This summer, amid the ongoing protests for racial justice, Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility once again shot up the best-seller lists. The book, which had already been a huge success on the diversity-training circuit and had received mixed, but muted, responses from intellectual commentators, was now subjected to a symptomatic backlash. This began with left intellectuals taking DiAngelo to task for her focus on workplace harmony at the expense of attention to capitalism or structural inequalities like housing discrimination. It continued with liberals and conservatives chiding the book for its racial essentialism and its discounting of individual agency. And it culminated with the White House statement banning trainings that reflect DiAngelo’s methodology in the federal government: terms like “white privilege” and “systemic racism,” the Trump administration alleged, are both divisive and “un-American.”
If nothing else, the sales figures for White Fragility and its partners in the ascendant genre of antiracist pedagogy—as of this writing, White Fragility is joined on the best-seller list by Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist and Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race—testifies to how ludicrous it is to call such books “un-American.” In fact, their blend of puritanical hectoring, etiquette training, “lucid definitions” and self-help is as American as apple pie. That is both their appeal and their fatal limitation. “Nothing in mainstream US culture,” DiAngelo writes, “gives us the information we need to have the nuanced understanding of arguably the most complex and enduring social dynamic of the last several hundred years.” Fair enough. But a reader is then entitled to believe this lacuna will now be filled, preferably with the information and historical context that can lead to that nuanced understanding. Instead, what is on offer is patently not content but form, not information but reformation, not education but therapy—not a correction of the superficiality of mainstream American commentary and culture but a complement to it. This accounts for why what gets produced by books like White Fragility seems so depressingly familiar. We can all spot the readers of such books—white people who say the words you expect them to say with sheepish or hangdog looks, who are always promising to “do better,” who are endlessly “educating themselves,” and yet who don’t seem to actually ever know anything. What was the Compromise of 1877? What was the Dred Scott case about and how does it relate to U.S. citizenship? For these readers such questions are unthinkable and remain, after all the concern about harm, stress and trauma, unthought.
But do the intellectual critics of antiracism pedagogy—whether conservative, liberal or left-wing—offer solutions to the “complex and enduring” dynamic of racism that are any more promising? This is far from clear. Many of these critics seem eager to shift the topic entirely: while making sure to signal their sincere desire for racial justice, they regret to inform us that the equality we seek can only be pursued by talking about class, or culture, or open discourse. Meanwhile, historical amnesia afflicts Americans of all backgrounds and political persuasions. Depending on which books you choose to read, you can learn how to be a liberal antiracist or a leftist one, but chances are you will be staging a rerun. Haven’t we become, in truth, a nation where everyone already knows all the roles, already knows all the scripts, yet repeatedly goes along with everything as if we’d discovered it yesterday? Who can fail to notice the déjà vu character of the non-conversation about race that is always needing to be had?
In what has become a sentimental American drama, the antiracism pedagogues play their expected parts. Both DiAngelo and Kendi ground their pedagogy in narratives about how they overcame the dominant American paradigm for dealing with racism since the civil rights movement: colorblindness. Both, at one time, bought into the idea that to be against racism meant, on an individual level, to judge people by the “content of their character” and, on the social level, to set up institutions devoted to nondiscrimination. Now both have learned better, realizing that race neutrality was always, in Kendi’s words, a “mask for racism.” But the movement the antiracist pedagogues make from liberal colorblindness—recently refurbished as Obama’s “post-racial” America—to progressive antiracism, itself a barely updated version of the therapeutic identitarianism that emerged with the New Left at the end of the Sixties, is a movement left-liberals have made so many times in recent decades that it’s a marvel they don’t get whiplash. Perhaps, if they don’t, it’s because the swing between these two positions is not so dramatic as they imagine. Both, limited to the proper context, have their uses. Notwithstanding its abuse by right-wing talk show hosts, colorblindness can be a tool for dismantling discriminatory laws and policies, while antiracism training may well have some role to play in promoting interracial understanding in the workplace. Engorged into a theory of justice, however, both attempt to reduce out of the equation precisely what makes American race relations the kind of problem that will never be “solved”: the myriad ways—in the vast expanse of social life that falls between personal therapy and legal redress—in which our history continues to shape our present. Both therefore partake in that “grotesque appeal to innocence” James Baldwin claimed had long haunted American discussions about race. If antiracism teaches us that progress is merely a matter of adopting the right rules and habits, colorblindness encourages the Panglossian view whereby centuries of injustice can be corrected by appeals to utopian principle.
