I was guilty, like the Exonians mentioned in the Black@Exeter Instagram post, of a kind of magical thinking—supposing that somehow, black skin comes with a brain full of certain ideas and understandings, including a detailed history of the people who have the same color of skin.
As white people sign up to be “white allies” in the fight for racial justice and equality, it is important for them to beware of this tendency toward racialist thinking. The American citizens they want to form an alliance with do not all agree with each other about the history of race in America, the problems we face today, or strategies to bring about a better world.
Should you march in the streets? Should you throw a bomb? Should you read a book? Which book? Should you post of Facebook? Should you carry a sign? What should it say? How should you engage with Black people you encounter in your daily life? Should you go to Black people for answers to these and other questions that come up? If so, which ones? And what do you do when they disagree with each other?
Any white person seeking to get involved with Back politics will be, in the phrase of Henry Louis Gates Jr., “running the gauntlet of blackness.” “There’s always been ideological diversity in the African American community,” he said. “There are 42 million African Americans, which means there are 42 million ways to be Black.” In that case, there may be 42 million ways to be a white ally.
The historic search for “race spokesmen”
Throughout American history, the presumption of Black unity and the existence of one collective “Black mind” has led white people to look for representative spokesmen—individuals or organizations that could serve as the “Voice of the Black Nation” or leaders of the “Black Freedom Movement,” or “Race Representatives.” This summer, it seems that Black Lives Matter is the place to look for “Black opinion.”
Unfortunately, it’s impossible to know which spokesman, or movement or organization, at any given time, best reflects the views of a majority of African Americans and efforts to chose one voice have always papered over significant differences. There is never an election in which African Americans get to choose, and it has often been white people, and wealthy or influential ones at that, who have done the choosing. Booker T. Washington was elevated to a national leadership position by white philanthropic industrialists at the end of the late 19th century. All-Black groups, like the Niagara Movement and William Monroe Trotter’s National Independent Political League were organizing around opposition to Washington in 1910 when a group of wealthy white progressives spearheaded the formation of the NAACP, which ended up overshadowing those Black-led organizations. Notable African Americans, including W.E.B. Du Bois and James Weldon Johnson, served in important roles in the NAACP during the First World War, but the white funders generally called the shots in the early years. The NAACP organized a conference of Black newspaper editors in Washington during the war to represent Black Americans and advance a list of demands to the federal government. My book tells the story of that conference and the role of the Black press in seeking to represent the Black voice. After the war, Marcus Garvey’s organization attracted a much larger following than the NAACP or any other Black advocacy group up to that time because it appealed more to working class than to the small minority of middle class Blacks who made up the bulk of NAACP membership.
A. Philip Randolph and Martin Luther King Jr. led two of the more effective grass roots movements fighting for racial justice in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. During World War II, President Roosevelt assumed that Randolph could mobilize Black America for a confrontational march on Washington, so he gave in to demands for equal employment in defense industries. But even King, perhaps the most universally admired Black American in our history was never really chosen by his people to lead them. He faced strong opposition from rival black groups, including the NAACP, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the amorphous “Black Power” movement of the later 60s.
King was 26 years old when he was first put into the role of national leader during the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56. It was a matter of being in the right place at the right time, in a situation that grabbed the attention of the national press. He appeared regularly on the nightly news during the boycott and Time put him on its cover after its successful conclusion and made him “Man of the Year” in 1963. Such media attention—not to mention a Nobel Prize—rather than any kind of a democratic process was the key to King’s elevation to the role of Number One Black Leader that presidents felt compelled to consult.
He probably lived up to that billing more than any other Black leader before or since. Jill Lepore recently made a compelling case that John F. Kennedy’s phone call to Coretta King expressing support for her jailed husband got him enough Black votes (at a time when a lot of black voters were voting Republican) to put him over the top in the close 1960 presidential election.
Of course, King also earned his position as Black spokesman through brilliant oratory and incredible acts of courage and sacrifice, submitting himself to arrest and jail time again and again and persisting in his role in spite of constant death threats, financial hardship, and an unrelenting campaign by the most powerful law-enforcement officer in the country (FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover) to destroy him. Bearing the Cross is the apt name of the definitive biography of King.
But all African Americans did not agree with the non-violent approach or choose to follow King. Black opposition came from both the right and the left and from rival groups, including the NAACP and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Black militants said King was “too moderate and bourgeois.” And in a widely read Readers’ Digest article, Black columnist Carl Rowan said King was too radical, that he was under the influence of Communists, and had an inflated view of his own self-importance (Garrow, 576-577).
In his recent essay on King’s political philosophy, Cornel West notes that after mid-decade “his nonviolent message was accepted by fewer people.”
After King's assassination in 1968, Black Power militants became the most visible race advocates, thanks more to press coverage than mass support from the African-American population. Groups like the Black Panthers were particularly good at attracting mainstream press coverage by posing with assault rifles in black berets and leather jackets, conducting armed patrols of Black neighborhoods to prevent police brutality, and sometimes engaging in violent encounters with law enforcement, including the FBI.
Neither the Panthers nor the Black Power idea, generally, were ever more popular among African Americans than King, but they represented a divide among the African American leadership class that grew deeper in the wake of King’s assassination and they seem to have had an out-sized influence on Black leadership strategies in the 1970s and beyond as the focus switched from the streets to the universities, from law and economics to culture, and from national to local (urban) politics. (Holt, 344-347).
Black America's Growing Class Divide
Since the 1960s, however, it has only become less likely that any one voice can represents all of Black America, as social, economic, and demographic trends have exacerbated divisions among African Americans. In his book Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America, Eugene Robinson shows that in the decades from 1970 to 2010, desegregation, affirmative action, urban decay, interracial marriage, globalization, a wave of immigration from Africa and the Caribbean, and trickle-down economics had the unintended effect of “tearing black America to pieces.”
