The Speech I Heard

The Address of Robert Gooding-Williams
to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences,
October 6, 2018

On October 6, 2018, I attended the event for the installation of new members of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, in a hall at Harvard University, not far from the headquarters of the Academy in Cambridge (136 Irving Street, Cambridge, MA 02138). My wife was one of the new members to be installed. Otherwise, I had never heard of this organization, which was actually founded by John Adams and friends in 1780. I had heard of their journal, Daedalus, but I had not read it.

Each group of inductees, sorted into categories of sciences, humanities, fine arts, etc. was introduced with a speech from someone representing the category. The group for philosophy and religion, which included my wife, was introduced by Robert Gooding-Williams, of Columbia University. Gooding-Williams was identified with a short biography in the event program:

M. Moran Weston/Black Alumni Council Professor of African-American Studies; Professor of Philosophy. Major figure in contemporary philosophy of race. Leading historian of Afro-modern social and political philosophy. Du Bois scholar and Nietzsche scholar. Writings demonstrate an ability to interpret complex social phenomena and to parse the nuanced interplay of race, class, gender, nationality, and other social positions. Drawing on European and American philosophical traditions, analyzes inherited racial narratives both to criticize racial injustice and to illuminate the ideological content of racial representations. Work engages topic of immediate social concern and shows how philosophically literate social criticism can contribute to public debate.

The bio obviously contains no political claims, and none of the other speeches at the Academy were overtly political, although several involved stories or claims about immigration that were apparently aimed at the policies of the Trump Administration, without addressing what those policies actually were, or how they might differ or correspond to the recounted stories or claims. What was noteworthy, perhaps, is that even people who had fled Communist regimes in Vietnam or Cuba reserved their criticisms, not for the Communists, but for the United States, without any expression of gratitude for the welcome or opportunies provides here, despite their own obvious successes in American life.

But the speech of Robert Gooding-Williams was overtly political, and inflamatory, apparently attributing all evils of American life to racism. Thus, he said the economic inequally between the races was the result of racism; and the epidemic of white policemen shooting young black mean was also because of racism.

As it happens, both of these assertions were false. That economic inequality is the result of racism and, presumably, racial discrimination has long been refuted by the detailed work of Thomas Sowell (b.1930), in many books and articles, but perhaps the most conveniently in Ethnic America, A History [Basic Books, 1981], which I used to use as a texbook for my ethics classes. Thus, while (as of 1980) average Black family income in the United States was only 62% of the national average (with only American Indians lower, at 60%), the average family income of people of West Indian ancestry was actually 94% [p.5]. This poses a challenge for the race theorist. White people are unlikely to turn off their racism and oppression just because some black person has a Jamaican accent, however charming that is. At the same time, Black people from families free before the Civil War also did better than the national average for blacks.

There are also lessons from the rest of the table and treatments that Sowell provides. The top six ethnic groups in family income are people whose derivation is Jewish, Japanese, Polish, Chinese, Italian, and German. Since Jewish, Japanese, and Chinese Americans have been subject to intense prejudice, discrimination, and even legal disabilities in American history, one might wonder how they can have ended up so economically successful. Similarly, in the years since 1980, many people from India have immigrated to the United States. They tend to be dark, and some have even passed for black as an experiment in deceiving the "affirmative action" systems at American universties. Nevertheless, people of Indian ancestry are now the most prosperous ethnic group in America, in so far as they can be identified by census data, which does not ask for religion (or Jews probably would still be on top). That a practical form of racial prejudice exists against Indians is confirmed by some recent murders of Hindus and Sikhs, by idiots who thought their victims were Arabs or Muslims.

The lesson of Sowell's studies is that, given a basic framework of law and civil rights, culture is what determines economic success. The thesis of the Left, however, is that economic success depends on political power. This is refuted by situations where majority populations with political power do poorly economically (i.e. the entire Soviet Union), while minority populations with no political power may do much better than the majority populations (i.e. the Chinese in Malaya, Vietnam, and Thailand, or people from India in East and South Africa, or, for that matter, Jews in Poland).

This also leads to a lesson about the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Thomas Sowell, who I would put on the short list of candidates for "Wisest Man in American," is not a member of the Academy. Economists John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) and Paul Samuelson (1915-2009) were members of the Academy; but neither Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) nor Friedrich Hayek (1899-1992) -- who both early and uniquely predicted that the Soviet economy would not work -- were members. The Academy did admit the free market economist Milton Friedman (1912-2006), but the omission of Sowell, and of von Mises and Hayek, betrays a marked bias against real free market Capitalism. Galbraith, as it happens, admitted before his death that he had always been a socialist.

Thus, perhaps Robert Gooding-Williams fits right in at the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. Certainly, his understanding of culture and economics will not meet much opposition from the tendencies revealed by the Academy's membership.

Now, I also said above that the assertion about racist police shooting young black men was also false. Such claims have been steadily debunked by Heather MacDonald, most strongly in her The War on Cops, How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe [Encounter Books, 2016]. I have examined some of this elsewhere in these pages, where I have my own complaint that the War on Drugs has resulted in much in the way of misconduct by the police and prosecutors, with a neglect and erosion of civil rights in the process. And there will always be bad cops and bad shoots, for which I also prefer a return to the situation were urban police departments not be armed, as originally in the 19th century they were not in Britain and America, where otherwise at the time there were no gun laws applicable to private citizens.

