Theory of Racelessness: A Case for Antirace(ism)

To Eliminate Racism We Must Eliminate Race

Philosophy of Race


To Eliminate Racism We Must Eliminate Race

Sheena Mason

The Theory of Racelessness reflects two philosophical positions on race that are uncommonly taught and commonly misunderstood: skepticism and eliminativism. The theory is a call for antirace(ism). It demands simultaneously the recognition that human beings are already raceless (i.e., skepticism about race) and, consequently, the abolition of the category of race in order to undo racism (i.e., eliminativism about race). It is a call for the truth about the persistence of race and its corresponding -ism in the United States. The thing called “race” does not exist, but people imagine it does, and this sustains it. “Race” needs to be abolished. To abolish race from a position of skepticism is a radical act of acknowledging one’s racelessness: one’s existence outside the bounds of race(ism), one’s rejection of a nonsensical means of subjugation and elevation that has no positive or forward-moving value even if it has had practical utility for various groups across time and place.

Toward the goals of liberation and avoiding unintentional reification of race, I have coined the terms “race(ism),” “race(ist),” “raci(al/st), and “antirace(ism).” The point of these coinings is to highlight the deep reciprocal causal connections between things typically thought to be distinct. Most Americans tacitly believe that race exists independently of any racism or racist attitudes. They presuppose that there are inherent “racial” features of humans and that “racism” and “racist” beliefs and actions are biased against these so-called racial features. The point of my coinings is that, instead, seeing our fellow humans in racial terms—seeing them as “raced”—actually creates “race.” That is, understanding human differences (which are in reality attributable to culture, ethnicity, class, and other factors) in either benignly “racial” or malignantly “racist” ways creates and maintains “race.” Hence “race(ism)” and my other novel terms keep before our eyes the fact that racism creates race. Eliminating racism means eliminating race, and vice versa.

Race(ism) involves the belief that human beings are naturally born, for better or worse, into separate and distinct categories or “races.” This belief often includes an assumption of a hierarchy of superiority and inferiority among the so-called races. This assumption of hierarchy is bound to perpetuate race(ism). For it precludes all people racialized as not “white” from being “racist” in the context of the United States. In this way, too, race(ism) festers and persists. Because I look as I do, I can say anything I want to you, mistreat you, cancel you, and yet not be “racist.” In turn, if you look like me, you can cancel me and mistreat me because I do not conform to the box you create for yourself based on race(ism), and you cannot be racist. Our prevailing ideas about the naturalness of race and about the one-sidedness of racism are incoherent. Make it make sense!

Recently, I saw an Instagram post that defined racism as “a wide-scale systematized discrimination based on race by those who have social power—which is white people & only white people.” The account belongs to a self-proclaimed “white guy focused on becoming anti-racist.” Another post asserts, “Not all white people...I’m kidding, it definitely is all white people.” Now, I don’t tend to use social media as an opinion poll. Still, this assigning of “race” to people as indicative of their permanent, yes, their fixed status in society exemplifies a conviction embraced by too many people. The Instagram definition of racism recalls other (re)definitions of “racism” that are currently generating a lot of buzz while upholding and insisting on the continued use of “race” ideology to combat, yes, racism. For example:

Racism is both a system of advantage (for whites) and a system of oppression (for BIPOC). The system was created to concentrate social and institutional power among those designated as “white,” and to exclude all others from receiving these benefits.

The hierarchies implied here and in the Instagram post—of “white” people over “BIPOC” people in terms of power, and of “BIPOC” people over “white” people in terms of inherent victimization—is built into the very idea of “race.” It is racism that created the idea of race in the first place and that continues to perpetuate it. There has never been a neutral way to racialize people. There will never be an unbiased way to do so. We need to redirect supposedly antiracist discourse away from race, which doesn’t really exist, and racism, which cannot in fact be eliminated without eliminating race. We need to talk instead about race(ism) and formulate a truly emancipatory antirace(ism).

This is not merely a matter of rhetoric. It gets to the heart of how language informs thought and behavior, which in turn, via raci(al/ist) ideology, inform and perpetuate race(ism), which in turn upholds division. If we are to take seriously the calls we constantly hear about having a complete “reckoning” with racism in the US, we must get serious about liberating society, in every respect, from and talking honestly about the problem, which is race(ism), i.e., the idea of “race” reified by racism and the racism made possible, no, inevitable by our reification of “race.” The problem is not the victim’s alleged difference (i.e., their so-called race), and the solution is not the indiscriminate and absolute labeling of most happenings or people as evidence of “racism” or as “racist,” nor is the solution that practice now called “cancel culture,” which so often relies on invocations of “racism.” The solution is the type of antirace(ism) embodied in the Theory of Racelessness.  

The United States has been reconstructing the meaning of “race” since before the American Revolutionary War of 1775-1783, in other words, since before the United States came into being independent of England. Primarily influenced by longstanding and ever-fluid European caste systems, race in America once reflected a caste system that, at its most complex, included “white,” “black,” and “brown” indentured servants, who, for all intents and purposes, were enslaved, and enslaved indigenous and African people. Further, there were free African, indigenous, and European-descended people. Enslavement was not racialized, in the ways many of us currently understand “race,” racism, and slavery, until approximately 1660 when various states began outlawing “miscegenation,” calculating blackness, and passing fugitive (en)slave(d) laws. Over time and within the bounds of the “peculiar institution of slavery,” racialization—the systematic practice of marking out people as subjects to violence and oppression mainly based on ancestry and phenotype—emerged. 