Robinson argues that the Americans we refer to as Black have become increasingly divided into four or five groups with distinct, often conflicting, interests. The largest group is a Black middle class the he calls "The Mainstream," "with a full ownership stake in American society." This would include those who belong to the professional-managerial class. Ten percent of Black households earned over $100,000 (adjusted for inflation) per year in the Aughts, compared with only 2 percent in the Sixties, according to Robinson (7).
His second-largest group (25 percent), “The Abandoned,” has “less hope of escaping poverty and dysfunction than at any time since Reconstruction’s crushing end.” Other groups include, “a small “Transcendent” elite with such enormous wealth, power, and influence that even white folks have to genuflect” (e.g., Gates, Oprah); “individuals of mixed heritage”; and recent black immigrants (8.7 percent of the black population).
These groups may have more economic interests in common with similarly situated white people than with other Black groups. Robinson, for example, argues that Affirmative Action should be "narrowed and intensified to be used as a tool to uplift the Abandoned. That means eliminating its benefits for African Americans above some specified income level" (211-213).
Black minds in the Obama-Trump era
Yet the persistence of white racism as reflected in repeated instances of police killings of Black men and women surely represents a powerful common interest out side of economics. Robinson was writing at the dawn of the Obama administration, before the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and others led to the rise of Black Lives Matter. Around the same time, Michelle Alexander raised awareness of the problem of mass incarceration of Black men with her book, The New Jim Crow. That book and BLM may have unified the various groups of Black Americans to some extent around the issues of policing and incarceration. While problems related to criminal justice have a greater impact on Robinson’s Abandoned, members of the Black middle class also rightly consider themselves more vulnerable to police harassment than white middle class folks. Ta-Nehisi Coates has written compellingly about the police killing of his acquaintance, Prince Carmen Jones, a solid member of Robinson’s Mainstream (Coates, 77-78).
Coates has emerged as one of the Black voices that white people think might represent the hive, thanks to his compelling writing in the Atlantic Magazine. And he’s not the only one. As I write this in early August of 2020, seven of the top 10 books on the New York Times paperback nonfiction best seller list deal with racial themes. Ibram Kendi’s book, How to be an Anti-Racist has been on the hardcover list for 22 weeks and stood at number 2 on Aug. 8. Isabel Wilkerson's new book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, promises to have a similarly wide readership. Such books and Coates' 2014 Atlantic piece on reparations, has awakened many Americans to the ways that discrimination on the basis of race continued after emancipation and did not entirely end with the Civil Rights Movement.
But as before, there is diversity among the current crop of Black leaders and intellectuals. And neither Alexander, Coates, Kendi nor Black Lives Matter represent the voice of all Black people in 2020—because there is no Black “hive mind,” as Coates himself learned when he began to read Black intellectual history expecting to find a “coherent tradition marching in lockstep” but instead found a “herd of dissenters” (Coates, 47-48).
Parts of the herd came after Coates in 2017.
In a New York Times essay that year, the Black author and memoirist, Thomas Chatterton Williams, who has recently gained notoriety for authoring the Harper’s letter defending free speech, accused Coates of treating race as “an essence” that imparts “identity epistemology”—that is, a hive mind—to both Blacks and whites. “Accordingly,” Williams writes, “whiteness and wrongness have become interchangeable—the high ground is now accessible only by way of ‘allyship,’ which is to say silence and total repentance.”
Williams seems to be coming at Coates from his right—the Times critique was heartily embraced by the Black conservative economist Glenn Loury on his Podcast along with his sort-of conservative guest John McWhorter.
But the most scathing critique of Coates came from his left. In a blistering essay in 2017, Cornel West said Coates was guilty of “apolitical pessimism” and representing a faux-radical approach to racial justice that fails to connect racial issues to other fundamental problems of the neoliberal economic order—economic inequality, imperialism, militarism—and for being insufficiently critical of the Obama administration’s failure to address those problems. Coates was so unnerved by the essay and the nasty tweets it generated, that he deleted his Twitter account.
Pineal Joseph, a Black scholar of Black Power movements, commented on the dispute, noting
Asked to comment on the dispute, Robin D.G. Kelley, a historian of African American labor activism, refused to takes sides, but instead focused on the valuable contributions of both Coates and West while gently outlining his differences with them.
Kelley, Joseph, West, Coates, and Gates are all coming from the political left, a broad category ranging from the establishment wing of the Democratic Party to a Marxian-socialist or anti-capitalist left that often seems to be at war with itself.
But when it comes to race, the greatest fault line on the left is not between moderates and progressives, as in Biden vs. Sanders. It is between what we might call an identitarian left and a class-conscious left, between those who emphasize class and call their opponents “race reductionists” and those who emphasize race and call their opponents “class reductionists.” Black Marxist political scientist and Sanders supporter Adolph Reed Jr. is a prominent critic, along with his son, Touré, of the identitiarian left and the Black Lives Matter movement. Barbara Fields, the only Black historian who appeared in Ken Burns' Civil War series, and her sociologist sister, Karen, also criticize race reduction on similar grounds. As they write in their influential book, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life, our “elaborate public language of ‘race’ and ‘race relations’… disguised class inequality and, by the same stroke, impoverished Americans’ public language for addressing inequality” (Fields and Fields, 111).
Gates is another black intellectual who insists on bringing class into the equation. “I’m not going to demonize the people who voted for Donald Trump,” he said.
