THE ELECT: THE THREAT TO A PROGRESSIVE AMERICA FROM ANTI-BLACK ANTIRACISTS
Serial excerpt No. 6: Finishing up on how the new concept of "social justice" is unjust to black people.
“SLAVERY IS HUSHED UP.”
Imagine this: A traveling museum exhibit of artifacts from the Henrietta Marie slave ship breaks attendance records in 20 cities. The magazine Scientific American has a page with excerpts from past issues, most naturally about science, but in one issue features a quotation from March 1851, giving it the headline “Open Sore”: “The population of the United States amounts to 20,067,720 free persons, and 2,077,034 slaves.” A white Washington State representative agitates to have Jefferson Davis’ name removed from a Seattle highway and replaced with the name of a black Civil War veteran. In Cincinnati, Underground Railroad buffs – white ones -- decry historical errors and distortions in an Underground Railroad Freedom Center being planned.
So much changed in 2020, right? Except these things happened in 2001 and 2002.
Yet, we are to insist that America is in a perpetual “denial” about slavery, despite that one could compile collections of events like the above from every year since 2002, and backwards about 20 from then. The success of the book Roots and then the smashing impact of the television miniseries in 1976; widely discussed films such as Amistad and 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained; weighty tomes earnestly covered in the media such as Hugh Thomas’ The Slave Trade; the New-York Historical Society’s marvelous exhibit about slavery in New York in 2005 -- one could continue endlessly.
Ta-Nehisi Coates urges “the end of scarfing hot dogs on the Fourth of July while denying the facts of our heritage.” But this is the divorcé who can’t stand seeing his ex have a good time. To tar today’s America as insufficiently aware of slavery is more about smugness and noble victimhood than forging something new and needed.
To wit: is there any degree of saturation that slavery could reach into the American consciousness that would satisfy The Elect, such that they would allow that a battle had been won?
To hope that every American – white everyman in South Dakota, Indian-American Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Korean immigrant grandma, American-born Latina hospice care supervisor, daughter of Bosnian immigrants working on her social work degree, Republican councilwoman in Texas – will be wincing thinking about plantations while biting into their Independence Day weenie, even in a metaphorical sense, is utterly pointless. Pointless in that it will never happen, and pointless in that it doesn’t need to.
I can guarantee that psychologically, black America does not need their fellow countrymen to be quite that sensitized. A poll would reveal it instantly, as would just asking some black people other than the Elect ones, and the reader likely readily senses that. I can also guarantee that profound social change can happen without the entire populace being junior scholars about racist injustice. Such change has been happening worldwide for several centuries.
But Elect ideology requires you to classify what I just wrote as blasphemy, and claim endlessly that slavery is a big secret in America. Year after year, Elect persons announce that George Washington or Thomas Jefferson owned slaves with the implication that this is hot news “no one wants to talk about,” in media sources that have eagerly invited their wisdom and that of like-minded people for eons now. Notice: these people will never admit that the Founding Fathers’ slave-owning is no longer a secret. The point is too central to their religious faith to allow concession.
To be Elect is to insist that America hushes up slavery. This is a falsehood. It endlessly distracts minds that would be better put to addressing real problems.
“HISTORICAL FIGURES WHO WEREN’T WOKE ON RACE MUST BE CANCELLED.”
The Elect think that if a historical figure had slaves (Washington), or were ensconced in the slave trade (John Locke), or even were not hotly interested in dismantling slavery when they could have played a part in it -- Alexander Hamilton has come under fire for that – then this must be the main thing we remember them for. They should be recalled in a spirit of condemnation. They are useful to us only as object lessons in how not to be. Their achievements otherwise should be treated as footnotes, largely of interest only to the historian. Their backwardness on race must cling to them in our minds the way a gendered definite article must cleave in our minds to a French noun. La plume; George Washington le slaveowner.
This is obtuse, quite frankly. I won’t write “dumb,” because this would imply that people who make this kind of argument lack the insight to understand its hollowness. Deep down almost all of them simply must.
It is very hard to see beyond what is normal in your time. Someone who grew up seeing black people as almost nothing but unpaid servants could not help but process this as normal, was vanishingly unlikely to argue against it, and – yes – likely ended up thinking of black people as inherently inferior. The Elect teach us to willfully fashion a numbness to basic logic on this issue, for the purposes of rhetoric and passion. That is, their argument here is cognitively sequestered: religious.
