An Anti-racist Professor Faces ‘Toxicity on the Left Today’

“I worry that left political discourse today takes social movements, or even just an individual who has suffered, as conversation stoppers rather than conversation starters.”

Illustration showing black-and-white photo of Vincent Lloyd, wearing a plaid shirt and round glasses, with drawings around it.
The Atlantic

Vincent Lloyd is a Black professor at Villanova University, where he directed the Black-studies program, leads workshops on anti-racism and transformative justice, and has published books on anti-Black racism, including Black Dignity: The Struggle Against Domination. Until recently, he was dismissive of criticism of the way that the left talks about race in America. Then he had an unsettling experience while teaching a group of high-school students as part of a highly selective summer program that is convened and sponsored annually by the Telluride Association.

The students began the summer excited about the six-week seminar, called “Race and the Limits of Law.” But soon, they moved to expel two of their classmates from the program amid political disagreements. Then, as Lloyd later recounted in an essay for Compact Magazine, the remaining students read a prepared statement about “how the seminar perpetuated anti-black violence in its content and form, how the black students had been harmed, how I was guilty of countless microaggressions, including through my body language, and how students didn’t feel safe because I didn’t immediately correct views that failed to treat anti-blackness as the cause of all the world’s ills.”

Before, he had quickly rejected the linguist and social commentator John McWhorter’s argument that anti-racism is a new religion. “Last summer,” Lloyd wrote, “I found anti-racism to be a perversion of religion: I found a cult.”

When I read Lloyd’s essay, I valued the distinct ideological perspective that grounds his critique of how anti-racism could improve. I wanted to converse with him about his experience, the lessons he took from it, and ascendant social movements on the left, in the hopes that our very different perspectives might help solve problems that worry us both.

Below is a lightly edited version of our correspondence.

Conor Friedersdorf: Early on, you distinguish your essay from other “laments about ‘woke’ campus culture, and the loss of traditional educational virtues.” Given your academic scholarship and varied work on behalf of social justice, no one can credibly claim that you’re reflexively hostile to efforts that get coded as “woke.” Yet you believe that something went terribly wrong in your seminar. I hope we can drill down on what specifically went wrong and why.

But first, for any readers who come to anything coded as “woke” with skepticism, or who want to understand where you are coming from a bit better, could you explain why you’ve dedicated so much time and effort to Black-studies programs, anti-racism workshops, and transformative-justice workshops?

Vincent Lloyd: In our lives, we all encounter a deeply human problem: domination. Some have the capacity to arbitrarily assert their will over others. We find this in our families, with bosses at work, with politicians, and systemically: Patriarchy, racism, and colonialism are all systems of domination. Anti-Black racism is the closest we get to a paradigm of domination. Even a century and a half after slavery, the master-slave dynamic, dominator and dominated, fuels anti-Black racism, which is now incorporated into laws and institutions as well as personal vices.

I want a world free of domination. I think we all do. That requires working together to root out systems of domination, some on the surface but many deeply ingrained in our world. Black studies aims to root out domination, in the university and in the world. It grew out of Black-student struggles in the late 1960s and early 1970s, themselves born of the civil-rights movement and anti-war protests. It aims to draw attention to the forms of anti-Black racism that infect each of us and the institutions we inhabit, and to catalyze justice movements today. Behind the “woke” label are powerful new visions of justice, new ways of imagining a world free of domination. Instead of politely requesting incorporation into unjust institutions, today’s justice movements rightly demand new institutions that are more responsive to human needs.

Friedersdorf: On a bunch of contested questions, you’ve sketched relatively radical positions: for example, that forms of anti-Blackness “infect each of us”; that anti-Black domination endures in the university; that those who seek justice are called not just to eschew dominating others but to root out domination; and that succeeding requires demanding new institutions, not just reforming old ones. As your radical students saw it, their peers, their teacher, and the format of their seminar were infected with racism, thus the call to end the seminar and demand a new approach.

You reject their radicalism and lovingly defend the seminar format, where “specific words, phrases, arguments, and images from a text offer essential friction for conversation,” even as you grant that it is time-consuming and frustrating, and that participants inevitably get a lot wrong along the way.

