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No, Black People Can’t Be “Racists”

The term “racism” must be understood within the context of an anti-Black American polity.

The attacks waged against everything deemed “critical race theory” constitute a new form of McCarthyism that spreads fear of a future in which Black professors may again be labeled by the state as political dissidents and left to the whims of a new, updated House Un-American Activities Committee.

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.

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.

As white feminist Peggy McIntosh might argue, and with which I would agree, Black people don’t find themselves within “invisible systems conferring unsought racial dominance on [their] groups from birth.” Yet, this is the reality of white people in this country.

Of course, some white people might say, “But I’m poor even though I’m white!” I lament white poverty and will do what I can to undo racial capitalism, because it keeps us down in similar ways. Yet, we mustn’t be misled by a false equivalence. To be a poor white is still to be a poor white. To become white was the price of the ticket, as James Baldwin would say. In that process of being recruited by whiteness, there is the understanding, even if only implicit and inchoate, that you are the opposite of Black — human.

White literary figure Lillian Smith knows about this recruitment. In Killers of the Dream, she writes, “Your white skin proves that you are better than all other people on this earth.” Tatum concludes in this way: “In my view, reserving the term racist only for behaviors committed by Whites in the context of a White-dominated society is a way of acknowledging the ever-present power differential afforded Whites by the culture and institutions that make up the system of advantage and continue to reinforce notions of White supremacy.” On this score, Kennedy’s contention that there are “Black racists” falls flat.

The idea that Black people who hold racial prejudices and occupy positions of relative power qualify as “racists” akin to white supremacist racists would only ever make sense to me if a counterfactual (i.e., wildly fantastical) set of historical events were also real. Let me explain.

For years now, I have used the following counterfactual history (presented in the block quote of my own words below) as an example to challenge and augment the narrow and protected memory of my white students, many of whom have never even heard of the white abolitionist John Brown. That historical archive seems too dangerous for those who are afraid to investigate what lies within the belly of the beast, the monstrous structure of white supremacy. (Spoiler alert: In the imagined history below, I have simply reversed the actual history of anti-Black racism in the U.S. in order to make clear the ridiculousness of claiming that Black people are racist.)

Imagine that Black people decided to venture off to Europe to explore the unknown. Needing cheap labor, they decided to capture millions of white people from Europe and enslave them. Moving through the “door of no return,” white people suffered in cruel agony, undergoing forms of psychic trauma from which they would perhaps never recover. Black people brought them back to Africa in ships that smelled of feces, urine, sickness and blood. They were packed in suffocating spaces that were designed to house far fewer.

Many of the whites died from the disease-laden conditions of the ship. In fact, Black people had to pull white children from the arms of their loving white parents because their little bodies had to be thrown overboard to protect the remaining items of value. Black people made sure to separate white people so that they couldn’t speak the same language so that any attempt at escape was thwarted in advance. Some whites, holding hands, jumped overboard to their death rather than to be enslaved by the Black sellers of white flesh. They eventually were sold from auction blocks, often naked, as other Blacks examined them. They were sold to the person who bid the highest. Imagine white women exposed to the Black men as their wicked imaginations took flight. Imagine how Black women must have looked upon those wretched white hypersexual beasts of burden, defining their Black womanhood accordingly.

Eventually, white people were not just ordered to work, but were beaten, starved, dehumanized, brutally separated, sexually molested, backs scarred from the whip, bodies broken, and so many souls decimated. Black people had to think of ways to hide from the truth of white humanity. So, they created Black myths of white inferiority, white bestiality, white stupidity, white sub-personhood. If whites resisted, in any form, then they would receive multiple lashes until there was nothing more than gore and slashed skin. Many Black masters were invested libidinally in such rituals. And Black women loved to blame white women for the mixed-race children that would appear on the plantation, knowing that her Black husband had raped these pitiful and abject white creatures. Masses of Black people were indoctrinated with stories from the Bible that spoke of white people’s natural inferiority, reading only those sections that could be marshaled to support white wretchedness. God, after all, was Black. Adam and Eve were Black. Eminent Black philosophers, naturalists and taxonomists from Africa wrote entire treaties on white debauchery, and Black superiority, Black beauty and the Black man’s burden. White people were just children, the decedents of Ham, destined to be a servant of servants.

