Review: Say No to Racism: Tips and Advice on How to be Anti-Racist by Rasha Barrage1
By Duncan Whitmore
Note: Unless specified otherwise, numbers in parentheses refer to page numbers of the reviewed text.
Libertarians are likely to groan at the title of this short book by Rasha Barrage. Surely, we can surmise, this will just be the product of another race baiting shill reminding us of the uniquely evil and oppressive nature of predominantly white, Western civilisation? However, Say No to Racism (SNR) should not be dismissed quite so lightly; for although this reviewer cannot agree with the conceptual framework with which Barrage approaches questions of racism, her intellectual integrity together with her general approach towards achieving the resolution of a social problem is something from which all of those who seek social and political change (including libertarians) could learn a thing or two.
For one thing, the author is sincere in her attempt to achieve reconciliation resulting in peaceful co-existence and social harmony. In contrast to those whose aim is to exploit, rather than to resolve, alleged racial injustice, Barrage is not interested in stirring up hatred and antagonism, nor is there any hidden, cultural leftist agenda.
Bolstering this is the fact that the book puts some of its own advice (72, 102) into practice directly through Barrage’s exclusion of both herself and her own experiences from her message, nor does she make any attempt to establish her own credentials as an activist. This is not unimportant because ‘fashionable’ social justice causes today seem to be something of a lucrative cottage industry in which thinkers can be paid multi-thousand dollar speaking fees, elevated to professorial fellowships at Cambridge, or attract the ear of large corporations – a far cry from a life of persecution, ostracism, isolation, bouts of imprisonment, or (at worst) assassination endured by, say, Martin Luther King Jr or Nelson Mandela. Not only does this circumstance undermine directly the narrative of under-privilege and injustice, but there is an obvious conflict of interest if continuing activism is needed to sustain one’s livelihood or status. By avoiding this, one can be confident that Barrage’s thoughts are firmly centred on ideas which she has considered rationally and, thus, deserve to be taken at their word. Moreover, although, as the title suggests, the book is a brief ‘digest’ intended for a lay audience rather than an academic shelf-bender, the author is clearly well informed on the theories that she summarises, and so I trust it is not out of place to scrutinise them at this higher level.
The author’s integrity is crystallised by her characterisation of racism as an objectively defined moral problem and, as such, one that can be resolved by changes in behaviour (19) – both in the form of “individual instances” as well as “policies, customs and procedures” (63), in addition to the prospective activist’s own attitudes (66-71). Barrage explicitly rejects the notion than anyone can be “born racist” (21) or that anyone should feel “shame or guilt” for being white (43) – a far cry from the likes of activist Munroe Bergdorf, who has characterised Britain as “deeply” and “irredeemably” racist. Thus, while SNR is aimed exclusively at pre-dominantly white, Western countries, and while “white supremacy” is cited as an empirical cause of racism in these societies (24), Barrage doesn’t fall into the trap of contradicting her own definition of racism (19) with the suggestion that it is something which in principle can only afflict (or is inherent to) white people.
Moreover, while Barrage seeks to categorise behaviour as racist primarily according to its consequences (20), stifling phrases such as “speak your truth” and “lived experience” – demarcating racism as a subjectively appreciable, one-sided concept – appear nowhere in the text. Instead, dialogue and discussion are encouraged, and the author laments the fact that so-called “cancel culture” has served only to counteract this (55). Indeed, it’s unfortunate that Barrage’s (perfectly sensible) willingness to forgive mistakes and faux pas as mere stumbles along the road of self-improvement (72, 89) will, no doubt, be nullified by the digital lynch mob, which – as cricketer Ollie Robinson, guitarist Winston Marshall and artist Jess de Wahls all found out just this past month – sees only judgment and never salvation.
Barrage is also wise to avoid an excessive focus on the past that tends to stifle the resolution of conflicts stretching back decades or even centuries – and, as Barrage tells us, racism is a very old problem (7). Wallowing in the injustices of yesteryear, or seeking recompense and retribution from people alive today for the sins of their ancestors has the ability to consume the activist in a downward spiral of ire and indignation. Not so for Barrage: not only is such attribution of guilt specifically ruled out (43), but the activist half of the book – the “tips and advice” alluded to in the title (61+) – looks optimistically to what can be done now to bring about a better future without any bitterness or recrimination as to how we actually got to where we are today.
