In October of this year, I wrote an op-ed for a local newspaper, explaining that applied critical race theory — or, as I prefer to call it, critical social justice — is not just another subject of study in schools. At many institutions, I wrote, CSJ is now part of the broader educational mission and philosophy, and it does more harm than good to Black students.
As I am a Black man, one could assume readers of the op-ed would see me as someone trying to protect and improve Black lives. Instead, many people who read the piece, including those I have known for years, not only assumed naiveté and ignorance on my part, but also accused me of being a shill for white supremacists.
Unfortunately, in early 21st-century America, this response to what is seen as being inadequately Black or shamefully not Black is all too common. Those of us considered “the wrong kinds of Black people” are treated worse than problematic whites; our refusal to toe the woke line is seen as betrayal. At best, we are accused of “multicultural whiteness,” i.e., being racially Black but politically white. At worst, we are seen as traitors, kissing up to our oppressors. Either way, we are seen as holistically “wrong” and, therefore, detrimental to the advancement of social justice.
“Wrong” Blacks have these sorts of responses in common. Although there is much mental, intellectual and emotional diversity among the “wrong” kinds of Black people, we share a common shunning from the “right” kinds of Blacks and their allies, the “right” kind of whites. In this essay, I want to describe those reactions and then prescribe ways of dealing with them.
Expect Classical Liberal Values to Make You Suspect
The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) infamously posted an infographic on its website, titled “Some Aspects and Assumptions of White Culture in the United States.” After many complaints, the museum took down the infographic, but a link to the infographic’s content is still on the site’s Resources page. Some of these “aspects and assumptions of white culture,” are identified accurately: the focus on European history in schools, the media’s presentation of white beauty as the aesthetic norm, and even the prevalence of Protestant Christianity as our de facto religion. However, other identified aspects are conducive, if not imperative, to happiness and success: hard work, punctuality, delayed gratification, science, planning for the future, etc. To be successful is to embrace most, if not all, of these qualities, but according to the NMAAHC and the infographic’s creators, such success tacitly promotes whiteness.
Again, there are many ways to be inadequately Black. However, achieving one’s goals typically involves an appreciation for most classical liberal values. Unfortunately, the very concept of a goal (i.e., a “plan for the future”), is deemed inherently white. Thus, reaching one’s goals and acquiring a modicum of success—especially if you are happy and fulfilled while doing it—is seen as disloyal to anti-racism. I mention this issue first because it may be the most damaging: If you are Black, successful, and happy, you are doing something wrong.
Expect That What You Call Accomplishment, They Will Call Privilege
“Wrong” Blacks may also often have their accomplishments reimagined as privileges. The traditional definition of privilege is not the one being used here. Privilege now means any benefit that suggests one person is better off than others, especially when the others are members of a marginal group. But being Black does not exempt one from accusations of privilege, even if one is simply reaping the benefits of hard work and diligence.
Thomas Sowell, in “Race and Resentment,” argues that the tendency for contemporary anti-racists to demonize achievement is “one of the most widespread of human failings.” He goes on to describe the impact of equating accomplishment with privilege: “These are poisonous and self-destructive consequences of a steady drumbeat of ideological hype about differences that are translated into ‘disparities’ and ‘inequities,’ provoking envy and resentments under their more prettied-up name of ‘social justice.’” Sowell goes as far as to say, “Resentments of achievements are more deadly than envy of wealth.” In other words, royalty and old-money families—people with privileges in the traditional sense of that word—are not demonized as much as are those individuals who successfully emerge from a downtrodden group. Why is this?
Successful Black people weaken the narrative of victimhood that seems to drive critical social justice. If Black people are perpetually oppressed—because white people are perpetual oppressors—then how does one explain any Black success? For those abiding by CSJ, the only explanation—the only thing that can preserve the CSJ narrative—is to say that person cheated in some way. Even if a person is born with some advantages (e.g., being born lower middle-class instead of poor), that person’s success is rarely seen as the effect of hard work, diligence, patience, or any of the aforementioned classical liberal values. Such a person has to be degraded and accused of some kind of invisible mendacity, thus preserving the narrative.
Expect People to Put Words in Your Mouth
One way CSJ activists handle the “privileged” person of color, or even a person of color not completely dedicated to CSJ, is with consistent misrepresentation. This has happened to me after I questioned the efficacy of CSJ in higher education. It has happened to people like Angel Eduardo, who was attacked by Nikole Hannah-Jones and her followers for things he did not say or do because he defended racially “wrong” Blacks by swearing off labels of race and ethnicity. Eduardo and I present counterpoints difficult to refute while living lives difficult to fault, so we have to be erased and replaced with an egregiously flawed personality.
The number of people, including friends and acquaintances, who hear me say, “I don’t believe in racism,” when I really say, “I think CSJ does more harm than good,” is more than I can ever imagine, and I can imagine a lot. These are the people who hear “I don’t believe you,” when I only ask for elaboration or clarification. They hear “I support white supremacy,” when I say ideas like ethno-mathematics are bad for Black students. They hear “I’m a self-hating Black man who doesn’t want accurate history about race taught in schools,” when I say that many CSJ educators may be misguided in their pedagogical approach. Again, the narrative must be preserved. Actually listening to me entails too great a risk to that narrative.
Expect Some White People Will Police Your Blackness
Most “wrong” Blacks expect pushback from Black CSJ proponents. However, many may be blindsided by white pushback. As a Black man, being called a white supremacist by white people caused a cognitive dissonance that induced both laughter and horror. The absurdity of the accusation is coupled with the historical taboo of being called “uppity,” which is a trope commonly heard in the Jim Crow South whenever a Black person acted as an equal of whites.
