With the United States in the grips of another national reckoning with race, our much-encouraged “national dialogue” has come to feature two analytical frameworks for anti-racism: incrementalism and revolution. Each tries to make sense of a country birthed in the original sin of slavery and raised on Jim Crow laws but eager for a racially harmonious future.
The incrementalist framework has been familiar to most Americans and comprises the tenets of social liberalism more broadly. But in recent months, the incrementalists have begun to employ some of the language and assumptions of the revolutionaries, whose terms, means, and ends are extreme, highly academic, and often difficult to understand. As a result, these two camps representing vastly different approaches to the problem of racism are at risk of blending into one. This would be devastating to the prospects of attaining, or even approaching, racial harmony in America.
The two perspectives are animated by different understandings of human nature, the individual’s relation to society, what America stands for, and, until recently, the very meaning of racism. Examining what each side stands for, and how they have begun blending dangerously into a unified radical movement, points to the critical importance of defending the incrementalist vision against a rapidly encroaching revolutionary wave.
Incrementalist racial liberalism begins from the premise that individual human beings are accountable for their actions. An individual who commits a crime ought to be punished accordingly—he and he alone. This extends inward to the realm of attitudes and beliefs: One who harbors racial animus is a racist, and, though no man exists in a vacuum, it is ultimately he who is bigoted. A society of racist people or comprising institutions constructed on the basis of racial prejudice may be considered a racist society, but, being constituted by mutable people and mutable rules, is not immutably racist. The fight against racism occurs on the individual level, in the hearts and minds of the people whose attitudes and behaviors constitute the society. As the liberal tradition goes, the choice between virtue and vices such as racism is an individual’s to make.
Racial liberalism, therefore, sees the individual as the operative unit of social improvement. If we endeavor honestly to banish bigotry from the human heart, so the thinking goes, our communities will steadily improve. The effort is incremental because its adherents understand that “perfecting” humanity instantly is a fool’s errand. (Conservatives, by contrast, are likely to believe that perfecting humanity ever is pie-in-the-sky.) Over time, institutions that reflect intentional racial bias will change or lose credibility. Disparities between black and white Americans in wealth, education, crime, drug abuse, marriage rates, and more should fade. Progress is possible because people can change.
Perhaps most important, this form of anti-racism does not consider the United States irreparable or irredeemable. It builds especially on two crucial figures in American anti-racist history—Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr.—to argue that the goal of the fight against racism is not to overturn America but to bring it in line with the ideals of its Founding.
In Douglass’s famous speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” he did not degrade the Founding or deride its ideals as hollow pretexts for white supremacy. To the contrary, said Douglass: “The principles contained in that instrument,” the Declaration of Independence, “are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.” The Constitution, America’s supreme law, “as it ought to be interpreted,” rather than as the antebellum South understood it, “is a glorious liberty document.” Achieving emancipation was not dependent on fundamentally changing America but working within its structures to make racial progress. America’s hypocrisy—a nation rife with slavery while professing the virtues of liberty and equality—was better than having no principle at all.
Martin Luther King, similarly, couched the demand for the full realization of black Americans’ civil rights in “the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.” His dream of future generations living in “a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character” reflects both an ideal of individual accountability and a goal rooted in the belief that Americans ought to strive for, rather than repudiate, the Founders’ stated values.
As overt expressions of racism have become socially unacceptable and diminished, it has become increasingly common for incrementalists to seek out and interrogate subtler forms of bias. Unconscious or “implicit” bias has been one focus, though the literature on the concept is mixed at best and its wider effects are difficult to discern. Out of a noble dedication to stamp out racism once and for all, many Americans, even if they believe in incrementalist racial liberalism, have embraced a crusade to extirpate shameful symbols, names, traditions, or anything they fear might inflict emotional trauma on their black fellow citizens or cause them to feel excluded. Thus, the renaming of buildings, schools, and monuments previously dedicated to racists, slaveholders, or other condemned figures, not to mention the removal of TV episodes featuring blackface. Yet even some of those who endorse these excesses evince a faith that America can improve, that there is an endpoint that might be reached without entirely overhauling our legal, economic, or social traditions.
Not so the revolutionary movement, which uses postmodern epistemology to analyze American social conflict not in terms of individuals capable of choosing virtue or vice, but in terms of an oppressive system constructed to maintain white supremacy—a system in which every individual, without choice or exception, participates. For incrementalists, racism is a form of vice. For revolutionaries, racism is essentially a property of the environment, like electromagnetism or gravity.
