If the astounding fact that Donald Trump received a greater share of non-white people’s votes in 2020 than any Republican president since 1960 reveals anything at all, it’s that this past summer’s racial reckoning didn’t resonate with many. In contrast to the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, which found expression in historic legislation, the results of this year’s cultural upheavals have been more symbolic than substantive. Statues were toppled—not just of confederates but of abolitionists and national founders; defund the police became the impromptu battle cry of progressive activists; dissenters like James Bennett, David Shor, Bari Weiss and Andrew Sullivan were fired from or pressured to leave their jobs for refusing to acquiesce. But, despite the fact that major corporations from Walmart to Goldman Sachs, along with almost every major media outlet, celebrity and cultural institution came out in full support of Black Lives Matter, conspicuously few national policies advocating structural reforms in policing have emerged as a result.
A sharp uptick in violent crime and homicides was the predictable outcome of the widespread anti-police sentiment galvanized by Black Lives Matter. Rioting caused billions of dollars in property damage in largely minority neighborhoods and dozens of lives were lost. It would be a terrible irony if a movement ostensibly dedicated to preserving black lives inadvertently cost more of them than it saved.
Trump’s gains among non-white, women and LGBTQ voters (and his setbacks among white male voters) have not stopped some progressives from blaming the unprecedented turnout of support for him on white supremacy, patriarchy and racism. Charles Blow, for example, has commented, “All of this to me points to the power of the white patriarchy and the coattail it has of those who depend on it or aspire to it … Some people who have historically been oppressed will stand with the oppressors, and will aspire to power by proximity.” Likewise Roxane Gay has asserted, “The way this election has played out shouldn’t be a surprise if you’ve been paying attention or if you understand racism and how systemic it really is.” Nikole Hannah-Jones tweeted that the Latino vote for Trump can be attributed to the whiteness of certain Hispanic ethnic groups. But the much more parsimonious answer is that demography is not destiny.
This is an ideology incapable of adapting to new information. Modern, race-conscious antiracism is not just a political affiliation, like libertarianism or democratic socialism. The sense of meaning it provides in our increasingly secular society has turned it into a quasi-religious belief system that grow stronger in the face of disconfirmatory information. If our political identity is our primary source of morality, any challenge to our political worldview will be perceived as an existential threat. In modern anti-racism, resistance to reality is more of a feature than a bug.
The misplaced assumption that racism killed George Floyd virtually guaranteed a disproportionate and jumbled response. The ostensible concerns of BLM—racial profiling in policing and the lack of accountability and transparency among officers—are laudable and well substantiated. But it was no coincidence that race and racism, rather than structural policing issues, quickly became the main issue.
Police killings of unarmed people of any race are exceedingly rare in the US (there were only about 55 last year). The group most targeted by police are the poor. Interracial violence is extremely uncommon and black police officers may be just as likely to kill black suspects as white officers. White people are regularly killed by police and in higher absolute numbers than black people. The death of a white man called Tony Timpa, who was killed in nearly identical circumstances to Floyd’s attracted little interest. The discomfiting reality is that racial gaps in policing start to close when we account for differences in crime rates and frequency of encounters with police. Any honest conversation about policing must also take into account the around 400 million guns circulating in the population along with America’s disproportionate rates of violent crime in relation to our peer countries. Around 81% of black Americans want as much or more policing in their communities as they currently have. All these facts have been ignored and treated as extraneous, at best. Those who raised them are often viewed with suspicion. Questioning whether racism really killed George Floyd opens one up to the charge of being a racist oneself. To be against Black Lives Matter is framed as being against black lives. To be against the current form antiracism has taken is framed as being in favor of racism. This discourages honest conversation.
It doesn’t have to be this way. If the advocates of anti-racism could address its two major blind spots—historical determinism and race essentialism—a better version would emerge. We can mitigate the lingering effects of racism in society without resorting to the same moral logic that gave rise to white supremacy in the first place: the use of group identity as a means to power and absolution. Any successful antiracist movement must begin with the premise that race is a fiction.
Against Historical Determinism
The ideology underlying modern anti-racism is a mutation of the academic discipline known as Critical Race Theory, which arose in the 1970s in response to the persistence of socioeconomic gaps between white and black Americans, despite the seeming decline in overt racism in mainstream society. A group of activists, scholars and lawyers, including Kimberlé Crenshaw, Derrick Bell and Patricia Williams, developed a structural analysis of racism and racial inequality that took more subtle expressions of racism into account and assumed a direct causal relationship between the historical legacy of white supremacy and present racial disparities. “Unlike traditional civil rights discourse,” write Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic in Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, “which stresses incrementalism and step-by-step progress, critical race theory questions the very foundations of the liberal order; including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.”
