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Can We Unlearn Race?

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Does true individualism mean post-racialism?

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This three-part series on race and the right began with a look at some truly telling statistics about how badly American conservatives are doing at taking on racial issues. Politically, 85% of Republican voters are white—the most racially homogeneous the party’s been since 2016 and the rise of Donald Trump. When race is paired with religion, the numbers still tell an overwhelmingly one-sided story: white Protestants consistently dwarf every other racial and religious demographic in the GOP electorate. It’s confirmation of a political rule of thumb: almost 60 years after the Civil Rights Act, conservatives and racial issues are oil and water—unmixable and with a highly flammable element.

And yet racial issues don’t disappear from the news cycle. Halfway through my researching this issue, the Supreme Court’s decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard struck down race-based affirmative action in college admissions, reigniting a whole slew of debates about nonwhite students’ academic preparedness and the obstacles students of color do and don’t face in pursuing academic excellence. And yet these debates aren’t nearly as partisanly divided as you might think: a recent poll found that only 40% of Republicans and 23% of Democrats are “satisfied with the state of race relations.” It’s one of the lowest partisan gaps in current issue polling—no one’s happy about how we’re doing on race.

This shared discomfort, along with flashpoints like the overturning of affirmative action, have pushed the discussion over what’s often called colorblindness back into the national conversation—but are we even using the right term? Are we really trying not to see race, a turn of phrase presupposing the existence of race as something real, or at the very least a critical factor in the pursuit of happiness? Furthermore, as I’ve written at National Review, “For many who buy into anti-racist premises or those undecided on the race debate, colorblindness carries a perception of idealism and of disconnectedness to reality. The conservative outlook on race is anything but.”

I’d argue that the post–affirmative action world is offering us a hint of something far more radical: a post-racial society, where race is no longer treated as a material variable under law, with the ultimate goal being to achieve the same in the broader culture. Perhaps what conservatives need to be focusing on is not some bizarre (and given conservative history, likely to fail) strategy to incorporate racial pride into conservatism, but the far more difficult path of unlearning race entirely.

Days after the court’s decision on affirmative action, I sat down with economist and author Glenn Loury of Brown University to explore the question of post-racialism. In 1982, Loury became the first black tenured economist at Harvard and since then has published many works on race in America, including The Anatomy of Racial Inequality and Race, Incarceration, and American Values.

We began our conversation discussing how the death of affirmative action fits into America’s larger narrative on race. “People said there was going to be a racial reckoning after George Floyd. The real reckoning on race is this affirmative action case,” says Loury, further noting how he believes the current cultural obsession with “anti-racist” literature was epitomized in the differing focuses of the court’s current black justices, with a searing assessment of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. “Biden picked a lesser black woman for this post. She is a pedestrian and moderately qualified judge who happened to be the right demographic. Thomas is citing Montesquieu and the Founders, and KBJ is citing Ta-Nehisi Coates! This is the Constitution of the United States of America—it’s a sophomoric showing.”

When it comes to Loury’s assessment of the black community in general, and buoyed by his uncanny ability to speak in what feels like completely structured, unbroken paragraphs, he minces no words. “I have an analysis, and it’s not pretty,” he warns. “America has delivered, from Emancipation through Civil Rights through the Great Society. Blacks are full citizens of the greatest society in the world. The Christian and capitalist society has advanced black people—we’re heirs to that. We gotta man-up and woman-up. It’s a kind of spiritual crisis—it goes right to the core of the existential challenge. This narrative of victimization, from the 1619 Project to the critical studies movement to the reparations thing, through the Kendis and the corporate grift, it’s all smoke and mirrors.”

For Loury, the story of race is no longer one of obstacles but of agency. “The problem confronting black Americans is not oppression—it’s freedom. They’re gonna be patted on the head and patronized and managed while the 21st century roars ahead. The vigor of human technology is apace. These people who are making excuses for thugs and bellyaching why they can’t pass a test and pulling it all down are going to the dustbin of history. The challenge of the 21st century is overwhelming, and some of them would rather live in the 19th century.”

And yet the subject of post-racialism brings up issues I hadn’t anticipated. “Post-racialism asks for a lot more than colorblindness,” Loury states. “It’s not about merely discrimination; it’s about melting down the barriers completely. Let’s call the whole thing off. I’m OK with that—it’s way better than the race-mongering police. But I’m also proud to be an African American,” he notes. “I’m a black American. If I say “my people,” I’m probably talking about black people. Maybe I should outgrow that,” he says and laughs.

Loury has a message about agency for those who’ve bought into the doctrines of modern anti-racism: get yourself together, take responsibility, refuse to see yourself as a victim—the kinds of things seemingly more hopeful than an endless hamster wheel of activism and sign-carrying at a thousand marches. But agency means more than inspiration and resolve: it means giving people tools so that they can get themselves together.

Ian Rowe knows a thing or two about agency—it’s the title of his latest book and a key part of his life’s mission to help American children overcome a narrative of victimhood. Just days after the fall of affirmative action, I talked with Rowe about his outlook on individual responsibility, the race debate, and whether the future truly can be post-racial.