Racialization reflected one’s access to power, even if not one’s possession of power. Indentured servitude was phased out in its formal capacities. Black and Negro came to describe people of African descent who were considered, by law and practice, to be enslaved and chattel. Persons of color primarily described free “black/brown” people. White described all free people of seemingly visible European descent. In the course of the 18th century, race shifted more definitively from referring to ethnic or national groups to subspecies of humans. As a biological concept, race has been in disfavor since the 19th century but has remained at the forefront of the American imagination nonetheless. 

The explanation for the persistence of race one often hears is that American society “does it to me.” Since it is ascribed to me, I have no choice but to avow it. In this way, we miss opportunities to recognize and embrace ourselves and each other outside of race(ism). This dynamic reflects something Frantz Fanon portrayed in his chapter “The Fact of Blackness,” in Black Skin, White Masks (1952). Fanon rendered the “fact” of race ironic because, as he saw, people in racialized contexts often avow “race” and wield it as “fact” even as they shout that it is, at best, a “social construction” if it exists at all. What we miss is how individuals are racialized by themselves and society. Thus, we would do well to recognize the power that we wield as individuals, separate from and outside of the imagined collective power. Moreover, to acknowledge and embrace one’s ability in this way is not synonymous with desiring to be “white” or ignoring the impact and influence of the collective. 

Situating Theory of Racelessness among philosophies of race

Let’s look more closely now at more formal philosophies of race, in order to see where Theory of Racelessness sits in the theoretical landscape. Indeed, each of us holds two philosophies of race, even without having the language to name them: One that speaks to what we think race is and one that speaks to what we believe should be done with or about race. Philosophers divide these two types of theories of race into metaphysical theories (about what race is) and normative theories (that prescribe what we should do about it). The metaphysical category includes (1) racial skepticism, (2) racial constructionism (sometimes referred to as constructivism), and (3) racial population naturalism. The normative category includes (a) eliminativism, (b) reconstructionism, and (c) conservationism. 

Let’s go through these theories, taking the metaphysical first, then the normative. 

Racial skeptics (1, above) state that society initially defined race as a biological category, but since race is not a biological category, it is an illusion and only exists in as much as it is believed to be real. Thus, racial skeptics often argue that race and language associated with race should be eliminated (i.e., an eliminativist position on race, discussed below). 

Racial constructionists (2, above) argue that although race may not be biological, race has come to exist because humans treat it as existing. Constructionism implies that certain social facts that might be taken for granted are actually open to transformation by individual and collective action. Some constructionists adopt eliminativism. Others, however, seek to reconstruct or conserve the concept of race (see below). A primary shortcoming of constructionism is that while many people view race as a social construction, they continue to talk about, teach about, and treat race as if it is a matter of nature, of racial essences, or is fixed based on phenotype, ancestry, or America’s racist one-drop rule. Further, arguments asserting that “blackness” is not racial but rather cultural, political, and so on are often nonstarters since it is still ascribed based on biological presumptions about race. 

Racial population naturalists (3, above) believe that while there may not be essential behavioral, cognitive, or phenotypic features that define different races, there must be broad genetic commonalities within certain populations that effectively make those populations races. Racial population naturalists believe that just as nonhuman species are subtyped by breed, as in the case of dogs and cats, while still being classified as dogs and cats, human types can and should be differentiated by race. Racial population naturalists tend to be conservationists (see below). 

Turning to normative theories, eliminativists (a, above) argue for the elimination of race concepts and, therefore, racial language, often with the express purpose of intentionally eliminating race(ism). In contrast, reconstructionists (b, above) argue that we should not eliminate racial discourse. Instead, it remains possible to rehabilitate race in a way that renders it accurate; thus, concepts of race can be positively reconstructed. Ibram Kendi is a prominent mainstream example of a metaphysical racial constructionist who is a normative reconstructionist. He thinks race was, in essence, created by humans, but that we can in some sense purify our discourse about it and eliminate our racist ideas and practices. Other popular examples of reconstructionism include attempts to increase the positive representation of black people in the media and inscribe positivity into and onto the meaning of blackness: #blackisbeautiful, #blackexcellence, #blackgirlmagic, etc. Finally, conservationists (c, above) believe that whatever the metaphysical status of race, we must “conserve” racial categories in our policies and practices, because that is the only way to correct for the fact that society has distributed advantages and disadvantages according to the category of race. 

Many antiracist activists in the US strive to understand the meaning of “race” in order both to recognize America’s violent history of racism and to remove the violence of racism from race ideology. The philosophies of race they traditionally invoke in these efforts are, from the metaphysical category, racial constructionism and racial population naturalism and, from the normative category, reconstructionism and conservationism. Paradoxically, most “antiracist” discourses and initiatives inspired by one or a combination of these four philosophies actually help to reify racism. This is because these four philosophies encourage and privilege the apparition of race and the subsequent practice of race(ism). 

Theory of Racelessness, in contrast to traditional antiracism, operates from a metaphysically skeptical and normatively eliminativist position. Thus, it constitutes a true antirace(ism) by seeking to undo not only racism but also “race.” It holds that “race” does not exist except insofar as it is imagined to exist, and that, therefore, the sooner we stop imagining it in our language and discourse, the sooner it will vanish. In eliminating “race,” the Theory of Racelessness helps people recognize and imagine themselves outside of race(ism). It enables people to see themselves and others more clearly, without the distorting filter of “race.” In this way, the theory also helps people become more astute at recognizing and solving race(ism). Importantly, the theory’s core is bringing our shared humanity to the forefront in ways that the divisive presence or insertion of “race” ideology precludes. Together, we can do anything, including uphold race(ism). But we can also reconcile, heal, resolve, and eliminate the problem, too. 