“Day by day, one intervention builds on another, as one student notices what another overlooked,” you write, because “the seminar assumes that each student has innate intelligence.” Ultimately, you go so far as to liken the format to democratic life itself, insofar as “we each have different, partial knowledge. We each get things wrong, over and over. At our best, we enter the fray by listening to each other and complementing and challenging the insights of our fellows. In the process, over years, decades, we are oriented toward justice and truth.”

I’m with you—conserve the seminar! (I would very much like to be a participant in a seminar that you lead.) But how, exactly? To the question “How do we know which institutions and norms to conserve and which are better abolished and replaced?” the conservative answers, “We usually cannot know. To pick and choose is to err in ways that do more harm than good. So change should proceed slowly: better to steadily conserve small gains than risk huge losses.” You are not a conservative. Still, this episode caused you to recall a moment in the 1970s “when leftist organizations imploded, the need to match and raise the militancy of one’s comrades leading to a toxic culture filled with dogmatism and disillusion.” How do you propose that justice seekers best avoid or guard against toxicity, dogmatism, excess, and disillusion?

Lloyd: The students and I agreed about political principles. We disagreed about political judgment and political strategy. How do we get from our world, full of anti-Black racism, full of interlocking systems of domination, to a world free of domination? We need to feel the urgency of this question, but we also need to develop the sensibilities and virtues that can allow us to suitably respond.

The seminar is a training ground. It requires patience, enduring frustration, attending carefully to others, making distinctions, drawing on personal experience and applying it to the world of ideas. The seminar is not a pure space; there are no pure spaces. But, in contrast to the lecture, the seminar demonstrates to students that they already have knowledge and that, collectively, they can produce knowledge.

The seminar format itself is changing in positive ways. When I was an undergraduate two decades ago, we all sat around a table, the professor would say “What did you think of the reading?,” and there would be open discussion. Because of my background (I came to Princeton from a public high school in southern Minnesota) and race, I was not practiced in this format, and I rarely spoke. Today, we start with activities to prime the pump, as it were: For example, we have students talk to their neighbor about a question for a few minutes, or each share a question that sets the seminar’s agenda, or divide the seminar into groups of three for a while. Such practices mitigate the effects of the inequalities that necessarily enter the seminar space.

Even in its updated format, a seminar requires risk. People, and especially institutions, don’t like risk. Presumably to reduce that risk, the Telluride Association inserted teachers’ assistants into seminars in what was effectively a layer of anti-racist managers between teachers and students. But that destroys the political potential of the seminar: It can no longer cultivate the sensibilities and virtues needed to combat systems of domination. In the context I write about, because the seminar is a space where the professor and the students are required to restrain themselves, the only figure who was unrestrained was the charismatic teaching assistant (who also, uniquely in this situation, managed the students’ lives for the 21 hours a day they were not in seminar).

One factor contributing to toxicity on the left today is a failure to recognize that different modes of engagement are appropriate to different sorts of spaces. Some spaces, like seminars and reading groups, are training grounds. Others are sites of political action which require deferring to authority and exercising discipline. Still others are sites of storytelling and imagination.

Right now, there is a deep, understandable suspicion of authority that pervades all left spaces and has the effect of reducing discourse to retweets of charismatic personalities—and charisma is the twin of abuse.

Friedersdorf: Many readers will agree (as I do) that we live in a world of domination; that among the forms it takes is anti-Black racism; that we ought to root out systems of domination; that “different modes of engagement are appropriate to different sorts of spaces”; and that positive change is most likely to succeed when its champions develop certain sensibilities and virtues.

In the experience your essay recounts, I see evidence for some additional propositions.

First, it seems to me that a healthy anti-racism movement cannot simply presume that anti-Black racism is or is not a feature of a given institution or space, or to what degree. Without claims that are particular and falsifiable, and rigorous attempts among people with diverse viewpoints to prove or disprove them, the inevitable result is dogmatism and disillusion––and calls to disrupt and transform things that are no more racist or harmful than your seminar. But in many leftist spaces, rigor of that sort is itself seen as harmful and destructive, rather than a constructive necessity for any movement that seeks to focus its efforts appropriately.

