“What I left out of that piece are the many questions my immersion has raised whose answers, if I could find them, might help what I’ll call the reasonable unwoke better assess SJ/DEI claims. I would like to air those questions here.”
n a prior essay for Merion West, I outlined where I find social justice activism and campaigns for diversity, equity, and inclusion (SJ/DEI) convincing, where I think they overreach, and where my immersion in the movement has led me to new but heterodox insights. I hoped that by doing so I might model for other people—particularly White, heterosexual, “cis-,” men like me—a dispassionate, non-defensive engagement that would enable them to concede what needs to be conceded without being cowed by the movement’s goofier excesses.
What I left out of that piece are the many questions my immersion has raised whose answers, if I could find them, might help what I’ll call the reasonable unwoke better assess SJ/DEI claims. I would like to air those questions here. As in my original piece, I offer a bulleted sampling with thumbnail elaborations. My questions fall into two categories. The first are comparative/contextual questions, whose answers might help us better understand certain SJ/DEI concerns by properly framing them. The second are logical/inferential questions, where I either do not understand the logic that informs certain SJ/DEI positions based on the evidence adduced for them, or where plausible inferences from that evidence readily lead to conclusions that diverge substantially from those we are given.
I want to stress that my questions are genuine, not rhetorical. I do not presume to know the real answers, and I fully expect to be chastened by some. But I cannot know for sure until I hear them.
To what societies or cultures should we look for exemplars of social justice?
It is axiomatic in SJ/DEI circles that the United States is a racist, misogynist, and cisheterormatively oppressive society. It would help to be presented with present-day examples of places that do it right. I am not talking about the isolated South American pygmy tribe. I mean modern, industrial cultures similar enough to ours to serve as a viable model. Scandinavia does not count either. Too White, too Eurocentric, and the presumptive source of the racism, misogyny, and cisheteronormativity from which social justice seeks to emancipate us. Presumably then, the exemplars lie elsewhere. Where? Concrete cases to learn from would be immensely helpful. If the answer is nowhere, that no society has yet achieved the fully inclusive, post-racial, gynarchical, or gender fluid ideals espoused by SJ/DEI activists, that would be less helpful—but still worth knowing if it sheds light on where the United States stands relative to other societies.
How does the United States’ historical record compare with other societies on SJ/DEI issues?
To demonstrate how deeply race-, sex-, and gender-based oppression are embedded in the American soul, SJ/DEI activists will point to past policies and practices—slavery, racist cartoons, denial of the vote to women, sodomy laws, and so on. By contemporary standards such practices are horrific. Seems to me, however, that the more relevant points of comparison are not the moral ideals of 21st century progressives but, rather, the policies and practices of other comparable societies at the same time. The global history of slavery, for example, is well-documented enough for me to know that the Africans enslaved by North Americans between 1619 and 1865 had it much worse than the Europeans who were enslaved by Africans during the same period, somewhat worse than the Africans enslaved by other Africans, and considerably better than the Africans enslaved by Hispanics in Latin America and the Caribbean. Europeans also enslaved five to ten times more Africans than vice-versa. I also know that the United States lagged on abolition, at least as compared to some European and Western Hemisphere nations. While some northern states abolished slavery in the late 18th century, the United States, as a whole, did not officially abolish it until 1865, decades after most European and many Latin American nations did—though it did so ahead of countries such as China, India, and Mauritania by over 150 years (and counting).
It is likewise easy to research women’s suffrage and learn that it was rare before 1900. The United States (1920) was about in the middle of the international pack in granting women the right to vote and stand for election (1920), way ahead of South Korea (1948) and Mexico (1953), but a little behind Anglophone Canada (1918).
With that said, I do not have a firm comparative grasp of voting rights overall—i.e. how progress toward universal suffrage in the United States compares to that of other nations around the world over the same timeline. And that is but one of many comparisons I need in order to assess the SJ/DEI characterization of the United States as an epic horror show. For example:
- How did other abolitionist nations treat former slaves in the decades that followed emancipation?