One question remains: Am I “black?” 

Whether you insist on placing me on the raci(al/st) hierarchy or not, I choose to embrace my racelessness. And who are you to tell me who I am?

Sheena Mason is assistant professor of English at SUNY Oneonta. Her forthcoming book, Decolonizing the Raci(al/st) Imagination in Literary Studies: An Interrogation and Critique of Antiracist Discourse (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022), presents a skeptical eliminativist philosophy of race and racism that results in her signature “theory of racelessness.” The book argues that African-American writers across time have created art that resists racism through their resistance to and rejection of race. Theory of Racelessness is Prof. Mason’s educational consulting business. With the rise of antiracist discourse and initiatives, many organizations unintentionally promote racist ideas and miss opportunities to identify and celebrate genuine diversity of thought over perceived variety, based mainly on phenotype and social constructions (i.e., concepts of race). Theory of Racelessness specializes in educating organizations on how racism masquerades as “race” in society. It offers educational services, like coaching, workshops, and training, radio shows, podcasts, publications, speaking events and conferences, and workplace cultural policy assessments. Follow Theory of Racelessness on Twitter. Follow Prof. Mason on Twitter

Travis McMichael Pulled the Trigger

But Georgia’s Broken Mental Health System Put Ahmaud Arbery in the Line of Fire

Investigative report


By the Editors

After almost two years, the family of Ahmaud Arbery has received justice. Three men who chased down the 24-year-old jogger in their pickup trucks—emboldened by Georgia’s slave-era “citizen’s arrest” law that dates to 1863—before killing him with a shotgun, were found guilty of murder by a jury last Wednesday after ten and a half hours of deliberation. While the media narrative around the trial almost universally focused on the race of the victim (black) and defendants (white), race didn’t enter into the criminal trial itself. Race will be the central issue, of course, when Travis McMichael, his father Gregory, and their neighbor William Bryan face federal hate crime charges in three months. 

More will come out in federal court, but we’d like to suggest in this article that personal racism is merely part of the story. Arbery suffered from grave mental health problems that plausibly played a role in his repeated encounters with the law (and on one occasion, with Travis McMichael) in the years leading up to his death. Let us note immediately what the previous sentence is not saying: it’s not saying that it was somehow “understandable” let alone “justified” that the McMichaels tracked down and murdered Arbery.  Our purpose in this post is neither to blame the victim nor to suggest that his mental illness or behavior exonerates the defendants and their treatment of him. 

Rather, our contention is that at every turn, Georgia’s various public systems failed to provide Arbery the help that he needed, help that would almost certainly have spared him his last fatal encounter with his murderers. This article does not represent an exhaustive investigation, which we have not had the time or resources to conduct. Rather, it represents our careful reading of publicly available but apparently little-studied documents—all linked at the end of the article—and the inferences we have drawn and questions we think need answering as a result. 

Most who’ve followed the tragedy are probably aware Arbery had mental health issues, but not much detail has been reported. A laconic reference can be found in a June 4, 2020 (updated November 5, 2021), story in the New York Times, which quotes Richard Dial, assistant special agent in charge for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, in his testimony to Glynn County Magistrate Court: 

Mr. Arbery had a mental illness that caused him to have “auditory hallucinations.” He said Mr. Arbery was not being treated for that illness on the day he was killed. 

This passes by quickly, and though several other outlets named the disorder, it’s difficult to find a fuller account anywhere in mainstream reporting. Even last night’s 20/20 episode barely mentions it. Yet a review of pre-trial filings and proceedings not admitted in court (Chatham County Superior Court and United States District Court for the Southern District of Georgia) reveals a series of missed opportunities by local law enforcement and mental health providers to intervene.

Georgia’s public mental health systems allowed a young man with schizoaffective disorder—a debilitating condition involving symptoms of schizophrenia and mood disorder—to go untreated.  This disorder caused Arbery to hear voices urging him “to rob and steal”and “to hurt people.”Regardless of this serious condition, Arbery was left to wander the streets of Brunswick, Georgia, at night, past his probationary curfew, and off his antipsychotic medication (Zyprexa), for a year and a half without meaningful intervention. On one occasion, Arbery’s untreated condition left his own mother so frightened she called 911, warning the dispatcher that his mental illness might lead him to become violent with responding officers. These systems failed to help a young man who was in no condition to help himself. These systems failed to help a family that had reached the end of its resources for dealing with an unwell son.

From court filings, we know that during the year and a half before his murder, a mentally-ill Arbery trespassed on multiple residential properties, removed screens and attempted to enter windows, entered a house and a trailer, stole items from nearby convenience stores, ran from people who approached him, and issued violent threats to responding police officers and even to one of his eventual killers, Travis McMichael. In all these cases, police—who by June 2018 knew that Arbery had mental health issues and was prone to violence—declined to arrest him. To be clear, it is possible that the police declined to arrest him because to do so would have resulted in Arbery’s felony probation being revoked and his serving at least a year in jail. Many police and others who work in the criminal justice system know that people with mental illness should, when feasible, be kept out of jail and prison, where they are likely to be victimized by other inmates. 