Second, I think too many elite academic institutions treat Black students as if they are fragile, undifferentiated victims so lacking in resilience that even a small, unintentional slight from a white or Asian classmate will result in significant harm, acculturating many students to engage Black classmates not as peers but as pitiable others best patronized as “allies” while walking on eggshells. Students ought to regard one another as equals––they are equals and deserve the equal dignity of being treated that way. The alternative constitutes an implicit white and Asian supremacy and an attendant denial of Black equality as disempowering and dispiriting as any other.

As you wrote:

Saddest of all, for me, was hearing what the black students said. They needed extra help, they were struggling to understand anything from the readings, and they couldn’t even know what questions to ask unless they had guidance—first Keisha said this, then the black students said it, then their “allies” repeated it in solidarity with them. But I witnessed them learning. I heard them ask critical questions about difficult texts. I saw their writing improve. I saw them use complex concepts in thoughtful ways. They just didn’t believe in themselves.

You went on to hypothesize that while the Telluride program has been ahead of its time (in a good sense) in many of the ways it has evolved on race over the years, “perhaps the implosion of my Telluride seminar suggests that this final step, centering blackness, tempts the US elite, and particularly US elite educational institutions, to take a step too far, a step into incoherence—or worse.”

But were your seminar participants centering “Blackness” or false stereotypes of Blackness that reduce it to victimhood? Truly centering Blackness would at least require acknowledging the singular individuality, staggering diversity, and resilience of Black people.

Lloyd: There is, indeed, an important question about how we can sharpen our perception of specific wrongs, especially around racism. But there is a deeper question involved too: whether we are approaching justice with a tragic sensibility—in religious terms, appreciating that the world is fallen. Even if, today, we could come up with a list of wrongs needing attention, we would certainly be missing some and misperceiving others; more generally, there are systems of domination affecting us that we haven’t even noticed yet. In the mid-20th century, there was little awareness of homophobia, for example. Who knows what new forms of domination we will have identified a few decades in the future.

At its best, talk of the pervasiveness of anti-Black racism is pointing toward that tragic sensibility. There are forms of anti-Black racism of which we are not aware circulating around people and institutions. That is why we need to cultivate humility, but we need active humility, not the sort that allows us to wallow. We need spaces where we can practice articulating our commitments, having them challenged, and revising them. We also need spaces where we analyze precisely what wrongs we can identify and respond to here and now, given our imperfect capacities.

The seminar form promises to be a space where we can do both.

In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, and especially since the murder of George Floyd, Blackness has floated so widely and loosely in our discourse that the diversity of Black experience and even the humanity of particular Black folks starts to be lost. Institutions know they have racist habits and know they need to change, but they are very awkward in formulating responses—and they are always looking for shortcuts. In cases like anti-Black racism, we do need policy fixes that are overbroad to correct for past wrongs, but we also need to put particular emphasis on attending to the diversity and complexity of Black experience.

The seminar I wrote about was attempting to do just this: leverage the students’ interest in questions of racial justice to examine how different racial categories change over time and how they are inhabited differently by different people—and how the law struggles to make sense of this complexity. Each week we read one court decision, one literary text (a novel, memoir, or short-story collection), and three pieces of historical and cultural analysis, with each genre adding new layers and complications to our understanding of race in general, and Blackness in particular.

In the U.S. and probably beyond, we are at a turning point in how we understand racial diversity. For a half century, we were comfortably multiculturalists, celebrating the variety of peoples, each with their own tasty food and colorful clothes, each facing their own sorts of struggles which we can support, but ultimately all part of the shared life of a community, institution, or nation. The justice claims coming out of social movements in the last decade reject this framework. Anti-Black racism, they charge, is qualitatively different from other forms of racism (though similar claims are made around Indigeneity and other categories as well). Black justice requires interrupting both habits and institutions, and beginning again in new ways.

