Critical Race Theory: What’s the Strategy?

In an earlier post I said that I took Critical Race Theory (CRT) to involve a set of propositions, a commitment and a strategy.  Here I want to take up the question of strategy.  How will we get to a place of greater equality and justice for all people regardless of race?  What’s the road there?  Can we envision it so that we can put our energies toward following that road?  That’s the question of strategy.  I don’t want to just feel good about myself or my place in the world; I want to be making progress toward a more just and equitable world. 

There’s an immediate problem to be faced: it is hard to say what IS the CRT strategy for working on racial equality and social justice.  I haven’t been able to find a straightforward articulation of such a strategy or strategies derived from the basic principles of CRT — and there’s a problem in that.  I believe any such strategy would have to involve at least these principles, which derive from CRT’s propositions about the nature and persistence of racism:

  • Interrogation of situations, practices and policies for ways they embody white supremacy;
  • Recognition of the inadequacy of neutral, race-blind approaches;
  • Commitment to examine the unintended consequences of policy, especially in view of the systemic character of racism;
  • Centering of marginalized voices; and  
  • Recognition of the inadequacy of empathy on the part of those more privileged. 

As I look around me, I see various kinds of initiatives embodying these principles being employed by followers of CRT.  I want to focus on these:

  • Via the law
  • Via anti-racism training
  • Via earnest remaking of organizations
  • Via politics

A.  Via the Law.  CRT began among those in the law who saw that some victories of the civil rights movement were less solid than they first appeared and that further victories were not being won.  One approach of CRT is to continue legal challenges but making different kinds of arguments and employing different strategies of persuasion. 

Not being a lawyer, these are beyond my capability to fully understand.  Nevertheless, I see that legal victories on race matters continue to be scarce.  And why is that?  Mostly, I think, because the vagaries of our political process have given rise to the appointment of judges of an ‘originalist’ character who are not persuaded by this newer approach.  In the wider politics of the country, Republicans have been more successful in placing their judges in important positions, especially on the Supreme Court. 

B. Via Anti-racism Training.  A second strategy involves anti-racism training sessions.  There are many providers of such ‘trainings’, most of them consultants or small groups of consultants.  The trainings generally follow a standard course or curriculum.  They often involve reading or viewing Robin DiAngelo’s take on White Fragility or reading Ibram Kendi (How to Be an Antiracist or Stamped from the Beginning), and they often end with everyone taking the Implicit Bias test to demonstrate that we all carry negative bias towards people of color or other groups of people. 

Such training (I’ve been through a few, sponsored by various organizations with which I am affiliated) is likely to be undertaken mostly by those already inclined to see racism as a serious and pervasive problem.  While it may deepen the understandings of many of those who go through it, it is unlikely to widen, very much, the circle of those disposed to see a problem.  The trainings I’ve experienced, moreover, have not addressed the systemic character of particular situations, organizations or localities.  Rather than trace out the unintended consequences of specific policies or practices, these trainings instead seek to demonstrate the nearly universal implicit bias of white people.  They leave people feeling concerned, but without a focused agenda for change. 

Also, these trainings are not a setting for encouraging discussion or give-and-take.  Rather, they involve a script to be followed.  Generally, they are longer on assertion than on providing evidence or sourcing of claims.  Some will take to this catechism learning better than others. 

C. Via Remaking of Organizations.  A third strategy involves having organizations acknowledge their complicity and pledge a commitment to change.  Hundreds, perhaps thousands of organizations have declared their involvement in past racism and promised to do better.  Often this leads, as a first step, to sponsoring anti-racism training with a consultant. 

The declarations organizations make, as I’ve experienced them, tend to be more about broad acknowledgement of responsibility and less about specifics or analysis or follow-through.  There are good intentions at play here, but I have doubts that there will be much change or redress that comes from these efforts.  The residue may be deepening cynicism: yet more good but empty words.  There doesn’t seem to be any wider strategy emerging for such organizations to work together on behalf of a coordinated effort. 

