“I don’t believe universities are inherently sites of opposition, though spaces have been created in the past and present for oppositional work,” historian Robin D.G. Kelley remarked in our recent conversation about anti-Black racism and our role as Black intellectuals working within the university setting. “How do you avoid becoming a functionary, a cog in the neoliberal machine?”
Kelley — the Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair of U.S. history at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) — went on to reflect on how “spectacular and mundane acts of everyday racism are normalized or simply not seen” due to white indifference, and on how this indifference “is made possible by a culture that promotes individualism, values wealth as a measure of success and is fundamentally anti-democratic.”
In our extensive conversation presented here, Kelley and I examine the current conservative pushback against critical discussions about race and racism, the banning of books in schools, the problem with liberal multiculturalism, and racism within the academy, efforts to create resistance against racism and class exploitation within academia, Black pain and suffering, the war in Ukraine, practices of hope, and much more.
As a philosopher, I am honored to share this space with a fellow lover of wisdom, with someone who takes seriously the life of the mind and the lives of those who endure various sites of oppression and dehumanization. The process of loving wisdom is exemplified in our shared openness for self-examination and the combined critique of hegemonic structures. As Cornel West writes in Democracy Matters, “love of wisdom is a perennial pursuit into the dark corners of one’s own soul, the night alleys of one’s society, and the back roads of the world in order to grasp the deep truths about one’s soul, society, and world.”
In the conversation below, we blend philosophical analysis, historical insight and autobiography in our discussion of the social, political and existential realities of our contemporary moment.
George Yancy: I would like to discuss with you the importance of keeping a critical discourse about racism alive. And I say this precisely because of the attack by right-wing forces against educating students in schools (and by extension the demos) about the multiple dimensions of racism — historical, systemic, institutional, legal, interpersonal and unconscious. For example, some states (Idaho, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, and others) have passed legislation that is designed to prohibit critical conversations regarding the structural racism of the U.S., which includes “discussions about conscious and unconscious bias, privilege, discrimination, and oppression.” What do you make of such legislative moves, and what do you see activist teachers and scholars doing (or ought to do) to push back against those efforts?
Robin D.G. Kelley: Thanks, George. Always great to be in conversation with you. I realize it’s been almost a year since our last conversation. The right-wing attacks on schools have not abated since we spoke. Of course, you know that none of this is new. I recently revisited your wonderful book of interviews, On Race: 34 Conversations in a Time of Crisis, and it comes up in your conversation with Larry Blum, a philosopher who writes about race in schools. In fact, the attack on so-called political correctness in the form of critiques of Afrocentrism back in the 1990s comes up in your first book of interviews, African-American Philosophers: 17 Conversations, specifically within the context of your interview with Lucius T. Outlaw, if memory serves.
The current attacks, like those of the 1990s, are equally about gender, sexuality and reproductive rights. For transgender and pregnant people, the consequences in terms of denying necessary health care and the right to abortions are potentially fatal. While our conversation is primarily about race, I don’t want to lose sight of this fact — not least of which, because a disproportionate number of folks affected are Black, Brown and poor.
Some critics have compared this wave of legislation with Jim Crow laws, but for me they are akin to McCarthyism — these are outright attacks on teachers and educational institutions. Think about it. The so-called “Moms for Liberty” in New Hampshire offered a $500 reward for turning in teachers who violate the state’s anti-[critical race theory (CRT)] law. In Virginia, this extremist, Laura Murphy, succeeded in getting Toni Morrison’s Beloved banned from the school curriculum, a move which in turn helped elect Glenn Youngkin governor. The latest absurd manifestation of this attack was seeing Sen. Ted Cruz holding up Ibram X. Kendi’s sweet little children’s book, Antiracist Baby, as if it was a bomb recovered from a terrorist cell, in order to derail Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation. But like I said, none of this is new. My late colleague, historian Gary B. Nash, along with Charlotte Crabtree and Ross Dunn, published an important book 25 years ago titled History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past, which is chock full of examples. A favorite of mine dates back to 1961, when some of the good citizens of Meriden, Connecticut, backed up by the Daughters of the American Revolution, insisted on banning textbooks deemed “subversive” because they contained images of poverty, and included material on the United Nations, prejudice, mental health and writings of “liberal, racial, socialist, or labor agitators.”
The contemporary bills are equally ridiculous (and tragic since we don’t have a Supreme Court willing to strike them down). The Iowa bill signed by Gov. Kim Reynolds criminalizes teaching anything considered “divisive,” including subject matter that might make “any individual . . . feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of that individual’s race or sex.” The individuals in question, of course, are white kids, and the language is based upon an assumption that white kids (and their parents) would feel shame and guilt if they had to confront the history of American racism. The feelings of Black, Brown and Indigenous children are not considered.
Now let’s follow the logic here. Conservative legislators and their white parent allies believe that an anti-racist curriculum will make their children uncomfortable. It is not an accident that Antiracist Baby is held up as subversive literature, whereas there is no commensurate movement to ban books that promote racism: for example, Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia; the writings of John C. Calhoun; Edmund Ruffin’s The Political Economy of Slavery; or books and articles by Samuel Cartwright, Josiah Nott, George Fitzhugh, Louis Agassiz, Herbert Spencer, William Graham Sumner, Madison Grant, Lothrop Stoddard, or Daniel G. Brinton, the eminent Harvard anthropologist whose 1890 book, Races and Peoples, lamented, “That philanthropy is false, that religion is rotten, which would sanction a white woman enduring the embrace of a colored man.” There are too many texts to name, and these were not written by quacks but respected scholars. The only reason we know about the brutalities of slavery, dispossession and Jim Crow is because the long history of anti-racist struggles has exposed America as a less-than-perfect-union. It should baffle all of us that any school or community would not want to teach the history of a movement that tried to make sure every person enjoyed freedom and safety, that wanted to end slavery and Jim Crow. If we live in a country that is supposedly built on the principles of freedom and democracy, wouldn’t teaching about how courageous people risked their lives to ensure freedom for themselves and others be considered a good thing? Doesn’t it instill those values in students? The implication of this right-wing logic is that America is great, slavery was a good idea and anti-racism sullied our noble tradition (and when the federal government attempted to ban slavery and segregation in the states, this was a case of overreach).
