Posted on 9th October 2020
The eruption of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on the 25 May was a spectacular highlight to the eerie summer of 2020. In the United States alone, an estimated 15 to 26 million people participated in the first few weeks of demonstrations.1 By early autumn, over 2,000 protests had occurred, with every US state affected.
The diversity on display has been striking. For instance, Portland, Oregon, a site of sustained struggle, is among the whitest big cities in the country. The BLM phenomenon has not been restricted to the US. More than 60 countries worldwide have witnessed demonstrations involving black and white anti-racists. The protesters who toppled a statue of slaveholder Edward Colston and hurled it into Bristol harbour in Britain were predominantly white. Their action reverberated across the Atlantic, finding its way into a speech by veteran civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton at Floyd’s funeral. It is also reinvigorating debates in Britain and elsewhere about “decolonising” education.
Inevitably, the protests could not continue on the same scale and with the same intensity indefinitely. The challenge is to ensure that the energy of this movement does not simply dissipate once #BLM stops trending on Twitter. Thus it is welcome that the huge thirst for ideas among those seeking to deepen their understanding of racism has been reflected in sales of recent books on the subject. Within days of the initial BLM protests, Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why it’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism was at the top of Amazon’s bestseller list. At number two was Ibram X Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist. This placed them ahead of the new Hunger Games book, which had sold half a million copies the previous week. Elsewhere bloggers, bookshops and online retailers recommended an array of titles on racism, among them, How to Argue with a Racist, So You Want to Talk About Race and Me and White Supremacy.
This article will review some of the publications that have caught the popular mood, reflecting on their strengths and weaknesses.
Talking to people about race
In Britain one of the most popular books on this subject in recent years has been Reni Eddo-Lodge’s Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, first published in 2017. After the death of George Floyd, Eddo-Lodge became the first black British author to take the top spot on the official British book charts.2 The author’s meteoric rise began with a 2014 post on her blog, in which she declared:
I’m no longer engaging with white people on the topic of race. Not all white people, just the vast majority who refuse to accept the legitimacy of structural racism and its symptoms. I can no longer engage with the gulf of emotional disconnect that white people display when a person of colour articulates their experience. You can see their eyes shut down and harden. It’s like treacle is poured into their ear canals. It’s like they can no longer hear us.3
It is an indication of the influence and impact of social media that her comments garnered so much attention, culminating, within three years, in a bestselling book. Indeed, it is worth remembering that it was a similar social media comment, posted on Facebook by Alicia Garza, that kick-started the first wave of the BLM movement. “Black people I love us, our lives matter,” she wrote in July 2013 when George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin.
Eddo-Lodge’s title is something of a misnomer but arguably a mischievous and masterful piece of marketing. By her own admission, far from ignoring white people, she spends much of her time talking to them about race. This has even included some who many would argue she should not engage with, most notably Nick Griffin, former leader of the fascist British National Party. Eddo-Lodge admits that her decision to interview Griffin is controversial and that she regards him as “an extreme example”, but she seeks to justify it on the grounds that he “voices the same fears that are evident in the low level grumblings and resentment of some British people who are resistant to change”.4 In spite of this perspective, in the section of the book entitled “Aftermath”, written in the wake of an earlier wave of BLM protests in 2016, she strikes a more positive note: “I consider myself part of a movement, and I think that if you are deeply touched by what you read in this book, then you are part of that movement too. It’s happening right now”.5 The sentiment here is important, indicative of the fact that Eddo-Lodge’s aim is not simply to upbraid white people. She is a serious student of Black British history, well versed in contemporary debates around issues such as feminism, and suspicious of those in power and authority, believing instead in the capacity of ordinary people to bring about change. Hence, in a chapter entitled “No Justice, Just Us”, she champions the creative and liberating effect of doing something, however small.