Racism is both a root cause and an expression of our incapacity to form a truly democratic polity, but we give way to a different kind of incapacitation when we fall back on these tried and false methods for addressing it. Today’s antiracists can show the pattern in the weave, but they cannot explain why that pattern rather than some other is selected and persists. At the same time, those who fall back on universalism, appeals to colorblindness or class as the only valid frameworks repeatedly fumble when faced with the obvious and frankly ubiquitous place that racial identity and antagonism occupy in our history, our culture and our daily life. Any serious discussion of the underlying issue of integration in America will have to answer questions about how we understand what a racially integrated society is or ought to be. And to even begin to think about that means taking off the veil of innocence and reckoning with the real—as opposed to the ideal, or conveniently color coded—situation of the country. Is there an approach that accounts realistically for the role race has played in American history without positing racial identity as the prime mover of all political action and thought? And how do we ensure that this, the latest reckoning in the long ordeal of integration, will not become yet another reenactment of past battles?
In his 1967 book, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, the scholar and critic Harold Cruse undertook what he called a “rigorous critical assault” on “all intellectual superficiality on the American race question, coming from either side of the racial fence.” Cruse’s study is worth returning to today for several reasons. For one, in tracing the history of the intellectual conversation about race going back to the late nineteenth century, it allows us to reflect on what is truly novel in our own “conversation,” and what is rather a product of a peculiarly American repetition compulsion. But Cruse also encourages us to question the value of the conversation itself. What was needed in his own time, Cruse believed, was neither more cheerleading for the NAACP’s protests for racial equality, nor more posturing about taking up arms against the state. Proceeding from a combination of frustration, self-delusion and ignorance of history, these approaches not only came up with the wrong answers, they did not even ask the right questions. What was needed was, rather, an intellectual leadership that was grounded in the realities—what Cruse called the “cultural compulsives”—of Black communities, and could thus help Blacks achieve the kind of cultural, economic and social group power that had time and again proven the only path to meaningful integration in America.
As Cruse pointed out, the template of the U.S. elite has always been very specifically that of the WASPs who for most of the country’s history have acted as a self-interested ruling class. Other white ethnic minorities have been integrated into that model over time, but, crucially, they all advanced their social position and power by organizing themselves as groups. The Irish muscled their way into local politics and used their clout to gain a foothold in municipal professions like the police, fire departments and the building trades, which could rely on patronage relations with city hall. Jews and Italians (and a section of the Irish immigrant population as well) notoriously banded together in criminal enterprises and gangs to take power through the black markets. Chinatown, Koreatown, Polish neighborhoods, German newspapers in the Midwest, Dominican and Puerto Rican blocks and of course Black ghettos: the social fabric of America was, and still is, not a melting pot or a free-floating matrix of individuals, but a stratified, segmented and balkanized switchboard where ethnic group rivalry is an irreducible factor.
