To Promote Racial Justice, It’s Time to Move On from “Anti-Racism”

Not to ban the slogan. But to close it like a book, and put it on the shelf with others that have been read, which delivered value, and have become part of a reference collection.

In the almost sixty years since I was drawn into racial justice work, many such slogans have come and gone: like best-selling novels, page-turners in their day, then outpaced by new events, new stories and new mottos.

When I came along, it was all “Desegregation,” “integration,” “civil rights,” and “We Shall Overcome.”  Back in The Day, they were stirring, often thrilling, and not a few sanctified with the blood of martyrs.

They didn’t disappear either. But they were elbowed aside, particularly by “Black power, just as ”Negro,” a term of respect which Dr. King spoke  with pride til the day he died, was replaced by “Black” (which in turn is now jostling with “people of color”). And there have been many others.

For that matter, there was a long succession of similar mottoes before my time, going back over 250 years:

Among Friends there were manumissionists, such as John Woolman, urging owners to free enslaved individuals; then anti-slavery advocates, succeeded in the 1830s by abolitionists, radicals who aimed not so much at individuals as at the slave system.

After the Civil War and the defeat of Reconstruction, there was a long slow progression through guarded euphemisms like “Intergroup relations“ and “human relations” toward the more candid “inter-racial cooperation;” but not until after victory in World War Two did “human rights” enter the discourse.

Some of these terms receded because they were shown to have downsides: “Black Power!” centered African-American agency and justified anger; but it was vague about concrete goals, and some of its advocates slid into the dead-end of violence.

Today, many pretend not to notice, but “anti-racism” carries issues of its own:

  • It’s negative, against, against, against. There was a season for that, after the police murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and too many others. But again, to construct justice, concrete goals are required.
  • It has become a coalition-buster, in a time when knitting together often fractious groups with similar needs and aspirations has never been so urgent.
  • Then, even more troublesome has been its impact on too many progressive whites. It has exacerbated our most self-defeating feature, the penchant for circular firing squads. I have seen way too much of this even in my small corner of the “progressive” subculture, liberal Quakers.

Why? Since too many of us fear actual conflict, yet can’t avoid the echoes of events mostly happening beyond our cultural bubbles, we displace our anger and fear at the forces outside, and dump them over each other instead, pretending they are the real adversaries.

“Manumissionists” — Yep, they were once a thing, even among Quakers.

Instead of confronting an actual racist militia, for instance, the sights are shifted to the one among us who dared to think out loud that “All Lives Matter” might be acceptable. Or who wept at the wrong time in some high-priced diversity seminar, and can be tarred with that all-purpose, unanswerable charge of “upholding white supremacy culture.”

Or the ones who didn’t yield quickly enough to the pressure of signing on to what amounts to a creed (contrary to their own long anti-creedal tradition) committing all to a stern doctrine of “anti-racism” (though one no better explained than the unfathomable Christian Trinity) and vowing to “dismantle” the perceived “structures of oppression” which like the 1950s Reds-Under-The-Beds were so often hunted down within our own walls.

What are the results? To Quakers I say, look around: one U. S. liberal yearly meeting is being torn apart by the internal conflict such pressures have generated. A number of local meetings have suffered much needless stress, attrition, plummeting morale and community. Many individual Friends I hear from are now lost in a spiritual wilderness, feeling driven away by sectarian pressures; yes, even –pardon the expression – canceled.

Which is to say that most of the dismantling I’ve seen achieved by “anti-racism” crusades among Quakers has occurred not in the “racist system” (which is real enough) but in our ranks. In too many places, we’re “dismantling” only ourselves, and weakening our meetings, while outside, the real tides of racism are steadily rising, and growing ever more dangerous.

But don’t take my word for it. There have been cries of pain and frustration even from within the (financially) burgeoning anti-racism consulting industry (euphemized as DEI, for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion). To take only two examples, from many more available:

In The Diversity and Inclusion Industry Has Lost Its Way, Kim Tran, described as “a longtime anti-oppression consultant, community organizer,” repeats these and more grievances from within the lucrative industry.

 

Again, high-flying New York Times podcaster Ezra Klein brought two successful veteran consultants together in August 2021 to share their similar laments in: “Are Workplace Diversity Programs Doing More Harm Than Good?”  (Their glum answers, in sum were: too often, yes.)

Further, careful researchers studying corporate “diversity” efforts have shown that too many such programs produce more discontent, resistance and internal backlash than anything else. The Harvard Business Review has published several myth-busting, well-researched analyses, here, and here, and here and here.