Furthermore, Eddo-Lodge does have some sense of the complexities of race and class, acknowledging that they are “inextricably connected”. However, she rejects what she characterises as “class in a Marxist fashion”, which sees “a person’s relationship to the means of production as a defining factor”.6 She instead prefers the methodology used in the BBC’s 2011 “Great British Class” survey, which, according to sociologist Mike Savage and his co-authors, “revealed” that there are seven classes.7 Based on this, Eddo-Lodge considers herself, like most “people of colour”, a part of an “emergent service worker” class.8
Savage’s approach derives different class categories from survey questions that ask people about their perceived social, cultural and economic “capital”, rather than seeking to identify the cleavages between classes based on relations of exploitation and control over the means of production. The Marxist approach, on the other hand, aims to tell us something about the deep-lying class interests that shape society, and the power of different classes to reshape it. These considerations have important implications for the role of racism within capitalism and how to most effectively contest it.9 Unfortunately, Eddo-Lodge’s rejection of Marxism undermines her aim of understanding “the big picture that helps you see the structures”.10 Instead of identifying racism as a product of the capitalist system, with a historic need to divide and rule workers, we are left with a discussion of structural racism that is primarily descriptive: “It is not just about personal prejudice but the collective effects of bias. It is the kind of racism that has the power to drastically impact people’s life chances”.11
An additional issue is that, for someone strongly concerned about feelings, some of Eddo-Lodge’s utterances, both in the pages of her book and elsewhere, are potentially divisive. For instance, she has criticised white women for crying at her book launches. Such “white deference” and “fetishisation” is considered destructive because it supposedly turns the focus away from racism onto the need to comfort the white woman and assuage her feelings of guilt.12
A similar sentiment moves to centre stage in White Fragility, a book by the white US academic Robin DiAngelo that has seemingly become required reading for managers in diverse public and private sector organisations.13 Though primarily focused on the US, DiAngelo suggests that the dynamics she describes are “familiar in all societies in which white people hold institutional power and/or have a white settler colonial history”.14 In such societies white people live in a racially insular environment, leading to a lack of stamina when dealing with “racial stress”.15 White fragility is characterised by “a state in which even a minimal challenge to the white position becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive responses. These responses function to reinstate white racial equilibrium and maintain white control”.16 The white woman’s tears that Eddo-Lodge observed would constitute a prime example, and indeed DiAngelo points to similar incidents from her own experience.
If her theory is to be believed, white people can never truly overcome their race privilege. DiAngelo asserts that, regardless of class background, white people are socialised to collude with racism. They continue to benefit from and display their racism even if, like her, they are actively involved in anti-racist activity. What is necessary, therefore, is for white people to constantly check themselves, by making themselves and their actions accountable to “black, indigenous and peoples of colour”.17 White Fragility comes complete with an online “reading guide”, which takes participants through concepts such as “Racism and White Supremacy”, “The Good/Bad Binary”, “Anti-Blackness” and the aforementioned “White Women’s Tears”.18
For all its real limitations, it would be wrong to dismiss DiAngelo’s work entirely. Her starting point is her abhorrence of racism and a belief that something should be done about it—even if her conclusions are pessimistic and point away from a collective challenge to structural racism. White Fragility offers some insights and statistics that demand our attention. Certainly, whatever criticisms we make, socialists should reject Donald Trump’s recent declaration that the kind of racial sensitivity training DiAngelo delivers is “anti-American propaganda”.19
DiAngelo frequently refers to and has spoken alongside Ibram X Kendi, the author of another best-seller, How to Be an Antiracist.20 From the outset there is something very personal about Kendi’s book. It begins with a chapter entitled “My Racist Introduction”, in which the author expresses his shame at an award-winning speech he made as a high school student on Martin Luther King Day in 2000. Despite being brought up by supposedly race-conscious parents, his address demonstrated that he had swallowed numerous lazy stereotypes about the shortcomings of black young people.
Kendi’s central thesis is that neutrality on the question of racism is a myth. He asserts: “We know how to be racist. We know how to pretend to be not racist. Now let’s know how to be anti-racist”.21 What follows are a series of chapters in which he begins by introducing various concepts, such as power, biology, ethnicity, body, culture, gender and sexuality. He then defines these concepts and seeks to demonstrate what it means to be a racist and anti-racist in relation to each. For example, in the chapter entitled “Class”, a “class racist” is “one who is racialising the classes, supporting policies of racial capitalism against those race-classes, and justifying them by racist ideas about those race-classes”. An “anti-racist anti-capitalist”, by contrast, is “one who is opposing racial capitalism”.22 The final chapter is entitled “Survival” and, in contrast to those that precede it, Kendi feels no need to offer a definition. He outlines the life and death struggle of various close family members and his own battle with stage four colon cancer. His survival has given him the belief that we can eradicate the cancer of racism, something that is only “600 years old” and which, therefore, we “have caught early”.23
Kendi’s story is inspirational and he is right to describe capitalism and racism as “conjoined twins”. However, as with his earlier book, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, there is little sense of the dynamism of ideas and how they can change in struggle. Kendi pessimistically asserts: “There is nothing I see in our world today, in our history, giving me hope that one day anti-racists will win the fight, that one day the flag of anti-racism will fly over a world of equity”.24 What we are left with, then, is simply hope that people will become enlightened, choose the right side and work to “dismantle” racism.
