Where Does Racism Come From? A Response to Michael Huemer

By Kevin Currie-Knight

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Philosopher Michael Huemer thinks we should stop talking to kids about race so much, at least in their social studies classes at school. In a recent piece for the Fake Nous, he argues that if racism is at all evident in today’s culture, it probably has to do with the fact that we learn about it so much in our schools and hear so much about it in our media. If we took it down a notch, Huemer says, that alone may go a long way toward solving the problem of societal racism.

I think his piece is somewhat right and mostly wrong. I’ll go over the “somewhat right” part first. I agree with Huemer that when emphasizing the role racism has played in American history, there is a risk that this will get people race conscious in ways that are counterproductive. “Look how bad white people treated my ancestors!” “Look at how badly ‘we’ treated black people. I should pity them more.”

The rest of his argument is simply wrong. To go back to what he got partly right, that teaching about the history of racism might inadvertently increase racist sentiments, this is just one of many possibilities of teaching that history. It could also – depending on how it is taught – be used to inspire collective social change. It could also be taught in a way that makes clear how bad an idea this race thing was to begin with. There are a lot of possible results of such a curriculum, and Huemer needs to explain why he focuses on just one of them.

Okay, wait; he sort of does. But even here, he gets it wrong. He suspects that teaching the history of racism stokes racism, because he is concerned about where racism comes from. And he suggests that current racism comes from talking (in schools and elsewhere) too much about racism. He points to scenarios in which focus on a thing increases the future likelihood that we will continue to focus on it. When we hear about celebrities committing suicides, suicides go up. (We’ll have to take his word for it, as no corroboration is provided, and my brief attempt produced a single study from 1974).

These examples are flawed when we try to compare them to racism, because Huemer’s assumption is that the thing in question was hardly (if at all) entertained before we began thinking about it. Huemer thinks this of race. Don’t mention it, and no one thinks about it. “Kids of different races, if put together, have no trouble right away playing with each other, without any suspicion on account of their different skin colors. Kids instinctively pick on ‘nerdy’ or ‘gay’ kids, but it doesn’t occur to them to pick on kids with a particular skin color.”

Here is the core of Huemer’s argument, and it is wrong. At the anecdotal level, we can just ask my Sophia discussion partner Sheena Mason to recount her experience as a black girl living in a white town, where it didn’t take kids terribly long to start teasing her for having “pubic hair” on her head. I’d ask Huemer to read or watch (you can find them on YouTube) stories about people from “transracial families” (where a family raises a kid of a different racialization, often through adoption), where they recount how early and often they had to be race conscious because of their surroundings. (A helpful one for me was Surviving the White Gaze by Rebecca Carroll.)

We need not resort to anecdote, however, because an increasing amount of data also demonstrates that Huemer is wrong. When I grew up in the 1980’s and 90’s, we all took Huemer’s point for granted: kids won’t see race (as significant) if adults don’t talk about it. Subsequent decades have produced research putting that into doubt. Kids, it seems, notice and ascribe significance to race just by existing in cultures that are partly organized along racial lines. No (school) teachers necessary.

If we go back to Huemer’s analogies – all fictional and speculative – we can spot why the analogy is bad. It’s all about how something that isn’t in our focus (suicide, say) gets put into our focus (by stories about celebrities committing suicide). The assumption is that race isn’t on our minds unless it is specifically addressed. In a social world that has been shaped by past racism and present belief in race, this is just implausible. To navigate that world is to encounter race on various levels.

Before moving on, let’s look at another point Huemer makes in his piece. If teaching about racism, in his view, causes racism, then should we just not teach about it? Huemer stops short of that, but only a bit. “Of course, I’m not suggesting that we teach no history, nor that we actively hide or lie about unpleasant aspects of it. But I am suggesting that we put a lot less emphasis on the history of racial tensions. “

If there are any social studies teachers reading this, I apologize for having to repeat such a strange statement. Huemer must not be very aware of how deeply embedded into American history racial subordination is. I’ll just quote Karen and Barbara Fields (a sociologist and historian respectively) on the issue of attempting to teach early American history without putting race-based slavery at its center:


In the teaching of American history, perhaps the most difficult lesson to convey is that slavery once held the entire country in its grip. It was not just the business of enslaved black people, slaveholders, or the South. Slavery engaged an immense geography of connected activities that no Americans could escape, whoever they were and wherever they lived. What is more, slavery does not belong only to America’s past, but is the heritage of all Americans alive today, including those of recent vintage.

