Nice Racism: How Progressive White People Perpetuate Racial Harm
By Robin Di Angelo. Beacon Press. 2021. 224 pages

Nice Racism consists of an introduction, twelve chapters, a study guide and eight pages of footnotes. The 12 chapters are all variants on “Why all white people are self-deluding racists, unworthy of any consideration or sympathy.”

This is bad enough if one is a comfortable middle or upper-class white person and it is of course very unjust, but it must be positively infuriating if one really suffers from poverty and social dysfunction as a white person (this seems to explain the Trump victory in certain states).

You are not allowed to point this out, remarks Di Angelo with some severity: you’re still a racist (incidentally, the excellent film of JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Vance’s memoir of his poverty-stricken white childhood, met with a very frosty reception from PC academics).

Her book has no Index, but it does have an extensive, hectoring, school-marmish study guide, which reads for all the world like a debased examination of conscience (perhaps this is why Douglas Murray called her the Miss Whiplash of Critical Race Theory).

“Why is there so much concern about white people feeling guilty?”

“How does that concern, [along with] the guilt … function in terms of upholding or challenging racism?”  

“What are some ways in which the ideology of individualism is at play when white people centre their own trauma in anti-racist endeavours?”

“How can white trauma function as a form of ‘softer’ white fragility?”

And on and on…. The whole darn book is like this.

That the shoe could ever be on the other foot never seems to occur to her: that anybody other than white people could ever be racist is simply not possible in her world – but Douglas Murray gives several examples of non-white racism in The War on the West. Black writers such as Candace Owens have said that certain attitudes within their own community are highly problematic – but, yet again, this is not allowed, and indeed black commentators who say this come in for the most ferocious abuse. It is interesting to note that some of the worst, most overtly, obviously racist abuse that Justice Clarence Thomas has had to endure recently has come from the woke practitioners of CRT.

Nice Racism begins with an anecdote about a very uncomfortable dinner party, in which Di Angelo recalls displaying the most appalling bad manners and lack of sensitivity on meeting a black couple for the first time. This she attributes to “obliviousness”: after all, she herself is a member of a fashionable minority, and ticked all the liberal boxes, so how could it be possible that she could offend people of another minority?

A quick read-through of this book might convince a neutral reader (if such were allowed) that Di Angelo is still repeating that pattern: a white academic setting herself up as judge and jury on all race-related matters. She follows this up by recollecting Martin Luther King’s criticism of white moderates, by which King meant people who do not care about injustice, as long as they do not suffer from it. From that, she goes on to a series of highly speculative sociological analyses, speculative insofar as they are wholly unsupported by any kind of empirical research data (unlike Kathleen Stock’s work in Material Girls), although she does quote various contemporary literary presentations of CRT at length.

That America has a woeful history of racism nobody will contest: read My Grandfather’s Son: A Memoir by Clarence Thomas if you want to see the obstacles a bright black boy had to overcome in order to reach the top in America in the 1970s. The young Thomas was taught that he must never look a white woman in the eye; later on, although he had come top of his class at Yale Law School, he had immense difficulty finding employment in the law.

Or you could try Thomas Sowell’s work, Black Rednecks & White Liberals: Hope, Mercy, Justice and Autonomy in the American Health Care System for a rather more bumpy ride.

The fundamental difference between Thomas Sowell on the one hand and Robin Di Angelo on the other, however, is the presence of facts in their case and the absence of facts in hers. Clarence Thomas and Thomas Sowell (and many others) recall particular incidents that are indeed very telling and back up their claims with reference to legal research or economic data. It is possible to disagree with them, and they are open to argument.

Both Thomas and Sowell argue for a multicultural society, where the individual matters, whereas Di Angelo seemingly argues for a straight reversal of the previous pattern, and attacks the notion of the individual having particular value. One is reminded of Theodor Adorno’s reversal of good and evil 80 years ago. Di Angelo’s previous book, White Fragility, has been described as a “big book of generalisations” by Douglas Murray, who goes on to observe that Nice Racism is more of the same, and it is hard to find a better description. Notably, she attacks the notion that the individual human being could matter at all: everyone is simply a cipher for race in one way or another.

The reason for this is that Di Angelo is an avid practitioner of Critical Race Theory: note the emphasis on “theory” here. CRT emerged gradually in American academic circles to explain why the ending of overtly racist laws and behaviour in America did not result in an immediate improvement in the circumstances of black people. It sought to find hidden mechanisms of racial discrimination in order to account for this: anyone who has ever been through training regarding microaggressions (seemingly innocuous behaviour that carries a coded racist meaning) has some idea of the mentality that underpins it. Everything and anything is seen through the prism of race consciousness.

CRT functions as a tight, closed logical circle: if you are white, then you are racist. If you know you are racist, then you are racist. If you do not think that you are racist, then you lack self-knowledge, and what you need to do is acquire it, and admit that you are racist. All the ills of history are due to white racism, and it is racist to challenge that statement.

Allegations of racism sound like the kind of thing for which empirical evidence might be expected to be supplied, but there is no empirical evidence at all for this. Neither is there any way out: a lifetime of mea culpa seems to be the only thing on offer.

Well, this is convenient for the practitioners of CRT, of course. It is a phenomenon that emerged in the universities, which have been continually moving ever more to the left and to the purely theoretical construction of reality: Humpty Dumpty was right after all. Words do mean whatever you want them to mean, and once you have established ownership of the academic field, it is a never-ending source of academic jobs, not to mention the very high fees that one can charge for educating the corporate sector about how awfully, inevitably racist all the white ones are.

It is true that that the continuing poverty of many black people in America is a distressing reality: Thomas Sowell, the black economist, has had a good deal to say about it, and like Di Angelo, Sowell blames white liberals for a good deal of it.

But what is the difference? For Sowell and his ilk, the problems in certain black communities these days are caused by poverty and social dysfunction rather than racism, and there are practical measures that one could take to help them. In 2012, Sowell observed that racism in America was dead, or at least on life-support, which did fit what many people thought about themselves.

He went on to observe that racism was being kept on life support by people whom he bluntly characterised as “politicians, race hustlers and people who get a sense of superiority from denouncing others as ‘racists’”. It is precisely these people whom Sowell blames for much of the trouble in black communities: for example, the movement to provide charter schools for black children did in fact help many of them out of poverty, and was something which he strongly supported (he wrote a book about that too). But those schools were destroyed by white liberals ideologically committed to the public school system.

Di Angelo, on the other hand, thinks that white liberals (such as herself) are racist because they simply will not acknowledge how racist they are. It is very much a case of “when will you stop beating your wife”? It is impossible to be white and not to be racist in her book. For Sowell and for Thomas, racism is a phenomenon that has been greatly ameliorated by legal, economic and social measures; for Di Angelo, this is impossible.

If you are interested in reading this book in order to find out about the reality of black life in America, then … read another book: one of Sowell’s, or Clarence Thomas’s, or follow Candace Owens online. Or you could read Thomas Chatterton Williams memoir Self-Portrait in Black and White.

What you will find out from reading Di Angelo’s book is how unlimited the horizons of speculation can be once you decide that reality does not matter, but only the perception of reality: ultimately how post-modernism renders coherent discourse impossible.

Molly Bagnall

Molly Bagnall is the pen name of an academic working at a university in the British Isles. She has published extensively in the areas of Philosophy and Theology.