Duke University on Race

In March, Duke University held a conference on “Still Two Nations? The Resilience of the Color Line.” Judging by some of the speakers at the conference, we are still two nations, with little hope for becoming one.

But the comments at the podium also suggested that perhaps the real national divide on race is between academia and the rest of the nation, not between races or among ethnic groups.

I had been alerted to this conference by the Brooklyn College historian KC Johnson. Coauthor of a scathing book about the alleged lacrosse rape case, he blasted the conference planners for prominently featuring members of the “Group of 88.” This group of Duke faculty signed a 2006 statement that used the rape case to condemn the entire university for racism.

I wanted to see if Duke can hold a valuable conference on race. And, like everyone else, I brought my prejudices and assumptions with me. I assumed, for example, that the election of Barack Obama is a meaningful event in the progress of race relations in the United States—it suggests that racism is behind us.

To interpret the election that way, I found out, branded me as a conservative at this conference. It is akin to what conference panelist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a Duke sociologist, called “color-blind” racism. A color-blind society (one in which people are treated equally under the law) enables whites to perpetuate the “systemic advantages” they have over minorities, Bonilla-Silva contends.

So if you accept Martin Luther King’s statement that his daughter should be judged by the content of her character, not the color of her skin, you are likely to be a “color-blind” racist to Bonilla-Silva.

Although not everyone adopts this Orwellian view, most of the speakers believe that racism is thriving, not diminishing. To eliminate it, they want to elevate blacks’ political power through race-based political coalitions, radical structural change, and something akin to reparations.

In fact, according to at least two speakers, the election of Barack Obama may have slowed down beneficial change. Thomas Pettigrew of the University of California at Santa Cruz minimized the historic impact of Obama’s election. He suggested that a “perfect storm” of factors made Obama’s election possible, such as Obama’s keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic convention and two marital scandals in Illinois, which opened up his election to the Senate. Pettigrew portrayed Obama as lucky.

William “Sandy” Darity, a Duke professor of public policy, organized his entire speech around the question, “Is the Obama presidency a barrier to social justice in the United States?” His answer is that Obama’s election could block the adoption of a massive redistribution plan that he favors.

Darity proposed a “baby bond.” For the children of all families under a certain wealth threshold, the government would give a trust fund of $20,000, which the child could own at the age of 18 or 21. The threshold for deciding who gets this bonanza might be, say, one half of the median wealth of white families. This would be a way, he said, to address black/white disparities without making it a “race-specific” program (which would undoubtedly be unconstitutional).

Lani Guinier, a Harvard Law School professor, whose 1993 nomination by Clinton as assistant attorney general was withdrawn because her views were outside the mainstream, said that the roots of racism are “closely correlated with the operation and configuration of power.”

She illustrated her point with “testocracy” or merit-based admissions to universities. Such admissions are unfair, she said, because acceptance is based on rules devised by those “invested in a particular group winning” (upper-middle-class whites). She recommended instead the populist “Texas 10 percent policy,” a state policy that allows any students in the top 10 per cent of their high school class to get into the flagship schools. This enables students from poorly performing schools to enter the University of Texas even though better-prepared students from stronger schools are rejected. Like Darity, Guinier seems to have no compunction about using indirect methods to achieve race-based results.

Much of the talk at the conference sounded to me like 1960s rhetoric or watered-down Marxism. The conference should not have been so one-sided. It was formally in honor of John Hope Franklin, the iconic scholar of American history who died on March 25 at 94 years of age. It was also meant to commemorate the 1968 Kerner Commission Report, a study of the riots in Newark and Detroit. That report is best known for saying, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”

But neither the voluminous scholarship of Franklin nor the Kerner Report was assessed or even a topic of discussion. Instead, conferees gave free rein to a mix of political programs, some of which (like Darity’s) border on the extreme. The managers of the conference must have been aware of the inflammatory nature of the conference because they barred taping of comments without written permission from the panelists. For an academic conference this is highly unusual.

At the same time, let me point out the positives of the conference. Not every topic was political—one session, for example, was about the health consequences of race. By and large, the academic studies were scholarly, and the topics encompassed more groups than blacks and whites—Latinos and Asian-Americans figured as well. I found Bonilla-Silva’s concept of “racial grammar”—the underlying way that people in the Western hemisphere elevate “whiteness” and put down “blackness”—to be worthy of exploration, however tendentious I find his concept of color-blind racism.

But the overall message of the conference was grim and distasteful. Mostly it was about how to build political power on the shoulders of race. I was bothered by the fact that participants spoke freely about negative stereotypes, including the low role of blacks in the “racial hierarchy.” If that is part of today’s scholarship, maybe we need less scholarship.

Race-based politics, payoffs from the government, and deep underlying prejudices of whites were recurring topics. Although freedom of speech (and especially academic freedom) means that all views can be considered, I wonder whether these scholars are imparting valuable information. Maybe they are just perpetuating grievances, as KC Johnson assumed.