It was no secret that Arbery was in trouble and that his family was trying to help him. By the time Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, called 911 in June of 2018 from her car, telling the dispatcher that her son refused to give her the car keys, and warning that his mental illness, which had “escalated,” might lead him to become violent with officers, Arbery was already on felony probation for carrying a gun on school property and three counts of felony obstruction of an officer. His mental condition was also deteriorating. In her interview with federal investigators, Cooper-Jones explained that, in 2018, she reached out to Arbery’s probation officer for help, telling him she “didn’t recognize” her son, who’d become a “different young man,” and lamenting that she “couldn’t fix” the problem by herself. She told federal investigators she'd become “fearful of him, myself,” and that Arbery began to run obsessively, which staff at Gateway Behavioral Health, the community-based provider that diagnosed his disorder, explained might be a self-comforting or calming behavior related to his mental illness. The picture of Cooper-Jones that emerges from the interview is one of a concerned, involved mother, dedicated to her son’s well-being, at her wits’ end, unable to find the resources she needed. 

We’ve already noted that the police who interacted with Arbery did not arrest him. Neither do they appear to have attempted to redirect him to mental health services. At least, he seems not to have returned to Gateway for further treatment. It may be relevant here that Arbery was unemployed and likely did not have medical insurance, a state of affairs that could have left him reliant on publicly-funded systems like Gateway. It is also relevant that Georgia refused to expand Medicaid under the ACA, and so probably had limited public resources to offer someone in Arbery’s situation (more on Georgia’s mental health care funding below). Moreover, it appears that Arbery’s probation officer—a profession that is famously overworked and underpaid—failed to respond to Arbery’s mother’s desperate pleas. It appears that the probation officer did not, for example, insist that Arbery continue to visit Gateway. Finally, it appears that there was no public intervention available for Arbery—not from the police with whom he interacted, not from his probation officer, not from any other agency—when he discontinued his antipsychotic medications. 

The Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities coordinates with community-based providers like Gateway to provide adult mental health programs, including Assertive Community Treatment (ACT), which could have provided Arbery with 24/7 psychiatric support, and Intensive Case Management (ICM), which could have, presumably, helped ensure he took his meds. Such programs are called, generically, “diversion programs.” Though we don’t know how Georgia or Glynn County administer such programs, if Arbery had qualified, or, indeed, if he’d been enrolled in one at the time of his murder, there are standard ways that these diversion programs motivate adherence:

Mental health treatment could be a condition of bail, permitting the defendant's release without the need to post money, or could be a condition of probation, allowing a defendant to avoid a county jail or state prison sentence.

Arbery, for whatever reasons, discontinued his treatment. No one from Gateway seems to have reached out to him after providing the initial diagnosis and prescription. And law enforcement (including his probation officer) was apparently unable to motivate him, but was also unwilling to arrest or incarcerate him. 

Here’s why it matters: young men suffering from mental illness, especially young black men, are highly likely to be seen as a threat. And young black men are the least likely to receive treatment. This confluence leaves young mentally ill black men, like Arbery, especially vulnerable to violence from police and from vigilantes like the McMichaels and Bryan.

While it is too late for Arbery, we should demand further investigation into the issues we’ve raised here, so we can understand in detail the ways in which the system failed (or, perhaps in some cases, did not fail) Arbery and his family and then do something to ensure that other struggling individuals, especially disadvantaged ones, don’t suffer a similar fate.

The sort of case that Arbery presented to police in his several encounters with them has been studied and has a playbook of recommended steps associated with it.  According to the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center (which coordinates with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance), “high utilizers,” like Arbery, “are typically well known to law enforcement agencies and many times have serious mental health concerns, substance use disorders, and other significant health and social service needs.” 

CSG/BJA advises law enforcement leaders to 

design and implement response options that can divert these individuals away from arrest and ensure follow-up care coordination and connection to community-based supports. These partners should include leaders from the health and social service systems, as well as groups in the community who represent advocates, consumers of mental health services, and their families. [Emphasis added.]

Such recommended care coordination was evidently not available to Arbery or his mother. If so, it is likely still not available to other mentally ill “high utilizers” in Georgia, either. The Savannah Morning News reported in 2020: 

The Georgia Sheriffs’ Association said that … many people with mental illness [are] being locked up in jails even though they have not committed violent offenses.

“They don’t need to be in jail, but there’s no place to take them. It’s very frustrating,’’ says Bill Hallsworth, jail and court services coordinator for the Sheriffs’ Association. “A lot of them are good folks but they have a hard time getting along in the community.’’

“The jails have become the de facto biggest mental health facility’’ in the state, Hallsworth adds.

Mental health spending in Georgia is far below the national average (according to Ted Lutterman, Executive Director/CEO of the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors Research Institute): 

“The state spent $60.25 per capita (based on 2015 figures), ranking 44th among states, and spending far lower than the national mark of $109 per capita.”

The Georgia General Assembly and the governor should be called to account for this. As we noted at the outset, analysis of the tragedy that limits itself to the personal racial animus of the defendants (or for that matter of the residents of the Satilla Shores neighborhood) and their actions is not enough. The McMichaels and Bryan behaved abominably. There is no excuse for what they did, and they are being duly punished. But in our justified indignation at the guilty men, we must not neglect to address the structural conditions that left a young man who was struggling with a dangerous and debilitating illness vulnerable to being victimized, despite having a loving and attentive mother, a diagnosis, and prescribed course of treatment. To focus only on the guilty men or on their racism is to ignore structural problems in public mental health provision—not only in Georgia but across the country. These structural problems guarantee that people suffering from mental illnesses will continue to fall through the cracks and end up harmed in one way or another. Disproportionately, these are likely to be people like Arbery from disadvantaged backgrounds, whose families simply cannot afford expensive private care. As Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” We should strive to measure up.

