John Torpey is presidential professor of sociology and history and the director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at City University of New York.
The backlash against anti-racism has begun. Call it anti-anti-racism.
After an extended wave of activism fueled by police killings of unarmed Black men, scholars and activists like Ibram X. (“How to Be an Antiracist”) Kendi, Robin (“White Fragility”) DiAngelo and a cottage industry of diversity, equity and inclusion consultants led an accelerating anti-racism movement. But we are now witnessing the gradual unraveling of that movement as a way to address the very real problems of racial inequality in America.
This is not simply a matter of a conservative counterattack, although that counterattack is very much underway; conservatives were never on board for an anti-racist crusade, so they are not at issue here. Rather, what I’m calling anti-anti-racism arises from the defection of racial egalitarians who have decided that the anti-racist wave has rolled in the wrong direction — an illiberal and politically counterproductive one. Reports of high-octane battles over anti-racist excess at elite private schools that had previously embraced anti-racism are only the tip of the iceberg of disenchantment even among those who sympathize with racial equality.
Nesrine Malik, a columnist for the Guardian, calls much of the anti-racist movement “a kind of group narcissism … that promotes this notion that identity politics is about easing the passage of people of color in elite spaces. … It also promotes a view that reform is via individual guilt and correction, and distracts from the systemic ways that identity politics is being nurtured by the media and politicians.” The Columbia scholar John McWhorter, a linguist well-positioned to make sense of what is largely a rhetorical movement, calls anti-racism a “religion,” complete with the power to excommunicate those who fail to speak in canonical ways. But anti-racism is more than a religion; it has had real and dispiriting political consequences. As New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has noted, it arguably helped defeat the Bernie Sanders brand of social-democratic populism in the battle to define the left wing of the Democratic Party.
At its heart, anti-racism comes from a progressive impulse. It seeks to address the glaring inequalities in American life that are suffered by non-whites, and to identify the historical roots of these inequalities in imperial conquest, slavery and the legal codification of racial subordination. It urges the country to take seriously its long history of racial discrimination and has called for finding ways to overcome these injustices. In its illiberal form, however, anti-racism has replaced substantive political thinking with an emphasis on symbolic cultural changes like replacing school names, become dangerously intolerant of dissent and sidelined discussions of class exclusion and oppression that affect Americans of all races.
Born of a hope to purge systemic racism, today’s anti-racism movement has all too quickly morphed into the kind of dogmatic policing of political opinions that plagued America in the 1950s. The new dogmatism vilifies those who, for instance, rejected the attempt to remove Abraham Lincoln’s and George Washington’s names from public schools in San Francisco. In the process, anti-racism is alienating potential political allies who support progressive economic policies like a higher minimum wage but not left-wing cultural views like defunding the police.
Such censorious symbolic politics put off many who might agree that America has deep and longstanding problems of racial inequality, but who increasingly feel like aliens in their own country. This includes many working-class whites who, indiscriminately lumped together with the “privileged” — even amid an epidemic of white working-class “deaths of despair” — are increasingly open to demagogic appeals by Donald Trump and other right-wing populist politicians.
At the same time, and more worryingly, more Blacks and Latinos voted for Trump in 2020 than in 2016, suggesting they thought their political concerns were better met by an outspokenly racist Republican than by a moderate-seeming Democrat. This fact reveals that the putative anti-racist BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) coalition is a lot shakier than the left believes, and that the optimism embedded in the “majority minority” demographic determinism expressed by anti-racist advocates may be naive or at least premature. Even as it assumes a privileged access to truth, anti-racism makes many questionable assumptions about the world we live in.
The Excesses Of Illiberal Anti-Racism
Barack Obama’s anti-racist credentials are hard to question. But in 2019, he called out this extremism: “This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff,” he said. “You should get over that quickly. … The world is messy; there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws.” Obama went on to say that “among certain young people, and this is accelerated by social media, there is this sense sometimes of: ‘The way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people, and that’s enough.’” For Obama, such an approach not only displays an illiberal mindset — it blocks instead of promotes real change. “That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far.”
Illiberal anti-racism is driven by the ideas of intersectionality, which (reasonably enough) holds that a person’s social and political identities expose them to different kinds of discrimination, and critical race theory, which views white supremacy as the driving force in American politics and law, as well as by their outrider on the international front, postcolonialism. The notion of intersectionality was originally built chiefly around the triad of race, class and gender, but over time, cultural issues came to trump class issues, and class has been largely abandoned in academic debates about the intellectual future of the left. As with anti-racism, culture has carried the day.
Insofar as anti-racism frames the barrier to racial equality as “systemic racism,” the stress on reforming people’s personal views — which today are far less racist than was the case before the civil-rights era — is puzzling. “Systemic racism” would suggest a focus on structural disparities such as income, wealth, unemployment rates, health inequities, mortality differences and more, and on solutions to those problems. Instead, the emphasis in anti-racist discourse tends to be on plumbing the depths of the white soul in search of racist beliefs. The puritanical roots of this approach are hard to miss, and its judgments are hard to bear. The stress on personal feelings is suffocating for many people; being called a racist can be severely damaging for one’s reputation or career, so many people — including those sympathetic to a politics of racial justice — simply keep their distance.
Ultimately, anti-racism is politically counterproductive. As Francis Fukuyama recently put it, “I think it’s foolish for progressives to think that political correctness and this extreme kind of emphasis on a certain narrative about American history and identity that has played out in the Democratic Party didn’t contribute to [the rise of populists like Trump]. The left has made it easier for the right.”
