The Good Fight
Vincent Lloyd on What Happens When “Antiracism” Goes Wrong

Vincent Lloyd on What Happens When “Antiracism” Goes Wrong

Vincent Lloyd tells Yascha Mounk how an anti-racist seminar he taught at Telluride got derailed, and how (not) to fight for social justice.

Vincent Lloyd is a Professor and Director of Africana Studies at Villanova University. His latest book is Black Dignity: The Struggle against Domination.

In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Vincent Lloyd discuss how his summer school seminar on black history was derailed by the language of “harm”; how well-intentioned efforts at contemplating past and present injustice can devolve into dogma and bullying; and how we might more effectively work to bring about racial justice.

The views expressed are those of the speakers, not those of Persuasion. The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Mounk: Your name came to my attention because three different people sent me an article that you wrote. I've since looked into your work, which is very interesting.

Tell me about this experience you had of teaching at the Telluride summer school, which is a very prestigious program for high school students to spend a summer studying texts and living together. It has many famous alumni, including many graduates of this podcast like Frank Fukuyama. It has a kind of hallowed place in the American academic imagination. 

You taught once before I believe, which went well. When you returned last summer, it went a little bit less well. Tell us the story of who you are and what happened.

Vincent Lloyd: In 2014, and last year in 2022, I co-taught a course called “Race and the Limits of Law in America” with an Indigenous Studies scholar and lawyer. We were interested in revisiting the topics that we talked about several years before in the light of Black Lives Matter and resurgent indigenous protest and transformations in the American political climate. It seemed like, in 2014, our challenge was to take students who vaguely cared about social justice and to deepen their understanding of the history of race in America and of the various theoretical frameworks that they could use for thinking about immigration, indigeneity, anti-blackness and other forms of racism.

In 2014, all of the students came from diverse ideological perspectives: some self-identified as Republicans or conservative, some liberal, and others were just figuring out what it meant to have a political identity. But all, in some way, cared about justice and were primed to dig deeper. They were excited about the intellectual challenge of reading difficult texts, carefully wrestling with ideas, and having complicated conversations that would evolve over time, which was what my experience in seminars was like as an undergraduate and which excited me about teaching in this program: to be able to have the time and space to reach extraordinarily talented young people, and dig deep with them into hugely important questions and transform their lives—or at least have the potential to transform their lives, as I think the Telluride program has has done for many of its alumni. That sounded really promising. And some of the emails I've received in recent days have been from dozens of Telluride alumni recounting how their summer seminar was a transformative experience for them. 

These are 16 year olds, so their views were not particularly deeply held, even when they expressed political identifications. They were trying to figure out how to be around each other, live away from their parents, and govern themselves. Part of the Telluride ethos is a commitment to democracy—participants govern their community for the six weeks that they're together over the summer. 

Mounk: I wasn't aware of that element of the Telluride program until reading your essay and I have a kind of personal connection to it, because one of the first people who ran a model like that was Janusz Korczak, a Polish educator who ran an orphanage in Poland in the 1930s and early 1940s, and actually chose to go to his death with his kids in the gas chambers, though he was given a chance to escape.

My grandfather worked for a few years at the orphanage as a sort of young progressive educator, so this idea of self-government of kids is something to which I have a sort of strange personal connection, and it's a very noble ideal, but, as we'll see, it doesn't necessarily always go as planned.

Lloyd: No, and there are always some failures, right? Every time this program runs, things go wrong in various ways, and people learn from it for the next time. There's a kind of responsiveness both institutionally and in the lives of the individuals who are a part of that experiment.

In 2022, I came in with similar expectations—that there would be extraordinarily talented students, which there were, and that they would be somewhat awkward in trying to figure out how to live together, which they were. But this time Telluride had changed the structure of the program so that the students would take the seminar I was teaching in the morning and then they would take these anti-racism workshops in the afternoon. These workshops were much more in the spirit of communicating the politics that one ought to have, statements that one ought to believe, basically, to be a good person. And all the content of those anti-racism workshops was content that I agree with. It was what I wanted to push the students toward in the seminar; that we need to take anti-black racism seriously, that the afterlives of slavery persist into the present, that we need to take intersectional lenses to how we're understanding forms of racial violence and harm. All of these sorts of things strike me as right. And in my academic life, these are things that I try to develop and write about as well. But they were being communicated to the students in this format of the afternoon anti-racism workshop in a way that was basically dogmatic: “These are things that one has to believe. These are the prerequisites to participation in this democratic community.”

