The Racial Double Standard

Coleman Hughes, a black student at Columbia, goes there. His essay begins like this:

In the fall of 2016, I was hired to play in Rihanna’s back-up band at the MTV Video Music Awards. To my pleasant surprise, several of my friends had also gotten the call. We felt that this would be the gig of a lifetime: beautiful music, primetime TV, plus, if we were lucky, a chance to schmooze with celebrities backstage.

But as the date approached, I learned that one of my friends had been fired and replaced. The reason? He was a white Hispanic, and Rihanna’s artistic team had decided to go for an all-black aesthetic—aside from Rihanna’s steady guitarist, there would be no non-blacks on stage. Though I was disappointed on my friend’s behalf, I didn’t consider his firing as unjust at the time—and maybe it wasn’t. Is it unethical for an artist to curate the racial composition of a racially-themed performance? Perhaps; perhaps not. My personal bias leads me to favor artistic freedom, but as a society, we have yet to answer this question definitively.

One thing, however, is clear. If the races were reversed—if a black musician had been fired in order to achieve an all-white aesthetic—it would have made front page headlines. It would have been seen as an unambiguous moral infraction. The usual suspects would be outraged, calling for this event to be viewed in the context of the long history of slavery and Jim Crow in this country, and their reaction would widely be seen as justified. Public-shaming would be in order and heartfelt apologies would be made. MTV might even enact anti-bias trainings as a corrective.

Though the question seems naïve to some, it is in fact perfectly valid to ask why black people can get away with behavior that white people can’t. The progressive response to this question invariably contains some reference to history: blacks were taken from their homeland in chains, forced to work as chattel for 250 years, and then subjected to redlining, segregation, and lynchings for another century. In the face of such a brutal past, many would argue, it is simply ignorant to complain about what modern-day blacks can get away with.

Yet there we were—young black men born decades after anything that could rightly be called ‘oppression’ had ended—benefitting from a social license bequeathed to us by a history that we have only experienced through textbooks and folklore. And my white Hispanic friend (who could have had a tougher life than all of us, for all I know) paid the price. The underlying logic of using the past to justify racial double-standards in the present is rarely interrogated. What do slavery and Jim Crow have to do with modern-day blacks, who experienced neither? Do all black people have P.T.S.D from racism, as the Grammy and Emmy award-winning artist Donald Glover recently claimed? Is ancestral suffering actually transmitted to descendants? If so, how? What exactly are historical ‘ties’ made of?

Hughes goes on to lament the double standard the public applies to famous black writers. For example:

The celebrated journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates provides another example of the lower ethical standard to which black writers are held. In his #1 New York Times bestseller, Between the World and Me, Coates explained that the policemen and firemen who died on 9/11 “were not human to me,” but “menaces of nature.”1 This, it turned out, was because a friend of Coates had been killed by a black cop a few months earlier. In his recent essay collection, he doubled down on this pitiless sentiment: “When 9/11 happened, I wanted nothing to do with any kind of patriotism, with the broad national ceremony of mourning. I had no sympathy for the firefighters, and something bordering on hatred for the police officers who had died.”2 Meanwhile, New York Times columnist Bari Weiss—a young Jewish woman—was recently raked over the coals for tweeting, “Immigrants: They get the job done,” in praise of the Olympic ice-skater Mirai Nagasu, a second-generation Japanese-American. Accused of ‘othering’ an American citizen, Weiss came under so much fire that The Atlantic ran twoseparate pieces defending her. That The Atlantic saw it necessary to vigorously defend Weiss, but hasn’t had to lift a finger to defend Coates, whom they employ, evidences the racial double-standard at play. From a white writer, an innocuous tweet provokes histrionic invective. From a black writer, repeated expressions of unapologetic contempt for public servants who died trying to save the lives of others on September 11 are met with fawningpraise from leftwing periodicals, plus a National Book Award and a MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant.

Hughes says this double standard is common in society:

But we make an exception for blacks. Indeed, what George Orwell wrote in 1945seems more apt today: “Almost any English intellectual would be scandalised by the claim that the white races are superior to the coloured, whereas the opposite claim would seem to him unexceptionable even if he disagreed with it.” Only a black intellectual, for instance, could write an op-ed arguing that black children should not befriend white children because “[h]istory has provided little reason for people of color to trust white people,” and get it published in the New York Times in 2017. An identical piece with the races reversed would rightly be relegated to fringe white supremacist forums. In defense of such racist drivel, it won’t suffice to repeat the platitude that ‘black people can’t be racist,’ as if redefining a word changes the ethical status of the thing that the word signifies. Progressives ought not dodge the question: Why are blacks the only ethnic group routinely and openly encouraged to nurse stale grievances back to life?

Read the whole thing. It’s very, very brave. Hughes is a black undergraduate at an Ivy League university, yet he has no been afraid to say what has been unsayable. That man has guts.

By the way, his essay is not merely an exercise in whataboutism. He addresses real philosophical and moral concerns in it. He focuses on blacks, but as a general matter, if you read the mainstream press, you’ll find there’s a tendency to treat gays and other minority groups favored by liberals with kid gloves — as if they were symbols, not real people, with the same virtues and vices that everybody else has. For example, in a previous job, I observed that some liberals in the newsroom viewed local Muslims through the lens of the culture war between liberals and conservatives, and did not want to hold them to the same standard with regard to extremist rhetoric, apparently because doing so might encourage conservatives in their own biases.