Even if we could plausibly do what Huemer suggests, my contention is still that America has been so shaped by race and racism that kids would still notice it, whether it is “de-emphasized” in schools or not. Let me offer my own situation as an example. I live in Greenville, North Carolina, and like most cities, we are geographically segregated; there are black areas of town, and there are white areas, with some but not terribly significant overlap. My son, now 6, lived the first four years of his life seeing black people as the people who live over there and who only appeared in grocery store clerks and other equally unflattering places. [1]

Why is Greenville, like other cities, so segregated (and why are the areas where non-white people live generally the less monied-looking places)? History, and not the accidental kind. Legal, financial, and cultural means have all conspired over many generations to create a present that is much more residentially segregated than it would have been without these structures, structures all based on racism.

Kids today live in a world that is quite saturated by the effects of racism and a belief in race. Even the most integrated areas pressure us all to identify by race on various forms, use racial identifiers as if they mean something (because at present, they do), and inform at least some of the ways we organize our lives.

Huemer employs several fictional examples in his argument, so we can imagine another. Let’s take his advice and go farther. Let’s stop teaching anything about race in schools. The catch, though, is that we do not change anything else about the (US) culture we live in, not the way we talk, not where we live, etc. If Huemer’s right, kids just won’t notice race much. They won’t notice that the black kids live here while the white kids live there, will be oblivious to every use of “black” or “white” as a racial descriptor and never wonder why they have significance, will not notice the difference in reaction to black and white Ariel, in different versions of Little Mermaid, will never wonder why all the black haircare products are in the “ethnic” section, and obviously, will never hear comedians evoke laughs with jokes that play on racial stereotypes.

You’re right to think this sounds implausible. And it brings me to my final point against Huemer. He is convinced that teaching about racism in schools isn’t “really motivated by a desire to benefit students or society. What I think is that it’s motivated by a desire to ideologically indoctrinate kids. Teachers who hate their own society are trying to make students hate that society too.” It is surely possible that some teachers who teach about racism do it to take the US down a peg in students’ minds. But it is also possible that they do it for the same reason we do sex education: kids figure out about sex (and race) even when we don’t want them to, and when they do, it is better to give them tools that help them make sense out of it all.

Notes

[1] When our son was 4, we began fostering and have since adopted a black daughter, putting us into the category I mentioned above of “transracial family.” Researching and reflecting along this journey (reading and talking to social workers about transracial families) has especially made me more sensitive to how Huemer is wrong in supposing that children don’t notice race. If anything, I wonder if more white children don’t notice race (or white people don’t notice others noticing race) because they tend to be the ones who least have to.

Comments

26 responses to “Where Does Racism Come From? A Response to Michael Huemer”

  1. lcuddy12

    I only read your article and not Huemer’s, but the following would support his contention you mention in the last paragraph about teachers’ motivations not being pure. To my knowledge, most curricula that teach about race in all the ways relevant to your points typically focus on American slavery (the Atlantic slave trade); and also, the way race is taught is often reductive and is grounded in a black/white dichotomy.

    If the folks introducing these curricula were honest brokers, motivated by a desire to inform, you would expect, to take one example, the Arab slave trade to be discussed in comparison with the Atlantic slave trade so that the different forms systemic racism has taken in different parts of the world could be evaluated and the phenomenon could be understood more broadly (such as in Sudan, where slave traders are still glorified and Black people are commonly called “slave” in Arabic in widely circulated publications: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-53147864).

    Were the motivations pure, we would also expect the push for discussions on race to be more broad and to NOT be a near perfect reflection of democratic elite moral convictions on the topic. Asian American scholars, for example, have sometimes explicitly claimed that the black/white, either/or dichotomy which dominates discussions of race in America doesn’t give validity to their experiences. Just off the top of my head, Wesley Yang and Jay Caspian Kang have written about this, and perhaps also Francis Fukuyama if I remember right.

  2. Bob

    What utter garbage. The reason American children are taught about the Atlantic slave trade is because it is an integral part of American history. There is no ‘pure’ subject called Slavery that gets taught.

    And of course your obsession with purity goes the other way too, right? When people point out what horrible things other countries and cultures have done, you quickly point out that the US has done them too?

  3. Bob

    I must say, I quite enjoyed this. I took a look a Huemer’s article expecting it to be a deliberately provocative piece, and was shocked to see it was such a steaming pile of simplistic garbage. Strange to think that the guy is an accredited academic.