The recent popularity of this analytical framework tracks the rise of Antiracist1 activist writers such as Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi. For several weeks after the gruesome killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in late May, DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Race topped nearly every bestseller list in the country, headlining “Antiracist education” curricula, with its peculiar toolkit of social analysis angling to replace incrementalist assumptions. Kendi’s 2019 bestseller How to Be an Antiracist, which shares DiAngelo’s understanding of what racism means and what “disrupting” it entails, has become nearly ubiquitous as well.
What these works (and a host of related projects such as the New York Times’ 1619 Project) have in common include fundamentally eccentric assumptions about knowledge, responsibility, and the possibility of progress and racial harmony in America. First, and perhaps most obvious, the revolutionary framework treats individuals not as entities accountable for their own actions but as mere participants in already-existing “systems” that undergird every action and interaction. In DiAngelo’s telling, “no one who is born into and raised in Western culture can escape being socialized to participate in racist relations.” You may think that because you harbor no bigotry in your heart you are immune from being so tarnished, but you would be wrong. “We must challenge the dominant conceptualization of racism as individual acts that only some bad individuals do, rather than as a system in which we are all implicated.” As White Fragility contends, there is no escaping racism in America, and any attempt to claim innocence is simply proof that you are too “fragile” to reckon with your predetermined role as a participant in a racist system.
Kendi, for his part, has made waves by arguing that everyone is racist—from Douglass himself to President Barack Obama and everyone in between. In a perverse twist on the Talmudic teaching that every generation that fails to rebuild the Temple is implicated in its destruction, Kendi leads the revolutionary charge that anyone not zealously dedicated to tearing down our system—constructed on white supremacy and concerned primarily with upholding it—is complicit in racism. The charge of racism becomes simultaneously mundane and vicious; to be a racist is unremarkable and inescapable yet still synonymous with complicity in horrific crimes.
By choosing to understand individuals not as agents accountable for their own thoughts and deeds but as subjects of a long-ago-established “system” subsisting on oppression, this school of thought establishes its reliance on racial immanence, the notion that racism is inherent in all things at all times. In America, at least, “the societal default is oppression; there are no spaces free of it,” as DiAngelo explains. “The question is not ‘Did racism take place?’” in a given interaction, “but rather, ‘How did racism manifest in that situation?’”
Armed with this insight, America’s status as irredeemable becomes obvious. Progress is impossible if every interaction simply reflects the racism of the system under which the improvements are made. In fact, what appears to be progress is actually just reinforcement of oppression by virtue of making the system slightly more tolerable for the oppressed.
One recent example displays how this principle operates to deny the very possibility of incremental progress. After occupying the president’s office at Nassau Hall several years ago, Princeton University’s Black Justice League (BJL) succeeded this past June in achieving its best-known goal. President Christopher Eisgruber announced that the Woodrow Wilson School for Public Policy would no longer bear the name of the horrifically racist former president of the university and the country.
The BJL promptly released a statement calling the delayed accession to its demands “a calculated PR tactic,” and “denounce[d]” Eisgruber for his actions. BJL members were “less than convinced that this cosmetic change, though long overdue, does much more than obfuscate centuries of inaction and apathy toward the anti-Black racism that remains pervasive at Princeton.” Failure to change the school’s name would have perpetuated a situation the BJL claimed made black students feel “unsafe,” but changing it is obfuscatory, as if it were papering over the university’s affiliations with racists. The question is not “Did racism take place?” but “How?”
If incremental progress is impossible in the highly controlled and progressive atmosphere of Princeton, there can be little doubt that the organic and largely centrist society that is America is beyond saving. Taking down statues of Confederate rebels may assuage the conscience of left-wing activists—it may even be the right thing to do—but as a step toward a post-racial America it is useless. Given widespread belief in racial immanence, there is quite literally nothing we can do to make incremental progress and move past our racism. According to DiAngelo, Kendi, and their acolytes in the BJL, the “work” of Antiracism, by its very nature, never ends. We are presented with our sin and the impossibility of atonement. What is left but the promise of an Antiracist revolution?
These two schools are incompatible to the point of diametric opposition. Under revolutionary thinking, each act of incrementalism is an act of racism; DiAngelo even insists that white progressives are the worst at interrogating their own deep-seated racism because they think they’re helping. If Frederick Douglass wasn’t good enough for Kendi, it beggars the mind to think how an average American in 2020, pitifully confessing his implicit bias and vowing to “do better” could be any better. Incrementalism presupposes an end goal that revolutionism denies exists.
