarters and have fun. The aim is for a baby to begin to discount the social significance or racial differences in appearance. Baby will still perceive those differences … that’s innate wiring—the goal is build trust rather than default-suspicion around those appearances.

As toddlers gain mobility and agency, post-racial parents are prepared for day-care situations as teaching moments. For example, child psychology shows that “us vs. them" bias tends to emerge strongest in situations of conflict (as is to be expected from interacting toddlers). Rather than taking a punitive approach, the parent lovingly coaches the child in private about impulses that arise during conflict that stiffen and alienate, and how to ignore such impulses while negotiating away conflict. The post-racial parent teaches their child what to expect in terms of socially unproductive impulses (e.g., dominance-submission ideation), and how to rechannel these impulses so that objectives can still be reached, perhaps more slowly, with comity and reciprocity. The parent teaches self-awareness gradually and supportively. The toddler is coached that there is no racial pecking order, and to never assume racial bias as the explanation for being thwarted (learning not to play the race card as a competitive tactic).

As children mature into taking on positions of leadership among other kids, yet more post-racial social skills need to be developed. Serving as a leader who can be attendant to merit and demerit while discounting racial/ethnic/gender cues is a learned skill. It requires practice. It requires a parent/coach to prepare the budding leader in advance for how to manage conflict and competition fairly, honestly previewing impulses toward bias that could spring forth from the ancient brain—and how to overcome them in the moment. It helps to learn how random choice can be used effectively (coin flipping, roshambo) to vanquish perceptions of racial bias. These youthful experiences prepare for later adulthood, and the diplomatic responsibilities of leading human groups away from conflict back toward harmony (or at least equitability).

There also needs to be much more clarity about early child development, preparation for parenting, family formation, and the need for fathers to imbue sons and daughters with a spirit of exploration and risk taking. We live in a competitive society. Those cognitive dispositions, formed starting early in life, are NOT optional for child raising. We must have a candid, non-defensive dialog about family structure and advantage conferred.  The rationalizations built up around single-mom households (and grandma-mom households) as being co-equal to nuclear families need to be dismantled. What’s best for children growing up to thrive in a competitive meritocracy needs to be paramount. The “comfort-seeking” needs of adults has taken on too much importance.

You’ll note that these post-racial development techniques are 100 percent free of the public shaming, denunciation, and groupthink methods that “woke” progressives are flirting with. To post-racials, good intentions are not enough. Results are what counts. And they need to be measured in terms of interracial goodwill, trust, working synergy, and interracial marriages. Yes, policies can be “color blind,” but, based on psychology research, the term doesn’t accurately describe humans and our inborn perception apparatus.

Building upon America’s mixed racial demographics, our Constitution’s promise of equal rights under the law—and our positive, good-natured, future-seeking mentality—the next step in perfecting a pure meritocracy is cerebral and individual, or at most accomplished through discreet nurturing and coaching of children. Absent some kind of forced integration of housing as exists in Singapore, the success path for post-racial America comes through enlightenment and self-awareness learning.  

Browbeating does not work.

The bias that remains to be overcome for the majority of Americans is latent bias, which springs forward from innate “us vs. them” automatic perceptions, fears, and uncalibrated responses in difficult situations. It also flows from the unconscious setting of lowered expectations, or as President George W. Bush eloquently quipped, “the soft bigotry” thereof.

Warping the definitions of merit and criminal offense with racial “compensations” to achieve racial parity will not work. Our high-tech society runs on merit and deterrence of criminality. To squander hard-earned, race-blind definitions of merit and demerit is a fool’s errand.  

It is going backward rather than forward.

Thank you for all of your emails, and I’ll see you on Wednesday.