The De-Radicalization of Anti-Racism

The title and the probing ideas come from Amy Elizabeth Ansell’s New Right, New Racism: Race and Reaction in the United States and Britain. My explorations follow her lead only as it opens vistas onto what is happening in the United States, since that is where I live and observe. In a detailed and precise way, Ansell outlines the emergence of “new racism” with the advent of “new right” politics during our most recent decades. Her germinal thoughts begin to take root in my heart and mind demanding from me an initial counting of learnings which can be applied to a present situation in which the anti-racism I have known becomes a fragment of past analyses and a figment of present policy imagination.

In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s when I first became familiar with the anti-racism of that time, it was clear that any analysis of the social construction of race in the United States had to include not only a recognition of the role of race prejudice, but also a hard look at the functions of power in the equation Prejudice + Power = Racism. It became a mantra of the anti-racism movement. Today that extended mantra probably becomes Prejudice + Power + Privilege = Racism. Variations on those words prevailed; there was talk about a “white problem,” about “white power,” and words like dominance, supremacy, and hegemony were common. The central theme was constant. When the analysis was applied to the way racism functions in the United States it was clear to most anti-racists that the categories of power and privilege were “white.”

The uses and abuses of white power, settled by custom, law, and practice in the major institutions of the nation, combined with the enculturated prejudices of several hundred years, became a primary focus of anti-racism. Most of my colleagues viewed anti-racism as a movement which necessarily had to focus on the social and political structures of white power. Most of us also applauded any effort to probe the attitudes, prejudices, and psyches which eventuate in behaviors and practices of discrimination and exclusion. While engaging in those probes, we also knew it was of prime significance to raise the issues of institutional forms which gave power to racism. For some of us, any effort which failed to connect to those forms of racism simply was not a full expression of anti-racism. The anti-racism which made those connections was radical in the sense that it attacked the root problems of racism.

Puzzled to understand what is happening/has happened to anti-racism in these days of right-wing pretensions to power, then comes Amy Elizabeth Ansell’s remarkable work. The central idea I want to appropriate from her book is encompassed in what she calls the “de-radicalization of anti-racism.” What follows builds from the idea that dynamics set into motion by the “new right” and “new racism” have led too often to a diversion of anti-racism away from the points of its strength. The “new racism” of the “new right” becomes what Ansell calls a form of “anti-anti-racism.” The germinal thought comes from Ansell; much that is presented here probably originated with her also, but at this point I will not attempt to designate ideas which are hers, and those which are mine. I hope only to encourage participation in further dialogue among those who want to be anti-racist in the new century. Let my heart-mind journey begin an exploration of the “de-radicalization of anti-racism”; maybe there will be some directional signs for the future.

First, here is a simple list of what seem to be some of the subtle shifts which the “new right’s” “new racism” has brought to the political debates and dynamics in the United States. These subtle shifts become defining differences for anti-racism:

Anti-Racism New Right Anti-Anti-Racism
Emphasis on outcome/results Insistence on proving intent
Centrality of group rights There are only individual rights
Color-consciousness is OK Color-consciousness divides & is racist
Integration is a goal Separate & equal is a goal
Planned economy World-wide market economy
Power relationships define racism Racism = race prejudice
Prevention & rehabilitation is response Punishment is response to crime
Role of government utilized to alleviate disparities, inequalities Role of government becomes benign neglect
Inequality increased by social structures Inequality comes from differing individual abilities
Affirmative Action attempts to include those excluded by past/present discrimination “Preferences” to overcome discrimination are discriminatory
Inequality is rooted in contradictions of our Founding; believing in both equality and white, male superiority Inequalities measure the failure of our nation to live out its creed of equality
Multi-lingual abilities are a national asset, to be encouraged English is the official national language
Immigration of new citizens is essential to define our identity as a nation of immigrants Immigration limited for technically skilled and/or English speaking whites
The rights of indigenous people must be legally acknowledged, politically implemented Indigenous people become assimilated

The above list invites you to add to it from your own understanding and experience. There is no attempt to prioritize or to even explain why I have worded things as I have; again you are invited to change whatever begs your welcome advice. Rather, I want here to trace some of the strands which seem to dominate the way the “new right” has manipulated the agenda of anti-racism.

