Racism isn’t Permanent, but Illiberalism Almost Certainly Is

by Helen Pluckrose

Essay originally from Counterweight.

“Racism is permanent”. That is one of the key tenets of Critical Race Theory although sometimes it is replaced with “Racism is ordinary.” Permanent and ordinary, of course, are not the same thing. Things that are ordinary can change while things that are permanent cannot. It used to be ordinary for most children to die before the age of ten. Now that is a rare tragedy. The fact that we all die, however, seems likely to be a permanent feature of being human.

While something being permanent and something being ordinary are not the same thing, within the theory, they are often used to present the same message “Racism is something that is so deeply engrained within society that thinking we can straightforwardly overcome it if we just try hard enough is naïve. Instead, we need to accept it as the water we swim in and then fight it anyway.” This naturally leads to the question “Why?” If racism really is a permanent fixture of society or just the undeniable reality of it, why bother to fight?

To this, theorists and activists have responded with the claim that there is value to individual and group dignity, worth and resilience to continue critiquing and fighting and highlighting the grievous wrong that is racism. The human spirit, but in this particular case, the black human spirit, is nourished, strengthened and supported by the fight itself, by refusing to give up and by creating a space and a community where these positive, affirming and defiant attitudes have reign. Furthermore, this keeps those values and that fighting spirit alive for future generations who may, just possibly, eventually succeed.

This is how the late professor of law, Derrick Bell, put it:

Continued struggle can bring about unexpected benefits and gains that in themselves justify continued endeavor. We can recognize miracles we did not plan and value them for what they are, rather than always measure their worth by their likely contribution to our traditional goals. As a former student, Erin Edmonds, concludes, it is not a matter of choosing between the pragmatic recognition that racism is permanent no matter what we do, or an idealism based on the long-held dream of attaining a society free of racism. Rather, it is a question of both, and. Both the recognition of the futility of action—where action is more civil rights strategies destined to fail—and the unalterable conviction that something must be done, that action must be taken.

This is, I believe, a more realistic perspective from which to gauge the present and future worth of our race-related activities. Freed of the stifling rigidity of relying unthinkingly on the slogan “we shall overcome,” we are impelled both to live each day more fully and to examine critically the actual effectiveness of traditional civil rights remedies. Indeed, the humility required by genuine service will not permit us to urge remedies that we may think appropriate and the law may even require, but that the victims of discrimination have rejected.

That, Geneva, is the real Black History, all too easily lost in political debates over curricular needs. It is a story less of success than of survival through an unremitting struggle that leaves no room for giving up. We are all part of that history, and it is still unfolding.  With you and the slave singers, “I want to be in that number”

Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism1992 (pp. 248-249). Basic Books.

Michelle Alexander, civil rights lawyer, in her forward to Faces at the Bottom of the Well describes resisting the idea that racism is permanent but finally accepting it and she speaks to that same spirit,

I now understand that accepting the permanence of racism in this country does not mean accepting racism. It does not mean being a passive spectator as politicians engage in racial scapegoating. It does not mean doing nothing as our nation builds a border wall locking some colored people out, while building prison walls that lock millions of others in. Accepting the permanence of racism does not mean ignoring global capitalism and the many ways in which it treats millions of people and the planet itself as expendable, utterly disposable. Accepting the permanence of racism does not mean denying or avoiding sexism and patriarchy.

Facing the inconvenient truth that America may suffer from an incurable, potentially fatal disease helps to clarify what we’re up against. It offers the opportunity to clarify our goals. Is our ultimate goal to save this nation from its original sins? Are we trying to “fix” the United States of America? If so, Bell rightly argues that we may find ourselves playing a game we can never win. But if we broaden our view and sharpen our focus, we just might see that our liberation struggles aren’t limited to our national borders and that our movements, if we take them seriously enough, can help to rebirth this nation and reimagine our world. A new country might be born, one with new heroes, new founding mothers and fathers. I don’t expect to live long enough to see that day, and I won’t pretend to be certain that it will come. What I do know is that none of us can say for sure what will happen when the seeds planted by today’s truth tellers and advocates begin to sprout and bloom. Perhaps our movements—the rebellious spirit that gives life to them—will outlive this country and help to make another world possible.

Whether you believe our nation can be saved or redeemed, I urge you to read (or reread) this book and discuss it with others. Ask yourself whether there may be truths lurking here that we have yet to face. Ask yourself if you’re willing to commit yourself to the struggle for racial justice even if the battle can’t ever be won. After years of ambivalence on that final point, my answer now is yes. Forever yes. (pp. xviii-xix).

I don’t agree with Bell or Alexander that racism is permanent or ordinary in America or anywhere else. Of course, many Critical Race Theorists and their successors, Critical Social Justice Anti-racists, will argue that that is because I am a white woman and thus have the ability to close my eyes to the pervasiveness of it. It’s not hitting me in the face wherever I go, they will argue, and so I have the privilege of not seeing the water we swim in while black people are drowning in it.

