Training is the Graveyard of Struggle: An Anti-Racist History

The following is the text of a talk given at Goldsmiths College’s Department of Media, Communication, and Cultural Studies on December 11, 2020.

Anti-racist training should not be part of the demands we make because it’s the easiest way for our struggles to be co-opted and defanged. Training as a solution implies theories of racism that are often left unarticulated but which warrant critique. And part of the problem is terms like whiteness that tend to abstract and ontologize material relations of power. In what follows, I’m going to be making a number of shortcuts in working through this history and its political implications in order to keep the presentation reasonably short.

As A. Sivanandan demonstrates in his 1985 essay “RAT and the degradation of black struggle,” the story of anti-racist training starts in the late 1960s in the United States. Racial awareness training was first developed within the US Department of Defense’s Race Relations Institute in Florida. The context was the Black rebellions across US cities and the Black mobilizations within the US military against the Vietnam war. Training on racial awarenss was a strategy designed to separate the question of racism from Black struggle and to cast it as a matter of managing relationships between Black and white personnel by focusing on their attitudes towards each other – thus a political struggle that took on broader questions of imperialism and structural racism was displaced.

From there, the approach was developed by US educationalists such as Judy Katz. Her work in the mid-1970s developed the initiatives coming from the military. Racism, for her, was “an essence that history has deposited in the white psyche,” as Sivanandan put it, in his analysis of these practices (p19). The role of anti-racist training was to bring this essence to consciousness, which required both cognitive and affective techniques – the latter, to overcome the inevitable emotional resistance to recognizing our complicity in racism – an idea that Robin DiAngelo has over the last decade popularized as “white fragility.” From its inception, we can see that anti-racist training was conceived as focused on changing individual attitudes, using therapeutic approaches, organized within a managerial ethos.

These techniques took off in Britain in the early 1980s in response to rising anti-racist militancy, led by Black and Asian communities. Labour-controlled local authorities and the police were enthusiastic early adopters. In the UK, the formula that underpinned anti-racist training was that racism is “power plus prejudice.” Racism was understood to reproduce itself through the individual prejudices of white professionals. If those professionals could be trained to be more aware of their prejudices, then they might not use their power to reproduce structures of racism. Structural racism was understood, in other words, as simply an agglomoeration of the individual attitudes that had been deposited in the white unconscious as a result of histories of colonialism and slavery.

Then in 1999, we get another iteration in this history with the publication of the Macpherson inquiry report into institutional racism in the police. The report was the outcome of a grassroots struggle, led in particular by Black and Asian families who had lost loved ones to racist violence that the police had either failed to investigate – as in the cases of Stephen Lawrence, Ricky Reel, and Michael Menson – or that the police had themselves perpetrated – as in the cases of Joy Gardner, Roger Sylvester, and Brian Douglas. The families and their supporters packed the inquiry hearings and forced Macpherson to acknowledge the reality of racist violence. (By the way, Ricky Reel’s mother Sukhdev is still campaigning for a proper police investigation into the racist murder of her son – support her campaign here.) In his report, Macpherson officially redefined the problem as one of institutional racism, throwing out the idea that police racism was just a matter of a few rotten apples in the barrel, as the old phrase had it.

The term “institutional racism” had originated from US Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael in the late 1960s, who used it to point to an analysis of racism as interwoven in the structures of US capitalism. But in Macpherson’s use, the term was defined as “unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.” (6.34) So institutional racism was taken to be an assemblage of unintentional, unwitting, thoughtless biases. Naturally, the solution would once again be centered upon training to bring to light these unconscious biases. Macpherson called it “training in racism awareness and valuing cultural diversity” (47.48) but most people shortened it to diversity training.

Where this has led could be seen last summer, after Keir Starmer was challenged about the Labour Party’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement. He could have said he wanted the Party to commit to the kinds of policies that would remedy some of the issues the movement is seeking to address: for example, restricting the use of stop and search, reducing the rate of incarceration, enabling the prosecution of officers involved in black deaths in police and prison custody, providing adequate resources for mental health provision and youth services, ending racist policies on gangs and on extremism, closing immigration detention centers. Instead, Starmer said all Labour Party staff will get unconscious bias training. What he presented as the most appropriate response to the Black Lives Movement was actually an insult – because it implied the movement had no policy goals, that it had no political agenda as such.

But Starmer’s approach reflects a broader pattern of responses to Black Lives Matter. Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility, which develops the ideas of anti-racist training first generated in the 1970s by focusing on the defensive moves white people use when challenged on their unconscious biases, has been at the top of the New York Times bestseller list, and her expertise has been widely sought by corporations. Other popular books in this genre present arguments that are highly derivative of the racial awareness training practices first introduced in the 1970s. Layla F. Saad’s book, Me and White Supremacy, for example, says:

White supremacy is an evil. … it is living inside you as unconscious thoughts and beliefs. The process of examining it and dismantling it will necessarily be painful. It will feel like waking up to a virus that has been living inside you all these years that you never knew was there.

This is a perfect summary of the implicit theory behind anti-racist training.

