The Inconsistency of Anti-Racism

John Metta, who identifies as Black, gave a speech to a nice, genteel White church a few weeks ago, and he articulates therein a perspective which seems to be common among the "anti-racist" set.

What follows is the text of a “sermon” that I gave as a “congregational reflection” to an all White audience at the Bethel Congregational United Church of Christ on Sunday, June 28th. The sermon was begun with a reading of The Good Samaritan story, and this wonderful quote from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah.

Now that the requisite signalling is out of the way, the author says that he "[doesn't] talk about race with White people."

To illustrate why, I'll tell a story: It was probably about 15 years ago when a conversation took place between my aunt, who is White and lives in New York State, and my sister, who is Black and lives in North Carolina. This conversation can be distilled to a single sentence, said by my Black sister:

“The only difference between people in the North and people in the South is that down here, at least people are honest about being racist.”

There was a lot more to that conversation, obviously, but I suggest that it can be distilled into that one sentence because it has been, by my White aunt. Over a decade later, this sentence is still what she talks about. It has become the single most important aspect of my aunt’s relationship with my Black family. She is still hurt by the suggestion that people in New York, that she, a northerner, a liberal, a good person who has Black family members, is a racist.

This perfectly illustrates why I don’t talk about race with White people. Even — or rather, especially — my own family.

Already we're getting the sense that racism is something a White person can be guilty of not only without being honest about it, but evidently without even knowing about it. By Metta's account of his aunt, one can have Black family members and still be stained with the racism of other Whites.

What could be done, then, to establish White society's non-racist credentials? where do we draw the line of White culpability? There's a slippery slope or tendentia ad absurdum which seems inherent to this model of race relations, which we'll pick back up on as we continue.

I love my aunt. She’s actually my favorite aunt, and believe me, I have a lot of awesome aunts to choose from. But the facts are actually quite in my sister’s favor on this one.

New York State is one of the most segregated states in the country. Buffalo, New York, where my aunt lives, is one of the 10 most segregated school systems in the country. The racial inequality of the area she inhabits is so bad that it has been the subject of reports by the Civil Rights Action Network and the NAACP.

Those, however, are facts that my aunt does not need to know. She does not need to live with the racial segregation and oppression of her home. As a white person with upward mobility, she has continued to improve her situation. She moved out of the area I grew up in– she moved to an area with better schools. She doesn't have to experience racism, and so it is not real to her.

Nor does it dawn on her that the very fact that she moved away from an increasingly Black neighborhood to live in a White suburb might itself be a aspect of racism. She doesn't need to realize that “better schools” exclusively means “whiter schools.”

So when a White person moves away from an area with a lot of Blacks, it's a sign of racism. But we know that when Whites move into areas which are already predominantly Black and set up businesses there, similar cries of racism are heard. Once again, how do we determine that Whites in a given situation are racist? what is the measure of racism? Metta tells us: the very fact of inequality of outcome for Blacks and Whites.

As long as Blacks and Whites occupy different socioeconomic strata (never mind where they overlap), this can be taken as evidence for systemic racism. This is because Whites offer each other social connections and economic opportunities that they do not offer to Blacks, so that the former are automatically "in the club" while the latter are not. So goes the White privilege model. But there's a discrepancy here: the former, unlike the latter, do not think of themselves as some distinct group. Metta says this is the fruit of racism:

Black people think in terms of we because we live in a society where the social and political structures interact with us as Black people.

White people do not think in terms of we. White people have the privilege to interact with the social and political structures of our society as individuals. You are “you,” I am “one of them.” Whites are often not directly affected by racial oppression even in their own community, so what does not affect them locally has little chance of affecting them regionally or nationally. They have no need, nor often any real desire, to think in terms of a group. They are supported by the system, and so are mostly unaffected by it.

So to sum up: Whites and Blacks are fundamentally equal, but they are not systemically treated that way. Whites maintain a greater share of both economic and social capital, and this places them on the better side of a social barrier between them and Blacks. The former have the privilege of seeing each other, and being seen, as individuals, and judging one another on individual merit. The latter are forced by the asymmetry of the system to look at themselves first as a group with common concerns. Individualism is a luxury of the privileged, who do not have to concern themselves with a sense of group interest.