Mounk: What is it that made them dogmatic and how is it these workshops ultimately helped to set up this social pressure cooker which ended up going very badly wrong?

Lloyd: I was only in the house in the morning when I was teaching the seminar. Students reported things that were happening in the afternoon workshops, as did the teaching assistants who were leading the workshops and who were in charge of the high school students for the 21 hours a day that they were not in my seminar. My sense was that there was both an issue in pedagogy and in culture.

To give an example of the culture, there was a practice of snapping when one agrees, that was fostered in these workshops, and then that entered into our seminar space. But the effect of that was to limit students saying things that were controversial or even experimental. No one would snap after something that was controversial or experimental was said, and then someone else would say something that was very much in line with what the workshop leader was trying to do to advance a piece of dogma, and everyone would snap, and so it would discourage further experimentation. Another example that's somewhere between culture and substance: we heard that it was communicated to the students that one needs to respect and to defer to those who've had personal experiences of discrimination and harm done to them and done to their families. Again, this seems like a reasonable thing. I try to think about this too—how we can give epistemic privilege to and take wisdom from those who are marginalized and face harm in various ways. And, yet, I think that should be a conversation starter rather than a conversation stopper. Right, when someone says, “From my experience of these harms, this is what I'm thinking now,” that should open up a dialogue about these systems of harm, their histories, the cultures around them and how we can address them, rather than shutting down conversation. 

Mounk: I've been thinking a lot about what's often called standpoint epistemology or standpoint theory; that how we experience the world depends in some crucial ways on who we are, and so that requires us to have some amount of empathy for our fellow citizens and to realize that when they're telling us something that makes us uncomfortable or that might seem wrong or isn't in line with our own experiences, we should take the time to actually listen to them and to have an open mind. Perhaps they have a piece of information here that I don't have, and if I care about living in a just society, I should take that seriously.

Well, those assumptions really don't hold up in the philosophical sense, as there's a whole set of assumptions you have to make about all of the members of a certain group having a certain set of experiences, and while you may never be able to experience exactly what it feels like, you may well be able to communicate the things that are politically relevant. I think it's a really weak basis for political solidarity.

Lloyd: If I could just add a little bit here, I think you're nicely naming these issues, but I think they're even more complicated. As human beings, we're never going to fully understand each other. And there is some gap that will always remain between what we can appreciate, even when we listen really, really carefully, and the experiences of others. That gap is about our humanity and the cultural formations that we've had. Appreciating that tragic sensibility—that we're never going to fully understand, even as we're trying—requires some humility, right? We're going to try and fail, and then we have to adjust what we're trying to do. And it's not just about the pieces of information that we might not be getting, but it might even be about our own habits and our own styles of reasoning that have been shaped by the people we've been around, the cultures that we've been formed in, that block us from encountering information or experiences unlike ours. 

Again, while this all seems right to me, it’s very tricky to navigate. And in the seminar, after this new culture of deferral to experiences of discrimination and other new cultures (developed in the wake of Black Lives Matter and other political protests that have been doing hugely important work to shed light on instances of injustice), the students were resistant to ask critical questions about texts if those texts were seen to be expressing the experiences of the author. If it's Angela Davis talking about her experience in prison, we couldn't ask critical questions about that. If it's Christina Sharpe, a Black Studies theorist, describing how the afterlives of slavery affect her family, we couldn't ask critical questions about that. At least, when we tried to encourage that in the seminar space, there was a bloc of students who said that they were being harmed by the open discussion.

Mounk: And so when did you start feeling this creeping into your seminar, when you were having what you thought was a constructive, fruitful discussion about a text, but then, suddenly, members of the seminar were saying “That's harmful. We can't have that”?

Lloyd: The seminar was supposed to start on a Monday, and the day before we were told that we would have to postpone the start a day because there's going to be an all-day anti-racism workshop, instead. Which gave us a sense of the priorities of the organization; that the anti-racism workshops have primacy over the college-level seminar the students are there for. The first week was on indigeneity and Native American genocide and related questions. At the end of the first week, one of these teaching assistants, a college-age student, said some of the black students are feeling harmed because we spent a whole week talking about Native American genocide and there wasn't any discussion of anti-blackness, which suggests that there was already in the first week some resistance to deep discussion and intellectual development.