Does this spate of bad news mean we should give up on racial justice work, either individually or corporately?

A Phrenology “map”

Not hardly; though, as the current saying goes, a reckoning is overdue with the DEI-Anti-racism industry, to help separate the useful stuff from what’s little more than self-indulgent, overpriced, homeopathy or phrenology.

In our small Quaker patch, while too many American Quaker groups have assimilated into the surrounding racist cultures over time, an overall negative verdict is by no means warranted. A more useful view is that of a younger Friend (well, younger than me), Bowen Alpern:

“Much of what we tend to regard as the achievement of Friends as a whole was, in fact, the work of individual Friends, or small groups of Friends, often in the face of opposition or neglect of their monthly meetings. (One of the most positive – if often tedious – aspects of Quaker culture may be its capacity to produce or attract individuals who are willing to stand up to it.)”  (from Godless For God’s Sake, p. 75).

That is, for more than 300 years, the Society of Friends in North America, despite its many failures, has nonetheless produced a succession of individuals and groups that have mounted continuing struggles against slavery and racism, for racial justice, often enough sidestepping the compromising Quaker grandees of their day.

This is not a record of unrelieved betrayal. It is a chronicle of imperfect people pressed by what they take as the Inward Light to do justice and love mercy, while not always walking as humbly as they ought. And with all the shortcomings, there are few religious groups that can match it.

Our task continues to learn from both our achievements and failures, keep up discerning and doing the work as way opens for us; stay wary of guilt-driven dogmas and fad-seeking crowds; and then to pass this heritage on to those coming after. Consigning it to the circular firing squad would be both folly and a sin.

In that ongoing work, our words matter. “Anti-racism,” I contend, has had its day. What should replace it?

Here are three alternatives, which are also signs that others, including some in the trenches, have already seen this need and are filling it.

First is a behemoth, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). I believe they were among the first out of the box, in February 2021, when they rolled out a major new initiative their “Systemic Equality Agenda.” In reading their description of it, I was struck by how carefully they avoided the current jargon. While setting very similar goals, I saw  no “dismantling”; no “intersectionality”; no problematic posturing performativity. And not even 1619.

But no retreat either:

“Since the nation’s founding, the fabric of American society has been woven with deeply racist policies . . . Systemic Equality is a racial justice agenda that seeks to address America’s legacy of racism and systemic discrimination through advocacy efforts and legal strategies that aim to ensure equal access and opportunity for all.“

This statement was no fluke. The ACLU’s 2022 budget will exceed $420 million, so it takes its messaging very seriously.

By contrast, the second alternative comes from a small wooded corner of the struggle, well into flyover country: the Friends Meeting of Durham, North Carolina.

Settled near Duke University, it is often moved by campus fads, and the group had willingly, even eagerly, subscribed to the “anti-racism” creed, declaring that there would be no exemptions from its demands, or limits thereto:

Their clerks recently declared that,

“This work is absolutely necessary if we are to be the beloved community we want to be — one that welcomes all, and affirms the identity and experiences of Friends of color. . . . We believe that this work is not reserved for just certain people: it can represent a powerful source of spiritual growth and personal insight for everyone in our Meeting.  It will require a willingness to look within ourselves honestly to examine our own experiences, values and identities. . . .” (Emphasis added.)

But Quakers, no matter how devoted they are to what they call their testimonies, are heirs of a movement that was born in rebellion against enforced doctrine and refusal of top-down church authority. This skeptical, iconoclastic streak sometimes hides, is often mild in expression, but it persists, can be stubborn, and has been repeatedly vindicated by hard experience.

And thus what Durham Meeting got in response to a lapse from this heritage has been, predictably,  years of turmoil. A series of  “Anti-Racism Committees” were formed to supervise the effort; but things have not gone well. Last summer one such group proposed posting a permanent “Black Lives Matter” sign on the Meeting’s lawn. Agreement on that did not come easily, and the group upbraided the meeting in a scathing  November 2021 report:

At this time, our committee does not seek approval for the installation of a Black Lives Matter sign. The 8th month Business Meeting, and the feedback received, illuminated a concern that we feel called to acknowledge: that making an outward statement that actively welcomes Friends of Color into our worship space (with, for example, a sign) is likely to cause harm because we do not currently reflect a collective commitment to anti-racism and a gathered awareness of what that commitment requires. We believe it is important to consider whether we wholly include Black lives in our leading of Inward Light, what equality and equity mean to us, whether we are the welcoming community that a Black Lives Matter sign would invite potential visitors or members to imagine, whether we are prepared to embody the years-old verbal commitment to transforming into an anti-racist Meeting.