There are playbooks.  The Annie E. Casey Foundation, for example, in 2014, published a Race Equity and Inclusion Guide that lays out “seven steps to advance and embed race equity and inclusion within your organization.” Here are the steps: 

  • Step 1: Establish an Understanding of Race Equity and Inclusion Principles
  • Step 2: Engage Affected Populations and Stakeholders
  • Step 3: Gather and Analyze Disaggregated Data
  • Step 4: Conduct Systems Analysis of Root Causes of Inequities
  • Step 5: Identify Strategies and Target Resources to Address Root Causes of Inequities
  • Step 6: Conduct Race Equity Impact Assessment for All Policies and Decision Making
  • Step 7: Continuously Evaluate Effectiveness and Adapt Strategies

How many organizations are likely to go through such a process?  Likely it would be beyond the capability of all but the most well-resourced and sophisticated not-for-profits. 

D. Via Politics:  In Praise of Bayard Rustin.  I have doubts about simply using the law or doing anti-racism training or a diffuse effort at remaking organizations as strategies that hold much promise of taking us toward a more just and equitable world – or country.  Use of legal challenges will be frustrating unless and until those making legal decisions (judges and justices) work from principles that do not embody racism.  That will require changes in the law or changes in the judges, or likely both.  That will require a political effort. 

For different reasons, I have doubts about the efficacy of training efforts or remaking organization efforts.  They may improve some local, specific situations, but they are unlikely to increase the numbers of people who are genuinely committed to progress toward racial justice.   They are unlikely to lead to the fundamental changes that will be needed in the civic fabric of American (or global) organizations.  To my mind, they don’t add up to a strategy that holds much promise. 

In 1965, Bayard Rustin called for a shift in the strategy of the civil rights movement:  in a nutshell a shift away from protests and towards politics.  “We need allies,” he wrote.  “The future of the Negro struggle depends on whether the contradictions of this society can be resolved by a coalition of progressive forces which becomes the effective political majority of the United States.  I speak of the coalition which staged the March on Washington, passed the Civil Rights Act, and laid the basis for the Johnson landslide – Negroes, trade unionists, and religious groups” (From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement, Commentary, February 1965). 

More than a half century later, I believe a sober reckoning tells us he was right then, and he is still right today.  In the intervening decades we have only slipped backwards.  Yes, progress has been made.  Yes, we elected and re-elected Barack Obama.  Yes, Thurgood Marshall served on the Supreme Court from 1967 to 1991.  Etc.  But we are no closer to building the effective political movement that will formulate, pursue and carry through the kind of strategy we need.  We need only remember we have also had Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, Mitch McConnell, Donald Trump, Fox News, the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act, and much more. 

The coalition of allies we need surely looks different today than it appeared to Rustin in 1965, but it is still a coalition of allies we need. It is via politics, via strong, savvy politics, that such a coalition will have to be assembled.  That coalition will need leadership.  It will need a clear and focused agenda.  And it will need to work in and through the corridors of power for a sustained period of time.  Today, we have none of these. 

That’s the challenge before us today.  Critical Race Theory may give us some insights and some tools we need, but it has not and cannot give us the political strategy we need. Ask yourself: will ‘trainings’ mobilize allies? Will well-meant declarations from organizations? 

Let Rustin have the last word.  He speaks of a “no-win” posture in the civil rights movement of his day.  Seeing the many obstacles, these militants “conclude that the only viable strategy is shock; above all the hypocrisy of white liberals must be exposed.  These spokesmen are often described as the radicals of the movement, but they are really its moralists.  They seek to change white hearts – by traumatizing them … [and they are] frequently abetted by white self-flagellants.” 

And this: 

“My quarrel with the ‘no-win’ tendency in the civil rights movement (and the reason I have so designated it) parallels my quarrel with the moderates outside the movement. As the latter lack the vision or will for fundamental change, the former lack a realistic strategy for achieving it. For such a strategy they substitute militancy. But militancy is a matter of posture and volume and not of effect.”

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Critical Race Theory: A Tale of Two Disciplines

While FOX News continues to fulminate against ‘Critical Race Theory’ and while the commentariat continues to denounce and defend it, I’ve been reading CRT. 

Actually, that reading project started a decade ago in the midst of some academic freedom issues at Earlham.  Defending academic freedom, I found myself reading those who would put limits on free speech.  One blog post from 2011 that gathered up key readings for and against such limits is here.  The argument for limiting speech came from CRT. 