So let me ask you, George, what do you make of this legislative war on — let’s be honest — liberal multiculturalism?
Your observations, as usual, are critically insightful, and straight to the point. The draconian legislative maneuvers that you mention to repress critical discussion about the history of and current reality of U.S. racism also reminds me of McCarthyism, something out of the dystopian nightmare of 1984. I also appreciate your honesty and clarity in calling out liberal multiculturalism in your insightful article where you draw from the work of political theorist Wendy Brown. I think that liberal multiculturalism fails at being radical. I think that it is important to create academic and public spaces where deep critical discussion can take place, where parrhesia or courageous speech can take place. In this case, I’m thinking about courageous speech regarding anti-Black racism. The reality of white terrorism that Black people have had to endure must be represented, which is what critically informed multicultural pedagogies ought to do. We need to be creating discursive spaces that tell the truth about what it means to be Black in the U.S. It is about inclusion, representation and visibility. After all, this is what Black folk have been fighting for in terms of institutional, societal and political inclusion. But, liberal multiculturalism has a seductive edge. I say this because being “included” seems positive but it does not necessarily lead to one’s liberation. This is a case where the institutional structures and norms of inclusion do the work of racial, gender and class representation, but exclude the majority of folk who continue to suffer from racism, sexism and classism. I think that Martin Luther King Jr. had something like this in mind when he spoke of his fear that he had integrated his people into a burning house. That metaphor is so powerful. After all, who wants to be integrated into a house where a conflagration is occurring? Liberal multiculturalism says, “Yes, we see you. Now, be happy.” One is seen, however, on terms that both erase one’s self-representational agency and downplay or attempt to erase the brutal discursive and material conditions that prompted one (in this case Black people) to resist invisibility to begin with.
My sense is that the current legal attacks on [Critical Race Theory (CRT)] presuppose a U.S. that has transcended all things racial and racist. Of course, this is nonsense and bad faith. I would even call it disgusting, because it stinks of lies that do violence to the lived histories of Black people in the U.S. So, not only do we suffer the physical and psychic pains of anti-Black racism, but we also suffer the pains of having that history ignored or even denied. The truth is that Black people continue to be policed and brutalized by racial capitalism, even as and after we had our first Black president. This says to me that holding political office (even the highest political office) by people who look like you and me, Robin, doesn’t ipso facto do anything to radically change how anti-Black racism continues to impact Black people. If we are to radically trouble the opium of mere representation, then this will require that we critique how inclusion can function as a political cul-de-sac. Critics of CRT would rather we accept our place within the house of inclusion and pretend that we can breathe just fine from the smoke permeating the air of that house. We are required to celebrate “diversity” and “inclusion” even though our breath is being arrested, and we are being dehumanized, brutalized, and rendered abject in 21st century U.S. Attacks on CRT are attacks on Black people’s epistemological agency and our will to speak the truth.
Quite frankly, I have no need for white recognition or inclusion if this means that I relinquish my critical voice that confronts the lies of whiteness, capitalism, police brutality, poverty — all of which are inextricably linked. I agree with you that if the U.S. is allegedly predicated “on the principles of freedom and democracy,” then, yes, one would think that the historical themes of courage and resistance against forms of oppression ought to be emphasized and taught. Yet, such themes are feared. It is this fear that has led to my name being put on the Professor Watchlist, which is a conversative website that places under surveillance the ideas of “leftist thinkers.” This says to me that freedom and democracy continue to function, in so many ways, as nominal. There is a great irony here. Black people have attempted to make the U.S. more democratic than its monochromatically white institutions have ever willingly done. And yet our critical voices are being repressed, our engaging and courageous scholarship attacked, and our embodied psychic lives continuously under social, political and existential duress. Hence, my message is that we need to continue to push back against hegemonic structures that are unjust and designed to silence, structures that continue to exist as Black, Brown and Indigenous people continue to be included. I assume that our inclusion is designed to communicate that we have arrived, as Sara Ahmed would argue, and that any critique at all is superfluous. For Ahmed, “diversity in this world becomes then a happy sign, a sign that racism has been overcome.” So, I think that we need to resist such a happy sign and its attempt at obfuscation.
On this important and indispensable theme of resistance and push back, I would like to consider our respective disciplines. I’ll begin with philosophy, which is probably the whitest field within the humanities. When I discovered philosophy at 17 years old, I had no idea that it was what the late philosopher Charles Mills called both monochromatically and conceptually white. As an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh, I was typically the only Black student. Every philosophical text was written by a white male thinker. It was only later, because of the influence of my mentor, Black historian and cultural theorist James G. Spady, that I came to realize that there were Black philosophers, ones with doctorates. I recall a feeling that I had been duped into thinking that I was alone, the only Black philosopher. I would also later experience a sense of alienation, of drowning in a sea of whiteness when attending philosophical conferences. Before moving to Emory University, I was the first Black professor of philosophy to be tenured in the history of the philosophy department at Duquesne University. I was also the first to teach entire graduate seminars on critical philosophy of race and critical whiteness studies. When I left, unfortunately, so did my graduate seminars. To my knowledge, there hasn’t been a “replacement.” Perhaps this is indicative of white institutional inertia.
