Earlier this year the city council of the picturesque town of Golden, Colorado, passed resolutions committing to “listening, learning, and acting to advance racial equity and improve the quality of life and health for all,” as well as the erection of a prominent banner in town declaring, “Golden Stands with Black Lives.” Notably absent from the agenda of this middle class Denver suburb was any practical plan to expand housing access so that more poor people (disproportionally people of color) might enjoy the benefits of this progressive city. But by golly Golden sure did “stand with” the 1.8% of its residents who are black. What a wonderful display of good intentions.
I picked Golden at random. One might tell a similar story of dozens of other towns and cities. Or take corporations for example. Amazon is the giant of the moment. Many of us rely upon it in the midst of the pandemic. And look how anti-racist it is! Don’t take my word for it: “We foster diversity and inclusion globally and look for ways to amplify underrepresented voices and empower diverse communities.” And they donated 10 million dollars! And they said this: “Black lives matter. We stand in solidarity with our Black employees, customers, and partners, and are committed to helping build a country and a world where everyone can live with dignity and free from fear.”
All of this solidarity and inclusion helps to explain why Amazon is at the forefront of promoting worker unionization. Just kidding. Amazon relentlessly crushes efforts to empower ordinary people and change the material circumstances of our lives.
Welcome to the world of symbolic anti-racism. It’s not just towns and corporations playing this symbolic game. We as individuals risk playing it too. We need to recognize the game for what it is and insist on something more.
We’re living in an age of renewed anti-racist activism. We must press this activism with all the vigor we can. Yet we’re also living in an era of symbolic anti-racism. Symbolic anti-racism focuses on thoughts, intentions, words, and representation, while de-emphasizing practical steps that would improve the material circumstances of ordinary peoples’ lives. White people especially must resist the pull to make anti-racism a statement of who we are rather than a program of practical action to liberate others.
My thoughts turned in this direction after reading Adolph Reed’s recent piece this morning. For decades, Reed has been critiquing, from the left, the black political establishment. In the aftermath of the civil rights movement, African Americans got elite representation, taking mayor’s offices in major cities and ultimately the presidency itself, but too often they seemed to be merely new faces doing the bidding of the same old power structures. Reed stands for a kind of politics that is more focused on the material needs of the working class.
The limits of representation were on vivid display just this week as we found out Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration had tried to keep a video of police abuse from reaching the public. It unmistakably recalled Mayor Rahm Emmanuel’s attempts to cover up Laquan McDonald’s murder. Chicago now has a black mayor, but how much difference will it make for ordinary black Chicagoans? (To be fair to Lightfoot, she says she was not aware city lawyers tried to suppress the video. We’ll see if another shoe drops in this story).
Representation matters, but the point of getting on the field is to play and win the game. Our relentless enthusiasm for black “firsts” in positions of power is a little too much like celebrating before the kickoff.
Symbolic anti-racists have learned the lingo. They know that they should invoke systemic racism and gentrification and mass incarceration. But the moralizing and posturing that is so evident in our time actually takes us back to the same old pathologies of white racial blindness. We look inward for unconscious bias, we put up outward displays of allyship, we say all the right things, and somehow this ends up being little different from the old saw that racial progress is a matter of changing our hearts and cleansing ourselves of personal prejudice.
In this respect it is telling that gentrification, a localized symptom of much more widespread and systemic housing exclusion, seems to take up as much “anti-racist” oxygen as the systemic exclusion itself.
You really can put a BLM sign on your lawn and oppose the low-income housing development down the street. You really can march for black lives and dismiss out of hand the possibility of sending your kids to a low-income public school. You really can post a lot on social media and never get around to donating a substantial portion of your income to black-led organizations. You really can mistake your anger at white racists for practical concern for black lives. You really can go on an ego trip and call it social justice activism. Believe me, I ought to know.
Look, I’m not saying symbols and words and representation don’t matter. They do matter, a lot. But the fact that the most powerful institutions in our society would rather hold an anti-racism seminar than a workers’ rights information meeting ought to give us a clue! Symbolic anti-racism is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. We must not only be passionate, but analytical; not only well-intentioned, but practical. We must demand concrete results for ordinary people. Otherwise, what’s the point?