Brittney Cooper, a Professor of Gender and Africana Studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey, recently introduced herself via podcast to an audience much greater than your usual academic conference. The conversation topic, one that is always a bit short on cheer, was the depravity of white people, whom she described as “villains”. Her preferred method of dealing with these antagonists, and she expressed this with a good deal of vim, was “to take these motherf***ers out”. She sadly acknowledged the logistical constraints of this approach, but became noticeably chirpier when relaying the declining rates of white births in America, largely due, I understand, to poverty, addiction and other social maladies.
If Professor Cooper would like to shake off her lingering reticence towards the violent extirpation of whites, she should listen to the insights of Dr Aruna Khilanani, a psychiatrist recently invited to give a lecture at Yale University’s Child Study Center. The title of her speech, which handily calls for little elucidation, was “The Psychopathic Problem of the White Mind”. It’s difficult to select a favourite quote, but I would go with this one: “I had fantasies of unloading a revolver into the head of any white person that got in my way, burying their body, and wiping my bloody hands as I walked away relatively guiltless with a bounce in my step.”
I imagine that both of these ladies would get along chummily with Professor Ekow N. Yankah, best known for his New York Times column titled “Can My Children Be Friends With White People?” (The answer, though I know you don’t really have to ask, is no.)
These examples, and please throw in any of your own, demonstrate the moral imbecility that results from a mixture of academic credentials and race obsession. Instead of ignoring these tenured clowns, we have allowed their obsessions to become those of wider society’s: from Black Lives Matter and Critical Race Theory in schools, to kneeling sportsmen and racist crosswords (yes, really), race seems to have entered every aspect of our cultural and political life. And yet, all this race talk never seems to be enough.
Walk into your local bookshop and you’ll find it hard to avoid a pretty weighty literature on topics ranging from the awfulness of white people to white rage to the particular awfulness of white women. You’ll almost certainly find the best-selling and most ridiculed work in this genre: Robin DiAngelo’s 2018 book White Fragility, which helped popularise two notions previously confined to the academy. (Ah, those were the days.) First, the claim that all—and she really means all—white people are racist; and second, the standard definition of racism as contempt for groups based on their race is utterly inadequate and incorrect. Its replacement, race as a system of institutional and violent power to which all racist white people belong, has a useful addendum. Well, useful for DiAngelo, anyway: any polite questioning of her claims serves as a demonstration of the questioner’s racism. That’s why the only interesting debate generated from her book is whether DiAngelo’s argument even rises to the level of argument.
Next to DiAngelo, you’ll find works by Ibram X. Kendi, the author of How to Be an Antiracist, Antiracist Baby and the forthcoming How to Raise an Antiracist, all of which could lead one to the mistaken assumption that he is interested in anti-racism. To DiAngelo’s bill of complaint Kendi adds that any—and he really means any—difference in outcomes between racial groups is evidence of racism. He combines this fatuous claim with the demand that it’s simply not good enough to call yourself “not racist”; such a stance, as you can probably guess, is evidence of your racism. Kendi, sounding like one of the minor prophets, admonishes the racist sins of the people and offers atonement if you join his anti-racism cult. Just don’t forget to include his cheque for a grifty $20,000, which he can earn for an afternoon Zoom session with the business and education community.
Australia, I gloomily note, has made its own contributions to all this intellectual rot. Ruby Hamad, PhD candidate and suspected asylum escapee, recently published a Facebook-like rant in book form called White Tears/Brown Scars, which was based on her viral article in (where else?) the Guardian titled “How White Women Use Strategic Tears to Silence Women of Colour”. Crying, you see, is an act of violence. Or something like that. She whinges about white women a lot.
Like all these works, the book under review, Alana Lentin’s Why Race Still Matters, is immitigably dreary, but in its own special way. Lentin, Associate Professor of Cultural and Social Analysis at Western Sydney University, brings to the race debate a much heavier reliance on academic twaddle. The advantage, as I see it, is that this book is significantly more unreadable than the rest in the genre, and this places some welcome limits on its ability to influence anyone’s outlook.
I don’t want to be entirely negative, so I should add that the book offers a few laughs, although they are unintentional. Take, for example, this nice bit of throat-clearing in the introduction:
Today, as a privileged multiple migrant, having moved from Europe to Australia in 2012, I unwillingly perhaps, but unavoidably nevertheless, participate in the colonization of yet another unceded territory, the Gadigal country in otherwise named Sydney, Australia.
With that self-flagellating confession out of the way, Lentin moves to the big topics, one of which I also rather like: the attention she pays to the idea that race is a social construct, a mantra that has entered the public consciousness. The social construction of race, as those who read too much Foucault remind us, usually means that race has no real biological element; rather, it has meaning and hierarchy and whatnot assigned to it by those with power.
Interestingly, Lentin has also had enough with the social constructionists. Well, sort of. The problem seems to be one of strategy and persuasion. You see, all this social-construct talk doesn’t seem to convince many people, and through this failure, it may even lead them to think that race does have something to do with biology after all. Or perhaps—and Lentin really shudders at this thought—we should spend less time fixated on race, see each other as individuals with dignity, and ground that understanding in natural rights. Lentin finds this all very bothersome and just wants everybody to see race through the same extreme political lens as she does.