  4. I’ve always thought Huemer a hack. Never understood the fuss about him.

  5. I was going to say something a bit similar to what Bob said. That the Arab slave trade existed and that the US wasn’t unique in practicing slavery isn’t much relevant to US history. And by the way, I have read a lot in the “critical race theory” and “1619 project” spaces and I have yet to hear any of them make the claim that the US invented slavery or was unique in practicing it. The claim, instead, is that (a) the US practiced a unique race-based form of slavery that hadn’t existed before (where one race is said to be innately inferior because of their inherent racial character, and that this merits servitude); and (b) that the US was explicitly founded on ideals that are simply incompatible with the idea of slavery, hence a very open contradiction from the start.

    “the way race is taught is often reductive and is grounded in a black/white dichotomy.”

    And from the US perspective – how race has worked here – that is mostly accurate. The exception was not that there were other races outside of black and white (non-whites simply were black), but that there were often several postulated white races that were supposedly distinct (e.g. Grant’s Nordic, Alpine, and Medeterranean tier).

  6. I think “the fuss” is a combination of his libertarianism (which is edgy in the academy and wins lots of libertarian fans outside the academy) and the easy appeal of his intuitionism. I dislike Huemer’s intuitionism for many reasons: he supposes that intuitions are naturally occurring human things that aren’t relative to context and situation, he underestimates how intuitions can be conditioned, and the fact that ‘intuition is at the root of moral understanding’ simply doesn’t mean that it is thereby any pipeline to moral truth. But I do understand – though I don’t like – the appeal of a philosophy that says we can and should answer moral questions by feeling our feelings and seeing them as decisive.

  7. Thanks, Bob. The thing I was honestly a bit amazed at is how little – really no – research Huemer did. All his examples are either fictitious, or as with the celebrity suicide example, just uncorroborated. In the celeb suicide claim, as in the article’s core claim, the simplest bit of research for empirical support would have quickly shown him that his argument is just not factually correct.

    I have no doubt that antiracism instruction (etc) can be done really poorly in a way that can produce the very racial animus one is warning against. And I have no doubt that there really are some ‘bad actor’ teachers out there doing this to rage at America. But that doesn’t mean a full-frontal attack on antiracism and related teachings. One can throw out the bathwater only. Or at least try to.

  8. Terranbiped

    Dare I say it’s obvious where you are coming from? America wasn’t and still isn’t so bad compared to them Sudanese. And just look how the Chinese were treated in Uganda. So, no reason to fuss, let’s move on and go about our business, there’s always a useful yardstick to obviate our shortcomings.

  9. Bob

    Out of curiosity I checked out some of his other articles. Hack strikes me as a nice way to put. Everything seems to have a certain simplistic, ideological sheen to it that I find a bit silly and vapid.

  10. lcuddy12

    Well, certainly touched a nerve, didn’t I? My reply above was, as I noted, only in response to the contention in the last paragraph of the piece regarding motivation. There can be multiple motivations, no? I don’t doubt that some teachers teach about slavery because it’s an integral part of American history. But part of the issue is the way it’s being taught, and the way it’s taught also reveals motivation – what’s left out, the framing, etc.

    You’re mistaking a desire for a full-throated analysis of a topic that takes into account as many perspectives as possible with an “obsession with purity.”

  11. lcuddy12

    No, I am not coming from here, and I’m not sure why you think so.

  12. lcuddy12

    A comparison between the two largest slave trades in history seems relevant to a discussion of slavery per se, especially if systemic racism is mentioned (which it inevitably is). To learn about the differences between the way slavery in the US led to redlining, for example, versus the ways it has played out in other countries seems important for one to get as deep an understanding as possible of a topic. But perhaps this is a pedagogical disagreement.

    I generally agree with what you say about the 1619 project and CRT, though I would say that they make that perspective an easy sell for those teaching it. I have seen anecdotal evidence in documentaries where teachers do treat student questions about slavery as if it ever only existed in the US.

    Regarding what I said about Asian Americans, perhaps my point was off, because I was more referring to the way race is taught CURRENTLY in a way in which only black and white students feel included. But it seems you were talking about how race has worked in history – in which case I guess I agree with this point.

  13. Doug Crites

    My wife and I were discussing this issue this afternoon. As I told her, when I used to get in the elevator at Amazon there were days when I thought I was in Beijing; in contrast, with a few exceptions, the only black people I encountered worked in security or food services. And, in general, the striking contrast between the two groups in terms of test scores, educational achievement, and crime rate calls out for an explanation.

