The Warped Vision of “Anti-Racism”
It's perfect for affluent whites who want to be heroes of a story about justice
What kind of monster doesn’t support “anti-racism”? Who would put themselves on the other side of “social justice”? How could you be opposed to the notion of “racial equity”?
Such terms, once confined to the hallways of academia, have become the ever-present language of our time, not just on the American left but across political, cultural and corporate domains. “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion” training sessions are mandatory in workplaces and schools across the nation, where employees and students “examine their whiteness” and undergo “allyship training.” But what began as a collective yen for racial equality—long overdue in our nation—has devolved into something dangerous that is actually undermining its own noble goals.
For, as high-minded as these ideas sound, they mark a shift away from the values they purport to represent—equality before the law; the consent of the governed; even democracy itself—and toward the opposite, with people ranked by immutable characteristics and ruled by a tiny elite. Those who disagree—most crucially, millions of working-class Americans of all ethnicities—are excised from the public square. The social-justice movement comes at the expense of justice; “anti-racism” ends up exacerbating racism.
How could this be? It’s difficult to stand against “social justice,” especially for those of us who are deeply concerned about inequality. We feel humility toward activists, writers and politicians who take up the language of racial justice, given how urgent the cause is. Sometimes we silence our misgivings. Who am I to speak up, with all my privilege? How dare I speak out when I see something wrong, if many are more disadvantaged than I? This self-censorship is itself a clue that something is awry: What equal society silences people because of the group they belong to? Wasn’t the point to get away from classing people by group, by race, by ethnicity?
But the clues are elsewhere. At first, one notices them like glitches in the matrix. Maybe you read an unorthodox remark on Twitter, and watch as its author is insulted in the cruelest terms by thousands of people, many with words like “social justice” or “diversity and inclusion” in their bios. Glitch. Maybe you notice that certain avatars of the social-justice left have a penchant for casting troubling aspersions at Jews. Glitch. Maybe you see fabulously wealthy news anchors looking down their noses at millions of people without a college degree, and denouncing them as racists for worrying that they might lose their job to an undocumented immigrant willing to work for even less than the $7 an hour they’re making bagging groceries. Glitch.
These aren’t glitches, though. The basis for today’s social-justice movement is a deep skepticism about liberal values like equality, justice and democracy. This is rooted in an academic discipline known as “critical race theory,” which takes elements from Hegel and Marx, along with postmodernists like Foucault and Derrida, to assemble a worldview that does not accept that equality can exist. It’s not hypocrisy that makes today’s left a perpetuator of the inequality it claims to oppose; it’s the source material.
Many of the social-justice ideas proliferating in the mainstream press today can be traced back to 1806, and the sight of a little Frenchman on horseback. His name was Napoleon Bonaparte, and he was taking a victory lap through a German university town after defeating the Prussian army, when he happened to ride past a German philosopher with writer’s block, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. “It is indeed a wonderful sensation to see such an individual, who, concentrated here at a single point, astride a horse, reaches out over the world and masters it,” Hegel wrote to a friend.
He believed that the world was progressing toward freedom, and saw “great men” as the vehicle for this march of world history. But a key element of his work became associated with the concept of mastery and domination, of one man exerting his will over others. In his seminal philosophical treatise The Phenomenology of Spirit, he wrote that self-consciousness itself was an evolutionary byproduct of dominating—or of being dominated by—another man. A person becomes self-aware, wrote Hegel, only when acknowledged by someone else. And the sole form of acknowledgment that counts is being acknowledged as superior compared with the secondary status of the person whose recognition you seek. But it wasn’t just self-consciousness. Society, culture and history were produced in the back and forth, or “dialectic,” between the powerful and the powerless—the master-slave dialectic, as Hegel’s pairing became known in subsequent iterations.
And the iterations were many over the following 200 years, with many elaborating the possibility that human history is a power struggle between oppressor and oppressed. When Marx articulated his thesis of class conflict as the basis for all modern social existence, he was—in the view of Jean-Paul Sartre among others—expanding on the master-slave dialectic. Master dominating slave became Marx’s bourgeoisie exploiting the proletariat—an unsustainable situation, Marx said, that would eventually lead the working class to revolt. And if history progressed through a changing cast of masters and slaves for Hegel, or class struggle for Marx, for critical race theorists and their “anti-racism” inheritors, it’s white people and people of color in a binary that gives one side all the power and the other side none.
Over time, three other key ideas were grafted onto the master-slave dialectic: false consciousness; a belief that the ideals of a society mean less than do the exceptions to those ideals; and a commitment to undermining the grand narratives that a society relies upon.
“False consciousness” was an attempt by Marxists to explain why the working class wasn’t buying into their worldview. Marx had predicted that the working class would not only embrace but lead the revolution, so later Marxists were disappointed when it turned out that the lower classes were less interested in revolution and more interested in living lives that resembled the bourgeoisie who lorded over them. It turns out that working-class people are often conservative, a fact that has never ceased to bedevil and infuriate educated leftists trying to impose their desire for revolution. Instead of trying to understand the preferences of the working class, Marxists asserted that the poor workers were merely deluded, in the grip of a “false consciousness,” instead of a revolutionary one.
