“Do the work!” The phrase has become a kind of ritual malediction among activists who seek to weaponize racism.
First, an accusation of racism is made. It goes without saying that it is accurate – how could it not be, when virtually every institution and norm in modern America is an instrument of white supremacy?
At this point, a lot of people merely yield or acquiesce to the will of their accuser out of misplaced guilt or fear of the reputational harm that comes with being branded a racist. If you are foolhardy enough to raise questions of the accuser about the veracity of the complaint, or are merely confused about what’s being alleged, a discussion will not ensue. There will be variations of the same theme: “I AM TIRED. AND EXHAUSTED trying to explain your white privilege to you. DO THE WORK.”
What does “do the work” even mean? Well, if you want to go down the academic rabbit-hole from which this emerged, in neo-Marxian critical theory argot the term of art is “praxis.”
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In his late-phase Marxism, Jean Paul Sartre defined “praxis” as the transformation of the world in accordance with a specific ideological end. So when you’re told “do the work,” leftists don’t mean any kind of personal development that would allow for unique circumstances, individual understanding, and personal agency. They have a very specific program in mind for you to follow.
So we get passages like this from a priceless open letter in Portland Monthly where “white people” are addressed en masse and told to “Consider your performative solidarity officially on notice”:
I advise you to check your white guilt and the impulse you may now feel to reach out to the Black folks in your life. DO NOT CALL YOUR BLACK FRIEND RIGHT NOW! This might be a novel concept, but consume content about the Black experience produced by Black creatives and thought leaders—not white non-experts on Blackness you feel safe with. We all have the same internet, and from it you have equal access to books, culturally-specific contemporary publications, podcasts, and other seemingly endless resources that can be the impetus for your own self-examination.
It’s telling that engagement is one-sided – you’re not to be engaged until you’re immersed in a “culturally-specific” and political understanding of their choosing.
To that end, the author above provides a link to a Google doc with a slew of resources to get woke. The suggestions range from relatively benign or helpful (read Toni Morrison novels!) to eye-rolling (follow The New York Times’ Jamelle Bouie on Twitter) to pernicious works influenced by critical race theory that damage race relations and interpersonal relationships (the work of Robin DiAngelo and Ibram X. Kendi, authors of White Fragility and How to Be an Anti-Racist).
By now it should be obvious what’s going on. If you’re aggressively confronted about alleged personal weaknesses, shut out from dealing directly with the supposedly aggrieved party, told you can only begin these failings by engaging with and agreeing to a specific doctrine, and at that point you relent… congratulations! You’ve just joined a cult.
The purging of wrongthink will be total. Last month, The New York Times published an op-ed encouraging people to send texts “to your relatives and loved ones telling them you will not be visiting them or answering phone calls until they take significant action in supporting black lives either through protest or financial contributions.”
The Kafka Trap
While critical race theory is seeping into the culture from a lot of different directions, it’s worth looking at the two most influential books, White Fragility and How to Be an Anti-Racist, which are currently dominating the bestseller lists.
The reach of DiAngelo’s White Fragility is such that she was recently a guest on the Tonight Show, and the book has become almost totemic in its significance. Recently, Robin Broshi, a member of a New York City Community Education Council, got outraged at her fellow councilmember during the group’s public Zoom meeting for bouncing a friend’s nephew on his lap.
His crime? “It hurts people when they see a white man bouncing a brown baby on their lap and they don’t know the context. That is harmful,” she said, in obvious distress. “I would like to know how having my friend’s nephew on my lap was racist,” he asked. “Read a book. Read White Fragility,” she retorted.
Fortunately, the notoriety has been such that at least a few notable people have read White Fragility and finally begun to condemn the insanity it provokes. Matt Taibbi, an avowed liberal who has recently become alarmed by the growing belief that “individual rights, humanism, and the democratic process are all just stalking-horses for white supremacy,” tore the book to pieces in a widely read review, noting, “DiAngelo isn’t the first person to make a buck pushing tricked-up pseudo-intellectual horses–t as corporate wisdom, but she might be the first to do it selling Hitlerian race theory.”