. . . And so the circular firing squad begins to form.

But since, there’s been some good news. In another report, on November 30, Durham’s parent Anti-Racism Committee, dropped a (nonviolent) bombshell: It had, it announced, changed its name, shedding “anti-racism,” and was now:

The [Durham Friends Meeting] Racial Justice Vision & Practice Committee.

It explained:

[A note about this committee’s {formerly the anti-racism committee!} new name: . . . We hope it more clearly reflects what we are moving towards. We look forward to imagining a more inclusive, equitable, just way of seeking Truth together, through visioning and lots of practice.]

Imagine – imagination! It’s one of the features that creedal “anti-racism” banishes  (or rather, “dismantles” with absolutes and requirements). Whether this “rebranding” will save Durham Meeting from the circular firing squad is not yet clear, but in my view it should be a big hopeful step away from dogma and impasse.

Now to the third alternative, which is mine. I use the acronym RJR, which stands for Racial Justice & Reconstruction. In the phrase, “justice” is central, for several reasons (as it is for Durham, though I thought of it separately): it is historic, echoing the biblical prophets — like the verse from Amos repeated by Dr. King in “I Have a Dream,” to “let justice roll down like waters.” Yet it is also expansive enough to apply to many present secular fields and situations, allowing for the messiness of actual life. Further, the second “R” is flexible: it could also be “Racial Justice & Reconciliation/Restoration/Renewal/Reparation/Repentance— any or all in various settings. It’s thus intended to be a future-oriented, connecting phrase, potentially appealing to many other groups, assisting coalitions, aimed at calling-in, rather than the calling-out, exclusionary purity tests of anti-racist interrogations.

Oh – and if none of these ring your chimes, maybe you can think of a better catchphrase yourself.

In the meantime, the work of racial justice and reconstruction is too vast and important to let creedal jargon and consultant claptrap spoil it. Moreover, much real work for justice is low-profile, small in scale, incremental in progress, and done mainly out of the limelight. It calls more for humility and steadfastness than ego and melodrama.

And one “advantage” of the systemic character of American racism is that it creates what the generals call a “target-rich environment”; its impact is near at hand almost everywhere. And much of the real work also calls more for humility and steadfastness rather than seeking the spotlight.

So if you’ve got a leading to pursue racial justice work, follow it (don’t forget to bring your imagination).  And if some project or group, Quaker or otherwise, presents “anti-racism” as a doctrinal entrance exam, wallet-emptier or a pretext for badgering, bid them farewell and find another, friendlier one. There are plenty for those who can see past the fads.

Or start your own. There’s lots of room, and plenty of work to go around.

15 thoughts on “To Promote Racial Justice, It’s Time to Move On from “Anti-Racism””

  1. Ah, Chuck, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Until we examine our safe, white, middle class behavior will any words matter? Until we risk what we have and are can we help make changes?

    1. Errol, thanks for the note. And yes, words do matter (in this matter; and others). Have you seen my blog post about the New York Times in March 1930 and its special editorial devoted to the word “Negro”?? Not kidding, they published a special editorial about it. Or actually, not the whole word, just the “N”. It was because they had decided, in their august weighty munificence, to henceforth, use a Capital N in the word. The “best (Negro) people” in their field of vision had been lobbying for years about it. (The blog post is here: https://wp.me/p5FGIu-4Rb) And from then, when he was one year old, til his dying day, Dr. King used the word with pride, as did many others, til the wind changed when “Black Power”came along. There are lots of other examples. Also, I’m becoming more a fan of telling people who are itching to “do something” (esp.white people)to dig into the mountain of low-profile “grunt work,” such as researching and recovering cemetery records for people of color, that needs to be done. It’s also a lesson in humility, which is very widely needed.

      1. I think your focus on positive terms and actions that help unite and address injustice is correct. I think Friends do best when each addresses their own failings and acts their own leadings to create justice and community, rather than pointing out the errors of others, including other Friends. At the very least, can we criticize acts that may reflect racism, rather than calling each other racist?

  2. Sensible discussion about this in an attempt to bridge a generational gap is probably simply not possible.

    If one is young then to not be an anti-racist is to be (by definition according to the texts cited below) racist. However, if one is old (as I am) then to be an anti-racist is to be a racist because these books that promote anti-racism assert that one must hold to a racist creed in order to arrive at the point where one can even begin to be an anti-racist.