“Speaking into the race debate as a conservative brings with it a host of side issues,” says Rowe. “You get the accusation of denying systemic racism, or not acknowledging the institutional barriers that exist. Almost everything comes back to the system, the system is the real problem,” he notes. “When I talk about the importance of family or school choice or faith structure, some progressive people see those as avoidance of the real issues or blaming the victim: ‘If you talk about family, you’re blaming black single moms.’ Even with this new affirmative action, people are like ‘no black person will ever get into college again.’ It’s an insidious thing.”

Although our conversation is taking place in Rowe’s office at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., he’s no ivory tower intellectual. He’s been running schools in the Bronx for 30 years—experience that makes it much harder for critics to dismiss him as merely some right-wing hack and that gives him an on-the-ground perspective on the struggles of Americans of color. “Which is the bigger issue: affirmative action or the fact that less than 20% of black students are reading at grade level? The issue is not affirmative action at Harvard; it’s that these students are coming out of [K–12] schools that are woefully underprepared to serve them.”

To Rowe, the victims of modern anti-racism narratives aren’t merely impressionable college students but children from underprivileged backgrounds. “I’m calling for agency—I don’t want kids to grow up feeling that ‘without affirmative action, I can’t succeed.’” The keyword, again, is agency, which he defines as “the fight for self-sufficiency.” And yet he’s honest about the pushback he gets from the right. “There’s normally a hesitancy to even acknowledge the disparities. It’s good to acknowledge the disparities and then offer solutions that aren’t ‘systemic racism.’ To the degree that conservatives are looking for a way in on these conversations, we need an empowering narrative. It’s not enough to complain about CRT or anti-racism—we need an alternative.”

Rowe’s alternative is Vertex Partnership Academies, a network of charter schools in the Bronx that kicked off in 2022. It’s an initiative to fill a truly massive need: 25,000 families apply for the 9,000 seats available in Bronx charter schools. “We need to build institutions that mirror the values we talk about,” Rowe maintains. “That’s why I build schools where kids can go to college or trade school or an apprenticeship. The more we’re authentically engaged in this work to build things for low-income kids, the better.”

Is fighting poverty and creating generational education cycles a way to carve a chunk out of American racism? Rowe’s putting his money where his mouth is, and his recent book lays out what he calls the F.R.E.E. framework: Family, Religion, Education, and Entrepreneurship, a success sequence for young people to embrace their ability to be self-starters as opposed to relying on system- or victim-blaming.

It sounds good, but social scientists, Loury included, voice their fair share of skepticism. “I’m not against the success sequence,” Loury says. “But there’s a causality that hasn’t been demonstrated. If you graduate high school, get a job, get married, and have a kid in that order, you probably won’t be poor. But to a kid in a housing project, if you say that and then say ‘They won’t be poor’… some of these kids are f*cked up. Some people don’t want to marry them because they’re not worth being in a relationship with. The people who get married are successful. You take a f*ckup and get him married, he’s still a f*ckup. The policy sequence has not been demonstrated. They may be doing well because they’re the kind of people who’d do the sequence anyways.”

It’s fairly easy, particularly as a naive 21-year-old nonwhite conservative, to say that we shouldn’t think about race but should instead focus on issues like poverty. But research indicates that it may not be that simple: poverty still intersectswith race, and healing racial divisions is not a simple fix in a country where no more than two-fifths of Americans of any political stripe are satisfied with race relations. Maybe America isn’t ready for post-racialism in 2023. But isn’t it worth striving for, even as the byproduct of a life lived with agency?

“The reason to live decently is its own reward,” Loury admonished. “You don’t do [the success sequence] to just have a job or not be poor. That’s utilitarian. The motive is transcendent.” This theme of the independent value of the good life is one that was emphasized throughout the two months I spent talking to people on this issue. For Ian Rowe, it’s simply logical: If, as some anti-racist advocates argue, higher ed and the organs of society are slanted against black Americans, why even participate in that society? “Putting your destiny in the hands of someone who hates you doesn’t sound like a good strategy,” he asserts—it’s back to that pesky agency thing. For someone like Ismael Hernandez, the commonality training advocate, it’s about building a society where we can care about things other than race: “We are trying to build a space where racism is impossible.”

Researching American racism involves listening to many painful stories, fielding many profoundly hopeless ideas, and walking away with very few easy answers. But maybe that’s not the right thing to look for: post-racialism isn’t natural—it’s as unnatural as democracy or capitalism or any of the other systems that don’t cede dominance to the strong, cunning, and brutal by default.

Unlearning race doesn’t mean that we ignore prejudice where it exists, and perhaps to some that’s an intersectional point—seeing the intersections of lived experience with someone’s social status and cultural backgrounds. But it’s also a deeply human point, at least for a philosophy that’s rooted in a doctrine of inalienable human dignity. Maybe asking people to unlearn race is a quest to undermine the oldest of human instincts—to distinguish an “us” versus a “them.” It’s an aspiration but a deeply conservative aspiration: true individualism, the ability to stop seeing people as representative of/responsible for any category that isn’t completely their own.

Isaac Willour

Isaac Willour is a journalist currently reporting on American politics and higher education. His work has been published in a plethora of outlets, including the Christian Post, The Dispatch, the Wall Street Journal, and National Review, as well as interviews for New York Times Opinion and the American Enterprise Institute. He studies political science at Grove City College. He can be found on Twitter @IsaacWillour.