The Hitlerian race theory bit isn’t really hyperbole. The entire book is a peaen to white identity politics, albeit a backhanded one. DiAngelo, who is white, insists that for white people to address racism they have to accept their identity as a white person and constantly be aware of how the mere fact of their skin color defines interactions with others. Once they’ve done that, only then can they begin to shed their racist behaviors but LOL JK you can’t really stop being racist because you’re still white and “anti-blackness is foundational to our very identities.”
Now obviously there are lots of historical examples of why encouraging white people to find solidarity in their skin color could backfire. In that respect, the colorblind attitudes preached by Martin Luther King Jr. and his acolytes were successful in advancing civil rights, and not just because they encouraged white people to see black people as their brothers and sisters made in the image of the same God and therefore deserving of the same personal respect and political rights. Emphasizing the “content of their character” over the color of their skin made it clear just how superficial race-based solidarity of white culture is and why it was worth rejecting. In fact, DiAngelo makes a point of explicitly rejecting the “content of their character” argument, arrogantly oblivious to the hubris involved in a white lady dismissing MLK’s civil rights legacy.
While frustration over perceived lack of racial progress since the MLK era is understandable, it beggars belief that anyone, let alone someone who professes to oppose racism, would look at the last 70 or so years of American history and say, “I think we need to get white people to start thinking about how their skin color unites them.” But here we are.
Taibbi righteously identifies problems with DiAngelo, but skirts around the fact that DiAngelo’s desire to harden racial identities is just a set-up for something even more troubling. Should you resist accepting your white identity or otherwise deny how an accident of your birth makes you complicit in systemic evils regardless of your intent and behavior, well, DiAngelo’s pat response is kind of astonishing: The fact you are insecure and “fragile” when confronted with what your white identity means is just further proof that you are, in fact, racist.
This is a rhetorical device known as a “Kafka trap,” where the more you deny something, the more it’s proof of your guilt. Suffice to say, this is both illogical and manipulative by design. It’s not just that DiAngelo’s book is premised on a fallacy; that fallacy is so prominent it’s explained in the title of the book.
This brings us to Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist, which kicks Kafka-trapping up to a whole new level. Like DiAngelo, Kendi’s vision of being “anti-racist” means coding every interaction with people in terms of some sort of complex hierarchy of identity that you’re supposed to innately understand. (Note that the epistemology of various identarian ideologies are at odds with each other. Skin color may be an observable fact to some extent, but “race” is largely a cultural construct, hence why so many people agree to pretend Shaun King is black.)
Again, Kendi is creating a closed loop. Agree to situate yourself in the hierarchy, or you’re racist. And once you’ve situated yourself in the hierarchy, that’s when “doing the work” begins.
Even if you as an individual have done nothing wrong, you’re still benefitting from a racist system just by virtue of your skin color. Merely not being racist and confronting racist behavior when you see it isn’t enough to dismantle racism. Instead, you have to be “anti-racist.”
That means you are constantly combatting systemic racism by, in effect, attacking and remaking the system itself. What does this look like? Well, I’ll let Kendi explain:
To fix the original sin of racism, Americans should pass an anti-racist amendment to the U.S. Constitution that enshrines two guiding anti-racist principals: Racial inequity is evidence of racist policy and the different racial groups are equals. The amendment would make unconstitutional racial inequity over a certain threshold, as well as racist ideas by public officials (with ‘racist ideas’ and ‘public official’ clearly defined). It would establish and permanently fund the Department of Anti-racism (DOA) comprised of formally trained experts on racism and no political appointees. The DOA would be responsible for preclearing all local, state and federal public policies to ensure they won’t yield racial inequity, monitor those policies, investigate private racist policies when racial inequity surfaces, and monitor public officials for expressions of racist ideas. The DOA would be empowered with disciplinary tools to wield over and against policymakers and public officials who do not voluntarily change their racist policy and ideas.