I was frustrated, but, on the other hand, I can appreciate that students who came to a summer experience wanting to think about questions of justice and wanting to explore their own identity are impatient. When you're 16, you're impatient. That makes sense. And I think part of the frustration on my part was that the Telluride Association didn't seem like it had communicated to the students what a college-level seminar is—something that unfolds over time, unfolds slowly, will be frustrating and will not give you everything you want on the first day or the first week; or even the sense that there are norms to the college seminar, and they're there for a reason: to deepen your intellectual life and to allow you to pursue justice with a sharper orientation and with better tools. I think that could have been communicated to the students much better.

We read some of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed with the students to talk about different models of learning and why there is a form of empowerment that comes about, particularly for those from marginalized backgrounds, in this problem solving-based, seminar-style form of learning. We tried to give little snippets of theory to explain why the seminar mattered, and I tried to share experiences from my own college days where I was frustrated in seminars. I felt like I didn't know how to intervene. I felt like students who were coming in from these fancy private boarding schools knew how to talk in slick sorts of ways and were saying things that I, coming from a big public high school in the Midwest and being a black 18-year-old, could barely keep track of. And then, as time passed, I figured out that this format, this style of engagement, was one that could allow me to realize that I myself have knowledge. I can contribute knowledge in this space. My voice is just as important as those of my fellow students. I could flourish in this sort of space. 

Mounk: How did who spoke change and how did the atmosphere of the seminar, despite your best efforts, deteriorate?

Lloyd: In the first week, there was this ordinary distribution of students across races and genders. In their contributions to the seminar, as the weeks went on, the white students were increasingly silent, to the point where they were effectively totally silent unless we prompted them directly. A couple of the Asian American students were still relatively active. And the black students became much more vocal, which was good to see. The black students had important things to contribute and had experiences that other students didn't have that were enriching the conversation. And, yet, it would have been a much richer conversation if everyone's ideas and experiences could be bumping up against everyone else's ideas and experiences—and the visions of intellectual life and justice that would emerge would be all the deeper if that free flow of ideas could have persisted.

There began to be more and more of these sorts of incidents where I or my co-instructor would say something and then students would report being harmed. One of the exercises we did was one that's very common in college and law school, that’s having a mock court where you divide students into groups, some are lawyers on one side of the case and some are lawyers on another side of the case. We were basically arguing Supreme Court cases, one around immigration and one around mass incarceration. And after doing this, the students reported that some of them were harmed by this exercise, because they had to argue for a side that they didn't agree with, a side that they thought was unjust. I have to say, I'm not wholly unsympathetic to this. I would not have asked the students to re-argue Dred Scott, a case that is deeply violent and representative of white supremacy in the US. But the students were perceiving this format of the mock court as one that's inherently harmful. 

Mounk: They tell you, “You're harming us.” How do you respond?

Lloyd: The language of harm seems like it is soliciting apology. It seems as if it's saying, “Can you apologize to me for this harm?” That's our natural human instinct. I think the students were frustrated that my inclination was not to immediately apologize. It was to think through how we can structure this seminar differently so that the issues that they cared about can be in the center. There were various opportunities for students to present additional readings or additional issues or texts that they cared about. And we encouraged students to use those opportunities to bring in what they felt was missing.

We tried to be responsive in that way using the structure of the format of the seminar and pointing out to the students ways that they could strategically use that structure to get the things that they were looking for to get their needs met.

Mounk: Did that work?

Lloyd: No. Again, I don't know what was happening the other 21 hours a day when we were not in the seminar. We were told that there was tension in the community. Eventually, in the fourth week, two of the Asian American students were sent home, expelled. We were not told a reason for that. I couldn't speculate about why that was. These were the two Asian American students who continued to actively participate in the seminar and continued to raise their voice in discussions, often with opinions that were not following the orthodoxy that had developed among the students. There could have been other things going on in the seminar. I'm sure those two students felt very uncomfortable and awkward given the dynamics of the space. Who knows what might have transpired there.

To offer just one example, we had a guest speaker, a history professor from the University of Michigan come into the seminar one day in the fourth week, who was an expert on mass incarceration. He was a proponent of the claim that the primary lens with which we need to understand mass incarceration is economic. It's class-first, though race and other issues are important. This is a black, socialist professor at the University of Michigan, and this was a view that one of these Asian American students agreed with. The student was delighted to hear the visiting professor put forward this view, and it appeared as if he was gathering up all of his courage. He was physically shaking. He said, “I agree with this view that we need to be thinking carefully about class at the start of our investigations of the prison system in the US. It seems right to me.” And then the college-aged teaching assistant turned to the Asian American student immediately after and said, “I strongly disagree with you,” and there was silence. The next day, the student was not in the group anymore.