Does this theory hold water? No. First, it misunderstands what racism is and the processes that enable it. Structural racism does not just mean a situation where there are a lot of individuals who are racist, unconsciously or otherwise. Structural racism circulates through individual attitudes and behaviors, sometimes unconsciously, but its analysis requires us to go beyond that level.

The way that people often try to grasp something like a structure to racism is to ontologize terms like whiteness and anti-blackness so that they refer to a transhistorical substrate that somehow inheres in Western culture from its birth. On this view, whiteness is seen as having universal effects while its actual historical process of reproduction is left vague. But racism cannot be explained as a fixed category passed down from a founding moment that hard-wired the affordances of Western culture. Rather we need a conjunctural analysis, something like what Cedric Robinson does with his term “racial regimes,” in his book Forgeries of Memory and Meaning. By this, he means “constructed social systems” that are not transhistorical but “a makeshift patchwork masquerading as memory and the immutable” with “discernible origins and mechanisms of assembly,” and that sometimes “‘collapse’ under the weight of their own artifices, practices, and apparatuses.” Despite appearances, racial regimes are made and unmade by social struggles and changing relations of production.

One way to clarify the term structural racism is by thinking of the segregated drinking fountains in the Jim Crow south of the US. One founatin is marked “white,” the other “colored.” Now imagine you are a good liberal white, someone who has really worked on their unconscious biases, overcome their white fragility. Which fountain do you drink from? The white fountain, of course. In doing so, you reproduce the racist structure just as much as the Klan-supporting racist. The structure does not care about your individual attitudes and beliefs (On the right, there is this phrase that comes from Ben Shapiro: “Facts don’t care about your feelings.” We might say “Structures don’t care about your attitudes”). The only way out of the structure is to attack the system as a whole, which in this case involves changing laws, perhaps by breaking them.

Now think of educational segregation today in New York City. It has the highest level of racial segregation in high schools of any part of the United States. Supposedly liberal New York City. In terms of the black-white gap, it is as segregated in its education system as Jim Crow Alabama or Mississippi. More than six decades after the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that was supposed to end segregated schooling. How does this happen? Not this time through segregationist laws but through a more complex process dependent on the functioning of racist housing markets, how school budgets are funded by local property taxes, parental choice policies, and so on. Now, again, imagine you are a good liberal white parent. You are not going to give away your capital, if you have it, which brings you access to better school districts based on property value. And within your means, you will exercise your parental choice to try to give your children the best education. Again, in doing so, you reproduce the racist structure. Structures do not care about your attitudes. The structure reproduces itself anyway. What would change the structure would be collective action, organized social struggle that aimed to demolish the race and class structures of unequal education in the city – which is actually what school students in the city are trying to do.

As Sivanandan put it in his 1985 essay:

Racism is not … a white problem but a problem of an exploitative white power structure … and personal liberation is not political liberation. … Power is not something white people are born into … That power is derived from racist laws, constitutional conventions, judicial precedents, institutional practices – all of which have the imprimatur of the state. In a capitalist state, that power is associated with the power of the capitalist class – and racial oppression cannot be dissociated from class exploitation. And it is that symbiosis between race and class that marks the difference between the racial oppressions of the capitalist and pre-capitalist periods. The fight against racism is therefore a fight against the state which sanctions and authorizes it – even if by default – in the institutions and structures of society and in the behavior of its public officials. (pp27–8).

He meant that the attitude of the individual immigration officer or police officer matters very little compared to the broader structure of law and policy. And in the neoliberal, supposedly postracial era, you put a black or brown face on a policy precisely to conceal its structural racism. The border violence of detention and deportation, for example, is driven by a global racialized division of labor. It does not diminish that driving force in the slightest if the immigration officer is someone who has done a terrific job of examining their unconscious biases. The super-exploitation of cheap, racialized labor forces is driven by the imperatives of capital. The eviction of a black person from their home is not the result of their landlord being white but of their landlord being a member of a class that profits from the private ownership of other people’s homes. (And by the way, universities have a £1.9bn annual turnover as landlords.)

The best framework for conceptualizing this way of thinking about structural racism is the term “racial capitalism” from Cedric Robinson’s book Black Marxism. By “racial capitalism,” he means that, in that each period of the capitalist world system, distinctive ways have been found to reify differences in order to structure social divisions between different forms of labor. On this view, race is not just a means of dividing waged working classes – the orthodox Marxist argument – but also the means by which capitalism codes and manages the contradictions between waged and unwaged, between possessors and dispossessed, between citizens endowed with liberal rights and “unfree” laboring populations – from the enslaved to the undocumented. This means that racism is not reducible to a legacy of the past but is continuously regenerated in new forms out of globally dispersed divisions of labor and the struggles against them. And it means that, as Stuart Hall phrased it, “race is the modality in which class is lived, the medium through which class relations are experienced, the form in which it is appropriated and ‘fought’ through.” (p341). Racism is not just an “ideological trick”. Rather there is a “material and social base on which ‘racism’ as an ideology flourishes”. This “material and social base” of racial divisions of labor and state racism provides a legitimacy and spontaneous plausibility to racist attitudes. Without attacking that material base, little progress can be made tackling racism at the ideological level where it circulates in consciously and unconsciosly held beliefs and attitudes.

