America Needs Anti-Racialism

Both anti-racists and anti-racialists want racial progress, but they have a drastically different understanding of what it looks like.

An illustration of different-colored handprints
The Atlantic

About the author: Reihan Salam is the president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing writer at The Atlantic.

President Joe Biden has declared war on white supremacy. Shortly after the hideous racist massacre in Buffalo, New York, he urged his fellow citizens to banish this hateful ideology from our public life: “We need to say, as clearly and forcefully as we can, that the ideology of white supremacy has no place in America.” But what exactly do we mean by white supremacy, and what would it mean to bring it to an end?

Debates over race and racism—their importance to U.S. history, their salience for present-day politics, and what steps the government should take to address them—are central to our politics. Although there is widespread agreement that the state of race relations in America is a matter of urgent concern, there is deep disagreement over the nature of the problem. Is it the persistence of racial disparities in income, wealth, and elite representation, regardless of whether they’re the product of state-enforced racial discrimination or the uneven distribution of social capital across families and informal networks at a given point in time? Or is the problem the brightness of the boundaries separating minority ethnic groups from the societal mainstream? Call this the distinction between anti-racists and anti-racialists. Both want racial progress, but they have a drastically different understanding of what racial progress would look like.

In some circles, the default position is the ideology known as “anti-racism,” often derided by its critics as “wokeness.” According to prominent proponents of this view, such as the Boston University professor and Atlantic contributing writer Ibram X. Kendi and the New York Times Magazine writer Nikole Hannah-Jones, racism is the defining fact of American life, and the old color-blind liberalism is woefully insufficient to address it. The only way our racist history can be overcome, in their view, is for Americans to become more explicitly conscious of race and racism, embrace educational paradigms that center race, and pursue policies that aim not for equal treatment but for “equity,” or equal outcomes among groups. As Kendi summarized this position, “the only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination.”

Over roughly the past decade, anti-racism has made huge inroads in liberal institutions, including universities, media, and the Democratic Party. This shift has trickled down through the wider Democratic electorate, especially among educated and affluent Democrats, for whom anti-racism has become an intellectual lodestar. Consider the Biden administration’s “equity agenda,” an ambitious effort to embed race consciousness in federal policy making. At the state and local level, a rising generation of progressive elected officials has embraced decarceration and depolicing to address disparities in criminal-justice outcomes. Many have also sought to dismantle selective public education and the use of standardized testing on broadly similar grounds. Bracketing the question of whether anti-racism offers an accurate diagnosis of contemporary American life, it has a clear appeal to certain powerful constituencies, which have been willing to advance its tenets even when doing so has proven politically costly.

What is less understood, however, is the opposition to liberal anti-racism. Over the past two years, we’ve seen a wave of parental complaints and legislation against anti-racist school curricula (“critical race theory,” or CRT), and backlash against politicians and district attorneys who have adopted anti-racism-inflected approaches to crime and public safety. One of the more striking illustrations of this phenomenon can be seen in progressive San Francisco, where local voters ousted three of the city’s school-board members in a successful recall effort in February. The recall received particular support in precincts with larger proportions of Asian and Jewish voters, many of whom were reportedly alienated by, among other things, the school board’s decision to end selective admissions at the renowned Lowell High School. Judging by recent polls, a similar coalition is poised to recall Chesa Boudin, San Francisco’s district attorney and an exemplar of the anti-racist progressive-prosecution movement, next month.

In the eyes of the anti-racists themselves, the campaigns against CRT, affirmative action, and progressive criminal-justice reform are just racism—a form of “white backlash” against the growing political power of minorities, which is all the more insidious for professing to be “color-blind.” Slightly more difficult to account for is the fact that, on many sensitive racial issues, nonwhite minorities are aligned against the positions of the progressive anti-racists. In a Pew Research Center survey from April, for instance, 59 percent of Black respondents, 68 percent of Hispanic respondents, and 63 percent of Asian respondents agreed that race should not be a factor in college admissions. Research from Zach Goldberg, a doctoral student in political science at Georgia State University, has shown that white liberals consistently express stronger agreement with many tenets of the anti-racist worldview than do minorities. More generally, as the Democratic Party has become more and more identified with anti-racism, it has actually shed support among nonwhite people, especially Hispanics.

Some anti-racists have sought to explain away these phenomena by invoking concepts such as “multiracial whiteness”—the idea that minorities adopt “white” values in order to curry favor with a white-supremacist system. There’s a grain of truth there, in that many nonwhite people really are aligned with the mainstream American values derided by liberals as racist. But a better way to interpret their worldview—and that of many of the top critics of liberal anti-racism—is that it’s not racist at all. Instead, it’s what I call “anti-racialism.”