    While historically Quakers have [to my mind rightly] made it an article of faith that there is that of God in everyone, anti-racism holds that to be white is to be universally diminished by ones guilt, as once black people were universally deemed diminished by their color.

    It is one thing to champion strength through diversity; quite another to claim that people need to be labelled, segregated and discriminated either for or against consequence of the rather arbitrary color of their skin.

    Robin DiAngelo – White Fragility
    Ibram X Kendi – How to be an Antiracist

  3. Thank you for this Chuck. I fear I won’t see the promised day but I must say that for all the strum and drang, I feel a stronger commitment to justice every time I read your words. I think we all deserve to thank you for this steady voice you have. My meeting is all quite old now and I see the end coming for us . Maybe things will get resolved from exhaustion with the wrestling match we have been having with each other and I suppose God. I am still curious. I am still curious. Love Ben Schultz, child of La Jolla Monthly Meeting.

    1. Thanks, Ben. I don’t know how much longer my wrestling will go on, but I’m now in the don’t-buy-green-bananas stage, and these screeds are about the most “activism” I can muster now. But I’m also old enough to have seen some young whippersnappers grow into middle age, and start looking around for whether they might have missed something –like maybe a sensible thing or two scribbled by the elders they have scorned and ignored for so long on the way up. If that happens some more, maybe a few will stumble across something from here. Won’t hurt them.

    1. It is an attempt to be humorous about mortality; I just turned 79, so if I buy green bananas, how do I know if I’ll still be around when they are yellow and ripe?

  4. Thank you for your thoughtful examination of our long standing American problem and it’s robust resistance, not only to solution, but also to accurate conceptualization, which must necessarily precede naming/labeling. My issue is, as I, a 1960’s SNCC veteran (Nashville, TN locus), see it is the the fear of accurately placing America’s persistent practice of varyingly visible yet pervasive and persistent subjugation, exploitation and overt violence against black folk and other discernably non-Anglo citizens in the category to which I think it rightfully fits: that being a covert tool to disguise, ease and extend the pernicious abuse of America’s poorer classes by the monied and politically empowered elites. More simply put, class based exploitation made palatable to white Americans as race based .exploitation.

    1. Elmyra. I take your point. And it reminds me of a sermon that Rev. William Barber gave some years ago. In it he said, “When they ask you, ‘Is it race, or is it class?’ The correct answer is: ‘Yes.’”
      That Friend, and Thee, speak my mind.

  5. Thanks, Chuck, for once again highlighting a path where we are stumbling, for lack of Light.

    In theory Quaker Meetings are spiritual communities. In a spiritual community the use of intellect is a tool (e.g., reading anti-racist books), not a discerner of truth. We seek truth by connecting with the movement of Spirit, the source of truth beyond words, in ourselves and in each other, until we come together in Spirit.

    Reading a book and “getting it right” is easy. Any college sophomore who gets passing grades can do that. Persisting in finding Spirit in each other, to arrive at a comprehension of truth beyond the ability of any one of us to attain on our own, is hard. We need to do that hard work.

    The work required, finding Spirit in each other, is not an intellectual exercise but rather is more like a mutual clearness committee, where the purpose (as Parker Palmer makes clear) is to find out more about the other, in the other’s terms, not our own. Be asking open-ended questions framed in the other’s perspective, we learn about the movement of Spirit in each other.

    The only requirement, and it is a requirement, for being in Spiritual community, is a commitment to living our lives, individually and communally, in and through Spirit.

    Friends: do we seek the movement of Spirit in those with whom we disagree?

  6. I’m glad there was a brief mention of the huge and lucrative workshop/lectures/seminar industry making tons of hay off white guilt. In liberal circles this always happens around the cause de jure. Part of the reason that nothing ever changes is that it is too profitable to continue to be “sunk in original sin”.
    It’s a modern version of the Second Temple money changers/ sacrifices business that provoked Jesus to turn over the tables and take a whip to the vendors and money brokers. Where are the table over -turners when we need them? Meanwhile i delete the half dozen a day promotional emails that come over my transom. What we need is is Divine Intervention of the sort experienced by Fox and referenced in Ezekiel 36: 26-27 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from your your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.

    To cap my day, today on the news I saw that Matel has forced Ida B Wells into service as the latest incarnation of Barbie! thus managing win the Dumb-as-a Box-of-Rocks Award for PC-Diversity profiteersing. IMO.

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