More recently, I’ve read Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic’s Critical Race Theory: An Introduction (NYU Press, third edition, 2017).  The authors are among the founders of CRT and provide a sympathetic overview of the key ideas and also some of the disagreements within critical race theory.  I’ve used their suggestions to read some of the key articles that formed CRT, most of them in law journals.   

“Do you now know what critical race theory is?” a legal scholar I talk with often asked me. “Yes and no,” I said.  This is what I’ve come to understand critical race theory is: 

  • It’s a set of propositions about race in the U.S. and the world. 
  • It’s a commitment to keep questions of race central especially in considering inequality and injustice. 
  • And it’s a strategy for making progress on race inequality. 

As I understand it, CRT began as an effort to say why we had not made more progress through the efforts and successes of the civil rights movement, and to understand what it would take to make further, real progress. 

Among the propositions are these: 

  • “Recognition that race is not biologically real but is socially constructed and socially significant.”
  • “Acknowledgement that racism is a normal feature of society and is embedded within systems and institutions, like the legal system, that replicate racial inequality.”
  • “Rejection of popular understandings about racism, such as arguments that confine racism to a few “bad apples.” CRT recognizes that racism is codified in law, embedded in structures, and woven into public policy CRT recognizes that it is the systemic nature of racism that bears primary responsibility for reproducing racial inequality.”
  • “Recognition of the relevance of people’s everyday lives to scholarship. This includes embracing the lived experiences of people of color, including those preserved through storytelling, and rejecting deficit-informed research that excludes the epistemologies of people of color.”

[These propositions are drawn from Janel George, “A Lesson on Critical Race Theory,” Human Rights (a publication of the American Bar Association), January 12, 2021.  George attributes them to Khiara Bridges.] 

I agree wholeheartedly with the first three propositions.  The fourth gives me some pause.  I certainly believe in the relevance of people’s everyday lives to scholarship; it’s the reference to ‘epistemologies of people of color,’ that worries me.  Certainly, the stories and perspectives of people of color have been excluded from education, from culture, from political narratives, (etc.). We should try to correct that, but this doesn’t mean there are alternative ways of knowing that should be lifted up.  That gets into the terrain of the Okun/Jones handout I wrote about earlier. 

I also agree with the commitment to keep questions of race central.  If we believe in ‘liberty and justice for all,’ why haven’t we made more progress in achieving equality along lines of race.  That’s a question I made central to the various versions of the National Public Policy course I taught for many years. 

On the question of strategy: I’ll try to say more about that in another post. 

Reading Critical Race Theory, I’ve been struck at how much it has arisen within the discipline of law.  While it has drawn on and influenced other disciplines, especially education, I’ve been struck at how relatively little it draws on the social sciences.  Derrick Bell’s celebrated article, “Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest Convergence Dilemma,” Harvard Law Review, v93,3 (1980), pp 518-33, has 87 footnotes, nearly all to law review articles and court decisions.  There are a few references to works of history (C. Vann Woodward, John Hope Franklin), but the sole reference to academic social science is to Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward’s Regulating the Poor (1971) and Poor People’s Movements (1977). 

My own academic preparation was very much in the social sciences and hardly at all in law, though as I came to teach and do research in public policy, I came to read legal decisions (especially) and (less often) law review articles about important matters. 

Does this matter?  Perhaps it does in this matter of epistemologies – that fourth proposition.  Over the course of recent decades, law as a discipline has had its internal disputes about its basis: is it grounded in justice? Or in power?  At the same time, the social sciences have had their own internal disputes about the possibility of objectivity.  Though these draw from some of the same deep currents in philosophy, the disputes in the disciplines have been largely separate.  In the social sciences, though the worries about the impossibility of objectivity have never gone away, the stance of these disciplines has become unabashedly empiricist: the facts matter; better data is king. 

In law, I think (again, not my field) the prevailing view is that the law is what the courts and the legislatures say it is.  (Better data isn’t king.) The work of lawyers is to persuade.  When they don’t succeed, they need to look for better strategies of persuasion.  How?  Whatever works.  When CRT began asking why we had not made more progress through the efforts and successes of the civil rights movement, its answer was that we had been foolish to belief there were deep, sturdy principles (equality, rights) to which appeal could be made.  We needed, instead, to recognize that this was a political struggle. 