It was only in intellectual circles that this bedrock fact about American social life was in danger of being forgotten. Confusing their rarefied institutional milieus—Broadway, the university, left-wing publishing, the civil rights movement—for society as a whole, Black and white cultural elites alike, Cruse argued, colluded in obscuring from themselves the truth that ethnic self-interest was the rule in the country, not the exception. The pervasiveness of what he called the “protest mentality” among Black intellectuals was a costly result of their detachment from this reality, for it rested on the idea that majority groups could be persuaded—whether by rhetorical browbeating, the threat of violence or some combination of the two—to act against their material interests. But while the legal victories of the civil rights era might have seemed to confirm the wisdom of pleading and protest, they had also revealed their limitations. Black intellectuals like Baldwin, who grew embittered at the resistance of even “liberal” whites to social integration in practice (as opposed to in theory, where they were all in favor), exemplified what Cruse saw as an endemic refusal to distinguish the story the nation liked to tell about itself from its self-evident social truths. Given that even a glancing acquaintance with U.S. history was enough to know that no group of hyphenated Americans had ever ceded their economic or social privileges without a fight—“Which group or subgroup leaves its door wide open for the outsider?” Cruse asked in his introduction, and then answered: “None, really”—this bitterness betrayed its own kind of innocence. The point was not to deny the unique challenges faced by a once-enslaved population in comparison to other ethnic groups, nor to apportion blame or praise. The point was to analyze American social life in unsentimental terms, as it really was, on the hunch that only such an unsentimental analysis would be capable of cutting through the nets of our perennially sentimentalized reality.
Accepting and acknowledging the underlying fact of group interest and conflict is one piece of Cruse’s puzzle. The other is getting a grip on what genuinely counts as a benefit for one’s group. Cruse stridently chides the Black radicals of his day for focusing narrowly on representational and cultural issues at the expense of social, economic and political ones. Arguing over equal representation at the Oscars is a waste of time, he would say, just as pouring energy into “integrating” the Broadway stage was a poor use of activist energy in the Forties and Fifties. Building a Black theater and dance scene with schools, trainers, performance spaces, set and lighting designers, all in a Black neighborhood that can provide both education and employment—this is the kind of tangible project a group politics can and should strive to undertake. Today, it might mean supporting efforts to create funds, through federal and municipal bonds, that call on local communities to organize and come together to decide what the money should be allocated for. It might mean emphasizing ways to make smaller units of social fabric—block associations, mutual-aid organizations, hamlets, neighborhood sections—more vibrant and responsive to their own perceived needs. If we’re going to live in ethnic neighborhoods—which most Americans already do and always have—then one vision of an integrated democracy is for those neighborhoods to each have grounds for solidarity and communal pride.
Shifting our orientation in this direction might seem like a step away from the conventional, melting-pot ideal of integration, but for Cruse it was the only reasonable step if one believed in the possibility of pluralism on free and equal terms. Not only was Cruse dubious about the plausibility of eradicating prejudice from the souls of whites, but he believed that such a project—inevitably focused on interracial settings and the individuals who inhabit them—was of little concrete use to the largely unintegrated communities that were, and still are, paying the steepest price for the country’s discriminatory history. Even if the goal was to lower the temperature of inter-ethnic rivalry, the best way to do so was not by fighting for proportional representation in elite spaces. The key was rather to forge an “ethnic consciousness”—accessible to elites but anchored in the neighborhoods and institutions where community life actually took place—that was trained on empowering the group to stand with dignity on an equal footing with their peers.
It was this insight that permeated Cruse’s extensive investigation—which takes up several chapters at the heart of Crisis—into the intellectual and social history of Harlem. Among the central findings of this investigation was that Harlem had produced generations of intellectuals who claimed to speak for the neighborhood’s residents without ever prioritizing their desire for cultural and economic strongholds of their own. For while intellectuals may imagine themselves as part of a deracinated community of the mind, for most people to feel they truly have a stake in America, Cruse saw, they need to own a piece of their communities. That means owning property (not just perpetually renting); owning businesses (not merely working in someone else’s); and developing credible and accountable political and civic leadership from within. Yet in the twentieth century it was only the Black nationalist leaders, stretching from Marcus Garvey in the early 1900s to Malcolm X in Cruse’s time, who had given credence to the centrality of these demands among ordinary Blacks. Defending them against what he considered the unjustified contempt of the intellectual establishment, Cruse credited the nationalists alone for seeing through the false theologies of integration, whether articulated in Marxist terms or moralistic ones. Only the nationalists truly grasped the reality of America as a cauldron of ethnic conflict. Correspondingly, only nationalist intellectuals had ever achieved a truly broad appeal among the Harlem working class.