Blacks who insult me with racially offensive words for insisting that learning Standard English is a practical and pragmatic endeavor that could come in handy is perplexing enough. When a white person does it, it seems eerily similar to the denial of an education to Blacks by racist whites threatened by the mere thought that they would have to compete with Blacks for both economic and cultural capital. Plessy v. Ferguson lives on in spirit.
White patrolling of Blackness is alive and well in academia, though not in the ways one may think. The academy is not punishing Blacks for being Black; they are punishing Blacks for being the “wrong” kind of Black. I am a rhetorician who is interested in Buddhist philosophy and theories of empowerment. However, if I said that I study Black rhetoric and am interested in Black Buddhism and theories of Black empowerment, it is likely my career would be much different regarding opportunities, publications, and employment. I will never forget the incredulous look a white university president gave me when I told him that Black people are diverse in thought, politics, aesthetics and so on.
Ironically, the idea that whites know what is best for Blacks is central to contemporary anti-racism if we take into consideration the success of Robin DiAngelo, the author of “White Fragility” and “Nice Racism.” DiAngelo has made a name for herself by presenting Black people as necessarily powerless, fragile people without agency. Her popular reception suggests that many think it is okay for whites to perpetuate this narrow conception of Blackness.
In addition to racist whites who disapprove of “wrong” Blacks, there are also racist whites who embrace them as proof that racism doesn’t exist or that white people are the real victims. These whites oppose anything broaching the subject of race. Consider politicians like Ron DeSantis who want to ban CRT outright, not just as dogmatic pedagogy. Consider Texas State Representative Matt Krauss who wants to ban 850 books for accurately depicting past and present manifestations of discrimination in America because they “might make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress.” I don’t condone the banning of any theory or of most books, but this won’t stop truly racist whites from twisting my criticisms of CSJ into a collective argument for censorship and racist policies.
Like the “erase and replace” tactic mentioned earlier, my appropriation by those of bad faith effectively erases who I am and what I’m saying for who they want me to be and what they want me to say. But should this tribulation encourage people to clam up or join CSJ activists and pedagogues as being the lesser of two evils? Should any expectations discussed today result in a retraction of the beliefs and concerns of “wrong” Blacks? We’ve discussed what the “wrong” kind of Black person can expect. But what should we do moving forward?
Realize That There Is Power in Numbers
Large numbers of people with comparable goals enhance reach, momentum and visibility of any movement. In fact, widespread visibility alone may do wonders. One or two “wrong” Black people is one thing. A group large enough to constitute a movement may be daunting enough to slow the progress of political opposition. One can already see members of this faction of “wrong” Blacks in YouTube videos of Black parents opposing CSJ pedagogy, or on podcasts discussing the detriments of CSJ for general living. Books authored by Blacks and other people of color criticizing CSJ activism and pedagogy are multiplying. They shed sunlight on all of these things.
Classical liberalism has been a tool for Black uplift since the 19th century. Frederick Douglass cited it as a major motivator for his escape from slavery as well as his abolitionist work. W.E.B. Dubois, although fond of Marx, saw the benefits of these values. Martin Luther King Jr. saw the Civil Rights movement as a push to allow Blacks to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, just as whites do. Writers and influencers like Bayard Rustin and James Baldwin would also be hard-pressed to relinquish these values for which Black people fought so diligently.
But most of all, we should showcase the lesser-known people, the nameless of American history, who sat in “white only” lunch counters during Jim Crow segregation. We should remember those Blacks who took on police dogs and fire hoses to protest the state-sanctioned denial of classical liberal values. We should remember Blacks who suffered injuries or lost their lives to secure equal treatment in America.
In a very real sense, those Black giants, on whose shoulders we stand, have more in common with the “wrong” kind of Blacks than the “right” kind, who see the very concept of color-blindness as a denial that race or racism exists or as a warrant for some form of racial segregation. Let’s not wait until Black History Month to celebrate these figures. Exult them often, and be loud when doing it. Many among the woke have gone as far as to denigrate these figures for expressing problematic sentiments about race. For others among the woke, reminding them of the triumphs of iconic Black figures may help them think more critically when confronted with CSJ.
Remember to Laugh and Love
And finally, remembering to enjoy life and maintaining a sense of humor may be the most important prescription that I have against CSJ. I implore you to remember to enjoy the fruits of your accomplishments while laughing at those who insist on calling them privileges. I ask you to spend time with those who wouldn’t think of erasing and replacing you. Pretend every white person who says you are being Black incorrectly is dressed as a clown, which could be construed as a more accurate symbol of who they really are. Embrace those who celebrate rather than denigrate your happiness and success. Don’t forget that even amidst the chaos, there is laughter and love; let yourself have both in abundant quantities.
Admittedly, my thoughts on what to expect and do as a “wrong” kind of Black person can be construed as subjective. That’s because they come from decades of observation, experience and study. But they are, indeed, only my words. If you can add to the expectations or provide prescriptions of your own, do so and, if so inclined, share them far and wide. Power in numbers must also include support in numbers. Let other “wrong” Blacks know they are not alone. Perhaps CSJ proponents of all colors will see our group esteem, our sense of dignity, and our embrace of love and laughter as worthwhile. Perhaps, instead of trying to beat us, they will seek to join us. We won’t know until we try.