All we have to do is “clearly define” racism and make it illegal? Why didn’t we think of that earlier! And a federal cabinet agency that goes around investigating “private” accusations of racism and disciplining public officials for expressions of racist ideas? Just ignore the amusing suggestion that this agency be referred to as “DOA,” let’s just call it the federal Department of What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
These ideas are especially insidious because they exploit the goodwill of people and institutions earnestly seeking to not be racist, and who come into these discussions with their guards down and willing to change their behavior if they think it will help make the world a less racist place.
Ironically, the supposed solutions coming from DiAngelo and Kendi in any other context would be called racist. They perpetuate a worldview that asks people to accept that they are forever defined by skin color, and refute attempts to question this understanding with nonfalsifiable logic that requires permanent subjugation. But you are not racist for disagreeing with this stuff — it’s anti-American, and designed to create more unhappiness and racial strife.
The Use and Abuse of History
So how do you fight this? Well, to start you should, in fact, “do the work.” But acquainting yourself with the more current and pernicious stains of thinking on racial politics isn’t enough.
You may have noticed that DiAngelo, Kendi, and most of their fellow travelers are obsessed with history as of late. They justify their urgency and radicalism by citing historical narratives divorced from reality, one where racism and slavery aren’t a betrayal of American ideals, but the fulfillment of them.
This mythmaking bulldozes over historical and present reality. There are plenty of criticisms of this country’s political and cultural handling of race that can and should be made, but it’s frankly embarrassing how ignorant and misleading about history so many of the people leading our national conversation on race really are. The people yelling “do the work!” haven’t actually done the work.
For instance, this past Fourth of July, Kendi tweeted an abbreviated version of Frederick Douglass’s famous speech, “What is a Slave to the Fourth of July.” Written in 1852, it is a scathing indictment of the hypocrisies of American founding ideals at time slavery was still legal.
Douglass, a former slave, abolitionist, and personal friend of Abraham Lincoln, is truly great and underappreciated American. But for all his righteous anger over slavery, he still believed in his country. In the speech, Douglass praises the Constitution as “saving principles,” and he’s quite explicit in his belief that it’s “slander on [the founders’] memory” to believe the foundational document was part of a plan to perpetuate slavery rather than end it.
At a time people are toppling statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, anyone quoting Douglass’s speech should probably not omit where Douglass says, “the fathers of this republic, did, most deliberately, under the inspiration of a glorious patriotism, and with a sublime faith in the great principles of justice and freedom, lay deep the corner-stone of the national superstructure” and that he will “unite with you to honor their memory.”
However, if you just read Kendi’s abbreviated version of the speech, you’d get a very different idea of what Douglass actually said. The use and abuse of Douglass is a recurring theme. Last year, Colin Kaepernick quoted the Douglass speech for his own ends; this year he rejected the holiday outright, and simply referred to the Fourth of July as “your celebration of white supremacy.” Surely it says something that a millionaire athlete’s hatred of his country far eclipses that of Douglass, a former slave writing while slavery was still being practiced.
It’s simply becoming impossible to deny that the goal here is to rewrite history. The New York Times’ much-discussed 1619 Project explicitly aims to make America’s true founding date the arrival of the first slave ship in 1619, not 1776. Nikole Hannah-Jones, the leader of the 1619 Project, is a little more than an embarrassing and conspiracy-minded provocateur who has endorsed violence.
Her historical ignorance is such that she recently defended the toppling of a statue of noted racist Ulysses S. Grant and compared him to Hitler and Osama bin Laden because Grant “owned another human being.” For the record, Grant, who abhorred slavery and defeated the Confederate Army, inherited a single slave from his father-in-law and then manumitted him within a year or so because that’s about how long the legal process took.
Despite the fact that Hannah-Jones is a charlatan, The New York Times has had to issue a correction on the 1619 Project, and there have been howls of protests from America’s most eminent historians about the project’s “displacement of historical understanding by ideology,” the 1619 Project won a Pulitzer Prize, is coming to a school curriculum near you, and Oprah Winfrey has a series of film projects planned.