The Gates interview:
Elsewhere in the interview, Gates sounds a lot less like Reed or any kind of Marxist, and a lot more like the Black conservatives and Republicans that Exonians wanted to exclude from the hive mind. "I have no tolerance for anybody who won't work if they can work," he said, extolling the value of "individual responsibility," traditional values, and speaking "standard English."
The author of the Black@Exeter Instagram post is correct—there actually are “black conservatives.” Though a minority among black intellectuals, this group may reflect the views of the Black American population better than anyone on the left.
Something like 90 percent of African Americans vote Democratic, so we assume that virtually all Black people are liberal. However, only 29 percent of Black Democrats (as opposed to 55 percent of white Dems) call themselves liberal. More consider themselves to be either moderate (39 percent) or conservative (25 percent) and 75 percent have a negative view of liberals’ efforts to impose norms of political correctness.
When it comes to religion, Black Democrats resemble white Republicans more than white Democrats. Only 55 percent of all Democrats say they are absolutely certain that God exists compared to 73 percent of Republicans and 83 percent of Blacks. Blacks' rates of church attendance also look more like Republicans' than Democrats'. Black child-rearing practices (which tend to correlate with political beliefs) also look more Republican than Democratic, for example in their willingness to use corporal punishment—80 percent of both Blacks and Republicans compared to just 65 percent of all Democrats.
There doesn’t seem to be much Black support for abolition or defunding of police according to a Gallup poll taken in June and July—81 percent of Black respondents said they want police to spend as much or more time in their neighborhoods as they do now.
A journalist who toured cities in the aftermath of the rioting, arson, and vandalism that accompanied the George Floyd protests, claims that Black residents of the affected areas were appalled by the violence and “almost uniformly supportive of the deployment of National Guard to quell the chaos.”
These conservative attitudes may help to explain Bernie Sanders’ dismal performances with Black voters in presidential primaries. In both 2016 and 2020 Black voters provided a conservative firewall against a socialist takeover of the Democratic Party.
But even Black conservatives don't have a "hive mind." Seven relatively conservative Black pundits--including Loury, McWhorter, and Williams, in a recent Zoom-like session on YouTube this summer expressed a diversity of viewpoints on race relations that did not always fit predictably into the mainstream of American Conservatism and at times they disagreed with each other, for example on the issue of reparations. They also brought class into the discussion in ways that echoed leftists like Reed, Gates, Fields and Bernie Sanders. Williams said “we’re not having enough of a conversation about how bad Americans in general are doing.” Unlike the Marxian leftists, who blame capitalism for problems associated with poverty, however, Williams and the others pointed to “self-defeating culture.” But, Williams added, “Let’s not pretend these are uniquely Black problems. America looks crazy from the standpoint of many other wealthy societies.”
Loury added this left-populist note:
Given the reigning discourse on anti-racism, it is not surprising that Exeter students would consign all conservatives to the dustbin of racism. This past winter the school's MLK Day keynote speaker was Ibram Kendi who defines racism in binary terms. Everyone is either a racist or an antiracist and there is no in-between; you can't just be "not-racist" (Kendi, 9). In How to be an Antiracist, Kendi expresses absolute certainty about what kind of thinking and behavior gets you into which category. The Exeter students mentioned in the Instagram post were simply applying Kendi's binary schematic.
But as prominent as black writers like Kendi and Coates have become, neither is currently the most influential race educator in America today. That distinction belongs to a white woman.
Robin DiAngelo is the author of America’s current favorite book on how to be a white ally. Since its publication in 2018, White Fragility, has spent 33 weeks on the Times best seller list, and it surged to number one during the George Floyd protests. At the end of July it was still the most popular book on anti-racism, though Kendi’s was not far behind. Sales of the book have likely been driven in part by corporate employers who have distributed copies their employees, as Exeter did with Kendi's book.
Even before the book came out, DiAngelo was a popular speaker at conferences and a sought-after leader of workplace seminars. She has led workshops at schools (though not Exeter yet), government agencies, universities, and companies like Microsoft, Google, Levi, and W.L. Gore & Associates—the maker of Gore-Tex—just to name a few. Last year she gave eight to 10 of these presentations a month, charging as much as $15,000 per session, according to a lengthy portrait in the Times.
As more people outside of the captive employee audience began to read DiAngelo’s book this spring and summer, criticism has mounted, most spectacularly by white Rolling Stone writer Matt Taibbi, but also by plenty of Black reviewers.
Kelefa Sanneh, in the New Yorker, accuses DiAngelo of buying into an exaggerated version of the Black hive mind theory: “If there is scripture in DiAngelo’s world, it is the testimony of “people of color,” a term that usefully reduces all of humanity to two categories: white and other… DiAngelo is endlessly deferential—for her, racism is basically whatever any person of color thinks it is.”
In the Times, Jamelle Bouie laments the influence of anti-racism and White Fragility on Black activism. He points out that BLM has a program that goes well beyond police killings and what Reed refers to as anti-racial-disparitarianism, to address “working-class, egalitarian politics” and demands such things as “universal health care, affordable housing, living wage employment and access to education and public transportation.” But anti-racism has overshadowed those issues, which address the interests of working class people of all races and could form the basis of a strong, unified working class movement. In BLM, he concludes, there is “too much concern with ‘white fragility’ and not enough with wealth inequality.”
Reed and the Fields sisters would take Bouie's gentle criticism of anti-racism, diversity consulting, and BLM a step further. Their exclusive focus on race, they say, helps the ruling capitalist class perform a “rope-a-dope” on the American working class, distracting them from the fundamental problems of inequality and worker exploitation under post-industrial capitalism. In an interview with Jacobin, Barbara Fields put it this way:
Corporations are so eager to pay DiAngelo such high fees because it gets their employees to focus on conflict among themselves rather than the problems—like unsanitary conditions—that they face together as workers.