Illiberal anti-racism will likely maintain its hold on the curriculums in bluer school districts for the foreseeable future. The spread of anti-racist discourse may thus lend support to the view that the Democratic Party has gone too far left — as when it advocated moves to “defund the police,” a concept shown by poll after poll to be broadly unpopular. In a sharply divided national political scene, if more Blacks and Latinos defect from the Democratic coalition, the result could be electoral losses in critical, closely divided districts — and Democrats back in the Congressional minority next year.
It is important to note that by anti-anti-racism I don’t mean the term in the negative sense that Jelani Cobb used it recently when he referred in The New Yorker to the “broader offensive that the Republican Party has been coordinating since Trump’s reelection loss … to facilitate the more overtly racist portions of the party’s agenda.” Cobb deploys the term “anti-anti-racism” to describe the right’s attempt to deny, as he writes, “that racism remains a vital force in American life [and] that it is deeply rooted in the American past.”
In contrast, the anti-anti-racism I am talking about is a response to the overweening character of much anti-racism — a pushback against the inadvertent way in which a promising movement for change is being channeled into dead-end illiberalism. Think of it in the way that a double-negative becomes a kind of positive.
Anti-anti-racism can be (imperfectly) compared to anti-anti-communism. The latter arose in the 1960s and 70s with the “New Left,” which tried to distance itself from a communist-dominated Old Left often seen as too supportive of a retrograde Soviet Union. Rejecting both Soviet communism and the anti-communism of the American establishment, the New Left wanted to get past stale disputes and focus on more urgent concerns, such as voting rights for Blacks and opposition to anti-communism’s signature case of overreach, the Vietnam War. Anti-anti-racists and anti-anti-communists both refuse to be held to either pole of the debate.
Anti-anti-racists are troubled by the difficulty of open discussion in the anti-racist milieu, which honest progressives recognize as a real issue. Anyone reluctant to accept an unceasing preoccupation with racism as the approach to healing America’s ills — as illiberal anti-racism often seems to demand — risks being tarred as a racist. Fear of committing a gaffe that will earn condemnation makes many reluctant to speak. Academics who harbor doubts about this or that aspect of the anti-racist agenda or approach remain silent. Who wants to risk being a pariah?
A Proper Anti-Racist Politics
There will be two likely paths out of the dead-end of anti-racism. One will be to reassert the importance of open discussion on racial inequality, its causes and its solutions — and to do so without insisting either that this is the only kind of inequality that needs addressing or that the views of people participating in this discussion are reducible to their sociological characteristics. This liberal anti-anti-racism will emphasize equality of opportunity in the pursuit of excellence. Indeed, by celebrating these specific terms — equality, opportunity and excellence — anti-anti-racism embraces the very terms that illiberal anti-racists falsely claim are themselves manifestations of whiteness or white privilege.
The other route away from illiberal anti-racism may take the form of a renewed emphasis on class inequality, which President Joe Biden, pushed by an energized left, has been quietly addressing through such policies as a child tax credit that amounts to a guaranteed minimum income for families with children. There are compelling reasons for this renewed emphasis. Matt Bruenig has shown that the racial wealth gap in the United States is largely the byproduct of the massive upward redistribution of wealth that we have experienced over recent decades, and that the best way to address that gap is to redistribute the wealth concentrated at the top. Such redistributive policies have been popular even with many Republicans.
Here is where politics comes in. First, we should note that there are political caveats to the idea that the country is soon going to become “majority minority.” Not everyone with darker skin regards himself or herself as a member of an oppressed racial minority — or, sometimes, any minority at all. Many Latinos in particular see themselves not as subalterns but as inheritors of the American Dream. Many Asian Americans likewise view the meritocratic regime — so disdained by anti-racists — as a ladder to success. Many Blacks, meanwhile, are unenthusiastic about anti-racist slogans such as “defund the police”: According to a Gallup poll from last summer, at the height of the protests following the murder of George Floyd, 81% of Blacks wanted the same or a greater police presence in their community. Finally, if we want to “fend off reactionary rule and make life easier for disadvantaged communities,” as Eric Levitz put it in New York Magazine, we have to be concerned about white backlash against progressive politics.
To its credit, anti-racism has pushed us to see how extensively American society has been shaped by racist arrangements. But it has alienated many would-be allies who can no longer abide the attribution — and reduction — of their beliefs to their (white) identities. Edward Said once observed that “a breakthrough can become a trap, if it is used uncritically, repetitively, limitlessly.” Anti-racism has become such a trap, encouraging us to see any person’s perspectives and ideas as epiphenomena, mere effusions of their so-called “subject position.” I am, therefore I think, is the logic.
That logic has to be undone. Martin Luther King famously pleaded for his children to be judged by “the content of their character” rather than “the color of their skin.” We need to take King’s plea seriously. And that means listening to people’s ideas and addressing them honestly, irrespective of the speaker’s (or writer’s) race, gender or sexuality. We need to rejuvenate our ability to see and hear each other. We also need to remember that King was an anti-war and anti-poverty activist, not just an anti-racist, especially as he neared the end of his life.
Anti-anti-racism is a hopeful thing — a progressive reaction to illiberal anti-racism’s missteps. With luck, a new anti-anti-racism will both herald and speed long-term racial equality in American society. The problems of racial inequality that beset us are serious and real, but solving them will require more than divisive categories and invidious judgments.