If you’re white and you react to critiques of “wokeness” with the thought of “just let people of colour have their liberation,” I have some bad news for you: you’re already neck deep in the logic of wokeness.
You see, wokeness is not, for the most part, a black liberation movement. According to author and columnist Shelby Steele, who happens to be African-American, wokeness operates primarily for the moral benefit of white people.
“White guilt is the terror of being seen as a racist, as a bigot,” says Steele, a Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. “It now pervades American life. All our social policy, our culture — everything — is touched by this anxiety in most of white America. Understandably, given America’s history.”
According to Steele, white America fell from its moral high ground in the 1960s, after finally confessing to centuries of oppression of black people through slavery and segregation. Since that time, argues Steele, “the essence of American liberalism is the pursuit of innocence — innocence of, specifically, the ugly American past.”
White people are vulnerable, he says — “they have this vulnerability to being disarmed of moral authority by being called a racist.” As another black academic, John McWhorter, agrees. He noted this week in The Economist, “America is falling under the grips of this ideology out of neither serious counsel nor consensus, but fear. For most Americans, being called a racist is all but equivalent to being called a paedophile.”
Steele describes white guilt as a “drive to prove and establish innocence”. Reflecting on Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016, Steele invoked her now-infamous ‘basket of deplorables’ statement to explain how white guilt operates:
I am innocent. You vote for me you prove your innocence. I offer you an identity of innocence… It’s the way I think of myself as a decent civilised human being, and those other people are contemptible.
Though Shelby Steele provided this commentary in 2018, before the vocabulary of ‘wokeness’ had entered the mainstream, his analysis remains prescient. Operating from the framework of white guilt described by Steele, the Biden administration has now consecrated wokeness as official United States policy.
The American map is now lit up with legal battles over the creep of critical race theory in schools, workplaces and beyond. In documenting one such battle in the state of Virginia, The American Conservative offered a powerful and concise definition of wokeness:
Wokeness at its core is a fundamentalist religion for rich white people, who have both time to spare and an acute status consciousness to alleviate.
Racism is a persistent problem in America and the West more broadly — just as it is all around the world, being part of the human condition. America is doubtless more acutely aware of racism because of its particular past. Even Shelby Steele, reflecting on his own life experiences, admits that he has mixed feelings about America in this regard:
I had to watch my father be discriminated against in every way. The unions wouldn’t hire him, wouldn’t take him in. So I know all about it, and there’s a part of me that says, “Wait, whoa. I’m not ready to fully identify with America yet.”
Even so, wokeness is not the answer. Wokeness promotes an embrace of racial essentialism, collective guilt and segregation — the very demons that were exorcised by the civil rights movement. Worst of all, the woke movement would see these evils sanctioned by the state.
To be clear, wokeness invokes the popular acclaim of Martin Luther King Jr’s dream, even as it promotes the very opposite of that dream. King’s lofty goal was to make qualities like race incidental — not essential — to the Western mindset. Wokeness, by contrast, makes race central to the discussion. Unchallenged, wokeness will prove disastrous for America.
Racism and the ongoing social challenges it presents won’t disappear on their own. So what is an alternative solution to wokeness? Simply, we must maintain the course set out by King and the civil rights movement. Slow, stubborn progress is not as sexy as revolution, but it is far more just, and much less messy.
New Discourses has provided a principled statement of opposition to wokeness and its darker cousin, critical race theory. It is a good starting point.
We affirm that racism remains a problem in society and needs to be addressed.
We deny that critical race theory and intersectionality provide the most useful tools to do so, since we believe that racial issues are best solved through the most rigorous analyses possible.
We contend that racism is defined as prejudiced attitudes and discriminatory behavior against individuals or groups on the grounds of race and can be successfully addressed as such.
We deny that racism is hard-baked into society via discourses, that it is unavoidable and present in every interaction to be discovered and called out, and that this is part of a ubiquitous systemic problem that is everywhere, always, and all-pervasive.
We deny that the best way to deal with racism is by restoring social significance to racial categories and radically heightening their salience.
We contend that each individual can choose not to hold racist views and should be expected to do so, that racism is declining over time and becoming rarer, that we can and should see one another as humans first and members of certain races second, that issues of race are best dealt with by being honest about racialized experiences, while still working towards shared goals and a common vision, and that the principle of not discriminating by race should be universally upheld.
In short, the key for people who are still plagued by a guilty conscience is the realisation that together, Westerns of every ethnicity have already made breathtaking progress in putting racism behind us. The challenge now is to stay that course.