In congruence with all of this, mercifully little within SNR advocates offloading the resolution of problems onto the state, nor is there any expectation that new laws and legislation will take care of the issues Barrage identifies. Instead, this book is about what we, the little people on the ground, see and can do within the sphere of our own lives: what happens in the community, in the workplace, in the shops, or what we see on TV or read in the newspaper. This is a refreshing change from activists who define all issues in terms of grand abstraction rather than every day reality, resulting in the wholly incorrect view that substantial change can only ever come from the ‘top-down’ under the aegis of the strong, but blunt arm of the state. If more activists followed Barrage’s attitude of seeking to make changes to what they know in a sphere that they can understand then we would probably avoid most of the disastrous and unintended consequences that nearly always come with broad and sweeping edicts delivered by the government.
A Self-Defeating Framework
With these positive aspects noted, the main problem with SNR is that the author’s aim of resolving racism by changes in behaviour is difficult to reconcile with her acceptance of a conceptual framework that is clearly influenced by Critical Race Theory (CRT). As such, much of what follows will not be a criticism of CRT per se but an explanation of how it is likely to derail, rather than help, Barrage’s project from her own point of view. We will conclude with a suggested, alternative framework which may have more success if it is integrated into Barrage’s ‘bottom-up’ approach.2
The first issue is a general one that may weaken Barrage’s approach on its own terms. This is how the framework that Barrage adopts (22-23) speaks in those kinds of grand abstraction to which we just alluded, a circumstance which risks changing the nature of the problem.
If racism is to be resolved by changes to individual behaviour then either the problem or, at least, a possible solution must be subject to individual conscious choice and action, i.e. that person’s agency.3 Yet the distinctive aspect of CRT is that it reduces the role of individual agency in defining racism and racist outcomes, categorising it instead as a systemic and institutional issue that awards an innate “privilege” to certain members of society.
True enough, of course, any institutional practice is ultimately the product of individual action. Austro-libertarians in particular have always emphasised that what happens in society is not just ‘there’, and that institutions do not acquire any disembodied agency separate from that of the individuals who run them, regardless of their accreted power or the fact that we unwittingly inherited their structure and ethos from prior generations. Barrage seems to be well aware of this, as her focus in adopting her framework is to explain how existing societal structures perpetuate racism in individuals (21, 23), and that it is up to individuals to change that circumstance.
Unfortunately, we cannot rely on most intellectuals, let alone the general public, to adhere to this kind of methodological individualism; instead, collectives such as ‘society’ are often seen as having some kind of end or purpose of their own independent from that of the people of whom they are comprised. But even if this was not the case, the general problem remains: the farther a given phenomenon is removed from individual choice and volition then the less it becomes a moral problem to be resolved by discussion, debate and individual action, and the more it becomes a technical problem to be resolved by unilateral imposition. When it rains, for instance, we cannot ‘reason’ with the rain to choose to stop, nor can we argue over whether the rain is making the ‘correct’ choice in falling from the sky; instead, we have to deploy technical solutions such as raincoats and umbrellas. Similarly, it is nonsensical to debate whether the fox behaved ‘ethically’ by invading the chicken coop; rather, we need to take the problem as a given before deploying fences, traps and other deterrents.
When it comes to resolving societal issues such as racism, if the role of individual choice and action is similarly ruled out (or at least diluted) then recruiting the strong arm of the state in order to enforce a solution becomes the more attractive (and possibly the only) realistic proposition. Indeed, this is probably why CRT (and identity politics generally) is so appealing to the authoritarian left: for if we look upon white people not as individual, moral agents but, instead, as more akin to a dangerous animal, then it provides the pretext for imposing a new societal order upon them from the top down. It is beyond the scope of this review to determine whether all enthusiasts of CRT genuinely wish to resolve problems such as racism or whether it is merely a means to achieving a nefarious end; we should note, though, that there is little reason for assuming that many of them have intentions as honourable as those of Barrage.
In sum, the author would be better served by adopting a more strident, methodologically individualist approach that categorically and undeniably rules out any kind of gulf between individual agency and collective structures.
