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Dueling Anti-Racisms: Two Views on Promoting Racial Justice in Twenty-First Century America

The pitfall of standard anti-racism is its simplistic attribution of all such disparities to systemic racism or racist policy. Simplistic analysis suggests simplistic solutions, some of which may be detrimental to black people. Heterodox thinkers challenge simple diagnoses and solutions, steering us toward constructive endeavor to achieve genuine progress.

The activist and philosopher Angela Davis reportedly said, “in a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.” Becoming an “anti-racist” is the current imperative in much of our public and academic discourse. But there is more than one view of what it really means to be an anti-racist. Everyone who opposes racism agrees that people of all races are equal in virtue of their common humanity and deserving of equal respect and dignified treatment. They are also agreed that for much of our history, the dominant white population of the U.S. violated this fundamental truth, building a country that was both attitudinally and institutionally racist to a great degree. But opponents of racism disagree about how that fact relates to contemporary racial disparities and how best to promote racial justice in the twenty-first century.

Bestselling works like Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist, Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk about Race, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Layla F. Saad’s Me and White Supremacy, and Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility present the standard form of anti-racism. The central elements of this version of anti-racism include combating systemic racism, confronting the historic legacy of racial injustice in the United States, and attacking racist attitudes and policies. Kendi’s articulation of anti-racism especially focuses on policy as the cause of racial disparities. One of his central claims is that unequal power and pursuit of interests generate racist policy, which in turn generates racist ideas to justify racist policy and its inequitable outcomes.

Other thinkers offer a different analysis of disparities and racial injustice in the U.S. These include Glenn Loury and John McWhorter, who regularly converse at The Glenn Show, and others associated with a view Samuel Cronin dubbed “heterodox black thought.” They think a myopic focus on “systemic racism” leads to a tired and simplistic approach to a complex set of problems. Some have argued that elements of the standard anti-racist discourse are, in their own way, racist because they demean and dehumanize black people and foster ignorance of problems urgently requiring attention in poor black communities.

 

Standard anti-racism exposes the racial disparities riddling our society and decades of policies and social practices that have surely contributed to them. The pitfall of this view, though, is its simplistic attribution of all such disparities to systemic racism or racist policy. Simplistic analysis suggests simplistic solutions, some of which may be detrimental to black people. Heterodox thinkers challenge simple diagnoses and solutions, steering us toward constructive endeavor to achieve genuine progress.

Anti-Racism I

Kendi challenges his audiences to adopt an anti-racist mindset, abjuring an instinctive retreat to the insistence that we are “not racist.” According to Kendi, there is no such thing as a “non-racist” action, idea, or policy. There are only racist or anti-racist ones. In this framework, the reason for unequal group outcomes must either be policy or some fundamental problem with the unequal group. An anti-racist blames policy. A racist idea is one that, confronted with an unequal situation between groups, blames the disadvantaged group, alleging something must be wrong with the group in question.

For Kendi, there are many kinds of racism—biological, ethnic, cultural, behavioral—but they all involve attributing disparities to groups, rather than policy. There are only two analytical options: either different groups are already equal in all respects, so every disparity must be the result of policy, or they are unequal. To accept the latter, in any form, is a racist idea. As one example, Kendi’s response to the “achievement gap” is to reject the validity of testing because accepting such a gap might imply unequal intellectual ability, justifying racism: “Intellect is the linchpin of behavior, and the racist idea of the achievement gap is the linchpin of behavioral racism.”

In an analogy he regularly employs, Kendi says that growing up in our society is like living your whole life in a rainforest. Racist ideas are the rain constantly pouring down on you. In the analogy, an anti-racist who points out racist ideas you express is like someone who comes along and offers you an umbrella to protect you from the rain. To insist we’re not racist is to reject the umbrella. We don’t want to take the umbrella because we don’t even realize we’re wet, or what it would be like to be dry. Denial, Kendi says, is “the heartbeat of racism.” The anti-racist imperative is to ensure that our actions, ideas, and policies are actively combating racism, lest we absorb and perpetuate the racism endemic to our society.