Thus we are not to celebrate that America was one of the first places on earth to get past accepting slavery, but to reach backwards in time and slap at the people who had yet to, in order to show how goodly we are now. The Elect require that we pretend that figures of the past are walking around with us, as if time does not pass. At best, this is the higher reasoning of quantum physics on the space/time continuum. But at worst, it is willful dummity. (Yes, I intend the word, which I made up. It summons how profoundly goofy this way of processing history is.)
We certainly don’t need statues of people whose main contribution to history was to enshrine slavery. Goodbye to public monuments to Robert E. Lee. And there are gray zones. Woodrow Wilson was more racist than the typical person of his time, place, and educational level, which makes many comfortable with seeing his name removed from buildings. It may surprise some that I am one of them. However, some think we should cherish Wilson’s general record as a progressive with a passionate commitment to world peace, and I cannot say that they are wrong. The Elect, however, simply shudders that Wilson was a racist and can see nothing but heresy in any talk about him, his life and his legacy other than that, as if Wilson had been retweeting white nationalists on his phone last week.
But defacing statues of George Washington? Sure, we can know that people like him had a blot on their records by our standards. But for the knowing to require that their bigotry be the main reason we engage them today, with any straying for too long beyond their racism processed as – (think about it) impious! – is a needless, thoughtless proposition.
In the future, being pro-choice may be deemed immoral. The celebration of any conglomeration of cells chemically set to become a Homo sapiens as “a person” may spread to intellectuals of influence and become as intelligentsia-chic as Electness is now. How do we feel about people of 2100 advocating that educators not celebrate the achievements of people in 2020 because they were not opposed to abortion?
Or, why are today’s Elect not roasting Barack Obama for his only having espoused gay marriage via “evolving”? Note that we are only to pretend not to understand history and circumstance when the figures are white.
Who even believes that the kid who smoked a lot of weed and also did “some blow,” travelling in Ivy League circles in the 1980s and beyond, ever had any real problem with gay people getting married? Obama and I are close in age and I lived in New York in the mid-eighties. Roll the dice again and I could have gotten high with him somewhere on the Upper West Side when we were both twenty-somethings, and I can all but guarantee you that the person who he was would not have had a problem with gay people getting married.
Obama was dissimulating as a thoroughly sensible political feint, and The Elect pardon Obama for it, allowing an “evolution” of a kind that could never rehabilitate other figures in their minds – i.e. Washington freeing his slaves. Apparently Obama’s (supposed) homophobia was okay because he is “intersectional” – as in, because his brown skin placed him under the thumb of white hegemony, it’s okay that he was homopho … but see? There is no logic here.
A “meme” might be imagining a black boy of the inner city who sees a statue of Abraham Lincoln, and has been taught that Lincoln for a while thought black people after emancipation should be relocated to Africa and also did not see black people as whites’ equals. The boy has a spasm of fury at the dismissal of his people and his self emanating from that statue, and splashes it furiously with paint. This is a vignette that could come straight out of an alternate universe version of Randall Robinson’s The Debt on reparations.
However stirring we find that scenario, however symbolic of the psychological effects of a tragic ancestral history, almost none of us see that boy as acting from logic or reason. Almost all of us know that all in all, Lincoln deserves celebration for the totality of his legacy despite his imperfections. We see the boy as – even if understandably – losing his head. We feel sorry for him. We pity him. But we want to hold him off, calm him down. Lincoln emancipated the slaves, an action that no President before him would have even considered, and that none several after him likely would have either if slavery had persisted (Grover Cleveland’s Emancipation Proclamation?). We do not give the boy a book contract.
All grownups here in the real world ready to tar practically anyone living before about ten minutes ago as moral perverts because they were racists by our standards deserves the same judgment as does that boy, including a white boy who jumps the statue out of a furious identification with black people.
To be Elect is to insist that figures in the past might as well be living now, and that they thus merit the judgments we level upon present-day people, who inhabit a context unknown to those who lived before. As many kids would spontaneously understand, this is false. As to whether adults know something they don’t, I suggest trying to explain to a fifth-grader the case for yanking down the Lincoln Memorial.