Yet with every story that brings race to the forefront of national consciousness—even if such stories are vanishingly rare—the revolutionaries gain on the incrementalists. While we do not frequently hear calls for revolution (though “no justice, no peace” taken literally carries a similar message), the language and assumptions of the revolutionary school have crept into routine discussion of racism in America. This is evident in the expected, indeed socially demanded, public displays of anti-racist solidarity that follow any racially charged event. Check the social media of just about any company, school, or association for a natural experiment in what social desirability meant to them in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing and the ensuing unrest. Brands pledge their fidelity to those progressive goddesses Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, professing to do so to fight “systemic” racism. They clearly do not understand what the revolutionaries mean by “systemic” racism if they think they can fight it without fighting American democratic capitalism itself.
Of equal concern is the omnipresent circulation of Antiracist literature, featuring DiAngelo, Kendi, the 1619 Project, and various other media touted as the key to effective “allyship.” These works assume that anti-black racism is a uniquely persistent evil that must be investigated zealously even if it appears to be waning. On this view, in any case, it is not waning but only mutating. This is directly reflected in every pronouncement that racism, manifest in patterns of policing and systematically murdering black men, remains as powerful a force as ever. If you haven’t seen the data showing that police are in fact more likely to use deadly force against white people than black people, chalk it up to the insistence that quantifiable evidence is a mere distraction from the unquestionable truth of our living in a white-supremacist superstructure.
You can also hear the language of racial immanence whenever someone pronounces that oppressed groups have special insight into how the society is structured—this is postmodern standpoint theory—and those groups must be granted credence. Ubiquitous boilerplate language about how black Americans constantly live in fear takes the existence of such fear as evidence that it is warranted. The idea is that those constantly fearful of racist violence have presumptive reason to fear because racism infects every interaction, even if overt acts of racist violence are a miniscule fraction of violence committed against black people. No consideration is given to the possibility that such fear is actually stoked by enormous media attention to relatively few events of racial hatred. Revolutionary assumptions built on postmodern epistemology—especially the centrality of one’s degree of oppression to what one can possibly know—discount the explanation immediately.
A New York Times article from June 24 includes a perfect example of revolutionary Antiracism’s assumptions seeping into the mainstream. Giving ostensibly neutral background on racial tension and reconciliation in Minnesota, reporter Caitlin Dickerson informs readers that the killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests
awakened many white Americans to a reality that people of color have known their whole lives: The scores of police killings they have seen in the news in recent years were not one-off incidents, but part of a systemic problem of the dehumanization of black people by police.
Dickerson, writing for a mainstream liberal publication if there ever was one, declares that it is a “reality” that there is “a systemic problem” whereby police dehumanize black people. Moreover, white people needed to be “awakened” to this “reality,” though “people of color” were already well aware. This is substituting highly contentious interpretation, in a news article, for simple facts, but it also demonstrates what revolutionary language looks like when synthesized into seemingly racially liberal contexts. Standpoint theory—that black people have known something white Americans could not about the causes of social ills—is a given; so is the systemic nature of the problem. And the passage as a whole makes an enormous logical leap in its declaration that the killing of George Floyd could possibly prove that other tragedies “were not one-off incidents.” Under racial immanence, of course, these are all simply assumed.
If this isn’t evidence enough of the revolutionary encroachment in language and assumptions, the statement from public-health officials on COVID-19 and the June protests against racism should close the case. When the signatories claimed that “white supremacy is a lethal public health issue that predates and contributes to COVID-19,” they did not simply reverse course from a previous stand against anti-lockdown protests—they accepted the premise of “ongoing, pervasive, and lethal institutional racism” as the explanation for racial disparities. And they all but admitted the impossibility of progress: “While COVID is right now…white supremacy and oppression has been a long way longer, and we can guarantee that it’s going to continue if people don’t do anything about it now.” Unless these public-health experts truly believed that these protests would “fix” racism, their calculus and rationale point to the conviction that racism remains, and always will remain, a systemically murderous threat to black Americans. Once again, it is hard to imagine that any progress, however genuine, will change this great immovable dogma at the heart of the revolutionary theory.
Yet, in spite of all this pessimism, revolutionaries encourage protest—something with potential to make some difference—showing that they had not fully internalized the racial-immanence message that white supremacy and oppression will continue. The question is not “if” but “how?”
