It’s easier to criticize something than it is to replace it.
During the Black Lives Matter protests this past summer, it was moving to see that so many people care about important issues like police brutality and racial inequality. But the core claims of the movement—that America is structurally racist, that police routinely kill black people for no reason, that white people have privilege and non-white people are victims—are not literally true. Instead, they are metaphors for how many Americans feel about their society. But the distance between metaphor and reality virtually guaranteed an overreaction. What if our cultural narratives and the social movements they inspire were more honest?
If our idea of a given problem is wrong then our solutions won’t work. If the main issue facing low income black communities is a racist police force and a lack of social services, it makes sense to cut back on policing and hire more social workers. This is what people mean by defund the police. But if the major problems involve basic issues like transparency, training, accountability and trust—which might or might not overlap with race issues—the solution may require more funding. Likewise, if racial disparities in policing outcomes don’t stem primarily from racial bias but reflect racial disparities in violent crime and poverty rates, withdrawing police officers from black communities will lead to rising homicide rates—and most of the victims will be black.
Imbalanced discourse is the problem here. People naturally differ in how they feel about major cultural issues. If we only ever hear one side of an argument, it is probably because the other side has been suppressed—cutting us off from an important perspective for no good reason. Our moral impulses need to be checked by other people’s contrasting moral impulses if we want a healthy culture and politics.
The preferred story here is that systematic racism creates racial inequality and systematic antiracism is the solution. This is the view of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Ibram X. Kendi and Nikole Hannah-Jones. To modern antiracists, if blacks are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police than whites, that disparity is assumed to stem from racism, whether overt or systemic, past or present. Antiracism involves canceling out that disparity through political interventions such as anti-bias training, diversity initiatives or racial quotas. This vision is guided by shame over the legacy of past racism and a desire for compensatory justice. In this view, understanding how racism privileges some groups and victimizes others keeps history from repeating itself while helping to equalize things in the present. Antiracists envision a world without major socioeconomic disparities between whites and blacks, and in which racist incidents—particularly the killing of unarmed black people by police or white vigilantes—do not go unpunished.
But racism is not the sole cause of racial disparities.
Many historically marginalized groups—from the Ibo in Nigeria and the Lebanese in Africa to the overseas Chinese—have succeeded in the face of majoritarian racism in their host countries. Conversely, many historically favored groups have fallen behind historically oppressed ones. It can’t just be racism, then, that determines the success or failure of a group. Asian-Americans—and Japanese Americans in particular—faced a great deal of racism in the past, yet Asian-Americans out-earn, outlive and outlearn white Americans by a wide margin today and Japanese Americans are one of the most successful ethnic groups in America. On the other side of the ledger, Appalachian white ethnics like the Scotch and Irish haven’t dealt with as much historical discrimination and yet make up a disproportionate percentage of those living in poverty. So long as distinct ethnic and racial groups exist, there will be disparities between them—whether or not society is racist. Different groups act differently on average. Every ethnic group has its own unique historical, cultural, geographical and demographic makeup, which influence its performance over time.
This also applies to disparities within groups. The black population most likely to interact with the police is not necessarily the black population most likely to benefit from affirmative action in college admissions. A 2004 study found that two thirds of black Harvard graduates were either immigrants, the children of immigrants or biracial. A disproportionate number of black American firsts (first black PhD, first black cabinet member, etc.) of the early twentieth century came from a single high school: the all-black Dunbar High School in Washington D.C. Most homicides perpetrated by black people occur in just a handful of neighborhoods in a few cities. A study by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare going back to 1966 found that, of the 4.2 million black families in the US, only 5.2 thousand produced all black doctors, lawyers, dentists and doctorates in the country. Major outcome differences between West Indians and black Americans have been reported for decades, even when the two groups live in the same neighborhoods. Given these enormous differences within groups, why should we expect there to be no differences between them?
There’s a conversation to be had about how much and what kind of disparity constitute or reflect societal injustice, but disparity in itself doesn’t tell us what the problem is or even whether there is one. No one considers it unjust that most NBA players are black or that most spelling bee champions are of Indian descent. Or, for that matter, that left-handed people tend to have higher batting averages in major league baseball or that first-born children are overrepresented among national merit scholarship winners. Of course, each individual has the same moral worth—no matter which group she is part of—but that doesn’t change the fact that average behaviors and achievements differ between groups. Group outcomes differ because group inputs differ—as cosmically unfair as that may be to individual members of disadvantaged groups.