The most vociferous critics of DiAngelo, however, are the Black conservatives. Their objections to her approach was reflected in a recent fiery confrontation at a New York City school board meeting over diversity training. An affluent white constituent accused a board member of racist behavior and when he asked her to explain, she told him to "read a book. Read Ibram Kendi. Read How to Talk to White People. It is not my job to educate you." Latino Board member Edward Irizarry reflected the views of black conservatives when he reacted to this by saying that DiAngelo-style diversity training the schools had sponsored promoted “cosmetic diversity,” disempowered underprivileged students of color, and undermined their achievement.
Critics like Irizarry and the conservatives have pointed to DiAngelo’s discussion of baseball great Jackie Robinson—the only major leaguer whose number is retired on every team. In her workshops, DiAngelo asks participants to think of Robinson, not as an inspiring example of Black achievement but as “the first Black man whites allowed to play major-league baseball.”
Perhaps unintentionally, DiAngelo and other anti-racist educators send the message that white racism and white supremacy are so powerful, ubiquitous and implacable, that efforts by individual black people can’t hope to overcome it. Why even try?
McWhorter has written the most scathing review of White Fragility from this perspective. He concluded: “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.”
Conservatives have leveled similar criticisms at Coates, whose 2015 memoir, Between the World and Me, was written in the form of a letter to his son; its principle message was one of despair and hopelessness about the future of Blacks in America. Coates wrote: “You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels” (Coates, 107). In an online discussion about Coates, Loury and McWhorter agreed that Coates’ pessimism was ahistorical, ignoring significant progress on race. Loury went so far as to say that sending such a message to his son amounted to “child abuse.”
The ways in which anti-racism discourse could have a disempowering effect on African Americans was vividly laid bare in a Smithsonian post, removed in response to widespread criticism but posted below. It suggested that self-reliance, objective thinking, hard work and delayed gratification, among other things, are traits unique to white people and that it would be racist to force such values on Blacks.
Here, the Smithsonian seems to be calling for a fundamental and radical transformation of society—a revolutionary rejection of western culture and economic relations. It implies that Black people are outside of that culture and their only hope is to change it. Ron Ferguson, a Black economist at Harvard who describes himself as a liberal objected to that approach, and said: “You can try to be competitive by equipping yourself to run the race that’s already scheduled, or you can try to change the race. There may be some things about the race I’d like to change, but my priority is to get people prepared to run the race that’s already scheduled” (this would seem to be the role that elite private high schools like Exeter are well-equipped to play).
White allies and the gauntlet of blackness
Clearly there is no black hive mind and thus no consensus about how to be a white ally, though there is no shortage of people who are eager to offer detailed guidelines.
Showing up at a BLM demonstration on top of a New Hampshire mountain or planting a BLM sign on your lawn might get you into the white ally club or it might be dismissed as “performative activism”—a pathetic attempt “to feel safe from white guilt.”
During the Ferguson crisis, I delivered a speech to the Exeter student body placing the BLM movement into the context of the history of black protest in America and was criticized for failing to express a sense of outrage about police brutality.
On the other hand expressing outrage could be seen as “centering yourself and your feelings,” something you should have learned not to do in “White Allying 101.”
Mild rebuke is not the only consequence for getting white ally-hood wrong. David Shor was apparently fired from a “progressive” analytics firm for posting this tweet:
Post-MLK-assasination race riots reduced Democratic vote share in surrounding counties by 2%, which was enough to tip the 1968 election to Nixon. Non-violent protests *increase* Dem vote, mainly by encouraging warm elite discourse and media coverage. https://t.co/S8VZSuaz3G. pic.twitter.com/VRUwnRFuVW— (((David Shor))) (@davidshor) May 28, 2020
The study had been published in a political science journal by a Black Princeton Professor.
The Black Philadelphia pundit Ernest Owens questions the whole notion of “Allyship” as “a vapid solution to racism that lacks true accountability…. [And] perpetuates the culture of pointlessly glorifying white people who appear to give a damn.” But whites should still “do the work” of anti-racism, he says.
I tend to think that white people are not irredeemably or essentially anything except creatures of necessity. They are unlikely to attend to strangers' interests at the expense of their own.
The implication is that racism is good for all white people, that race relations are a “zero-sum game" and that white people will have to give up these privileges to allow previously oppressed people to thrive. That's an argument that is not incompatible with the view of white nationalists, who say that non-white peoples must be subordinated so that whites can thrive.
It was part of a “divide-and-conquer strategy pursued by those in power,” W.E.B. Du Bois wrote. White laborers tolerated low wages because they “were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage.” (Arneson, 9-10).
Like many labor-oriented American historians on the left, Du Bois thought that all American workers could get better actual wages if they relinquished the psychological wage that came with white supremacy and joined with fellow workers of whatever skin color in a unified labor movement. This theory offers an explanation of why American workers are less likely to have health insurance, belong to a union, get paid sick days, or take vacation time, than workers in other advanced industrial economies.
That was the fundamental premise underlying Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign, illustrated in this campaign ad:
The apparent ongoing success of the divide-and-conquer strategy is vividly illustrated in Dr. Johnathan M. Metzl’s 2019 book, Dying of Whiteness. Metzl tells the story of Trevor, a white 41-year old Tennessean dying of a treatable liver disease because, lacking adequate health insurance, he couldn’t afford the medication that would have saved him. Yet his support for his state’s elected officials who refused the Affordable Care Act’s expansion of Medicaid was unwavering. “Ain’t no way I would ever support Obamacare or sign up for it,” he said. “No way I want my tax dollars paying off Mexicans or welfare queens.”
