A Materialist Alternative to "Antiracism"

returning to reality in fighting racial inequality

This is the sort of thing that I've had rolling around in my head for so long I just sort of assume it’s evident in my politics but I realized I should write it down.

Ending racism is like being good or doing God's will - almost everybody claims the mantle. There are very few people who will say they're in favor of racism. Liberals will of course say that most Republicans are secretly proudly racist, but like so many other things in the liberal imagination this is both a matter of moral self-flattery and an underestimation of the problem - if most conservatives really were explicitly racist in their own minds, the fight would in some ways be easier. Ideological fights are at least more direct and more honest when both sides agree that they are on the opposite side of a given effort; when different groups claim to represent the same underlying ideals but disagree about what priority those ideals should have or how best to enact them, we become bogged down in precisely the kind of useless discursive cul de sacs American race relations have been stuck in for a half-century. For myself I think that it’s clear that the average liberal and the average Democrat is both more deeply committed to the project of fighting racism than the average conservative and the average Republican, but that liberal Democrats got lost sometime around the early 1980s and have so badly lost the thread of what racism is that they can’t possibly fight it effectively. And every step into a supposedly more radical racial politics just exacerbates the overall problem.

For as much as we are meant to be living in racially tumultuous times, I don't think the basic problem has changed since I was born in the Reagan administration: since the end of the heyday of the Civil Rights era, people who consider themselves the stewards of racial progress in America have been relentlessly focused on racism as a symbolic, affective, and linguistic problem rather than a material one, in a way that has made read progress impossible.

Contrary to what people like Joy Ann Reid have been saying recently, American K-12 education has, fitfully and in patches, attempted to address anti-Black racism for a long time. Even in the 1980s, I was learning in school about something called racism, that its primary victims are Black people, and that racism is a uniquely pernicious evil. In the 1990s I learned in middle and high school about slavery and Jim Crow and again was taught in explicit terms that these things were an expression of anti-Black racism and evil. Why people like Reid have taken to pretending like this type of antiracist education has never existed, I couldn’t say. The problem with that approach was not that it denied racism or slavery or their evils, but rather that it was a purely interpersonal vision of what racism is: racism was when a white person hates a Black person for being Black. (I’m sure there was some sense of anti-Hispanic or anti-Asian etc racism in the curriculum but racism was framed almost entirely as a matter of white racial animus towards Black people.) If you met a Black person and you hated them because of that, that was racism. Slavery and Jim Crow and all of the other evils (which mostly existed in the past, although to their credit my teachers stressed that there was still racism) were all simply the outcomes of this form of interpersonal hatred. And the job of a white person was, again simply, not to hate Black people.

The problems with this should be obvious, the most important of which is that it obscures the fact that racial injustice can be done when no individual person is motivated primarily by racial hatred. The cop that arrests the Black man for marijuana possession and the lawyer who prosecutes him and the public defender who fails to provide good counsel and the judge who presides over it all and the jury who votes to convict and the warden at the prison and the guards there and the employers who refuse to hire this Black man after he is released - you can imagine a scenario in which not a single one of them is doing what they’re doing because they hate Black people. Indeed some people in this chain can be Black themselves. And yet the process as a whole embodies racism. In the American criminal justice system, it almost certainly does. This is one big problem with that vision of race: it fails to see that structures can be racist even when they don’t include people operating out of racist feelings, and worse it fails to understand that it is structures rather than individual behaviors that hurt Black people the most. And it absolves white people of their responsibility to address such structures above and beyond their moral duty not to harbor racial hatred.

But I was lucky to be exposed to other forms of politics as a kid, and as I went through college I began to recognize racism as a material problem: what hurts Black people most are not the feelings of white people but how race is used to divide people into different types of material conditions, with Black people suffering relative to white. Sure, old-school racial animus in the form of white people hating Black by dint of their race is bad, and it’s the responsibility of decent people to try and reduce this type of hatred in the world. But fundamentally, when a black homeless man gets on the bus and a white woman feels fear she would not feel for a white man in similar conditions, what should matter most to us as a society is the fact that he is homeless, and that his race has contributed to this condition, not the ugly fears of a random white lady.

