Wednesday, August 5, 2015

An Open Letter to an Anti-racist

Dear Steve S,

When you re-shared the Reverend Thandeka's "Why Anti-Racism Will Fail" on Google+, I was amused by your comment that it was

...part of the ongoing dialogue with +Will Shetterly about racism, anti-racism, his anti-anti-racism, and my anti-anti-anti-racism. Obligatory "We must go deeper" meme goes here.
That's both funny and true because in the casual sense of the word, we're both anti-racists, but in the ideological sense, I'm an anti-anti-racist anti-racist, and you're an anti-anti-anti-racist anti-racist.

For the sake of our readers who must be completely baffled, I'll try to clarify:

In the casual sense of the word, you and I and Thandeka and everyone we're likely to cite is an anti-racist because we all do our best to oppose racism. I hope my credentials are solid: I grew up in the civil rights struggle—a Florida newspaper called my father the only liberal in Levy County, and I was bullied in school for being a "nigger-lover". Rumors that the Ku Klux Klan would burn down our home were taken seriously by the local insurance company—we couldn't get fire insurance. I would've been about nine when Dad taught me how to carry the shotgun to him if the Klan showed up and he couldn't get it himself. Here's a picture of me and my brother at a march for desegregation in 1964:

My childhood made me obsessed with racial justice, and my writing reflects that: The Feminist SF Wiki said my “work features strong women characters and people of color” and Ellen Kushner called my semi-autobiographical novel, Dogland, "A masterwork. A particularly American magic realism that touches the heart of race and childhood in our country; it's 100 Years of Solitude for an entire generation of American Baby Boomers, and deserves the widest possible audience."

But "anti-racist" has an ideological definition as well as a general one. I don't remember anyone using the term in the '60s, when we tended to talk about what we supported rather than what we opposed. "Anti-racist" began to appear in the '70s and '80s when Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and other black academics at expensive private schools for the US's economic elite developed Critical Race Theory to treat race as though it arose and thrived in a vacuum. Critical Race Theorists needed a casual name for their beliefs, so they took "anti-racism" in much the same way Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam took "Islam" to promote its race-only understanding of racism. (For more about CRT, see The Man Who Changed Middle-Class Feminism, or Derrick Bell and Critical Race Theory, Where Racism and Anti-Racism Intersect.)

When thinkers like Thandeka and Adolph Reed Jr. criticize anti-racists, they're not referring to opponents of racism in general, but specifically to Critical Race Theorists and the people who accept the principles of CRT without knowing its history.

Thandeka summarized its three main principles in her essay:

  1. All whites in America are racists.
  2. No blacks in American are racist. They’re prejudiced just like everybody else, but they lack the power of institutional resources to force other racial groups to submit to their will. Thus they can’t be racist because racism in this conceptual scheme is defined as prejudice plus power.
  3. Whites must be shown that they are racists and confess their racism.
Her critique inspired me to do more research and write about the results:
  1. How racist am I? On Project Implicit and other tests for racism
  2. Racism equals prejudice plus power, so only white people can be racist?
My approach to opposing racism comes from Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. After Malcolm left Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam, he said, "I totally reject Elijah Muhammad's racist philosophy, which he has labeled 'Islam' only to fool and misuse gullible people as he fooled and misused me. But I blame only myself, and no one else for the fool that I was, and the harm that my evangelical foolishness on his behalf has done to others." Malcolm's understanding of power after he went to Mecca led him to say, "I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the systems of exploitation. I believe that there will be that kind of clash, but I don’t think that it will be based upon the color of the skin."

His final take on power was remarkably like King's—not the mythologized King of '63 who spoke of having a dream, but the radical King of '66 who said, "Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God's children." In his last book, he wrote, "In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out: there are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike. ... I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective—the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income."

King was a pragmatist who saw the economic roots of racism and knew you can't have social equality without economic equality. He always took a universalist approach to fighting racism—the event at which he gave his I Have A Dream Speech was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, not the March on Washington for Equal Rights.