Such is the “privilege” of America’s precarious white working class.
Of course all white people are not in Trevor’s boat. Whites like me who are the truly privileged winners in the 21st century economy—college educated, professional, managerial, and cosmopolitan—seem to be more willing to embrace the diversity/anti-racism agenda. I haven’t seen any indication that any significant number of us are willing to give up whatever material benefits might have come to us through the subtle, mostly hidden operation of “systemic” racism. No one is asking us to forgo family wealth we have built since the early sixties, a period in which the wealth gap between the typical white family and the typical black family has grown from about $50,000 to about $135,000 (in inflation-adjusted 2016 dollars).
But the rest of us in the academic-professional-managerial class have plenty to gain and nothing to lose by proclaiming ourselves white allies. At the very least we will stay in the good graces of our employers who mandate diversity or cultural competency or anti-racist training. At most we advance our careers by doing it enthusiastically, by, say, joining an optional White Allies Book Group, speaking up in meetings on behalf of racial justice—or maybe even taking the nuclear option, calling out “problematic” behavior of colleagues.
But such excesses of what one writer has called the Great Awokening, are beginning to generate resistance on the left to anti-racism. You can see this in the phenomenal success of a new podcast, “Blocked and Reported,” which includes a running critique of Robin DiAngelo in between conversations about people who have been unfairly cancelled, fired, or mobbed on Twitter over violations of "woke" etiquette. Such news is trending all over YouTube, “the intellectual dark web,” and increasingly in the mainstream press, and the writings of mainstream journalists like Conor Friedersdorf and lefties like Matt Taibbi.
And while the effort to destroy racism one white mind at a time is having mixed results, we seem to be forgetting about the problems of the Black people that Robinson categorized as Abandoned, whose deprivations are shared by an increasing number of working class whites.
While it is true that as a whole, whites have more wealth than Blacks, in both groups wealth is concentrated at the top. The most affluent 40 percent of white families have 95.6 percent of white wealth and the top 40 percent of Black families have an even greater share of Black-held assets. Apparently the American economy allows only about half of American families, Black or white, to accumulate any reserves at all. And even among that relatively lucky fifty percent the wealth is unevenly distributed. Among both Black and white families, just 10 percent own about 75 percent of assets. Meanwhile, 30 percent of Black and 20 percent of white families are either in debt or have no wealth accumulated at all. (This link shows the distribution in various categories in a series of bar graphs).
Peggy McIntosh and other racial justice consultants don't bother much with the complicating factor of class differences within racial groups when they talk about white privilege. Debby Irving, who delivered an assembly talk at Exeter a few years ago, disposed of class in a three-page chapter of her 250-page discussion of her racial awakening. She acknowledged that "I often conflate racism and classism" and that "it may sound as if I think all white people are loaded and all black people are downtrodden" (Irving, 15). It was an insightful observation at the start of a book in which she frequently confused the privilege of her upper-upper middle-class background with privileges based on skin color that many whites do not share. McIntosh has also been accused of making that same category error.
Even if you happen to have black skin. On May 29 when a planned talk by Adolph Reed, a founding member of the US Labor Party and a lifetime left-wing activist, was cancelled after members of the New York and Philadelphia Democratic Socialists accused him of “class reductionism.”
Of course Reed, a Black man, was not called out for his white fragility or white privilege. We’ve had to find other labels for Blacks who dissent from the dominant anti-racist theories. We might call them sell-outs or say they aren’t authentically black. Rep. Ayanna Pressley recently said in frustration over colleagues of color in Congress who disagree with her on important policy issues: “We don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice… We don’t need any more Black faces that don’t want to be a Black voice.”
Like Gates and the Fields sisters, Reed does not argue that race is irrelevant, but that class and race cannot be separated, that you can’t understand race in America without considering class. As Barbara Fields says, it would be like trying to understand a fraction by looking at only the numerator or only the denominator (Fields and Fields, 119, n. 13).
King understood this. He knew that racism harmed some blacks economically more than others and that not all white people were thriving under the heel of industrial capitalism. Rather than reparations for slavery, he spoke of economic policies that would be applied universally, regardless of race. He had a view of white privilege very different from Peggy McIntosh's.
“The moral justification for special measures for Negroes is rooted in the robberies inherent in the institution of slavery,” he said. “Many poor whites, however, were the derivative victims of slavery. As long as labor was cheapened by the involuntary servitude of the black man, the freedom of white labor, especially in the South, was little more than a myth.” (King, Why We Can’t Wait, 138)
To that end, King was a passionate advocate of labor unions, a critic of concentrated wealth and low wages, and a supporter of a universal basic income fifty years before Exeter alum Andrew Yang ran for president (King, All Labor has Dignity, 157-158).
Since King’s death in 1968, union membership has declined from 25 to 10 percent of workers, the real value of the minimum wage is down 17 percent, and we have entered a new Gilded Age of inequality.
Sometimes, Anti-racists like Coates and Kendi seem to agree with King's critique of inequality and would support radical universal economic policies. After all, though he criticized Sanders for not backing reparations, Coates chose him over Clinton in the 2016 primaries.
Hillary Clinton expressed the logic of this approach when she asked, in her campaign against Bernie Sanders, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow … would that end racism?” Economic and class inequality and racism or racial disparities are disconnected problems that must be dealt with separately. Striking a similar note, “intersectonality” theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw, said recently that corporations “saying something about structural racism and anti-blackness” are doing more for black Americans than Democratic politicians with all their policy ideas.