Pre-trial filings referenced  

REVIEW: Notes on Woke Racism

John McWhorter nails it, politely

Review essay


John McWhorter nails it, politely

Michael D. C. Bowen

John McWhorter’s new book Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America is comfort food for the rational connoisseur. It’s straightforward, nourishing, and it sticks to your ribs. It’s the kind of intellectual meal one should expect of a caring, mature grown-up, served with just enough spice so that it’s not boring, and plenty enough starch so that you can’t just wolf it down like a snack. I say it should be a staple of a thoughtful American’s literary diet. If we’ve got any sense, we shall be coming home to it on a regular basis, if only on Thanksgiving.

Coming into the read, I had been given a couple of different characterizations of McWhorter. I’d been familiar with him for at least a decade and had first encountered him through his association with the folks at City Journal and the Manhattan Institute. As a black conservative writer in the early 2000s, I was impressed by his gracious bearing when we agreed on matters of race, which was most of the time. At that time, I was advised that he was not the kind of person to chill out over beers. More recently, I was told that in writing this book, he didn’t give a rat’s ass what people thought of him any longer. I understand that feeling of thinking your way out of a box that other cats refuse to leave, or to use another well-worn black metaphor, of escaping a barrel of crabs.

The Moral Core

McWhorter’s genius lies in his couching of the moral posturing and punitive campaigns of those he calls “the Elect” in the metaphor of religious devotion. His graciousness remains in evidence as he explains that they are well-educated, ordinarily reasonable people, but that under the spell of various “Elect” axioms on the subject of race they have exited the realm of logic and reason and entered the realm of faith. The fact that the Elect live and move and have their being in the realm of faith is most obvious from what McWhorter calls the “Catechism of Contradictions.” If there is one takeaway that I want readers to keep from Woke Racism it is the clarity of agreement of black and white adherents to the precepts in this catechism. Most of us will be familiar with these precepts as a result of our exasperating dealings with the Elect and their lazy defenders. The catechism includes such self-canceling pairs of precepts as these:

  • Silence about racism is violence. Elevate the voices of the oppressed over your own.

  • Show interest in multiculturalism. Do not culturally appropriate.

  • When whites move away from black neighborhoods, it’s white flight. When whites move into black neighborhoods, it’s gentrification.

To hold each precept of any of these pairs in one’s mind without feeling the strain of cognitive dissonance requires the willing suspension of reason.

McWhorter also very shrewdly nails the primordial animating force of the Elect phenomenon in his understanding that it is all about power, an obsession that owes to the great Karl Marx (p. 11):

Battling power relations and their discriminatory effects must be the central focus of all human endeavor, be it intellectual, moral, civic, or artistic. Those who resist this focus, or even evidence insufficient adherence to it, must be sharply condemned, deprived of influence, and ostracized.

If we are to understand something deep about what America is going through, I think some credit is due to the moral leadership of Marxist theory. Especially for those who find traditional religion to be fundamentally morally compromised, some of the ethical aspects of Marxism are what fills the gap. What goes unstated in our Red and Blue delusions is that Marx himself was a humanist.

Marx (and Kierkegaard) were near the center of a reforming sensibility in Christianity that one might call “the destruction of the theory of the Sons of Ham.” (The sons of Noah’s son Ham are, according to Genesis 9-10, founders of several African and Middle Eastern peoples. The curse laid upon their father by their grandfather was traditionally used to explain the subjection and slavery of their descendants.) The Christian idea that the poor were ordained to be poor, that the slaves were ordained to be slaves, and that the Kingdom of Heaven would be just enough reward for earthly suffering was attacked by those two thinkers. If it were said to be God’s will that slavery exists, then this is the sort of “Christian Conservatism” that Marxists would object to. Of course, Marx saw capitalism as creative of a kind of slavery for workers, who make up the oppressed class. This ethical principle slides very neatly onto any number of racial assumptions about African-descended people in America and so naturally generates the analogies we see today, most recently appropriated by Colin Kaepernick’s documentary that compares the NFL draft and tryouts to the slave auction block.

Again, this is all about power. To avoid getting into the philosophical weeds, McWhorter omits explicitly to indict the Elect of inspiration by Marx. They’re all nice Americans, remember? But the quack of Marx-inspired ducks is all about the inevitability of transferring power from the immoral minority capitalists to the moral majority proletarians. The Work of the Elect on behalf of accelerating the day when People of Color inherit the earth follows the same activist quackery. The Elect are activists who aim to disrupt power inequalities around race. Merely talking about it does not suffice. They must smoke it out and do something about it. This is the moral center of their universe. It is the religion for those who want less demanded of them than Christianity requires, despite the fact that similar social values may be found in Christian thought, such as, for example, Catholic Social Teaching

In order for our communities to thrive and be able to uphold and protect the dignity of human life, at all stages, rights must be protected and responsibilities met. St. John XXIII enumerates these rights: “We must speak of man’s rights. Man has the right to live.  He has the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services. In consequence, he has the right to be looked after in the event of ill health; disability stemming from his work; widowhood; old age; enforced unemployment; or whenever through no fault of his own he is deprived of the means of livelihood” (Pacem in Terris, 11, an Encyclical of Pope John XXIII issued in 1963).

This Catholic Christian meditation on human rights encompasses all of humanity and would require quite a lot of us to secure, certainly more than babbling about “white fragility” requires. 

