Members Only | August 11, 2021 | Reading Time: 9 minutes
Anti-woke liberals want to be heard and not dismissed. They deserve this. But they need to exercise a bit of humility first
Even so, progressives must engage with left-leaning, intellectual anti-wokes. They are our once and future political allies.
A recent essay in Noema, published by the Berggruen Institute, argues that anti-racism is illiberal. The essay, “How To Be An Anti-Anti-Racist,” was written by City University of New York sociologist John Torpey. Torpey offers a way forward called “anti-anti-racism.” He gets a lot right in this essay, but a whole lot wrong. It’s worth a read by all progressives and a response by this particular anti-racist.
Torpey’s arguments are emblematic of an important subset of the US population. It is educated and well-read, centrist or liberal in their political leanings. But they find social justice activism problematic.
I take social justice activism to mean being aware of oppression and inequality in its material and symbolic manifestations and being willing to do something about it. When Black Americans began using the term “woke” some time ago, this is what they meant by it. Anti-racism, then, is simply the application of social justice activism to issues of race.
Because anti-racism is just one aspect of social justice activism, Torpey’s essay speaks to a wider range of concerns from sexism, trans- and homophobia and xenophobia. In this sense, Torpey’s arguments can be modified to be a critique against social justice activism itself.
At the risk of using too much terminology, Torpey is what I would call “anti-woke.” The anti-anti-racist is therefore someone who pushes back against anti-racism and is, in a broader sense, an anti-woke person pushing back against woke social justice activism. Got it?
Progressives must engage with left-leaning, intellectual anti-wokes like Torpey. I believe what they are asking for is not unreasonable or unattainable. Moreover, as liberals and centrists, they are sympathetic to social justice issues. They are our once and future political allies.
What follows are excerpts from Torpey’s essay and my responses.
After an extended wave of activism fueled by police killings of unarmed Black men, scholars and activists like Ibram X. (How to Be an Antiracist) Kendi, Robin (White Fragility) DiAngelo and a cottage industry of diversity, equity and inclusion consultants led an accelerating anti-racism movement.
Yes, anti-racism is more prominent today. I am personally happy to see the national dialogue bend in the direction of people of color, especially Black people who have long been demonized in the media.
If one expands one’s intellectual radius outward from Kendi and DiAngelo and downward toward prominent public figures, one will be amazed at the amount and diversity of activity surrounding anti-racism. Scholars are now studying how algorithms are biased against people of color, how the tax code has negatively impacted Black people and the causes and outcomes of the racial wealth gap.
On the ground, activists have been doing anti-racist work for a very long time–from numerous male mentoring programs to organizations doing research on criminal justice reform to teachers attempting to help Black women learn to code. There has been an anti-racist ethic within the Black community since there was a black community. Collapsing all this activity down to Kendi, DiAngelo and diversity initiatives makes it easier to dismiss anti-racism. However, it is a fundamental misreading of anti-racism in America today.
In its illiberal form … anti-racism has replaced substantive political thinking with an emphasis on symbolic cultural changes like replacing school names, [and it has] become dangerously intolerant of dissent and sidelined discussions of class exclusion and oppression that affect Americans of all races.
There are three core ideas in this passage–an emphasis on symbolic changes and “virtue signaling,” illiberalism and a lack of focus on economic concerns. In my experience, discussing issues with anti-woke folks, these are three of the most common themes (the others being wokeness as anti-science and wokeness as religion).
Concerning symbolic changes, I agree with Torpey. I see something like the pasting of BLM imagery on a corporate website as being rather meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Taking down Confederate statues is less important than jobs or healthcare. My sense of things is that a Black working-class person would gladly keep the statues up in favor of a middle-class job. He might even sit at the base of that statue and eat a sandwich while on break from said middle-class job.
But being of less import does not mean they have no import. In a climate in which any substantive proposal is met with rabid pushback from conservatives, these symbolic changes are that much more welcome. For example, the Biden administration allocated monies for Black farmers to address historical discrimination. This was met with outcries of reverse racism and challenges in the court system.
The second theme–illiberalism–is also common amongst anti-wokes. Indeed, an entire media organization, Counterweight, has been established to combat the perceived illiberalism in social justice spaces. Illiberalism in its weak form refers to a narrowmindedness and intolerance of other people’s opinions. In its strong form, it is the imposition of one’s ideas onto another group, often by using the state (ironically, it is conservatives who are the most illiberal at this moment, with their bans on critical race theory and some of their thought leaders holding up authoritarian regimes as models.)