Presumably, this means that Amazon programming Alexa to say “I stand in solidarity with the black community in the fight against systemic racism and injustice” is a more substantial move against racism than what Bernie Sanders did to shame Amazon into raising its minimum wage to $15 an hour—even though 26 percent of Amazon employees are Black, twice their representation in the US population.
A final note to my students, and fellow Sandernistas
I began this post by recalling my realization that black college students are no less ignorant of their history than white college students. The same holds for black high school students, even the brilliant ones who attend Phillips Exeter Academy. And I have 23 years of experience to support that claim, not just one semester.
I admire the militancy of progressive young people, like the ones who canvassed with me for the Sanders campaign this winter, who are outraged at injustices that are indeed outrageous. But I would caution them against too much certainty about the best way to eliminate those injustices. Go ahead and keep showing up at protest rallies and knocking on doors for political candidates like Bernie, but don’t try to silence your opponents. On the contrary, seek out views that you disagree with and keep thinking for yourself and evaluating whether or not your political strategies are having the desired effect.
As I tell my students, you should welcome, not avoid, the feeling of cognitive dissonance that you get when new information contradicts your world view. When you get that feeling, one of two things will happen. You will strengthen your position or better yet, you will change your views and get closer to the truth.
To that end, I say, read the currently-popular anti-racist writers, like Coates and Kendi, but also read their opposition on the left, like West, Gates, Reed and Fields, and don't treat any of their writings like some kind of scripture. There's nothing wrong with reading white writers like DiAngelo and McIntosh, but also look at white authors who take a different view, like Walter Benn Michaels or Judith Stein. By all means, read conservative thinkers like Loury and McWhorter. But above all, read and study the deeper history of American protest and the great African American political leaders and theoriests, from Du Bois to Randoph to King and especially Bayard Rustin, whose insightful 1970 essay "The Failure of Black Separatism" offers a warning to racial justice advocates that is still relevant fifty years later:
NOTES & SOURCES
“For the discovery of truth it is necessary to argue against all things and for all things.” —Cicero.
The forgoing essay was written in the context of a spring term sabbatical and a summer during the Coronavirus Pandemic and the social distancing that went with it. I spent most of that time isolated at my home in Bethlehem, New Hampshire, reading history books and the news and listening to a fair number of podcasts. Toward the end of my six months of concentrated reading and reflection I increasingly became focused on readings related to the BLM protests, conflicts among progressives and others over identity politics, and the history of race and the Civil Rights Movement, including Taylor Branch’s 1,000-page history of the first decade of the movement and David Garrow’s more narrowly focused Time on the Cross. Sources related to current events are mostly linked in the essay above where they were relevant. Books and some other sources that didn’t make it into the links are listed below.
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by (New York: The New Press, 2010).
Eric Arnesen, “Whiteness and the Historian’s Imagination,” International Labor and Working Class History, Fall 2001, 3-32.
Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-1963 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988).
Ta-Nahisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel and Grau, 2015).
Karen E. Fields and Barbara J. Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (London: Verso, 2014). Barbara Fields and a different collaborator discussed police shootings in the wake of George Floyd's death in this Dissent article.
Free Black Thought on Substack.
Thomas Geoghegan, Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs a New Kind of Labor Movement (New York: New Press, 2014).
Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy, The Political Classroom: Evidence and Ethics in Democratic Education (New York: Routledge, 2015).
Thomas Holt, Children of Fire: A History of African Americans (New York: Hill and Wang, 2010).
Debby Irving, Waking Up White and Finding Myself in the Story of Race (Cambridge, MA: Elephan Room Press, 2014).
Martin Luther King, Jr., Why We Can’t Wait (New York: Mentor, 1963).
Ibram Kendi, How to be an Anti-Racist (New York: One World, 2019).
Eugene Robinson, Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America (New York: Anchor Books, 2011).
Bayard Rustin, Time on Two Crosses: The Collected Writings of Bayard Rustin, Devon W. Carbado and Donald Weise eds. (New York: Cleis Press, 2003).
Tommie Shelby and Brandon M. Terry, eds., To Shape a New World: Essays on the Political Philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2018).
William Julius Wilson More than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City (New York: WW Norton and Co., 2009).
In case anyone is interested, I’ve published two things on the diversity among the black leadership class early in the 20th century:
Black Newspapers and America’s War for Democracy, 1914-1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).
“’The Damnable Dilemma’: African-American Accommodation and Protest during World War I,” Journal of American History, Vol. 81, March 4, 1995, 1562–1583. Here, I argued that to understand Du Bois’s World War I editorials you had to understand subtle differences among black leaders at the time.
The New York Times Magazine article on DiAngelo has a paragraph or two that suggests that on-the-job diversity or anti-bias training doesn’t work and can actually backfire. Here are links to articles on the question of whether or not it works. I confess that I haven’t read all of these myself and I am not qualified to judge the effectiveness of anti-bias training. It seems pretty clear, though, that corporate diversity training, like what Starbucks did, often seems to be inspired more by their PR value than the actual impact on employees:
Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Harvard Business Review.
Harvard Business Review.
The Wharton School.
Blocked and Reported. In this interview, a white woman describes her year-long experience of workplace diversity training with DiAngelo and a black co-consultant, illustrating how such experience can have unintended effects.
In short, when people perceive one another as members of the same in-group, racial bias—and possibly other forms of bias against groups of people—tends to melt away. Thus, the way to increase inclusion in the workplace is to make everyone feel like they’re part of the same team. Many studies support this idea, at least implicitly, and one way to create an in-group feeling among people is to establish shared goals. Inclusion programs can make a start by creating teams whose members matter to one another because they’re part of the same in-group, pursuing the same interests. Focusing on common goals and a common identity will be critically important for eliminating bias—both within the enterprise and in leading the way for society at large.