That aside, we can move onto examining Barrage’s framework itself.
Expansive Definition of Racism
The main problem from which all others stem is the expansive role of racism in shaping social relations: in Barrage’s words, that “racism pervades all aspects of society” (60, emphasis in the original). At this stage, we will not dispute this statement directly; rather, we will focus on the more procedural problem of race becoming a disproportionately dominant factor in identifying and tackling social problems. Not only will this undue dominance fail to resolve those problems, but it will end up exacerbating interracial strife.
In the first place, if racism is to be resolved by changes in behaviour then it must be possible to reach agreement upon when and where it is evident. True enough, Barrage is, as we noted, unequivocal in defining racism as a concept (19). But the farther the attribution of racism moves away from overt and consciously intended acts, the more its scope is expanded (22-23, 30-31, 46-49) to encompass a greater number of everyday situations and typical behaviour between a greater number people, and the more that the difference between racist and non-racist behaviour becomes subject to subtle nuances or wide variances of interpretation, then the more difficult it is to actually agree upon a definition of the problem to be solved. This is likely to be exacerbated if racism is determined solely by the “impact” upon other people’s feelings and their “awareness” of their “inferior” status (20), matters which are subjective and so not easily delineated by clear boundaries.
In regards to this difficulty, Barrage mentions the phenomenon of so-called “white fragility” (56-57), a phrase coined in an eponymous book by Robin DiAngelo4 to denote the apparent discomfort and defensiveness displayed by white people when matters of racism are raised for discussion. To the extent that this is true, Barrage (in line with DiAngelo) attributes it to whites never having to consider their race as a limiting factor in their own lives, and to their confinement of racism to “isolated acts of intentional hatred”, with the result that any upset to this ‘cosy’ state of affairs becomes too stressful or discomforting.
A tell tale sign of a bad theory is the attempt to categorise dissent (or the terms of discussion themselves) as evidence of the problem so that both agreement and disagreement will, conveniently, prove the theory correct. As such, simpler, alternative explanations that would demolish the theory are precluded – often torturously so given that observable reality has to be crushed into conformance with a pre-conceived idea.5
Of course, the simplest, alternative explanation of white people’s defensiveness is that they are not racist. But if, for argument’s sake, we overlook this possibility, the next likely alternative is that a liberal application of the term “racism” makes little accommodation for obvious qualitative differences: between, say, a torch-bearing member of the KKK and the “micro-aggression” of an ignorant, but otherwise well-meaning elderly lady who has asked a British-born black man to tell her about his culture (30).6 In contrast to the notion of “white fragility”, active and explicit racists such as the Nazis – who systematically executed one of the most horrendous programmes of racially motivated extermination in the whole of human history – celebrated with pride their claim to racial supremacy. So we shouldn’t be surprised if those devoid of such a conviction, and who would recoil in horror from some of humanity’s darkest deeds, react defensively to what they understandably regard as an excessive indictment.
A further result of an expansive application of “racism” may be the irony of self-defeat: that, while anti-racism is supposed to be about challenging assumptions and rejecting stereotypes, people will start to stereotype white people as racist and non-white people as victims of racism, even though that may not be the view of individual people themselves.7 In fact, this is the very essence of identity politics and intersectionality (38): that people are viewed not as individuals but are, instead, pigeon-holed into a spaghetti-like Venn diagram according to basic characteristics, depicting a nihilistic, zero sum society of privilege and oppression.
Other complex problems which do not concern racism directly but happen to involve a racial element can become increasingly categorised as racial matters to the exclusion of other factors. Thus, not only are racial and ethnic identities emphasised to the detriment of other identities and commonalities, but hostility and a lack of understanding is seeded between different groups as they fail to acknowledge other relevant issues.
The Brexit debate, for instance, concerned sovereignty, self-governance, democracy and economic prosperity in addition to the questions of immigration, national culture and the gulf between metropolitan liberalism and provincial conservatism. Yet it was mired by the kind of attitude displayed by then Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable who characterised the vote to Leave as “driven by a nostalgia for a world where passports were blue, faces were white, and the map was coloured imperial pink”. Given than one in three ethnic minority voters was also a Leaver, not only was this an egregious case of stereotyping but the failure to understand where the battle lines were drawn is one reason why committed Remainers failed to persuade voters that they had made a mistake.