You can see the concept of false consciousness—and the condescension that is its hallmark—everywhere in critical race theory. Its proponents classify people of color who don’t have radical views on race or who vote Republican as the handmaidens of white supremacy; their rejection of a racial binary isn’t proof that society is more complex, but further proof of the power of the oppressive system, so mighty that even its non-white victims may be duped into supporting it.
The idea of false consciousness is everywhere in the work of Robin DiAngelo, a prominent proponent of “anti-racist” ideology whose book White Fragility has sold close to a million copies. DiAngelo contends that white people who cry when accused of being racists actually prove their bigotry via these “weaponized tears,” which she deems “white racial bullying.”
Postmodernist philosophers added to this a mistrust of the ideals that society claims to be built on: If a society claims as its foundation a narrative that some members are excluded from, then the true meaning of that narrative is found in the exception, rather than the rule. With this, postmodernists argued that the explicit mores of a culture have no objective value, but are instead a way for one group to benefit at the expense of another.
From this perspective, the Constitution isn’t a document that established the United States on principles of equality and freedom that the country failed to live up to. Instead, the Constitution is a document fundamental to denying rights to those deemed ineligible, and justifying the ownership of enslaved persons. Your symbol of freedom and equality is nothing more than a tool of repression, postmodernists argue. Failures, even at the margins, expose the hypocrisy of the whole, and define it as a lie.
You can see this at work in The New York Times Magazine’s Pulitzer-prize winning “The 1619 Project,” which marks the year that the first African slave was brought to American shores. The project, a collection of essays since turned into a curriculum for schoolchildren, argued that, while history teaches 1776 as the year of our nation’s founding, we should consider whether “the country’s true birth date, the moment that our defining contradictions first came into the world, was in late August of 1619,” as the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Jake Silverstein, put it in an introduction.
It’s a classic postmodernist reversal: It can’t be that America was founded on values like equality and liberty and democracy that it imperfectly embodied and has subsequently strived to correct. It must be that the true founding was slavery, its true nature revealed by this failure. This is why the social-justice movement cannot recognize the huge gains that have been made in this nation on the question of race; if there is even one instance of racism left in America, it is proof again of this true nature.
This also explains an anti-Zionist position that is common on the left. As with America, some on the left find it impossible to see Israel as a flawed nation imperfectly striving toward the ideals of its founding. The occupation of the Palestinians can’t be a disastrous injustice. It must be that Israel’s foundation is defined by this injustice, that “Zionism is racism.”
But the real threat here is not just mangled logic. It’s the erasure of the possibility of equality, of a common humanity, that requires we treat each other as equals before God and before the law. Today’s progressive left, whose ideas have become prevalent in much of the American establishment that is now repeating its incantations, simply does not believe equality is possible, instead differentiating people by how much power they supposedly have, with no common humanity to call upon.
And since the social-justice movement recognizes only power, every one of its proposals is designed not to create a more equal society, but to transfer power from oppressors to oppressed—while allowing those designated as victims to maintain claim to the status of oppressed. This is why race is so important: Race is immutable, so it doesn’t matter how much real power a person of color wields; their race means they will never be anything but oppressed.
You might be wondering why this view, which erases equality and cites oppression as the root of everything, has mainstream appeal. Why did it go from an academic fringe to become orthodoxy of the left-leaning establishment? It seems to me that progressive elites, despite their pieties, don’t really want to live in a more equal society. They prefer the imperfect meritocracy we live under—the rule of the smart, the talented and the rich, most of whom traffic in the fiction that their status was earned.
Still, progressives see themselves as compassionate. What they needed was a way to explain the inequality found in the meritocratic system they hold dear, a way that made them feel they were still on the side of the good without having to disrupt what is good for them. Moral panic around race has been the answer, taking the uneasiness a meritocratic elite must at least unconsciously feel around their economic good fortune—something they could easily share with the less fortunate, should they care to—and displacing it onto “whiteness,” an immutable characteristic that one can do nothing to change.
In other words, critical race theory is the perfect ideology for affluent progressive whites who want nothing to change—but who still want to feel like the heroes of a story about social justice.
This is not the way to a more equal society. We cannot right the wrongs of racial inequality—an urgent task—by erasing the ideal of equality. Nor can we allow the fact that equality has been unequally enforced throughout most of our history to provide an excuse to throw it away, and build a newly racialized America.
Those who truly care for a more equal society, who truly care for racial and economic equality and for a life of dignity for all Americans, should listen to the voice in their heads that keeps telling them: Something is off.
Batya Ungar-Sargon is the deputy opinion editor of Newsweek. Her book Bad News: How Woke Media Is Undermining Democracy comes out in October.