Whatever their shortcomings, activists should engage with and arm themselves with the arguments raised not only by Kendi, but also by the likes of Adam Rutherford in How to Argue with a Racist and Angela Saini in Superior: The Return of Race Science—two other useful works that have recently been published.25 The resurgence of racism in recent years has involved repackaging myths that were originally developed to justify slavery and ultimately became part of the pseudo-scientific repertoire of racism. As Eddo-Lodge puts it, Superior “debunks racism’s core lie—that inequality is to do with genetics, rather than political power”.26
However, as accounts of the structural roots of racism in early capitalism necessarily suggest, a focus on individual actions and accountability can only take us so far. Major firms and public bodies can, albeit reluctantly, reconcile themselves to the concept of “unconscious bias”. Dealing with entrenched structural racism—educational exclusion and underachievement, unemployment, poverty, criminalisation and poor health outcomes—is more difficult. Much of the time they ostensibly ignore racism. At other times, inequality is pathologised by reference to the apparent shortcomings of black people: we are characterised as lazy, lawless, dismissive of the importance of education and disrespectful of family values. Occasionally, however, an event of such significance occurs that it exposes capitalism’s dark underbelly and forces the ruling elite to respond. In the wake George Floyd’s killing, some of the richest and most powerful corporations rushed to ally themselves with BLM. Sportswear giant Nike subverted its traditional slogan and declared in a sombre video: “For Once, Don’t Do It. Don’t pretend there’s not a problem in America. Don’t turn your back on racism.” Capitalist competition was briefly suspended when Adidas, its main rival, endorsed the advert.
In order to demonstrate their ongoing engagement, many organisations will doubtless commit themselves to a programme of diversity training. Whatever the virtues of such training, this cannot be a substitute for collective engagement that can challenge the fundamental structures of society. At worst, these schemes can be counterproductive. Suggesting, as DiAngelo does, that white women’s tears are “one of the more pernicious enactments of white fragility” is moralistic and has echoes of the racism awareness programmes that were pioneered in Britain in the 1980s, which patently failed to eradicate institutional racism.27
Race, policing and incarceration
In addition to books addressing broad questions about the nature of racism and how to challenge it, much of the literature that is attracting attention today focuses on more specific and strategic issues. Not surprisingly, the criminal justice system is a particular area of concern.
Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow has been described as “the secular bible of a new social movement” by no less a figure than black US philosopher Cornel West and is enjoying renewed popularity a decade after its original release.28 At its heart is an argument that the legislative equality fought for by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s is being systematically dismantled. In the book, subtitled “Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”, Alexander observes that policing and policymaking have led to the criminalisation and incarceration of millions of black men. This new system of racialised social control has, she argues, been created by appealing to the sensibilities of poor and working class whites. There is clearly much truth in Alexander’s claims. Among a host of damning statistics, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) reports that African Americans are incarcerated at five times the rate of whites.29 Alongside 13th, film-maker Ava DuVernay’s excellent Netflix documentary, Alexander’s book demonstrates how this has led to the systematic removal of rights that are supposedly enshrined in the US constitution.
The New Jim Crow is a powerful polemic, and the conditions it describes are damning. It should also be remembered that it was first published during the presidency of Barack Obama, when the movement might have expected to have an ally in the White House. The prison population did decline during Obama’s administration, but police brutality remained stubbornly high and his wider reforms were so timid that racial inequality remained similar to that of the late 1960s. It was on Obama’s watch that Garza’s anguished social media post called forth the early phases of the BLM struggle.
James Forman Jr’s Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America offers something of a corrective to Alexander’s analysis. Forman is acutely aware that the enduring legacy of the Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power struggles of the 1960s has been the growth of a sizeable black middle class. Many of these are obsessed with the concept of “the dream”, constantly eulogising Martin Luther King’s legendary 1963 speech and the “American dream” to which all are meant to aspire. Indeed, it is worth noting how central “the dream” was to the oratory of Obama and how prominently it features in prospective vice president Kamala Harris’s memoir, The Truths We Hold.30
As a public defender, Forman practiced in Washington DC’s criminal courtrooms, where he regularly heard African American judges using King’s “dream” to lecture supposedly recalcitrant black young people for failing to honour the great man’s legacy. An infamous example of the moralism that lies at the heart of this is Bill Cosby’s 2004 “Pound Cake” speech. Cosby is now a disgraced sex offender but back then his persona was that of an avuncular figure, whose long-running TV programme The Cosby Show was the epitome of wholesome family values. The setting for his speech was an NAACP event commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Brown vs Board of Education Supreme Court decision, which ordered southern schools to desegregate. Spurred on by a rapturous audience, Cosby denounced black petty criminals as “knuckleheads”, justified police brutality towards them and declared that “the lower income people are not holding up their end in this deal”.31
What was considered necessary was for these alleged miscreants to be ostracised and disciplined. Self-appointed community leaders rallied support for the war on drugs, railed against single parents and demanded tougher policing. Forman’s argument is that the disenfranchisement that Alexander describes has not simply been imposed by white supremacists, in the manner of the 20th century Jim Crow system of laws in the US’s Southern states. Instead, it has occurred with the support and active intervention of a significant section of the Black population. The truth is that those black faces that rose to high places on the back of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements failed to hold up their end of the deal. The black politicians, police chiefs and law officers that preside over many US cities have colluded in the oppression of less fortunate black people.
