One of the things that prevents me from writing more often is the sense that I’m just writing the same thing repeatedly from a slightly different angle. In a nutshell, all I’m saying is that moral idealism substituted for material goals will not lead to justice, but is an argument against materialism. I’m a dumb person’s low rent Adolph Reed Jr. translator. I’m a “class reductionist” who understands that when the discourse is reduced to just class there’s nothing as important as food, water and shelter that’s left out. I often find myself contending with people who insist that there is, unable to name anything. They don’t understand that they’re making an argument against economic redistribution, or they don’t care.
There are no concrete manifestations of systemic racism or any oppression that are not dealt with through economic redistribution. When people say that economic redistribution won’t end racism, what they mean is that it won’t end the affinity bias, native to everyone, that we assume to be especially toxic in white individuals.
The irony of this discourse against white supremacy is that it reifies whiteness. It positions a universal trait as superlative in white people. It makes the argument for the supremacy of whiteness, to defeat it. It then offers no strategy for contending with this uniquely toxic bias. There is no effective strategy for changing bias in another, except to reinforce it. Yet, challenging this assumed bias is central to the current pursuit of justice for oppressed people. Increasingly, challenging this bias is the only goal in the pursuit of justice for people called oppressed. Clearly, the well being of oppressed people is not the goal.
Thomas Frank, in The People, No!: A Brief History of Anti-populism, offers a clue what the actual goal is:
an understanding of radicalism in which politics was no longer really about accomplishing public things for the common good, instead, politics was becoming, at least in part, a path to personal fulfillment or healing. Protest degenerated into “street theater”…as historian Christopher Lasch put it; a satisfying sense of personal righteousness became the ultimate end of political action.
In other words, the point of this anti-politics of righteousness, the goal of this moral idealism is personal righteousness. This pursuit of personal righteousness includes a pursuit of righteousness in others through proselytizing and shaming people into accepting amorphous cultural values as universal, no matter how extreme. If, for example, you question the utility of calling all white people racist in combating systemic racism, you’re racist; if you have genital preferences, you’re transphobic. It’s ironic that the shaming most commonly used to leverage these positions ensures a hardening of opinion against the cultural values.
Since adopting and sharing the cultural values is the point, focus on anything other than those values is increasingly labeled *ist or *phobic. So promoting a transracial worker movement for economic democracy is racist for showing ambivalence to the bias projected on white workers. This discourse hinges on a hidden order of operations, first we cleanse the dirt from their souls, then we can see to their earthly needs. It ignores that culture is informed by material conditions and pursues a strategy that deprecates the cultural values it promotes. It’s a focus on cultural values with a strategy that ensures those values won’t be widely accepted. In a very real sense, not only is this moral idealism a substitute for materialism, it’s a substitute for justice. The discourse is a trap, because the discourse is the point.
What If Making the Perfect Hammer was the Point of Carpentry
One of the issues with talking about race/racism/anti-racism is that there is so much jargon. There’s an assumption that the terms all have commonly shared definitions. But they don’t. We don’t even have a commonly shared understanding of race. This should be clear with the current conversation around Kamala Harris’ identity as a black woman or African American. She has variously identified as a proud American, a woman of color, black, and Indian. The concept of race is recognized as a social construct that’s as mutable as Harris’ self identity. Yet, even among people with this recognition, the conversation is fraught and uneven because, while race is not real, racism is.
We attempt to define it by the higher rates of poverty and the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and red-lining for black people. It’s illuminated by the racial wealth gap and the decreased statistical likelihood that bad things will happen to white people, like maternal mortality or death by cop. Nevermind that these negative things happen to more white people in sheer raw numbers. It’s understood that these bad things happen to black people for a clear reason. They happen because of racism, because the people are black. The unanswered question remains, if it happens to black people because of racism, why does it happen to so many more white people? I’d suggest that our understanding of racism is as mutable as the concept of race. So is the current concept of ‘anti-racism’.
For the last few months I’ve been actively participating in a Boston Globe run Facebook group, Discussing Race in Boston. I became active after the George Floyd protests began. The pandemic had been forcing a conversation on wages and healthcare that the Democrat’s primary had been designed to curtail. The focus on the racially disparate effect of the virus was being connected to economic insecurity in an almost tangible way. There were demands for higher wages and for protecting essential workers.
With Floyd’s death the conversation became one of racially focused police violence and general racial grievance. Concern over the virus melted instantly. Public health officials declared racism a more present danger than the virus to justify mass gatherings by protesters. The speed of the change was almost shocking. What was actually shocking is that the texts most often recommended to educate on the moment, White Fragility and How to be Anti-Racist, had nothing to say to the moment, whether police violence or the economic and pandemic insecurity. Not only were these texts frequently recommended by participants in the Discussing Race in Boston and across social media, The Globe had a virtual workshop with How to be Anti-Racist author, Ibram X. Kendi.