Not too dissimilarly, Barrage herself takes it for granted that the toppling of statues of, say, historical figures with ties to slavery or the Confederacy (32, 110) is an unqualified step forward while failing to note that this is a seriously controversial issue that is usually symptomatic of serious political, social and cultural upheaval. Even if we were to assume that such iconoclasm helps to tackle racism today (itself hardly a self-evident proposition), a failure to appreciate that anti-racism is not the sole priority that people may have in determining the value of historical monuments will do little to foster social co-operation. Similarly, singular focus upon race as a deciding factor in societal outcomes has been attributed to causing decades-long neglect of white working class children in education. There are other causes of injustice, disadvantage and discontent, and so it isn’t helpful to talk of “white privilege” if poor whites do not regard their lives as a whole as having been particularly privileged.
A further problem of this kind of single-issue bias is that it can strain or even destroy private or specific interracial relationships, with the kinds of diversity and inclusiveness that Barrage seeks draining away in a spiral of suspicion and paranoia. Employers, for instance, might conclude that it would be less hassle to simply avoid hiring employees of a different racial or ethnic background if they assume that their new recruits are likely to demand a racial dissection of workplace policies, practices and culture. Unfortunately, we have seen how this heightened sensitivity to possible racial tensions leads to catastrophic consequences. In the US, one effect of the constant demonisation of the police as racist is that it discourages them from policing predominantly black neighbourhoods, with the result that crime in those areas increases. Just this past month, we learnt that a security guard shied away from confronting the Manchester Arena bomber for fear of being accused of racism, a failure that may well have cost twenty-two people their lives. Similar fears contributed to the multi-decade UK grooming gang scandal. In short, the consequences of mono-mania can be grave indeed.
A corollary of this is that the relevant cause of socio-economic problems faced by certain groups is simply assumed to be discrimination on grounds of race rather than other factors – a tendency which will impact mostly upon racial and ethnic minorities if they succumb to the misapprehension that all of their worldly problems are the result of oppression.
A persistent shortcoming of those who point out such problems is the failure to realise that citing apparent, statistical anomalies – that there are, say, fewer women than men in such-and-such an occupation, or a higher rate of blacks than whites is afflicted by this-or-that problem – does not, in and of itself, establish the cause as discrimination.8
For one thing, statistics can easily be selected to either eliminate or downplay the role of discrimination, particularly when they are de-homogenised. For instance, according to the UK government, the percentage of households earning more than £1,000 per week is greater among Indians, Chinese and other Asians than it is among British whites. So if racial discrimination accounts for the fact that other groups such as blacks do, indeed, earn less than British whites, why is it so selective? In the US, newly immigrant blacks earn a median income up to thirty percent higher than natural-born blacks, suggesting that a cause other than “institutional racism” afflicts the latter. Barrage informs us that “[p]eople from non-white racial groups are disproportionately victims of hate crimes” including “physical violence and property damage” (27). But when it comes to interracial, violent crime as a whole, other statistics can be cited that tell us that blacks (in the US) perpetrate more rapes, robberies and assaults upon whites than vice versa. Less dramatically, Barrage tells us that that blacks and Muslims are often depicted as criminals by the media (35) without noting that other groups such as businessmen tend to fare just as badly.
More pertinently, one can also detect the same kinds of apparent statistical discrepancy when you examine criteria other than race. US incarceration rates (12-13), for instance, do indeed show that the black proportion of the prison population is higher than that of the general population; but they will also show that males are locked up more than females, and that inmates fall disproportionately between the ages of twenty-six and fifty years old. So does this mean that the criminal justice system, in addition to being institutionally racist, is also institutionally anti-male and anti-middle aged?
Such anomalies are not limited to law and order. In fact, I would challenge the reader to find any area of life – any job, any pastime, any rate of inclusion or exclusion, anything anywhere – in which the distribution of the demographics matches exactly that in the general population. Statistics may raise questions, but a deeper understanding is required to obtain answers.