I don’t think Telluride and other sorts of institutions know what to do with these claims; adding an extra staff person at the multicultural student office or a diversity manager in a seminar is not genuinely responsive. I can’t predict what new frameworks around racial diversity will come after multiculturalism. I trust the energy and creativity of young people leading social movements to imagine a more just future. But I distrust the efforts of institutions to manage that justice-seeking spirit in ways that are convenient and financially expedient, and those efforts are muddying the waters. Young activists who have the capacity to dream a world without domination are instead, at times, demanding more diversity bureaucrats, more diversity trainings, and more ideological policing.

Friedersdorf: I share the hope that young people will imagine and help bring about a future with less domination. But I fear the social movements that you allude to have become more authoritarian in the past decade. I frequently see self-proclaimed adherents of those movements seeking to dominate others. More puzzlingly, I see them denouncing institutions and authority figures as racist one moment, then demanding in the next moment that those same institutions or leaders start marshaling their authority more coercively (much as your students denounced your supposed racism, then insisted that you assert more control over their discussions).

“The students wanted freedom, for themselves and for all,” you wrote, “but they started to say that the only route to freedom is indoctrination: having me tell them what to think.” Are you sure that it’s “freedom for all” that they wanted? As you note, “Young activists who have the capacity to dream a world without domination are instead, at times, demanding more diversity bureaucrats, more diversity trainings, and more ideological policing.” Why are such approaches wrong turns? And by way of wrapping up our back-and-forth, could you suggest a better alternative?

Lloyd: Social movements are messy, and this is especially true for those movements led by youth and those led by people who have suffered a great deal. Social movements are also the best place we can turn to for insights into the nature of justice. Those struggling against domination have unique expertise on domination itself, and how we can free ourselves from it. And that’s the tricky part: We need to take seriously the insights of social movements, but those insights are not self-evident—not to movement participants and not to outsiders. It is difficult and sometimes painful to sort through the varied rhetorics and practices of a movement and to see what hews most closely to the struggle against domination that is a movement’s foundation. Furthermore, no matter our distance from a movement, no matter how closely we attend to it, we have to remind ourselves that we’re going to get some of its insights wrong.

I worry that left political discourse today takes social movements, or even just an individual who has suffered, as conversation stoppers rather than conversation starters. That frustrates me because I firmly believe these movements are the key to our collective liberation. Justice struggles always involve a back-and-forth between movement participants making demands for radical transformation and those in power trying to manage those demands so that they can keep their grip on power. Sometimes that management involves co-opting movements themselves, effectively getting activists to make demands that serve the interests of the status quo. Those of us who care about justice have to be willing to ask critical questions about these dynamics rather than blindly deferring to the activist language.

In an academic context, Black student organizing has long made the claim that interrogating domination is at the heart of the academic mission of the university: domination that starts with the paradigm of the Middle Passage but proceeds to all the forms domination takes, around race, gender, economics, and personal relationships. In other words, the core claim growing out of Black student movements is that the founding principles of educational institutions have to change, and that will call for a radical restructuring of what those institutions look like. I worry about the growth of diversity bureaucracies whose mission is, effectively, to shield institutions from that radical critique, and to redirect activist energy toward goals that entrench the powers that be. There is no tension between the academic mission of a university and the claims being made by student activists: Those activists are demanding more rigor, better history, sharper analysis, because they are demanding that the struggle against domination, a fundamental concern of humanity, ought to be at the root of all intellectual work.

Regarding the current discourse on race, I think we need to appreciate what an important moment we are in, and how much Black organizing has achieved. We are talking about anti-Black racism in a much more sophisticated way today than we were even 10 years ago. We are noticing and responding to anti-Black racism in health care, the economy, real estate, the prison system, policing, and in many other domains. We have broken the hold that the framework of multiculturalism had on discussions of race. Now the forces of white supremacy are realizing they are vulnerable and responding forcefully, and they are attempting to sow discord and defensiveness among justice seekers.

Those of us committed to justice movements need to redouble our commitment to the sensibilities and virtues that are the prerequisite for successful struggles in difficult times: humility, receptivity, charity, faith in the struggle, and hope for a world without domination.