January 5, 2023

the diminishing returns of liberal anti-racism

 The concept of anti-racism has a much more limited utility than might be suggested by the place it holds today in US liberal discourse. These days it has become something of a moral status game for elites and a lucrative capital accumulation lane for some. I have become increasingly convinced of the inefficacy of many-to-most current approaches. 

One of the major contradictions of anti-racism pedagogy is that on the one hand it is posited that x individual is racist by virtue of their membership in a “dominant” group that “actively benefits” from racism, and on the other hand, the trainings often make asks of that same person to bear the burden of “actively dismantling” the system. If we step back we can see that not only is the term “dismantle” being used in a vague metaphorical manner, but there is a huge contradiction therein: people who actually are oppressors do not dismantle things they actively benefit from. Asking an individual to dismantle that which the group benefits from is thus an impossible (not to mention impossibly vague) “ask”, unless specific policies and laws are actually at stake. Not only that but no “dominated” group ever got free trying to convince the “sympathetic” oppressors to voluntarily dismantle oppression by changing themselves or altering the language they use. The civil rights movement was primarily about enforcing laws in a rights-based society, not moral suasion. Frederick Douglass had it right: Power concedes nothing without a demand. 

Anti-racism is effective in a limited set of circumstances: when it can hold a mirror to an individual to show how the “active benefit” they imagine they receive from racism is really an illusion, how it has damaged them spiritually, and how it is in their own self interest to change. Beyond that it is not really worth it (for trainers or participants) to engage in long secular struggle sessions with people to get them to admit their “hidden” racism, or to “perfect” the language they use to discuss these things. Most of that energy ought to be placed into 1) enforcing and protecting the civil rights laws made since the 1950s (which have been and are being eroded by right wing power within the judicial system) and 2) building real economic and political power within groups whose primary obstacle to success remains lack of power. 


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