In November 2019, a controversy broke out at the annual conference of the Society for Music Theory. The plenary lecture, delivered by Hunter College professor Philip Ewell, alleged the existence of elitism, color blindness, Eurocentrism, racism, and xenophobia in the field of music theory in North America. Ewell’s main target was Heinrich Schenker, an Austrian Jewish music theorist of the early twentieth century who founded a school of classical music theory, and his disciples and heirs. Ewell objected to the “white racial frame” that dominates Schenkerian music theory. Classical music theory, and by extension classical music, are at best colorblind and at worst racist.
For Ewell, the problem is not primarily institutional but structural. Diversifying the demographics of classical music students and scholars will not do the trick. If “racism is a structure,” then the “white racial frame”—classical music in its European incarnation—must be destroyed. The language of “white racial frame” is agonistic. A symbolic war must be waged for the defeat of a “white race.” The reader will judge whether this anti-racist struggle can be compared to a racist one.