Two anti-racisms July 20, 2021
Two coherent threads of anti-racist activism are worth distinguishing from each other. From that distinction, I draw some tentative conclusions below. I'd like to hear your thoughts.
One is anti-racism that emerges from grassroots responses to lived experiences of discrimination, inequality and violence. This is the civil rights movement, early MMIW and residential school survivor activism, unions fighting for pay equity, and even some minimum wage campaigns -- just cite a range of examples.
The grassroots strain is driven by demands for justice and equality, and relationships of solidarity that develop on a person to person level but lead to broad cultural and institutional changes.
The other is elite anti-racism, which finds systemic injustices to be an impediment to capital investment and high-level political aims. This is Lyndon Johnson pulling out the stops to get the '64 Civil Rights Act passed (which of course was driven by and influenced by, but not ultimately defined by, the civil rights movement). It's official multiculturalism, government apologies, and making a big show of integrating schools without addressing economic injustices.
The elite thread is driven by the need for credibility of institutions and nation-states. It's hard to fight the spread of communism in Africa, or to maintain a global system of white supremacy that effectively harnesses the labour of a multicultural and multiracial workforce, if you're administering really nasty overt racism in your country. Elite anti-racism is expressed mainly through top-down cosmetic fixes.
Things get confusing in the university-educated, white middle class (of which I am a part, and where I spend considerable time) because that's where these two strains converge. It's a site of decidedly brackish, cloudy anti-racism.
Folks in the white middle class university educated demographic are often genuinely moved by demands for equality and requests for solidarity. However, we're also culturally programmed to be a middle management layer for capital, running interference and avoiding conflict with elites while disciplining and surveilling those below us in the cultural-economic hierarchy.
The result is a sort of hall monitor anti-racism that can focus quite a bit on setting a bar for correct vocabulary, up-to-date knowledge, and moral judgement of incorrect behaviour.
I'm not going to go so far as to say that hall monitor anti-racism is always or inherently wrong, because there's plenty of monitoring that is needed and probably appreciated. Racist costumes, unexamined attitudes, historical ignorance, slurs that some people don't realize or care are hurtful. It's a messy time, and "calling out" shouldn't be removed from the toolbox entirely.
However, there's are a bunch of things going on here, a partial list of which is below. For the white university educated middle class (WUEMC) to be true agents of anti-racist action, I think a bunch of these need to be disentangled.
1. The actual feeling of solidarity that moves WUEMC people to action.
2. The creation of white guilt as an omni-directional weapon of shame that can be used by power structures for various ends (e.g. a NYC mayoral candidate referring to tenant protections as racist)
3. The creation of a path to self-actualization for white people via policing and managing others (E.g. what middle class culture is, but to a lesser or greater extent culturally dependent on maintaining racial division)
4. The imperial subjectivity that is produced through mastery of self within a circumscribed moral framework (e.g. hyperawareness of language use in colleagues and subordinates) in tandem with fealty to a grinding machine of war, violence and inequality. (The self-satisfaction of the former is the consolation prize for the latter, which is inevitablized out of view.)
5. The deepening of race-based alienation through mystification and mediation of cross-racial boundaries by the manager class. (E.g. anti-racism trainings that amplify fear and guilt, sometimes used as a tactic to stave off unionization.)
6. The dissonant universalization of WUEMC cultural norms, which often amount to embarrassment on behalf of capital interests, as a metric for assessing working class (and other lower-in-the-hierarchy) white people.
7. An abiding impression that racism is primarily located in individual choices, and is to be reversed primarily through self-mastery. Which feeds into the glorification of self-mastery (see #4 and #6).
Each of these needs several paragraphs to be explained properly, but here they are in case they resonate. (I'm happy to elaborate in the comments.)
Leaving aside the project of disentangling these, here are some tentative conclusions that thinking about these things brings me to. (I don't want to sound too sure of myself because I'm not; feel free to disagree.)
It seems to me that a crucial requirement of effective anti-racism by WUEMC people is to be very clear at all times about:
a) the institutional and economic origins of racism (e.g. for the purposes of dividing populations to subjugate them, for the purposes of hyper-exploitation, or for the purposes of land theft), and
b) the institutional and economic changes that will rectify the situation.
Without those things in view, anti-racism (as a WUEMC practice) runs a real risk of becoming a subcultural vocabulary, unsuccessful because it never reaches the majority, or disempowering when it somehow does (because it's confusing or used as a weapon against working class people).
White people not from a UEMC background who are exposed to the WUEMC mode of anti-racism generally interpret it as shaming of them as an individual, and a request for them to diminish themselves.
That misses the point, but if the disentangling hasn't been done, it's not entirely untrue.
Consider a non-university educated worker receiving anti-racism rhetoric or training from a WUEMC person. Some likely characteristics of that moment include:
i. The originating moment of the grassroots thread of the anti-racism (establishing communication based on solidarity) is inaccessible because the WUEMC delivering the message is simultaneously (and often primarily) trying to asset their superiority within the cultural-economic hierarchy.
ii. The ability to form local relationships of solidarity is poisoned by the association of anti-racism with the manager class and the significant earned resentments that stem from (and not just white) working class peoples experiences with managers. Anti-racism becomes, in other words, associated with the boss.
iii. The working class person can perceive on an intuitive level that they are being disciplined by capital (the elite anti-racism that is always part of the mix for WUEMC people), even if almost no one would express it in those terms.
In Canada, our inability to distinguish the two strains of anti-racism has wrought all sorts of havoc. To an embarrassing degree, WUEMC people have been ok with Justin Trudeau mouthing the words while doing none of the economic or institutional changes that might make them meaningful.
And yet, the only possible way to address systemic racism in Canada (a country that is made up of 70% or so of white people) will require a motivated, focused white anti-racism.
The elite strain, as I've tried to explain, is poison to real equality.
But it can be leveraged at times.
As an example, Trudeau's performative solidarity with Indigenous people has led to a sort of Glasnost moment for the Canadian Nation. Just like Gorbachev's mild transparency measures delivered one of the fatal blows to the Soviet Union's institutional credibility, so too entirely symbolic recognition of injustices faced by Indigenous communities has opened cracks in the very idea of Canada.
However, because the issue of land theft that was/is behind residential schools, unsafe drinking water, foster care and other colonial policies is left largely undiscussed, the logic and institutions of capitalism have not born their majority share of the blame, and activist energy has been deflected away from them.
To get Canada's white majority to dig a little deeper requires, from my inherently limited perspective, a few things:
• Organizing that gets the multi-racial working class understanding and joining a struggle about issues that directly affect them. Consciousness arising from a workplace or a community is the basis for broader organized solidarity.
• Clarity about the difference between elite and grassroots anti-racism, and a Great Disentangling (as outlined above) among WUEMC.
• A deepening of the reckoning with racist violence, one that drills into our institutions -- police, banks, economic planning, foster care, social work and more.
• A combination of universal demands (e.g. raising minimum wage and welfare rates, creating universal services) that would make society more equal but disproportionately address racial inequalities, and community-specific demands (challenges to institutions, opposition to specific negative policies or projects).
I'll leave it there for now. Let me know what you think!