No, Black People Cannot Be Racists

(Truth Out) - To attack critical race theory is to attack Black knowledge production and attempt to silence its epistemological disruptive reverberations, which challenge the U.S.’s atrocious anti-Black racism.

No, Black People Cannot Be Racists

The attacks waged against everything deemed “critical race theory” constitute a new form of McCarthyism, deeming all ideas legitimately critical of realities in the U.S. as “un-American.” Contemporary attacks against critical race theory also expose its conservative attackers’ abysmal ignorance regarding its central claims.

“Thoughtcrime,” which is a concept developed by George Orwell in his dystopic novel, 1984, is what one commits in the act of contesting hegemonic orders, authoritarian regimes and ideological zealots bent on silencing critical thought itself. Within this context, ignorance is deemed a strength. Not to know and not to know that one does not know seems “utopic” for many who use critical race theory as a scapegoat to manufacture disinformation and a politics of distraction.

Within a context where war is waged on imaginative creativity, and critical thought is seen as an enemy of the state, we are pushed to become the walking dead, stripped of the capacity for critical thought for the sake of strict stability and pristine order.

With images in my mind from Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopic novel, We, the attacks on critical race theory give me nightmare visions of a future day when our students (perhaps donning brownshirts by day and white hoods at night) will record us teaching about white privilege, systemic racism and implicit racial bias. I fear that, targeted by covert actions, professors like me may again be labeled by the state as political dissidents and left to the whims of a new, updated House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

Acutely aware of how critical race theory is facing attacks from white supremacists on the right, I was troubled to also find it facing a different sort of attack by Black law professor Randall Kennedy in his recent American Prospect article, “The Right-Wing Attack on Racial Justice Talk.”

While Kennedy does argue against the recent right-wing attacks on critical race theory, depicting them as self-serving efforts of so many to avoid coming to terms with the U.S.’s history of racism and its continued existence, he simultaneously labels various aspects of critical race theory as “misguided,” and argues that they ought to be rejected. For example, he writes:

The idea that Black people cannot be racist because they lack power to effectuate their prejudice is misguided for a number of reasons including the obvious empirical point that there are Black people who, as police chiefs, mayors, Cabinet officials, members of Congress, professors, directors of human resources offices, chief executive officers, prison wardens, and president and vice president of the United States, do exercise decisive, often unreviewable, power over whites and others.

Kennedy’s framing here is itself deeply misguided. He assumes that because some Black people are in positions of power, those Black people can therefore use such “power to effectuate their prejudices” and that this means that they would qualify as racists.

What I fear most about Kennedy’s position is that right-wing white enthusiasts, to put it mildly, will take his words as support for the idea that racism is also a Black phenomenon, and not fundamentally and inextricably a feature of the structure and practice of whiteness.

Kennedy’s position opens the doors to a more widespread embrace of the erroneous and damaging concept of “Black anti-white racism.”

I can hear conservative white people moan and shout: “Ah, you see! The Black professor, and one from Harvard to boot, understands my white pain and suffering stemming directly from Black anti-white racism.” Or, “If America is to change regarding race relations, then, we must all change, because there is that horrible thing called Black racism, and that we, as white people, continue to suffer under its yoke.” Or, “As a white man, I’m so tired of being discriminated against by Black people. They have so much power.” Or, finally, “Given Black anti-white racism, we need to campaign and organize: ‘White Lives Matter!’”

Because so many white people dread being called the r-word, as if it was somehow comparable to the n-word, Kennedy’s argument provides cover for white people to obfuscate the systemic feature that is indispensable when discussing critically the nature of racism. He also conflates some Black people’s “power to effectuate their prejudices” with 400 years of white people in positions of systemic power over Black people, where being white sufficiently constituted the “power to effectuate [white] prejudices.”

Historically, white racism wasn’t about being in strategic and fluid social locations of influence, it was about white people occupying the category of the human. The latter wasn’t limited to social locational or situational power but exemplified having the ontological power to define and enforce Black people into literal nonexistence, it meant having the power to define and enforce the “sub-person”status of Black people. So, Kennedy’s use of power within the context of Black people wielding it against white people is not only undertheorized, but ahistorical.

Even within our contemporary moment, those Black “police chiefs, mayors, Cabinet officials, members of Congress, professors, directors of human resources offices, chief executive officers, prison wardens, and president and vice president of the United States” continue to live within a country predicted upon anti-Black racism. Each of those occupied positions mean very little within a context of white supremacy.

Does Kennedy really believe that former President Obama had the “power”(comparable to white power, which is the only real, centuries-old held systemic racist power that we know of in the United States) to “effectuate his [racist] prejudices”? While Kennedy and I are both professors, both with endowed chairs, my contention is that we are still deemed “n*****s” in the eyes of white supremacist North America. Bear in mind that this is not to say that we are that ugly epithet.