- How would an Irish family wishing to emigrate to China and apply for Chinese citizenship have fared in 1882 (the year The Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in the United States)? Was the United States unique among nations in restricting immigration on the basis of religion, ethnicity prior to 1965?
- How were Americans represented in Japanese political cartoons during World War II? How were American residents of Japan treated during the Second World War?
- Did other nations have laws regulating interracial, interethnic, or interfaith marriage in 1967 (the year of Loving v Virginia)?
- What was the legal and social status of homosexuality in other nations in 1969 (the year of the Stonewall riots)?
- Did women outside of the United States have the legal right to obtain credit in 1974 (the year the Equal Credit Opportunity Act was passed)? How did other nations compare to the United States on women’s rights issues generally around that time?
- In how many countries could same-sex couples outside the United States marry in 2015 (the year of Obergefell v Hodges)?
- In which countries today could I have unrestricted access to the girls’ locker room if I were a high school student who identified as female?
Knowing the answers to such questions would help me in two ways. First, it would help me put the United States’ historical record in its proper historical perspective. Second, it would help me think more clearly about their residual effects on the present. Turning again to the example of slavery, a comparative perspective helps me to see that while slavery in the United States was not the singular historical nightmare conjured in activists’ fever dreams, it was noteworthy for its scope, organization, and racialization (though it pales in comparison with Latin American slavery in volume and sheer homicidal brutality). It also highlights that the United States is unique in having had to fight a bloody civil war to abolish it. That is the United States’ “legacy of slavery”—the bitterness of the fight over abolishing it, the backlash that followed, and the failure to protect freedmen and their progeny from the backlash—not slavery itself. Situating the American story in its historical and global contexts this way helped me stop feeling embarrassed about slavery while making me more sympathetic to reparations claims for what happened to slave-descended Black people after its abolition. That is the kind of clarity and perspective I seek when SJ/DEI invokes historical memory to support present-day grievances.
By limiting its project to a bit player in the Transatlantic slave trade, the Times ignored the millions of African bondsmen whose labors transformed a hemisphere.
Why wasn’t the New York Times’ 1619 Project the 1517 Project?
Speaking of slavery: North American colonists came late to the African slave trade and imported less than a tenth of all slaves brought to the Americas from Africa between the 16th and 19th centuries. By the time that a handful of slaves disembarked at Jamestown in 1619, thousands upon thousands of slaves had been toiling away in Latin America and the Caribbean for generations. So why start in Virginia? I am not trying to be deliberately obtuse. The stated objective of the project is to re-center the United States’ history on slavery, to convince readers that the American Revolution was fought to preserve it, and that the United States owes everything from its economic and industrial power to its electoral system to it. The Times’ parochialism suits its purpose. But talk about missing the bigger story. By limiting its project to a bit player in the Transatlantic slave trade, the Times ignored the millions of African bondsmen whose labors transformed a hemisphere. It also did a disservice to the Times’s readers, who already know a good deal about slavery in the United States but are largely ignorant of that bigger story. How then did the Times blow the scoop?
Do SJ/DEI activists really want racial integration?
As I explained in my first essay, I consider the case for reparations (or remedies) to Black people for the century-long depredations of Jim Crow a slam dunk. One of the more powerful arguments for reparations concerns the decades of de jure housing and school segregation that prevented Black families from accruing intergenerational property wealth at the same rate as White people. A reparative solution would logically include policies that eliminate school and neighborhood segregation, which is exactly what social justice activists advocate. There is a mountain of historical data that point to White people as the chief obstacle to desegregation, which is exactly where SJ/DEI activists point. Point conceded.
Yet, perversely, much of the SJ/DEI literature reads like a brief for segregation. Short of building brand-new housing developments and setting racial quotas on homebuying, there are two ways to integrate neighborhoods. Either White (and Asian) people move into Black and Brown neighborhoods, or Black and Brown people move into White (and Asian) ones. But Black and Brown people dislike it when White people move into their neighborhoods because it displaces some existing residents and brings assorted White people plagues like smoothie bars and hot yoga studios. The SJ/DEI literature excoriates this gentrification, and of-color communities resent and resist it. Conversely, the SJ/DEI literature tells us that Black and Brown people resent being “minoritized” in White neighborhoods (aka “White spaces”), where they’re subjected to the violence of microaggressions and stereotype threat. How, then, are neighborhoods to be integrated?