In this context, as Sivanandan said, who cares if a white person is so lacking in basic humanity that they can only feel whole by crushing someone else? What matters is not the limitations of their individual personality but the racist laws, policies, and institutional practices that lead to exploitation, hunger, and lives cut short. Racial awareness training, he says, is “potty training for whites.” It might help them to grow into normal human beings. But it’s a distraction from the task of building the kinds of movements that can act collectively to take on state racism and the capitalist class.

And the building of those kinds of movement is made harder by the turning inwards that anti-racist training encourages. It’s no use having white people narcissistically looking for the origins of white privilege in their own white souls. To purify yourself of bias through a brave confrontation with your privilege and upbringing is more likely to produce vanity than equality. And in a neoliberal economy, knowing how to do “race talk” becomes a skillset that adds value to human capital, part of the general imperative to work on oneself, so as to constantly transform, improve, and make oneself more efficient. The implicit assumption, never quite clarified, is that widening the inculcation of this “skillset” will demolish structural racism. But the cultivation of enlightened individuals is not the same as dismantling a white capitalist power structure. Indeed, if individual prejudice is read as an irrational distortion of the proper functioning of markets, then anti-racist training becomes the modality through which markets can more rationally allocate resources, so that the so-called deserving and undeserving can be more precisely separated. This is a way of helping not hindering structural racism.

Moreover, when training is introduced as a response to movements and campaigns, it enables the energy of those movements to be absorbed into a managerial process. Diversity and equality become part of the audit culture. Progress is measured through performance indicators. The initiative then moves from movements to management. We turn to the managers to implement solutions; it is to them that institutions are accountable. The demand for training is the easiest demand for management to accept because it can be folded into existing bureaucracies of human resources. This remains true so long as any opposition to management is expressed within a discourse of effective implementation, rather than a deeper analysis of structural racism. In these ways, training is necessarily depoliticizing – and it disables possibilities of more radical change.

Political liberation rather than personal liberation depends on the principle that each of our liberations – whether defined in terms of race, class, gender, or sexuality – is bound up with every other. Only this kind of outward facing mobilization can build the collective solidarity necessary to change racist structures. The terms of that unity will depend on the context. Because racial capitalism organizes itself through material racial divisions, there is no guarantee of an automatic working class unity. There are times when racialized groups need to organize autonomously. And there are times when class unity makes sense. But however they are conceived, movements can only be built on the values of camaraderie, solidarity, unity – an understanding that we each grow through interdependence in building the collective good.

Turning specifically to higher education, to address structural racism would mean thinking about things like the Prevent policy. Prevent places a statutory duty on universities to monitor students and staff for signs of so-called extremism. But “extremism” is defined in practice in a way that assumes ordinary Muslim behaviour is suspicious. It means turning educators into the eyes and ears of the security state. It means a situation where the police rather than student unions get to decide who’s allowed to speak on campuses. Crucially, Prevent has given Islamophobia the stamp of official legitimacy. It does not reflect individual prejudices so much as generate them.

Likewise, we would need to combat the ways that the policing of immigration has been embedded into the routine management of higher education institutions. There is not even a possibility of creating an anti-racist university while lecturers are compelled to deputize as immigration officers. Among the demands we need to  collectively make of universities should be to refuse to be complicit in these practices of policing so-called extremism and border controls. And we must of course fight for the dignity of all workers in higher education, including the various categories of worker who are necessary to the functioning of a university but whose work is often hidden from view through outsourcing.

Then, we must turn to the question of the university’s role in the production and distribution of knowledge, and the relationship of those processes to the reproduction of racism and colonialism. A lot has been said on this and I don’t want to add very much but let me just say two things. First, decolonizing the university means, among other things, combating the university’s role in imperialism today not just undoing the past. The university continues to play its role in the neocolonial circuits of capital and violence. It still provides the UK national security state with discourses of counter-insurgency, racist theories of culture, cultural surveillance of populations subject to neocolonialism, and so on – the old colonial patterns in a new form. The military directly control around 30 per cent of the UK state’s total budget for research and development, and use most of this money to develop more efficient ways of inflicting violence. A large proportion of that money flows through academia and needs to be exposed and countered.

Second, we need to imagine how universities can do a far better job of producing the kinds of knowledge that liberation movements need. We need to ask if the knowledge we produce effectively analyzes structures of power as they exist in the world today. Are we doing so in a way that has an organic connection to liberation movements seeking to overturn those structures of power? In an editorial written for the opening edition of the journal Race & Class in 1974, a series of questions were posed to academia on its relationship to liberation movements. “What good is your knowledge to us? Do you in your analyses of our social realities tell us what we can do to transform them? Does your apprehension of our reality speak to our experience? Do you convey it in a language that we can understand? If you do none of these things, should we not only reject your ‘knowledge’ but, in the interests of our own liberation, consider you a friend to our enemies and a danger to our people?” Those remain, I think, the tests by which we should measure ourselves and our work.

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