The need for official recognition of the injustices of slavery and subsequent racial subordination in American history is a central theme in Anti-Racism I. The idea of a “reckoning” with the racist history of our institutions, especially lynching and violence against black people during the Jim Crow era, is at the center of Bryan Stevenson’s public advocacy, including the Equal Justice Initiative. Megan Ming Francis has argued that failure to recognize past injustices is a direct contributor to police killing of unarmed black people:

Part of the reason the killing of unarmed blacks continues to happen at an alarming rate is because we haven’t properly addressed our long history of racial terror in this country, which has treated blackness as a proxy for criminality, as a substitute for criminality.

Kendi also argues that this reckoning with our racist past is central to the diagnosis and prognosis for addressing racial inequities, but he goes further to draw a constitutional implication, arguing for an amendment that would institute a Department of Anti-Racism (DOA) responsible for “preclearing” all local, state, and national policies to ensure they are anti-racist, that is, will not result in racial disparities.

While not all these thinkers or activists are in lockstep on every issue, we can discern a type of anti-racist thought, which we’ll call Anti-Racism I or standard anti-racism. Thinkers in this vein appropriately urge Americans to deal with the fact that racism, its institutional expressions, and its effects extend beyond slavery and Jim Crow to a number of longstanding policies and their after-effects, especially housing policy that promoted segregating and ghettoizing black people and, to some degree, post–civil rights criminal justice policy. Kendi’s point that Jim Crow southerners, eugenicists, and other supporters of racism have historically found ways to deny their racism serves as a warning against a too-easy and defensive dismissal of contemporary claims about systemic racism. That said, there are valid criticisms of some Anti-Racism I claims, particularly with respect to the diagnosis and prognosis of contemporary social problems and inequities.

Anti-Racism II

Enter Anti-Racism II. The core idea of heterodox black thought, as Glenn Loury explains in an episode of Kmele Foster’s podcast The Fifth Column and an interview with the Neue Zuercher Zeitung (NZZ), is that the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, while pernicious, is insufficient as an explanation for the problems disproportionately facing black communities in contemporary American life.

Coleman Hughes, who draws from Thomas Sowell’s work, frequently stresses that assuming any racial disparity can be traced to systemic racism or the legacy of historic injustice is unwarranted. This point cuts directly against Kendi’s argument and his proposed constitutional anti-racism amendment, and Hughes and McWhorter have both critiqued Kendi’s ideas on this score. It is simply not self-evident that, as Kendi argues, “racial inequity is evidence of racist policy.” Racism couldn’t explain variation in outcomes within racial groups very well, including among black men, or between immigrant and non-immigrant black people. It also doesn’t explain why racial disparities in some key indicators, such as those related to family stability and the prevalence of criminal behavior, have worsened since the Civil Rights movement, even as overt institutional racism has decreased.

Loury describes the attribution of all the problems of poor black communities to systemic racism as an intellectual and political failure. A one-dimensional focus on white supremacy and systemic racism offers only, in Loury’s wording, a “sophomoric” analysis of such problems. Loury promotes an alternative, the “development narrative,” in which the core problem is that, due to a combination of causes including racism and racist policy, but also ongoing patterns of behavior, higher proportions of black people are poorly positioned to take advantage of the opportunities that legal and social progress since the 1960s has generated.

Regarding the issue of policing, Loury and McWhorter have pointed out that, while constitutive of a serious problem, unjust police violence is nowhere near so common or so race-selective as to justify the myopic focus on systemic racism it has provoked. Hughes has also written about the narrative on police killings of black people that the Black Lives Matter movement promotes and found it wanting in terms of accuracy. While giving the movement credit for putting police violence and accountability on the political agenda, he notes that its narrative is built on the small set of cases that get media attention, along with unsubstantiated claims about the propensity of police to kill black people as opposed to people of other races, in similar circumstances.

Proponents of Anti-Racism II also combat racism in other forms, first among them what Loury calls the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” In the Anti-Racism I narrative, only white people have the power to change institutions and outcomes, with black people apparently at their mercy. Against this, Loury argues black men and women have agency, and that the failure to treat them as agents capable of making positive changes in their communities is indicative of that soft bigotry. Hughes echoes this critique: “Any political program that insists that black people be held to a lower standard will never be able to bring black achievement up to those same rejected standards — and thus will struggle mightily to address racial disparity.”