The activist mobs banging on about the social construction of gender encounter the same problem. All normal and sensible people know that biological sex is real and cannot be changed, that it has defining features, and that men are women are different. Running up against these obvious facts are the gender constructionists, whose latest hobby is to demand that lesbians be attracted to trans-women despite the latter, um, not being in possession of the right equipment. Genital preferences, as the kids shout nowadays, are so transphobic.
Anyhow, if Lentin jettisons the social-construct angle, what does she put in its place? Her suggestions are unlikely to bring many new troops to the cause. Like other race-baiters, Lentin has to refashion the common understanding of her terms into something new and sinister. She writes—and try to appreciate how quickly this escalates:
I formulate race as a technology for the management of human difference, the main goal of which is the production, reproduction, and maintenance of white supremacy on both a local and a planetary scale.
On the surface, one can see the cleverness here: if race is a technology, it is “in a continual process of reinvention”, which means the diversity trainers, the equity consultants, and the race-obsessed academics never fear for their employment. It also means that things one usually considers neutral or benign must be transmogrified into racist horrors. Lentin has a cheap trick for this, which I’ll outline, but I’m not at all sorry to say that it also lacks persuasive power.
Books like this need a marketing hook, something memorable for the chattering classes to keep up their chatter. DiAngelo has her garbage notion of “white fragility”, and Kendi likes his Big Brotherly Department of Anti-Racism. Lentin’s lesser attempt, which she has unnecessarily trademarked in the title of Chapter 2, is the concept of “not racism”.
As you know, the accusations of racism that get flung around nowadays hit quite a few undeserving targets, many of whom register their complaints. Their rejoinder, which is usually a denial of said racism, is—well, this is predictable—a big guilty sign, or, as Lentin puts it:
The adjudication of whether a statement, an action, or a process is racist in our mediated public culture eschews engagement with what race does as a discursive and performative regime in these scenarios.
By all means, chew on that sentence for a bit longer if you need to, but do try to keep up. She goes on to whine about two components of “not racism”. First, the accused argues that the charge is an “excessive ascription”, perhaps by comparing their alleged misdeeds with much worse ones, like segregation or apartheid. This mistake, as Lentin sees it, allows the unenlightened to see racism as an individual’s moral failing instead of the structural and systemic problem that it so clearly is.
Let’s test the sturdiness of this theory with the experience of Greg Patton, former professor of Business Communication at the University of Southern California. While teaching a lesson on filler words in Chinese, he—let me approach this carefully—gave the example of ne ga, which sounds pretty similar to the N-word. Of course, after class, a few students sniffed about their wounded feelings, got Professor Patton removed from his post, and presumably applauded themselves for bravely putting another dent in America’s systemic racism.
Well, I suppose Patton’s claim of being “not racist” looks pretty silly now, doesn’t it? Should he be able to get away with it? Readers who take this book seriously should hope not, because, as Lentin sombrely warns: “‘Not racism’ is a quest to control the definition of racism that enacts a discursive racist violence.”
Of course, that’s not to say that racism doesn’t exist, or that some individuals denying their racism are full of it. The salient point is that Alana Lentin and her ilk are about as useless a guide to these questions as one can find.
The rest of the book leans heavily on this “not racism” theory, and the examples of things that turn out to be violently racist pile up pretty high: Quillette, populism, Douglas Murray, Quillette, Islamophobia, New Atheism, Eric Kaufmann and Quillette.
There is another recurring theme that I particularly dislike. Lentin frets that “not racism” “is mobilized most successfully in discussions of migration, where academics and policy-makers present immigration control as a sensible approach that has nothing to do with racism”. There are reasonable concerns about the desirability and necessity of mass immigration, as still too few elites in Western societies have come to realise. The simpler reasons are economic; the more complicated ones are cultural: nations, if they wish to survive, must prevent the fracturing of the first-person plural.
Lentin gropes for an explanation for all this with the only explanation her myopic worldview allows: racism and then more racism. What’s most contemptible is her repeated invocation of the Christchurch terrorist every time the immigration subject comes up, as if there were no real difference between that monster and a citizen who votes on his legitimate concerns.
In the final chapter, where she hews to the new gospel of intersectionality, Lentin praises the inclusion of race talk into everything else, which, I suppose, should keep everyone busy for a while. There’s also a bit on “methodological whiteness”, which painfully reminded me of the ghastly academic phrases I had been collecting: the “invisibilising” of something or other, as well as—trust me, don’t ask—the “undecidability of racism”.
On reflection, perhaps that can be the cause of some concluding cheer. How far, really, is all this race talk removed from the priorities and views of an intelligent and moral public, one that has been spared an education in the social sciences and humanities? Pretty damn far removed, I would think. As final proof, I note in passing that Alana Lentin, the slightly reluctant migrant to these shores, is rather keen to convey her revulsion at the sound of local school children singing the national anthem.
Race monomaniacs like Lentin will continue to remind us that skin colour matters more than anything else in the world, and that everyone needs to have a conversation, you know, to really talk about the need for more conversations about race. It’s tempting to wish they’d all just shut up, I know; before that happens, I predict, most of us will simply stop listening.
Why Race Still Matters
by Alana Lentin
Polity Press, 2020, 242 pages, about $30
Timothy Cootes lives in Sydney and contributes regularly to Quadrant Online