I have read enough to know that the answer tends to involve White people stepping aside and letting the of-color people call the shots, while they undergo re-education to dismantle their Whiteness. But I need a real life answer, one that recognizes that that is an echo chamber fantasy.
SJ/DEI educational theories, meanwhile, hold that children from different racial backgrounds learn differently, that some even have their own epistemologies, that standard written English is racist, that it is imperative for students to “see themselves” in the curriculum, and that students learn better from teachers that look like them. These sound to me like bases for segregated schooling—or, at least, segregated classrooms. Consider that last example. The usual policy inference from research purporting to show that students learn better when they and their teachers are both the same race is that we need to recruit, train, and hire more of-color teachers. Okay. But another implication of that research is that in a perfectly integrated classroom—20 percent White, 20 percent Black, 20 percent Hispanic, 20 percent Asian, and 20 percent indigenous—80 percent of students will be shortchanged. A more diverse teaching corps would do nothing to mitigate that.
I need to be clear here: I’m not arguing for segregation. And to be fair, SJ/DEI activists also promote research that purports to show that Black and Brown students learn better when they’re surrounded by White (and, presumably, Asian) students. However, much of what I have read in the SJ/DEI literature points in the opposite direction. How then to reconcile the desegregationist policy positions with the segregationist thrust of SJ/DEI’s own theories and studies?
What exactly is the appeal of the United States as an immigrant destination?
I have seen this question posed by conservative pundits as a rhetorical gotcha. But I’d like to someone to answer it—because there does seem to be a tension between the SJ/DEI support for relaxed border controls and its characterization of the United States as a racial dystopia. It seems cruel to me to lure of-color people from places where their culture, language, and flesh tones are dominant to a place where they will be forced to live in the oppressive shadow of Whiteness. I have compassion for immigrants fleeing poverty and violence, some from countries where American foreign policy helped exacerbate the poverty and violence. But SJ/DEI activists stoutly reject the notion that the United States is a “land of opportunity,” regarding this view as a harmful myth that compounds all the psychological trauma of being Brown in a racist, majority-White nation. Sounds to me like an out of the fire and into the frying pan proposition. How do SJ/DEI activists reconcile the apparent contradiction?
For example: 40 states added Blaine Amendments to their Constitutions in the 19th century to suppress Catholicism (and most still have them). Employers openly discriminated against Irish-American immigrants. The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 was passed to sharply curb immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe (along with Asia).
Why aren’t White ethnic groups entitled to recognition of their historical grievances?
In reading about the history of racism in the United States, I occasionally come across passing references to bigotry against White peoples and non-Protestant Christians comparable to those invoked by Blacks, and of-color ethnics to justify historical grievances and racial entitlements. For example: 40 states added Blaine Amendments to their Constitutions in the 19th century to suppress Catholicism (and most still have them). Employers openly discriminated against Irish-American immigrants. The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 was passed to sharply curb immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe (along with Asia). Italian-Americans were lynched in the South. German-Americans were interned during World War II. In determining eligibility to compete in the Oppression Olympics, why are Whites categorically disqualified by virtue of their Whiteness? They would not win many gold medals, but they would certainly capture a few silver and bronze. Their disqualification is especially puzzling to me because, according to the Whiteness studies literature, most White ethnics were not even considered White when they suffered these injustices. Am I really supposed to believe those histories left no harmful legacies—or that the retroactive conferral of Whiteness simply makes them vanish? If so, how?
Why don’t the “lived experiences” of White men count?