Historically, the field of philosophy is dominated by white men. This reality impacts how Black people and people of color are perceived within the field. It was only later that I discovered that many prominent European philosophers (David Hume, Immanuel Kant, John Locke, et al.) were racists. Many Black philosophers did the critical work to expose the contradictions within the thought of these white philosophers, especially in terms of the ideals that they held and how those ideals were never intended to apply to Black people. David Hume thought that Black people were mere parrots. We know that he believed that Black people didn’t have the capacity to generate original thoughts of their own. Black philosophers have been instrumental in critiquing the emptiness of ideal theory as an approach that belies non-ideal social, political and existential conditions (racism, sexism, classism, you name it). What we find is that the practice of white philosophy avoids issues of race and racism by ghettoizing and categorizing them as “non-philosophical.” Imagine Black philosophers remaining silent on such practices. We must be honest: Mainstream academic philosophy is pregnant with all sorts of white conceptual assumptions that exclude and are hostile to Black experiences, Black life and Black knowledge production. In what ways have you dealt with the hegemonic structure of whiteness within the discipline of history and your identity as a Black historian?
I have never met a Black faculty member my age or older, in any discipline, who hasn’t experienced egregious racism in the academy. I’ve been through the drill many times in my 35 years in this job — stopped, questioned, frisked by campus security; mistaken by colleagues for a janitor or mail services employee; questioned by white students regarding my credentials, especially when teaching “U.S. history” or anything not designated “Black.” Emory University, where I held my first tenure-track position in the late 1980s (and was the only Black faculty member in the history department), was a nightmare. My office was a converted broom closet, and the chair of history at the time prohibited me from teaching graduate courses, despite having my PhD in hand, a book in press and some peer-reviewed articles.
Meanwhile, junior colleagues who had either completed all the requirements for the PhD except for the dissertation or filed their dissertation after me were allowed to teach graduate students. To be fair, I had a few advocates in the department, like the distinguished Southern historian Dan T. Carter. But the biggest slight came when I learned that a faculty study group, made up mostly of younger scholars, was reading Antonio Gramsci. It never occurred to them to invite me, despite the fact that I was writing about Marxism and Marxist movements. They finally agreed to invite me when they decided to read Martin Bernal’s Black Athena (vol. 1) — a book with which I was familiar, but far from my own field. No matter, they assumed anything “Black” was my special domain. I gracefully bowed out, but not before suggesting that they take a look at some of the Black scholars who preceded the publication of Black Athena, e.g., Cheikh Anta Diop, Frank M. Snowden Jr., George G.M. James, as well as my own mentor, Cedric J. Robinson.
But you posed a very specific question about my discipline, history. You have to realize that my education was totally unorthodox. I attended California State University at Long Beach, a second-tier state school, where I earned a minor in Black studies (Maulana Karenga was one of my professors) and majored in history. I had a couple of radical Jewish professors who encouraged me to read whatever I wanted and confirmed that the historical canon was largely racist. I created my own canon: Walter Rodney, W.E.B. Du Bois, C.L.R. James, Vincent Harding, Angela Davis, Barbara Smith, William Leo Hansberry, Cheikh Anta Diop, Frantz Fanon, Marx and Engels, Lenin, Gramsci, Rosa Luxemburg, ad infinitum. I did most of my reading independently or in study groups organized by the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, the Communist Workers Party, and other groups. In 1983, I began graduate school in African history at UCLA, where, unsurprisingly, the canonical figures were white men: Philip Curtin, Jan Vansina, and so forth, but even some of the white scholars were fairly radical — Terence Ranger, Basil Davidson, Belinda Bozzoli, Frederick Cooper, Bill Freund. And of course, we were reading African scholars — B.A. Ogot, J.E. Inikori, Bernard Magubane, Samir Amin, Nina Mba, Arnold Temu, Bonaventure Swai, Issa Shivji, P.O. Esedebe, Chinweizu, etc. The debates were so different. They centered on questions of class, class struggle, the limits of nationalist historiography, underdevelopment, colonialism and decolonization. We were not losing sleep over Hegel’s racist characterizations of Africa in his Philosophy of History, but instead read Hegel with much interest as a way to understand Fanon and, to a certain extent, Marx.
I emphasize these debates because the work my peers (comrades) and I were doing defied academic disciplines. In fact, most of my friends in grad school were not historians but filmmakers, literary scholars, budding political scientists and a small group working at the edge of philosophy. I was active in UCLA’s African Activists Association, which consisted primarily of African students from the continent, many embroiled directly in national liberation struggles. For this reason, philosophy was very important to all of us.
One of the first articles I published in Ufahamu, the graduate student-run journal of the African Activists Association, was a long review essay on Leonard Harris’s landmark anthology, Philosophy Born of Struggle. When it came out in 1985, I had just turned 23 and was a dedicated Marxist . . . and it shows! I’m embarrassed by most of it, but I invoke it here to illustrate the benefits of an inadequate education. Before reading this book, everything I knew about Western philosophy I learned in an undergraduate intro course, so to my mind Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, Descartes, John Locke, Rousseau were far less relevant and important than Frederick Douglass, Alain Locke, Eugene C. Holmes, Cornel West, Angela Davis, Lucius T. Outlaw, Bernard Boxill, Johnny Washington, William R. Jones, Berkley and Essie Eddins, and of course, Leonard Harris. While I would disagree with much of the essay today, my sophomoric conclusion says a lot about why I valued philosophy: “Our oppression as a people does not afford us the luxury of relegating philosophy to the trash cans of Euro-America…. What Harris, et. al., has shown us is that Black thought, as distinct and diverse as it may be, does contain certain commonalities when applied to our experience. Our perspective is not that of the bearer of the shoe of racism, capitalism, and imperialism. We view our being — the phenomenology of Blackness — from underneath the foot.”