Is it bad if someone secretly hates Black people, says the n-word in their head, feels fear when a Black man walks by her at night? Sure, that's bad. It's certainly worse than the alternative. But I don't really care how a white woman feels when a Black man walks by her at night; I care that she doesn't call the cops or tase him or whatever. Just like I don't really care if a banker feels differently when a Black couple walks in for a mortgage than when a white couple does so long as the Black couple has the same chance at getting a mortgage. Now if it turns out that the only way to get the banker to treat the Black couple with equality is through improving his attitude, then fine, we can discuss the best way to go about doing that. But what matters is always the behavior because it is the behavior, the material expression of racism in the world, that actually affects the experience of being Black. We privilege the material not merely because material harms are more damaging, immediate, and persistent than emotional harms. We privilege the material because we cannot measure someone’s thoughts or feelings and thus can never tell if they secretly harbor racist sentiment, and because it is the material that can be influenced by public policy. Government has tools to fight Black poverty. It does not have tools to fight white hatred. Not in any real way. Poverty lives in the world. Hatred lives in the head.

In this privileging of the material over the emotional or linguistic or symbolic I would like to think I join people like Adolph Reed, Barbara Fields, Fred Hampton, Kwame Ture, and once, most socialists and communists, though many have been sprinting towards an affective vision of racism in recent years out of fear and out of social and professional ambition.

Contrast this with some of the most prominent attitudes on race today. When Ibram Kendi says that all actions are either racist or anti-racist, a materialist philosophy exposes this for the nonsense that it is. When I’m eating a ham sandwich in my apartment alone, am I engaged in racism or anti-racism? It’s an absurd question. It only can be asked because for Kendi racism is a mystical phenomenon, one with no grounding in the concrete reality of the material world. For Kendi racism is a kind of ether that swirls around modern society, disconnected from events and unable to be tracked by mere mortals - which of course contributes to Kendi’s professional interests and his celebrity. If racism is a kind of dark magic, rather than an everyday phenomenon that causes injustice, then we need high priests like Kendi to lead us out of the darkness. Join the Kendi Club for only $9.95 a month!

Robin Diangelo has already been critiqued from all directions, to the point where it feels like piling on to do so myself. But it’s worth saying not just that her work is wrong and not constructive, but profoundly bizarre, a take on racism that seems to see it as an emergent phenomenon that arises anew out of every interaction between Black and white people and which exists in some sort of strange deontological alternate dimension made up purely of white feelings. Diangelo wants us to invest every single Black-white encounter with an immense amount of ambient tension and stress. This strikes me as the opposite of how to have a livable and healthy multiracial society, but Diangelo thinks that the only way to exist as a white person without harming Black people with racism is to embody a kind of triple consciousness where you act, observe yourself acting, and then observe your observation. Only once you become habituated to constantly thinking of Black feelings as a function of your irresistible white psychic power, and decide to minimize the inevitable emotional harm towards the Black person through the projection of that power, and recognize that your efforts derive from some sort of white guilt or other form of poor mental hygiene, can you act in a not-actively-racist way - but if you ever become convinced that you are not a racist, you are surely a racist. (One of the fun things about Diangelo’s work is trying to decide if she thinks white guilt is a good or bad thing; certainly she wants you to feel guilty, but also to know that your guilt ultimately represents a kind of imposition on Black people, unless you’re aware of both the guilt and the imposition, but not if that awareness becomes complacency.… It’s a lot.)

The obsession with microaggressions is a perfect example of the desperate need for materialism in racial politics. Yes, it’s unfortunate if people say or do things that subtly indicate racial superiority or otherwise embody imperfect racial attitudes, such as making oblique references to stereotypes. But human beings have profoundly limited control over their minute social interactions. (Among other things, we literally do not choose the things we say.) Policy cannot effectively stop microaggressions, even if we implemented heavy-handed laws to attempt to do so, and I certainly hope we won’t. Meanwhile a mile or two from me a bunch of Black children live in Brownsville in environmentally unhealthy housing, go hungry every night, and are regularly exposed to violence and crime. The notion that we should spend so much time talking about microaggressions and so little talking how to improve the conditions of those children can only happen when the racial discourse has been hijacked by a bunch of cossetted affluent college-educated journalists and academics who are as far removed from Brownsville as they are from Mars, whatever their race. And this is another key element of materialist approaches to race: recognizing that we in fact have limited political and social and argumentative resources, that we must prioritize, that we will never achieve a perfect racial environment and that our efforts to do so are counterproductive. We have to decide what comes first, and what should come first is making sure people are safe, fed, housed, clothed, educated, and cared for. After that we can worry more about being nice to each other.

