Reading 'White Fragility' and canceling your friends won't make you an anti-racist

Sorry, but performative social media posts about Venmo'ing your black colleagues won't help us either

Justin Lee
New York
@justindeanlee
Friday 03 July 2020 20:02
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White 'wokeness' can backfire and make people more racist
White 'wokeness' can backfire and make people more racist

White Fragility is the most successful of a slew of recent books functioning as devotional guides in the nuevo religion of anti-racism, all of which leverage pseudoscience and often bankrupt historiography to shore up the belief of the faithful. But the discourse manufactured by Robin DiAngelo, Ibram X. Kendi, Layla F. Saad, and other mainstream anti-racist writers conceals a pernicious idea. Rather than promote racial justice, such books often serve the dual purpose of building solidarity within the predominately white managerial class while justifying its privileges. The current anti-racist discourse is a powerful tool by which the system of inequality refreshes itself.

On this point, the work of Columbia University sociologist Musa al-Gharbi is illuminating. In a recent series of essays, al-Gharbi examines how the anti-racist discourse embraced by the professional-managerial class (i.e. culture-driving elites of the upper quintile) has actually re-entrenched racist behaviors in that very class. For example, white progressives become more likely to act in the interests of other white people the more they engage in anti-racist liturgical performances. This is, in part, because white progressives are more likely to appeal to third-party authorities to resolve interpersonal conflicts: when in conflict with non-white people, their cognitive scripts employ "progressive" race dogma (e.g. cops are racist) to strategic advantage. Al-Gharbi illustrates this with the recent incident in Central Park in which Amy Cooper, a white progressive, appeared to instrumentalize her belief that cops are racist against a black man whom she perceived as a threat.

This dynamic, writes al-Gharbi, isn't visible to white progressives because of "moral credentialing": their anti-racist liturgies convince them they're the "right sort" and thus couldn't be acting from base motives: “Conversely, blaming or criticizing ‘others’ for a particular moral failing reduces one’s own sense of guilt for that same moral failing.” This attitude is reciprocally reinforced within progressive social circles — think of it as contagious blindness. As al-Gharbi explains, “for whites who inhabit social circles where people go around denouncing racism to one another constantly — painting themselves as staunch advocates for social justice — it would become almost impossible for these people to see the role that they play in perpetuating systemic inequality.”

This dynamic is so entrenched because it operates to justify the power of white elites over working class white people as well. Here, Musa explains how white people are significantly more "woke" on race than non-white people. White elites drive the discourse and promote an endlessly broadening definition of racism, which requires education and, more importantly, enculturation to understand. Working class white people who can't keep up with shifting norms are labeled racist by the gatekeepers of those norms, who thereby safeguard their own class privilege.

“Charges of ‘racism,’” writes al-Gharbi, “are primarily deployed against the political opponents of upwardly-mobile, highly-educated progressive white people.” Mainstream anti-racist discourse can then end up functioning like social control. It is effective at protecting the neoliberal status quo and worse than useless for achieving a more just world. The managerial class sustains and reproduces itself by maintaining structural inequality.

The process al-Gharbi lays bare can be further illuminated by the work of the late interdisciplinary scholar René Girard. Girard discovered that from time immemorial, human communities have resolved social crises by way of the "scapegoat mechanism": everyone unites against a single victim, who is blamed for the crisis and sacrificed (i.e. killed or exiled); thus is social peace restored.

The scapegoat mechanism depends for its efficacy upon the unanimous belief that the victim is guilty. To the extent that unanimity of blame is broken, solidarity is weakened. This is why moral communities self-police so ferociously. Questioning the justness of a person's "cancelation" puts community solidarity at risk. This is intensified within the intersectional coalition because its members have historically competing, sometimes irreconcilable, interests. Thus the incredible pressure to join the shamings.

But because most people intuit that the victims of “cancel culture” are either innocent or their guilt doesn't merit blame for the breakdown of social order, solidarity is exceedingly fragile. The sacrificial system thus enters into crisis. As Girard wrote: "The more radical the crisis of the sacrificial system becomes, the more men will be tempted to multiply victims in order to accede, finally, to the same effects.” This explains the current frenzy of denouncement and the push to signal assent to the system.

Black people have been the preferred scapegoats in America for a long time — lynchings, together with less outwardly violent forms of victimization, bound white communities together in a vile solidarity. Because significant (albeit woefully unfinished) progress has been made, it is highly difficult to achieve unanimity today on the bald lie of white racial superiority. (This isn't to say that it doesn't happen; it does, just less often and less efficaciously.) Because what Girard calls the "concern for victims" has become so normative that even President Trump casts himself as a victim, the scapegoat mechanism must now be deployed against “oppressors."

White progressives' deployment of the scapegoat mechanism against out-group white people (and, often enough, dissenting non-white elites) cloaks privilege under sham virtue, while preserving class inequalities that disproportionately harm black Americans. Thus is racial strife instrumentalized to conceal a class war and its massive casualties. In this bizarre moment, even charity is being instrumentalized to the same ends. Over the past several weeks, social media has been flooded with screenshots of donations given to charities committed to racial justice, and even donations given through Venmo to one’s black friends and acquaintances. But performative virtue binds and blinds. It generates in-group solidarity while blinding individuals to their role within the system. Thus the wisdom of Christ's exhortation: "When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing."

How, then, might one live an authentically anti-racist life? In my view, the crucial first step is to renounce the scapegoat mechanism, which has been an important driver of white identity politics and of white radicalization. This requires serious self-reflection and the development of habits that make for peace. That is, it requires the cultivation of virtue.

Musa al-Gharbi argues that “the most meaningful act of resistance to systemic racism would be for its primary beneficiaries to seek ways to give of themselves… rather than attempting to blame, coerce, cajole or expropriate from others under the auspices of anti-racism.” Such an “ascetic anti-racism” is at once simpler and far more demanding than anything on offer from Robin DiAngelo. Anyone desiring to live an authentic, rather than performative, anti-racism should take al-Gharbi’s recommendations to heart — and then make mulch out of books like White Fragility, which have only served to poison our culture.

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