To be told that, simply because of an immutable characteristic, your skin colour, you are actively complicit in the deaths of black people, is psychologically very dangerous. I would question whether it is in fact against equality legislation to make such claims. I have been particularly concerned with an article in the student magazine addressed to “white” members of College, which made sweeping accusations of racism against all white people. We have a number of students with mental health concerns, and a number of students on the autism spectrum, who are liable to take such material rather literally. If we have any real racists in College, they won’t care. It’s the people who are most concerned, and most emotionally and psychologically vulnerable, who will be most impacted and possibly very distressed by this article and other such material.
James Lindsay argues why falling prey to bad theory can make it harder to ascertain moral responsibility where racism is concerned
Given the events of the past few months, it has probably been explained to you at least once that all people who are “white” and “white-adjacent” are allegedly complicit in “systemic racism.” This may have come as a surprise to you, operating under the assumption that you, like most people, don’t think too highly of racism, can’t recall having supported it, and don’t feel at all as though you are complicit in something you’re not only not participating in but are also completely against. Something about this whole “systemic” thing may seem off to you, and you deserve a chance to understand it before you’re forced to accept it and take up a “lifelong commitment” to social activism on its behalf.
Your confusion is warranted. Because you’re not racist—or, if you are, because you take real and concrete steps not to let it influence the people you interact with in society—it can be off-putting to be accused of complicity in a “system” you didn’t even know exists and certainly wouldn’t support if you did. Whether you felt like any soul-searching should possibly precede genuine skepticism or not, you’d be right to ask what this “system” is, how exactly you’re “complicit” in it, and where these ideas came from in the first place.
Kelefa Sanneh writes on Ibram X’s argument for redefining racism, as he believed that we should think of “racist” not as a pejorative but as a simple, widely-encompassing term of description
In modern American political discourse, racism connotes hatred, and just about everyone claims to oppose it. But many on the contemporary left have pursued a more active opposition, galvanized by the rise of Donald Trump, who has been eager to denounce black politicians but reluctant to denounce white racists. In many liberal circles, a movement has gathered force: a crusade against racism and other isms. It is a fierce movement, and sometimes a frivolous one, aiming the power of its outrage at excessive prison sentences, tasteless Halloween costumes, and many offenses in between.
This movement seems to have been particularly transformative among white liberals, who are now, by some measures, more concerned about racism than African-Americans are. One survey found that white people who voted for Hillary Clinton felt warmer toward black people than toward their fellow-whites.
Most white people in America are not liberals, of course, and so the campaign against racism has often taken the form of an intra-white conflict. One of the most prominent combatants is Robin DiAngelo, a white workplace-diversity trainer, available to help organizations teach their employees to be more sensitive to race. Last year, DiAngelo published “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,” a reflection on her career and her cause. “White identity is inherently racist,” she writes. “I strive to be ‘less white.’ ” She cites Kendi as an authority, even if she sometimes seems closer in spirit to Ibram Rogers, the undergraduate. But, then, Kendi himself is in an instructive mood: his new work presents itself as a how-to book, although, in a little more than two hundred absorbing pages, it’s also a manifesto and, from time to time, a memoir. It is titled “How to Be an Antiracist,” and in it Kendi explains how he became one, which means explaining how he used to be (as he currently sees it) a racist. Kendi is convinced that racism can be objectively identified, and therefore fought, and one day vanquished.
In this Q&A interview, Asad Haider, author of Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump, reflects on the contemporary meanings of ‘identity politics’:
Too many irreconcilable things have been conflated in the contemporary usage of the term “identity politics”. We are supposed to believe that, for example, the mass movements for racial and economic justice that constituted the civil rights movement, or the anti-capitalist militancy of the Black Panther Party, are somehow in the same category as neoliberal elites who use the language of social justice to discourage policies that would address economic inequality. These elites, who control the supposed left wing of mainstream politics in the United States, claim that addressing economic inequality would not overcome the inequalities of race and gender. They completely obscure the reality that, for example, better wages and union representation in the workplace could help provide protection from sexual harassment by employers, and could help raise the standard of living for a great deal of people of colur. The Fight for 15 campaign, ridiculed by Democratic Party elites, is one example of such an initiative. But because these elites use the language of social justice, their rhetoric is extremely influential in establishing false oppositions between so-called “identity politics” and “class politics.”
Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, argues John McWhorter, is “the prayer book for what can only be described as a cult”:
In 2020 — as opposed to 1920 — I neither need nor want anyone to muse on how whiteness privileges them over me. Nor do I need wider society to undergo teachings in how to be exquisitely sensitive about my feelings. I see no connection between DiAngelo’s brand of reeducation and vigorous, constructive activism in the real world on issues of import to the Black community. And I cannot imagine that any Black readers could willingly submit themselves to DiAngelo’s ideas while considering themselves adults of ordinary self-regard and strength. Few books about race have more openly infantilized Black people than this supposedly authoritative tome.
“Can you really teach kids not to be racist?” asks Tom Chivers at Unherd:
It’s powerful television, and incredibly uncomfortable to watch. But there are two huge problems with it, and they’re the same problems in our imaginary school, above: disease is real, but the test and the treatment are not.
The concept of “cultural appropriation” has gone from the esoteric academic realm of post-colonial and decolonial studies, to being a mainstream political issue. But it’s reactionary rather than progressive, argues Ralph Leonard:
An irony of this argument is that most opponents of cultural appropriation proclaim, often radically, to be for diversity, immigration and multiculturalism, yet they are same people who bitterly resent the actual results of such a symbiosis. Tribally marking off permission rights over who can use what cultural form, or whose “voice”, and in what way is puerile. It attacks the main benefits of living in a modern, culturally diverse, cosmopolitan society: freedom of expression, cultural innovation and experimentation and expansion of one’s horizons and liberation of the imagination.
Robin DiAngelo’s bestseller has “a simple message”, argues Matt Taibbi: “there is no such thing as a universal human experience, and we are defined not by our individual personalities or moral choices, but only by our racial category”.
White Fragility is based upon the idea that human beings are incapable of judging each other by the content of their character, and if people of different races think they are getting along or even loving one another, they probably need immediate antiracism training. This is an important passage because rejection of King’s “dream” of racial harmony — not even as a description of the obviously flawed present, but as the aspirational goal of a better future — has become a central tenet of this brand of antiracist doctrine mainstream press outlets are rushing to embrace.
Teacher and educational researcher Greg Ashman warns that “once you have opened up Pandora’s Box, you cannot put the bad things back”. The heightened awareness of race promoted by activists unintentionally “plays into the hands of the far right”:
If you have changed or added to your curriculum as a result of the Black Lives Matter protests, then I urge you to think about the unintended consequences. The young people I have taught have two things in common – a burning sense of justice and the quest for a purpose in life. The choices you make in the coming months could have profound consequences. I strongly advise against giving young people the message that a characteristic they cannot control should be a source of shame.
Contemporary politics is often driven by “cultural or psychological anxieties”, argues Kenan Malik. We need to consider social and structural material factors too:
More than half of those killed by US police are white; and while, proportionately, police killings of African Americans have fallen in recent years, that of white people has sharply risen. Some analyses suggest that the best predictor of police killings is not race but income levels – the poorer you are, the more likely you are to be killed. Other studies have shown that the startlingly high prison numbers in America are better explained by class than by race and that ‘mass incarceration is primarily about the systematic management of the lower classes, regardless of race’. African Americans, disproportionately working class and poor, are also likely to be disproportionately imprisoned and killed. There are, as one report observes, ‘two distinct criminal justice systems: one for wealthy people and another for poor people and people of color’.