Alternative Explanations to Racism
Having said all of this, the main problem with an expansive definition of racism is not merely that it is counterproductive as a strategy but that it is simply wrongheaded. It is not difficult to find alternative, more likely explanations for the kinds of everyday and institutional behaviour that Barrage identifies, and a failure to consider these will mean that perceived problems are wrongly diagnosed.
Here, we will mention only that so much of what constitutes “institutional racism” and “white privilege” owes itself not to the advantage of being white per se but to the fact that whites, in Britain and the US, are a majority. The ubiquity and familiarity fostered by the power of numbers alone will always allow a majority to exert a greater influence on the economic and cultural life of a nation, in addition to what is considered “normal” or “typical” (41). Thus, it is hardly surprising that the majority – their depiction, their concerns, their tastes, their habits, and their needs – will dominate, say, in education (33), in books (34), on TV (35) and in toy manufacturing (48). As for most white people having only (or mostly) white friends (56), might this not have something to do with the fact that, on average, almost nine out of every ten people whom they will meet in the UK will be white?
Once we understand this, then we can realise that whites would encounter exactly the same circumstances in countries in which they are a minority. If, for instance, I, a white man, was to emigrate to China and switch on Chinese television, I’m sure my white face would be very swiftly “marginalised” by a plethora of Chinese faces on every channel. Doubtless the libraries will also be full of books covering Chinese history, culture and cuisine, and every Chinese person I meet will have mostly Chinese friends.
But ‘majority privilege’ is also not a uniquely racial phenomenon, and will be faced by other kinds of minority too. When it comes to hobbies and pastimes, football seems to be better catered for on TV than, say, model railway enthusiasm. I also struggle to recall the last time I flicked through the channels and, by chance, saw an amputee or a user of prosthetics, even though (in the US) 2.1 million people are afflicted by the loss of a limb.
Another advantage of being a member of a majority is that it can achieve economies of scale that minorities cannot. So, for instance, the fact that sticking plasters/band aids tend to match lighter skin tones (41) is because, commercially, it is possible to expand production and market a larger range of products when the target audience is greater in number.9 Once again, the same is true also for other minorities. Sufferers of celiac disease, for instance, will find that the ‘gluten free’ bread selection in the supermarket is vanishingly small next to the long rows and infinite varieties of regular bread.
This doesn’t mean to say that greater attention should not be given to the needs of minorities. For instance, workplace policies or procedures which do not take into account specific needs of minorities (such as differences in hair texture (53)) could, of course, be updated to accommodate such needs. But the existence of such oversights in the first place should not be ascribed to discrimination as such, and ultimately, the only long term solution is for minorities to increase their numbers relative to the present majority so that they can exert the same kinds of societal and cultural influence as the latter.10
This raises the question of whether activist attempts to counter what we might call ‘majority privilege’ are the right approach.11 For the same phenomenon explains also unconscious or “implicit biases” (46) and “micro-aggressions” (29-30), and, once again, such transgressions are not restricted to racial or ethnic minorities. An Etonian on a council estate or a corporate executive visiting the factory floor would probably encounter the same kinds of implicit, explicit, consciously and unconsciously expressed prejudicial attitudes (and vice versa).
Would we be better off if people did not succumb to these tendencies? In an ideal world, may be so, but social policies have to take into account realities. For one thing, no amount of activism is going to resolve any unfamiliarity and lack of day-to-day proximity vis-à-vis particular minorities, factors that will always result in categorisations, assumptions and mental shortcuts which, as Barrage notes (47), do serve a purpose in making sense of the world when more detailed information is not readily available. But it should also be remembered that human beings are not perfectible robots, and the attempt to condition them as such often ends up making matters worse. A good dietician, for instance, will design a diet plan to accommodate the occasional pizza or slice of cake, with such treats acting as a safety valve that helps to maintain discipline for the rest of the time. In contrast, imposing an austere regime of relentless baked chicken and salad is more likely to make the dieter give up entirely. Similarly, if, in the name of fighting racism, efforts are to made to police every minor transgression, every casual utterance, every small gesture, and every joke or euphemism (52), then the result may end up being increased resentment and hostility, particularly if the ‘perpetrators’ are basically decent people. The perfect cannot become the enemy of the good. Certainly in Britain – which has been an ethnically diverse country only since the post-war waves of immigration – greater thought needs to given to whether these are problems best left to be resolved naturally as racial and ethnic minorities increase in number, and younger generations of all ethnicities become more socially and culturally integrated than their ancestors.