The Elect and Elect ideas are doomed to failure because of the contradictions in their reductionist use of race. This is made crystal clear in McWhorter’s book. You can’t destroy racism so long as you sustain the fiction of race itself, and by making all failures and suffering of black Americans the fetishized effect of racism, everything becomes racist. The trouble with this doctrine is that black Americans, like all people, fail and suffer for every possible human reason.

The Negro Racialists

McWhorter stands near me in my own location within black culture and specifically outside of the privileges accorded to themselves of black culture’s racialists, who always manage to grab what I consider outsized and inappropriate influence. Those of us who are old enough have seen “blackness” invented and reinvented by these racialists over the decades. There has of course been real progress and change in the minds of black Americans, but there are always regressive elements. Let me describe a few. This should help anyone who has the handicap of not having paid close attention to various arcane movements within the black intelligentsia. In short, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram X. Kendi are just a couple of new jack icebergs in an ocean of struggle. In 1991, it was Afrocentrism, remember?

I see black American strivings overwhelmingly in the context of the sorts of middle-class and bourgeois aspirations associated with the American Dream. From my perspective this stands in a tradition that is practically as old as the republic itself. In my own family, I have traced those who lived in New Orleans from the late 1700s who were known as “free people of color.” They were never slaves. Nobody wants a travesty of justice, which slavery, the failure of Reconstruction and Jim Crow clearly were. We the people in our efforts to form a more perfect union have not consistently established justice and insured domestic tranquility. But clearly by the time of the Negro, three generations after the death of Benjamin Banneker (d. 1806), such figures as Booker T. Washington (b. 1856), W.E.B. Du Bois (b. 1868) and Carter G. Woodson (b. 1875) were at liberty to come up with contrasting ideas about the best kind of education for that Negro. (I use the term “Negro” to describe that post-enslavement African American whose existential benchmark was comparison of himself to his white contemporary.) In contrast to Washington, Du Bois, and Woodson, Marcus Garvey (b. 1887) essentially said to hell with the American Dream, let’s go back to Africa. I could not possibly do justice to any of these great men in my abstractions of their messages but it serves the purposes of this essay to boil their recommendations down. Three of them said America is the place, and one wasn’t having it. Washington’s lesson was for the Negro to take up a technical education. Du Bois would have us become philosopher kings, as he himself aimed to be. Woodson said all that’s cool so long as you chill on the Divinity schools and fluffy majors.

For those among us who cannot manage to get the stain of the fraction 3/5 out of their minds, there is a natural appeal to the revolutionary designs of Garvey. But all prescriptions aimed at “raising the race” in the USA were for the Negro. The intellectual evolution of the Negro required self-determination of the sort that the Negro was socially and legally excluded from. The requisite social change was the Civil Rights agenda and the destruction of Jim Crow. The intellectual change continues to this day, and for many it is complete. Where it has gone wayward is in the branch of Elect thinking which once again has every intention of making “BIPOC” out of us all by forcing us constantly to compare every aspect of our lives to The White Man.

For African Americans there are myriad ways out of the Negro box. The swiftest is to renounce the very concept of race and to denounce everyone who keeps reconstructing its social construction around people who are, above all else, simply Americans. Those reconstructors are quick to racialize every new thing with their Elect reactions. Every black American with a tale of woe who responds to the altar calls of the Elect puts himself right back into that old Negro box. It has all come to that.

The White Man’s Burden

On the other side of the net are the whites and their Asian doppelgängers all corralled by the Elect to bear the shame of any success not shared “equitably” with the so-called People of Color. McWhorter doesn’t characterize them fully so much as he identifies some of their innocent cosmopolitan habits, like watching Mad Men or reading the New York Times. It doesn’t quite matter because the attraction of becoming Elect for whites is equally wrong at the philosophical level. Whether you seek to raise or denigrate your racial identity, you are still treating it according to the prescriptions of the religion. You are still admitting to your undeniable possession of a racial soul which must be put right, at the risk of everything else.

Thus is born the new civilizing imperative called for by the Elect, whether it manifests in schools, at work, online, or in the arts, whether you call it CRT, DEI, or ESG, and whether you use terms like “diversity,” “equity,” or “social justice.” So long as you perceive race and weight it, you are playing into the hands of the Elect, who will inevitably grow more capable and powerful as they gain more active adherents and passive observers who are willing to go along.

Unlike Stoicism, the Elect catechism is evangelical. They take their burden seriously and cannot stand the presence of apostates. They always have a pocketful of kindling and a ready match. Their trail of destruction has been subtle, but McWhorter and many others have seen the fire in their eyes and felt the heat of their contempt for disagreement. His prescriptions are not quite the legendary Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions but they evoke them nonetheless. My favorite, a prescription for parents on how to respond to “anti-racist” lunacy invading their children’s schools:

This religion has no place in this school’s curriculum. It is indeed a religion, because I’m afraid you don’t seem able to explain your take on this issue with what I think of as logic. If White Fragility and How to Be an Antiracist do it for you, you don’t seem to be able to tell me why, which suggests that those books are not as valuable as you seem to think. If you insist on exposing my children to this religion when they are supposed to be getting an education, I will gather a group of parents and we will transfer our children to another school. And we will write all about you on Twitter before, while, and after we do it.