However, it should be pointed out that very many black people don’t believe racism is permanent or ordinary either. Setting aside those who believe it has already been largely overcome and we are now mopping up the remnants of it and dealing with racist individuals who are widely regarded with contempt, many of those who believe racism to be a profound, all-consuming current problem still regard it as one that can be overcome and their activism centres on the goal of overcoming it. There is a reason the song of the Civil Rights Movement was “We shall Overcome.” Opponents of racism both before and after the Civil Rights Movement fought and fight racism with this goal in mind and with the belief that it is achievable.

This argument between whether racism is permanent and can only be resisted and opposed for the purpose of small victories and self-validation and dignity or whether it is something that is temporary, socially constructed for nefarious reason and can be beaten has been ongoing among opponents of racism for decades. I suspect the latter to be more common, though. As Ibram X. Kendi says,

Race and racism are power constructs of the modern world. For roughly two hundred thousand years, before race and racism were constructed in the fifteenth century, humans saw color but did not group the colors into continental races, did not commonly attach negative and positive characteristics to those colors and rank the races to justify racial inequity, to reinforce racist power and policy. Racism is not even six hundred years old. It’s a cancer that we’ve caught early.

But racism is one of the fastest-spreading and most fatal cancers humanity has ever known. It is hard to find a place where its cancer cells are not dividing and multiplying. There is nothing I see in our world today, in our history, giving me hope that one day antiracists will win the fight, that one day the flag of antiracism will fly over a world of equity. What gives me hope is a simple truism. Once we lose hope, we are guaranteed to lose. But if we ignore the odds and fight to create an antiracist world, then we give humanity a chance to one day survive, a chance to live in communion, a chance to be forever free.

Kendi, Ibram X.. How To Be an Antiracist (p. 238). Random House.

Kendi is correct! All historical evidence bears this out. While humans have always been tribal and territorial and found reasons to kill, persecute and oppress other groups, racism as a reason for this is relatively new. This is unsurprising. It is new in evolutionary terms for people with different skin colours to exist and very new for them to have been in regular contact with each other. Even when they were, it took some time for race to become a dividing line. For centuries before that, religion was far more dominant. The Bible, a text written in the Middle East on the Mediterranean where black, brown and white people were to be found, makes almost no mention of skin colour while being otherwise full of tribal animosity. People who believe racism is insurmountable either because of intractable power structures and socialization or because our tribalistic nature makes racism itself natural and inevitable are simply wrong and history shows this to be the case. They are too deeply embedded in the norms of their own time and place to see outside them. There is absolutely no reason why skin colour should not become as socially insignificant in the West as hair colour is. Nor is there any reason that negative stereotypes attached to people who have darker skin can’t die in the same way as negative stereotypes attached to people who are left-handed did.

The reality is, though, that we have to strive to make that happen and we have to do that in ways that actually work. To do that, we have to acknowledge the problem that underlies racism and that underlies all oppressive power structures and the aim to create or maintain them. That problem is illiberalism. I agree with Dr Kendi when he says racism has not gone away because we have not been using the right strategies for overcoming it. I also think he is absolutely right to recognize that “Black people can’t be racist” and “White people are evil” are failed strategies for overcoming racism. However, we part ways when he argues against the aim for a post-racial and color-blind society and recognizing only one race – the human race (p201). This is liberal humanism he is rejecting as a failed strategy and there is considerable evidence that liberal humanism has indeed produced much progress against racism.

Current anti-racists often criticize their own critics because we so often oppose their identity-politics stance by quoting the words of Martin Luther King Jr when he said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” They claim that this takes a single quote out of context of the body of King’s work to justify ignoring racism rather than addressing it. But there is a reason that this quote is the one that so many people, of all races, have found the most inspiring. It’s because it speaks to liberal humanist values and it speaks them to people who live in the benefits of liberal society, recognise it and also recognise that its benefits have not been extended to everybody and that that needs to change. Liberalism focuses on the individual and removing any barriers in the way of their ability to thrive in society while humanism focuses on our commonalities and shared humanity over our superficial differences. The belief that we can overcome racism best by focusing on our commonalities rather than on our differences is one that is held by 57% of white Americans and 45% of black ones while 26% of white people and 44% of black people believe focusing on difference is better. The idea that we should reject liberal humanist approaches to overcoming racism when so many people value it and think it works, including a slight majority of black people, is throwing a particularly precious liberal humanist baby out with the dirty water of our history of having failed to do liberal humanism consistently.

It simply isn’t true that a commitment to judging people by their character instead of their skin colour ignores racism. That is the opposite of true. That commitment, if held seriously and conscientiously, must include the consistent opposition of people, institutions and systems that fail to evaluate people as individuals and instead focus on their skin colour. That is a commitment to consistently opposing racism. It is a commitment to liberalism.