    And the explanation provided is clearly divided by politics. If you are on the right, you point to the cultural differences between the two groups. If you are on the left, you point to the historical differences and the pernicious effects of slavery, Jim Crow, etc.

    Unlike when I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, there is a strong effort in the schools to emphasize the historical explanation.

    Here in Seattle, this has reached an astonishing level.

    https://www.seattletimes.com/education-lab/new-course-outlines-prompt-conversations-about-identity-race-in-seattle-classrooms-even-in-math/

    And the comments in such articles make it clear that many adults regard all this as “wagging your finger at white people” stuff and I suspect it does not promote racial harmony with the pipe fitters and machinists in south Seattle. In fact, the declining enrollment suggests that, if they can afford it, Jimmy ends up at St. Anselm’s.

    However, it seems unlikely to me that Seattle’s approach (kooky though I think it may be) has increased the level of racism on the playground, but that is not the something I could argue a priori.

  14. I was in school in the 1970’s and we certainly learned it.

  15. It has become a common right-wing strategy to deflect on this issue by introducing the issue of slavery in Africa, basically saying, ‘well,look, Blacks in Africa acted just as badly,’ etc. But the subject is not, as lcuddy12 would have it, slavery in general, the subject is the history of racial tensions in America and the historical origins of that in the commitment to slavery, primarily among whites in the South who justified it on religious bases and pseudo-biological bases which have since been blasted into frivolity. On that basis, the events in Africa – however terrible – are merely tangential, and to some extent even irrelevent. Such events may acquire relevance in other discussions, such as variant cultures in Africa, the colonization of Africa by Europeans, etc. They don’t have much to do with the development of differing views on slavery and race that first led up to the Civil War and then redistributed itself throughout the culture following the failures of Reconstruction. But the like of lcuddy12 or of Huemer would rather have us – and our students – ignorant of that history, so that the issue can be articulated as a battle between ‘real Americans’ and ‘woke cancellers’ when that never really was the problem. Indeed, the problem with ‘woke’ identitarians is their own unwillingness to accept the profound complexities – and the real tragedies (and their possible resolutions) – involved in the history of racial tensions in America – which is undeniably the largest part of the domestic history of the united States per se.

    At any rate, the comments of lcuddy12 are simply irrelevent; and those of Huemer are, frankly, rather silly.

  16. henryharlow

    Netflix is currently running the documentary “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America”.

    The review of it in the Washington Post begin with this:

    At the top of the excellent documentary “Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America,” we hear a solicitation, put to a 2018 audience at New York City’s Town Hall theater by the evening’s host, attorney Jeffery Robinson (former ACLU deputy legal director): “If you have ever owned a slave, please raise your hand.”

    And then, when no hands go up, Robinson, who since 2011 has been delivering some version of this talk — akin to a PowerPoint presentation on racism, complete with audiovisual clips — explains the point of asking what sounds like a rhetorical question, but isn’t. “Slavery is not our fault,” he says. “We didn’t do it. We didn’t cause it. It’s not our responsibility.” But it is, he adds, our shared history, and when we try to turn that shared history into something that it’s not — “when we try to make more light of it than it was, then we are denying who we really are.”

    I recommend you give it a look if you have Netflix.

  17. lcuddy12 October 14, 2022 At 7:38 pm

    A comparison between the two largest slave trades in history seems relevant to a discussion of slavery per se

    But that’s not the discussion we’re having here. Sorry you missed the boat. Have a nice swim.

    (BTW CRT is an academic legal theory that has little application in general education. But it sure scares the uninformed, doesn’t it? Your whole point, of course. Ho hum, how dull.

  18. Matti Meikäläinen

    I read the Huemer article. I agree with you and thanks for your analysis. I submit that one perspective or additional way to express your analysis of Huemer’s argument is that it erroneously assumes children enter school with minds like “tabulae rasae.” In fact, such a state would be impossible. School children are already situated in the world. They have a given set of relationships which come ready-made with expectations, obligations and value judgements—some true and some false. And they are in a larger culture and they are part of a history—also filled with value judgments. He sadly fails to understand that we are all part of a history which is one of many reasons why history needs to be taught. This is an error common to a libertarian mindset. His argument is painfully naïve at best.

  19. Terranbiped

    I apologize for ascribing the worst possible interpretation but your language seems to have led others astray as well.

    Unfortunately the manner in which you explained your opinion can easily be hijacked by those with less pure intentions.