This false narrative that places slavery at the center of American history, rather than our imperfect struggle to realize our founding ideals, will be cemented unless people speak out. In addition to brushing up on the insidious logic behind critical race theory, it’s going to be necessary to improve our historical understanding to fight these attempts to tear the country down.
Doing the Real Work
With that in mind, here’s a list of books and other resources that will help put race and American history in their proper perspective. This list of books will not be comforting to contemporary conservative or Christian worldviews. Even if historical truths generally vindicate American ideals, that doesn’t excuse the blood-soaked betrayal of those ideas that have occurred in the nearly 250 years since. Part of the reason these ahistorical narratives about race are taking hold so swiftly is that most of the country has only confronted the horrors of slavery and racism in the abstract.
As James Baldwin has observed, “the reason for this ignorance is that a knowledge of the role these people [African-Americans] played—and play—in American life would reveal more about America to Americans than Americans wish to know.” Prepare to be uncomfortable and remember that you can handle challenging facts, ideas, and opinions. Remember you’re not the one asking people to join a cult — the goal is to be more empathetic and informed, and you should be prepared to change your mind about some things.
Slavery: Historically, America’s educational system has given the black experience short shrift, and it’s important to understand just how horrifying the practice of chattel slavery was in terms of the torture, abuse, and tearing apart of families. The low-impact book here is Alex Haley’s Roots: The Saga of an American Family, which was a mega-bestseller when it came out in the 1970s, won a Pulitzer, and prompted a hugely successful TV miniseries.
It follows the story of Kunta Kinte, an African kidnapped and sold into slavery and transported to America, and the generations of his family on down to Alex Haley himself. Roots is imperfect, or at the very least the fact a large chunk of it was apparently plagiarized from another novel about the slave experience written by a white guy should provide some interesting fodder for those who think “cultural appropriation” is a legitimate complaint. Still, the historical sweep of Roots puts slavery into perspective, it’s a cultural landmark, and it’s very readable.
It’s more imperative to read the first-hand 19th-century slave narratives. They are amazing documents. The most famous is, of course, the eponymous Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which should be required reading for all Americans. Just the mere facts recounted about what the slaves were given to eat and wear should shock the conscience, never mind what Douglass has to say about the deliberate denial of slaves’ humanity.
“I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; He must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man,” Douglass writes. The Library of America also has an excellent single volume of slave narratives that includes Douglass, as well as writings from Nat Turner, Sojourner Truth, and others.
Finally, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World The Slaves Made by Eugene D. Genovese is considered a classic history of slavery — the book won the Bancroft Prize when it came out in 1972 — and is fairly unique in that it uses Marxist critiques to show how slaves worked within the oppressive system to find ways to maintain their dignity.
Genovese was a sincere Marxist at the time he wrote it, but by the 1990s identified himself as a social conservative who founded the Historical Society to combat the “totalitarian assault” of political correctness and ideological history coming from the academy. The book’s use of Marxist theories is confounding, and even infuriating, to contemporary left-wing academics.
The Civil War: Since Confederate monuments and the legacy of the Civil War are at the heart of many of the current debates, it’s worth getting familiar with this pivotal event and its causes. A leading contender for best single-volume history of the conflict is James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, which has been endorsed by Ta-Nehisi Coates for offering “a catalogue of evidence, making it clear not just that the white South went to war for the right to own people, but that it warred for the right to expand the right to own people.”
Relating to the Civil War, it’s important to also get familiar with the rhetoric of the leader who won it. The Portable Lincoln and Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America, the latter by the terrific historian Allen C. Guelzo, make it clear that Lincoln’s political success and his justifications for waging war rested on convincing the country slavery was incompatible with our cherished founding documents. Anyone who’s read The Gettysburg Address knows Lincoln was a brilliant writer, but he’s the rare figure, let alone politician, who only seems to grow in your estimation as you read more of his work.