An unsurprising conclusion from all of this is that anyone who follows Barrage’s specific tips and advice on countering racism is likely to run the risk of overcompensating: that a saturation of “education” (65), bleeding heart “empathy” (73), constant “listening” (84), endless “self-awareness” (85), repeated “challenges” to perceptions of “bias” (90-91), or over-zealous attempts to open up “avenues” of inclusion for minorities (97-99) all end up patronising or belittling the intended beneficiaries as well as irritating everybody else. This is in spite of the fact that Barrage is at pains to emphasise judiciousness and humility in anti-racist efforts (101-102).
Such belittling again helps to reinforce rather then demolish racial stereotypes. Not only will it be evident in the notion that minorities always need to be helped or treated with kid gloves, but any heightened need to avoid perceived “micro-aggressions” or the possibility of causing offence means that legitimate criticism and the sharing of ideas is discouraged. Thus, even the most well-intentioned of efforts to improve the circumstances of racial minorities can inadvertently dilute the importance of other factors such as individual merit, ability and choice.
Moreover, anti-racist narratives influenced by CRT seem to merely assume that the identification of a specific incidence of racial injustice/disadvantage, or a particular allegation of a “micro-aggression” or “hate crime”, is either true or, at least, sincere. Barrage shows little awareness of the possibility that such allegations may be wrong, unreasonable or exploited so as to gain a privilege or accomplishment that would be otherwise denied – an omission compounded by the fact that any kind of dissent can be written off as either “white fragility” (56) or “whitesplaining” (84). Ironically, therefore, anti-racist efforts can fail to recognise that members of racial minorities are just the same as whites – intelligent, rational individuals capable of acting upon incentives for both good and bad.
Still, the worst effects may come from whites themselves. In spite of Barrage’s insistence that anti-racism should not be about the activist (72, 102), this may end up being the unfortunate consequence of any transition from “not racist” to “anti-racist”. Not only does the latter require more public and visible interventions compared to the privacy and introspection of the former (94), but the degree of soul searching required in order to re-orientate oneself towards Barrage’s approach to racism (39-79) may be difficult to achieve without inadvertently encouraging self-absorption. Moreover, in spite of Barrage’s insistence that anti-racist activists should expect no praise or reward (83), it is difficult to deny that we are living in a milieu in which anti-racist credentials are something of a badge of honour. Why else would celebrities, corporations and politicians – whose purported motives we would normally regard with cynicism – be so eager to post black squares on their social media accounts in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 (81), or to be photographed ‘taking the knee’?12 The readers who will buy SNR are likely to be those who are already convinced by Barrage’s basic world view and, as such, are keen to hit the ground running on what they perceive to be the road to salvation. Unfortunately, therefore, the book may serve less in delivering concrete benefits to racial and ethnic minorities, and more as a blueprint for white, liberal busybodies to virtue signal their ‘enlightenment’ to other whites.
A Way Forward
With these critical remarks having been said, can we conclude that Barrage’s project has run aground? I do not think so. As we noted at the beginning, her fundamental, ‘bottom-up’ approach towards resolving social problems is sound. However, the author does not seem to have appreciated the real implications of activism that is heavily reliant upon concepts lent to her by CRT, and so greater consideration of an alternative framework for confronting both racism and for diagnosing the causes of any socio-economic disadvantage experienced by racial and ethnic minorities needs to be given.13 The following will attempt to sketch this alternative.
A basic reason why anti-racist activism today is causing so much controversy is nothing to do with any “white supremacist” urge to preserve systems and institutions that establish white dominance (24); rather, it is because it starts from the presumption of failure. In fact, Barrage never takes the time to ask whether members of racial and ethnic minorities living in predominantly white countries view racism or racial disadvantage as their primary obstacle in life, or, for that matter, as an obstacle at all. The opposite seems to be the case. Polls show high levels of trust in police and faith in British democracy among black people in the UK, while 88% of Muslims feel “fairly or very strongly” that they are a part of British society, and are free to practise their religion. The Migration Observatory at Oxford University points out that the vast majority of immigrants to the UK find Britain to be hospitable and welcoming, and that they are able to improve their lives as a result of hard work. Moreover, lost in both the UK and US immigration debates is the question of why so many migrants are willing to risk their lives crossing the English Channel or the Rio Grande if all that awaits them is a life of racial oppression.
