Black Dignity vs. Liberal Anti-Racism
** This is the first post in our Black Dignity and Death forum, focusing on Vincent Lloyd’s Black Dignity: The Struggle against Domination and Norman Ajari’s Dignity Or Death: Ethics and Politics of Race. Each day this week one article from a different scholar will be published
Subsequent posts include:
Dignity, police killing, and France’s racial uprising by Norman Ajari
Racial Symbols and Black Death by Dalitso Ruwe **
Black justice movements have transformed the conversation about race in the U.S. Through careful analysis, persistent organizing, and innovative tactics, youth-led Black justice movements have had more success in the last ten years than they did in the previous forty years.
From the end of the Black Power era to the start of the Black Lives Matter era, roughly from the early 1970s to the early 2010s, liberal multiculturalism had a lock on race discourse and practice. While there were superficial disagreements, the state, the business world, the education world, and the nonprofit world were aligned: they all worked to depoliticize race. Blackness became one form of difference among many. Blackness came with a particular history, cuisine, style, way of speaking, and community norms. It came with a discrete set of problems, and these could be addressed with policy fixes. African American identity stood in parallel with Asian American, Native American, and Hispanic identities. Each could fit comfortably on a list of boxes to tick – as an identity for self-fashioning, for marketing, and for state management.
Under the regime of liberal multiculturalism, anti-Black racism persisted: in the U.S., we saw attacks on voting rights, affirmative action, and public education, and of course the caging of a million Black Americans in the prison system.
Black justice movements reveal that the true nature of Blackness is political. By charging that anti-Black racism is qualitatively different from other forms of racism, they refuse the rules of the game: they refuse the framework of multiculturalism. In doing so, they reveal for all to see how thoroughly infected U.S. society is with anti-Black racism, from police violence to prisons to environmental racism to inequities in health care to food access to employment to housing. Further, Black justice movements reveal that anti-Black racism is intertwined with patriarchy, capitalism, and colonialism. Instead of a set of discrete problems, the pervasiveness and entanglements of anti-Black racism mean that we must interrupt our habits, our institutions, and our state, and then we must restart on new foundations. Only through deep structural transformation can we break the liberal-rightwing alliance that enables anti-Blackness.
In the last decade, Black justice movements have pulled the sheet off white supremacists, revealing their true identity – and the white supremacists are scared. After the cultural shifts that followed the civil rights movement, white supremacists realized they could not operate openly anymore, and they realized that their interests could be advanced through liberal multiculturalism. Institutions that kept power in the hands of whites would still operate in that way, now just under the guise of “diversity,” with surface-level debates about how to define “diversity.” With this farce increasingly revealed for what it is, the white supremacists are scrambling to find new tools to maintain their power. They are ideologically (and demographically) vulnerable, so they go on the attack, for example, against an imaginary construct they call “critical race theory.” Through all the incoherent babble about “critical race theory,” white supremacists get one thing right: there are powerful political visions of Black justice that organizers are pushing into public discourse, including into schools.
The other strategy of vulnerable white supremacists is to sow discord among their opponents. Insurgent Black justice movements offer a new paradigm for addressing questions of race, but the old, liberal, multicultural paradigm lingers. Here is the white supremacist’s strategy, enabled by self-interested liberals: convince Black justice-seekers that what we really need is an updated version of the old paradigm instead of a new paradigm. In other words, white supremacists are trying to convince leftists that they really ought to be liberals.
With the liberal, multicultural paradigm exposed as a violent fraud, it can only continue to hold sway if it is dressed up in new clothes. Paint those white sheets with bright colors, add some sparkles, and we have today’s liberal anti-racism. It consists of three main features:
- Liberal anti-racism cares about race in empirical terms, not political terms. It insists on first getting the facts right, then looking for solutions, then building the political will to push through those solutions. The kerfuffle about the Advanced Placement African American Studies course clearly illustrates this tendency. Liberal anti-racists describe African American Studies as African American history – at best, as African American history and culture – when in fact African American Studies names the nexus of ideology critique and grassroots organizing that aims to topple white supremacy. Some liberal anti-racists allow for the importance of “theory,” but this is theory that serves as a lens to view facts; it is not theory developing in dialectical relationship with liberation struggles.