W.E.B. DuBois, in a speech delivered in China at the age of 91, sums up an important message that all too familiarly speaks to Black life in North America. DuBois said, “In my own country for nearly a century I have been nothing but a n*****.” Malcolm X was also unmoved by white America’s sham democracy when it came to Black people. Malcom asked, “What does a white man call a Black man with a Ph.D.?” He answered: “A n***** with a Ph.D.”

As professors, we are still Black professors. Our academic statuses are forms of temporary reprieve at best. Class might free us from trying to use a “fake” $20 bill, but at the end of the day we are both George Floyd, Black bodies navigating a larger white system where we are believed to be “criminals” a priori. Having a Ph.D. will not shield me against white police officers killing me dead as they approach me in the night, mistaking my holding a copy of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason for a weapon, or mistake Kennedy’s holding a cell phone for a gun. Then again, perhaps someday we might have to face the fact that the $20 bill that we have is fake and find ourselves under the knee of white violence, white “law and order.”

Within the context of anti-Black America, Blackness functions as an ontological and political deflationary signifier, but it also constitutes a material condition where to be Black in the U.S. is to be always already imminently dead. In Golden Gulag, Ruth Wilson Gilmore powerfully writes about racism where she refers to it as the “state-sanctioned or extra-legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.”

And keep in mind that this racial-differentiated vulnerability is pervasive. Let white students simply think that a Black professor is discriminating against them based upon race and see how quickly the white students are believed. You see, they also have epistemic privilege and power. White supremacist history is at their backs. Get enough white parents alarmed, and one’s fate is sealed. And let’s not forget about the white power (typically male) elites who run the institution. That is what white power and white privilege look like.

Indeed, that is how U.S. racism operates; it is systemic, historical, institutional and materially grounded. As Sara Ahmed writes in Living a Feminist Life, “[White] privilege does not mean we are invulnerable: things happen; shit happens. [White] privilege can however reduce the cost of vulnerability; you are more likely to be looked after.” The payoff of white racism is exponential.

In Blackness Visible, Charles Mills refers to “the multidimensional payoff from whiteness — economic, juridico-political, social, cultural, somatic, ‘ontological’— in a white-supremacist system.” As you can see, within the context of an anti-Black society, there is no similar payoff vis-à-vis Black people. When I think of white systemic racist power, I think of this multidimensional payoff. It is certainly not the sort of power that would justify Kennedy’s assumption that Black people can be “racists” simply because they have power. To accept Kennedy’s argument, I would need to concede the existence of a chimera: “Black systemic racist power.”

Part of the difficulty with Kennedy’s argument about Black racism is his failure to interpret with precision the thesis held by scholars of anti-racism that racism is “prejudice + power.” For example, in her book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, educator and psychologist Beverly D. Tatum holds to this thesis, arguing that racism involves a system that advantages some and disadvantages others based upon race.

Within the context of this discussion in her book, Tatum uses the term “people of color” to refer to those who she says cannot be racists. Hence, if people of color are in fact racist (and by implication if Black people are racist) then they must, for Tatum, “systematically benefit from racism.” Black people, however, don’t systematically benefit from racism. I once had a white student raise the issue of affirmative action as an example. The problem with that argument is that affirmative action is not meant for Black people to benefit from racism, but it is meant as an approach to curtail the effects of racism. Tatum also argues that for people of color to be racist, we would need to live in a world characterized by the “systematic cultural and institutional support or sanction for the racial bigotry of people of color.” Historically, the fact of the matter is that Black people have never had systematic cultural and institutional support or sanction for their “racial bigotry.”

It is important to note, however, that Tatum does argue that if we were to define racism narrowly as consisting of racial prejudices alone, then, yes, people of color, which includes Black people, can be said to be racist. I’m sure that there are Black people and people of color who don’t like white people, and that have racist prejudices against them. I would ask, however, about the basis of those “racial prejudices.” The aim is not to justify them by making such an inquiry, but to try to understand them within the context of centuries of anti-Black racism. I would also argue that even if we grant that there are Black people who hold racial prejudices, we will need to examine and be truthful about how those prejudices are not linked systemically to a system of anti-white racism. White racist prejudices in the U.S. are fundamentally linked to white supremacist systems that oppress Black people. So, even if Black people have racial prejudices, they cannot be racist oppressors in relationship to whites unless we are prepared to denude racism of its structural and systemic oppressive logics, which is how we understand the use of the term “racism” within the context of an anti-Black American polity.