The answer to this is that the intellectual tools needed to challenge racism are themselves primarily a product of Christian ethics and Western moral philosophy – principles such as “all men are created equal”, words etched onto the Declaration of Independence and repeated by Martin Luther King Jr. In contrast, racism and related evils such as slavery and colonisation have all been abundant both within, and between, different peoples for the whole of human history. Whites were not responsible for inventing these phenomena: neither Genghis Khan nor Attila the Hun was white; the Caliphates, the Ottoman and Persian Empires, the Arab or Barbary slave trades and the Devshirme, none of these was perpetrated by whites, and whites were quite often the victims. However, as Barrage unwittingly notes herself, whites were responsible for identifying and articulating these concepts, and thus providing a basis for understanding them as social phenomena (18-19). Indeed, the fact that, according to Barrage, seventeenth century whites thought that racism, enslavement and colonisation actually needed to be justified was itself a step forward. However, the conclusions in favour of these practices drawn at the time can easily be misinterpreted as launching new practices that had really already existed; whites did not invent them any more than Sir Isaac Newton invented gravity.
To the extent that the predominantly white West perpetrated these evils more prolifically than anywhere else owes itself to three factors: a) that principles challenging them began to gain traction only in the eighteenth century and, like all truths, take decades to be realised to their fullest extent; b) that the West (Britain especially) created the military and economic wherewithal to make a larger impact across the planet than any prior civilisation; and c) these principles were subsequently departed from and replaced by bad ideologies (e.g. Marxism, Nazism). In principle, however, none of this is exclusive to whites; had the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution occurred in China it would have done so only by utilising the same economic, scientific and philosophical discoveries that were made in the West; and had China colonised Western Europe, we would today be talking of “Sino-supremacy” rather than “white supremacy” (and we may so do in the near future as the world’s centre of gravity shifts from west to east).
Contrary to what one would believe from listening to leftist shills, it is actually consistent to say, on the one hand, that the West has a racist past, yet also, on the other, to point out that it has provided us with the ethical framework needed to rid the world of racism, and, indeed, has done more to implement that framework than most other societies. It is for this reason that Western nations are amongst the most open and tolerant in the world, and why atrocities such as slavery were outlawed in Britain nearly two centuries while it still thrives in sub-Saharan Africa and in countries such as China, India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.14 And it is for this reason that attacking these ethical and intellectual frameworks as “colonial” or as examples of “white supremacy” merely on account of what whites did in the past is why anti-racist efforts based upon CRT will fail.
If, therefore, one wishes to either continue the anti-racist fight and/or to understand socio-economic disadvantages faced by racial minorities, then one must begin from the presumption of relative success: that, regardless of whatever difficulties may still be faced, any member of a racial, ethnic, religious or sexual minority (and a woman, for that matter) is likely to be legally, economically and socially better off in Western Europe and North America than in much of, say, Africa and the Middle East. Indeed, simply being born in a country such as the UK or the US is itself enough to win the global economic lottery. Thus, it is incumbent upon any anti-racist to understand how Western values – enlightenment thinking, classical liberalism, strong private property rights, equality before the law, etc. – have accomplished this. Upon doing this, one is likely to find that it is the undermining of these values – of which, I would add, CRT is a culprit – which is exasperating both interracial strife and the socio-economic conditions of at least some racial minorities today.