The promoters of Critical Race Theory took a different approach to understanding power. It comes out of "social justice", a religious concept that began with the Catholics in the 1840s and slowly spread to other faiths. I wrote a little about it in On Star Trek and the dark history of "Social Justice"—a post for David Gerrold. The connection to the social justice movement explains why anti-racists use metaphors like "original sin" when talking about slavery and believe all white people should admit their racism like sinners confessing their sin, even though tests like Project Implicit's race test refutes their notion that all whites are racist. (If you haven't taken that test, I recommend it highly. You may be surprised by the result. I was. I had assumed that growing up as a boy in the South, I would be a little racist in favor of white people. It turns out I, like a large minority of white people, have an implicit preference for black folks. I wish I was in the smaller group that shows no preference at all, but I'm content with the preference I've got.)

Enough preamble. Late Saturday night, I saw you'd left a long comment on one of my Google+ posts and shared it on your own timeline. I started to read it, but I didn't finish because:

1. You seemed to be covering material I know very well.

2. You credit a number of things to me that I do not believe and have never said.

3. I was physically exhausted after a long, pleasant day.

4. I'm mentally exhausted after years of trying to explain to people who prioritize race why, as the Reverend Thandeka said in "Why Anti-Racism Will Fail", they "make an erroneous assumption about the nature and structure of power in America."

But I felt like I couldn't leave your post unaddressed, so I skimmed the comments and replied:

I'll have to answer you tomorrow. In the meantime, I'll just repeat what Adolph Reed Jr. said:

"Yes, racism exists, as a conceptual condensation of practices and ideas that reproduce, or seek to reproduce, hierarchy along lines defined by race. Apostles of antiracism frequently can’t hear this sort of statement, because in their exceedingly simplistic version of the nexus of race and injustice there can be only the Manichean dichotomy of those who admit racism’s existence and those who deny it. There can be only Todd Gitlin (the sociologist and former SDS leader who has become, both fairly and as caricature, the symbol of a “class-first” line) and their own heroic, truth-telling selves, and whoever is not the latter must be the former. Thus the logic of straining to assign guilt by association substitutes for argument.

"My position is—and I can’t count the number of times I’ve said this bluntly, yet to no avail, in response to those in blissful thrall of the comforting Manicheanism—that of course racism persists, in all the disparate, often unrelated kinds of social relations and “attitudes” that are characteristically lumped together under that rubric, but from the standpoint of trying to figure out how to combat even what most of us would agree is racial inequality and injustice, that acknowledgement and $2.25 will get me a ride on the subway. It doesn’t lend itself to any particular action except more taxonomic argument about what counts as racism."
I do have a question now, though: If believing what Adolph Reed Jr. believes makes me a racist, does it make him a racist too?
I realize you may not know who Reed is. Katha Politt called him “the smartest person of any race, class, or gender writing on race, class, and gender." I agree with her. Because anti-racists of all races prefer the thoughts of black people on race and dislike conservatives in general, Google will assure you that, like Thandeka, he's a black leftist.
ETA: To save you some googling here are Adolph Reed and Rev. Thandeka:

But I've found that while anti-racists are often described as leftists by themselves and the far right, they tend to be centrists who don't like the left that prioritizes class. Reed notes in "The limits of anti-racism":
I’ve been struck by the level of visceral and vitriolic anti-Marxism I’ve seen from this strain of defenders of antiracism as a politics. It’s not clear to me what drives it because it takes the form of snide dismissals than direct arguments. ... In any event, the tenor of this anti-Marxism is reminiscent of those right-wing discourses, many of which masqueraded as liberal, in which only invoking the word “Marxism” was sufficient to dismiss an opposing argument or position.
Anti-racists call people who prioritize class "class reductionists", which opens them to the charge of being race reductionists. There's some truth to the "race reductionist" label; Jamelle Bouie noted that anti-racists believe "racism is orthogonal to class: They’re two different dimensions of disadvantage, and to improve the picture on one isn’t always to improve the picture for the other."