Mounk: OK, so you're asked to lecture. What did you do?

Lloyd: I spoke for 15 or 20 minutes to set the stage for the reading that we were going to discuss, Frank Wilderson’s Afropessimism, a classic text of anti-blackness theory that circulates widely these days. Then we had a relatively fruitful discussion of different aspects of the text. 

At the end, I said, “I would have said all the things I told you in my opening lecture during the discussion, but prefer to just be prompted by the flow of the discussion.” That's how I usually operate in a seminar. I don't want to direct the discussion by giving my take or my framing of the text. I want to provide information that's essential but responsive to student questions and student concerns in the flow of the seminar. I can intervene to push that in a more productive direction, moving dialectically through the three hours of seminar.

But my reflection on why I don't lecture was not taken well. The teaching assistant took my statement as an attack on her and made a speech about how I was not respecting her and her experiences as a black woman. She claimed that the students were being harmed by witnessing this and that they would have to leave without eating a meal together with us at our home.

Mounk: And she declared this on behalf of the students? 

Lloyd: Exactly, yeah. 

Mounk: That must have been a very awkward moment. Sorry to make you dwell on it, but she makes a speech and what happens then?

Lloyd: We tried to say, “Well, do you want some time to catch your breath, or maybe you can think about it for a while, and then we can have our meal?” She said, on their behalf, that they needed some time to discuss. They met outside, caucused, and my family was inside the house. They had maybe 15 or 20 minutes of discussion about whether they would eat with us or not eat with us. Eventually, their compromise was that they would eat our food, but they would eat it in our backyard, while we had to stay inside the house, and then they would leave. That was how it was resolved. 

Mounk: And what was the aftermath?

Lloyd: We were supposed to have class on the following Monday, but one of the teaching assistants said that the students were exhausted or not in the right mindset to have class on Monday, so why don't we just postpone the start of the week until Tuesday? We said sure. We came in Tuesday morning, and no one was in the seminar room at the appointed time. A little bit later, the teaching assistants came in. A little after that, all of the students came in a holding piece of paper that they all had. Then they each read a paragraph from this piece of paper, which they had apparently drafted collectively, each paragraph naming one of the forms of harm that the seminar had caused to them. 

I said, “It will take me some time to process what you've said and think about it. I can't respond right away.” It seemed like the sort of thing that was asking for an apology and a transformation of the seminar, explicitly asking for lecturing—that is, to make it no longer a seminar.

We told the Telluride leadership, “Either you tell the students what a college seminar is, and then we can have a conversation with them, and you, about how to move forward, or we won't continue.” The leadership decided that they did not want to intervene. We offered to the students that, if they wanted to continue doing any of the written assignments, if they wanted us to offer feedback on anything, if they wanted to meet individually with us, if they wanted to Zoom or whatever, we were happy to do that. But we would not continue the seminar format unless the Telluride leadership intervened. We didn't hear from any of the students after that.

Mounk: To draw out the lens a little bit, how do you think we got to this point? Why is it that a storied institution like Telluride that has these democratic values that we both admire, and a set of students who care about causes that are noble, of fighting and overcoming racism in the United States and so on—how does that go so wrong? How would you describe the broader social cultural forces that have shaped this particular experience of yours?

Lloyd: We are at a moment of paradigm shift in how we think about race in America. We were in a multicultural paradigm for a long time where blackness was one among many different racial identities, all of which were celebrated, all of which had different forms of oppression that we could stand in solidarity with but ultimately in the direction of all living happily together in a rainbow nation. Now, the demands of black justice movements and other movements are saying, “Actually, they are deep, deep problems in US culture, US institutions, and US laws. We don't need inclusion and integration. We need to imagine something new. We need to imagine black justice outside of the existing institutions' paradigms.” I think that's entirely right. I think there's something that's deeply problematic with a multicultural paradigm that had been obscuring anti-blackness, which was causing all sorts of harm, as it's being revealed every day now as we're investigating anti-blackness in real estate and healthcare and the environment. There are real problems there and we need a new paradigm to address that. But we're in a moment of transition. So it's unsettled what that will look like and because it's unsettled this sort of toxic and abusive environment can grow, because there's no dominant, settled paradigm. 

The other general cultural factor I would name is just this growth of diversity bureaucracies and managers; the thought that when when our institutions have been causing harm, the proper way to address that is to hire professionals or, in this case, college-age students, basically to mediate conflict, to communicate the proper way to think about diversity in an institution. While that's well intentioned, it is distracting from the force of the justice claims being made by social movements and it's creating unintended effects of inhibiting the pursuit of justice in our institutions rather than advancing it.