There is a double standard in the way in which American society reacts to instances of interracial and intraracial violence. Black-on-white and black-on-black violence is largely ignored by mainstream culture, while instances of white-on-black violence make headlines and launch entire social movements. Most people know George Floyd’s name, but have never heard of Tony Timpa. People care more about the 15 or so unarmed black men killed by police every year than about the 7,000+ black men killed in their own communities. This is because of our history. The racial double standards of the past make the racial double standards of the present seem normal—even necessary. But this comes at a huge ethical cost. If similar rates of homicide were occurring in white middle-class neighborhoods it would almost certainly be treated as a national emergency. But in black and poor communities we just accept or ignore it, lest we come off as racist or insensitive. The weight of historical shame can make empathy more difficult in the present.
In a society in which virtually every citizen has a camera phone, there will always be viral videos of outrageous behavior by police. This is inevitable given the number of guns and the amount of violent crime that the police have to deal with. But any recorded incident in which a white person is harming a black person will look like racism. To many people, that is racism. Some probably even want it to be racism.
The biggest issue with the race narrative is its dubious conception of progress. The quality of black American life has been rapidly improving for decades, with rising life expectancy and education levels and declining incarceration rates, but no one seems to notice or care because the remaining gap between whites and blacks makes us feel as if nothing has changed. Likewise, there has been a steady decrease in police brutality against blacks and very few racist murders in recent years, but no one seems to know or care because the viral videos continue to surface. Moreover, race relations have clearly gotten better since the 1960s, as the dramatic increase in the practice and acceptance of intermarriage shows, and yet most people believe that race relations are getting worse. The gap between perception and fact is widening.
The failure of modern antiracism to appreciate racial progress keeps us chasing ghosts from the past. Instead of acknowledging that America has made substantial progress on race, antiracist activists have changed the definition of racism from an identifiable behavior to an invisible system. But if we don’t know what progress means, we won’t make any.
The upshot of all this is a reactionary fixation on race. Modern antiracist ideas eerily mirror white supremacist beliefs. As Coleman Hughes has observed, “If someone said that black kids should not be encouraged to work hard a hundred years ago, it was probably because they were racist. If some one says the same thing today, it’s almost certainly because they are ‘anti-racist.’” If a hundred years ago someone said that black communities shouldn’t have a police presence; or that punctuality and respect for authority are white character traits, it was because they were racist. If someone says that today, it is because they are antiracist. It’s one thing to be mindful of history. It’s another thing to be trapped by it.
Humanism: An Alternative
What is needed is an equal and opposite vision of human equality and dignity that can restrain the excesses of race-conscious antiracism and close the gap between metaphor and reality that is dooming our social projects to failure. Luckily, an alternative moral vision has been with us all along—though it’s been forgotten by many. The civil rights movement was the result of two distinct principles that form an ongoing dialectic: antiracism and humanism. Humanism is the belief in the fundamental moral equality and uniqueness of all individuals. It is about respecting the sanctity, diversity and complexity of human beings. After the 1960s, antiracism was credited for the civil rights victories and humanism went underground or was relegated to the right-wing alone. It’s high time for what Ralph Ellison called “a new American humanism.”
Advocates of humanism are scattered across the political spectrum because it’s not a political orientation but a moral attitude. Few antiracists reject humanism outright and few humanists reject antiracism outright. Both these principles can even operate within the same person. James Baldwin, for example, both excoriated the blind spots of whites as a collective and insisted that race is a delusion.
Antiracists want societies to grapple with and correct for their histories of racism. Humanists want to move beyond race thinking altogether. Antiracists believe that racism is wrong because the unequal power relations of the past have harmed some groups more than others. Humanists argue that racism is wrong because race is a backward idea that reduces our humanity, individuality and cultural backgrounds to abstract color categories that can be used and abused by others. Antiracists want to redistribute societal resources from privileged to victim groups. Humanists would have us redistribute resources to the needy, regardless of their race. Antiracists attribute racial disparities to structural racism and view individuals as the products of broader institutional and systemic forces. Humanists attribute disparities to inter-related top-down (structural) and bottom-up (cultural) processes that do not necessarily stem from race or racism, and view individuals as the primary unit of moral concern. Antiracists want cultural differences between racial groups to be respected and maintained to prevent cultural appropriation, while humanists want to dissociate race from culture to allow for cultural cross-pollination. Antiracists believe in structures over people and humanists believe in people over structures.