The Linguistic Minefield
One of the obstacles to being a white ally is knowing what to say and how to say it. Anti-bias training places a great deal of emphasis on language, seen as the source of many “microagressions,” the cumulative effect of which are said to cause pain and suffering among Blacks and other marginalized people. The linguistic turn in movements for social justice has caused much controversy and along with other cultural issues is connected to the divisive and somewhat ill-defined category of “political correctness.” One of Trump’s more resonant appeals in 2016 was his critique of “political correctness.” The study I referenced earlier, which found that 75 percent of even African Americans have a negative view of the effort to impose these norms, found similar sentiments among all types of Americans, including people in their early (79 percent) and later (74 percent) 20s. And whites (79 percent) were not the ethnic groups who were most opposed to political correctness: Hispanics (87 percent) and American Indians (88 percent) disliked it even more. A Pew study found that only 23 percent of Latino or Hispanic Americans have heard of the gender-neutral term "Latinx" and only 3 percent choose to use it. A 40-year-old American Indian summed up his discomfort with the emphasis on language: “It seems like every day you wake up something has changed … Do you say Jew? Or Jewish? Is it a black guy? African-American? … You are on your toes because you never know what to say. So political correctness in that sense is scary.” So who is promoting this seemingly powerful movement to impose new norms of discourse? According to the survey, only a relatively small political tribe of “progressive activists”—the people that Robin DiAngelo says “cause the most daily damage to people of color”—are in favor of the enforcement of PC norms.
The more education you have and the more money you make, the more likely you are to belong to that group. Only 3 percent of the progressive-activist PC lovers are African Americans, according to the survey. Within this group it seems that white allies are more aggressive promoters of the new orthodoxy than their black comrades. In his piece, the Great Awokening, Matt Yglesias cites polling that shows 46 percent of white liberals and only 33 percent of Blacks disagree with the statement that Black people in America should be able to overcome prejudice and work their way up, as other ethnic minorities have done. The BLM protesters who harassed a Washington DC diner for not raising her fist when asked are mostly white.
This author theorizes that signing onto the anti-racism cause has become a way for elite whites to signal their superior status. John McWhorter agrees in this article about freedom of speech on campus and gives an example of white students calling out a Black professor:
Being nonwhite leaves one protected in this environment only to the extent that one toes the ideological line. An assistant professor of color who cannot quite get with the program writes, “At the moment, I’m more anxious about this problem than anything else in my career,” noting that “the truth is that over the last few years, this new norm of intolerance and cult of social justice has marginalized me more than all racism I have ever faced in my life.”
A couple of surprising examples:
“The one I have recently begun to hate is ‘African-American.’”
“I dislike the term, “white trash.” … If ‘white trash’ is a thing, it suggests that trashiness is not unexpected among people whose skin is of other colors.”
A note on style: While I was working on this essay, the Associated Press made a change to its style guide, mandating capitalization of "Black" when referring to the group of people. I have mixed feelings about the decision and no obligation to follow the AP or the New York Times, which has it's own style guide and has made a similar decision, as has the Chicago Manual of Style. The decision seems to be taking a side on debates about identity, against people like Reed (he doesn't capitalize it on his website) and with more "identity-focused" advocates. It also creates an apparent contradiction between capitalizing Black and using the lower case white and brown, that might end up being used by white supremacists to support their "reverse racism" arguments. On the other hand, I decided to use AP style to spare myself from having to spend my time worrying about style issues. So I went through the draft and changed all (hopefully) the lower class "blacks" to upper case. I'm sure I missed some. Also, by the way, AP has an extensive section on writing and style issues connected to race. I've used the term "African American" pretty much interchangeably with "Black," but the two terms are actually not quite the same.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June 2014, is well worth reading for background on redlining, and has single-handedly made reparations a seriously-considered public policy option. A town in NC actually has approved a reparations policy.
Of course, the devil is in the details. This piece in Jacobin argues that doing reparations the wrong way could end up making the distribution of wealth in America even more unequal. Although Jacobin comes from a Marxian left perspective there is no unanimity on the question, but rather a vigorous debate.
Adolph Reed’s son, Touré Reed, challenges Coates’ analysis of the New Deal and Great Society, their impact on blacks and the conclusions he draws from them in his new book, Toward Freedom: The Case Against Race Reductionism, and in this video interview.
In the video interview I posted, Henry Louis Gates articulates what I think is probably a very common cultural conservatism among the majority of African Americans who also reliably vote Democratic.
Although Gates’s view on this “operates as common sense in most quarters of black America,” he might be called inauthentic or an Uncle Tom by some black intellectuals, whose ideas about Black and white culture are reflected in the controversial Smithsonian post. For critiques of “Racial uplift ideology,” or what has come to be called “respectability politics,” which Gates seems to be promoting here see Kevin K. Gaines, Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century. From the publisher’s blurb: “Gaines argues that, in its emphasis on class distinctions and patriarchal authority, racial uplift ideology was tied to pejorative notions of racial pathology and thus was limited as a force against white prejudice…. Ultimately, elite conceptions of the ideology retreated from more democratic visions of uplift as social advancement, leaving a legacy that narrows our conceptions of rights, citizenship, and social justice.” See also, Frederick C. Harris, “The Rise of Respectability Politics,” Dissent, Winter 2014, who argues that “the politics of respectability has been portrayed as an emancipatory strategy to the neglect of discussions about structural forces that hinder the mobility of the black poor and working class.” It also smacks of victim-blaming, some would argue.
