Racism, Anti-Racism, and Faux Anti-Racism

The backlash against anti-racism, in this country, has been more powerful by an order of magnitude than anti-racism itself, and for decades. Full stop. —Freddie

In my career, I’ve written against racism and participated in what Freddie calls “the backlash against anti-racism,” though I don’t think that’s a fair way to put it. There are racists in this country, and there are folks who wrongly object to most every anti-racism effort. It is proper that both face strong criticism.

But the mainstream backlash in American race relations isn’t provoked by anti-racism and antagonism to it — the target here, what riles so many people, is faux-anti-racism, wherein poseurs exploit the powerful taboo against racism to accrue power. This is why Martin Luther King is revered and Al Sharpton loathed, why there is almost universal condemnation when a public figure is exposed saying the n-word, and simultaneous disgust at that story about the guy who got fired for using “niggardly” on the job.

If this phenomenon is partly driven by subconscious fear, it is largely fear of being falsely accused of racism. There ought to be powerful taboos against racism. I’m glad that polite society no longer tolerates people who use racial epithets, or actively discriminate against other races. A perhaps inevitable unintended consequence, however, is an incentive to wield the charge of racism as a weapon against those undeserving of it, and a phenomenally high price paid by those unfairly targeted. One sees the same thing in allegations of child molestation. The taboo against it is appropriately high. Those who molest children are rightly reviled. As a consequence, however, allegations of child molestation are sometimes falsely levied, whether due to malice or hysteria, and plenty of wholly innocent people — particularly men — think every so often, wondering if they’re being paranoid, “Heaven forbid I’m ever falsely accused of that.”

Let’s return to the subject of race, and the backlash against faux anti-racism. Perhaps I can help explain where this impulse originates by explaining how I came to it.

I grew up in Orange County, California, among plenty of Latinos, some Asian Americans, and very few black people. As a kid, I was largely oblivious to racial tension in the United States. My schooling taught about slavery as a historic atrocity, cast the Civil Rights movement as a redemptive moment for the United States, and never taught about or grappled with the present racial moment. My parents taught color-blindness, showed by example that people of all races ought to be treated the same, and would’ve probably gone ballistic if they ever saw even a hint of racial prejudice in my sister or I, though the idea of being racist was so foreign to us that we never would’ve been conscious of that at the time. Latino culture is everywhere in Southern California. Asian culture was what happened at the houses of close family friends. Black culture was portrayed on The Cosby Show. Everyone pretty much seemed alike to us.

On arriving at Pomona College, I was exposed to a whole new way of looking at race. This is partly due to being around more racial minorities who grew up experiencing race very differently than me. Almost without exception, I found that exposure to be enlightening. Though I don’t think that minorities should be used as teaching tools on college campuses, I certainly learned a lot by virtue of being around kids forced for their whole childhood to experience the world through the lens of race.

But I also experienced race differently due to official efforts undertaken by the college. The one I regard as the most dubious concerned the incoming freshmen, who were separated into “sponsor groups” that corresponded to floors in the dormitories. A sponsor group consisted of roughly 15 kids, and all orientation activities were arranged around these groups. The effect was that by the end of your first week on campus, you got to know these people even better than if you’d merely lived alongside them, and these relationships echoed across the years—many of the friends with whom I keep in touch from college either lived on my floor freshmen year, or were members of the sponsor group that I oversaw as a sophomore.

Here’s the thing: if you were a white kid at Pomona College, you spent that first week doing orientation activities with your sponsor group, but if you marked Asian on your application or housing materials, the Office of Campus Life automatically assigned you to both a sponsor group and a separate Asian American Mentor Program group. During orientation, you spent much of your time with that all Asian group. There were benefits to that setup. Some Asian kids found enormous support in that group. Others suffered for being segregated by race.

One could hardly count several Asians as friends at Pomona without getting very different takes on whether the approach was a good thing or a bad thing, but I regarded it as the latter, especially given the self-segregation that characterized the campus, and what I observed to be a healthier environment at UC Berkeley where one of my best friends went to school. Suffice it to say that overall, the AAMP was understandably controversial — and on more occasions than I can count, I saw students make good faith arguments that the program did more harm than good, and saw them called racist as a result. The chilling effect that resulted stifled debate on an appropriate topic of conversation. Seeing all that happen is how I first came to feel a backlash rising within me against what I judged to be faux anti-racism.

Other incidents heightened that impulse. The most powerful concerned a professor who sought to establish a new entity funded by the college to study diversity of one sort or another (I don’t mean to be dismissive of the purpose — it’s just been a long time). One day, she reported that her car was vandalized, that epithets against blacks and jews were written in spray paint on its roof, and that its windows were shattered. She railed about the hate crime. It underscored the need for exactly the kinds of things she advocated, she said. Then evidence emerged confirming that she faked the hate crime, vandalizing her own car. What I wrote at the time — and still believe — is that the worst thing about her behavior is how it must’ve made the blacks and Jews on campus feel imagining that a vandal was wandering around with hate in his heart for their kind.

This kind of thing was hardly unique to my campus. As a newspaper reporter, I saw an obviously corrupt politician react to criticism by claiming that he was being targeted for being a Latino — he actively tried to falsely label a political opponent racist on more than one occassion. Presumably you’ve seen reports of faked hate crimes on other campuses, and the harm that faux anti-racism can do is demonstrated most powerfully by the Duke Lacrosse players who nearly went to jail when a rogue prosecutor used faux anti-racism to launch a media campaign against them.

Let me be clear: I regard racism as a far greater problem in America than faux anti-racism. What I also think is that opposing both phenomenon is imperative. It isn’t controversial to say that murder is a far bigger problem than people falsely accused of murder — and that we should nevertheless be very attentive to innocent people being convicted. Nor is it controversial to say that child molestation is a bigger problem than people unfairly labeled sex offenders, and to support the backlash against foisting that label on people who are only guilty of streaking through their senior prom or dating a 16 year-old when they were 19 years old.

As long as we take racism seriously, and society imposes significant crimes on those thought to be racists, there is going to be a powerful incentive to play the race card when it is illegitimate to do so. The appropriate response isn’t to carefully determine whether racism or faux anti-racism is a bigger problem, and to focus exclusively on the winner — the best course is contempt for racists and faux anti-racism frauds. False accusations of racism are poisonous. They stoke racial resentments, render important political conversations impossible to conduct, lead people to believe that more hate is directed against them than is in fact the case, and wrongly disparage innocent people with one of society’s most reviled labels. It is appropriate to push back against it.

Before I conclude, I’d also ask Freddie to consider that Rush Limbaugh, during his comments about the white kid beat up on the school bus, is engaging in something that is part faux anti-racism — and to re-iterate that, quite distinct from those who object to faux anti-racism, there are folks who object to mere anti-racism, folks who are wrong to do so.