The “new racism” of the “new right” as described by Ansell has become what she calls “anti-anti-racism.” Here is the purpose to convince all who will hear that what has been known as “anti-racism” is in fact the face of racism, and must be exposed and resisted. Eager to avoid the brand of “racist,” the right has pinned that label on anti-racists. The right has claimed the egalitarian purpose and language of anti-racism for itself, and in so doing has put anti-racism on the defensive. Thus the right becomes what Ansell calls “anti-anti-racism.” Anti-racism has to explain to a confused public what has happened in a now upside-down world of race relations. The ground has shifted, and anti-racism stumbles with the old definitions shaking under its feet.

Ansell makes clear that the anti-anti-racism of the New Right escapes the brand of “racist” by insisting that it is concerned with its own identity and rights rather than any degradation of people of color. The New Right is not against blacks, but is for whites and their rights; we can remem­ber David Duke saying almost those words. Its concern is simply to implement the egalitarian ideals which insist on the rights for all individuals. Here the New Right is itself on shaky ground, because its common insistence that there are no group rights but only rights for individuals becomes confused as it claims to be for “white” rights. Still the claim is heard as one FOR rights of whites rather than AGAINST anyone. Being FOR their own rights, they quickly reject any charge of being racist. Rather, they point fingers at the “anti-racists,” those who talk about and encourage cooperative efforts among several “racial” identities. Those discussions which recognize the differences, and engage in mutual critique and attempt to understand somehow become, in the view of the New Right, inherently racist. In public debate the New Right identifies the “real racists” as the anti-racists of yesterday.

Shaking the brand of “racist,” the New Right finds a receptive audience when it insists that its only concern is with “self-definition” rather than a critique of other groups. If troubled by the increase in immigrants who are not white, and often with limited English skills, the right proclaims it is concerned only with defining who “Americans” are. Those “Americans” then will decide who are not “Americans,” what they must do if they are to become “American,” and who and how many will be included in that definition. Here the debate includes advocates of English Only, and the undermining of bilingual education, ethnic studies and multicultural education generally. The “we-they” syndrome is there, but by claiming only a concern for the “we Americans” category, the New Right cleanses itself from the charge of “racist.” This may be an example of what Ansell calls a “differentialist racism” replacing a “discriminatory racism.” The New Right can say they have no intention of discriminating, they simply want to be “themselves,” different from the “others.” They have been told for years that “difference is simply difference,” that encouraging “difference” is all right. Now that they emphasize the difference they see and feel, who can criticize them as being racist? The real racists are the anti-racists of yesterday, those who insist on racial definitions which the New Right says are discriminatory.

Individualism becomes a central stone in the New Right edifice of anti-anti-racism. The idea that there are only individual rights rings a common understanding in the hearts of many. The courts increasingly affirm that injustices of discrimination will be recognized only as it an be proved that the discrimination has been against a specific individual. With so much of our gay life defined by individualism, the argument finds common assent. Eschewing any ability to see groups, the right sees only individual people, a view which limits and delays significantly any attempt to overcome systemic forms of discrimination. Add to the accent on individuals the court orders that mandate ability to prove intent to discriminate, and the New Right erects an almost insurmountable defense against the injustices its view allows. The judicial decisions of another era which made corporations into legal individuals illustrate both the hypocrisy of that view and its ability to obfuscate the plain and simple fact that our history is full of instances when we have treated individuals as members of groups. The most obvious examples being when we enslaved African peoples, not on a one-by-one basis, but as a group, and when we continue to treat Native Americans as groups of people, or indeed, when for a time we said “Irish need not apply,” not considering individuals but seeing only the group. But individualism reigns and in the New Right mentality it defines how inequities and inequalities are to be assessed. The New Right becomes a protector of individuals, defending against discrimination and injustice for each person. The New Right tells the world that any attempt to approach injustice as a group problem will manifest the very injustice decried; the offenders, the “racists,” are the anti-racists of yesterday.