To be fair to both sides, neither is oblivious to the concerns of the other. The problem is simply that anti-racists see privilege primarily in terms of social identity and the rest of us see it primarily in terms of wealth. Far from being "class reductionists", socialists have always worked to end social injustice. Marx was very aware of oppression by race and gender. He wrote, "Labor in the white skin can never free itself as long as labor in the black skin is branded," and after his death, Engels wrote, "The first class opposition that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male." Anyone who knows anything about the history of the struggle for racial and sexual equality knows that socialists have always been at the front—Charles Fourier, a socialist, gave feminism its name, and in 1932, at the height of Jim Crow, the Communist Party USA's Vice Presidential candidate was James W. Ford, a black man.

For most of Sunday—another pleasantly busy day—I periodically thought about your post and had almost convinced myself there was no point in answering it. Identitarians and universalists simply have incompatible worldviews, and most people don't change their worldviews until their worlds change. As Upton Sinclair said: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"

But late Sunday afternoon, during my favorite dance class, I had an epiphany: I could use your post as an excuse for a public letter, a general response to anti-racists. I could link to it whenever anyone offered the usual arguments of people who prioritize race. Best of all from my point of view, if more needs to be said, I could add the occasional postscript rather than making a new post. So this letter must be long because it needs to be thorough. And it should be kind because most people who believe in the tenets of anti-racism, like most people who share any ideology, mean well and do not necessarily endorse the tactics of the extremists on their side.

I want to stress my intention to be kind. Except for a couple of days that I regret when I adopted the principles of people who reject "tone policing", I've always tried to disagree respectfully with people—I'm a big fan of St. Paul's and Malcolm X's advice to respect everyone. But it can be hard to be kind with people who suffer from crusader logic that justifies the worst behavior—including bullying, doxxing, and death threats—in the name of the cause they think they serve. Still, it's better to err on the side of kindness.

Another principle I need to keep reminding myself of: read charitably. When something offends me, I'll try to look for an interpretation that I may've missed.

With that attitude, I'll go read your long post, A while back, Shetterly challenged me to respond to his anti-anti-racism.


I'm back. I'll address these bits now:

"You said I've been ignoring class, which is demonstrably false, but in your effort to focus almost exclusively on class, it seems to me that you've been ignoring race, and more importantly, racism."

I could repeat that sentence, swapping race for class and capitalism for racism—see Reed's comment about how hard it is for identitarians to hear that people who prioritize class are not ignoring race.

"It doesn't matter that the notion of race doesn't have any biological support or even make much sense when you really think about it. Racists don't care about the science and aren't burdened with an excess of clear thought."

Agreed. But now you're talking about individual prejudice, and the best way to defeat individual prejudice is to leapfrog it by giving poor people of all hues the resources to prove their detractors wrong. If you have a specific way to address individual prejudice that doesn't have a class component, I'd love to hear it.

"Take lynchings in the South ever since the Civil War. These murders were explicitly hate crimes."

Yes. So were the lynchings of white Wobblies. We agree that lynching should be prosecuted, and I hope we oppose all forms of mob justice. If your point is that lynching took on a primarily racist character during Jim Crow, we completely agree. Socialists were very aware of the nature of Southern "justice" and worked against it when liberals did little or nothing. Remember that the case against the Scottsboro Boys was appealed because they got help from the Communist Party USA.

"If they'd been poor but white, they would not have been murdered."

I'm always astonished by anti-racists who don't know that white people were murdered also. As noted at Lynching Statistics for 1882-1968: "Many of the whites lynched were lynched for helping the black or being anti lynching and even for domestic crimes."

You can see the faces of the martyrs of the civil rights movement and know that "whiteness" did protect the white martyrs. (Probably due to a programming glitch, the photo for Viola Liuzzo is James Reeb's, but you may google her if you think whiteness protected her.)

Here's a story about one martyr that I didn't know: Vernon Dahmer and his wife "woke to the sound of gunshots and exploding firebombs. Dahmer grabbed a gun and went to his front door. While the fire raged, he stood in his doorway, inhaling the burning fumes and returning gunfire while his family escaped. When it was over, Dahmer’s home and the nearby store were destroyed. His 10-year-old daughter was hospitalized with severe burns. Dahmer’s lungs were irreparably damaged. He died shortly afterward."