- Liberal anti-racism invests in bureaucrats and bureaucratic lingo charged with managing race relations. In response to Black justice movements, corporations, educational institutions, and arms of the state welcome new appendages that advertise their anti-racist credentials. These bureaucracies mediate between those who hold power and movements that demand power; bureaucrats are rewarded when equilibrium is maintained. To achieve this, the bureaucrat takes movement rhetoric and thought, developed dialectically in struggle, and freezes it into dogma. Thus frozen, and so depoliticized, corporations and even the state can proclaim movement slogans: “Black Lives Matter.” Mischievously, the bureaucrat convinces justice movements that redemption comes through bureaucracy, and that movements ought to demand adherence to frozen dogma. In this way, anti-racist bureaucracy parallels labor bureaucracy: it sucks energy from rank-and-file organizing.
- Liberal anti-racism makes things personal. Here is the classic liberal move to depoliticize: the justice claim is really about personal behavior, not about dismantling institutions. Each of us is charged with becoming an “anti-racist,” with taking “anti-racist” actions in our own lives. Public discourse becomes about heroes, monsters, and martyrs. Meanwhile, the diversity bureaucrats (who themselves often wield personal charisma in service to bureaucracy) have transformed into dogma once-powerful critical language: “systemic racism” becomes an incantation of the individual anti-racist. Movement discourse turns in on itself as it evaluates the moral standing of its members based on their adherence to anti-racist dogma. As Jo Freeman predicted, out of structurelessness, out of the suspicion of all authorities, comes new forms of tyranny and abuse.
Today, white supremacists are trying to smuggle these three liberal tendencies into Black justice movements. They are often succeeding. Social media rewards the empirical, the dogmatic, and the personal. Political repression and the coronavirus pandemic intensified a sense of vulnerability among organizers, and liberal tendencies offer solace. The empirical, the dogmatic, and the personal make politics seem easy – when what they are really doing is depoliticizing.
Black Dignity as Anchor
Confronted with the challenge, and temptation, of liberal anti-racism, how can Black justice movements remain anchored in the political left? My contention, in Black Dignity: The Struggle Against Domination, is that we must recognize the philosophical commitments implicit in justice movements. In other words, the language, including chants and tweets, of movements organizers and activists is not mere rhetoric. It points to a shared tradition of Black radical thought that is left-not-liberal. I argue that dignity holds together the philosophical vision of contemporary Black justice movements, and one of the essential tasks of intellectuals is to make explicit that vision.
We find the language of dignity circulating around the network of protest movements that employ the hashtag Black Lives Matter. In the movement’s platform, dignity is affirmed in the first sentence. One of the co-founders of the movement, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, also founded and chairs a Los Angeles-based grassroots group called Dignity and Power Now, and all three co-founders have talked about dignity as motivating their organizing work.
The language of dignity has long been associated with Black justice movements, from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King, Jr. It is tempting to associate that language with familiar discourses of dignity: in Christian ethics, in international law, or in European philosophy. But Black organizers use the language of dignity in a distinct way. Instead of referring to high rank, the image of God in humans, or the root of equality, Black organizers talk about dignity as something we do, something performed. Specifically, dignity is struggle. After Douglass physically grapples with the slave-breaker Covey, he realizes he has dignity: dignity manifesting in struggle against mastery, against domination.
Recent Black justice movements have contributed a crucial new insight into our understanding of dignity by cleaving dignity from respectability. Respectability is a false copy of dignity. Whereas respectability furthers systems of domination that compose the status quo, dignity challenges the status quo. A judge ruling within a white supremacist legal system may be respectable, but she does not have genuine dignity. A Black corporate or non-profit executive may seem to have dignity, but really she really is respectable. She is not aligned with Black justice struggles. We must continually discern the difference between dignity and respectability, and we must do so dialectically, revisiting our judgments as context changes and as we receive more information.
