Andrew Sullivan's column is more proof we need to stop resurrecting old myths about race


There's a passage near the end of Andrew Sullivan's latest column for New York magazine published Friday that caused an outcry over the weekend. Writing about the brutal treatment of an Asian-American passenger on a recent United Airlines flight, Sullivan posed a question he seemed to think was new and provocative.

"Asian-Americans, like Jews, are indeed a problem for the 'social justice' brigade," Sullivan wrote, after brushing off the notion that racism may have fueled the attack. "I mean, how on Earth have both ethnic groups done so well in such a profoundly racist society?"

Sullivan raises this question to suggest the violence against the United passenger, David Dao, had nothing to do with racism or white supremacy. He gives a remarkably ahistorical history of the United States to argue that racism is an exaggerated factor in American life. And he concludes that Asian-Americans have done exceedingly well for themselves — that their success implies that the real impediment to minority progress is not racism, but other minorities who have failed to emulate the Asian-American example.

"[Today], Asian-Americans are among the most prosperous, well-educated and successful ethnic groups in America," Sullivan writes. "What gives? It couldn't possibly be that they maintained solid two-parent family structures, had social networks that looked after one another, placed enormous emphasis on education and hard work and thereby turned false, negative stereotypes into true, positive ones, could it? It couldn't be that all whites are not racists or that the American dream still lives?"

Plenty of writers have addressed why this argument is a canard — why the history of Asian-Americans is far more complicated than Sullivan would have us believe. In many ways, Asian-American prosperity has more to do with the unique contours of anti-Asian racism than some innate cultural superiority. Jeff Guo and Nikole Hannah-Jones have both written helpful Twitter threads on the subject. I won't address it here. 

Instead, I'm more interested in what Sullivan is saying without actually saying it: the broader point he's making about the American racial hierarchy. Because if Asian-Americans are the gold standard of minority achievement, then there must be other minority groups that aren't pulling their weight. The "model minority" requires an "other" against which it can be positively compared. In this case, that "other" is black people.

Sullivan suggests that where Asian-Americans have prospered, black Americans have failed. He makes this point by selectively employing stereotypes: Asian-Americans defeated racism by working hard, caring about education and valuing "solid," two-parent households, he writes. This is the opposite of the most commonly held stereotypes about black people: that we are lazy, don't care about school and can't keep our families together to save our lives. The reader is meant to infer that Asian-Americans have done better than blacks because of their superior willpower and cunning strategy. 

T.J. Kirkpatrick/Getty Images

But there's a lot that's conspicuously missing from this argument. Sullivan declines to mention that black people still face high rates of hiring discrimination because of their race; that black children continue to languish in segregated neighborhoods, where decades of racist economic and education policy have robbed their schools of resources and stripped their communities of the infrastructure to cope with the fallout; and that black fathers, on average, still manage to be among the most consistently involved in their children's lives — despite that 1.5 million black men, including countless dads, are "missing" from daily life due to high rates of incarceration and early death.

But where Sullivan appears to be merely lazy, he is also boring. Blaming black pathology for racial disparities is one of the most tired tropes in American life. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the "Asians and Jews versus blacks" question back in 1966 — more than 50 years ago. The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates debated the topic at length with New York magazine's Jonathan Chait in 2014. Coates explained how, after slavery ended in the mid-19th century, white northerners who came to teach in Southern schools had a similarly low opinion of black culture.

"The reformers 'had little previous contact with blacks' and their views were largely cribbed from Uncle Tom's Cabin," Coates wrote. "They thus believed blacks to be culturally degraded and lacking in family instincts, prone to lie and steal, and generally opposed to self-reliance."

In reality, the white northerners found the opposite to be true. "Instead," Coates continued, "[the reformers found] black people desperate to reconstitute their families, desperate to marry, and desperate to be educated." The problem, Coates concluded, was not black culture. It was the persistence of racist obstacles, imposed by white supremacy.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Sullivan's argument is how these notions of black deficiency keep getting resurrected as if they are new and revelatory. Some of this explains the resurgent popularity of Charles Murray. More than two decades after Murray co-wrote The Bell Curve — a widely disputed book of social science that argued that black people are less intelligent than whites — he continues to get invited by conservative groups to speak at college campuses across the country.

To be clear, Murray's main claim to fame is that he is a hack: a racist pseudo-scientist whose work draws heavily from the debunked field of eugenics. Yet in recent months, the 74-year-old has been recast as a provocative public intellectual who is unafraid of shirking political correctness.

"He's been massively bastardized as an author," Xavier Malaussena, a sophomore at New York University who arranged for Murray to speak there in March, told me in a recent interview.

Sullivan is a documented admirer of Murray's work. He famously published excerpts from The Bell Curve while editing The New Republic in 1994. And why not? Both men have become minor celebrities, in part, by trafficking in notions of racial deficiency and black pathology. Americans tend to reward white men for bloviating on the alleged defects of minorities. And there's a reason why this narrative remains so seductive — despite mountains of evidence that suggest it's not true. By blaming black people for racial inequality, we ensure that we're not blaming white supremacy. It's an act of deception that has sustained this country's racial caste system for centuries, and continues to do so today.