There’s a divide here between the two disciplines (or kinds of disciplines), I think.  Where I find myself agreeing with CRT and where I find myself reluctant to follow has to do with this divergence. 

 

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Reservations About the Okun and Jones Handout on White Supremacy Culture

[What follows is a lightly edited version of what I sent to others participating with me in a recent series of trainings about diversity/equity/inclusion for an organization on whose board I serve.]

In the materials I received for the diversity/equity/inclusion ‘trainings’ I’ve taken for two different organizations is a handout from Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones entitled “White Supremacy Culture.”  Various versions of this handout are widely used in anti-racism workshops.  (One version I’ve seen is here, another is here, and there are many others.)

Before saying anything further about this handout, I want to say clearly that I believe our country’s history is deeply infected with racial injustice.  I believe that there is no more important work to be done than to address and repair the devastating centuries-long damage of racial injustice.  Responsibility for this damage is widely shared.  I believe we all have important work to do about this.  My reservations have to do with how this handout encourages us to think about the roots or causes of this injustice. 

All the versions of the Jones/Okun handout I’ve seen list characteristics of “white supremacy culture” and some “antidotes” to this.  Throughout, the handout takes a difficult feature (‘individualism,’ for example, or ‘writing,’ etc.), caricatures it, then uses the caricature to declare it in need of an antidote.  The Jones/Okun handout has no citations telling you how its authors came to think it true – or to give it a basis for you to think it true.  On what basis should we think their approach is the right way to think about racism? 

That’s part of what begins to make this feel like a catechism, a rote learning approach.  I want us to be serious and determined in our work on racial justice.  I don’t think we are likely to be well served by a catechism or orthodoxy that says this (and only this) is the right way to think about it.  Such a catechism/orthodoxy is especially unhelpful when it’s shallow.  I don’t think this handout will help us very much or look very adequate in the future. 

In many versions of this handout, the 13th of the 14 characteristics is “objectivity.”  It says that the belief that there is such a thing as “objectivity” is one of the characteristics of white supremacy culture.  That gives me serious pause.  It gives me pause because ‘truth’ matters to me, and ‘justice’ does too. 

For about two centuries the question of objectivity has been one of the most contested topics in philosophy.  (Here’s a link to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Scientific Objectivity.)  The conclusion: that while there are many deep problems with ‘objectivity’, dismissing it altogether would undermine the enterprise of science. I’m a believer in the enterprise of science.  Consequently, I’m reluctant to dismiss objectivity as simply one of the characteristics of white supremacy culture to which we need an antidote. 

It isn’t just scientific objectivity that is important to me.  Truthfulness – the pursuit of truth – is important to me in all ways, not just in matters of science.  The possibility of objectivity is connected to the possibility of there being a truth we can know. I’ve had enough of ‘alternative facts.’  My own wrestling with truth over the years has led me to be not just a scholar/teacher but also to be a religious person.  The truth I know is that there is a unity, a oneness, to the world in which I live.  That oneness holds the truth together.  Knowing that oneness is hard; it’s elusive.  But I never doubt that unity is there to be sought.  

I’m saying this, too, because I believe this oneness is also the deep foundation of the equality I understand among human beings.  We are all participants in that oneness, every single one of us.  I would also express it in this way: we are all children of God.  Because of this oneness, I believe there is the possibility that we may understand one another, that mutual comprehension is possible.  I do recognize that, in all sorts of ways, we come to see things differently from one another.  It takes hard work to get beyond those differences of perspective and I believe we can.  We may never quite achieve full mutual comprehension, but I believe in the possibility. And I hope others do, too, because in our common humanness lies the possibility of what many have called the Beloved Community.  That’s what I hope we are seeking. 

The possibility of racial justice – what I believe we are working on – depends very much on our believing in a oneness to the world.  I reject the view that you have your justice and I have my justice.  I reject the idea that ‘justice is nothing other than the interests of the strong.’  To sustain the very idea of justice I am compelled to believe in oneness and in the possibility of our understanding one another. 