That’s a punch in the nose and on the mark. Yet McWhorter is not the sort that goes for the jugular. As an atheist in America in the rarified world of the academy he stands among an as yet un-networked multitude of grownups, sensitive and aiming to make social progress in those realms most suited for the sort of progress higher education might deliver. In his final paragraphs he asks us to “Be Spartacus.” I think he knows the enemy of liberty and he knows the price of regaining it.

Do you?

Michael D. C. Bowen is an editor of the Journal of Free Black Thought, a Stoic writer, author of the award-winning blog Cobb, and data engineer. He has been published in Newsweek, was a regular NPR contributor, host at Cafe Utne, founder of the Conservative Brotherhood, Rights Universal, and Free Black Thought. His online writing projects on political, cultural and philosophical subjects reach back over 23 years.  His latest project, is Stoic Observations. Michael lives with his wife and three children in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.

What Is Antiracism and What Is the Problem with It?

Subordinating white people is not a solution



Subordinating white people is not a solution

George A. Yancey

A lot of talk recently about Critical Race Theory (CRT). This time last year nobody was discussing CRT. Instead, the popular topic was antiracism, and for good reason. It was under the rubric of antiracism that popular books such as White Fragility and How to be an Antiracist were framed. It is antiracism that is used to justify diversity programs and efforts at addressing structural racism. Clearly CRT and antiracism are related but they are not exactly alike. I’ll leave debating the value of CRT to others. I prefer to talk about antiracism because that, rather than CRT proper, is what is being implemented in most diversity programs today.

So let's talk about antiracism. First, how do we define it? It is not just “opposing racism” which practically all Americans would say they do. But antiracism is a more specific philosophy of action that far fewer Americans adopt. To define it, I consulted several books and online sources (see the bibliography appended here) that offered definitions of antiracism. I found three concepts that appear to be the most widely shared features of antiracism. These three concepts may not be the three most important concepts for everyone who calls him- or herself an antiracist, but they should at least be recognizable to the majority of those who identify as antiracist. 

         The first concept is that racism is pervasive in the United States. The following statement is often found attributed to NAC International Perspectives: Women and Global Solidarity

Anti-racism is the active process of identifying and eliminating racism by changing systems, organizational structures, policies and practices and attitudes, so that power is redistributed and shared equitably. 

This statement reflects the belief of antiracists that racism is multifaceted. Racism is not merely individualized attitudes of racial hatred (DiAngelo 2018, Jewell 2020, Saad 2020, Hoffower 2021). It also dominates our society in the form of “systems, organizational structures, policies and practices” (Pollock 2008, Kendi 2019, Fidel 2020, Snyder 2020, Hoffower 2021). The level at which racism is most prominent and the nature of racism in our society may vary for antiracists. They may differ in the way they discuss white privilege and white supremacy. But ultimately they agree in asserting that racism is multifaceted and prevalent in the United States. 

         The second antiracist concept is the intense commitment all of us must make to defeat racism. This effort amounts to a moral cause that we should accept even at great cost (Kendi 2019, Oluo 2019, Eddo-Lodge 2020, Saad 2020). It is not enough to say that you oppose racism. You must become an activist and aggressively work to end the vile effects of racism (Snyder 2020, Hoffower 2021). Kendi (2019) has famously argued being a “nonracist”—a passive stance—is impossible. One is either actively racist or actively antiracist. While other antiracists do not necessarily adopt this distinction, they do ask for intentional efforts to end racism and confront white supremacy. They offer imperatives, within their respective antiracist frameworks, about the sort of commitment needed and the actions that need to be taken. Antiracism demands activism and does not accept individuals who choose to sit on the sidelines in the battle against racism.

         The third concept concerns the role of whites. According to antiracists, the job of whites is to support activists of color (Kivel 2017, DiAngelo 2018, Eddo-Lodge 2020, Saad 2020, Tomkin 2020) and to communicate sympathy to nonwhites (DiAngelo 2018, Oluo 2019, Jewell 2020, Snyder 2020). The demands made of whites by antiracists vary. One prominent antiracist states that whites should reject their white identity (DiAngelo 2018). Others ask whites to be humble in their interactions with racial minorities (Oluo 2019, Saad 2020, Hoffower 2021). Some tell whites to "preach"  and convert other whites to antiracism (DiAngelo 2018, Eddo-Lodge 2020, Saad 2020). There are those that require whites to provide financial support for people of color and antiracism activism (Oluo 2019, Eddo-Lodge 2020, Tomkin 2020). This is part of a larger call for a redistribution of financial assets from whites to people of color (Kendi 2019, Jewell 2020). All of this antiracist work is to be done without whites expecting anything in return or that whites will be allowed to have a significant antiracist leadership role (Eddo-Lodge 2020, Jewell 2020, Saad 2020, Tomkin 2020). There is a clear distinction between the role of whites and that of nonwhites, wherein the former are expected to capitulate to the latter.[1]    

         These three concepts provide an operational definition of antiracism that should be recognizable to most even moderately well-informed people. I consistently encounter these concepts in my review of popular antiracist literature. Antiracism is a strong, active commitment to defeat multifaceted and systematic racism with an emphasis on whites supporting the activism of people of color. The way some specialist academics conceptualize antiracism may differ from what I have laid out here, but this is not my concern, as my focus is on the most prevalent  understanding of antiracism.  