But whereas the liberal integrationists were in thrall to the American mythology of colorblind universalism, and the leftists to the European one of working-class revolution, the nationalists fell prey to their own mythological narratives, whether based on heritage (most conspicuously in the back-to-Africa movements), religion (i.e. the Nation of Islam) or what Cruse called “black-skin chauvinism,” which encouraged a biological, rather than an ethnic or sociological, interpretation of Black identity. As a result, the political dynamism of Black nationalism dissipated in internecine violence and confusion, finding its only reliable anchor in the demonization of whites that was to become a hallmark of the repeated efforts by progressives to move “beyond” colorblindness in the ensuing decades.
The promise of Black nationalist politics, on the other hand, was that—picking up on the thread left by the nineteenth-century philosopher of Black self-sufficiency Booker T. Washington—it might take an interest in something neither white nor Black integrationists seemed terribly concerned with: the urgent realities of Black American group life in the present. Then, as today, this meant asking questions like: Where are the laws and ordinances that would allow people who volunteer to restore blighted buildings on charred inner-city blocks to take ownership of those properties? Are the millions of dollars raised from protesting going into strategies for Black small-business ownership and communal arts and education centers? What can we do to shore up and prevent the erosion of Black land ownership (as the legal scholar Thomas W. Mitchell has helped to pioneer in the South)? How can we help working mothers and young student activists who are taking up the cause of gang deconfliction and anti-violence protest? Can’t we do far more, and at greater scale, to secure tenants’ rights? Advance financial and legal literacy? Create jobs for recently released prisoners as neighborhood watchmen who can spot and interrupt cycles of retaliatory violence? Increase the number of sheltered and free spaces for young people where reading and learning are encouraged as enthusiastically as sports and music? Of course, we can imagine an antiracist police force, and one day in a visionary future we should all wish to be able to live in a society that has no use for police at all. But politics is the art of the possible—not of the imaginable—and any substantial transformation in policing today, if it is to be democratic, will therefore require an appeal to the interests and thus to the priorities of the people most affected by such decisions. And for those tangled in the barbs of poverty, incarceration, drugs and gun violence, what could be more of a priority than pragmatic social and economic solutions that determine whether we will save or lose yet another generation of Black children?
The antiracist pedagogues are not all white, but their assumed audience is. This is worth pausing over. A tension that runs throughout the antiracism books is the claim, on the one hand, that white Americans are deeply—if not congenitally—committed to maintaining their historically inherited privileges, and the presumption, on the other, that, if only enough of them are willing to “do the work,” the majoritarian plurality of the country will suddenly realize the injustice of its ways and become part of the solution. Such a framework is marked by the same naïveté that Cruse identified in earlier iterations of the protest tradition; this was the “American ‘quickie’ pattern, the ‘90-day wonder’ concept of the package deal applied to social revolution.” Needless to say, the infomercial approach to social justice has led neither to a revolution nor to a collective epiphany. Worse, it is prone to exhausting activist energy in symbolic battles. If we win the fight over the use of a word, the removal of a statue, the name of a sports franchise, we can console ourselves that the exorcism is working, that the racists will be driven from the scene once and for all. If Black Americans occupied as high a social standing as some other ethnic groups, this strategy might be justifiable. But while the majority of Black Americans may welcome and support symbolic victories, they are no less relieved for them because the problems that plague their communities run so much deeper.
