Antiracism, Our Flawed New Religion
Opposition to racism used to be a political stance. Now it has every marking of a religion, with both good and deleterious effects on American society.
An anthropology article from 1956 used to get around more than it does now, “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema.” Because my mother gave it to me to read when I was 13, of course what I remember most from it is that among the Nacirema, women with especially large breasts get paid to travel and display them. Nacirema was “American” spelled backwards—get it?—and the idea was to show how revealing, and even peculiar, our society is if described from a clinical distance.
These days, there is something else about the Nacirema—they have developed a new religion. That religion is antiracism. Of course, most consider antiracism a position, or evidence of morality. However, in 2015, among educated Americans especially, Antiracism—it seriously merits capitalization at this point—is now what any naïve, unbiased anthropologist would describe as a new and increasingly dominant religion. It is what we worship, as sincerely and fervently as many worship God and Jesus and, among most Blue State Americans, more so.
To someone today making sense of the Nacirema, the category of person who, roughly, reads The New York Times and The New Yorker and listens to NPR, would be a deeply religious person indeed, but as an Antiracist. This is good in some ways—better than most are in a position to realize. This is also bad in other ways—worse than most are in a position to realize.
For example, Ta-Nehisi Coates, now anointed as James Baldwin’s heir by Toni Morrison, is formally classified as a celebrated writer. However, the particulars of his reception in our moment reveal that Coates is, in the Naciremian sense, a priest. Coates is “revered,” as New York magazine aptly puts it, as someone gifted at phrasing, repeating, and crafting artful variations upon points that are considered crucial—that is, scripture. Specifically, Coates is celebrated as the writer who most aptly expresses the scripture that America’s past was built on racism and that racism still permeates the national fabric.
This became especially clear last year with the rapturous reception of Coates’s essay, “The Case for Reparations.” It was beautifully written, of course, but the almost tearfully ardent praise the piece received was about more than composition. The idea was that the piece was important, weighty, big news. But let’s face it—no one, including Coates himself, I presume, has any hope that our current Congress is about to give reparations for slavery to black people in any significant way. Plus, reparations had been widely discussed, and ultimately put aside, as recently as 15 years ago in the wake of Randall Robinson’s The Debt. Yet Coates’s article was discussed almost as if he were bringing up reparations as a new topic.
It actually made perfect sense. People loved Coates’s article not as politics, since almost no one thinks reparations are actually going to happen. But belle-lettristic concerns weren’t the key either: Coates is hardly the only writer out there who has a way with the words. People were receiving “The Case for Reparations” as, quite simply, a sermon. Its audience sought not counsel, but proclamation. Coates does not write with this formal intention, but for his readers, he is a preacher. A.O. Scott perfectly demonstrates Coates’s now clerical role in our discourse in saying that his new book is “essential, like water or air”—this is the kind of thing one formerly said of the Greatest Story Ever Told.
One hearkens to one’s preacher to keep telling the truth—and also to make sure we hear it often, since many of its tenets are easy to drift away from, which leads us to the next evidence that Antiracism is now a religion. It is inherent to a religion that one is to accept certain suspensions of disbelief. Certain questions are not to be asked, or if asked, only politely—and the answer one gets, despite being somewhat half-cocked, is to be accepted as doing the job.
“Why is the Bible so self-contradictory?” Well, God works in mysterious ways—what’s key is that you believe. “Why does God allows such terrible things to happen?” Well, because we have free will … and it’s complicated but really, just have faith.
It stops there: beyond this first round, one is to classify the issues as uniquely “complicated.” They are “deep,” one says, looking off into the air for a sec in a reflective mode, implying that thinking about this stuff just always leads to more questions, in an infinitely questing Talmudic exploration one cannot expect to yield an actual conclusion.
Antiracism requires much of the same standpoint. For example, one is not to ask “Why are black people so upset about one white cop killing a black man when black men are at much more danger of being killed by one another?” Or, one might ask this, very politely—upon which the answers are flabby but further questions are unwelcome. A common answer is that black communities do protest black-on-black violence —but anyone knows that the outrage against white cops is much, much vaster.