To the extent that no one would look forward to having to kabuki their way through that, we know that this witch-hunting against long-dead persons is a distraction from doing real things for people who need help here in the present.
“NON-WHITE PEOPLE MUST NOT THINK OF THEMSELVES AS SELVES.”
I once was having trouble understanding why a certain collection of essays by a person of color quite held together as a unitary presentation, as a whole “book.”
Someone else assigned to evaluate the same book contributed that he thought it was coherent in that the essays were all about “identity.”
Why Identity is a Muffin
The person intoned identity with a quietly warm expression, as if he had said “family” or “blueberry muffins.” And for assorted people in the room, that word alone was suasional. As a theme, “identity” was as compelling to them as climate change would have been.
But one might ask: just why did they consider “identity” so crucial a theme for a collection of otherwise disparate essays? In 1950, no one would have cited such a thing as rendering a book worthy of a prize, neither termed as “identity” nor as some other word. What, actually, did the man even mean by “identity”?
When The Elect, taking a cue from a usage that emerged among academics in the humanities and social sciences, say “identity,” they are referring to how a non-white person processes their not being white and their relationship to white people’s oppression.
Electism calls for everyone who isn’t white to found their primary sense of self on Not Being White and Knowing Whites Don’t Quite “Get” Me. Electism forbids us non-whites to be individual selves, whose essence overlaps with what whites like, promulgate, and excel in, in a world where so many of us are all bumping up against one another and police brutality is, while appalling, just one of thousands of types of experience one goes through from cradle to grave – if at all. Your Elect friend may claim that I am distorting what they believe. Ask them to specify just how it does so – and the word-salad answer they craft while looking over your shoulder will show you that I am not.
Here is where wokeness takes us back to the balkanized and artificial racial categorizations we all thought we wanted to get past. Yet ask why we are no longer supposed to get past them and The Elect – wait, wait for it -- suspect you of white supremacy. All of the Enlightenment’s focus on individualism, all of modernism’s permission of people to be themselves rather than live bound to preset classifications, falls to pieces before this idea that to be anything but white requires obsession with the fact that you are not white, and diminished by their possibly not seeing you in your totality.
Let us specify: under the Elect, blackness becomes what you aren’t – i.e. seen fully by whites – as opposed to what you are. It is what someone does to you, rather than what you like to do. And all of this is thought of as advanced rather than backwards thought. All “because racism.” Racism über alles, but the problem is that Elect philosophy teaches black people to live obsessed with just how someone maybe doesn’t quite fully like them, and then die unappeased.
This is the meaning of life? This is the grand answer that philosophy has been seeking for millennia? But educated whites clap back, as in New York Times film critic A.O. Scott iconically writing in praise of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Testament that “racism is what makes us white.” This line elegantly pinnacled whiteness as that which an enlightened black person defines their identity on the basis of, even when they are the kind of black person in circumstances in which racism is, 99% of the time, a matter of subtle, passing microaggressions that no human being in 300,000 years of the history of this species would have recognized as remotely interesting before roughly 1970.
Why Being a Non-White Elect Means You Can’t Be a Self
A sad many people fail to understand that this way of looking at things, despite its fancy imprimatur as born of something called Critical Race Theory, invalidates calls for people to stress their individuality. Roughly, the idea is that what happened to George Floyd means the wise black person must think of their primary defining trait as being someone who could suffer Floyd’s fate.
For example, black philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has written widely and artfully about the value of individualism over simplistic balkanized “identities.” However, under the Elect Zeitgeist, Appiah is wrong. This Ghanaian-British and gay man is to perceive himself primarily, and we are to perceive him primarily, as “a black man” in the same way as Chris Rock, Samuel Jackson, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and George Floyd, despite that he has nothing meaningful in common with any of them. We are to fashion this caricatured sense of him mainly because he is a touch more likely than Steven Pinker to have trouble with cops.
As such, it is missing the point to think, as many do, that Elect ideology simply recapitulates the essentialism of bygone figures like Johann Gottfried von Herder and his sense of people as divisible into “nationalities” of distinct “spirits.” The Elect are not arbitrarily dividing people into classes such as Magyars and Swedes. There is a power differential slashing through the groups they perceive. They are distinguishing whites from those whom whites oppress, with the idea that Being Oppressed is an essence in itself. It isn’t about the horizontality of Teutonic essence in contrast to Slavic essence, but the verticality of who is hurting who.