So, in graduate school I studied with Cedric Robinson (author of Black Marxism and many other texts), Robert Hill (editor of the Marcus Garvey Papers and close friends and comrades of C.L.R. James, Walter Rodney, and others), and Mazisi Kunene (South African literary scholar and author of the epic poem Emperor Shaka the Great). However, when I switched my major field from African history to U.S. history because I could not get into South Africa to conduct research (after all, this was around 1985-1986), I started to bump up against the liberal version of the canonical racism W.E.B. Du Bois wrote about in his final chapter of Black Reconstruction, “The Propaganda of History.” I remember vividly taking my written qualifying examinations in U.S. history — having only taken one course in the U.S. field. In those days, you were placed in an empty carrel with a typewriter and paper, and you had eight hours to answer three essay questions. The final question asked us to write a historiographical essay on a “major” U.S. historian. At first, I considered the Communist historian Herbert Aptheker but realized they would fail me immediately. Then I asked the faculty proctor, my advisor John Laslett, if W. E. B. DuBois would count, and he immediately shook his head. “He is more of a sociologist than an historian,” is how he put it. I ended up writing a 10-page essay on Ulrich B. Phillips, the profession’s greatest apologist for slavery. Needless to say, I passed.
I know I dwelled on my formative years in this profession, but similar problems persisted. To talk about them will seem redundant. I’ll briefly mention one struggle that took up probably a decade of my career — to de-ghettoize U.S. labor history. For many years, there was this field called labor history that sometimes dealt with race and Black workers, but when Black scholars wrote about Black workers (here I’m thinking about ‘90s and early 2000s, folks like Joe W. Trotter, Earl Lewis, Tera Hunter, Venus Green, Elsa Barkley Brown, and others), we took issue with the fact that those of us working on Black workers were generally relegated to panels about Black workers or about race, when our work was throwing down the gauntlet to the entire field of labor history. I found myself in a similar situation when the U.S. history profession had announced a “transnational turn,” again in the late 1990s. I was invited to a conference to talk about what this meant for “Black history” but ended up writing an essay arguing that Black struggles for freedom had been transnational and global from the beginning, and that it was the rest of the profession that was coming to these matters about a century late! My remarks were published in the Journal of American History as “‘But a Local Phase of a World Problem’: Black History’s Global Vision, 1883-1950.”
Years ago, I knew a white philosophy graduate student who probably did lose sleep over Hegel’s racism because she didn’t know what he thought about Africa until she took my seminar, and this was while she was reading Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit in another seminar in the same department. I’m sure that I also lost sleep after finding out about the racism of prominent white philosophers. One is led to believe that the racism, no matter how abhorrent, is incidental and unrelated to the critical period of the philosopher. Regarding your idea of creating your own canon or a counter-canon, however, is what Spady did for me. So, I was fortunate to meet him while I was still in high school. His was a clear and profound motivational impact. Spady situated my thinking squarely within Black intellectually generative spaces. This included engaging important questions and themes within the Negritude Movement, the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts Movement, Afro-Surrealism, Dadaism, the Civil Rights movement, Pan-Africanism, the organizational and historical importance of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the Nation of Islam, and engaging the lives, writings and ideas of such figures as Kwame Nkrumah, Cheikh Anta Diop, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Nnamdi Azikiew, Kamau Brathwaite, Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., George G. M. James, Elmer Imes, Marcus Garvey, bell hooks, Geneva Smitherman, Sonia Sanchez, Paula Giddings, Katherine Dunham, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ralph Bunche, Grandmaster Caz, Eve, Kool Herc, Sister Souljah, Afrika Bambaataa, Tupac Shakur, and the entire array of racial, historical, cultural, spatial, political, musicological, sonic and aesthetic modalities within rap and Hip-Hop culture as well as so many other forms of musical expression. I have come to understand Spady’s impact as both helping me to appreciate Black intellectual and cultural creativity as important in and of itself and facilitating my understanding of the insidious operations of whiteness. Concerning the latter, in “The Souls of White Folk,” as you know, W.E.B. Du Bois argued that he was singularly clairvoyant regarding white folk. I think this is true of many Black philosophers and Black scholars. Du Bois writes, “I see these souls undressed and from the back and side. I see the working of their entrails. I know their thoughts and they know that I know. This knowledge makes them now embarrassed, now furious.” Du Bois isn’t arguing that he is possessed with some preternatural capacity. I think that he is making an appeal to what we would call a variation of standpoint theory, where social location is relevant to knowledge formation and insight into the workings of hegemonic structures (racial, gender, class). And in The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois deploys the concept of the gift of second sight, which is a site of epistemological clarity and insight. Again, Charles Mills is helpful here. In “The Illumination of Blackness,” he writes, “The position of Blacks is unique among all the groups racialized as nonwhite by the modern West. For no other nonwhite group has race been so enduringly constitutive of their identity, so foundational for racial capitalism, and so lastingly central to white racial consciousness and global racial consciousness in general.” I agree with Mills and accept this characterization as the basis upon which Black folk (even if not all) are able to see, name and call out white racism. If we take Du Bois seriously, whiteness has created, as it were, its own disagreeable mirror. Robin, what is it that keeps many white people so wedded to whiteness? What makes them so furious when their whiteness is unveiled?
Right. Hard questions. Before I try to answer, I want to give credit to other scholars who had come to see Du Bois’s notion of double consciousness as a way of seeing “white” and “global” racial consciousness long before Charles Mills. The historian Thomas Holt had begun to make the case in his 1990 American Quarterly essay, “The Political Uses of Alienation: W.E.B. Du Bois on Politics, Race, and Culture, 1903-1940,” and Nahum Chandler advanced perhaps the most thorough argument along these lines, first in his 1996 doctoral dissertation, “The Problem of Purity: A Study in the Early Work of W.E.B. Du Bois.” One of his many original claims is that Du Bois’s notion of double consciousness applied to Black subjectivity actually represents a philosophical breakthrough in the study of subjectivity as a whole, and race as a whole (not just blackness). He further develops these and other ideas in his 2013 book, X: The Problem of the Negro as a Problem for Thought, which is nothing short of a masterpiece. At the center of his exegesis is the idea that the so-called “Negro problem” was more than just the raison d’etre for modern racism but fundamentally a problem of thought. He makes the case that Du Bois’s approach to the “Negro Question” flipped the question of Black striving into an interrogation of the modern subject under racial capitalism.
