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. https://www.businessinsider.com/what-is-anti-racism-how-to-be-anti-racist-2020-6

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. https://www.nlc.org/article/2020/07/21/what-does-it-mean-to-be-an-anti-racist/

Tomkin, Anastasia Reesa.  "Unpacking the False Allyship of White Racial Justice Leaders." Nonprofit Quarterly. https://nonprofitquarterly.org/unpacking-the-false-allyship-of-white-racial-justice-leaders/

[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.