Ultimately, antiracists and humanists both want a society in which race doesn’t matter. But they take very different paths to get there. For antiracists, race will no longer matter once racism stops harming black people, or when racial groups have approximately equal outcomes. As long as racism and racial inequality are major social issues, in this view, race still matters. Saying it doesn’t is akin to supporting systemic racism.
Humanists believe that race will stop mattering once we stop treating it as if it does. Whether racial groups have perfectly equal outcomes or not is secondary to the moral and social weight we give to racial differences. As race becomes less important, racial inequality will gradually decline, as there will be fewer barriers between disparate ethnic groups and cultural capital will flow more easily between them. More intermarriages, interracial friendships and social networks mean less racism and more economic and cultural equality.
While antiracists view racism as a function of power, humanists view racism as a function of tribalism and ideology, often expressed through channels of power. While antiracists see racist structures as having a life of their own, humanists see racism as coming from individuals first and then affecting society.
Toward a New American Humanism
In Ralph Ellison’s 1964 book Shadow And Act, he lays out his vision of a new American humanism—an America in which we recognize our shared ethnocultural heritage—by connecting the tragicomic sensibility of jazz and blues to a broader American identity. Ellison invites us to combine the different parts of American culture to create a sensibility that will enable us to live up to the challenges of a multi-ethnic democracy. The book also clarifies the fact that individuals possess autonomy in their interactions with their culture—a view that offers a robust alternative to the social determinism and racial reductionism often favored by current intellectual elites. To Ellison, race and culture are not the same, structural forces can never explain exactly why people do what they do and victim/oppressor narratives are dehumanizing to everyone involved. Shadow And Act prefigures many of today’s cultural and political debates.
The most powerful essay in the collection, “The World and the Jug,” is a response to leftist intellectual Irving Howe, who contended that Ellison was insufficiently militant. In penetrating and lucid prose, Ellison articulates a vision of transracial humanism. Howe’s focus on structural oppression, he argues, blinds him to the humanity of its supposed victims: “One unfamiliar with what Howe stands for would get the impression that when he looks at a Negro he sees not a human being but an abstract embodiment of living hell.”
Howe, Ellison contends, missed out on the
Negro tradition which teaches one to deflect racial provocation and to master and contain pain. It is a tradition which abhors as obscene any trading on one’s anguish for gain or sympathy; which springs not from a desire to deny the harshness of existence but from a will to deal with it as men at their best have always done.
Ellison accuses Howe of failing to recognize that culture has a life of its own, independent of the forces that create it. Culture is an organic process that cannot be explained away by the power structures of a given society:
Howe is so committed to a sociological vision of society that he apparently cannot see that whatever the efficiency of segregation as a socio-political arrangement, it has been far from absolute on the level of culture. Southern whites cannot walk, talk, sing, conceive of laws or justice, think of sex, love, the family or freedom without responding to the presence of Negroes.
Similarly, he writes that “I could escape the reduction imposed by unjust laws and customs, but not that imposed by ideas which defined me as no more than the sum of those laws and customs.” Howe’s disproportionate focus on racial oppression replaces this humanist vision with a paternalistic and infantilizing attitude towards blacks:
Here the basic unity of human experience that assures us of some possibility of empathetic and symbolic identification with those of other backgrounds is blasted in the interest of specious political and philosophical conceits. Prefabricated Negroes are sketched on sheets of paper and superimposed upon the Negro community; then when someone thrusts his head through the page and yells, “Watch out there, Jack, there’s people living under here,” they are shocked and indignant.
Ellison’s humanism is attuned to the challenges of the twenty-first century. Antiracism was better suited to the twentieth century, when there was more racism. Our century has been characterized by demographic change, polarization and the economic and social impacts of globalization and technology. How can we navigate the culture wars while collectively addressing issues that impact us all? How can we hold onto the particulars of our national identity and culture as the world becomes increasingly globalized? Transcending race is a better goal for our moment than transcending racial disparities or getting rid of racism—indeed, the former may be necessary if we want to achieve the latter. Finding a balance between humanism and antiracism is key. A humanist renaissance wouldn’t be the end of antiracism—it would allow for a better and more intellectually diverse antiracism than we have now. Like the Black Lives Matter protestors with whom this essay began, critics of modern antiracism need to move beyond simply voicing protests against it and start thinking about what we should replace it with.