This is connected to what those who are interested in the causes of poverty think of as the “structure-versus-culture dispute” (which applies to poor white people too; see, for example Jill Lepore, “Richer and Poorer: Accounting for inequality,” New Yorker, March 16, 2015). As the black Harvard sociologist William Julius Wilson put in his 2009 book More than Just Race, “This book will likely generate controversy because I dare to take culture seriously as one of the explanatory variables in the study of race and urban poverty—a topic that is typically considered off-limits in academic discourse because of a fear that such analysis scan be construed as ‘blaming the victim’” (Wilson, 4). According to the conservative authors of The Rise of Victimhood Culture, anything that smacks of “blaming the victim” is considered off limits in the field of sociology, which they say has “abandon[ed] scientific work entirely” and become “just another moral project.” (Campbell and Manning, 203). Maryland sociologist Philip N. Cohen, author of The Family: Diversity, Inequality, and Social Change, defends recent trends in sociology and suggests some readings that address the relationship between Black culture and Black poverty.
Race relations and majority rule
Is it possible that black people might have fared better under a system of majority rule rather than the Madisonian system that has given disproportionate power over the years to slave owners, agricultural economic interests, voters in small-population states, wealthy industrialists, and segregationists?
More advice for White Allies
This summer, Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Robin Givhan reflected on the white protesters in Portland, particularly the “Wall of Moms.” “The Black protesters need allies. But it’s also possible to hate that need, the pitying sound of it, the way it overshadows Black achievement and agency, courage and eloquence.”
She also acknowledged the difficulty of being a white ally and asks:
Maddening indeed. Some of the reader comments on Givhan’s article offer insights into how the contemporary discourse on racial justice might do more to drive white people away from Black politics rather than make allies of them. I’ve been struck this summer while reading books about the history of the Civil Right Movement how worried black leaders back then were about a white backlash against their protests and the legislation it had inspired. King warned of the rise of a conservative movement on the wings of this backlash in a landmark speech to the AFL-CIO in 1961 and he included a chapter with the title "White Backlash" in his last book, Where do we Go from Here. Barry Goldwater’s capture of the Republican Party presidential nomination in 1964 was seen as an early sign of the backlash. Their worries, of course, turned out to be well-placed.
Cornel West and others raised similar concerns following the George Floyd protests. And in an interview with Thomas Chatterton Williams, white supremacist Richard Spencer said that the racial essentialism of Coates and contemporary leaders of the movement for racial justice was “the photographic negative” of white supremacist thinking on race and that “maybe those leftists will be the easiest ones to flip.” Williams concluded: “However far-fetched that may sound, what identitarians like Mr. Spencer have grasped, and what ostensibly anti-racist thinkers like Mr. Coates have lost sight of, is the fact that so long as we fetishize race, we ensure that we will never be rid of the hierarchies it imposes. We will all be doomed to stalk our separate paths.”
Another author addresses white allies in a way that seems more likely to advance the cause while avoiding backlash. Among other things, he recounts the history of white allies, some of whom died in the course of protesting for Black Americans' rights, and argues that they played an essential role in that cause. When I read this piece it had generated only 9 comments mostly dealing with the question of whether or not violence is justified. Givhan’s, damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t approach to white allies, meanwhile, generated over 900 comments.
Teaching in the BLM era.
In a conversation with Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden a teacher describes herself as a “social justice teacher” who is engaged in “abolitionist teaching” or “teaching in the resistance.” She says: “We need our kids to know that they are absolutely a part of this movement to smash white supremacy,” and how to “fight police brutality while staying safe.”
A book I have cited often on this blog and that I view as the essential guide to teaching politics would seem to question this approach. The political teacher’s job is to provide students with a “nonpartisan political education,” and “develop their ability to deliberate” with fellow citizens that they disagree with. “Part of the ethical challenge of teaching about politics is determining where political education ends and partisan proselytizing begins” (Hess and McAvoy, 4). It is not always an easy line to draw when dealing with the history of race relations.
We need not only the specific reforms to policing but also a bold and comprehensive project to constitute a healthy social contract. We need a project not so much of renewal but of reinvention so that we might at last build a full, inclusive social compact that empowers all and delivers effective and responsive governance to an empowered citizenry. We need a new social contract worthy of our recommitment to U.S. constitutional democracy and one another.
She pointed to the recommendations of a report by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences which included the following items:
- Build civic media to counteract the challenges introduced by social media.
- Find ways to tell our nation’s story that are honest about the past without falling into cynicism and appreciative of the country’s accomplishments without spinning into deification.
- Increase resources and resolve for community leadership, civic education and an American culture of shared commitment to constitutional democracy and one another.
The most important change since my first days in the classroom, then, is that I am less concerned with whether our students are headed toward being liberals or conservatives; my stronger interest is in whether they are headed toward being engaged but open-minded citizens, as opposed to ideologically frozen partisans of any stripe. I hope their overall experience at the school will help them see, among other things, the deficiencies of so many national political arguments, where ideology and derision, reflexive political loyalties and transparent self-interest so often dominate campaign (and other) speeches, just as these anti-intellectual qualities also define many of the television programs that claim to offer analysis of public issue (David Weber, see notes, above for full reference.)
After Brown University administrators released a statement of support for the George Floyd protests, economics professor Glenn Loury wrote a response, saying the letter betrayed the university’s fundamental role by taking a partisan position on issues that are up for debate. “What I found most alarming, though, is that no voice was given to what one might have thought would be a university’s principal intellectual contribution to the national debate at this critical moment: namely, to affirm the primacy of reason over violence in calibrating our reactions to the supposed ‘oppression.’”