If liberal anti-racism is grounded in the idea that raising the salience of race is essential to achieving racial justice, anti-racialism holds that heightened race consciousness, and the racialization of disparities and differences that would obtain in any culturally plural society, more often than not cuts against fostering integration, civic harmony, and social progress. Among anti-racist scholars, efforts to lower the salience of race tend to be denounced as manifestations of “laissez-faire racism,” as they ignore or downplay the cumulative and multidimensional nature of racial disadvantage. Yet anti-racialism is a potent political force precisely because it resonates with important aspects of our country’s new racial landscape.

First, anti-racialism speaks to the emergence of a new multiethnic mainstream, which marks a departure from the system of minority- and majority-race relations that prevailed for most of American history. Put simply, mainstream American culture is no longer “white” in any narrow sense. Here it’s useful to draw a distinction between whiteness and mainstreamness, a more inclusive and capacious concept. In 2020, the legal academic Ian Haney López and the human-rights lawyer Tory Gavito, both of whom have long been involved in progressive political organizing, reported that though one-fourth of Latinos identified as “people of color,” a large majority disagreed. “They preferred to see Hispanics as a group integrating into the American mainstream, one not overly bound by racial constraints but instead able to get ahead through hard work.”

This idea of an expanding mainstream is central to the work of the sociologists Richard Alba and Victor Nee, who’ve defined it as “that part of American society within which ethnic and racial origins have at most minor impacts.” For Americans who’ve been fully incorporated into the societal mainstream, ethnic identity is more voluntary or symbolic than a powerful force that constrains their choices. In The Great Demographic Illusion, Alba underscores that the American mainstream is not coterminous with whiteness. “Just as the white Protestant mainstream that prevailed from colonial times to the middle of the twentieth century evolved through the mass assimilation of Catholic and Jewish ethnics after World War II,” he writes, “the racially defined mainstream of today is changing, at least in some parts of the country, as a result of the inclusion of many nonwhite and mixed Americans.” This is especially true of Americans with roots in Latin America and Asia. Among Hispanic and Asian Americans, intermarriage rates now match or surpass those of Italian and Jewish Americans from the postwar era, a powerful indicator of their incorporation into the mainstream.

Granted, one could argue that the divide between Black and white Americans is simply being supplanted by a divide between Black and non-Black Americans that is no less pernicious or impermeable. Consider that the intermarriage rate among Black Americans lags noticeably behind that of other minority ethnic groups, even after accounting for cross-group differences in educational attainment and income. In The Diversity Paradox, the sociologists Jennifer Lee and Frank Bean dub this phenomenon “black exceptionalism,” and it is one of many reasons our discourse over race relations continues to center Black Americans. Even if we accept that some Black Americans are being incorporated into the expanding mainstream as residential integration, rising educational attainment, and geographic and social mobility continue to take hold, the intense racial isolation experienced by most Black descendants of enslaved African Americans remains an important social fact.

Nevertheless, there have always been Black conservatives who embrace an anti-racialist perspective. For example, when asked if Black Americans should work their way up without special favors the same way the Irish, Italians, and Jews did, a statement that would be considered beyond the pale in many elite media and academic institutions, the 2020 American National Election Survey found that about 20 percent of Black respondents agreed or strongly agreed with that statement; another 20 percent said they neither agreed nor disagreed.

Though ideologically conservative Black Americans remain underrepresented in elite discourse, they’re playing an important role in urban Democratic politics. This is especially true in the intensifying debate over crime and disorder, in which a multiethnic coalition of anti-racists calling for decarceration—on the grounds that mass incarceration disproportionately burdens Black Americans—finds itself arrayed against a muliethnic coalition of anti-racialists demanding reinvestment in policing—because all citizens, regardless of color, deserve to be safe from criminal violence.

Might this inchoate contest between anti-racists and anti-racialists augur a larger realignment? The answer is far from clear. The main challenge facing anti-racialism today is that it is still a non-elite phenomenon. Although it represents the unarticulated common sense of vast swaths of the electorate, it has few high-status champions and scant presence in mainstream media. For ambitious people looking to ascend through prestigious legacy institutions to positions of national influence, it is simply not the done thing to dwell on the ways in which the current progressive consensus is unrepresentative of how most Americans, including many Americans of color, think about race. But when politicians—including conservative politicians—articulate these values, they can appeal to the untapped anti-racialist majority.