Frederick Douglass: While Douglass’s autobiography is essential, that doesn’t begin to explain his political and cultural influence — and he was an influential political figure until his death 30 years after the end of the Civil War. The Portable Frederick Douglass, edited by John Stauffer and Henry Louis Gates Jr., provides not just selections from his autobiographical works, but a good selection of his speeches and journalism that show how America was continuing to wrestle with race in the decades following the end of slavery.
Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois: Born in 1856, Booker T. Washington’s 1901 autobiography Up From Slavery tells the story of the famous educator’s life and how he attributes his success to education, self-reliance, and industriousness. He urges this path for his fellow African-Americans.
It’s impossible to overstate the positive impact this book had on the country and race relations. For decades after it came out, Washington’s book was the only touchstone for race relations many white Americans had, and the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. (My grandmother, who was raised in rural Idaho and died pushing 100, used to approvingly quote the book’s nuggets of wisdom for my benefit.)
On the other hand, Washington’s popularity and the simplicity of his message were also resented by other 20th-century black writers who were both in his shadow and still dealing with pronounced racism. In W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk, published just two years after Up From Slavery, DuBois tackles Washington head-on.
He praises Washington for lifting up the image of black people and engendering sympathy to the plight of black people from whites, but counters that there were plenty of educated and industrious black Americans in Jim Crow America finding that Washington’s prescriptions weren’t enough to overcome racism. DuBois’ thinking eventually lead to the creation of the NAACP and more African-American political engagement.
It’s worth weighing DuBois and Washington’s arguments against each other in light of the ways political engagement has clearly benefited black Americans, versus creating dependencies that have eroded self-reliance and weakened black families and communities. There are points in favor of both arguments, and finding the right balance between the two is key to improving the lives of black Americans.
James Baldwin: Baldwin is just a stunning writer almost in the literal sense of the word, and he’s almost worth reading just to appreciate his mastery of the written word. The two essays contained in The Fire Next Time manage to say as much or more about the problems of race in just 120 pages than almost anyone before or since.
The Fire Next Time contains multitudes; Baldwin speaks of sincerely wanting vengeance for the treatment of black Americans and his thoughts on the potential for improving race relations drip with cynicism. A former preacher in his youth, he excoriates American Christianity for its inadequacies and hypocrisies on race.
But he always manages to leave the door open just enough so hope can creep in, writing of the need for a “love [that] takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” And he worryingly observes that “glorification of one race and the consequent debasement of another—or others—always has been and always will be a recipe for murder.”
It’s all the more interesting that the book was written in 1963. Baldwin’s asides on communism and imperialism, along with his dismissal of Bobby Kennedy’s surprisingly accurate prediction there would be a black president in 40 years, haven’t aged well.
But it’s also a real indictment so many of his universal observations about racial injustice, including his repeated complaints about the police treatment of black people, remain shockingly relevant. As a bonus, Baldwin astutely dissects the appeal of the Nation of Islam to black Americans — a topic that’s suddenly become relevant again.
Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steele: Sowell might be one of the smartest Americans who has ever lived, and his contributions to economics are undeniably momentous. Any other black intellectual of his stature would be much more famous, but Sowell’s conservatism means his extensive writings on race are ignored because they don’t advance the political causes of the left.
But that doesn’t make them any less worthy. Books such as Intellectuals and Race, Discrimination and Disparities, Black Rednecks and White Liberals, and Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality? are all impeccably argued and buttressed with research. (Sowell has also done important work on education, the big civil rights issue that doesn’t get discussed because it indicts the left.)
Similarly, Shelby Steele is another unjustly ignored conservative black intellectual whose writing on race is essential. White Guilt, Shame, The Content of Our Character, and A Dream Deferred all challenge accepted liberal racial and political narratives adroitly.
DiAngelo and Kendi: Yes, it will be painful, but you should absolutely try and read DiAngelo and Kendi’s books, because a lot of the people waving them around as anti-racist talisman might have picked up on a few ideas from an NPR interview, but odds are good they haven’t really read them.
