Restoring MLK’s Dream: Valuing Content of Character Over Color of Skin

by Christopher Paslay

Robin DiAngelo mistakenly ties the Civil Rights Movement to identity politics, when in fact the movement was based on universal human values.

Robin DiAngelo, who has made an estimated $2 million from her controversial bestseller White Fragility — and charges up to $40,000 for a half-day workshop — insists all social progress in America has come from identity politics.

“The term identity politics refers to the focus on the barriers specific groups face in their struggle for equality,” DiAngelo wrote in her author’s note to White Fragility.  “We have yet to achieve our founding principle [in America], but any gains we have made thus far have come through identity politics. . . . All progress we have made in the realm of civil rights has been accomplished through identity politics.”

But just as DiAngelo mangles the story of Jackie Robison in White Fragility, she also misrepresents both the concept of identity politics, and the association of identity politics with the Civil Rights Movement.  Her statement that “identity politics refers to the focus on the barriers specific groups face in their struggle for equality” is disingenuous because it’s only half of the equation.  While identity politics does aim to remove barriers to marginalized groups, it also uses identity itself — race, religion, gender, and sexuality — as a source of power.  In other words, it places membership in a social group over the character of the individual, thus turning MLK’s “dream” on its head.

DiAngelo, along with many anti-racists, insist the Civil Rights Movement was a form of identity politics because it advocated very explicitly for a certain identity group — it called for universal human rights, freedoms, and opportunities by focusing on the identity groups who lacked them. This advocacy, however, is not identity politics. It is what Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay call universal liberalism; in this case, “liberal” does not mean left of center on the political spectrum, but refers instead to a well-established philosophical and ethical position which focuses on individuality, liberty, and equal opportunity (conservatives, liberals, and libertarians all employ some forms of universal liberalism).

What is the difference between universal liberalism and identity politics? Both want to end inequality, but use very different approaches, as explained in the article “Identity Politics Does Not Continue the Work of the Civil Rights Movements,” published on the website New Discourses by Pluckrose and Lindsay. “Universal liberalism focuses on individuality and shared humanity and seeks to achieve a society in which every individual is equally able to access every right, freedom, and opportunity that our shared societies provide,” Pluckrose and Lindsay write.  “Identity politics focuses explicitly on group identity and seeks political empowerment by promoting that group as a monolithic, marginalized entity distinct from and polarized against another group depicted as a monolithic privileged entity.”

In layman’s terms, universal liberalism seeks diversity, equity, and inclusion through individuals seeking a shared humanity at the personal level — practicing the kinds of core principles and values that transcend race and other identities; things like friendship, love, respect, and tolerance for diversity are the core building blocks that unite us and provide equal access to rights, freedoms, and opportunities. Identity politics, on the other hand, are rooted in social constructivism — the idea that “truth” and “knowledge” are constructed by hierarchies of power within society.  In other words, universal values and shared humanity don’t exist, and do not transcend identity (race, religion, gender, sexuality). Therefore, civil rights can only be achieved through dismantling so-called power structures in society, which, according to an anti-racist framework, require the disruption and dismantling of things like “whiteness,” “toxic masculinity,” etc. 

As Pluckrose and Lindsay write:

The problems with this kind of rationale are not only that it sets different identity groups in opposition to each other, makes communication difficult, and creates a moral economy that locates social power (immunity from legitimate accusations of bigotry) in perceptions of victimhood or oppression. It also reduces the ability to be able to genuinely empathize across identities if we are understood to have entirely different experiences, knowledges, and rules.

There are three core problems with identity politics, according to Pluckrose and Lindsay:

  • Epistemological: It relies on highly dubious social constructivist theory and consequently produces heavily biased readings of situations.
  • Psychological: Its sole focus on identity is divisive, reduces empathy between groups, and goes against core moral intuitions of fairness and reciprocity.
  • Social: By failing to uphold principles of non-discrimination consistently, it threatens to damage or even undo social taboos against judging people by their race, gender, or sexuality.

Pluckrose and Lindsay also state:

It is generally a terrible idea to have different rules of behavior dependent on identity because it goes against the most common sense of fairness and reciprocity which seems to be pretty hardwired. It is also antithetical to universal liberalism and precisely the opposite of what civil rights movements fought to obtain. Identity politics which argues that prejudice against white people and men is acceptable while prejudice against people of color and women is not do still work on a sense of fairness, equality, and reciprocity but it is reparative. It attempts to restore a balance by “evening the score” a little, particularly thinking historically.

Despite disingenuous claims from DiAngelo, the Civil Rights Movement did not employ the use of identity politics.  Instead, it used the values of universal human rights and the inherent worth of every individual, and did so regardless of race, religion, gender, or sexuality.  If we truly care about diversity, equity, and inclusion in America, we must resist using polarizing identity politics, and instead choose an approach based on universal human values.

Video: A Practical Guide to Surviving Anti-Racism Trainings

Schools, businesses, and government organizations need not be locked into the ridged tenets of modern anti-racism. An informed and respectful dialogue on alternatives can broaden perspectives on diversity, equity, and inclusion. This is a companion video to the article of the same name. Thanks for watching!

A Practical Guide To Surviving Anti-Racism Trainings

by Christopher Paslay

Schools, businesses, and government organizations need not be locked into the ridged tenets of modern anti-racism. An informed and respectful dialogue on alternatives can broaden perspectives on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).