Now that we have a definition, I can explain my problems with antiracism. My problems with antiracism emerge due to the third definitional concept concerning the role of whites. The first two concepts fit well with my concern that we seriously address racism. But we do not need to limit whites to only supporting the ideas of people of color, which effectively puts them at a “kids’ table.” Some see it as fair to limit whites to supporting people of color, since for too long the voices of people of color have been silenced. However, I struggle with the notion that we can move forward in society with this type of two-tiered system. If someone can provide credible evidence that such a two-tier system can work then I can put away my concerns. But there is no empirical evidence to suggest that such an arrangement can work. One thing I noticed in my survey of antiracist literature was the stark lack of support by empirical research. I suspect that this is because there is precious little work showing that an antiracist approach is effective.

In contrast, there is plenty of research indicating that locking whites out of the conversation is counterproductive. I limit myself here to discussion of the excellent study by Dobbin and Kalev (2016). They looked at the efforts of American corporations to hire people of color as managers. To accomplish such goals antiracism would suggest a proactive approach such as altering hiring practices, grievance systems for people of color, or mandatory diversity training. But Dobbin and Kalev found that companies that try to hire managers of color using mandatory diversity training, job tests, and grievance systems had actually hired fewer managers of color five years later. But companies that included white managers in the process of recruitment, heading up diversity task forces, and mentoring had hired more managers of color five years later.

The moral of the story is that if we want to make changes, we need to do it together. For so long, people of color have been left out of the conversation for dealing with racial issues. We should never go back to that sort of society again. But the answer is not to leave whites out of the conversation. We need them to work with us as partners in confronting the racial challenge before us. I have championed an approach based on collaborative conversations where we head towards solutions together instead of on separate racial tracks. We build community instead of polarization. This is the subject of my forthcoming book, Beyond Racial Division.

As a man of color, I understand the attraction of antiracism. I do not always trust whites to correct the effects of historical racism and address institutional discrimination. The purity of focus of antiracism is appealing when so many individuals deny the importance and even existence of racism. But the antiracist program is not the answer. It fails to lessen racial alienation and does not help us achieve real-world goals such as hiring managers of color. The idealistic part of me wants antiracism to succeed. But the realistic part of me knows that it will fail. I must choose whether to indulge the emotional motivations of those who would use antiracist tactics to pressure whites to confront racism or, alternatively, to listen to the empirical evidence showing that such an approach is ineffective. I choose the latter.

DiAngelo, Robin.  2018.  White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. Beacon Press.

Dobbin, F, and A Kalev.  2016.  "Why Diversity Programs Fail." Harvard Business Review.

Eddo-Lodge, Reni.  2020.  Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Fidel, Kondwani.  2020.  The Antiracist: How to Start the Conversation About Race and Take Action.  Bloomington, IL: Hot Books.

Hoffower, Hillary.  "What It Really Means to Be an Anti-Racist, and Why It's Not the Same as Being an Ally." Business Insider.

Jewell, Tiffany.  2020.  This Book Is Anti-Racist. London, England: Frances Lincoln.

Kendi, Ibram X.  2019.  How to Be an Antiracist. One World.

Kivel, Paul.  2017.  Uprooting Racism-: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice. New Society Publishers.

Oluo, Ijeoma.  2019.  So You Want to Talk About Race. Hachette UK.

Pollock, Mica.  2008.  Everyday Antiracism: Getting Real About Race in School. The New Press.

Saad, Layla F.  2020.  Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor. Sourcebooks, Inc.

Snyder, Ian.  "What Does It Mean to Be an Anti-Racist?" National League of Cities.

Tomkin, Anastasia Reesa.  "Unpacking the False Allyship of White Racial Justice Leaders." Nonprofit Quarterly.

[1] Some may argue that Kendi (2019) has the same expectations of whites and nonwhites since he asserts that both can be racist. But Kendi’s dichotomy of one either being a racist or nonracist indicates that whites, as well as everyone else, must accept solutions put forth by people of color. Furthermore, Kendi’s acceptance of antiracist discrimination is likely to benefit people of color at the expense of whites, but whites are not allowed to assert concerns about that discrimination. Racial minorities can choose to accept a system that one of their own has devised to benefit them whereas whites must accept his system regardless of the potential cost the system brings to them.

Dr. George A. Yancey is a Professor of Sociology at Baylor University. He has published books and research articles on the topics of institutional racial diversity, racial identity, academic bias, progressive Christianity, and anti-Christian hostility. His books include Compromising ScholarshipWhat Motivates Cultural Progressives (with David A. Williams), There Is No God (with David A. Williams), So Many Christians, So Few Lions (with David A. Williams), Transcending Racial Barriers: Toward a Mutual Obligations Approach (with Michael O. Emerson), and Beyond Racial Gridlock: Embracing Mutual Responsibility. He maintains a personal website and a Twitter account.

EVENT: Communism, Fascism, Radical Islam & America: Illiberalism There & Then and Here & Now

Livestreaming Thursday, November 11, at 11am ET



Illiberalism There & Then and Here & Now

Livestreaming Thursday, November 11, at 11am ET / 8am PT

In recent years a new illiberalism has emerged in America. A number of thinkers and journalists have remarked on the similarities between this new American illiberalism and other intolerant systems. We have brought together four of them to reflect on their lived experience and/or understanding of Soviet and Chinese Communism, Argentinian Fascism, Radical Islam, and the parallels to current American trends. 

Register for the livestream on November 11 at 11:00am ET / 8:00am PT and you’ll receive a link and a reminder on the day of the event.

You can also watch live on FBT’s Twitter feed and on ILV’s YouTube channel.

Sponsored by Institute for Liberal Values, Society for Open Inquiry in Behavioral Science, Rutgers Psychology Department, Rutgers FAIR Chapter, and Free Black Thought.





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