Anti-Racism in 2020: Fix Society or Fix People?

In an article for Reason magazine, John McWhorter, a black linguist and commentator, decries what he calls the new religion of anti-racism, which casts all white people as sinners and all people of color as sage and noble victims that must be listened to and deferred to. In this paradigm, white people are born racist whether or not they want to be or believe themselves to be, and therefore should work to seek enlightenment and something akin to spiritual salvation, anti-racist activists wield righteous anger and verbal laceration on Twitter against all parties and persons deemed to be offending, whether by being racist, pushing back against the tenets of anti-racism or advocating caution or doubt in the practice of anti-racism. This is all evocative of a religion, and a particularly cultish one at that, where spiritual purity for white people is the goal and any heresy is stamped out and punished by the moral authority of the mob of the woke.

I will preface the rest of this essay with the fact that I strongly believe that anti-black racism is embedded in the DNA of American institutions and social life. I believe monuments to the Confederacy should come down and men who dedicated themselves to slavery and native dispossession should not be put on pedestals. Yet, even though I am usually skeptical of people who minimize the role of racism in American life, I must admit to seeing evidence of what is described by McWhorter, and I find myself increasingly muddled on what the future ideal we are working towards is, and how much that ideal is served by the current discourse. As evidence of the dubious tenor of anti-racism, one can point to the ascendancy of the book White Fragility, and the focus on the psychology of Whites when confronted with the subject of race and racism.

While the white defensiveness is definitely a thing I have encountered consistently in confronting white people about racism, I wonder if too much emphasis is placed on getting White people to admit, confront and root out any and all prejudice they may hold. What I see now is a lot of performative hand-wringing and self-flagellation on the part of some White progressives, eager to impress black people with their commitment to the anti-racist cause and their knowledge of the correct vocabulary. And on the part of some people on social media, I see a lot of righteous anger and obsession with White people admitting their guilt and complicity and being “allies”. A post I saw on Facebook went something like : “we are monitoring your social media posts and we are taking note those who don’t speak up.” Another post on Instagram asked people to refrain from “taking up space” by posting selfies or posts unrelated to “black lives matter”. What purpose does this punitive hounding of people serve? Would we rather not have honest White people share genuine thoughts from the heart on the subject if they so choose than peer pressure all our social media “friends” into grudgingly posting a black square and saying or doing nothing of actual substance, which I think is the definition of the absolute LEAST one can do. What does painting Black Lives Matter in front of Trump Tower achieve other than making us feel good about sticking it to him?

What is the goal of the anti-racism movement in the USA? I see two goals that are perhaps often treated as one and the same. The first tackles the institutional racism that manifests itself in wealth, income and health disparities, police harassment and brutality, workplace discrimination. The second is about racism as it exists in the attitudes of White people, and is evidenced in the microagressions — the constant covert and overt put-downs that white people will make about black people that let us know they think us inferior or in stereotypical ways, the insulting portrayals in media — Blackface, tokenism, stereotypes and the callous disrespect in day-to-day social interactions e.g. Amy Cooper and Christina Cooper in a confrontation in Central Park.

Both types of racism are indeed problems. Where the question gets muddled is which type of racism is driving the anti-racist discourse and is the most energy devoted to? Should one type of racism take precedence over the other? Are they part of a package that can be done away with if we can shame White people into purging themselves of racism and make the tiniest infraction punishable by swift ostracism and total condemnation? Is tackling attitudinal racism a precursor to enacting the policies that will do away with the racial wealth gap?

My belief is that the culture online wokeness and cancel culture (if it can be said to exist aside from strongly worded viral tweets) is most concerned with attitudinal racism. Most of its adherents are youngish college-educated people who have long and painful histories of confronting attitudinal racism, like me. I spent the years 18 to 21 studying and partying at a large predominantly white university.

“This is one of my favorite rap songs. It just really tells you why niggers are the way they are, you know?” a frat bro named Donahue solemnly said while we listened to music and passed around a joint.

“You shouldn’t be [at the university]. You’re Black”, a girl named Kat “joked” at me at a house party.

There are 100 more such anecdotes where those came from.

What I see is a generation of young people reacting to the accumulation of racial trauma they have suffered in high school and college and in small towns with the only tool that gave them a voice, social media. I am loathe to dismiss their beef, as it is one I share. I know personally what the impact can be to the self-worth of young people living in a world where they are constantly denigrated in big and small ways, in person and in media.

However, while it is cathartic to wield condemnation and ostracism, I cannot confidently say that it moves the needle on the material conditions of black people. Is it even a worthy endeavor to want to change the minds of those people so they think more highly of me? Is it even possible? Or is it wiser for me to say, I knew some shitty people when I was 18, I know better now, these people will always be racist and I cannot police them into not being racist. I can simply choose who I let into my life and take care of my own psychic well-being that way.

And yet, I know I have that luxury now, living in a liberal cosmopolitan city and being far from 18 years old. I cannot offer such advice to a 13-year old black boy changing after football practice in the locker room in some Mid-western suburb, as his white teammates display a jocular yet creepy obsession with his genitals, and he learns what they have been taught to think of him. Many would argue that shaming Amy Cooper served as a deterrent to thousands of other obnoxious and entitled “Karens” who would callously wield privilege like knives in disputes with black people. I agree that the Amy Coopers of the world should be shamed when their behavior is so egregious. It is valuable to make open expression of racist ideas taboo in polite society.

But does the cost of imposing an Orwellian culture of fear and shame exceed the benefits? Do we need to follow white women to their homes with our iPhone cameras after every traffic dispute? Do we need to cancel a white food critic for talking disparagingly about two other rich women in an interview because they are POC? For what benefit? To put the fear of God in them? It all seems a bit Chinese Cultural Revolution to me. The benefit as I see it, is white liberals in progressive enclaves performing penance, walking on eggshells, sending me messages after the next shooting to “check on me and ask me how I’m doing”, like I’m some kind of invalid, for what they see as their own journey towards absolution and anti-racist nirvana. The way I see it, their time is better spent educating themselves on their own time about the history and present of this country as it relates to black people and sharing that knowledge with their less enlightened friends, siblings and parents.

Perhaps McWhorter is also right in that our energy is better spent on organizing politically to the material conditions of black people. I think this requires redistribution of wealth and overhaul of institutions, concrete law and policy actions that will overturn the forever reality of black people as a fixed underclass in America. With economic justice and more equity, and more fairness built into America’s institutions , the effects of attitudinal racism will matter less to the lived experience of black people, in the same way that attitudinal racism against Jews matters little to the lived experience of Jewish people today. With equity in America’s wealth will come increased visibility and representation, increased self-esteem for young black children, and more seats at the table where decisions are made about what we see in media, such that attitudinal racism only holds sway in the heads of those who hold on to it, and is of no concern in the real world. I think changing hearts and minds is valuable, but we cannot punish and purge until we arrive at some utopian world where no white person will ever make a weird comment about my hair or say something clueless about what they think Africa is like. I can see a future where all black people can simply roll our eyes at such comments, and go right back on to living full unbothered lives because our material conditions allow us to. For now, I think I will spend less time on Twitter.

Live your truth.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store