The glitch with Liuzzo's photo reminded me of this bit from a Bill Moyers' interview of Adolph Reed:

ADOLPH REED: . . . I admit that this is kind of treading maybe, into troublesome water, but among the reasons that I know Obama's type so well is, you know, I've been teaching at elite institutions for more than 30 years.
And that means that I've taught his cohort that came through Yale actually at the time that he [Obama] was at, you know, Columbia and Harvard. And I recall an incident in a seminar in, you know, black American political thought with a young woman who was a senior who said something in the class. And I just blurted out that it seems, that the burden of what she said seemed to be that the whole purpose of this Civil Rights Movement was to make it possible for people like her to go to Yale and then to go to work in investment banking.
And she said unabashedly, "Well, yes, yes, and that's what I believe." And again, I didn't catch myself in time, so I just said to her, well, I wish somebody had told poor Viola Liuzzo, you know, before she left herself family in Michigan and got herself killed that that's what the punch line was going to be, because she might've stayed home to watch her kids grow up. And I think--
BILL MOYERS: This was the woman who on her own initiative went down during the civil rights struggle to Selma, Alabama, to join in the fight for voting rights and equality, and was murdered.
ADOLPH REED: Right, exactly. I'm not prepared to accept as my metric of the extent of racial justice or victories of the struggles for racial justice, the election of a single individual to high office or appointment of a black individual to be corporate CEO. My metric would have to do with things like access to healthcare--
BILL MOYERS: For everybody.
ADOLPH REED: For everybody, right? And this is something else, by the way--
BILL MOYERS: Not just a symbolic victory for one person?
ADOLPH REED: Right. Because the way politics has evolved since the 1980s is that what we get now is the symbolic victory for the single person instead of, right, you know, the redistributive agenda.
"when I point out that blacks are more likely to suffer from various abuses, you invariably answer that, if we only compensated for wealth, the effect would disappear. "

No. If you believe I've said that, quote me, and I'll try to explain how you misunderstood me. What you claim is my position is not my position and never has been my position.

"To hear you describe it, racism is long gone and nobody is ever harmed just because they're not white."

Again, quote me. I've bled from the blows of racists. I'm not about to claim racism is gone until the last racist is dead.

"You can't even begin to recast the lynching of Matthew Shepard in terms of economic disparity. He was murdered because of his perceived identity, not his poverty."

Actually, the Matthew Shepard story is not what you think. See The truth behind America’s most famous gay-hate murder | World news | The Guardian.

"Homophobia has its roots in misogyny, which has its own economic basis, but it doesn't boil down to economics."

Agreed. Where have I ever suggested it did? I'm the one who keeps pointing out that the Log Cabin Republicans deserve the credit for defeating Don't Ask, Don't Tell.

But the ACLU can also take a lot of credit for the progress in gay rights. Here's a picture of Emma and me working the ACLU booth to legalize gay marriage in Minnesota:

"what happened is that we collectively changed our minds as a society."

Yes. I've lived through those changes. Few people supported interracial marriage or thought a black man would ever be President when I was born. (I voted for Obama in '08 purely because I wasn't able to vote for Shirley Chisholm in '72, but I confess, helping elect a black neoliberal was no more exciting than helping to elect a white neoliberal would've been.)

"This is the method of change that traditional anti-racism supports: remove bigotry from people and the laws will follow."

It's another example of anti-racism's religious roots. The civil rights leaders had a simpler solution: don't wait to "remove bigotry". Change the circumstances that hold people back. That's why King was less interested in the words people used and more interested in the deeds that would transform society like Basic Income.

"The bigots understand that this is about beliefs. That's why Texas schools indoctrinate children in the "Lost Cause" mythology that indemnifies them for the sins of slavery and justifies further white supremacy."

