While liberal antiracists argue over vocabulary, radicals take direct action – which is the only way to change the system
In news that ought to please antiracist campaigners everywhere, just recently everybody seems to be talking about antiracism. Chief executives such as Larry Fink of BlackRock, one of the most powerful financial companies in the world, call for “systemic” racism to be addressed. Books on teaching antiracism to children become bestsellers.
Conservatives dismiss all this as “woke” – preachy, elitist and unneeded – but they can’t seem to stop talking about it. But all the time, both sides in the debate mistakenly assume there is only one kind of antiracism. They fail to distinguish between two quite different antiracist traditions: one liberal, the other radical.
The liberal tradition sees racism as essentially a matter of irrational beliefs and attitudes. Its founders, such as the anthropologist Ruth Benedict and gay rights pioneer Magnus Hirschfeld, were interested in understanding the rise of nazism in the 1930s. They concluded that, in societies where racial prejudices were widespread, liberal democracy could be undermined by political extremists inflaming race hatred to gain power. To remove this danger, they called on the liberal establishment to persuade the masses, especially the poor and uneducated, that racist opinions have no legitimate basis.
This approach remains at the core of liberal antiracism today, from the enthusiasm for diversity training – a $4.3bn business in the US, and one that even Suella Braverman’s Home Office staff are embracing – to the hope that better representation in Hollywood films will educate us out of our biases. The difference now is that liberals seek to eliminate racist attitudes in the unconscious as much as the conscious mind.
The radical tradition, on the other hand, sees racism as a matter of how economic resources are distributed differently across racial groups. In a 1938 article on “racism in Africa”, for instance, the Trinidadian writer CLR James argued that British colonial racism was not a set of beliefs or attitudes but a structure of generally observed social rules and policies that enabled economic exploitation. Individual racist attitudes no doubt existed but were not the decisive factor.
Likewise, the Martinican psychiatrist Frantz Fanon argued in 1956 that we should abandon the habit “of regarding racism as a disposition of the mind, a psychological flaw”. Rather, “military and economic oppression most frequently precedes, makes possible and legitimates” racist beliefs. And this “systematic oppression of a people” can continue even if a majority of citizens do not have racist biases, unconsciously held or otherwise.
Radical antiracists argue that the only way to fight this oppression is to build autonomous organisations with the power to dismantle existing social systems and build new ones. To them, racism is closely connected to capitalism. This is partly because racism weakens class struggle by dividing white workers from most of the world’s working people. More fundamentally, race provides a means by which capitalism can more intensively exploit certain categories of worker – the enslaved, the indentured, colonised peasantries, migrant workers – as well as justify discarding peoples deemed superfluous to the economy.
Making the distinction between liberal and radical transforms the debate on antiracism. Conservative attacks on the elitism of antiracists ring true to many because liberal antiracists do indeed think it is the job of elites to educate working-class people out of their irrational beliefs. But that is less true of radical antiracists: they might despair at the historical reluctance of white workers to unite with other exploited classes but they are clear that wealthy elites are their main antagonists. To them, antiracism is about finding ways to build collective power across differently positioned groups of working people.
Liberal antiracists have succeeded over the last half-century in reducing racial prejudices in interpersonal relationships. And they have transformed popular culture: people of colour are now represented in Hollywood movies at levels proportionate to their presence in the US population. But advances in reducing prejudice and improving representation have not lessened the racism that exists in law, policy and broader economic and institutional practices.
Take, for instance, the expulsion of more than a million, mainly Mexican, people from the US in 2021. The policy behind this is driven by the need to maintain a worldwide racial division of labour. It makes no difference if the immigration officer who carries it out and the employer who profits from it have worked really hard at their diversity awareness training. And it is at the structural level where, since the 1970s, racism has reproduced itself, as ruling classes in the US and Europe mobilised a neoliberal conception of market forces to defeat mass movements for the redistribution of wealth. With those defeats, new ways of dominating Black people and the global south became possible.
It was not simply that racism became more subtle or unconscious after its overt forms had been defeated. It was more that there was no longer a need to routinely make explicit assertions of racial superiority. Racial inequalities were reproduced through market systems, alongside newly intensifying infrastructures of governmental violence, carried out in the name of seemingly race-neutral concerns about crime, migration and terrorism. That Britain’s immigration policy is also a racial segregation policy was illustrated again last year, when the government issued 238,562visas to white Ukrainians, while only about 5,000 of those fleeing wars in Syria and Afghanistan were offered safe passage to the UK.
The many millions of people around the world judged surplus to the requirements of neoliberal capitalism, and framed as bearers of cultural values antagonistic to market systems, are the targets of this form of violence. Fleeing the destruction of their countries, more than 40,000 have died trying to enter Europe since 1993, mostly by drowning in the Mediterranean. This same disposable humanity has been slaughtered in the global wars on terror and drugs – with an estimated 3.6 million indirect deaths in the post-9/11 war zones of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, according to a Brown University study. Within the UK, police violence is directed most often at our own abandoned – disproportionately Black – populations.
Liberal antiracists are powerless against this new structural racism. They demand we use the correct racial vocabulary, shaming Conservative MPs or sports commentators when they use derogatory terms; but abolishing a word does not abolish the social forces it expresses. They implement diversity training programmes, but these fail, owing to the mistaken premise that racism now resides primarily in the unconscious mind. And they talk of “hate speech” and “hate crimes”, on the assumption that oppressive cruelty is the behavioural expression of a hateful disposition – ignoring the corporate executives, asset managers, lawmakers, government officials, judges, police officers, prison guards, military personnel and immigration officers who, without attitudes of hatred, routinely and calmly operate infrastructures of racist violence, in the name of security and profit. By relocating racism to the unconscious mind, to the use of inappropriate words and to the extremist fringes, liberal antiracists end up absolving the institutions most responsible for racist practices. They are effective at getting more people of colour into senior jobs in police forces, border agencies and the military, but unable to get fewer people of colour killed by those same agencies.
For these reasons, to look to liberal antiracism as the solution – with whatever good intentions – is to help sustain structural racism. White liberals can heroically confront their own unconscious biases all they want, yet these structures will remain. To be antiracist today means working collectively with organisations to dismantle racist border, policing, carceral and military infrastructures. It means organising in the community to get the police out of our schools; taking direct action against deportations; and confronting corporations that trade in violence. It means understanding that the poor of the global south are as equally entitled to the world’s resources as the wealthy residents of the north. In the end, it requires us to build an economy of care, not killing – uplifting all working classes of whatever colour. The radical tradition, with its anticapitalist impetus, might once have seemed impractical. Now it is the only viable antiracist politics.
This article first appeared in the Guardian.