Reviewing DiAngelo’s White Fragility, McWhorter argues that, while she aims to educate whites about how to combat racism, she implicitly “talks down” to blacks:

White Fragility is, in the end, a book about how to make certain educated white readers feel better about themselves. DiAngelo’s outlook rests upon a depiction of Black people as endlessly delicate poster children within this self-gratifying fantasy about how white America needs to think—or, better, stop thinking. Her answer to white fragility, in other words, entails an elaborate and pitilessly dehumanizing condescension toward Black people. The sad truth is that anyone falling under the sway of this blinkered, self-satisfied, punitive stunt of a primer has been taught, by a well-intentioned but tragically misguided pastor, how to be racist in a whole new way.

Advocates of Anti-Racism II also combat the tendency to look away from major problems in minority communities that might have to do with behavioral patterns—and indeed to dismiss concerns about these kinds of problems from black people themselves. Peter Moskos has identified a particularly inexcusable form of such racism as a failure to take crime seriously. Tom Slater quoted Moskos in Spiked, commenting amid recent upticks in violent crime in New York City:

I find it interesting how, with this recent increase in violence, newspapers won’t mention the race of victims. The New York Times is obsessed with racial disparity. And there’s a chance that 100 per cent of shooting victims recently have been black or Hispanic . . . there’s a chance that it is literally 100 per cent of shooting victims in New York are black and Hispanic this year, and they don’t even mention it . . . at some point, that’s just racist negligence.

Michael Javen Fortner, author of Black Silent Majority, argues that much of the standard anti-racist narrative and the policy imperatives its advocates promote, particularly the push to cut police funding, ignores the actual views and aspirations of many black people, particularly when it comes to police and crime: “Most African Americans clearly desire police reform over abolition. . . . Their perspectives deserve consideration. Any ‘antiracist’ movement that disregards how working and middle-class African Americans define and pursue the good life is not worth its name.”

Insights from Both Anti-Racisms

Anti-Racism I draws attention to the numerous racial disparities evident in our society. No doubt, these disparities partly result from our racist past. Implicit bias is almost certainly a contributor to disparities in education, health, and criminal justice, and recognizing such biases so as to counter them is a worthy and necessary goal.

The claim, however, that all racial disparities result entirely from racist policy, however, cannot withstand scrutiny. Standard anti-racism generates overly simplistic solutions, like Kendi’s proposed DOA or dismissal of standardized testing, to complex problems. Anti-Racism I can lead to denigrating efforts at uplift and countering negative behavior patterns in poor black communities as behavioral or cultural racism. Even the call to more fully acknowledge past injustices and their after-effects, while necessary, does not directly map onto addressing contemporary problems disproportionately affecting black Americans. Anti-Racism II advocates helpfully reject simplistic diagnoses and remedies, instead promoting a deeper understanding of disparities’ causes and means of addressing them.

These two forms of anti-racism seem worlds apart. Nevertheless, there are important points of convergence. For example, Kendi’s focus on policy leads him to promote the idea of a focus on employment, just as Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s analysis led him to the idea of a federal jobs program for low-income black Americans. Anti-Racism II advocates can readily agree with the idea that policy should pose no barriers to black men and women, and we should eliminate policies that do, even if they are well-meaning. Anti-Racism II doesn’t rule out the idea of public investment to help poor communities address disparities in education, health, and involvement with the criminal justice system.

One thinker who seems to find a middle ground, drawing on both forms of anti-racism is Anthony Bradley, who has argued both for incorporating a transitional justice-inspired recognition of the legacy of systemic racism and for addressing problems such as mass incarceration through decentralized, personalized criminal justice reforms. Bradley argues for dealing with the racist past, particularly in the context of the American church, even while critiquing simplistic analysis of the criminal justice system and mass incarceration. The underlying crime to which our punitive justice system is a response is real; a critical challenge is to find innovative ways of building healthy communities so as to decrease entry and re-entry into the justice system.

Constructive conversation and action might require a blend of Anti-Racism I’s passion for confronting racial disparities and Anti-Racism II’s analytical bent, attuned to subtle forms of bigotry, soft or otherwise, that contribute or distract from our social problems.

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