In the face of such brutality it is not surprising that one the most vociferous BLM demands has been for the defunding of the police. This is not some unthinking knee-jerk reaction. Policing the Black Man, edited by Angela J Davis, and Policing the Planet, edited by Jordan T Camp and Christina Heatherton, were both published in 2017 following a previous wave of protests. In that year, the cost of policing in the US was $114.5 billion, three times the cost in 1977, despite a significant and sustained fall in violent and property crime since the early 1990s.32 Moreover, the police have become increasingly militarised, taking advantage of a Department of Defense programme to acquire equipment and adopting the use of Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams and “no-knock” raids. These developments have coincided with a significant drop in funding for wider social services.
It is in this context that the calls for defunding have been raised. BLM co-founder Opal Tometi rightly argues that the police are ill-equipped, both in mentality and training, to deal with specific incidents when they occur.33 More generally the police adopt a belligerent “broken windows” approach towards minor transgressions and anti-social behaviour.34 Instead of policing, therefore, campaigners argue that resources should be diverted to programmes such as health, education and youth services. In the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, the momentum appeared to be with the proponents of defunding. Within weeks it was announced that the police department in Minneapolis was being disbanded. Later that month, New York City council voted to cut $838 million from its police budget, with $354 million of this being allocated to other programmes. This was less than the $1 billion activists had called for, however, and it still left the NYPD with a budget of over $5 billion. Meanwhile in Seattle, councillors retreated from their original pledge to cut 50 percent of the police budget. The announcement of smaller cuts, but ones that included a reduction in the salaries of senior officers, promptly led to the resignation of Carmen Best, the department’s black chief. As these examples illustrate, in its most limited interpretation, defunding the police amounts to a modest redistribution of resources. The radical demand for abolition involves a more thoroughgoing critique of and challenge to the structures of capitalism.
Alex Vitale’s The End of Policing, also published in 2017, argues that the problem is “policing itself”. Numerous attempts at change, such as the introduction of body-cams to capture footage of encounters, diversity training and recruitment programmes have been introduced. All have failed because the fundamental problem lies in the role that the police play as the front-line agency of social control. Hence, Vitale asserts that, instead of “empty reforms”, what is required is “a robust democracy that gives people the capacity to demand of their government and themselves real, non-punitive solutions to their problems”.35
Most of these books focus on the US, but the issues they address are universal. The BLM protests have been so widespread precisely because people around the globe have been exposed to the nature of racism. In many countries police brutality does not occur on the same scale as in the US, but it does happen. That is why, for example, protesters in Britain have chanted the names of people who have died in the custody of or following contact with the British police such as Cynthia Jarrett, Sean Rigg, Christopher Alder, Sheku Bayoh and Mark Duggan—whose death sparked widespread uprisings in the summer of 2011—along with those of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Neither is the “broken windows” approach limited to US ghettoes. Its primary architect, former Boston, New York City and Los Angeles police chief William J Bratton, was awarded an honorary knighthood for his work promoting transatlantic cooperation during Gordon Brown’s premiership. In 2011, then prime minister David Cameron sought to appoint him as Metropolitan Police Commissioner. The argument of Theresa May, Cameron’s home secretary at the time, was that the most senior officer had to be a British citizen, and this logic prevailed. Instead, Bratton accepted an advisory role and the tough-talking “total policing” Bernard Hogan-Howe was appointed in his stead. “Broken windows” policing has thus been exported around the world and represents the default model of policing under neoliberalism.
The 2020 BLM protests have been all the more remarkable because they occurred in the midst of a global pandemic and, in many cases, under conditions of lockdown. The pandemic has focused people’s attention on the stark realities of capitalism, how it operates and who its “key” workers really are. The disproportionate impact upon black communities has been laid bare, but the devastating effect upon the entire working class is also becoming increasingly clear.
The challenge for the left in the new phase we are entering must be to strive to transform an exhilarating struggle against racism into something that endures. This will necessarily involve a combination of practice and theory. There is much that we should take from these books, and some elements, notably the divisive arguments about privilege, should be engaged with and contested. We can only succeed by uniting across the ethnic divide to fight racism and by forging a new movement whose goal is revolutionary change that tears down the structures of a system that breeds racism.