For the past three months, I’ve been producing videos and writing about some of the pitfalls and drawbacks of modern anti-racism and white fragility.  A common misperception is that because I criticize these approaches, I somehow oppose the fight for racial justice — specifically, the quest for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI).  This could not be further from the truth.  

As a Philadelphia public schoolteacher, certified counselor and coach, my very livelihood is centered around these goals.  Each day I work to educate my students and athletes to become critical thinkers and informed members of society, modeling the kinds of principled behaviors I’d like to instill in them.  With that said, there is more than one way to skin a cat — which is to say there are other ways to achieve diversity, equity, and inclusion outside of the current trendy anti-racist approach.

The core tenets of anti-racist scholarship-activism, when you study them closely, are not without controversy.  They are as follows:

  • Racism exists today in both traditional and modern forms.
  • Racism is an institutionalized, multilayered, multilevel system that distributes unequal power and resources between white people and people of color, as socially identified, and disproportionately benefits whites.
  • All members of society are socialized to participate in the system of racism, albeit in varied social locations.
  • All white people benefit from racism regardless of intentions.
  • No-one chose to be socialized into racism so no-one is bad, but no-one is neutral.
  • To not act against racism is to support racism.
  • Racism must be continually identified, analyzed and challenged. No-one is ever done.
  • The question is not Did racism take place? but rather How did racism manifest in that situation?
  • The racial status quo is comfortable for most whites. Therefore, anything that maintains white comfort is suspect.
  • The racially oppressed have a more intimate insight via experiential knowledge into the system of race than their racial oppressors. However, white professors will be seen as having more legitimacy, thus positionality must be intentionally engaged.
  • Resistance is a predictable reaction to anti-racist education and must be explicitly and strategically addressed.

The truth is, not everyone believes racism works this way, myself included.  Anti-racism is simply a theory of the dynamics of racism in America, one that is subject to flaws like any other.  Likewise, so-called “anti-racist” work is simply one method of achieving diversity, equity, and inclusion, and many people believe they should have the right to oppose racism from their own political, religious, or philosophical worldviews.  Unfortunately, the anti-racist approach itself makes offering alternative solutions to racial justice nearly impossible, as any form of disagreement is itself evidence of so-called “aversive racism” or oppression.

However, as scholars Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay write in their article “How to Talk to Your Employers About Anti-Racism,” it is “possible to push back at authoritarian overreach in the names of ‘Social Justice’ or ‘anti-racism’ and persuade employers and coworkers to expand their scope to include a broader range of worldviews in their anti-discrimination initiatives.”

Pluckrose and Lindsay suggest writing a letter to your employer to address your concerns about anti-racist trainings, explaining that you are familiar with the main tenets of Critical Social Justice and are not coming from a place of ignorance; and that you fully support the fight for diversity, equality, and inclusion, and are not coming from a place of bigotry.  Here are eight things to consider in your letter:

  1. Begin with acknowledgement of the issue and why your organization is making a response at all.
  2. Indicate concern in a broad sense, beginning with the concern for the underlying issue, need for dialogue and action, and then expressing broader concerns, especially that hasty decisions could create unintended problems.
  3. Demonstrate that this concern is well-founded by explaining your familiarity with the fundamental tenets of CSJ (see, for example, our forthcoming book, Cynical Theories, explaining this) and examples in which it has been put into practice (e.g., The Evergreen State College).
  4. Illustrate some specific problems with the proffered approach, both theoretically (e.g., contradictions, unfairness, kafkatraps, etc.) and in application; express concern about these damaging the organization and its mission.
  5. Acknowledge the underlying problem again and suggest/remind that there are other ways to approach it.
  6. Provide some examples from liberal, egalitarian principles, make suggestions for genuine leadership training or alternative approaches to engaging diversity successfully (i.e., IKEA effectexercises, antifragility models, and so on).
  7. Express plainly that you believe the current course of action is a mistake that, while it signifies intention to take on the problems of current concern, could exacerbate the issues or create other new ones.
  8. Close with a thank you and invitation to more discussion and a willingness to take leadership roles with regard to navigating the issue, if needed or appropriate.

Being tactful and exhibiting a professional tone is very important.  Pluckrose and Lindsay also state:

That you demonstrate your competence with Critical Social Justice ideas is very important. The training session or whatever you are being compelled or strongly encouraged to attend works on the assumption that you have biases you are not even aware of and that you will need to be trained to see them. This is because the worldview at hand believes people with systemic power on their sides are socialized — literally brainwashed by the power dynamics of society — to believe that they earned their dominance and that it is appropriate and natural, thus invisible to them. The training will assume that you will be resistant and defensive because you are fragile or reactionary and won’t want to confront your racism. It will label you not just ignorant but willfully ignorant — you don’t know and you don’t want to know. This means that all disagreement can be dismissed or even turned against you.

Obviously, this is not the best way to have open, honest, and productive discussions on diversity, equity, and inclusion in schools or businesses.  However, when you take an honest look at the underpinnings of modern anti-racism and whiteness studies, this is exactly how these things operate.  Any administrator, supervisor, or manager genuinely open to racial equality should welcome alternative points of view as long as they are stated respectfully.  And Pluckrose and Lindsay have offered a plethora of resources for doing just that.

In summary, disagreeing with a modern anti-racist approach to fighting racism doesn’t mean you’re against equity and racial justice.  On the contrary, you’re forwarding the cause by broadening its scope.