Why? Is the answer “deep,” perhaps? Charles Blow, at least deigning to take the issue by the horns, answers that the black men are killing one another within a racist “structure.” That doesn’t explain why black activists consider the white cop a more appalling threat to a black man than various black men in his own neighborhood. But to push the point means you just don’t “get” it (you haven’t opened your heart to Jesus, perhaps?). Jamelle Bouie answers that there’s a difference between being killed by a fellow citizen and being killed by a figure of authority, but does that mean “It’s not as bad if we do it to ourselves”? Of course not! … but, but (roll of the eyes) “racist,” “doesn’t get it.”
One is not to question, and people can be quite explicit about that. For example, in the “Conversation” about race that we are so often told we need to have, the tacit idea is that black people will express their grievances and whites will agree—again, no questions, or at least not real ones. Here and there lip service is paid to the idea that the Conversation would not be such a one-way affair, but just as typical is the praise that a piece like Reni Eddo-Lodge’s elicits, openly saying that white people who object to any black claims about racism are intolerably mistaken and barely worth engagement (Eddo-Lodge now has a contract to expand the blog post into a book). Usefully representative is a letter that The New York Times chose to print, which was elicited by David Brooks’s piece on Coates’s book, in which a white person chides Brooks for deigning to even ask whether he is allowed to object to some of Coates’s claims.
Note: To say one is not to question is not to claim that no questions are ever asked. The Right quite readily questions Antiracism’s tenets. Key, however, is that among Antiracism adherents, those questions are tartly dismissed as inappropriate and often, predictably, as racist themselves. The questions are received with indignation that one would even ask them, with a running implication that their having been asked is a symptom of, yes, racism’s persistence.
As such, even Brooks has gotten the religion, critiquing Coates’s book while also making sure to say that “every conscientious American should read it.” Brooks, here, is genuflecting, as America now does in general to Antiracist scripture. One is to accept that beyond a certain point—and one arrives at the point quite quickly—one is to treat logic as optional and simply have faith.
The Antiracism religion, then, has clergy, creed, and also even a conception of Original Sin. Note the current idea that the enlightened white person is to, I assume regularly (ritually?), “acknowledge” that they possess White Privilege. Classes, seminars, teach-ins are devoted to making whites understand the need for this. Nominally, this acknowledgment of White Privilege is couched as a prelude to activism, but in practice, the acknowledgment itself is treated as the main meal, as I have noted in this space. A typical presentation getting around lately is 11 Things White People Need to Realize About Race, where the purpose of the “acknowledgment” is couched as “moving the conversation forward.” A little vague, no? More conversation? About what? Why not actually say that the purpose is policy and legislation?
Because this isn’t what is actually on the Antiracists’ mind. The call for people to soberly “acknowledge” their White Privilege as a self-standing, totemic act is based on the same justification as acknowledging one’s fundamental sinfulness is as a Christian. One is born marked by original sin; to be white is to be born with the stain of unearned privilege.
The proper response to original sin is to embrace the teachings of Jesus, although one will remain always a sinner nevertheless. The proper response to White Privilege is to embrace the teachings of—well, you can fill in the name or substitute others—with the understanding that you will always harbor the Privilege nevertheless. Note that many embrace the idea of inculcating white kids with their responsibility to acknowledge Privilege from as early an age as possible, in sessions starting as early as elementary school. This, in the Naciremian sense, is Sunday school.
Think of it. A certain class of white person, roughly those who watched 30 Rock and Mad Men, lustily pumps their fists at the writings of a Coates who says that he is surprised that white people—i.e. ones like them—are interested enough in black people and racism to even bother reading his work. Coates is telling these people that they are sinners, in a sense, and they are eagerly drinking in the charge, “revering” him for it. This, ladies and gentlemen, is worship, pure and simple.
Antiracism parallels religion also in a proselytizing impulse. Key to being an Antiracist is a sense that there is always a flock of unconverted heathen “out there,” as it is often put about the whites who were so widely feared as possibly keeping Barack Obama from being elected (twice). One is blessed with, as it were, the Good News in being someone who “gets it,” complete with the Acknowledging.
Finally, Antiracism is all about a Judgment Day, in a sense equally mesmerizing and mythical. Antiracist scripture includes a ritual reference to, as it were, the Great Day when America “owns up to” or “comes to terms with” structural racism—note that “acknowledge” is a term just as appropriate—and finally, well, fixes it somehow. But how would a country as massive, heterogenous, and politically fractured as this one ever arrive at so conclusive and overarching a policy as “fixing” racism, either psychologically or structurally? The whites “out there” are, after all, such incorrigible heathens—just what were we assuming would change their minds? Tablets from on high? What, precisely, is anyone specifying in calling for America as a whole to finally “wake up” to racism? What would this “coming to terms” even entail, anyway?