After multiple exchanges in which I was told I sounded like Glenn Beck, was faking being black, didn’t understand MLK, couldn’t understand Kendi without reading the book, and simply, “LOL” in response to the assertion that the book’s ‘anti-racism’ had nothing to do with the material well being of anyone suffering from racism, someone attempted to offer clarity.
What I hadn’t gathered is that the book is useful for understanding that policy is either racist, and produces racist outcomes or anti-racist, producing anti-racist outcomes. Anti-racist policy is policy that’s anti-racist. Being an anti-racist means voting for anti-racists, no other verbs or adjectives needed. The multi-day interaction was illuminating. I assume that things like maternal mortality, impacting more white people, is a result of racist policy. Less clear is if things that are more likely to happen to white people, like opioid deaths, are the result of racist or anti-racist policy. Being anti-racist means being dedicated to the tools of anti-racism — intersectionality, identity politics, Kendi’s book — assuming them useful, not actually using the tools and most definitely not being concerned with the result. Not one of these tools is useful for building anything. That’s not the point, the tool is the point of the discourse.
‘Anti-racism’ =/= Ending racism
I think we bear some responsibility for offering a solution for problems as we define them, or at least a vision for the result we seek. Kendi doesn’t believe his ‘anti-racism’ will end racism as he defines it. So what’s the point? When I say there are no concrete manifestations of systemic racism that are not met through economic redistribution, I’m not denying the power of bias, I’m suggesting that focus on it is a distraction from fulfilling material needs. I’m also suggesting concrete, rather than spiritual remedy for those said to be suffering from racism. Arguments that favor confronting bias or white privilege and accusations of class reductionism are class arguments against the interests of the poor and working class. As Adolph Reed Jr. says, “Nothing declares one’s own class allegiance more eloquently, after all, than the accusation that one’s opponents care only about class.”
None of this is real. If rejecting white privilege was an actual goal, Rachel Dolezal would be a national hero. As far as I understand, the privilege is that the horrible shit that may happen to you, doesn’t happen just because you’re white. Many of those advocating dealing with both class and “race” suggest that we need racially specific policy or awareness. “‘Adolph Reed and his ilk believe that if we talk about race too much we will alienate too many, and that will keep us from building a movement,’ said Keeanga Yamahtta Taylor… ‘We don’t want that — we want to win white people to an understanding of how their racism [bias, my note] has fundamentally distorted the lives of Black people.’” Put another way, she wants white people to locate the problems of black Americans within themselves. She want them to cleanse the dirt from their souls.
The idea that the country is and has been so racist that we need to ignore the racial blindness of the Civil Rights Act to get our still racist country to create policy for black people, considering the nature of hidden consequences (in this case obvious), and not to put too sharp a point on it, is clearly idiotic. In this framing ‘anti-racism’ isn’t relevant to the self-interests of white people. It’s something that one participates in for black people. White people are perpetrators. Black people are just victims to be saved, subjects, not actors.
Post Jim Crow, considering that the mechanisms maintaining the byproducts of a history of economic exclusion which we call systemic racism are color blind, effective ‘anti-racism’ is in the material interests of white people. Rather than attempting to fix racial disparities in, for example, maternal mortality or police violence, effective ‘anti-racism’ attempts to examine and confront the underlying causes for everyone.
Adam Rothman and Barbara Fields better make this point in a recent essay,
those seeking genuine democracy must fight like hell to convince white Americans that what is good for black people is also good for them. Reining in murderous police, investing in schools rather than prisons, providing universal healthcare (including drug treatment and rehabilitation for addicts in the rural heartland), raising taxes on the rich, and ending foolish wars are policies that would benefit a solid majority of the American people. Such an agenda could be the basis for a successful political coalition rooted in the real conditions of American life, which were disastrous before the pandemic and are now catastrophic.
Attacking “white privilege” will never build such a coalition. In the first place, those who hope for democracy should never accept the term “privilege” to mean “not subject to a racist double standard.” That is not a privilege. It is a right that belongs to every human being. Moreover, white working people — Hannah Fizer, For example — are not privileged. In fact, they are struggling and suffering in the maw of a callous trickle-up society whose obscene levels of inequality the pandemic is likely to increase. The recent decline in life expectancy among white Americans, which the economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton attribute to “deaths of despair,” is a case in point. The rhetoric of white privilege mocks the problem, while alienating people who might be persuaded.
I would suggest that a version of ‘anti-racism’ ambivalent to projected white bias for the sake of transracial solidarity is preferable and more just than one apathetic to white death and suffering in the name of black death and suffering. The former seeks to challenge the misery that is the physical expression of what we understand systemic racism to be, the latter uses that misery to demonstrate why we should do nothing in the name of justice. It is also the version of ‘anti-racism’ most promoted in the current discourse.