Mounk: I see three different elements here and I'm trying to understand which of them you're challenging. The first is the idea that there are people from many different groups who live in the United States, and we should celebrate some of that cultural diversity. Our goal should be to build a nation where these groups can happily live together next to each other. That's something to which I'm broadly sympathetic, though it seems to me that the basic fundamental unit is the citizen rather than a group.

The second element is the optimistic narrative: these groups are getting along better and better and things are going to be great. 

The third element, which seems implicit in what you said, is the running together of different forms of injustice. I think Michael Lind was one of the first people who said in the 1990s, in a very different register, that we tend to think of American history as white versus non-white, but in some important ways, it's black and non-black that has always been the most defined dividing line of American politics because of slavery and so on. 

When you criticize multiculturalism, are you criticizing each of these three elements? Help us think through that.

Lloyd: To address the third element first, there is a claim circulating now that anti-black racism is qualitatively different from other sorts of racism. That strikes me as correct. But it's usually put in quite mystifying sorts of ways. Sometimes there's talk about “blackness is ontological” or exclusion from ontology or metaphysics. It's hard to understand exactly what's being said there. Now, the way I interpret that is as a political claim about domination; that one of the ways that we think about justice is in terms of the injustice of domination and trying to end domination. The closest thing we get to domination in laboratory conditions is slavery, and particularly Atlantic slavery, blacks brought from Africa to the US. If we're interested in understanding domination, the clearest kind of case that we can attend to is that form of slavery, which aligns with a sort of long tradition of domination being connected with slavery in the European political tradition. And if we are still living with the afterlives of slavery in the US, if the habits and frameworks that were developed to make slavery plausible persist into the present, then, even today, anti-black racism is a paradigm case of domination. That makes it qualitatively different because it hews most closely to this paradigm of domination. That would be how I would understand that claim, the qualitative difference in political, not metaphysical or ontological terms. 

In terms of multiculturalism, I think this really depends on one's perspective. If one is looking from above, as it were, down at America and all these different sorts of people and imagining that they all have their problems, or they could all get along, that sort of makes sense. When one is looking from the margins, so to speak, when one is worried about being pulled over by the police, friends and family who are incarcerated, microaggressions, bodily violence, or whatever it is, it doesn't feel as if we're either on an optimistic path, or that this framework of multiculturalism is one that has the capacity to manage this difference. If, at the margins, we're feeling bodily threats, multiculturalism doesn't seem like it's working to make us safe.

I don't think of the position that I'm describing as pessimistic; I actually think of it as optimistic. I believe in a world without domination. I think we should be imagining a world without domination. I also don't think there's a clear path for how to get from here to there. I think we need to experiment, we need to try out different things. We need to foster our imagination so that we can be motivated to combat domination in our present world and move toward that world without domination. In terms of the dynamics in the seminar, it seems like there are two different things that we need to hold at the same time, which are really tough to hold at the same time. One is urgency—that there are harms happening and people being hurt. There's a precariousness to the violence that's experienced by black folks and others in the US and beyond and that requires an urgent response. 

But we also need to acquire the skills and the ways of discerning that can allow us to rightly respond. And that requires time. That requires wrestling with each other, wrestling with ideas, turning to history and turning to other cultures. And I think that the social media age has made it so we only get the urgency side. We don't get the information and discernment side. The seminar promises to bring the two together. We can read about topics that call for urgency, but we can do it in a way that allows for development over time and grows our capacities to discern where domination is happening and what the right responses would look like.

Mounk: Let me ask you a last question. If we want to make some progress towards that society without domination, but we don't quite know what that looks like, what can we do? If people are moved by that vision, what should they do tomorrow?

Lloyd: I think there are all sorts of organizations in our neighborhoods that are doing this. There are local bookstores that are having reading groups reading speculative fiction novels that are imagining new worlds. There are organizing projects that are asking “How can we, in this neighborhood, live without policing and without calling the state when there are forms of harm?” There are all sorts of experiments happening. Many of them get things wrong and many of them try things which are uncomfortable and frustrating. Having the willingness to engage in experiments that could fail may not feel comfortable, but that seems like a capacity we really need to encourage these days.

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Podcast production by John T. Williams and Brendan Ruberry. Podcast cover image by Joe O’Shea.

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The podcast that searches for the ideas, policies and strategies that can beat authoritarian populism.