The problem here is not only that of how black people are urged to conceive of themselves, but what they are even to consider interesting, what they are to engage in during the short time on earth during which any human lives. When “identity” – i.e. against the white hegemon – is thought of as central to intellectual, aesthetic and moral significance, one’s range of interests inevitably narrow. As such, Electness discourages genuine curiosity.
Why “Real” Books by Black People Must Challenge Whiteness
Here is where we get, for example, the tacit idea that any book a black American person writes must be centered on race, racism, or battling racism. I ask the reader: name a nonfiction book by a black American writer that neither battles nor even addresses race or racism.
As someone reading this book, you may know that I have written some. But can you name others? And then I will turn the screws just a bit more and ask whether you can name ones by any beyond Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Thomas Sowell. (Malcolm Gladwell grew up in Canada.) And it is no accident that both me and Sowell are known for our resistance to a certain orthodoxy on race.
I know there are some black nonfiction writers out there of more conventional politics on race who write without being “Race Men (People).” But the fact that the ones most readers could name are such a small set is indicative – namely, of the tacit sense among black American writers as well as our white supporters that our job is to write only in service to The Struggle. We are to write on the basis of our fundamental “identity” as victims of whiteness, and if we don’t, we don’t know “who we are” and have done the race a disservice in being asleep at the switch. That assumption regularly drives who the (white) publishing industry gives decent book advances, and that has only become more the case since 2020.
Zora Neale Hurston in 1938 asked “Can the black poet sing a song to the morning?” and noted that no, “The one subject for a Negro is the Race and its sufferings and so the song of the morning must be choked back. I will write of a lynching instead.” Nothing has changed since 1938 except that if you read that passage aloud, a squad of undergraduates might report you to the Diversity Coordinator because it includes the word “Negro.” And of course today we must write not of a lynching per se but of what happened to George Floyd, and the societal attitudes that led to it.
I have a personal example. We writers all have our dud books (All About the Beat, anyone?), but my Talking Back, Talking Black about why Black English is legitimate speech was not one of them. Overall people seem to like it. But Jamil Smith, a black journalist, was an exception.
Reviewing it in the New York Times, he didn’t like that I didn’t devote the book to the role that racism plays in how we hear the dialect. I mentioned it here and there, but the book’s main strategy was to simply show how complicated, vast, and fierce the dialect is. I wasn’t interested in spending 150 pages just tsk-tsking at white people, and am always perplexed that so many black writers are content with spending their careers largely doing little but that. The subject of Black English lends itself to more, and as a human being of normal curiosity, I sought to embrace the more.
But because the book wasn’t mainly about making white people uncomfortable, for Smith it was unsatisfying. People said to me at the time that he seemed to have wanted me to write a different book. That was dead on, and note just what kind of book he would have preferred. Smith is typical of Elect black thinkers in assuming – so deeply that he does not even know it is an assumption -- that describing, debating and decrying racism must be black people’s main goal in communicating with the public. To this kind of person, reading a book on Black English that isn’t about telling white people they are racists in every second paragraph is like listening to a drummer who can’t quite keep the beat. Something is off – there’s a job not getting done. Smith thought I was mistaken in, as it were, not writing of a lynching.
Why People Who Like Brie and NPR Also Like the Segregationist’s One-Drop Rule
Also relevant is the drumbeat of abuse from many black people against my friend Thomas Chatterton Williams, a black writer with a white (and French) wife whose child is so light-skinned that the idea of terming the child “black” seems rather abstract. Williams has written insightfully that especially today, we need to reconsider the idea that a person with any small biological component of African must “identify” as black.
When a biracial person who is half white and half black says they “aren’t black,” the classic objection is that they will be seen as black and must therefore refrain from any notion that they won’t suffer discrimination. But what about when they are so light in color that no one would read them as black and would just guess that they are something other than white?
