The Freudian Slip that Invites Us to Ask the Question: Is it Time to End Race Privilege?

Ibram X Kendi and his ilk are trying to make criticizing anti-white prejudice a form of white supremacy. You know how they tell you that whites can’t be victims of racism because of the power formula. It’s nonsense. The old antiracism we knew as the civil rights movement—that’s the struggle for equality before the law—won the fight. De jure segregation has been abolished and discrimination in businesses of public accommodation and in applications and admissions to colleges and universities and in employment—at least for nonwhite minorities (with the exception of those of Asian descent deemed “white adjacent”)—has been illegal since the 1960s. In contrast, the new antiracism, what Kendi is pushing, what inspired Darrell Brooks. Jr. to drive his SUV through a Christmas parade in Waukesha, is an expression of anti-white prejudice.` It racist.

Kendi presses his case in “The Mantra of White Supremacy,” published in The Atlantic, carrying the subtitle: “The idea that anti-racist is a code word for ‘anti-white’ is the claim of avowed extremists.” I invite you to read his piece. But the essay you are about to read by me concerns the old antiracism and how we let public policy warp that achievement almost as soon as the ink on President Johnson’s signature had dried. The crazy moves quick with this Kendi fellow and stories about him can get away from you. I want to take up the thing he did prior to this, when, if you remember, he quickly deleted his tweet sharing a news story about whites applying as minority students to gain advantage in the university application process. He did that because he knew he had fucked up by sharing that story. He didn’t merely jeopardize his own “antiracism” project with it; his tweet exposed the race hucksterism that has for decades produced hucksters like him who guilt and shame whites into supporting positive discrimination. Here’s a screenshot of the tweet:

So successful is the hustle that it moves white parents to support a system that disadvantages their children in the name of “racial justice,” an ideology that treats individuals not as such but as personifications of abstract demographic categories. This ideology represents such a barrier to self-actualization that white youth are moved to lie on their college applications to skirt the associated injustice. So we can make it about Kendi. Kendi makes it easy to make it about him. But let’s not bury the lede: affirmative action discriminates against white people by granting black people racial privilege (see Equity and Social Justice: Rationalizing Unjust Enrichment). Whites are not privileged in America. That hasn’t been true for decades.

The argument for affirmative action is not that it grants an artificial privilege for minorities but that it checks the natural privilege enjoyed by whites. Affirmative action is pitched as a moderate policy that strengthens equality of opportunity. It’s no imposition really. Affirmative action is rationalized as a remedial attempt to equalize the playing field in a society marked by social inequality rooted in racism. It’s the least we can do, we’re told to fix an historical wrong. That formulation assumes an awful lot while claiming to do very little. But in reality it does an awful lot or else white kids wouldn’t lie and say they are nonwhite to avoid the disadvantage affirmative actions imposes on them. To be sure, there are racial disparities. But disparities don’t explain themselves (see What Explains—and Doesn’t Explain—Inequality). And explanations given provide no remedy if justice matters; you can’t hold individuals accountable without establishing their responsibility. To hold persons accountable for the supposed actions of others, part of present, is contrary to the ethic of individualism. When it’s based on race, then it’s racism. The new antiracism isn’t just about prejudice. It’s also about discrimination.

The counterargument is that racism is structural, that it’s woven into the fabric of America; the natural workings of our institutions are governed by a master social logic guided by white supremacy. But a system privileging nonwhites over whites blows up the premise of white supremacy. How could a system be racist in a manner that systemically advantages whites while systematically disadvantaging them to the extent that they feel compelled lie on college application forms to get ahead? Why would a white establishment establish rules that are contrary to dominant group interests? Why would the institutions of a white supremacist society design policy that limited the ambitions of white people? To put the matter simply, given the depth of racism in America, how can something like affirmative action even happen? Clearly the problem has been misspecified.

Affirmative action is strategic culturally and politically. The goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion comprise an ideology that cosmetically covers economic inequality, integrating minorities into capitalist hegemony, while perpetuating the ideology of racial ordering. By making everything about “racial justice,” racial ideology obscures the real inequality: the system of social class (It’s Not a Racist System). This is why proportional representation is demanded in those areas of life where it does not obtain—but only in a certain direction. This is why a person’s skin color or some other identity marker is treated as if it is itself an accomplishment. “She is the first this.” “He is the first that.” “They lie at the intersection of firsts.” The establishment can point to the diverse appearance of its institutions and claim to have achieved equity while keeping the structures that produce inequality firmly in place. This is a different kind of racism. It’s racism that brands itself “antiracism.”

Ibram X. Kendi, Professor in the Department of History in the College of Arts & Sciences and founder/director of Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research.

We need to be clear about this question of unearned wealth and status and cumulative disadvantage. The new antiracist rhetoric makes it sound like black people built this country all by themselves. To be sure, this country was built with black people’s labor. But it was also built with white people’s labor. In fact, most of the labor that built this country was white. Centering race obscures social class. It conceals poverty in America. There are two to three times more poor whites as poor blacks in this country (They Do You This Way). You would never know that listening to the culture industry. The prevailing narrative tells a tale of stolen Indian land and exploited black labor, as if all white people are members of the colonizing, slave-owning bourgeoisie. The truth is that most white people are working class men and women who own very little except mountains of debt. Today, most working class people are white men and women. So as long as we’re focusing on race (I’d rather not but the race hustlers are making me), we have to acknowledge the first-rate magicians in the house. They made hundreds of millions of people vanish in thin air. But we know how the trick works. It’s time to end privilege based on race.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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