By Greg Godels
July 9, 2021
It was inevitable that capitalism would commodify anti-racism. That is what capitalism does with everything.
Anti-racism had fallen out of fashion with the election of Barack Obama. While our small, radical left continued to see racism as a scourge on an historically oppressed people, the media celebrated the individual successes of some Blacks as a sign that the barriers to progress were largely removed and we were entering what they wanted us to believe was a post-racial era.
The arming of witnesses with high-resolution smartphone cameras forced anti-racism back into the national conversation. Lurid, graphic videos of police violence against Black youth brought disgust into living rooms, as it did over fifty years earlier with television exposure of the horrors of the war in Vietnam. Consequently, anti-racism experienced a revival, with millions of people across the country and across many demographics raising their voices in protest.
Yet, some saw an opportunity to be seized, a chance for a career, for advancement in a newfound industry of antiracism.
Academic lust for attention– for the “new” — birthed the concept of “microaggressions,” the notion that the subtlety of manners, body language, and casual speech carry the germ of racism, indeed, foster racism.
But microaggressions are to the “macroaggressions” of premature death, poor health care outcomes, grinding poverty, and the super-exploitation facing Black people as headaches are to terminal cancer.
The champion of microaggressions, the leading merchant of the commodification of anti-racism, is unquestionably Robin DiAngelo. Despite no outstanding history in the anti-racism movement, DiAngelo exploded on the national scene with her number one New York Times bestseller, White Fragility. Her book got her unlimited invites on the talk show circuit. And she promptly monetized her fame through lectures and consultancies. Her con was a variation on the “we are all sinners” motif of the holy rollers. Like the stolid burgher in the first pew who must be embarrassed into seeing his or her sinful ways, DiAngelo forces the most racially sensitive liberal or progressive to examine his or her record of awkward moments, verbal stumbles, and clumsy locutions to find that “we are all racists.” She is quick to point out that her exorcisms of microaggressions do not lead to redemption, but must be repeated again and again interminably.
I have written about Robin DiAngelo before, un-apologetically excoriating her book, her sanctimony, and her vulgar commercialization of her bogus anti-racism. Now she has a new book, Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm, and is again making the rounds of the talk shows. Her recent interview on CBS This Morning was typically cringeworthy, citing racial social etiquette as though it were on a par with lynching. She recounts a story of a dinner 30 years ago in which she clumsily sought to impress African American guests with her own racial sensitivity, a gambit that she elevates to a major act of white supremacy.
Matt Taibbi tells us (Our Endless Dinner with Robin DiAngelo) that the new book is simply a plagiarizing of White Fragility, though I wouldn’t know since I refuse to add to the DiAngelo phenomenon by buying the book. Taibbi performs a neat piece of gonzo journalism on the book, mocking her self-righteousness and superiority with his usual sarcastic wit.
However, there is a problem with our shared disgust with DiAngelo’s hucksterism.
It is not enough to simply call her out. Racism is real. DiAngelo’s popular pseudo-anti-racism shields millions of people from an authentic confrontation with the raw ugliness of racism; it leads people to believe that the barriers to racial justice have been overcome, excepting interpersonal relationships; it spotlights feelings, emotions, sensitivities over the hard evidence of racial oppression. In short, Robin DiAngelo deflects attention away from the heavy material burden that racism actually places on Black people.
Unfortunately, Taibbi and others who correctly criticize DiAngelo’s peddling of anti-racism often fail to affirm the actualities of racism, the material consequences of white supremacy.
In the last few weeks, articles have surfaced documenting the scandalous consequences of material racism.
The New York Times ran an article on June 28 with the odd, provocative title Black Workers Stopped Making Progress on Pay. Is It Racism?. The heading was odd because the article actually documents that the gap between Black male and white male earning has actually widened in the last 50 years! When was there progress?
Black men, on average, earned 56 cents for every dollar earned by their white counterparts in 2019 when adjusted for unemployment rates, according to The New York Times.
The pay gap has persisted for generations, despite the fact that African Americans have dramatically reduced the education gap. Liberal ideologues have long argued that differences in wealth and income are driven by educational differences. But that excuse for racism evaporates in the face of the facts: “While African Americans lag behind whites in educational attainment, that disparity has narrowed substantially over the last 40 years. Still, the wage gap hasn’t budged.”
The seemingly intractable wage gap of 20% for all Black workers when compared to their white counterparts has a name. It is “structural racism.” “Racism,” because it damages its victims profoundly and with long-term consequences. “Structural,” because it super-exploits Black workers, enabling a pattern justifying lower wages for all workers and to the benefit of capitalist enterprises.
It might be asking too much for a white “progressive” like Robin DiAngelo to bring these facts before the audience that allegedly brings her three-quarters of a million dollars a year in lecture fees. Evidence of decades of cheating Blacks of fair compensation surely deserves as much attention as regretted words over a dinner at a nice restaurant in a nice neighborhood.
Perhaps DiAngelo also overlooked the life expectancy numbers that came out in the wake of the pandemic from both the CDC and The BMJ (associated with the British Medical Association). Not surprisingly, US citizens, in general, lost more life expectancy from our failing, for-profit health care system than did our counterpart countries with national or single-payer systems (“8.5 times the average decrease in 16 comparable countries..”).
But the dramatic difference between whites and Blacks (and Latino y Latinas) is a national disgrace. Where The BMJ claims that the average white person in the US lost 1.4 years of life expectancy at birth between 2018 and 2020, the average life expectancy of Blacks dropped 3.25 years (and Latino y Latinas by 3.9 years)!
Quoted by NBC News, Steven Woolf, who led The BMJ study and is director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University, said “What I didn’t anticipate was how badly the U.S. would handle the pandemic… These are numbers we aren’t at all used to seeing in this research; 0.1 years is something that normally gets attention in the field, so 3.9 years and 3.25 years and even 1.4 years is just horrible,” Woolf said. “We haven’t had a decrease of that magnitude since World War II.”
Life expectancy for Black men is now just below 68 years (68.3 in CDC data for 2020). That means that the average Black male will pay into Social Security and Medicare and see little or none of the benefits, a cruel consequence of the racism built into a dysfunctional social welfare and health care system.
The gap in life expectancy between Blacks and whites is now 5.81 years! Whether it is racialized health care or impoverishment or some other inequality that accounts for this gap, the result is a national scandal.
But more significantly, these numbers underscore outcomes that are baked into US institutions and do demonstrable harm to African Americans. The US socio-politico-economic system systematically produces and reproduces material deprivations on Black people, guaranteeing a second-class citizenship for generations to come.
Television interviews, self-help books, book club readings, sermons, and jeremiads have little impact on these obstacles to racial justice. Shaming, cajoling, or sensitivity training will not break the grip of racism on the material condition of Black People in the US.
Instead, we must impose racial justice on our institutions. We must insist upon workplace representation that reflects our multinational, multi-ethnic society. Popular notions of education reform, elevating role models, promoting inspirational talks, or leaving justice to the market have shown that they will not work.
Every past effort to rectify the economic inequalities imposed by racist practices– from forty acres and a mule to workplace affirmative action– has been met with resistance from wealth and power. When the discussion turns to reparative racial justice, the DiAngelos of the world and their corporate promoters stare at their shoes. They would rather talk about racism than incur the economic costs that would come with restorative change. That might cost their bottom line.
Less of Robin DiAngelo’s hustle, more affirmative action!