A materialist cares about Black representation in the movies because employment is a material concern, and the distribution of opportunity is a key element of any free society. But a materialist would also care much more about entry into creative fields than rewards when one reaches the pinnacle of those fields, and so doesn’t invest huge psychic vulnerability in who gets which Oscar. A materialist doesn’t care much about cultural appropriation because the concept has no clear boundaries, cannot be policed, and does not have much material consequences for the average person, Black or otherwise. In contrast a materialist is deeply invested in the cause of environmental justice for Black people, recognizing that lead paint and dirty water and similar conditions cause physical suffering and degrade quality of life in a way that has knock-on effects in all manner of other metrics of Black flourishing.

What are some of the metrics of a materialist approach to fighting racism?

  • Black median income

  • Black median wealth

  • The Black-white wealth and income gaps

  • Black average lifespan

  • Black incarceration rates

  • Violent crime rates, both committed against and by Black people

  • Certain education metrics delineated by race

  • Unemployment and workforce participation rates

  • Homeownership rates

  • Homelessness

  • Rates of health insurance and practical access to medical care

  • Rates of alcoholism and drug addiction

What are not meaningful metrics of racism under a materialist framework?

  • Black people's feelings

  • White people's feelings

  • White people's feelings about Black people’s feelings

  • Who is “centered”

  • Who is “holding space”

  • Who is “put first”

  • Diversity statements from investment banks

  • Black friends awkwardly inserted into every new sitcom

  • Whether the word “picnic” is racist

  • The number of Academy Awards won by Black filmmakers

  • How many colors there are on the Pride flag

  • #BLM in a window, a inflight magazine, or a Tinder bio

  • The subjects or authors constituting the bestseller lists

  • Whether you feel scared or not when a Black man comes on the subway

  • How many diversity trainings you've been to

  • Whether you use the term BIPOC

  • Whether you as a white person cry yourself to sleep at night out of genuine and authentically-motivated love for Black people and pain over racism

That stuff might tell us something about character. And it might have emotional resonance for individuals, which is not meaningless. These things can and should be negotiated in the social world. But none of it can be the basis for any meaningful analysis or action in the effort against racial inequality. The current “racial awakening" illustrates the contrast very well. If your antiracism is concerned with symbols, feelings, words, ideas, then you can celebrate. We've had an absolute revolution in race relations. If on the other hand you care about the material dimensions of race and the concrete reality of the average Black life, then the whole thing is a joke. How has the past year of yelling about race materially changed the life of a Black family struggling to keep the lights on in their impoverished community in the Mississippi river delta? What for them has changed?

It would take a long time to sketch out a materialist antiracist policy agenda. But in the broadest strokes, it would be a redistributive agenda, one that seeks to redistribute both money and power to Black people. Given the reality of political life in a country with a significant white majority and a dominant white hold on power, these programs would rarely be explicitly announced as pro-Black as such. But because of the distribution of material need in contemporary America, if they redistributed money from rich to poor they would inevitably redistribute money from white to Black. Would gradually bringing Black income and wealth and incarceration rates and similar comparable to white suddenly eliminate racism, or make life easy for Black people? Of course not. But a richer Black America is a Black America with far greater ability to secure their own material interests, so that they no longer have to worry about the good will of white people. And that’s the ultimate goal: not just Black wellbeing but Black autonomy. I don't want a world where white people generally have positive feelings towards Black people. I want a world where white people's feelings towards Black people don't matter.

If you are, say, a Black tenured professor, or NYT columnist, or professional activist, I can see preferring the current fashionable vision of racism as a linguistic and emotional phenomenon, as just more symbols. If you’re one of those people, the symbolic realm is where you have power. But if you’re a Black person whose world is made up of money and jobs and houses and cops and hospitals, like almost everybody, it's hard not to care more about the world of things - for yourself and for everyone else.