I think it is important to begin here just to remind ourselves that the point of Du Bois’s “second sight” was not just to understand whiteness and the racism that produces this particular form of social pathology, but to get free. That said, I completely agree with Mills that for white people race is not only constitutive of their identity but “foundational for racial capitalism.” However, enduring doesn’t mean “natural” or even stable. Whiteness is a deception that people are under pressure to reproduce in order to maintain class power. Racial capitalism entails the “capture” of exploited white workers as junior partners in the settler state through the myth of white racial superiority. Cedric Robinson was spot on when he wrote in Forgeries of Memory and Meaning: “White patrimony deceived some of the majority of Americans, patriotism and nationalism others, but the more fugitive reality was the theft they themselves endured and the voracious expropriation of others they facilitated. The scrap which was their reward was the installation of Black inferiority into their shared national culture. It was a paltry dividend, but it still serves.”
This dividend, I would argue, takes at least four forms:
- Actual material benefits, which are differential according to class and gender.
- The expectation of material benefits, i.e., the path to becoming a slaveholder or boss or a CEO, which should be understood as an entitlement rather than privilege, and it’s one that is rarely fulfilled.
- The everyday expression or performance of institutional power, or put simply, the racial education of what it means to not be white. The spectacle of racism in practice teaches white people the consequences of being Black or Brown. Hyper-policing, premature death, caging, deportation, relegation to segregated neighborhoods and dilapidated housing, houselessness, job insecurity, racially segmented occupations (consider who works in fast food, private security, janitorial services, domestic work, etc.). Sure, there are some white people who recognize injustice and propose toothless liberal bromides, such as anti-racism workshops designed to “change hearts.” But there are also radicals among them who join us in fighting the beast; and others who — perhaps unconsciously insecure about their own status — actively attack and further degrade Black, Brown, Indigenous and Asian people, often with fatal consequences and almost no accountability.
- The majority, however, are indifferent — which is to say, spectacular and mundane acts of everyday racism are normalized or simply not seen. The irony is that indifference leads liberal white people to the conclusion that Black people are in the condition they’re in and suffer the way they do because of, well . . . anti-Blackness. This is just the way it is and has been. Anti-Blackness is permanent, nothing has changed, and nothing will change. Sounds familiar? It is essentially the Afropessimist lite position, and the one that most of my white students accept without question. I say “lite” because it doesn’t require an explanation; it is a fact. My point is that, while we argue with those who claim we’ve achieved a post-racial nirvana, a broad segment of white America had long accepted that Black people are treated like shit because they are Black. Not by them, of course, but by all the other white folks.
Where does that leave us? As Olúfémi Táíwò points out in his new book, Elite Capture, indifference is made possible by a culture that promotes individualism, values wealth as a measure of success, and is fundamentally anti-democratic. Elected officials, mainly in the pockets of the “successful” class, make crucial decisions about our lives as we watch from the sidelines. Indifference means there is no sense of a public good, no moral universe to speak of. Imagine, if our political culture was oriented entirely toward caring for the whole, where no one was excluded? Institutional racism would be illegal. Our culture would not be based on the protection of private property but the principle “all of us or none of us.” We’d have social housing, clean energy, publicly owned free mass transit, free medical care, food security, etc. I’m sure there would still be white people wedded to whiteness, but its value would be greatly diminished.
I appreciate your reminder of the history of how Du Bois’s understanding of double consciousness was taken up by other scholars and for reminding us of the liberatory implications of second sight. In fact, this last point is exactly what Mills argues in “The Illumination of Blackness.” There he is playing on “illumination.” In that piece, he both illuminates Blackness and demonstrates how Blackness, despite its theological and racist deployment as a site of ignorance, doom and darkness, actually illuminates the world. He argues that it is Black people, arguing from feminist standpoint theory, who are better able to see the political, institutional, affective and epistemological (though distortive) inner-workings of whiteness. For Mills, white people tend to create a social world that they fail to understand. This is what he means by epistemology of ignorance, a term that he coined. He argues that whiteness, which operates politically as a racial contract, involves “a particular pattern of localized and global cognitive dysfunctions.” Du Bois argues that he is able to see the “entrails” of white people. His language speaks to the transparency of whiteness vis-à-vis the Black counter-gaze.
I would also mention that Mills would certainly agree with you that “enduring doesn’t mean ‘natural’ or even stable.” I’m sure that he would argue that whiteness as both a U.S. and global phenomenon is persistent and tenacious. Structurally, whiteness embodies a form of ignorance that actively obfuscates understanding itself, an ignorance that resists and fights back. It is an ignorance that presents “itself,” as Mills says, “unblushingly as knowledge.” And while one might disagree with Mills’s optimism regarding liberalism, one that is “free” of white supremacy, one that is no longer an illiberal liberalism, he doesn’t see whiteness or white supremacy as “natural,” but as socially constructed and thereby socially, institutionally and psychically changeable.
It is here that I’m more of a pessimist. In fact, while it is true that racial capitalism entails the “capture” of exploited white workers, as you put it, and situates white workers as junior partners, I would only add the fact that exploited white workers were also deemed human under white supremacy. There is a deep anthropological investment in whiteness, one that also has deep theologically symbolic implications. After all, to be white was to resemble Adam and Eve. It was German anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach who claimed that Adam and Eve were Caucasian. Being white (that is, not being Black) provided exploited white workers with the racial material affordance, as Mills might say, to reevaluate their junior partnership against the backdrop of Blackness and thereby reposition themselves as demigods. In “Killers of the Dream,” Lillian Smith writes, “There, in the Land of Epidermis, every one of us was a little king.”
