Alas Poor Roland
A racial cancellation long in the making.
If you haven’t heard it by now, a tragedy has befallen one of America’s brightest minds. I’ll tell you a couple secrets. The first is that I have a list of black thinkers, writers and artists I ultimately want to sit down with and talk. Roland Fryer Jr. is on that list. The second is that when it comes to the production of serious intellectual, literary and artistic content there probably isn’t an American producer who is thinking along my lines. I have a clue about the second matter owing to what I know about my appearances on NPR and TV One. I have been relatively close to the source on those two counts. We’ll see if the Next Web will save us. It’s not likely to be Joe Rogan.
My familiarity with Fryer goes back to the old days. You see I have a galley print for review of the original economic revolutionary Freakonomics. Back when blogging existed before the Huffington Post dignified it and allowed some of our number to begin writing for the alternative mainstream, I’m talking about folks like Kevin Drum and Matthew Yglesias, I was close enough to the top of that foodchain to attract the kind of attention that would put me on the list for Dubner and Levitt. Back in 2005, I wrote the following:
I first heard about Fryer last week from a surprising email I got personally from Steven Levitt. Yes, that Steven Levitt. He gave me a little sideways intro and told me to watch out for the Sunday NYT Magazine. Having read it this morning and just (lazily) 40% done with Levitt's new book, certain things are starting to click. A little background.
The other night, when I took a picture with Sharpton and also met a young brother who considers himself one of the luckiest men in the world (Lahore, Karachi?), I was chilling with Spence and some very cool academics. One of them, Harwood, who teaches at Ohio State espied my galley proof of Levitt's new book Freakonomics. Spence was already jumping up and down when I showed it to him not two minutes after we first met. Harwood, who'll take Strata over SPSS anyday, practically snatched the book out of my hand and read it all night. When Spence talked about Levitt, he mentioned that it was difficult to believe he didn't have some black in him. I think perhaps we've found the answer, Fryer is a catalyst.
So I had reasons to pay attention to Fryer when he was on his way up. As I took it for granted whatever I did on the broad American Right was going to give me a different set of insights than I would have if I clung to my younger Progressive views, it didn’t surprise me that Fryer would cause a stir. Moreover, I appreciated his dedication to hard data. He asked the very specific questions that people like me wanted to know and was rather pointed about all that. So while it might be convenient to throw a stereotypical blanket around Fryer, Loury and Sowell, it was always clear to me that they had distinctive angles. I didn’t mind taking clues from other sources. That didn’t stop Fryer from standing out.
Even as it was becoming more widely reported that the social sciences were experiencing a crisis in replication — to the point at which some where bold enough to suggest they shouldn’t be considered science — Fryer’s massive amounts of data were mind-boggling. I’d rather be timely in this discussion as it gets attention because of the following video than crawl down my own rabbit holes of paragraphs on Fryer’s large datasets, but I’ll repeat the assertion and leave it so. Thus to the video.
So all of this is relatively new, stunning and depressing. I haven’t heard Bobo’s name in quite some time and I have no idea who that Gay character is. But at my old joint Vision Circle, we got deeply into the controversy over Fryer’s work on the theory of Acting White. I’m still rather proud of the points I made those many years ago on the subject when one of my fellows called Fryer an ass-clown.
If Fryer is an ass-clown, some of us sure are quick to find out what's coming out of his ass. But that's because he's black and we're black.
YOU KNOW HOW WE DO is an encoded message to everyone, blacks and white alike, to keep an ongoing dialog about what is black behavior and what is white behavior. Richard Pryor was the first to air this conversation and it has continued ever since.
If you don't go the the Boogie Down, where everybody keeps it pegged to Hot 97 and BET, then you get out of touch with the common dialog of the continuous invention of vulgar blackness. You could very well, as conservatives such as myself do, immerse oneself in the relatively dead culture of classical jazz and old school black literature, but you wouldn't be fresh or have an urban contemporary context. You wouldn't be 'ackin white' nor 'doin how we do'. And the only people who are going to even think about calling you a Tom, are those in the Boogie Down whose vulgar dialog and limited experience have put old school achievement out of their 'black' context.
Fryer's context, although I haven't read the piece, is probably too narrow to include this insight. I know that blackness is being reinvented all the time, so when blackness can be flying American Airlines just after the days when only TWA was cool to blacks, some blacks who ride the bus will still say that flying American is acting white.
What I would like to remind everyone (and I'm so deep that I should have posted this independently, aha!!) is that when Malcolm X said 'by any means necessary' I believe that meant *any*. So why are we checking back with the Boogie Down to see if Fryer is OK? Harvard is one of the means. Afrocentrism is one of the means. But you cannot doubt that there is some continuously neological dissonance in style if not substance that perpetuates the gap between 'black' and 'white'. It's what people want to do.
That was 2005, and yet the controversy continued up through 2010 when I started dealing with it again with a new sense of puzzlement. This was the occasion of Stuart Buck writing a book on the same old racial essentialism of Acting White.
I was graciously considered to preview Buck's book but I declined, (hopefully graciously enough in kind) because I couldn't manage to sustain the conversation at my own dinner table. I asked my kids about it and they had basically nothing to say. I'm from a small town called Black and it seems to get smaller every day, but it doesn't change how much being black has meant to me over the years. Except that now that I am who I am, less and less of that matters. In other words, in retrospect I can think of a dozen 'black' choices I made (according to the ethics of my small town called Black) that I could have made another way without any consequence to my life. And there are probably others I cannot think of that only somebody else from that small town could remind me of. But all of that is because there hasn't been much in the way of my black identity that has interposed itself between me and my education.
The fundamental thesis (I think) of why 'acting white' stigma is a problem is because it socializes black youth into educational under-achievement. OK so that's education. What else you got? What about church? What about music?
Reading McWhorter's review of Buck leaves me even more confused. I think perhaps we need Inigo Montoya to tell us that maybe that phrase doesn't mean what we think it means. It's not big bad deadly racism. Acting white doesn't ever get IDF paratroopers onto the boat and attacked with metal pipes. It is a subtle psychological erosion of some basic positive middle class values. But it doesn't frighten me. It is an epiphenomenon. And I know that I walk directly into the criticism that McWhorter pitches at suburban whites(!), it's easier to pretend it doesn't exist than to pay attention to the scholarship and make it relevant to your life. Well, I think it's irrelevant to my life and I'm black. Or at least that's what I grew up thinking.
But back to the future. If my observations are worth a nickel, and the new University of Austin has a snowball’s chance in Cancel hell, Fryer’s work ethic and areas of interest, and more importantly institutional backup for serious research will return to us once again. Harvard is already suffering for its racial duplicity and will continue, and I continue to find more reason to heed the words of minds coming out of Oxford and China.
Much of what has happened to Fryer reminds me of Jessie Jackson’s comments about cutting off the nuts of Barack Obama. If your constituency is the race-based racial self-interest and the subject is ‘dignity’, well then most anything goes. Especially with such matters of ‘dignity’ are monetized by institutions like Harvard. Not because Harvard is august, but because it endowed with billions of dollars and full of intelligent and wiley agents and courtesans who owe their prestige to its imprimatur.
The rot is familiar, but Obama got the last word and a class of black hacks, notably Jackson and Tavis Smiley became non-entities. But now we have a new generation of hacks, and no doubt a new cabal of ESG / DIE leveraged flacks will assume new oppositional stances to hard science and real economics. How will Fryer triumph? how will truth get its pants on?
In the end, I am glad that we have precisely this kind of YouTube journalism that has pricked up our ears over the long-standing travesty of the ‘cold-blooded murder’ of Roland Fryer. I remember him.