In our current national moment, distinguishing respectful conduct or language toward others from patronizing condescension in matters of race is of great importance. You might think that making this distinction would be easy, but I suggest that in many circumstances it is not easy at all.
Recently, many things that have become the latest fashion in what practitioners think is heightened respect appear to me to be exactly the opposite — condescension. That can be the case even where the respect-that-is-really-condescension is demanded by the recipient. And I am not the only one noticing this phenomenon.
Let’s consider a few examples.
Several weeks ago Princeton University announced that an intermediate knowledge of Greek or Latin would no longer be required for a major in Classics. John McWhorter discusses that decision in a June 10 essay at Substack with the title “Revisiting Classics at Princeton: Exempting Black Kids From Challenge Is Lousy Antiracism.”
McWhorter opens by quoting Princeton’s own statement about the change to show that “of especial interest to black students . . . today’s racial reckoning, . . . the department openly acknowledges, was the primary spur for this change.” It seems that, with the Greek and Latin language requirement, the Princeton Classics Department had difficulty attracting black students to the major. McWhorter comments:
The tacit idea is people guilty about their white privilege saying over a Zoom meeting “If we want to have more black students, we can’t be making people learn Greek and Latin anymore.” Ugh – see how that reads when exposed to the sunlight? . . . Anything but that patronizing condescension. . . . [A]ny public discussion that both reviles the idea that black people are less intelligent than others while also lustily demanding that it’s “racist” to submit black people to cognitive challenges is hopelessly incoherent. . . . [T]his exemption culture is premised on a basic assumption that it’s unsavory to require serious challenge of black students Because Racism. No. You don’t get past racism by creating new forms of it. Scrapping traditional challenges should only be on the table after black kids have mastered the challenge anyway.
Well, we all already knew that the worst racists are the left-wing academics. Meanwhile, as part of the same set of changes, Princeton also announced that its Department of Politics had added a “race and identity” track. Somehow these seemingly very smart people are completely oblivious to their own descent into rank racial condescension. Always in the name of “antiracism” and “diversity” of course.
Turning to another elite university, Ohio State, we have an example of black students demanding the creation of an “exemption culture” for their benefit — or is it to their detriment? Admittedly this one comes from a few months ago, but it just came to my attention. It relates to the subject of a so-called “hate crime.” Campus Reform reported that on September 3, 2020 Ohio State had sent around a campus-wide email notifying students and staff that there had been a “hate crime” perpetrated by two African American students; a few days later a follow-up email informed the community that the victims of the crime were white. It appears that Ohio State believed it was under an obligation to inform the community of “hate crimes” under a federal statute called the Clery Act. Nevertheless, the emails set off a wave of protests. Student newspaper The Lantern reported on September 8:
A demonstration of about 100 people has gathered outside Bricker Hall demanding Ohio State acknowledge its“error and confusion in the handling of" a public safety notice on a pair of assaults against white victims the university categorized as a hate crime under the Clery Act.
But what was the “error” that led to the protests? A group called Student Solidarity at OSU explained the logic in a tweet on September 8:
“Racial slurs” referring to White people are not based on a history of violence & oppression towards White people. Using this “slur” does not have the same violent, racist implications as a White person saying the n-word, for example, nor does it make this incident a hate crime.
So the reasoning is, because of the history of the races in this country, black people are incapable of committing “hate crimes” and their conduct is immune from scrutiny no matter how egregious. Student Solidarity at OSU seems to believe that following this reasoning would be according respect to the black students, but it sure looks more like condescension to me.
And finally, consider the recent fad of capitalizing the word “black” (i.e., “Black”) when it is used to refer to a black person or the black race. The new style became all the rage in mid-2020 after the death of George Floyd. As an example, in June 2020 the AP announced that henceforth it would “capitalize the word ‘Black’ when used in the context of race and culture”; but in July AP said that it would not do the same for the word “white.” The Washington Post announced on July 29 that it would begin capitalizing both “Black” and “White.”
Is capitalizing “Black” an example of showing appropriate respect, or rather of what McWhorter calls “patronizing condescension”? The matter actually reached the U.S. Supreme Court in a case called Terry v. United States that was decided just yesterday. The decision was unanimous, and the actual subject of the case is almost unimportant. Mr. Terry was convicted in 2008 of selling crack cocaine, and because he had two prior felony convictions he got a sentence of over 15 years as a “career criminal.” In 2018 Congress passed something called the First Step Act, which retroactively reduced sentences for crack cocaine convictions if the sentence was based on volume of product seized. Terry applied for a sentence reduction, but his problem was that his sentence was not based on the volume of product seized, but rather on his being a career offender. So the Supreme Court re-affirmed his sentence unanimously.
The opinion of the unanimous Court was written by Justice Clarence Thomas. But that opinion drew an unusual concurrence from Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Sotomayor did not quibble at all with the logic of the main opinion or the result (in both of which she joined), but rather only called on Congress to revise the statutory framework one more time to correct the injustice visited on Mr. Terry. But there was a very interesting back and forth between the two justices. Justice Thomas’s opinion takes note that the mandatory minimum sentences enacted by Congress in 1986 received strong support from the black community:
Many black leaders in that era professed two concerns. First, crack was fueling crime against residents in inner cities, who were predominantly black. . . . Second, there were concerns that prosecutors were not taking these kinds of crimes seriously enough because the victims were disproportionately black.
The most important point of Justice Sotomayor’s concurrence appears to be that she capitalizes the word “Black”:
Black people bore the brunt of this disparity [in sentencing]. Around 80 to 90 percent of those convicted of crack offenses between 1992 and 2006 were Black, while Black people made up only around 30 percent of powder cocaine offenders in those same years.
I can just imagine the back and forth in the Supreme Court as copies of Justice Thomas’s opinion circulated for comment. The reason that Clarence Thomas is my favorite justice is not just that he is an independent thinker, but also that he is not the kind of guy to back down. I have no doubt that he was pushed hard on this one, and would not give in. In the end, all nine justices signed on to the opinion with the lower case “black,” including Sotomayor.
Clearly Thomas views the capitalizing of “Black” as condescension. Note that McWhorter (in the Substack piece quoted above and elsewhere) also declines to join the capitalization fad. Another refusenik is Thomas Sowell, whose 2020 book Charter Schools and Their Enemies does not follow the capitalization convention. I would join those in viewing the capitalization thing as condescension, but obviously many smart people disagree. In any event, the official Manhattan Contrarian style book is going with Thomas, McWhorter and Sowell and sticking with lower case for “black.”