The specifics are as hazy as the Rapture, and considered just as beside the point. America “coming to terms with” racism functions as an abstract construct serving not as a political plan, but as a tacit promise of catharsis. In the here and now, whites cannot erase the PRIVILEGED brand seared into their white skin. However, after Judgment Day, after the Rapture, after the Great Day, the accounts will finally be settled. After America has its Great Awakening, whites will walk in the grace of innocence at last.
Some might be proud to own that Antiracism is a religion. What’s wrong, after all, with being profoundly committed to seeing all people as equal and calling for more people to feel the same way? In itself, nothing, of course, and the prevalence of Antiracism today is welcome in other ways as well. The very fact that white America today cherishes this religion is evidence that Coates’s particular pessimism about America and race is excessive. If hatred and dismissal of black people were really still as much the bedrock of this society as Coates and others seem to think, then Antiracism—complete with the logical elisions and willful contempt of self required—would not be the new religion of enlightened white America.
Yes, the religion has more sway with the educated than beyond. However, it’s easier to deny progress has happened—or to pay mere lip service to its having happened—than to grapple with the fact that progress happens slowly but happens nonetheless, and for real. Anyone who thinks the only difference between America in 1965 and America in 2015 on race is what people feel comfortable saying out loud would be shocked if transported to a living room full of educated whites in 1965, finding that such people readily dismissed Martin Luther King as a rabblerouser. Antiracism is an effective religion. It has attracted converts far and wide, now felt so deeply by its adherents that they sense it as a norm, to a degree that would have seemed fantastical to, say, the Nacirema of 1956.
Yet Antiracism as religion has its downsides. It encourages an idea that racism in its various guises must be behind anything bad for black people, which is massively oversimplified in 2015. For example, it is thrilling to see the fierce, relentless patrolling, assisted by social media, that the young black activists covered in a recent New York Times Magazine piece have been doing to call attention to cops’ abuse of black people. That problem is real and must be fixed, as I have written about frequently, often to the irritation of the Right. However, imagine if there were a squadron of young black people just as bright, angry and relentless devoted to smoking out the bad apples in poor black neighborhoods once and for all, in alliance with the police forces often dedicated to exactly that? I fear we’ll never see it—Antiracism creed forces attention to the rogue cops regardless of whether they are the main problem.
The fact is that Antiracism, as a religion, pollutes our race dialogue as much as any lack of understanding by white people of their Privilege. For example, the good Antiracist supports black claims that standardized tests are “racist” in that black people don’t do as well on them as other students. But Antiracism also encourages us to ask why, oh why black people are suspected of being less intelligent than others—despite this take on the tests, and aspiring firefighters and even teachers making news with similar claims that tough tests are “racist.” Now, to say that if black people can’t be expected to take tests then they must not be as smart is, under Antiracism, blasphemous—one is not to ask too many questions. The idea of a massive effort—as concentrated as the people battling cop abuse against black people—to get black kids practice in taking standardized tests doesn’t come up, because the scripture turns our heads in other directions.
And too often, Antiracism doctrine loses sight of what actually helps black people. Ritual “acknowledgment” of White Privilege is, ultimately, for white people to feel less guilty. Social change hardly requires such self-flagellation by the ruling class. Similarly, black America needs no grand, magic End of Days in order to succeed. A compact program of on-the-ground policy changes could do vastly more than articulate yearnings for a hypothetical psychological revolution among whites that no one seriously imagines could ever happen in life as we know it.
Antiracism as a religion, despite its good intentions, distracts us from activism in favor of a kind of charismatic passivism. One is to think, to worship, to foster humility, to conceive of our lives as mere rehearsal for a glorious finale, and to encourage others to do the same. This kind of thinking may have its place in a human society. But helping black people succeed in the only real world we will ever know is not that place.
Real people are having real problems, and educated white America has been taught that what we need from them is willfully incurious, self-flagellating piety, of a kind that has helped no group in human history. Naciremian Antiracism has its good points, but it is hopefully a transitional stage along the way to something more genuinely progressive.