The adversarial stance of CRT is built into its framework. But more crucially, the overall shift in our notions of racism that CRT has brought forth—from interpersonal to structural, overt to implicit, conscious to unconscious, political to personal, present to past, discrimination to disparity—allows the progress made over the past 60 years to be swiftly dismissed and the specter of white supremacy to be raised in perpetuity. How else is it possible for bestselling author Robin DiAngelo to write that, “In some ways, racism’s adaptations over time are more sinister than concrete rules such as Jim Crow.” The expanding definition of racism justifies the need for more anti-racism, which creates a moral incentive to exaggerate the effects of racism.
The denial of progress is a problem for genuine anti-racist activism. If we don’t know where we came from or where we are now, we can’t possibly know where we’re going. If mentioning facts that contradict the progressive view on race is seen as excusing the history and persistence of racism, then clear anti-racist goals for the future won’t be outlined and achieved. A number of dark-skinned ethnic groups already have much higher average incomes than white people. The historic taboo against intermarriage has almost completely collapsed in America. Immigrants from Ghana and Nigeria are often highly educated and upwardly mobile in the US. America was not exceptional in its racist practices and is now one of the most culturally pluralistic, ethnically diverse and least racist places on the planet. Being progressive should not mean denying the reality of this progress, otherwise, as Coleman Hughes has put it, we will be “left with a Sisyphean politics; an agitated march to nowhere in particular.”
History is also kept alive through the stigma of intergenerational collective guilt. DiAngelo writes,
I am sometimes asked whether my work reinforces and takes advantage of white guilt. But I don’t see my efforts to uncover how race shapes my life as a matter of guilt. I know that because I was socialized as white in a racism-based society, I have a racist worldview, deep racial bias, racist patterns, and investments in the racist system that has elevated me. Still, I don’t feel guilty about racism.
I don’t feel guilty about being white, but as a white person my existence is predicated on the brutal system of racial oppression. Does that make sense? This is the mental gymnastics of woke psychology, in which guilt is invoked to justify an endless focus on the past, even as the reasons for that guilt have precipitously declined. Majority guilt and minority victimology elevate the question of who is to blame over the question of what is to be done.
If the failure to appreciate progress is one blind spot of modern anti-racism, the tendency to reduce every issue to race is the other. This stems directly from Critical Race Theory, extended to meet the self-defined moral demands of the political moment. The framework comes prepackaged, awaiting an opportunity, like a grievance in search of a cause. Revolutionary sentiment is not necessarily correlated with the amount of oppression in society, but with the opportunity presented by the perception of oppression. Although race and racism play less of a role in determining life outcomes than at any time in history, the belief that they do is ascendant. Modern anti-racism is a historical overcorrection, using past oppression to justify present overreach. The prevailing power structure so closely identifies itself with innocence, powerlessness and victimization that it can’t recognize its own power. By endlessly affirming its innocence, the counterculture transforms into a cultural hegemony that feels justified to squash dissent with impunity.
Against Race Essentialism
A central tenet of Critical Race Theory is that no aspect of American life is left untouched by race or the history of racism. Modern activists go even further: they insist that focusing on race in every situation is necessary to defeat racism and see the principle of colorblindness itself as racist. If we want to move toward a society in which one’s race doesn’t predict one’s life outcomes, they argue, the social and historical construction of race and racism must be seen and deconstructed in the service of the marginalized, otherwise the status quo will remain intact.
Few embody this position better than Ibram X. Kendi. In his 2019 memoir How To Be An Antiracist, Kendi writes, “I still identify as Black. Not because I believe Blackness, or race, is a meaningful scientific category but because our societies, our policies, our ideas, or histories, and our cultures have rendered race and made it matter.” He argues that the “most threatening racist movement is not the alt-right’s unlikely drive for a White ethnostate but the regular American’s drive for a ‘race-neutral’ one.” Although our overarching goal ought to be a world in which race doesn’t matter, in this view, denying that race matters is even worse than being an outright racist because it creates a false sense of security. True equality in Kendi’s eyes entails complete racial parity of outcomes across the board: “One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist. There is no in between safe space of ‘not racist.’ The claim of ‘not racist’ neutrality is a mask for racism.”
One problem with this position is that race-consciousness is not something we can turn on and off like a light switch. It is the very shallowness of the concept of race that makes racism such a banal evil: it projects a false importance onto hair texture and skin tone to justify the raw pursuit of power. The concept of race can never be used to achieve noble ends—it always becomes an end in itself, a Pandora’s box of human tribalism. Because race itself contains no essence, no weight, an appeal to race is always an avoidance of something we are not yet willing to face. When racial categories are stripped of all the factors we typically associate with them—class, culture, ethnicity, national identity, politics—we are left with a vacuum of meaning that neither history nor biology can fill. The belief that race categories are meaningful, per se, is intrinsic to racism. Using race to fight racism is a contradiction, since it is the belief in essential races of people that provides the ammunition for racist behavior. Fighting racism means recognizing that race is a fallacy.