Those are some of the ways the New Right’s New Racism works. While we all refine this analysis and add to it, and need to spend time pointing out the fallacies in the way the New Right frames issues, here I want to begin to assess some of the ways in which the anti-racism I have known has too frequently become “de-radicalized” by the way it responds to the New Right. Here again is a beginning list for consideration, without any priorities assigned.

1. Too often we have been diverted from a focus on the increasing disparities of our society to defend against the ways in which a modest, conservative program of Affirmative Action, still in its infancy, has been charged with utilizing “quotas” to secure “preferences” for the undeserving. Lack of information becomes misinforma­tion becomes disinformation. Straws are erected to be put down, language and purpose are confused, and programs of Affirmative Action are wrenched from the history which makes sense of them. Those who know Affirmative Action best and often seek creative measures to mend Affirmative Action, are blocked by cries to end it.

2. Calls to be color-blind evoke a vague ideal so far from our present reality that it is a foggy myth. Rooted in the words of Justice Harlan, color-blind refers to a legal and constitutional doctrine announced in his sole dissenting vote in the historic Plessy vs.Ferguson decision. The context of his color-blind Constitutional doctrine included his claim that “Every true man has pride of race, and under appropriate circumstance, when the rights of others, his equals before the law, are not to be affected, it is his privilege to express such pride and to take such action based upon it as to him seems proper.” Color-blind for Harlan does not ignore the fact or importance of color, and those who insist that we not see color can find no grounds for that position in Justice Harlan. After recognizing the importance of color, Harlan goes on to assure his colleagues on the Court and all else that his dissenting opinion refers to how the law sees race, and then acknowledges a different reality in society: “The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is, in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth, and in power. So, I doubt not that it will continue to be for all time, if it remains true to its great heritage and holds fast to the principles of constitutional liberty.” He is indicating to the comfort of his friends that color-blindness would not change the dominance of white control in the real world. A rush to color-blindness today will too quickly affirm the status quo, just as it did for Harlan.

3. Diversity has become the very soft edge of anti-racism. Growing from assumptions which define white people as the norm, and all others as “diverse”, that concept is always in danger of itself being racist. Especially popular in white corporate circles, “diversity” can be recognized as a positive way of getting a variety of people to the table, but is fraught with limitations and failures to challenge the status quo about what happens and who makes it happen around the table.

4. Massive public confusion clouds much of present discussions of race, in part because of the many ways in which the language of egalitarianism has been stolen by the New Right. Civil Rights become Civil “Wrongs”, anti- Affirmative Action initiatives become calls for equal opportunity, the alternative to welfare becomes individual responsibility. Dr. King’s call for a judgment based on content of character is torn from the context of his life and used to distort the meaning of his work. Public confusion is general, and anti-racists are engaged in long discussions to clarify the distortions, effectively diverted from the anti-racism tasks at hand.

5. Multicultural educators have had to offer defenses against charges of political correctness, identity politics, and ethnic centrism presented in the context of an intention to maintain control of education where it has always been, in the minds of white men who are certain that all worthy experience and wisdom comes from their history.

6. A popular clamoring for studies of “Whiteness” may be a very important wedge for anti-racism, or it may be itself a terrible diversion from the real issues of anti-racism. Shifting the focus from the effect of racism to its cause in the white psyches and white structures may put us in the precise place where Thomas Jefferson was when his most articulated argument against African enslavement was the fact that it wounded the children of slave owners! Jefferson abhorred the institution which enslaved African people, but his concentration on what it did to whites, freed neither himself, his child­ren, nor Africans from its bonds. There is a necessary and important focus on introspection in “Whiteness” studies, but history needs to remind us that such explorations may become navel-gazing diversions from attention to the outcomes of the oppressive forces of “Whiteness.”

7. Calls to abolish race as a category are tempting because they correctly call for elimination of a concept which has no meaning except in the social constructions of white history. A more radical call than color-blindness, here is an exciting future. While we move toward the day when we can forget race altogether, there is a danger that once again we will find ourselves discussing and debating definitions while the social structures which functionally implement racism will continue in power far above, or maybe below the debate.

Those who know me will also know that my next question is: What shall we do? This is an invitation to You.