Bhaskar Sunkara, The Guardian, July 8, 2020
Millions of Americans are still nobly protesting against police violence and the gross inequities of American life. Like the activists before them, they are realizing just how hard reform is to come by in the United States.
For a certain kind of progressive liberal, the only thing left to do, it would seem, is to continue “the conversation” about race. That has opened the door to the immediate beneficiaries of this political moment – a cottage industry of diversity consultants.
Chief among them is Robin DiAngelo, the bestselling author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism. DiAngelo has spent over two decades as a diversity consultant, charging hundreds of dollars an hour to clients such as Amazon and the Gates Foundation.
Appearing on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon last month, DiAngelo recounted asking a group of black participants at one such training what it would be like to be able to give white people feedback on their racist assumptions. One person replied: “It would be revolutionary.”
“Revolutionary,” DiAngelo, who is white, repeated. “I just want all the white people to take that in … That’s how difficult we are.”
“Wow,” an enraptured Fallon responded.
“That’s what A-holes we are,” DiAngelo said.
DiAngelo, by her own admission, has written a book by a white person, for other white people. “‘I’m not racist’ – I believe white people should remove that phrase from their vocabulary,” she told Fallon.
The white collective, in her reading, has internalized prejudice and benefited from it. There’s no ending it without a fierce reckoning. This reckoning, of course, is a fundamentally personal one, ideally done in conjunction with diversity consultants or their expertly written handbooks. People of color, it appears, are without agency in this moral battle.
Needless to say, this approach has not yielded much in the way of progress. JC Pan, writing in the New Republic, cites studies showing that these anti-racist struggle sessions at best offer “no significant long-term effects on people’s behavior or attitudes” and “in many cases even reduced diversity or exacerbated participants’ biases”.
Why, then, has this particular strain of anti-racism exploded in popularity? Why are books like White Fragility touted as necessary, in the words of the poet Claudia Rankine, “for all people invested in societal change”? For one thing, there’s a genuine willingness among liberals to work for a more just and equal society. We’ve come a long way since the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was touting entitlement reform and prominent Democrats parroted Reaganite rhetoric about “welfare queens” and the “culture of poverty” and cited the political scientist Charles Murray.
But there’s also something less positive going on. It’s not a coincidence that corporate human resources departments love to contract diversity consultants like DiAngelo to do anti-bias trainings. Trainings more than pay for themselves if they can demonstrate a commitment to an inclusive workplace in the event of later anti-discrimination lawsuits. They’re also a lot cheaper than paying workers better and addressing structural inequalities. The more that blame for discrimination can be shifted on to individual racist “Karens”, the less onus there is on powerful corporations, and the politicians who defend them, to make real changes.
We do know, for example, of a tool far more useful than unconscious bias trainings in creating respect and equality: unions. Recent work in the American Journal of Political Science notes that union membership reduced racial resentment among white workers and made them more likely to support policies that benefit black Americans.
Where writers like DiAngelo focus on the privilege that all whites, including the poorest, have, unions offer the prospect for multiracial organizing and the pursuit of collective gains. The greatest beneficiaries of these gains are brown and black workers, particularly women, but they’re widely felt. Including both wages and benefits, unionized workers earn about 28% more than their non-union peers and have far greater job security.
The approach of generations of labor organizers hasn’t been to deny privilege, but to bind people together in a common project. The white privilege they acknowledge is a relative, not absolute, one; they argue that all workers, of all backgrounds, will benefit more from the construction of labor unions and a welfare state than from existing racialized capitalism. There’s a reason why civil rights activists such as A Philip Randolph fought to organize black workers into unions and helped turn once racist and exclusionary labor federations into the vehicles of anti-racism they are today.
There are, of course, losers in that process – the very corporations investing in diversity trainings right now. After all, nothing characterizes American society more than hierarchy. Not just racial hierarchies, but the rule of billionaires and the power they bestow on their managers. Right now, these people are overwhelmingly white and male. But their primary goal is to preserve their power not as white men but as capitalists.
In this new political climate, corporate elites may indeed figure out a way to diversify their ranks with more executives of color. But it’s no triumph if poor people of color are simply exploited by those with similar melanin levels.
None of this is to say that creating a more just and equal world will be easy. Rebuilding a crumbling US labor movement, ending mass incarceration and police violence, and winning Medicare for All, universal childcare, and a jobs guarantee will require years of organizing and struggle. But they remain our only viable routes to progress.
DiAngelo has described herself as having grown up poor. She found a way out of poverty in her rather specialized career exhorting white people to “do better”. The rest of us, unfortunately, need more than that.