If the person phenotypically could be anything from Latino to half-Asian to Filipino to whatever – an increasingly common thing in the twenty-first century we live in -- then the next objection from The Elect is that being anything but white subjects you to racism analogous to that experienced by black Americans. But is this true that being a “BIPOC” of any kind subjects one to a kind of one-size-fits-all kind of discrimination? Will the unspecifiably half-X and half-Y person be denied jobs? Will they be socially marginalized if they seek white company or even romance? Will the cops think of them as threats? And if they aren’t, then just why, we must ask, must they “identify” as black except to join the ranks of the black Elect in savoring the comfort zone of hating whiteness rather than loving themselves?
I will never forget giving a talk at a university where a persistent questioner was an undergraduate who was half white and half Asian. She looked either white or white plus a touch of something unidentifiable. Back in the day she could have easily “passed” as white. But in line with our current Zeitgeist, she was deeply immersed in a sense of herself as oppressed by racism. She especially decried that people expected her to be smart because of her “Asianness” – albeit that Asianness was only vaguely even perceptible from her appearance -- and she couldn’t quite square herself with my gentle response that I could not see her as oppressed in a way she needed to define herself on the basis of.
She was essentially Thomas Chatterton Williams’ child grown up, except half-Asian instead of half-black. This woman was adopting a sense of existential grievance that her daily experiences did not justify. Being assumed to be smart can be something of a nuisance, I’m sure, but it is not exactly what most would consider suffering from the depredations of The Man.
It follows easily that we need to start reconsidering our sense of racial classifications. Namely, if we really believe that race is a fiction, we need to let racially indeterminate people make the case for that, by letting go of the idea that anyone with one peep of non-whiteness in them must “identify” as not white. We must ask why someone who doesn’t even appear black must “own” their blackness in the 21st century in the way Jefferson Davis and Bull Connor would have preferred them to. Who can’t see, on at least some level, the basic sense in this -- including that what happened to George Floyd does not refute it?
Yet for arguing this in the public sphere, Williams is often roasted as a race traitor by people sincerely thinking of themselves as bearers of a progressive message. Ladies and gentlemen, this is The Elect.
In sum, on the question of “identity,” Elect ideology requires non-white people to found their sense of self on not being white, and on not liking how white people may or may not feel about them. No one would wish this self-conception on their child when laid out explicitly in this way. The idea of it as progressive is false. It sits as a gloomy, illogical and pointless burden upon the souls of people whose spiritual energy ought be directed elsewhere.
DO YOU REALLY WANT TO OWN THIS RELIGION?
Let’s return to the idea that one might allow that this is a religion but join it with pride. It appeals because it’s about “dismantling structures.” But here is what you are expected to think while engaged in that.
You are to turn a blind eye to black kids getting jumped by other ones in school.
You are to turn a blind eye to lapses in black intellectuals’ work, because black people lack white privilege.
You are to turn a blind eye to the fact that social history is complex, and instead pretend that those who tell you that all racial discrepancies are due to racism are evidencing brilliance.
You are to turn a blind eye to the willful dimness of condemning dead people for moral lapses normal in their time, as if they were still alive.
You are to turn a blind eye to black undergraduates cast into schools where they are in over their heads, and into law schools incapable of adjusting to their level of preparation in a way that will allow them to pass the bar exam.
You are to turn a blind eye to the folly in the idea of black “identity” as all about what whites think rather than about what a person themselves thinks.
You are to turn a blind eye to innocent children taught to think in these ways practically before they can hold a pencil.
And do understand -- you cannot live gracefully as an Elect while carefully disavowing the above. This is not a buffet; The Elect is a prix fixe affair. Try being selective in order to retain rationality while ducking an on-line roasting as a white supremacist, and you will be quickly frustrated in the effort. If you want the grits, you have to take the gravy. You are in Russia under Stalin. You no more question KenDiAngelonian gospel than you question Romans or Corinthians. The Elect are not about diverseness of thought. Eliminating it, on race issues, is their reason for being.
Are you ready to be savaged for championing common sense, reason, and treating people as genuine equals, told that doing so is inappropriate when black people are involved, and that this is called “antiracism”?
The Elect’s harm to black people is so multifarious and rampant that anyone committed to this religion and calling it antiracist walks in a certain shame.
NEXT: WHAT ATTRACTS PEOPLE TO SOMETHING SO PERFORMATIVE AND HARMFUL?