Since the resignation of Claudine Gay, Ibram Kendi has been very busy on X making the case that this is definitive proof there is racism afoot. Here’s one of his tweets from yesterday along with my response to it.
This is just not true. It has been evident for some time that the wokest people are probably white women like Robin DiAngelo. People on the right criticize her as much or more as they do you because it’s about ideology, not race.
— John Sexton (@verumserum) January 3, 2024
In case you’ve forgotten, Robin DiAngelo is the bestselling author of “What Fragility.” It was actually published back in 2018 but in the summer of 2020 it became a big bestseller, even outselling Kendi’s own book “How to be an Anti-Racist.” This story about the sales figures was published in June 2020:
The two top sellers in the week were How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, which sold about 138,000 and 107,000 copies, respectively. Since the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police on May 25, sales of books about race relations have soared. White Fragility, published by Beacon Press in June 2018, has sold 271,532 print copies so far this year, including 192,325 copies since the week ended May 23. It’s the 14th-bestselling print title of the year through June 20, according to BookScan.
Not too far behind White Fragility was Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist, which was published in August 2019 by One World. It’s the 20th-bestselling print book of 2020 so far, and 186,957 of the 218,214 copies sold this year came after Floyd’s killing.
The fact that DiAngelo’s book was outselling Kendi’s by about 50,000 copies despite being a year older kind of demonstrates that DEI and woke aren’t synonyms for black. DiAngelo then went around the country giving talks for as much as $30,000 for 90 minutes of her time ($40,000 for a half day). She was, at least arguably, the most high-profile anti-racist trainer in the country and she got plenty of negative attention from people on the right despite the fact that she was white.
In any case, Kendi is back again today with another simplistic argument that crumbles upon closer inspection:
To assume merit is the reason White people are overrepresented in positions of power and influence is to assume White people are superior. To assume peoples of color in positions of power and influence are unqualified and unmerited is to assume peoples of color are inferior. 1/
— Ibram X. Kendi (@ibramxk) January 4, 2024
Well, no. There’s a lot of intentional confusion packed into this little paragraph so bear with me as I try to untangle it. For starters Kendi is playing a game here in which the excellence of individuals is being treated as assumed rather than demonstrated. This suits his purpose but it’s nonsense. “White people” aren’t CEOs or elected officials. Individuals got those jobs, usually in a competitive environment in which they had to demonstrate some specific aptitude or commitment to the work at hand. By completely skipping over the possibility that people in those positions earned them, he’s able to denounce the outcome as unfair. Not just unfair but intentionally racist.
The other gimmick here is the assumption that since everyone starts with some roughly equivalent distribution of talent and ability, the fact that white people are overrepresented proves the fix is in. But again, he’s leaving out everything that happens to every individual between birth and reaching the pinnacle of success.
Consider the representation of various races admitted to Harvard. As any kid or parent can tell you, getting into Harvard is not easy. Not only does a student need to be born with certain natural gifts (intelligence, curiosity, diligence, leadership aptitude, etc.) that person needs to rigorously work to improve and demonstrate those gifts to have a shot at admissions, not just to Harvard but to any top school, Yale, Stanford, Cal Tech, and so on. If you don’t have a near perfect GPA, top SAT scores, a long history of extracurricular activities and glowing recommendations from adults who’ve known you, you probably don’t have a chance. None of these things just happen. All of them require a lot of work and focus over many years.
And if you look at who is actually admitted to Harvard, the most conspicuous thing is that one group is vastly overrepresented. The Class of 2024:
Among participants who answered a question about ethnicity, 49.8 percent identified as white, 29.1 percent as Asian, 13.4 percent as Hispanic or Latinx, 15.8 percent as Black or African American, 4.8 percent as South Asian, 1.8 percent as American Indian or Alaska Native, and 0.5 percent as Pacific Islander.
Asian Americans represent about 6-7 percent of the total population of the US, yet they make up 29% of the Harvard class of 2024. White people by contrast are nearly 50% of the class at Harvard but are around 59% of the population as a whole. They are underrepresented.
Getting back to Ibram Kendi, does the fact that Asians are overrepresented at Harvard (by 4x!) mean Asians are superior? Does the fact that white people are underrepresented at Harvard mean they are inferior? Does it mean the white students who are accepted were unqualified? Put another way, is Harvard blatantly racist against white people?
The answer, obviously, is no. Individual Asian applicants worked hard and displayed excellence in a variety of ways. So did members of other groups. But when you break down the demographics, more Asians achieved academic excellence per capita than any other group.
The key point is this: We need not resort to racism as an explanation. There are certainly reasons this is true but those reasons don’t involve Harvard being racist in favor of Asian applicants. In fact, quite the opposite is arguably true. It’s much harder to get into Harvard if you’re Asian than it is if you’re part of any other group.
To be more generous to Kendi than I think he would ever be to me, it’s true that you can’t “assume” the reason a specific group is overrepresented in desirable positions is because they earned it. You really can’t assume that. Some individuals cheat. Some lie on college applications or job applications and get away with it.
But the opposite is also true. Just because the spoils are divided unevenly doesn’t mean you can “assume” the people in those top schools or top jobs were beneficiaries of racism. Maybe they just worked harder. Maybe they went to Saturday school and spent every summer doing extra work. Maybe they came from families that emphasized school work and discipline more. That’s certainly the case with the Harvard Class of 2024. It’s almost certainly the case more broadly in many areas.