According to the Whiteness studies people, simply asking this question betrays my White Fragility. I will concede that for now. I’m fragile. Got it. Now answer the question. What is it about Whiteness or maleness that makes it morally defensible to explain away a White man’s hardships and suffering? It would be helpful to understand, for example, why it is better to be a boy born to an unemployed alcoholic single White mother in Appalachia than a girl born to two first-generation Pakistani software engineers in Palo Alto. An honest, cogent answer may not cure my fragility, but it might help me listen more sympathetically to the stories you do want me to hear.
What is so objectionable about a majority White territory being majority White?
I do not know when English-speaking White people overtook Indigenous people in population share. At least 150 years ago, I would reckon. I know why the Indigenous resent that. I would resent it, too. But what’s everyone else’s justification? It cannot be sympathy for the Indigenous—because everyone of every race who has settled in the United States and complained about all the White people they found here now occupy the same expropriated native lands that White people do. If the Chinese had colonized the Ivory Coast 200 years ago and my parents emigrated there in 1990, would it make sense for me to complain about all the Chinese people there? I sort of get Mexican resentment, too. They lost a ton of prime real estate in the Mexican-American War. But that was a war between two post-colonial powers involving territory sparsely settled in an era where borders between postcolonial nations were still contested. Hispanics, meanwhile, dominate the Meso- and South—aka Latin—American continents they successfully colonized. Do more recently arrived ethnic minorities in modern Brazil or Costa Rica openly begrudge all the Spanish-speaking Brown people there? It would be great to compare notes.
What, meanwhile, is the justification for the second generation of-color Millennial grumbling about all the White people she has to look at here? I’ve heard from Korean friends that there is an increasingly visible population of non-military White American expats in South Korea now, many of them marrying into Korean families and settling permanently. I have seen them on Korean game shows and serial dramas. Do they gripe about all the Asian people they are surrounded by? Complain about how hard it is for their children to get into Seoul National University? Resent all the Korean faces on television? Call the Koreans out for cultural appropriation when they see K BO baseball or find John Denver on the playlist at the noraebang? In a nutshell: When you emigrate from a country where everyone looks like you to a country where most people do not, what entitles you to resent the people and culture you find there?
Why aren’t SJ/DEI mounting a campaign for a Constitutional Convention?
I have read that some right-wingers are biding time until enough states are in Republican control to call a Constitutional Convention so that right-wingers can use it to neuter the federal government, along with the economic and civil protections it provides. Why aren’t SJ/DEI progressives trying to get a jump on that? After all, their objections to the United States and its Constitution are far more profound than conservatives’ shopworn (and sometimes crypto-racist) yearning for small government: free speech and gun rights protections, the Senate, the Electoral College, the rights of the accused, the requirement that presidents be native-born and over 35, the residual language pertaining to slaves and slavery, the whole idea of national borders and distinctions between citizens and non-citizens. Each, in one way or another, is really a prop for the patriarchal, cisheteronormative, White Supremacist regime. So why aren’t SJ/DEI progressives calling for a Constitutional do-over?
I get the risk. If the right-wingers feel they are on the cusp of getting of getting a convention, whose balance of power would enable them to ram through their agenda, this would be the worst possible time for progressives to push for one. But, balance of power concerns aside, why isn’t a Constitutional overhaul a central plank in the social justice platform?
SJ/DEI activists tend to treat such questions as irksome evasions. In fact, simply asking questions is sometimes treated as an assertion of privilege, a demand that the social justice activist, woman, LGBTQ++ or of-color person perform labor for the person posing the question. So, instead of an answer, we get an admonishment followed by a command to go find out for ourselves. That is hardly a smart strategy for winning converts to a worldview, if converts are what activists genuinely want. But I went out and did the research, and I have not been able to find answers to these. My purpose in asking them is not to spark a spirited debate or start a dialogue. I am merely trying to see this through, to learn what I can, and revise my understandings where warranted. And, I hope to help others among the reasonable unwoke form more informed and possibly more sympathetic judgments. So yeah, I am asking my SJ/DEI peers to spare a little labor. What is there to lose?.
David Ferrero is an independent education & non-profit management consultant based in Seattle.