What Torpey, and many anti-wokes, are doing is attempting to impose their chosen brand of communication performance onto others. They emphasize civil reasoned debate and the accommodation of differing opinions irrespective of the content of that communication. When that is not accepted, they cry intolerance. This is the “Must I accommodate a Holocaust denier?” question that anti-wokes really cannot answer adequately because the logical answer for them must be “yes.”
But many social justice advocates, including myself, do not take this view. We see ideas as interwoven with morality and the human condition. Ideas have consequences. As such, they can have immoral implications and are consequential to the quality of our conditions as human beings. In a democracy, those who have the quality of their conditions threatened have a right to communicate that concern.
A clear example is the discussions about race and IQ–given fresh impetus by a new book by Charles Murray Facing Reality. Murray can write whatever he wishes. His right to free speech has not and should not be violated. But I am not so naïve as to believe that someone asserting that a) there are biological “races” in reality, 2) these races are more or less intelligent and 3) success in society is based on one’s cognitive ability, does not have negative implications for groups deemed to have less cognitive ability. As such, it is downright foolish to allow a “reasonable accommodation for a different opinion.”
Quite frankly, I have no interest in accommodating the opinion that I and my ancestors are congenitally inferior. There is a wide array of other research questions that can be asked that do not rely on bad science–what is an “Asian”? A Korean or a Bangladeshi or an Indonesian?–or designed to justify a racial hierarchy.
I sympathize with the abstract, decontextualized notion of civil discourse and reasonable debate Torpey and another anti-wokes advocate for. I am just not sure if Torpey has been in a position where the ideas debated present an existential threat to him. I prefer a communication landscape that allows me to combat that threat. I suspect the same goes for trans people, gay people, women, immigrants, the differentially abled and the elderly.
The final part of that passage refers to discussions of economic inequality being sidelined. This is a problem. Inequalities of wealth and income are two of the major concerns of our time. There has been a steadily widening of the chasm between the rich and poor, and it threatens our democracy. It is also true that addressing economic inequality will indeed address many aspects of racial inequality.
But Torpey is asking something quite interesting here. He is suggesting that individuals who invest their time addressing racial issues in this country end these discussions and instead turn their attention to class-based issues. But why? Should an advocate for Hmong refugees give up their interest in favor of some other related social problem that will address some of the issues of Hmong indirectly?
I do not see a class-based approach as a replacement for a focus on racism. Often they are complementary. The racial wealth gap is a racial and class issue. The push for reparations is a race and class issue. They run in parallel but never intersect. This is because populations of color have their unique issues, histories and contexts. I don’t think economic inequality has much to do with Black boys being disciplined more harshly than other children for the same offenses in the same school.
Torpey and other anti-wokes should know this. They should be aware that scholars and thinkers have thought about the importance of social class and factored it into their work. In any case, the reduction of class inequality and racial inequality is laudable. But they are different goals.
Such censorious symbolic politics put off many who might agree that America has deep and longstanding problems of racial inequality, but who increasingly feel like aliens in their own country. This includes many working-class whites who, indiscriminately lumped together with the “privileged”—even amid an epidemic of white working-class “deaths of despair”—are increasingly open to demagogic appeals by Donald Trump and other right-wing populist politicians.
I am surprised, again, that as a sociologist, Torpey has this impoverished view of what privilege means. Given his greater professional experience, he has likely seen more statistical models than I have showing that all else being equal, being white is associated with more positive outcomes when compared to being Black. He has also likely been exposed to more ethnographic studies than I have that show how Black Americans navigate a world where even if they attain high-status positions and wealth, their skin color still matters.
But also, again, there is truth in what Torpey is arguing. People on the left will have a hard time attracting white voters if white people are constantly being called racist or privileged. Arlie Russel Hoschild’s instant classic Strangers In Their Own Land and Michael Sandel’s Tyranny of Merit both make the argument that white Americans flocked to the Tea Party and then Donald Trump because they felt insulted and neglected by establishment political figures.
As the argument I make above about class and race, there is no reason why progressives cannot articulate policies that deal with class. We can let folks interested in anti-racism do their thing. But absolutely, there needs to be a similar articulation of ideas about income inequality, particularly among a white working class that is steadily losing ground relative to other groups. White working-class Americans are an interest group that needs to be courted and messaging is important. It might be empirically accurate to say that all things being equal, a white person will have an easier time navigating America than a person of color, but this is a political nonstarter for a white person who is struggling to make ends meet. Torpey is right.