The handout and other materials introduce us to one way of thinking (there are others) about why people do what they do – another difficult topic.  I have other objections to the Jones/Okun handout approach to this, but I’ll just mention one, very briefly. The framing word ‘culture’ (as in ‘white supremacy culture’) gives me pause.  ‘Culture’ is a complex, fraught term, and I’d urge us to be very careful about using it.

I’d especially urge us to be reluctant to ascribe beliefs or responsibilities to any individual because they are a member of a particular “culture.”  The Jones/Okun handout encourages us to make such ascriptions.  Human behavior is rarely that simple, and we diminish people if we proceed this way.  Most of us are shaped by the people around us and yet we are each quite distinctive.  Because of the oneness to the universe, because of the possibility for mutual comprehension, individual human beings will always surprise us, sometimes (not always) happily.  Working from culture to individual motive, as if culture shapes us completely, will do more damage than good, I believe. 

I’d especially urge us rather to look at actions and practices that have harmful or unjust consequence and ask how we can make these different – more just. 

[You can find another critique of the Okun/Jones handout by Matt Yglesias here.]

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Going Through Anti-Racism Training

Especially in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd by policeman Derek Chauvin, organizations everywhere have approved anti-racism resolutions and committed themselves to anti-racist training for their staff and their governing boards.  How can we understand our complicity in the pervasive racism of the United States, each organization finds itself saying, and how can we prepare ourselves for the necessary work ahead to make the future different?  A loosely structured movement coalescing around the slogan Black Lives Matter began to take shape in 2013 following the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman. 

This is a critically important effort: to be more self-aware of pervasive or systematic racism, and to draw as many of as possible together on behalf of efforts to make the future as free of race inequality as possible.  What’s the way forward and who is pointing the way? About that I’m less sure.

I’ve been through two episodes of these steps (approving a resolution, conducting anti-racism training) in recent months.  Each has involved several multi-hour sessions. (Because of COVID, both have been via Zoom.) One episode has been with a secular organization that had not been at all attentive to matters of race inequality or diversity in recent years. The other has been with a Quaker organization that has been relatively alert to race inequality and diversity.  I’m a board member for both.  What I have found especially striking is how similar the ‘trainings’ have been. 

Take a brief pause on the word ‘trainings’.  That’s the word that’s been widely used for these educational sessions about racism and anti-racism.  I first began hearing that term, “a training”, in the 1990s.  (Look at the Google Ngram for “trainings” and you’ll see a rapid increase in use of the term beginning about that time.)  At the time and since, I heard it almost always from people on the left, used to describe efforts to prepare activists and supporters for concerted political action.  On first hearing the term I remember feeling uncomfortable with it.  I’m an educator; I want to help people think critically and creatively, not just to see things as I see them.  ‘Training’ is what I do not do, I remember thinking; it sounded too much like follow-these-steps or even indoctrination.   

These recent sessions have often been described as DEI: diversity, equity and inclusion, or as JEDI: adding justice to the mix.  As I’ve heard these recent DEI sessions described as ‘trainings’, my earlier discomfort has come back to me.  The term ‘trainings’ has seemed apt. These are sessions telling me how to think and what to do.  They are not sessions to encounter alternative perspectives or to encourage one’s own thinking.  The good thinking, it seems, has already been done by others for us to take in: that’s been the ethos of these sessions. 

In both cases, the trainings have been led by groups of consultants for whom this is a for-profit business.  As I look around the web for other providers of such trainings, I see that this is pretty common.  Providing DEI training has become a thing that smallish, for-profit consulting groups provide.  And why not?  Not-for-profit organizations turn to for-profit consulting groups to help them with audits, with payroll services, with legal matters, with IT work, and so forth.  Still, it seems odd in the context of providing education and understanding.  I might have expected to see universities or community colleges or not-for-profit consulting groups providing such educational sessions.