Can these problems be addressed by a universalist, social-democratic program? Here is another long-standing remedy to the race problem, and one that prides itself on being undistracted by symbolism. The socialists, at least, are not afraid of economics. In their essay from earlier this fall, “The Trouble with Disparity,” Adolph Reed and Walter Benn Michaels reprise their argument for a politics focused less on antiracism and more on “policies of social-democratic redistribution that reduce the effective income differentials between top and bottom.” Surely our conversation would benefit on all sides from more attention to how economic stratification complicates simplistic claims about racial prejudice and privilege as monocausal agents. But whereas the antiracism pedagogues suffer from a philosophical naïveté, Reed and Michaels are vulnerable to a political one. It is not even necessary to recite the long history of working-class whites choosing to reinforce group hierarchies even when it goes against their economic self-interest, for Reed and Michaels write immediately in the wake of events vividly demonstrating Cruse’s insight that Americans are moved most deeply by ethnic, as opposed to class-based, conflict. First, Bernie Sanders’s social-democratic campaign for president foundered, largely at the hands of Black voters of all classes in the South. Then, only a few months later, the largest protests in the country’s history erupted over police brutality toward Blacks, an issue grounded in the politics of disparity and the Constitutional promise of equal treatment under the law. In the face of such evidence, does it make sense to keep pushing for a class politics that the mass of Americans does not really want and does not seem to truly believe in?
Maybe the classless future, just like the truly “race-neutral” one, depends first upon restoring a balance among the tribes. Maybe the path to a society where the human value and potential of Black America is fully realized alongside everyone else’s means mobilizing a movement based not on anti-whiteness, or anti-racism, but rather on Black communal pride, reconstruction and the enhancement of internal human and social capital. Confronted by such a positive movement, other ethnic groups might even come around to seeing how such an undertaking can serve their own ends. This would not be because they were ashamed of their privileges, or wanted to be good “allies”; it would be because they recognized interests that spanned across groups. As the scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor points out, many problems that are especially pronounced in poor Black neighborhoods are also a “Trojan horse” for suffering caused by national policies that hurt the middle and working classes of all ethnicities. If Blacks figured out how to reconstitute their own communities in the face of such challenges, they might find partners who would see in such activity a template for improving the lives of their own people. Back in the day, optimists like Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray called it “antagonistic cooperation.” They saw that while ethnic conflict may be inescapable, it need not be inexorable.
The slow suffocation of George Floyd struck the way it did because it was perceived as a metaphor. Those who invoke statistics miss the point; politics and social life may well be statistical in content but they are narrative in form, and the video told a powerful story about a country where white America—even as it formally repudiates its history of anti-Black racism—has never really removed its knee from the neck of Black America. In such a country, we have reason to believe that the full participation of Blacks in social, economic and political life is not going to be fully welcomed, no matter how many copies of White Fragility are sold and allegedly read, no matter how many times we are called to class solidarity, no matter how many times we are lectured about our nation’s noble ideals. But facing these hard realities doesn’t mean we ought to throw our hands up and wait for the fire and the flood. Cruse offers one plausible way forward, which has the advantage of depending neither on the generosity nor the moral enlightenment of whites: actively empower Black Americans to form an ever more robust group that will come to the table of integration, or King’s table of brotherhood, with its own plate, its own menu and its own agenda. Integration, in this vision, is not the dream of moving into a crumbling or—as it was once famously said—a burning house. Neither does it mean burning the house down. It is a vision of carpenters who show up with their own tools and their own blueprints, ready to build the house we can all live in together.
But it is not only for providing us with a plausible vision of integration that we turn to Cruse today. Cruse also reminds us of the value of uncompromising social criticism—criticism that neither panders nor overpromises—in a time of political and social upheaval. Notwithstanding the absence of Twitter, Cruse’s period was, after all, no less contentious or pressure-cooked than our own. His own book bears witness to the ever-expanding factionalism of the political left and the civil rights movement, which was splintering before his eyes. But Cruse, rather than choosing among the factions, was on a mission to force all cultural and intellectual elites to take a hard look at themselves; he wanted to “excavate every established factional creed and conformism.” In a manner reminiscent of the late Stanley Crouch—who wrote the introduction to the NYRB Classics edition of Crisis in 2005—he was determined, even at considerable cost to his own reputation, to demolish “every hallowed interracial shibboleth.” He understood that in the swim of the American dream machine, contrarian currents, however rocky and dangerous, are the only way to ford the river. Nothing less was capable of freeing us from the “tangled net of [our] own historical antecedents,” of allowing us to finally clear the troubled waters and seek a higher ground.