What anti-wokes want
So what does Torpey see as a way forward? What is anti-anti-racism?
It is really what I suspect most anti-woke intellectuals want–a wider dialogue around racial inequality that does not demonize or exclude people who think differently, with this dialogue including class-based concerns. Torpey writes in closing that Martin Luther King, Jr.:
famously pleaded for his children to be judged by “the content of their character” rather than “the color of their skin.” We need to take King’s plea seriously. And that means listening to people’s ideas and addressing them honestly, irrespective of the speaker’s (or writer’s) race, gender or sexuality. We need to rejuvenate our ability to see and hear each other. We also need to remember that King was an anti-war and anti-poverty activist, not just an anti-racist, especially as he neared the end of his life.
I think this is attainable and necessary. We should, within reason, listen to and incorporate other people’s ideas. This should be done regardless of their characteristics. Despite the differences people may have in terms of their history and circumstance, the common thread of humanity binds them and we all must live in this country together.
Moreover, we do need to have a greater dialogue on the left about income and wealth. As I mentioned above, this does not need to come from anti-racists. But it needs to come from somewhere on our side.
What anti-wokes need
In reading Torpey’s essay, I recognized many of the blind spots other anti-wokes exhibit. These blind spots come from a lack of humility.
I posted something on Twitter a year or so ago commenting on how growing up with dark skin was a problem, and how this is a problem for many populations of color who see European features as the standard. I was making a well-understood point about colorism. Dark-skinned people of color are devalued within their own communities. At that time, my mutuals were predominantly anti-woke, and the responses I received to this tweet were disheartening. The general thrust of the replies was to equate my experiences with “white people tanning.” We are all the same, I presume, was the rationale.
No, in this respect, we are not. You cannot equate white people wanting to tan for aesthetic purposes with dark-skinned people of color being devalued in their own communities because their physical appearance deviates farther from a European norm.
This reaction illustrated a type of arrogance. Respondents were wading into a conversation without having any depth of experience. If anti-woke people are met with a hostile communication environment –what may appear to be illiberal–this is one of the reasons.
It doesn’t stop there, though.
In reading Torpey’s essay, I repeatedly came across instances that revealed a lack of knowledge or engagement with anti-racism activities other than at a superficial, culture war level. Anti-racism did not begin with Ibram Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, and it is not that now.
There is a wide swath of scholars studying all elements of how race is embedded in American society. I suspect that engaging with that work will demonstrate to Torpey and other anti-wokes why some anti-racists take the particular race-focused approach they do.
This is not a “read a book” line of argumentation I am building here. Instead, I am saying that to expect someone to not assume you are entering the conversation prepared to be at odds with them, it helps to assume that person is as intellectually capable as you are. I recall one exchange I had with someone on social media who was amazed that sociologists included class in their statistical models. I informed him that one cannot even get a master’s degree in sociology if one does not include some measure of income or wealth in their models.
In this same vein, anti-racism is not just about diversity training. I do not doubt that there has been an increase in the number of diversity trainings, initiatives and hires. This has been matched by and maybe outpaced by the number of nonprofits addressing race-based issues and the number of activists urging local and state governments to redress past wrongs or address current injustices. These efforts are largely unknown. Anti-wokes want to be heard and not dismissed. They deserve this. But they need to exercise a bit of humility first.
Published in cooperation with Alternet.
Rod Graham is the Editorial Board's neighborhood sociologist. A professor at Virginia's Old Dominion University, he researches and teaches courses in the areas of cyber-crime and racial inequality. His work can be found at roderickgraham.com. Follow him @roderickgraham.
Thanks for your VERY generous critique of his argument. I left graduate school 27 years ago, but on the ground, the language and arguments I’m confronted with are very different. The whole argument seems to be on a different plane. I have an acquaintance who recently critiqued Obama as being too “arrogant”. I later thought that I should have ironically agreed with him, suggesting that I disliked African-American presidents who weren’t deferential and who were uppity.
So what is Torrey suggesting? Submerge the discussion of race-based inequities in society, ignore they are systematically based, and just forge ahead with legislation that grants universal benefits, like the Biden administration has done? White supremacist members in the other party will always seek to leverage any universal benefits as going to undeserving members of society(i.e. non-white folks).