Those who care about the social fabric of this country and wish to see progress in race relations should reject the premises and prescriptions of the revolutionary camp. They should actively resist the encroachment of revolutionary language in conversations surrounding race relations. Upon hearing reference to the subtler forms of racism perceived exclusively by the oppressed, to America’s white-supremacist nature, or a recommendation that you “educate yourself” with the help of Kendi or DiAngelo, you should immediately ask several questions.
Is racism immanent and baked in to the American system, or is it residual and conquerable? Is progress possible within our Constitution, capitalism, and Enlightenment-style liberalism of freedom and equality (not equity), or is America indelibly stained with white supremacy and designed to perpetuate injustice? How would we know that we weren’t institutionally racist?
Revolutionary premises require revolutionary ends. Many who make reference to revolutionary premises, however, still consider themselves racially liberal incrementalists when push comes to shove.
This counsels a few prescriptions: Push back against the encroachment of revolutionary thinking into the incrementalist project; make sure that in our regular conversations about race we do not conflate the idea of fighting racism with cries to fix the unfixable.
And under no circumstances ought we to placate the revolutionaries. One may think that he is taking genuine steps toward racial progress, but revolutionaries deny that such a thing is possible. Any submission to revolutionary demands can only embolden those pushing for more fundamental overhaul, which will lead—by necessity and by design—to more accusations and more demands. As President Eisgruber has (hopefully) learned, there is inherently no way to win once you begin playing the revolutionary game.
Nonetheless, a temptation remains for conservatives to dismiss both these camps as barely discrete iterations of the same progressive impulses: to be ungrateful for America and hyperfocused on its flaws; to smash tradition and inherited institutions rather than work within them; and to use the standards of the present to malign heroic figures of the past. To be sure, many incrementalists push the limits of the term, preferring drastic action to Burkean prescription. So why bother with the distinction between revolutionary and incrementalist modes of discourse and action?
We should resist this temptation for several reasons. For one, racial liberalism plays an important role in maintaining the Overton Window, or the range of socially acceptable opinions one can hold on a given topic. Actual conservative racial incrementalism can quickly lose its acceptability in academia, the media, and popular culture if there isn’t a vital center-left as cultural ballast. If conservative thought—which has a legitimate place in discussions of race in America—hasn’t already been classified as a thin veneer for bigotry, it surely will be if the dominant cultural alternative is that of racial-justice revolutionism.
In the same vein, the theory of racial immanence is unfalsifiable. Any evidence against it is considered further proof of its veracity. No matter how far the theory of white supremacy veers from actually explaining American society, it cannot be rejected once it is accepted. Preventing its spread is therefore crucial.
Finally, Americans who wish to build a fairer, freer republic that lives up to its highest ideals should embrace a degree of racial incrementalism. No one can deny that racism still exists in the hearts and minds of bigots, some of whom act upon that animus to make life miserable for our black fellow citizens. Doubtless there are some institutions whose rules or norms continue to reflect intentional racial bias. In our quests to become better individuals, and our collective quest to bring America in line with the country Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King Jr. believed it could be, we must remain vigilant about confronting extant racism. But this entails rejecting the revolutionary approach.
Our country has made significant progress in living up to its ideals by holding fast to the incremental vision. Though we have not conquered all our demons or “cured” racism—if such a thing is even possible—it takes willful ignorance to claim that Americans have not improved in treating their fellow citizens with dignity regardless of race. Revolutionaries would have you believe that such ignorance is the clear truth, that overt racism has not diminished but transmogrified, manifesting in subtler forms of still pernicious racial hatred.
The revolutionary framework has never helped us approach racial harmony and by design works against the possibility of doing so. It encourages distrust to the point of paranoia, stokes fear of a race war, and pits Americans against one another in daily interactions. This has been demonstrated by destructive riots stretching from the 1960s up to today, which have additionally left several black-majority communities in tatters.
Revolutionaries ask Americans to do not simply what is bad but also what is impossible. To a revolutionary who believes in racial immanence, only a reinvention of America as we know it would suffice. Yet even then, racial immanence presents further obstacles. Any revolution would, in time, prove insufficiently revolutionary. Such is the nature of maximalist thinking. After all, the white people remaining in the theoretical new nation would have been socialized by the ancient regime into white supremacy and conditioned to uphold it at all costs. What do we do about them? There is no end to the matter—at least not one that anyone cares to identify.
1 Capitalizing “Antiracist” and “Antiracism” may or may not have been Kendi’s innovation, but it befits his and DiAngelo’s quasi-religious belief system.
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