So far, so good—until we explore the possibility of Whites acting out of explicit concern for Whites as a group. We know what the social and political structures of our society—the very structures said to run on White privilege—do when Whites deviate from the "I'm just an individual" frame. They don't respond positively.

Suddenly the whole narrative looks a bit off. Would Whites really protect their group interests by policing themselves for any sign of group interest? And who else but Whites would have the privilege necessary to enforce such a proscription? Is every White child in a majority-minority school living in fear of being called a racist simply putting on an act?

The entire case here rests on the notion of White privilege. But if the one thing Whites must surely be allowed to do within the rules of a system which privileges them—to act explicitly in their own interests—is off-limits, the case falls apart. The author is interpreting as a convenience what is actually a prohibition.

It could be said that Whites are simply myopic, and, while policing themselves for explicit racism, are still systemically privileged as individuals. But then what would stop a non-White individual from being systemically privileged? It can't be a White sense of group solidarity, since we've already established that not to be a factor.

So we're left with a charge of racism which has no external validation other than a persistent inequality of outcome between Blacks and Whites. In other words, the charge is unfalsifiable. There is nothing, as long such inequality remains, that can prove a lack of systemic racism on the part of White society, because it has already been determined a priori that there can be no other explanation.

Which means that there is no stop-gap measure within this ideology that would, for example, indisputably justify a White man defending himself from a non-White assailant. In any conflict between Whites and non-Whites, Whites are categorically in the wrong, and no external change short of a complete end to inequality of outcome would provide a way out of this conceptual bind. Once, again the slippery slope of what is effectively eternal White culpability.

So much for the author's claim that "The entire discussion of race in America centers around the protection of White feelings." Indeed, in order to make this point, Metta has to repeat a frequent progressive trope, in which the media is accused of taking the exact opposite of the position it actually takes. Lord of the Rings having a White cast in accordance with its alter-European themes apparently invalidates the now-weekly media witchhunts for racism and sexism that consume so much airtime and bandwidth.

There's another conceptual gap here: what about Asians? If there is systemic racism against Asians, why are they so economically successful? And if there isn't systemic racism against Asians, what social category do they fall into? They aren't shamed or attacked for having group interests, so they're certainly not considered White.

Now the narrative is simply untenable; we've covered as much ground with it as we can. We've gone to the very limit of what this ideology can explain. We're reaching over the edge, groping for some new conceptual anchor to grab hold of, something to make this all coherent again—and finding nothing.

There are other, more consistent explanations for these things, of course. Having taken off our anti-racist spectacles and looking at human behavior both in the present and in history, a sense of group solidarity appears to be universal; people have overlapping loyalties to various sets and supersets. So if Whites don't have such feelings, or are systematically prevented from expressing them, we have a sign that something about the present situation isn't historically normal.

It's bad enough for the anti-racist case that one of the things all the races of man have in common is their ingroup bias; it gets worse when we take into account hereditary differences, i.e. the things the races don't have in common. This subject has been discussed in other articles here at TRS and doesn't need further explanation in this one.

We know what we're told when the matter is brought up with progressives, though: "That's the kind of thinking that led to [insert atrocity here]! You must really hate [x group of people]."

But we must ask progressives: what if it were proven to you, beyond the slightest inkling of a doubt, that racial inequality depended significantly, even overwhelmingly, on hereditary traits? would you then think it justifiable to treat certain groups as subhuman? Then your tolerance and your love for humanity are a sham, for they are grounded in the notion that everyone else is just like you. When faced with the possibility that they are not just like you, your mind begins to venture into unsettling territory.

Indeed, with people you do see as fundamentally unlike you—that is, racists—the tolerance disappears, and our familiar old friend Ingroup Bias makes himself known.

Now of course, ingroup bias is quite different from a seething hatred of outgroups. Everyone has the former; only some are burdened with the latter. How ironic, and yet how fitting, that a group so invested in confounding love for one's own with hatred of others would wish to show their love for humanity by hating their enemies as humanity's enemies.