As you know, in a major part of my philosophical work, I theorize and interrogate whiteness. I’m especially attentive to its lived dimensions, how it functions at the level of body comportment, how white people react to Black bodies within racialized spaces, how the white gaze operates, how whiteness hegemonically claims the domain of the human, how whiteness constitutes a social ontological binary, how whiteness has stereotyped the Black body as inferior, wicked, smelly, criminal, and how whiteness is invested in the degradation of Blackness. I have been under the impression that there are some whites who would rather be poor and white than to be wealthy and Black. I recall a white male student once saying to me that he would like to be Black to benefit from affirmative action. I said to him that it doesn’t work like that. You must be born Black and you must continue to be Black. There was this look on his face that clearly revealed that he had to rethink his assessment of affirmative action. He wanted to be Black without living the life of a Black person within an anti-Black U.S. The more that I think about anti-Black racism, it occurs to me that there is no other wretched and abject place that is more despicable. That is, Blackness is a fundamental site of the subhuman. Many other racialized groups attempt to distance themselves from Blackness. There is this sense that one’s worth and dignity is augmented the closer that one approaches whiteness. This says to me that to be recognized as “human,” then I must become white. I have no desire to become white, Robin. What are your thoughts about this deeply personal sense of dread?
I feel you. You’ve made a very powerful, personal and moving observation. Part of your question I think I answered above. But I will also concede that I personally have never felt that sense of dread, I suppose because I’ve experienced Blackness as a site of solidarity and radical critique. The invention of European Man depended on reducing us to the category of subhuman in order to justify white supremacy, slavery and settler colonialism. Maybe I am a bad reader of Frantz Fanon, but I return to his oft-quoted line from The Wretched of the Earth: “It is the colonist who fabricated and continues to fabricate the colonized subject.” We have consistently refused his fabrication, retained our dignity, found joy, created families, communities, movements and even proclaimed a position as the real humans against the inhumanity of the European/white settler. Lewis Gordon has been making this point for years, most recently in his latest masterpiece, Fear of Black Consciousness, where he recognizes a shift from “a suffering black consciousness to a liberatory Black consciousness in which revelation of the dirty laundry and fraud of white supremacy and black inferiority is a dreaded truth.” The protectors of white supremacy should be dreading us, in other words.
Yes, I’ve encountered my share of white men — and they are always men — who say they wish they were Black, but to quote the title of a book edited by the late great Greg Tate, they want “everything but the burden” of being Black. Still, I encountered way more Black people, especially growing up, who said they were happy and relieved not to be white.
I don’t want to diminish this sense of personal dread. It is real, especially when the consequences of being Black means persistent vulnerability to premature death. But I can say that personally, if proximity to whiteness has had any impact on my personal worth, it is only because it further exposes the absurdity of racism since what I mainly see are mediocre white people in high positions of power and authority. They’re everywhere. It’s simultaneously hilarious and terrifying!
Finally, I want to hold up the magnificent work of James Edwards Ford III, whose book Thinking Through Crisis: Depression-Era Black Literature, Theory, and Politics really gets at some of these questions. His brilliant critique of liberal trauma theory draws on Du Boisian “second sight” to recover modalities of Black radical thought and praxis, not in order to illuminate the problem of whiteness but to think with Black people in motion in the face of crisis. The following quote is instructive:
Thinking Through Crisis critiques trauma theory for its dedication to the image of European Man. . . . Trauma theory can offer a liberal response that, at best, bears witness to suffering while offering few, if any, insights into altering the systemic factors perpetuating that suffering. Agency, in this framework, remains limited to practices already recognized and constrained by conventional liberal-democratic norms valorizing some forms of suffering and sufferers over many others. Nor can trauma theory fully account for how those living outside these norms are ignored and, when noticed, are punished for transgressing limits that were impossible to obey. Thinking Through Crisis stays with specific forms of life outside these norms, forms of life that consider transformation of material conditions indispensable to working through social breakdown.
It is precisely those forms of life and struggle outside of the norms and institutional structures of racialized class power that we need to embrace in order to stay sane and whole. This is what the Black radical tradition looks like; this is life in what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney call “the Undercommons.”
When you mention not feeling dread, I feel both joy and dread. There are times when I wished that I didn’t feel that dread. I’m sure that there are moments when I’m overcome with “Blackness as a site of solidarity and radical critique.” Yet, I wonder if such critical spaces only function as temporary reprieves, sites where we celebrate our lives as a collective with the understanding that we are an excluded people, but a people of tremendous intellectual brilliance, shared history and political praxis. Such moments take the form of marronage, where, in this case, there is a separation from the established order, perhaps even law and order that are tropes of whiteness. At some point, though, we must emerge from the critical gathering, after “the Clearing” as this takes place in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, where Black people dance, cry and love their own bodies through a more organic and dynamic sense of sociality. Within the clearing, there is a different sense of aesthetics, bodily movement, affective gravity and togetherness. The Metropole, as it were, is bracketed, but we still find ourselves faced with the terror of structural anti-Black racism in the form of civil society. In such moments, the knee of a white police office is on the neck of George Floyd as he calls for his Momma; Eric Garner is crying out, “I can’t breathe”; and Breonna Taylor is being shot to death after her privacy is violated in the form of a no-knock warrant that increases the hegemony of state policing. To put this metaphorically and yet tragically, there are times when Black life feels like a “shooting star,” a momentary streak of life across the dark sky. It’s not just the temporality that I’m concerned with here, but the fact that a shooting star is not a star, but scattered pieces of debris or waste. Indeed, within the context of white mythmaking, Black bodies are nothing more than refuse that is disposable and yet necessary. So, even after those moments of Black solidarity, I reach for my wallet, as in the case of Amadou Diallo in 1999, and I’m shot at 41 times and hit with 19 bullets. The racial contract remains, and white law and order have been maintained. On this point, let’s return to Mills and link this to another question that I have.