Another personal example: last year, I wrote several posts about Tommy Curry, a radical black nationalist who teaches philosophy at Texas A&M (see here and here). In his written work and spoken advocacy, Curry advocates what can only be described as anti-white hatred. Don’t take my word for it; go read the blogs I wrote, which quote generously from, and link to, Curry’s own work. A white man who spoke the same way about any racial minority would never have been hired by a university — A&M hired him knowing exactly what they were getting, because he had published — and would never be retained by one after his racism became known. I linked in one of the blogs to a podcast (subtitled, “White People Are The Problem”) on which Curry was a regular guest; on that particular episode, this philosophy professor argued that white people cannot be reasonable, because they are white.

Imagine being a white student in that man’s class.

But there is a different standard for bigots from the left. The Chronicle of Higher Education wrote a long piece about the fallout from my blogs, and positioned it as Curry having suffered because he wanted to “force a conversation about race and violence” — a conversation that people didn’t want to hear. The writer — no doubt reflecting the biases of his own professional class — could not seem to grasp why people would be really offended by the unapologetic racism of Tommy Curry’s writing and speaking. This is precisely the double standard that Coleman Hughes decries. It is lucrative for radicals like Curry, Coates, and others, but a just society should hold us all to the same standard of discourse and morality. This is one aspect of the Enlightenment that I am eager to defend. It’s not only morally right, but practically, observing it it is the only way we will be able to keep the peace in a pluralistic country.

I found Hughes’s essay via Prufrock, a free daily digest that comes to you in e-mail, to which you can and should subscribe by clicking here. 

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Recently I read an “anti-Zionist” Internet rant posted by a person who questioned the historical accuracy of the well-known and heavily documented fact that many millions of Jewish people were genocidally murdered by the German Nazi Third Reich.

The rant-maker was on solid empirical and moral ground in denouncing the despicable behavior of the United States-backed Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) towards Palestinian people in the Israeli-Occupied Territories and particularly in Gaza. Israel’s abuse of the Palestinians – recently including the open sniper-slaughter of unarmed protesters on Israel-Gaza border – is one of the most egregious human rights atrocities of our time. It’s hard to fathom the murderous immorality of how Israel molests the people trapped in the open-air prison that is Gaza and how Israel mistreats the Palestinians more broadly.

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Nanny-State Journalists

The editorial board of the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper is so angry at a social media video of a white high school kid saying obnoxious racist things that it wants the state to intervene:

In the case of the most recent video, the school system is claiming there is “little” it can do, given that the incident happened off campus and not during school hours.

Our question: Is that really the case? Is the school system claiming it has virtually no power over non-criminal behavior of its students off campus?

That may be the district’s current policy, but we’re not so sure it should be.

The person allegedly shown in the video reportedly plays on a Chiles athletic team. Are we really saying that he is supposed to waltz into practice – perhaps with African American teammates – as if nothing happened?

This isn’t how it works in the real world. If a staff member of this newspaper was videoed doing these things, he would immediately face termination, whether “on the clock,” “on the premises” or not.

Should a student be treated differently? Perhaps. But it’s worth discussion.

No, it’s not.

For one, there’s a significant legal difference between a private business and a public school.

For another, public schools around the country are struggling over what degree of discipline (including expulsion) to apply to students who misbehave in school itself (see here, for example). Why on earth would the editorial board want to add to the schools’ burden by making them responsible for disciplining kids outside of the school’s custody, off school grounds?

Third, it would probably be unconstitutional. According to the ACLU:

In the landmark Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District (1969), the ACLU successfully challenged a school district’s decision to suspend three students for wearing armbands in protest of the Vietnam War. The court declared that students and teachers do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

The First Amendment ensures that students cannot be punished for exercising free speech rights, even if school administrators don’t approve of what they are saying.

And that’s on school grounds. How much greater is the liberty for students to say obnoxious things when they are off school grounds?

Fourth, if the schools were somehow to be empowered to discipline students for activity outside of school, where would it stop? What guidelines would the schools use? This would be ripe for abuse by administrators. We can all agree that some redneck clod riding around talking about shooting black people with a BB gun and using racist slurs crosses an important line. But where should the other lines be drawn? One kid’s free exercise of religious speech is another kid’s idea of bigotry. If a kid attends the Westboro Baptist Church on the weekend, and participates in its protests, and that fact comes to the attention of his school principal, should that be a cause for discipline? What is he is a black Muslim and follower of the anti-white, anti-Semitic Louis Farrakhan, and participates in public advocacy for Farrakhan’s cause? Should that kid be punished for that?

Is this really what the Tallahassee Democrat wants to see debated?

It is really depressing when journalists, the kind of people who ought to be defending the First Amendment and the protection it gives even to repulsive speech, instead urge the state (in this case, the public school system) to consider punishing students who exercise that speech in ways of which the journalists strongly — and in this case, correctly — disapprove.

The reader who sent this editorial to me comments:

The high school in question is in an affluent area, and their students are known around town for having high rates of drug and alcohol use. Evidence of this is certainly available on students’ social media, but there isn’t any push for punishing them or their parents for this illegal activity that takes place off school grounds and outside school hours. If public schools are going to punish students for unacceptable behavior, who gets to define what it is?

And what does “rooted out” mean? Suspension? Expulsion? There are plenty of disruptions that occur on school buses and during the school day that don’t result in severe enough penalties to prevent them from happening over and over again. But this admittedly reprehensible conduct completely outside the school environment means the schools have “work to do”? Don’t they have enough dealing with the problems in school during the school day? In just the last few weeks I’ve heard of a suicide attempt and incidents of theft at “nice” public middle schools, and a fistfight breaking out between girls in the middle of class in another well-regarded public high school.

Finally, as anyone who has ever raised a teenager knows, they will do things their parents raised them specifically not to do. For all the paper knows, this child’s parents abhor his behavior — but the newspaper’s superior morality is sufficient to condemn them without, as they admit, knowing what goes on their home. The only thing my 13-year-old and I agreed on this whole week was what horrible ideas these are!

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