The second problem with Kendi’s framework is that racial disparities are not necessarily evidence of racism, nor are race-conscious policies always necessary to mitigate them. The unique combination of demographic, socioeconomic, cultural, geographical and historical forces that affect every single ethnic group make it virtually impossible for two distinct groups to ever achieve the same outcomes on all measures. Racism may contribute to disparities of outcome, but it can’t explain instances in which historically marginalized groups are more successful than the majority group. Asian-Americans have suffered historical discrimination and yet outearn, outlearn and outlive white Americans today. So long as distinct ethnic groups are identifiable in the population, and so long as cultures between groups differ on average, disparate outcomes will always be with us. The question is why we accept certain disparities unquestioningly while lamenting others. Disparities tell us very little about what or where the problem is or whether there is one.
The fundamental confusion stems from the conflation of racism with racial inequality, under the umbrella concept of structural racism, and the attendant presumption that past and present racism explain racial outcome gaps in the US today. But racist behavior and racial inequality are separate phenomena. Moreover, the use of racial gaps to measure progress is misleading. Over the past couple of decades, the black incarceration rate has declined, the life expectancy of black Americans has increased and rates of education have gone up substantially: 60% of black Americans today report being better off financially than their parents. White people, by contrast, are more likely to commit suicide than members of any other group except Native Americans and Alaska natives, belong to the group most likely to be living in poverty in the US and their life expectancy has declined over the past few years. The focus on relative privilege ignores these broader trends.
Finally, if the case for race-conscious policy rests on the fact that blacks are disproportionately represented on the bottom rungs of society, then wouldn’t colorblind policies geared toward helping those in need—poor people, the unjustly incarcerated, the geographically displaced, the socially maligned, the educationally deprived—disprortionately benefit them? It’s never been explained why universal social programs wouldn’t be sufficient to address issues of racial inequality. As Toure Reed recounts in his book Toward Freedom: The Case Against Race Reductionism, the successful labor movements of the 30s and 40s were largely responsible for the economic and social gains made in black America in the lead-up to the civil rights movement. Indeed, the famous 1963 March on Washington at which Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have A Dream” speech was originally called the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The goals of the march included a federal jobs program and a living wage.
“African-Americans of the 1930s and 40s,” Reed writes, “came to see race discrimination as an outgrowth of economic inequality. Thus, by the early 1930s mainstream civil rights organizations … began to emphasize the broader advance of the working class as key to black uplift.” Between 1940 and 1960, the poverty rate among black families halved, while the income of black men quintupled. Toure’s father, Adolph Reed Jr. writes, “It was only in the late 1960s and 1970s, after the legislative victories that defeated southern apartheid and restored black Americans’ full citizenship rights, that ‘racism’ was advanced as the default explanation for inequalities that appear as racial disparities.”
Anti-Racism without Race
The progressive narrative about race is unlikely to yield the outcomes that antiracists want to see. The unacknowledged belief in the moral significance of race undermines the effort to move toward a society in which race categories are meaningless. A better antiracism would ground itself in the same humanist principles that ultimately abolished institutional white supremacy. We don’t have to look far for models. The great novelist Ralph Ellison’s ideal of a new American humanism—a rejection of race essentialism and separatism and the dissociation of the national culture from poisonous race categories—is instructive. Likewise, this clip of James Baldwin in 1960 provides a stellar example of antiracist humanism:
Pure gold from James Baldwin in 1960 on the inherent sanctity of human life.
— Samuel Kronen (@SalmonKromeDome) September 21, 2020
A humanist antiracism would reject all racial double standards and express equal opprobrium at the police killings of both George Floyd and Tony Timpa. It would acknowledge the brutal legacy of historical racism, as well as the astounding racial progress made in the past half century, while never losing sight of how much further we have to go before race is irrelevant in public life. It would condemn racism in the strongest possible terms and root out what remains of it in our institutions, without suggesting that racism is responsible for everything that’s unfair in society. It would reject notions of intergenerational bloodguilt and retributive justice. It would strive for a race-blind world without ignoring instances of persistent racial injustice. It would create more breathing room for conversations about race, by allowing us to see each other as human beings and not simply as avatars of our races. It would appreciate the real advantages and disadvantages experienced by certain groups and individuals in society without making a religion out of the notion of privilege. It would reject the tendency to make meaning out of race and use race as a proxy for underlying social conditions. It would focus on hard policy reform over symbolic gestures of piety. It would measure progress by comparing metrics of well-being to those of the past rather than in terms of racial disparities. And it would reject systematic discrimination, whether in the form of overt racial quota systems in job applications and admissions procedures or subtle biases against blacks and other groups in policing, medicine and other sectors of American life.
Ibram X. Kendi posits that the “only remedy to racist discrimination is anti-racist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.” A better antiracism would start by calling this out for what it is: racism in progressive garb.