Nevertheless, where a political movement in the United States, "Black Lives Matter," began because of deaths at the hands of police, almost everything about it has been fraudulent. Michael Brown was indeed shot by a white policeman on August 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, and the claim was that he had been shot in the back, or while surrendering; but the evidence ended up showing that he had attacked the policeman, breaking his eye socket, and that he had not been shot in the back. Witnesses who confirmed the forensic evidence were then threatened by political activists.

Eric Garner did die in police custody on July 17, 2014, in New York City; but he was not shot, and his death, probably from an asthma attack, was under the supervision of a black policewomen, NYPD Sergeant Kizzy Adoni. Neither she, nor any other officer involved, were charged. Similarly, Freddie Gray did die in police custody in Baltimore on April 12, 2015; but the officers involved, who were subsequently charged with murder, were themselves Black. Perhaps the argument is that even Black officers, by being policemen at all, embody white racism (this wouldn't surprise me). But the case against them fell apart. White officers were charged, for arresting Gray in the first place, but after some were found innocent, all prosecutions in the matter were dropped.

Otherwise, as Heather MacDonald found, white suspects were more likely to be shot by policemen than black ones. And the slogan that "Black Lives Matter" looks insincere when gang warfare in Chicago every week kills more people, usually black, gangsters and bystanders, than the police have killed in several years of questionable shootings. These deaths, which have been going on for years, are invisible to political activists and also to the ruling class, which apparently really doesn't care about Black lives. The suspicion now is that the drug gangs on the South Side of Chicago are actually part of the Democratic political machine of the City. They are tolerated and protected, and the police make no real effort to suppress them. The cost in lives is the price the Democratic Party will pay for power, just as it holds Black children hostages to Teachers Unions in miserable, dangerous, and ineffective public schools. It is all part of the layers of Leftist fraud and deception in American politics.

Robert Gooding-Williams said nothing about any of that. Instead, the ultimate point of his speech seemed to be that "deliberative democracy" could not be expected to work with rampant racism infecting society. But if racial inequality and police shootings are evidence of the degree of the infection of racism, and if democracy is going to be ineffective in eradicating all this racism, Gooding-Williams never got around to his recommendation about what would be effective against racism. There my suspicion is that his recommendation would have been unwelcome even among the complacent liberals of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, for my persistent impression is the the ideal form of government to the American Left remains the totalitarian dictatorship of Cuba, where "progressives" can deceive themselves (and it is a deception) that racial injustice has been eliminated. Otherwise, if democracy cannot work, what is the alternative? Especially when the speaker does not candidly provide an answer to such a question?

Gooding-Williams illustrated his argument with an account from W.E.B. Du Bois of a conversation involving a "Christian gentleman" and a "white male" racist. The Christian, of course is all for equality, but ineffectively so. The "white male," who somehow is presented as thereby more racist than white females (a most improbable proposition), will never give up on "whtie supremacy." This is a very odd story, and I am not sure what Gooding-Williams thought it was going to prove. Most Southern Segregationists were putative Christians. Also, the principles of equality in American law rely on a secular theory of natural rights, to which Christians might assent, but whose assent is unnecessary. This makes the account of Gooding-Williams, as well as, perhaps, that of W.E.B. Du Bois, entirely beside the point. Instead, I gathered that the story, whatever its original purpose, was meant to reinforce the argument that "deliberate democracy" would be ineffective at ending racism -- leaving whatever unstated alternative that Gooding-Williams may have had in mind.

Now, the biographical note identified Gooding-Williams as a scholar of Du Bois and Nietzsche. We got a little of Du Bois, but nothing of Nietzsche in his speech. As a theorist of power, Nietzsche appeals to those on the Left to whom power is everything. But considering that Nietzsche is a raving and unapologetic racist, and says things like, "The negro represents an earlier phase of human development [i.e. prehistoric man]" [der Neger (diese als Repräsentanten des vorgeschichtlichen Menschen genommen --) [The Birth of Tragedy and The Genealogy of Morals, translated by Francis Golffing, Doubleday Anchor Books, 1956, p.200; German text, Zur Genealogie der Moral, Philipp Reclam, Stuttgart, 1988, p.58;], I am curious how Gooding-Williams deals with that. When Nietzsche is the only historic philosopher identified as Gooding-Williams' area of specialty, can he be condemned with the degree of rage and indignation that Gooding-Williams otherwise reserves for, well, America and white people? Does Nietzsche get a pass? Being unfamiliar with his work, and finding no clue in his speech, I cannot say. And yet, altogether, there was not enough there to attract or encourage any investigation. If Gooding-Williams cannot admit what his alternative was to "deliberate democracy," my expectation would be to find a case of the characteristic dissimulation of the Left, without the sort of honest discourse that, to be sure, "deliberative democracy" would require. Since the officers of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences themselves voiced platitudes about civility and discourse, I'm not even sure why Gooding-Williams would have wanted to participate, although he could reasonably expect that no one in such a group would ever voice any criticisms or contradictions to whatever he might condescend to say.

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