Much of this is explained in the work of economists such as Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams, who suggest that blacks (in the US) suffer disproportionately from a causal chain of factors that starts with excess dependency upon state welfare; this, in turn, leads to single-parent families, a failure to complete high school and a heightened capacity to engage in criminal activity. Moreover, all of these tendencies have worsened since the civil rights era, beginning, coincidentally, at a time when the American welfare state geared up in earnest with the ‘Great Society’ and the ‘War on Poverty’. Absent fatherhood, in particular, leads to a plethora of economic and social disadvantages. According to Williams, resolving these factors alone would all but eliminate the economic gulf between blacks and whites in the US.15
Even if Barrage is not prepared to wholly reconsider her intellectual framework, those who seriously care about racism and the welfare of racial minorities should at least consult these alternative explanations. Indeed, if, as Barrage suggests, we are to categorise an act as racist primarily according to its impact (20), then the analyses of Williams and Sowell would suggest that the welfare state is the single most racist institution in the US today, and that government is the most institutionally racist organisation. And one might, further, be interested in exploring why it is that the state may be interested in fostering welfare dependency, and why leftists rarely seem keen to consider this matter.16
At the very least, scholars such as Williams and Sowell would give honest activists such Barrage the biggest institutional fish to fry, and some of her approach already lends itself to tackling the problems they identify, namely: encouraging non-white business and entrepreneurship (113-4), culture (113) and private charities (116) to thrive. I do not think it would take a great deal of effort to re-orientate her efforts onto such a path – one which libertarians could certainly tread with her.
Say No to Racism: Tips and Advice on How to be Anti-Racist is available from Amazon.
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1Summersdale Publishers Ltd., 2021.
2A minor, procedural note: when referring to people of different skin colour, Barrage adopts the recently fashionable practice of capitalising the “b” in “black” while leaving the “w” in “white” as lower case. My own preference, as convention dictates, is to capitalise when referring to national, religious, geographic, ethnic or cultural identities (e.g. Africans, Muslims, Native Americans) but to use lower case when describing primarily physical characteristics. My reason for the latter is not to correct an imbalance as such, but to avoid fostering the impression that these terms, and racism itself, pertain to homogenised groups. For instance, problems faced by blacks in the US (with its recent history of domestic slavery and segregation) cannot easily be translated into describing the situation of blacks in the UK.
3The reason we hold an individual morally responsible for the consequences of his actions is because the individual either knew, or could reasonably be expected to know, that those consequences would result from his choice. Where this isn’t possible – as in the case of very small children or when an action produces a freak and wholly unexpected outcome – then we cannot hold that individual responsible, regardless of the effect it has upon other people. Thus, if we are to treat racism as a distinctly moral issue then we cannot agree with Barrage that categorising an act as racist is mostly, or even primarily, determined by its “impact” (20).
4Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why it’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, Beacon Press (2018).
5The dialectical materialism of Karl Marx attempted the same trick with its theory of ‘class consciousness’.
6Barrage herself discusses challenges to “bias” and then to explicitly “verbal” and “violent” forms of racism within the confines of just three pages but without any clear transition or demarcation between these very different kinds of act (90-92).
8To be clear, I do not think Barrage herself is this intellectually lazy, and she does cite some comprehensive studies that attempt to control for factors other than race. The point we are making is that expansive definitions of racism – especially in a milieu in which identity politics has become more pronounced – are likely to lead to the casual assumption that any statistical anomaly must be on account of racial discrimination. This, in turn, leads to shortcut solutions such as quotas or affirmative action so as to ‘correct’ the numbers.
9Ever since Peggy McIntosh coined the phrase “white privilege” in 1988 this example has been cited repeatedly as an instance of the phenomenon, never matter how many times the explanation has been pointed out.
10However, it should be noted also that, in absolute terms, increased economic prosperity makes it easier for minority interests to be catered for.
11To be clear, we are referring here neither to the explicit persecution of minorities nor to the denial of equality before the law, matters which certainly should be confronted head on.
12Indeed, if we were living in a truly racist society wouldn’t there have been a strident effort to have all of this banned?
13I would add, however, that the book is a useful summary of concepts such as “institutional racism”, “white privilege”, “micro-aggressions” etc., and can be used as a reference to grasp how these terms are used.
14When the slave trade was made illegal throughout the British Empire in 1807, the Royal Navy’s West India Squadron would later seize approximately 1,600 slave ships and free 150,000 Africans.
15Unfortunately, “cancel culture” is preventing these arguments from seeing the light of day when they are raised by those with experience of helping disadvantaged people.
16Moreover, to the extent that Western-led globalisation and imperialism is exploiting or otherwise undermining the development of other countries, this is partly because the West is now exporting some very bad ideas that are also hollowing out the West itself from within, namely: Keynesian economic mismanagement, paper money, overly generous welfare states, and crony corporatism.