In doing public intellectual work, specifically in terms of writing high-profile public essays, I have been called all types of racist, vitriolic epithets by white people who have read my work on whiteness. There is this seemingly impenetrable race-evasive posture that goes into effect. I think that Charles Mills is correct that white people have created a world that they in general will not understand. There are all sorts of bad faith maneuvers. For example, some white readers of my work have argued that because I teach at a prestigious university that I shouldn’t complain about racism because I have “made it.” This position is problematic in so many ways. These white readers seemingly fail to understand that if I have achieved anything it is despite anti-Black racism. Indeed, my “success” doesn’t disprove anti-Black racism. I continue to be its target. There is also the point that the consumptive dimensions of white neoliberal capitalism can find a way to benefit from what I offer in terms of intellectual labor. This is where I engage in both self-critique and the critique of other successful Black scholars who engage questions of white supremacy and racial injustice. Think about it. There are a number of us who are hired by prestigious academic institutions to teach ideas that are designed to trouble those spaces, to advance critical discourses against hegemonic ideological paradigms and practices. And while there is work to be done intramurally, how do we avoid becoming functionaries? This raises the issue of what academic radicality looks like. Perhaps I’m being a bit cynical, but neoliberalism is more than capable of absorbing what we throw at it. This is related to my earlier observations regarding liberal multiculturalism. Across domains of race and gender, a number of Black scholars and academics engage in radical pursuits that are consistent with problematic forms of capitalist accumulation: academic entrepreneurship, big salary increases and demanding large sums of money to give lectures/talks for just an hour. Not that we should take individual “vows of poverty.” However, what do you think about “radical scholarship” by scholars who nevertheless are part of a neoliberal capitalistic system and institutions that pay us and that we then, through our scholarship, help to scaffold the elite status of?
Well, we are all a part of the neoliberal capitalistic system, but it doesn’t mean we can’t stand against it and produce work critical of the system. I think your life and work proves the point since the attacks you’ve endured are not, in my view at least, motivated solely by anti-Blackness. Rather, you do public work that threatens the status quo.
Your question is important, and fortunately for us Steven Osuna has written a thorough and powerful answer in his essay, “Class Suicide: The Black Radical Tradition, Radical Scholarship, and the Neoliberal Turn,” published in Futures of Black Radicalism, edited by Gaye Theresa Johnson and Alex Lubin. Taking his lead from Cedric Robinson, he points to several examples of intellectuals who consciously chose to align themselves with the people, with movements resisting the status quo. Some of these organic intellectuals held university positions and some were fired for their activism. As you know, I don’t believe universities are inherently sites of opposition, though spaces have been created in the past and present for oppositional work. Is this work vulnerable to commodification and neoliberal capture? Of course, but only insofar as it remains untethered to social movements. We will not always get it right, but unless we fight, we cannot hope to change our condition.
So my question to you is, how do you avoid becoming a functionary, a cog in the neoliberal machine? As a deeply committed anti-racist intellectual, dedicated to dismantling the structures we’ve been discussing, what do you see as your main task within the academy?
I appreciate your honesty regarding the fact of our situation as academics. I think that’s important as I am often confronted by my own sense of academic entitlement and how that academic position is itself a function of the neoliberal capitalistic system. For me, I confront what feels like an aporia, an internal contradiction that pulls at my conscience. I recall once giving a keynote address at Yale at the 77th Annual Meeting of The English Institute. I began my talk by bringing attention to the fact that there were so many people experiencing homelessness in New Haven, right around Yale. This was not some superficial act of virtue signaling, but an act self-critique. Someone in the audience responded by saying something like, “Who says that they want to be in here with us?” For me, the response was a function of privilege — in this case both white and academic. My point was not about a perfunctory form of charity or to suggest that we were the envy of those experiencing poverty. I brought attention to the fact that we were inside, comfortable, with sufficient clothing and warm air, and that our stomachs were full. The point is that not one of us, to my knowledge, asked those on the outside if they wanted to join “us.” Perhaps, for me, I’m feeling the weight of an ethical contradiction that I have not been able to shake. Hell, no matter how many books I publish or distinguished keynote addresses that I deliver, there will be people who are living in squalor in the U.S. Last I checked, there are 689 million people living in poverty on a global level, of which 356 million are children. When I’m teaching, it is that reality, and other social, political and existential devastating realities, that hit, and hit hard. During such times, at least for me, there is a sense of academic sophistication that is mocked by the pervasiveness of human suffering experienced by those who are deprived of basic necessities. I think that part of what helps me to contest and critique how I am structurally situated as a functionary or a cog in the neoliberal machine is precisely by bringing attention to the historical, institutional, habitual, aspirational and normative forces that hail me. So, it is not clear that I am able to “avoid” being a functionary as opposed to being able to trouble that site. I bring as much critical discourse and critical affect as I can to bear upon the suffering (economically and otherwise) that takes place around us as academics. I am haunted by the real possibility that our intramural academic lives are constitutive of forms of indifference and silence regarding those persons outside the boundaries of “sacred” academic spaces. Of course, this is not to deny various forms of suffering that are explicitly and implicitly authorized within the academy itself — racism, sexism, classism, elitism, narcissism and backstabbing. In the Yale example, I was pained and deeply concerned by the disarticulation of what we were doing within that Ivy League institutional space and what was happening on the streets outside. I was and continue to be haunted by that. I wanted to identify the elephant in the room, to have us think about what Joy James critiques as our “desire to be famous, powerful, and wealthy” within the context of liberation struggle inside or outside of the academy. Sure, I got to deliver my keynote address, to engage in critical discourse about, in this case, whiteness, but I got the impression that academics within that space were problematically seduced by critical discourse itself, even as the discourse was designed to trouble the status quo. So, for these reasons, and so many more, I don’t think that I will get it right, though I/we must fight, resist, protest. I also think that we must remain aware not only of how oppositional work can be compromised, but how social movements are not invulnerable to commodification and neoliberal capture. There is nothing that logically prevents social movements from cooptation.
