Distilling “Anti-racist Arguments are Tearing People Apart” from The Atlantic
The drama at a series of NYC community education council meetings is grand theatre, and a testament to our current cultural zeitgeist
I literally- literally!- got a headache trying to follow the cast of characters in Conor Friedersdorf’s story Anti-racist Arguments Are Tearing People Apart in The Atlantic. Without sticky notes on my wall, pieces of yarn connecting them, and a tube of lipstick so I can write on my bedroom mirror, I cannot trace the drama unfolding at — wait for it — a series of NYC Community Education Council District 2 meetings. What a bizarre series of events, and what grand theatre.
What happened (I think)
In New York City, fourth graders must test in to middle school. This system separates kids with higher test scores from kids with lower test scores and groups higher-performing kids together. It also benefits kids of privilege: whites and East Asians with more money, more resources, and more parental involvement. Critics argue this system perpetuates structural racism, and that kids learn best when classes are a mix of everybody.
…but that’s just the backdrop. The real drama involves the members of the council.
The primary antagonists are Robin Broshi, a white woman who wants to end school screening, and Thomas Wrocklage, a white man who sees the benefits. Wrocklage made petty use of a whiteboard to attack Broshi and other adversaries on the school board. To Broshi, Wrocklage’s very stance was a defense of structural racism, whiteboard or not.
The only black person involved was Myesha Moore, a friend of Wrocklage who handed him her baby during a Zoom call so she could do other things. Broshi erupted into anger, saying the child was being used as a black prop in the white man’s lap, standing in juxtaposition to his racist beliefs. She declared it “harmful” and said it “makes people cry.”
The people “harmed” by Wrocklage’s actions wrote a letter to council president Maud Maron denouncing Wrocklage. Maron’s office returned a statement that said, in effect, Wrocklage held Moore’s baby at the request of Moore and that everybody needed to take a deep breath.
But wait! It gets better! Shino Tanikawa, another member of the board, wrote Maron a letter of her own. Tanikawa is a self-described student of anti-racism who engages in “the work of anti-racism and the pedagogy of the oppressed.” She decried the “lack of racial literacy” on the board, then told Maron she would not collaborate with her on policy positions until she exhibited commitment to anti-racism work. Tanikawa is baffled because Maron has had anti-racism training but does not “do the work” or demand the work be done by others.
Maron dismissed the sentiment as nonsense. The board, after all, had a job to do that required collaboration on issues, even in the face of different attitudes on race.
Non-racists and Anti-racists
A popular school of thought in the 2020 civil rights movement is that it isn’t good enough to be non-racist. People of power and privilege must be anti-racist activists, calling out all the racism they see and experience whenever it happens. Anti-racism is about “ doing the work” of dismantling racist systems — not simply being careful not to be racist.
For whatever anti-racism is, don’t call it an ideology. To those deep into “doing the work,” anti-racism is, as Tanikawa puts it in the article, “how Black and Indigenous people and people of color see the world.” To call it an ideology is to “deny that reality, to deny what these people are telling us.”
Friedersdorf pushes back on this definition, writing:
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.
Do the work
The school board conflict boiled over in a June 29 meeting, and for whatever the conflicts were on the surface (lap-babies and school screenings), the real tension was between those who were trained practitioners of anti-racism and had read Ibram X.Kendi and Robin Diangelo, and those who weren’t and hadn’t, or had and didn’t care.
To the anti-racist members, who were white and Asian, the non-racists, who were white and Asian and Latino, were heretics refusing to “do the work” and who needed to “educate themselves” — that is, train themselves and subscribe to anti-racist thinking before there could be any progress on any issues whatsoever. The anti-racists professed their beliefs with religious zeal, frustrated by the non-racists who would not convert — the same way a saved Baptist might find frustration in someone who has heard the good news of Jesus but failed to accept him as savior.
Groups have core ideologies commensurate with the group’s purpose— but should anti-racist ideology be a prerequisite before performing the mundane tasks of a school board?
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.
The work being done while other people “do the work”
How can a group move forward if work is at a standstill because of differing philosophical frames?
Two people stick out to me: Edward Irizarry, the council Vice President, and Donalda Chumney, district 2 superintendent.
Irizarry notes, “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.”
Suffice it to say, Irizarry is critical of anti-racism.
Chumney, however, is more of a consensus-builder. She says, “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.”
They both may be correct in different ways. It seems to me that people have forgotten how to act with each other to advance common interests. Sometimes it requires working with people with different and distasteful beliefs. Any functioning body — or functioning nation — must do this. America, which advertises itself to the world as a land of diverse people functioning together as one, loses credibility when it lapses into petty tribalism.
If this is how liberals act with one another, God forbid they ever have to work with Republicans.
Originally published at https://ctliotta.com on August 21, 2020.