When I was in middle school, my mother received periodic evangelical solicitations for donations. I can’t remember the church, but the letters were garish, with printed sections in bold red. Sometimes the letters would feature ‘activity pages’ like Mad Magazine fold over images, that once completed revealed Satan or Christ with stigmata, good fun for the kids. The most consistent part was the fervent cry for renewed spiritual salvation through a donation, since you had surely fallen back to sin since the last solicitation. It’s just human nature that one would return to sinning and it could be predicted to happen on a monthly or bi-monthly basis.
I’m reminded of those letters by the current most celebrated ideas for dealing with the complex history of race in the US, which cast people into a simple sinner/not sinner binary. In this case you’re either racist or anti-racist; actively doing anti-racism or actively reinforcing racism, even through inaction. It should be noted that asking what it means to be anti-racist, which specific actions, the goal, is the same as being racist. It’s a little too much like asking how a donation assures your place in heaven. The only way to be anti-racist is by continually admitting that you are in fact racist, if you’re white, and presumably buying the next book or body wash.
For a few years I’ve been calling what is referred to as anti-racism “the white supremacist argument in blackface” or for justice. While ultimately true, it was my attempt to be incendiary enough to call into question the assumption that the argument could serve justice, if done correctly. The response increasingly makes clear that it’s less about justice and end goals than it is the practice of anti-racism itself. In a sense, even considering that their anti-racism might do more harm than good is less important than the dedication by proponents to the practice. The current move is to recognize that Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility might be problematic but Ibram X. Kendi making the exact same argument in How to be Anti-Racist — that MLK was probably wrong and it is the color of a person’s skin — is better. It’s not about the message, but the messenger, or in this case the preacher.
John McWhorter, as well as a number of others, has written about the religious nature of anti-racism. Rather than take his arguments as my own, I’d like to use that which seems obvious to make the case that this describes not just anti-racism, but all moral idealism offered as alternative to politically relevant action. Despite having the site of George Floyd’s death become a space for daily ministry and numerous images of penitent, kneeling white people crossing social media making the religious nature of this moment abundantly clear, it’s worth detailing to make clear how pervasive this quasi-religious thought has become.
It’s important here to reiterate: the current discourse around race and ‘anti-racism’ is not about end goals, merely the practice of ‘anti-racism’. It is completely unconcerned with the material well being of anyone who could be said to be experiencing systemic racism, except as example for the need for anti-racism. It’s more concerned with removing the racism of white people, cleansing their souls. This is key to illustrating and understanding the religious parallels. The Black Lives Matter ‘movement’ clarifies this best. It is the most visibly present manifestation of looking at a byproduct of poverty and historic deprivation through the lens of racial essentialism.
On its face The Movement for Black Lives is promoting a framework for organizing to increase the safety and security of black people. It’s primarily focused on the violence of police especially towards unarmed people, which, while more likely to happen to black men than white men, is still less likely to occur than a lightening strike. After six years can it be said to be an effective framework? This is a rhetorical question only if the answer is irrelevant. The number of police deaths remains relatively unchanged.
When researcher Adam Szetla’s attempt to evaluate the efficacy of BLM, “Black Lives Matter at 5: Limits and Possibilities” was published in Ethnic and Racial Studies last year it dropped like a bomb. (It was just academics so the explosion was tiny, but revealing.) Because the article was behind a paywall I sought an explanation of what he’d gotten wrong. Not one response pointed to a single success of BLM missed by Szetela. The problem was that Szetela, as a white man, was attempting to evaluate BLM at all. BLM wasn’t a strategy or a framework, it was an inherently good thing that he was attacking by asking basic questions about its effectiveness.
Earnest questions are a threat to religion, exposing difficult contradictions. If god loves us why does he allow so much horror on Earth? or If black lives matter why focus on the relatively few lost to the police instead of the many more lost to people in the community or the lack of healthcare? Szetela’s questions were a threat to what amounted to academics’ faith in a failed framework. It was safer to call him out as a heretic and his questions blasphemous than engage the questions.
As McWhorter notes,
To say one is not to question is not to claim that no questions are ever asked. The Right quite readily questions Antiracism’s tenets. Key, however, is that among Antiracism adherents, those questions are tartly dismissed as inappropriate and often, predictably, as racist themselves. The questions are received with indignation that one would ask them, with a running implication that their having been asked is a symptom of, yes, racism’s presence.