  20. “A comparison between the two largest slave trades in history seems relevant to a discussion of slavery per se, especially if systemic racism is mentioned (which it inevitably is).”

    I can see how comparison would be helpful if, say, we wanted to see if one slavery system produced bad downstream effects where the other did not, or less severe ones, or a quicker end to those effects. But even then, there is a HUGE confounding variable (or many variables): the very different historical contexts of the systems in question and their aftermath. And those variables seem to me to reduce the value of the comparison significantly.

    I once had a discussion like this with a Japanese relative who insisted to me that if Japanese Americans could get over internment and the stigma surrounding it, black Americans can get past slavery, racial apartheid, and the stigma attached to it. But this just ignores the very different histories of these two things, or treats the two with undeserved equivalence.

    “I have seen anecdotal evidence in documentaries where teachers do treat student questions about slavery as if it ever only existed in the US.”

    I am a historian and philosopher of American education, and this is one thing that CRT advocates have to grapple with… the idea that if it can be done poorly, some schools and teachers WILL do it poorly. So, their defense of “Oh, well that’s just a bad example and not what we mean” is unduly dismissive. Educators have a habit of jumping from fad to fad, going overboard with each one, and killing each new fad with a variety of bad attempts at it. This one will be done poorly, at times, too.

  21. “I submit that one perspective or additional way to express your analysis of Huemer’s argument is that it erroneously assumes children enter school with minds like “tabulae rasae.””

    Thanks for picking this up. I actually forgot to put a bit in the article where I critique Huemer’s point about how if we hermetically seal school kids into a single room, they will play together fine regardless of race. I guess I wanted to say “But those kids are coming from different places, and will go on to leave that single room at the end of x time. From there, they will go back to their own neighborhoods and probably – like all of us do at times – pick up on the habits existing in those environments.” Just because kids can play together in a room at school on a single afternoon without racism doesn’t mean racism doesn’t come into their lives.

  22. Regarding CRT, I’m in an interesting position. I have criticisms of it that often line up with those of Randall Kennedy. But I am also, like Kennedy, familiar with enough of it to know that many common criticisms of it are just based on bad (or no) actual information. Some of those include:

    that the 1619 Project operates in a CRT frame
    that CRT assumes that race is real beyond being a social construction with real effects.
    that CRT advocates believe that white people are inherently bad
    that CRT advocates believe that people have no agency.
    that Ibram Kendi works within a CRT framework.

    The list goes on from there.

  23. EJ, I hesitate to take part in this discussion, as it is about racial thinking and slavery in the US. I’m from the other side of the Atlantic. But I’m puzzled by your insistence that the broader picture shouldn’t be mentioned. Slavery in the US is incomprehensible if it’s not situated in a cruel and exploitative economic system that primarily benefitted the elites in Europe, the colonies, the US and – yes – Africa.

    And aren’t you comparing slave trades yourself, when you mention religious and pseudo-biological bases? You are at least suggesting that slavery was different in other places, justified with other arguments. I don’t see how you can escape from the broader picture and avoid comparisons, if you want to understand the particular history of slavery and racialism in the US. If you want to explain what makes something different and perhaps unique, you have to mention what it differs from.

    I know “it has become a common right-wing strategy to deflect on this issue” etc., but I feel you’re underestimating people. The US had its own version of pogroms – they’re called lynchings – but I’ve never heard someone make the point that black shouldn’t complain about a lynching here and there in the 1920s because the pogroms in Eastern Europe were worse.

  24. Terranbiped

    I think perhaps that icuddy12 fails to take into account the hereto unique precedent of slavery in a nation whose founding ethos and documents espouse the inalienable equality of all men and to life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness. To rationalize this blatant hypocrisy required the selective interpretation of religious texts and Darwinian biology.

    I don’t think this American brand of chattel slavery has, nor can, ever been compared to another.

  25. couvent,
    I certainly don’t deny that such would be an interesting conversation. It just isn’t the conversation Kevin is engaging here, and thus presents a distraction.

  26. Kant_Humer

    Obviously people trying to take “critical race theory” out of K-12 curricula are referring to something, or they wouldn’t meet so much resistance. Someone should let the opponents of anti-CRT legislation know so they don’t waste their time defending the teaching of what isn’t being taught.

    CRT pioneer Richard Delgado, in the foreword to his textbook “Critical Race Theory: An Introduction,” says that while CRT started as a legal theory it has become extremely influential in education and myriad other fields. He might be wrong, but since he wrote the textbook on CRT I’ll defer to his expertise.