My task within the academy takes a specific mode of address. I call upon my students to bear witness to all forms of suffering, which means that I try to mirror as best I can my own human fallibility, my failures, but also my strengths, my courage and my capacity to risk modalities of comfort, which is, as you said, linked to the work that I do that threatens the status quo. I want my students to tarry with the weight of the global mess that we are collectively in. Tarrying, by the way, is not intended to function as a site of serenity, but crisis. More specifically, I encourage my white students to rethink and tarry with the ways in which they are complicit within structures of white domination, how their white privilege works as an affordance where they get to move across college and university spaces with ease without ever questioning their sense of belonging.
So, I attempt to cultivate not just a critical consciousness, but a radically different way of feeling, a structure of sensitivity that occasions different ways that white students listen and are receptive to forms of suffering that call from beyond their sense of themselves as white neoliberal subjects and thereby provide a critical space where my white students are able to rethink what it means to be radically ethical in a world of global whiteness. This also involves the augmentation of their critical imaginaries. The root of what I’m doing pedagogically is to demonstrate what the Hebrew word hesed or loving-kindness demands of us, and how it ought to hasten what we do ethically once we leave the classroom. Pedagogically, my main task is to encourage a radical form of love that may — perhaps — generate a collective refusal of another day of human suffering, which would also involve nonhuman animals and the earth itself.
Given that your own work examines the global dimensions of internationalist anti-racist activism, how do you understand the relationship between such activism and current antiwar work?
Not an easy question. First, I don’t recall a moment in my lifetime when there wasn’t an antiwar movement or a war that wasn’t fundamentally racist. Vietnam, Cambodia, Chile, Central America, Southern Africa, Grenada, Panama, Palestine, Bosnia, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Afghanistan, Syria, Northern Mexico, and that’s not the half of it. Wars on Communism, wars on terror, wars on drugs. Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is a bit different in that we’re facing the threat of nuclear war, a potential escalation that might draw the U.S. and NATO directly into the fighting, and the fact of the war’s “whiteness.” On the one hand, a driver of massive military and humanitarian support for Ukraine is the representation of its victims as white Europeans, not like those Brown refugees from the Middle East. Of course, this erases all of the Black and Brown people inside Ukraine, African and South Asian workers and students, the former subjected to anti-Black racism, pulled off trains, detained, denied the right to leave. On the other hand, there is the inconvenient fact that among Ukraine’s combatants defending the “homeland” is the neo-Nazi Azov Regiment founded by a group of virulent white supremacists. Meanwhile, we are all expected to “Stand by Ukraine.”
The work ahead is to stop this war as soon as possible, and to stop all wars. Without taking anything away from the utter devastation and suffering in Ukraine, we are obliged to keep reminding the world of the unremitting attacks on Palestinians under the Zionist state’s illegal occupation and within the ’48 borders, and the carnage in Yemen — both backed by the United States. Over 160,000 Yemenis are likely to experience famine over the second half of this year, and some 17 million people are currently in need of food assistance, all because of the war. And yet, the Biden administration is extending the olive branch to Saudi Arabia just to get oil, while refusing to lift the sanctions on Venezuela or make a more robust shift away from fossil fuels. Face it, war not only dooms the planet through violent destruction, but also is a primary driver of the climate catastrophe. The U.S. Department of Defense is the single largest consumer of energy in the U.S. and the world’s largest consumer of petroleum. So while we might stand behind the slogan that Putin must be stopped, the U.S. and NATO must also be stopped. The urgent work of anti-racists is to end war, now and forever.
There are times when I feel that anti-Black racism will continue indefinitely. Like Sisyphus, there is some movement, but that movement doesn’t free us from the inexorable recursive backlash of anti-Blackness. I understand the importance of Black struggle, but what is Black struggle without end, without the end of anti-Black racism? Where is the great Exodus? After all, as Black abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet stated, “The Pharaohs are on both sides of the blood-red water.” And the arc of the moral universe (assuming that it is moral) can be so long that its bending continues to feel like a straight line. I know that there is a lot here, Robin, but how is it that a people continue to face such racist brutality and terror and yet remain hopeful?
I’d love to know your thoughts on this question. My answer is relatively brief, in part because it is the question I confront every morning I wake up. First, if there is such a thing as the arc of the moral universe, it does not bend on its own. We bend it one way, our enemies bend it back. As the old Civil Rights song goes, “they say that freedom is a constant struggle.” By acknowledging this fact, I don’t feel particularly hopeful or pessimistic or optimistic, just determined.
Second, yes, of course we must end anti-Black racism, but as I argued earlier in our conversation, this doesn’t mean changing hearts. It’s really about bringing down Pharaoh — that is to say, dismantling power and establishing forms of accountability. It means power to the people. It means ending oppressive institutions like prisons, police, patriarchy and racial capitalism. Hopeful or not, we don’t have the luxury not to fight. There is no guarantee that we will win — whatever that means — but I guarantee that if we don’t fight, we lose.
There are times when I think that hope is our Achilles heel. What do I mean by that? Hope is that capacity that keeps Black people yearning for more despite the setbacks, the gratuitous violence, and the fact that we continue to be treated as less than human. But what if hope is our obstacle? What if hope is the unintended assurance that further solidifies anti-Black racism? After all, hope can displace the full weight of our collective expressive rage; hope gestures toward the future, communicating that we will make it — someday. Indeed, that “we gon’ be alright,” as Kendrick Lamar raps. This is where I’m torn. Hope had to play a profoundly significant role in sustaining Black bodies within the slave ships, during plantation oppression, during the creation of Black codes and during Jim Crow terrorism. And it continues to sustain us today. This is not to oppose hope as resistance, because hope can function as resistance. However, what if we collectively decided, as Black people, to rid ourselves of hope, a form of hope which seems to be linked (though not totally reducible) to some form of white “acceptance,” if not just white tolerance? Ridding ourselves of hope doesn’t mean that we are morose; rather, it gestures toward the relinquishment of all cooperation with tomorrow’s promise, one that has proven repeatedly that there is only Black death that awaits us there. My aim is not to endorse a form of nihilism, but to interrogate the ethics of hope in the face of an anti-Black world that is relentlessly hell-bent on our destruction.