People who don’t accept the framing are racist, thanks to the simple binary, in the same way that people outside a religious faith might be called sinners, heathens, or infidels. Questions are irrelevant precisely because they’re from people not of the faith. It doesn’t matter that asking questions of the knowledgable is one way to challenge your ignorance of a subject. Racism, in this case, doesn’t require violent action against someone of another race or even antipathy. It means being ignorant or doubtful of the framework, even if you have the same goals. This is why socialists who reject racial essentialism while promoting economic redistribution that would disproportionately help black people can be called class reductionists, nazis, and Strasserites in social media. They are elevating the material well being of black people over cleansing the souls of white people, and racism is the white original sin.
In a pluralistic society of many varied cultural values and practices we are told we should accept that not only does the BLM framework match its purported goals, it’s the only one that does. Even if for you the racial essentialism of the BLM framework is itself racist, you’re racist for not embracing it. It doesn’t matter if the goals are not supported by a majority of Americans, or even black Americans. BLM has been imbued with incredible moral authority on this subject.
Honestly, thinking about this is somewhat frightening. Where exactly does the moral authority of BLM come from? It’s a leaderless non-organization with a $100 million fund from the Ford Foundation that has achieved nothing. It casts what should be a universal goal as a culture war issue by focusing on a handful of black deaths at the hands of police while ignoring the many more white deaths at the hands of police and the many more black deaths from other more predictable causes.
Even more troubling, the ostensible goals of BLM remain the same today as they were a year ago. There’s nothing in the current activism that indicates any awareness of the unprecedented pandemic and its medical and economic impact on black people. I once thought of BLM’s framing as unfortunate. As unconcerned as it is with self examination and its actual impact, I now see it as harmful and amoral. The same could be said of identity politics, intersectionality, or what we currently call anti-racism, any form of depoliticized essentialism promoted for justice.
Here, I’d like to jump my presumptive lane a bit. I believe that there are a number of people who are labeled transphobe or TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist) not because of actual antipathy towards trans people. Instead, like many people called racist for questioning anti-racism, they are thrust into a simple binary of pro-trans/anti-trans for having or recognizing unanswered questions as cisgendered people. I don’t personally have answers to any of these questions around transitioning for teens, or self-identification. The point is that it’s wrong to suggest that these questions are settled. If it’s transphobic not to accept the assertions of activists as gospel, then most people are transphobes despite their support for the well being of trans people.
From the online vitriol surrounding JK Rowling I’d assumed that at some point she had said something particularly negative about trans people. It’s possible they exist but I never found the statements that make her a TERF, just a series of self-reinforcing unsubstantiated accusations that she is. In June she published a 3400 word essay on her website to explain her positions. Rather than expressing hatred of trans people she is concerned with the way that activism is redefining ‘woman’ in law, especially in light of Scotland lowering the threshold for self-identifying. These issues seem to be portrayed as moral issues, but they are matters of public policy. Rowling’s concerns are not those of a bigot, but of the majority of people questioned.
Similarly, the label transphobe seems to accompany journalist Jesse Singal. Based on my admittedly shallow research the accusations seem to stem from articles he’s written on transgender teens and the question of transitioning and adults who have de-transitioned. From what I can tell the problem is not that Singal misrepresented anyone’s position or promoted a niche position as universal to trans people. The problem seems to be that he brought the nuance one would expect of a complex topic to a discourse used to a simple binaries for/against and that prefers the correct authentic trans voices. Jesse Singal, like JK Rowling, appears to be a transphobe for questioning rather than accepting the orthodoxy of trans activists. What’s worse, Singal shared the experiences of people who identify as trans who have opinions, which, were they from cisgendered people could be outright dismissed as transphobic.
It brings to mind a recent incident with another journalist. In June, Lee Fang of the Intercept shared a video of a man named Max expressing concern over the lack of focus on the deaths that occur at the hands of others in his neighborhood. As with the individuals in Singal’s piece, who had de-transitioned, Max’s viewpoint was considered legitimate and important. The problem was that Fang, like Singal, had shared that legitimate and important viewpoint. He was accused of spreading right wing tropes about ‘black on black’ crime. It was racist to give a black man space to express concern over the crime in his neighborhood in a country in which most crime is racially homogenous.
I’d suggest that a discourse that condemns journalists for sharing people voicing honest concerns is only interested in ensuring those concerns are never heard. As with quasi-religious anti-racism, there’s a strain of trans activism less concerned with material goals than ensuring that everyone has the correct moral position. The exercise of hunting infidels, turning questioners into racists and transphobes, acts to shrink the discourse to just the orthodoxy. It’s about conversion through guilt or pressure. a religious objective, rather than convincing, which requires a compelling political argument.