What It Means to be a “Radical White”

My PolicyMic colleague Matt Johnson worries that his “radical white” perspective on race relations has been consistently excluded and insulted by persistent white racism and cultural separatism. He worries that reducing the complicated history of American life to “socially constructed” race-groups with different political and economic interests obscures the ways in which all these groups suffer (differently) from the psychological and material effects of racism, and the ways in which they must work together to “resolve … racial injustices.”

His argument contains some valuable insights but I worry that his accounts of race and racism are distorted and sometimes dangerously mistaken.

Too often those who don’t suffer racism or discrimination distance themselves from the practices: they are black or brown problems, not “my problems.” Politically conscious whites moved to work in anti-racist politics do so because they believe that that political program most aligns with demands for justice, not from experiences of personal insult.

Johnson is right, in some ways, to suggest that things are more complicated: that racism degrades our social relations, that it encourages suspicion, psychological tension, and pathological fear. Economically, racism and racist hierarchies sanction exploitation and inequality, mass incarceration, and structural poverty, though the list goes on.

As Johnson recognizes, these social and economic effects don’t affect everyone in the same way. White men (like him and I) only derivatively suffer from racism, while groups racialized as black or brown are significantly more vulnerable to police brutality, grinding poverty, hate crimes, and everyday violence.

By analogy, even if cancer victims suffer the most, cancer hurts everyone around them and, probably also the society they live in. Or to make the analogy more vivid, and paraphrase a well-known and apt political slogan, “the patriarchy is bad for men, worse for women.”

But the trouble with this analogy is that it disappears all the ways in which white people (and especially white men) both actively and implicitly benefit from the white privilege accrued to them by racial hierarchies, and that they might bear some responsibility for the persistence and maintenance of anti-black racism. It's telling that Johnson never owns the benefits of whiteness he enjoys; refusing to acknowledge his own structural privileges leads to a skewed vision of racism that misses the important thing about it: that, unlike, say, cancer, it advantages some groups politically and economically at the expense of others.

The stuff we recognize and deplore as hard racism comes out most dramatically in the violent rhetoric of white supremacists and “racist, proto-fascists,” but its presence remains most acute in structurally invisible but immensely powerful ways. Misrecognizing racism as an individual, psychological deficiency instead of a political and economic structure that benefits some at the expense of others leads Johnson to suggest “we are all in this together.” This is false — there are many people who actively or implicitly benefit from racial hierarchies and for whom challenging and potentially abandoning their white privilege would be unthinkable. Indeed, there are many who, in a truly integrated, racially just world, would be worse off than they are today as privileged whites.   

Those seeking racial and social justice should come up with a full and actionable diagnosis of racism. Part of that requires understanding how racism and racialization work: how some benefit and others lose, and how accepting the socially and politically “constructed” nature of race won’t make those identities and their attendant benefits and loses disappear, and how individual whites asserting their own commitments to racial harmony will never be enough to dismantle racist structures and institutions. 

A more successful, realistic, and (to my mind) inspiring program for racial justice appeals not to imagined “common interests” but hopes for the realization of a rich and vibrant, non-hierarchical democratic future.

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