There’s been what looks like a standard curriculum to these trainings.  In both, towards the beginning, we were invited to read or watch Robin DiAngelo on White Fragility.  She describes (as one reviewer put it) “the disbelieving defensiveness that white people exhibit when their ideas about race and racism are challenged—and particularly when they feel implicated in white supremacy.”  Towards the end, both had us take the Race version of the Implicit Association Test, which regularly shows that most Americans have an automatic preference for white over black.  In neither were we pointed towards any evidentiary foundation for either, let alone critiques or contrary thoughts.  (I was already familiar with both and had read a good deal about each, including some pieces that voiced doubts or critiques.)

Those two (white fragility and implicit bias) loosely suggest an analysis of how and why racism persists in the United States and what it might take to move beyond it, but that analysis and that strategy were never spelled out in either training, not even hinted at. I don’t know why.

Also, in neither did we have much consideration of what our particular organization was doing and how this might manifest racism — overt or implicit.  That’s what I had hoped the sessions would be about: to help us think this through together,

I’ll likely have more to say about this curriculum, this orthodoxy, in a later post.  

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John McWhorter on ‘Systemic Racism’

More on ‘systems’ and ‘structures’ in discussions of inequality and injustice.

I recently read a piece by  John McWhorter titled Can We Please Ditch the Term Systemic Racism?  McWhorter is a bracing critic of the new orthodoxy about racism. [See for example, his review of Robin DeAngelo’s White Fragility in The Atlantic of July 2020, or the writings on his Substack Blog, It Bears Mentioning.]  He sees the problems; he just is unhappy with the way it’s being presented and analyzed. 

In the ‘Ditch the Term’ piece, McWhorter voices his frustrations with the term ‘systemic racism.  He wants to explain why Black kids tend to underperform scholastically compared to white kids.  That is an important and persistent issue.  He lifts up a couple of different takes on why this gap persists, and then says he is inclined to agree that a big part of the problem (not all of it) was identified in a 1997 study by Clifton Casteel, that there is “a sense among black teens that school is ‘white’ and that real black kids don’t hit the books.”

McWhorter adds, “Now, racism pure and simple did create this sense of remove, in the 1960s. When states started truly enforcing desegregation orders in schools then, after lagging for a while post Brown v. the Board of Education, black students met students and teachers who were clearly bigoted toward them. This naturally made school feel like ‘the white man’s game,’ and it was here – not before or after – that the idea settled in among black teens that school was white.”

McWhorter is acknowledging racism, systemic racism.  The (a) well-intentioned court-ordered end to segregation encountered (b) racist push-back from many white people and led to (c) rejection of schooling on the part of black kids.  It’s a system explanation because it involves several different parts (not just discriminatory, racist attitudes) and because the main mechanism doesn’t involve intentions alone.  But McWhorter doesn’t think that the best way forward involves ‘getting rid of racism.’

For him, saying that, today, that the problem is “systemic racism,” and therefore that the solution is to ‘get rid of the racism,’ simply misses the point.  The racism was in the past here, he’s saying, and that has left an unfortunate attitude set among Black students. 

What would it mean to get rid of that?  McWhorter doesn’t think talking about ‘systemic racism’ is anything but a distraction and maybe worse.  He worries that the response may be to dumb down schools or coursework, and indeed some have suggested such things.  Instead, he counsels “putting extra effort into training black kids for tests, getting the word out among them about the value of collaboration in studying (which blunts the idea that studying is not what ‘we’ do), valuing black kids learning next to each other in solid charter schools over the idea that they are better off learning next to middle class white kids (despite some evidence of slightly better performance in such cases – priorities will differ), and other things.”

And he adds this, “But of all of our strategies, ‘get rid of the racism’ is the goofiest, most unreasoning and ultimately most harmful.”  He adds, “We must get past the idea that where black Americans are concerned, sociology is applesauce-easy.”  “System racism” isn’t a one-size fits all analysis for all inequalities and relentless deployment of the term ‘systemic racism’ may point away from the best solutions. 

I don’t know what the best approach is today to race gaps in education.  It’s a hard problem.  For all his frustration with the term ‘systemic racism,’ McWhorter’s analysis of the problem in the past is one that looks at the issue as a systemic or structural one.  What I like best about his analysis is that he, too, addresses a problem concretely, with specificity. 

He wants to jettison speaking of systems or structures.  On that I don’t agree with him.  I do think we must use those terms only when we are prepared to really address what the systems or structures are, and on that I think we agree. 

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