We completely agree that public schools should not be teaching nonsense. This is another case where I get to point the finger at capitalism: A socialist country would never let a major buyer of textbooks dictate what's allowed in schoolbooks. Public education is too important to be left in the hands of each state.

"You've asked me for an example of how we might successfully target racism without first targeting the underlying economics, so I'll give you one. Target the propaganda."

When censors are allowed to define what's "propaganda", books like Huckleberry Finn get banned. Censors have never been good with subtext.

"This will directly impact racism by causing whites to feel the proper level of shame about the behavior of their ancestors and discourage them from continuing the hatred."

"Proper level of shame" is a fascinating term. Now, maybe I don't suffer from it because Shetterlys have mostly been farmers up until my father's time. My ancestors fought to free the slaves, and so far as I know, none owned any.

The idea that children bear the sins of their parents is another concept that comes from religion. There's support for it in the Bible, but I side with Ezekiel 18:20: "The son will not share the guilt of the father, nor will the father share the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous man will be credited to him, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against him."

"With diminished racism, right-wing politicians will have less ability to derail social programs that help the poor by pointing out that they disproportionately help minorities. They won't be able to use racist myths such as the "welfare queen" to support economic policies which harm all poor, regardless of race. This reverses the direction of causality with regard to class and racism: it fights classism by fighting racism."

I haven't noticed right-wing politicans saying social programs disproportionately help minorities lately—most of them don't like helping the poor of any hue, and most of the racist ones know sounding racist is bad in an age when most voters in both major parties don't like racists. When rightwingers use coded language to disparage the poor, they usually imply "white trash" don't deserve help either.

"One of the essays you linked to me complained that traditional anti-racism was like an organized religion, and its writings were more like sermons than essays. Of course they are: the goal of sermons is to inspire and to change minds."

That's one theory. The other is that the goal of sermons is to make people content with their lot.

"When Obama sang "Amazing Grace" at the eulogy, he was speaking the language of sermons, and people listened. Hearts and minds were shifted. Confederate flags quickly became as taboo as n-bombs."

Now we're in the realm of myth, where the king sings and the people are transformed. I don't buy it. Obama's an expert at waiting until popular sentiment has changed, then standing up to support what everyone supports. He didn't come out for gay marriage until after the majority of Americans supported it.

"This pointless squabble between the two only benefits the racists. If you keep it up, your opposition to non-Marxist anti-racism will make you a racist, perhaps not in words, but in effect."

If that's true, then it's true for you, too: your opposition to people like Adolph Reed who prioritize class will make you a racist, perhaps not in words, but in effect.

Well, that was long and exhausting. I hope it helped. If it didn't, the comments are open, of course.


ETA: I may make updates in the comments and as ETAs on this post also. Here's my first:
I should've said last night that I'm not opposed to "non-Marxist anti-racism." I'm opposed to identitarian anti-racism. King was a democratic socialist, Malcolm spoke admiring of socialists, and Bayard Rustin was a member of the Young Communists League in the '30s, but many of the civil rights leaders had no interest in socialism. They simply wanted to end racism, and socialists were happy to work with them. Another of my favorite Malcolm X quotes from after he left NOI: "And I, for one, will join in with anyone—I don’t care what color you are—as long as you want to change this miserable condition that exists on this earth."
ETA 2: A point regarding Jamelle Bouie's comment that "racism is orthogonal to class: They’re two different dimensions of disadvantage, and to improve the picture on one isn’t always to improve the picture for the other."

It's true that improving the economic picture for the working class would not improve the social picture for the black bourgeoisie. I sometimes wonder if that's why black identitarians show so little interest in improving the economic picture for the poor, even though any improvement for the working class would disproportionately help black folks.

ETA 3: There's a simple test to see if something has more to do with class or race: If it primarily affects people of one class, is the racial mix similar to the racial mix of that class? If so, the reason is primarily class. If not, the reason is primarily race.

ETA 4: The Complex Story of Race and Upward Mobility - The New York Times

ETA 5: Do identitarian liberals care that their approach leaves people of color disproportionately poor?