Discourse

Progressives always demand we 'do the work' on racism—so why does it never work?

We are doing the work. We are doing it nearly constantly. Whether we are children or adults, at school or in the workplace, we are thinking about race.
Libby Emmons
Libby Emmons Brooklyn, NY

A big part of the critical race theory undertaking, the 1619 Project, diversity, equity and inclusion programs, the movement (lowercase) of black lives matter, and increasing diverse representation in culture is to make sure people talk about race, acknowledge it, and try, as a whole society, to do the work to overcome racism.

As so much of our discourse moved online to live video calls during 2020 it's become apparent that we are doing the work. We are doing it nearly constantly. Whether we are children or adults, at school or in the workplace, we are thinking about race. We are thinking about our relationships to race, thinking further about the relationship of our race to the race of others, and even more we have been thinking about how we think about our relationship to race and our race's relationship to race.

Documents revealed that at Disney, Lockheed Martin, Sandia Labs, Coca-Cola, and in state and federal agencies across the country, employers have been endeavoring to make sure their employees really get down and think about this stuff. Bosses of all stripes have been signing on with third party contractors, hiring diversity, equity and inclusion specialists, and really digging in to making sure they have an antiracist workforce and workplace.

In schools, from universities where critical theory is used to deconstruct history, art, literature, and science, on down to literally kindergarten where white kids are taught about their status as oppressors and black kids learn about their status as being oppressed, the work is being done.

These ideas of critical race theory, and of unpacking the invisible knapsack of privilege, have been rising from academia and fringe ideology since the late 1980s, and now they are fully with us, entrenched, baked-in to pedagogy and intellectual dialogue. The ideas have been studied, taught, published, filmed, and talked about at incredible length, consistently, for decades. There is no conversation about culture, politics, policy, education, or media that can be had without a discussion of race, racism, our relationship to those things, and our race's relationship to those things.

We have been doing the work. Yet we keep hearing that things are getting worse, that the US is horribly, systemically racist. The president says it, the vice president says it, Democrat congressional and state leaders say it. They all write new legislation to make sure we keep doing the work, as a whole society. Entertainers, journalists, and pundits all say it, too. They tell us in tv shows, interviews, and films that racism is just an unbearable and persistent scourge on this nation that is picking up steam and not getting any better.

We're also told that we can't use any of the obvious indicators of progress as an indicator of progress because it would be racist to do so. Black success is not deemed evidence of any kind of progress, not even when that success is in achieving the White House.

Given these factors, how are we going to know when we have achieved our goal? And do we know what that goal looks like? If we do not have a location in mind, we will not know when we have arrived. Moreover, if we don't have a vision of what success looks like, then we don't know if we will like where this work lands us.

We have undertaken a journey with the idea of a goal in mind, but we have not identified that goal. There is the idea of the third rising, which is an understanding of the progress toward a society that is not racist. The idea, according to John McWhorter, is that this would be a "three-part timeline, with movements against slavery and segregation, and then—vaguely—the post-civil-rights era." In historical terms, this would be the abolition of slavery, the civil rights movement, and the third phase "will focus to a new degree on how people think."

The abolition of slavery and the Civil Rights movement had clear goals, first the unshackling of black Americans from enslavement, and second to attain equal rights under the law. Both of these have been achieved. But what does society look like when everyone thinks in these new ways? How will their actions be impacted by these new thoughts, and how will those actions shape society and our interpersonal relationships?

We have been doing the work. Our society now is what decades of doing that work looks like. We are still doing the work, and as we know from countless Zoom calls of teachers, students, and academics who talk about the importance of the work, whether the work they're doing in their own lives or at large, it is never ending. If it's never ending for individuals, does that mean it's never ending for the nation at large?

And before we answer that question, we need to be clear on that fact that if there is no end to the work, then there will be no end to the incredible division in our culture. The more critical race theory and tenets of diversity, equity, and inclusion push into every facet of our culture, the more it seems that progress is not what the progressives want.

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