Drs Bell and Alexander are wrong to believe that racism is permanent, and this error is shown by both history and by surveying people on attitudes towards racism. However, if we were to shift their analysis to a belief that illiberalism is permanent (and racism is one current manifestation of it), it seems very likely that they are right. Sadly, humans are not naturally a liberal species. Instead, there is much evidence to show that we are a tribal and territorial species which has evolved to form in-groups and out-groups and then to use our big brains to rationalise prejudice and even violence against them. The best sources for information on this are Nicholas Christakis’ Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society and Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Humans’ tribalistic natures produce authoritarian tendencies, and the liberal idea that we can actually tolerate the existence of people with different cultures, religions, values, principles and identities without one of them having to win out and dominate all the others is very new, counterintuitive and precious. This is a development prominent in WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic) countries. “WEIRD” is a good acronym because this really is an unusual stance for a tribal, territorial species evolved to compete for resources and favour their own group. The degree to which societies are able to relax their authoritarian tendencies and expand their liberal ones seems to be related to whether they are dealing with any existential threats or are relatively stable and secure.

As Haidt put it,

Countries seem to move in two directions, along two axes: first, as they industrialize, they move away from “traditional values” in which religion, ritual, and deference to authorities are important, and toward “secular rational” values that are more open to change, progress, and social engineering based on rational considerations. Second, as they grow wealthier and more citizens move into the service sector, nations move away from “survival values” emphasizing the economic and physical security found in one’s family, tribe, and other parochial groups, toward “self-expression” or “emancipative values” that emphasize individual rights and protections—not just for oneself, but as a matter of principle, for everyone.

This is a wonderful development which has seen a great improvement to the advance of scientific knowledge and the progress of human rights, particularly for women and people of racial, religious or sexual minority. Because it is so new and unusual, though, it could easily be lost if we do not work diligently to maintain and continue this rational and liberal moral progress. Current identity politics approaches to anti-racism are a significant threat to it but so too are authoritarian right-wing forces. In our “Manifesto Against the Enemies of Modernity,” James Lindsay and I referred to these forces as the postmodernists and the premodernists. Both of them would undermine the rational, evidence-based, liberal universalist fruits of modernity if permitted to do so. Unfortunately, they feed each other by regarding each other as an existential threat and reacting against each other and drawing normally much more rational and liberal people into their orbit, creating what we termed “existential polarisation.” Rather than behaving in this reactive way where those of us who lean left react against the extremes of the right and condone or minimise the problem on our own side and vice versa, liberals on both sides as well as those who are naturally more centrist or just currently feel homeless should defend liberalism and reason and oppose illiberalism and irrationality consistently.

This is something that liberals will almost certainly need to do forever. It is very unlikely that human nature is going to change and so we need to accept that illiberalism is ordinary and likely permanent and that liberal humanists are always going to need to fight it. The illiberalisms will vary – Critical Social Justice, Islamism, communism, Christian dominionism, ethnonationalism, antisemitism etc – but the liberal response need not and should not waver from a consistent stance. While we will have to address each illiberalism on its own terms, we will need to stand firm, be confident and consistent in our principles and oppose all authoritarian attempts to impose one worldview onto the whole of society. These threats may take the form of government authoritarianism or of radical subversive factions willing to use force to intimidate people and achieve their ends. They may also take the form of the growth of ideological industries using capitalist systems to institutionalise their ideas in corporations, social media and wider culture which is what we see primarily with Critical Social Justice.  Nevertheless, liberals must be prepared to resist all of them.

People frequently email me feeling hopeless about the CSJ problem because of how rapidly it has become a powerful industry impacting all areas of employment, education and culture. They fear that it is unbeatable and sometimes they are tempted to resort to illiberal means to defeat it such as banning it or censoring expression of it or ‘cancelling’ people who engage in it. This is intuitively understandable and may even seem like poetic justice to use CSJ methods against itself, but it is a fatal error to try to beat illiberalism with illiberalism. It is also too pessimistic. If we step back and look at history and all the seemingly unstoppable and catastrophic illiberal ideas we have already unseated from power and marginalised including fascism and communism as well as the amazing progress we have made on common illiberalisms like homophobia, sexism and racism, there is no reason to think we cannot beat Critical Social Justice.

More people come to me seeking hope and reassurance that we are going to win this in the near future. I can’t promise them that we will. I hope we will. I think we will. This ideology is just too extreme and contradictory to human nature to survive long term. It also targets majority groups and so is unlikely to gain genuine widespread support and it already faces significant resistance from many kinds of opponents. I’m significantly less afraid that the illiberalism of Critical Social Justice will win out and be successful for centuries or decades than that it will get pushed back by another illiberalism that also targets liberal attempts to oppose racism, sexism, homophobia and other bigotries and sets back the progress liberalism has made on those fronts.  Then we’ll have to fight that one before we can restore liberal progress. And that is why we must stand firm, fully understand liberal principles and apply them consistently.

And this is where Bell and Alexander have something very valuable to offer to liberals even though we may disagree with their identification of the problem too narrowly as racism rather than illiberalism more broadly. When they speak of the value of continuing to fight something that may never be entirely beaten, they speak to an essential element of the human spirit that recognises the inherent integrity, dignity and worth involved in being part of a community that opposes and defies oppression and injustice. This part of the human spirit really is nourished and supported by being part of a community that exists to do this, that creates spaces to which people can come to feel validated and supported and which produces intellectual resources that will survive them, keep the spirit alive and embolden the next generation.

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