Both books are full of academic jargon are somewhat inscrutable by design. But if you read them, that affords you a powerful opportunity when someone is, oh say, inexplicably offended by you bouncing a child of a different skin color on your lap and yells at you to read White Fragility.
At that point you can say, “Actually, I have read that book. And I think that anyone who actually cares about racism should be very wary of it. Do you really think ‘White people’s moral objection to racism increases their resistance to acknowledging their complicity with it’? Why does DiAngelo encourage white people to be obsessively aware of their racial identity when she also says ‘a positive white identity is an impossible goal’?” If nothing else, the results will be amusing.
James Lindsay and New Discourses: Lindsay and his cohorts at the New Discourses website have emerged as leading and fearless critics of the hordes of critical theorists trying to shove social justice down our throats, particularly as it intersects with real-world occupations and concerns. (See, for instance, this article on how woke politics are making it harder for mental health professionals to do their job.)
If you need a plain English explanation for the latest social justice fad and why it’s corrosive to free speech and other American values, there’s a good chance you’ll find something useful on their comprehensive website. Lindsay is also excellent at exposing just how far gone adherents of “critical social justice” are – see this video where someone tries to explain that determining whether the number of candies in a box is even or odd isn’t just a matter of counting them; it depends on your cultural understanding of “math.”
What’s interesting is that Lindsay is an atheist and a rationalist. Not that long ago, people with Lindsay’s sympathies were predominantly focused on critiquing the religious right. But Lindsay and the New Discourses crew seem to have the seriousness of threat coming from the zealous enforcement of the far-left’s woke doctrines, which have all the problems of religion but offer none of the forgiveness and redemption. To that end, Lindsay and Helen Pluckrose have a book coming out in late August, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity―and Why This Harms Everybody, which promises to be insightful.
Putting Your Knowledge to Work
If you become acquainted with even a small fraction of the work above, you should be well-equipped to hold your own in a conversation about race. Unfortunately, these days entering into any public fray about race is fraught with the danger for reputational harm, no matter how well-intentioned you are.
Discussing race, particularly as a white person, should always be done cautiously, and emphasize empathy and humility. In that respect, I hardly pretend to know everything about race in America; everything I’ve written here should just be viewed as one concerned man offering his opinions and making an effort. I’m keeping an open mind about police reform and many other topics these days.
However, not that long ago, running around fretting over “cultural Marxism” was a sure way to announce you were a right-wing nut job. Now one glance at the bestsellers list suggests that such concerns are perfectly valid. There’s still plenty of room for the right and earnest liberals to discuss solutions to racial injustice, but ceding the discussion to the new clerisy of “anti-racists” is not really an option when they don’t offer participatory solutions so much as issue demands.
Again, it’s worth repeating Kendi and DiAngelo are not fringe figures — people pay thousands of dollars to attend seminars with them, their bestselling books are being assigned in schools, and corporate H.R. departments are writing diversity policies based on their work. It’s important you be aware of what they’re doing and refuse to let you, your children, or your organization be baited into one of their logical cul-de-sacs.
Sooner or later you’re going to encounter these anti-American ideas about addressing racism in your workplace, on kids’ homework, or in the faculty lounge – and you can’t be fragile when confronting it. You need to have a base of knowledge about race in America that demonstrates an understanding of the enormity of the country’s sins, as well as demonstrating you’ve made an effort to inform yourself about overcoming them. You need to understand that your opponents might be employing manipulative logic to make their arguments – arguments that are fast becoming so pervasive that many people making them might readily revise their opinions once you confront them with your concerns.
Already there are stories circulating that people have successfully challenged the woke racial thought police in the office and at professional organizations by arming themselves with some basic knowledge. But we can’t stop there.
If we inform ourselves about the real history of race in America and engage with the good-faith arguments on both sides, we might be able coalesce around solutions and come together as Americans. It won’t be easy, but if this is what it means to “do the work” rather than simply let ourselves be told what to think, the effort will be worth it.