Eventually, white people were “freed,” but not really as they had to follow what were called “white codes.” Slavery had a new coding: criminality. And many white people suffered the fate of convict leasing or debt servitude. Mass incarceration would follow these white people all the way up to the present day in various predominantly monochromatically Black countries. In one such country, there was something called Jim Crowism. White people could not sit with Black people because the former were inferior. So, Black people created segregated schools, bathrooms, restaurants, buses, you name it. Black people created Black neighborhood covenants to keep those “white animals” out. After all, they had the wrong color skin. It was disgustingly white. They had stringy hair, pointy noses, thin lips, and the wrong hips and backsides, too narrow and too flat. How could God have created such aesthetic monstrosities? Many white people internalized these degrading myths, they came to prefer all things Black, even Black dolls. There were also anti-miscegenation laws against Black people and white people marrying. No one wanted to taint the “purity” of Black blood. White people, after all, had “bad blood.” Well, that’s what they were told during the infamous experiment on white people to find a “cure” for syphilis.

There was a time, which was called the “barbeque,” when many Black people would gather in the thousands, along with their Black children, in their best attire, to watch white men castrated and burned to death by Black men because some Black women said that a white man raped her. And everyone knew that white men were rapists of Black women. It’s a part of their ethically inept nature.

Soon, de jure anti-white racism would yield to white and Black protests. Black people begrudgingly tolerated white people. Some Blacks were sincere but refused to accept the fact that they were still racists. Not the old kind, but the new kind, the kind that claims not to see race: “I don’t see white people, I just see people.” “There is no such thing as systemic Black racism.” “Black privilege is a farce.”“We live in a post-racial America.” “Hell, we didn’t own white slaves.” “Black racism can’t exist because you guys had a white president.”

While unarmed white people are dying at the hands of Black police and white bodies are being disproportionately warehoused in prisons, and white people are marching in the streets screaming “White Lives Matter,” Black people are wondering what the problem is.

In fact, it is white people who are to blame for their own condition; they need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. White people are just playing the race card and suffering from victimhood. As Black people continue in a state of denial, white people are trying their best to teach Black people about Black privilege and systemic Black racism. There are times when white people just want to give up on Black people and their racist system of governance. Some have even come to articulate a vision called Euro-pessimism. And, many whites, to the consternation of many Black people, are even demanding reparations. They feel that they are owed something because of the history of Black anti-white racism.

Only if the absurd counterfactual history that I have imagined above were true –rather than being the opposite of the actual history of enslavement and racism in the U.S. — would it then make sense to accept the idea that “Black people are racists.”

Without this counterfactual history, the idea of a Black racist is titular and does far more harm. For example, the claim that “Black people are racist” risks denuding the historical and current monstrosity of what we know to be the manifestations of white racism in the U.S., and the venomous nature of the ways in which white supremacy is a global phenomenon.

In The Racial Contract, Charles Mills argues that, “white supremacy, both local and global, exists and has existed for many years.” There is a reason that we use the term “Euro-domination,” not “Afro-domination.” The former speaks to pervasive forms of white settler colonialism. Indeed, for Mills, white supremacy functions as a political system and involves a “racial contract” between white people — literal or metaphorical.

To maintain that Black people can be racist is as absurd as comparing the Black Lives Matter movement to the KKK. It’s as absurd as comparing India Walton to David Duke. Therefore, literacy regarding the legacy of white supremacy and its extant reality is so crucial. The truth of white supremacy is not flattering. It is a hard pill to swallow for white people. Yet isn’t it better to choke on the truth than to ingest delectable lies? According to James Baldwin, “People who imagine that history flatters them are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and become incapable of seeing or changing themselves or the world.”