The limits of “anti-racism” ideology

When liberal white Americans talk about doing “anti-racism work,” it probably doesn’t mean that they are taking part in #BlackLivesMatter demonstrations or acting as testers to document racial discrimination in hiring and lending or working to change voting laws aimed as discouraging black voters.

Rather it means that they are examining their hearts and minds to uncover unconscious racial prejudice and to make themselves aware of “white privilege.”

bus_stop_colorI think that this rests on a false assumption—namely, that racial injustice consists solely or mainly of the prejudices of individual white people against individual black people, and that the way to fix it is to change the attitudes of white people.

One problem with this is that “anti-racism work” works only on a relatively small number of white people, those who are already predisposed to sympathize with black people.   Another is that it ignores the degree to which the majority of black people have a common interest with the majority of white people.

The civil rights protestors of the 1960s weren’t especially concerned about how prejudiced people felt in their hearts.  They aimed at changing laws and institutions so as to bring about equal justice, so that African-Americans had the right to vote, the right to equal access to public facilities, the right to equal educational opportunity and the right to equal employment opportunity.

That fight is not over.  Michelle Alexander, in The New Jim Crow, has shown how enforcement of the drug laws is targets African-Americans, who then become legitimate targets for voting disenfranchisement and employment discrimination.

The unconcern by many police departments, North and South, about the shootings of unarmed black people is not all that different from the Jim Crow South.   And testers show that black job applicants and mortgage applicants are treated differently from white applicants; in one case, it was found that a white job applicant with a criminal record had a better chance of getting hired than an otherwise-equal black applicant with a clean record.

Racial injustice is not the only form of injustice.   Black working people and white working people are both affected by the stagnant, financialized U.S. economy and the redistribution of income upward to the wealthiest 1 percent and 0.1 percent.

True, it is worse for black people than for white people, but this does not mean the problem would be solved if white working people and black working people were equally bad off.

Of course self-awareness of one’s unconscious prejudices is a good thing, not a bad thing.  But I think the best way for white people to overcome their prejudices is to work together with black people in a common cause in which they have a common interest.


I have a problem with the expression “white privilege”.

I am aware that I am better off being white—especially being a straight white elderly male American—than I would be if I were gay, black, young, female or an immigrant.

rallraceI don’t think that the advantages I have are privileges.  I think they are what everybody should have.  I don’t think I gain anything by the harassment to which black people are routinely subjected by police, and in fact the fact that police in many places can abuse black people with impunity makes it more likely that white people also will be abused.

Black people may well think that if more white people had to suffer what they do, something would be done about it.  I think that’s only partly true.  Poor white people and white working people are ignored almost as much as black people are.


I don’t think white people in general have ill will toward black people.  I think many of us lack the ability or desire to imagine ourselves in the place of black people.

An example is the way in which, every time an unarmed black person is killed by police, white commentators point out that many more black people suffer from “black-on-black” crime.   Or whenever something terrible is done to a black person, they’ll point to horrible crimes committed by black criminals against white people.

The difference is that crimes by black people, especially crimes against white people, are treated as crimes.  There is no impunity.   I think the sense of most black people is that the police can commit crimes against black people with impunity, and white people can commit crimes against black people and get the benefit of the doubt.  Whether or not you agree, I think you would have to admit this is certainly understandable.

Then, too, our attitudes are not governed by statistics.   More Americans are killed by Christian-on-Christian crime in any year than are ever killed by Muslim terrorists, yet we don’t regard this as a reason to ignore terrorist killings.

So, yes, there is benefit in being aware of your prejudices.  Unfortunately those who would benefit the most from seeking this awareness do it the least, and vice versa.


Antiracism, Our Flawed New Religion by John McWhorter for The Daily Beast.

Black People Should Stop Expecting White People to ‘Wake Up’ to Racism by John McWhorter for The Daily Beast.

Why Anti-Racism Will Fail by Thandeka, Unitarian Universalist minister and theologian, in 1999.  [Added 8/6/2015]

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3 Responses to “The limits of “anti-racism” ideology”

  1. peteybee Says:

    Hmm… I could talk about this a lot.

    I think there’s some truth to the criticisms here. Like that responding to one of the most serious social problems in the US’s past and present with a twitter hashtag, reducing it to a fashion statement… sometimes gives me that “Ugh!” feeling.

    But at the same time I feel strongly that it’s the right thing to do. As far as the “religion” metaphor goes, I think that’s ok. I’m perfectly fine if the changes in our behavior come from rote learning by ritual. I’m willing to accept that it has to be that way.

    I think there is a potential in all of us for racism, group prejudices and animosities. It usually hovers at the level of petty disrespect, but sometimes if things get out of control, it rises to the level of mass violence. The example that motivates me is the cultural reaction in the US to 9/11, and how racism against muslims and arabs was not just condoned but actively encouraged.

    I don’t think that racism or group prejudices and animosities are human nature on an individual level. But it seems like something that happens repeatedly and naturally in how social groups and cultures develop. Maybe it comes from the need to define inclusion in one’s group by contrasting with exclusion? I don’t know. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that the darker side of human behavior isn’t artificial, isn’t just a one-off. Because this means that by recognize this as a tendency, and a harmful one, we can make an active habit to counteract it.

    This is something I think New Yorkers (as in the city) do decently, by the way — I think there’s this recognition there that if that many people are going to get along in a limited space, and with such extreme variations in wealth, you absolutely have to show each other a certain minimum out of respect — even if there may be obvious tensions underneath. One response was that there was a strong drive in NYC public education to teach this to kids – I think that’s a good thing too.


  2. Alex Says:

    I agree, Phil. Not being shot by cops is a right, not a privilege, and it is a right that needs to be extended to all. The last thing we want is for the cops to see decent treatment as a privilege that they confer rather than a right that they respect.

    And the biggest problem with consciousness-raising is that it leads to well-examined navels being even better-examined. It does little for those who need it most. Those involved in “anti-racism work” are the 1% of racial tolerance, with both the good connotations and also the elitist connotations.


  3. Alex Says:

    I will add that, having read McWhorter’s articles after commenting, I agree that the religion metaphor is apt. My suspicion is that the religious aspects are most appealing to secularists (who are drawn to something that satisfies many of the sociological needs satisfied by religion) and cultural (not to be confused with biological) descendants of the Puritans and Quakers, two of the more admirable strains in colonial American culture.


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