Such dialectical work is at the heart of Black justice movements. Liberal anti-racism is dogmatic; Black justice movements are dialectical. Behind slogans like Black rage, Black love, and Black girl magic are complex conversations about how to center political and ethical life in the struggle against domination – in other words, about how to keep Black dignity at the heart of Black justice movements. Social movements are represented as a series of slogans and demands; but they are movements, trying out words and practices that will challenge the systems of domination that infect our world, learning from those experiments, discerning which ideas and tactics are aligned with the struggle, and trying again – all fueled by a commitment, a faith, in a new world, free of domination.
What is Black about Black dignity? Blackness, as it is found in Black justice movements, is political. It does not refer to skin color, genealogy, genetics, or culture. Blackness refers to the paradigm of domination: master and slave. The Middle Passage presents domination in laboratory conditions, as it were: those enslaved were stripped of freedom but also of family, language, culture, spirituality, and land. Slavery’s afterlives persist in the present, and not only among those descended from the enslaved. Slavery shaped the self-conception of the world, at scales large and small. To make slavery plausible, it was necessary to insinuate the dehumanization of Blacks into laws, institutions, social norms, and habits of thought and feeling. If we want to learn about domination, then the best place to look is among Blacks: those who experience domination acquire expertise in how domination works. And domination is part of our humanity, it is a problem we all confront, as we dominate and as we are dominated.
We are at a moment of great peril and of great opportunity when it comes to racial justice. At a similarly significant moment, Martin Luther King, Jr., famously decried the “white moderate” from his Birmingham jail cell. Everyone recognized the evil of segregationist politicians; recognizing the evil in moderation is a more challenging task. Today, we have multicultural moderates (liberal anti-racists) who parrot the language and affect of Black justice movements without being oriented toward justice, without being committed to Black dignity. We have diversity experts peddling their authenticity and their anti-racism guidebooks to everyone from CEOs to toddlers. Anti-racism becomes a story of white guilt and repentance, paired with an unequivocal affirmation of Black folks. It becomes a set of slogans taught at workshops and shared on social media, then regurgitated to signal virtue. Multicultural moderates (who come in all races) are invested in an older race paradigm, one that has been made vulnerable by Black justice movements.
King wrote that the white moderate prefers order to justice. The same is true of the multicultural moderate, but with a twist: the multicultural moderate defends order using the rhetoric of justice. The order that was established following the civil rights movement, the neoliberal, multicultural paradigm that reigned largely unchallenged until the last decade, purports to care about racial justice. It establishes diversity scholarships, celebrates Black executives and novelists, and commemorates Black history. Those Blacks who Malcolm X called “house Negros,” who are willing to perform caricatures of Blackness in the service of the established order, gain wealth and prestige – and the illusion of power. The consciences of their white patrons are cleansed.
To advance genuine justice rather than its false copy, we must beware of the temptations posed by multicultural moderation. Especially today: for an old paradigm is critically weakened, and a new paradigm is being born. It is a moment of vulnerability and frustration. It is a moment of experimentation, which necessarily means much failure. Only by rooting ourselves in traditions of struggle, and particularly traditions of Black struggle, are we able to keep our eyes fixed on justice amidst the many distractions around us. Black dignity names the moral vision that anchors Black struggle. To affirm Black dignity is to struggle – not only against anti-Blackness but against all forms of domination, from settler colonialism to patriarchy to capitalism. It means struggling collectively, in social movements, and resisting the temptation to personalize, bureaucratize, and historicize.
Vincent Lloyd is Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University, where he also directs the Center for Political Theology. In addition to Black Dignity: The Struggle Against Domination, Lloyd’s books include Black Natural Law, the co-authored Break Every Yoke: Religion, Justice, and the Abolition of Prisons, and the co-edited Race and Secularism in America.