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Identity politics—to include the current antiracist politics of Black Lives Matter (BLM)—depends almost entirely upon the subject demonstrating empathy with a situation or political fact even though empathy has nothing to do with political understanding. As BLM protests demand that the everyone come to a political consensus (e.g., to agree that certain acts are uniquely racist) it is only through the confession of racism, be it individual or corporate, that commits to the political act of empathy.
This sort of coerced empathy is a false understanding based upon narcissism whereby we are told that if we could only sympathize with these subjects then political understanding would be forged and this byproduct of our attempting to feel with the other would resolve global injustices. Such demands for empathy require an artificial conjuring up of an emotion for an equally constructed meta-narrative: racism.
Now some of you reading this might be getting your email ready to rip out a quick shouty email my way: "How dare you say that racism is not real?" "How on earth can you erase the experiences of a dead, innocent man?" and so forth. I am hardly suggesting that racism is not a "thing" or that racist acts are no longer perpetuated. I am stating that racial disparity within criminal justice cannot be the sole metric for discussing the deaths of people today.
It is simply not enough that movements like BLM create a new political class based entirely upon confronting black rage with white guilt to combat what are primarily socio-economic issues as many studies have already demonstrated. Moreover, couching political action within the framework of the spectacle of white confession and empathy and identity politics will get us nowhere in addressing the larger structural issues for which the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor are the end result.
Recent left social and political analyses have foregone historical materialism for a political interpretation that relies upon a tacit form of emotional blackmail to produce consensus surrounding identity politics. Where social science and statistics used to be the bedrock of leftist critiques of material inequality, today the political mantle of the left is to assume a pure and noble position largely due to an emotional engagement with the subject. This emotional engagement is spun as empathy.
Still, empathy cannot be dependent upon an ideological command or process, nor can it form part of a larger social experience of authenticity. Empathy as the left constructs it today is very much about an affirmative essentializing of a group which suffers inequality resulting from contingent, yet complex, historical factors. It is judged and quantified based on the set of "intersectional" criteria which reduces nuanced understandings of gender, sexuality, and race as categories of human experience, to marking tick-boxes that prove one to be a "good person." It is no small irony that the left has all but abandoned class in discussions surrounding George Floyd, instead steering a narrative of the virtuous subject who either exists as a racial trope or as the confessor of history’s sins as she asks for forgiveness.
Where I have witnessed deep sadness about Floyd’s death from across the political spectrum, there is a huge divide in understanding why precisely Floyd was killed and how law enforcement should remediate its protocols and actions. Without being able to look starkly at the reasons behind Floyd’s death at the hands of four police officers, we cannot properly address how to avoid such tragic situations in future. The narrative within the protests on the streets across the US and many countries around the world is that Floyd was killed due to structural racism or "anti-blackness" depending on where you receive your media messages. There is little vacillation from this narrative within centrist popular and alternative left-wing media and the notion that Floyd’s death was uniquely due to racism has come in the form of a mandate to empathize with black Americans.
The center and left-of-center media instruct us to feel something about Floyd’s killing in the way that these media outlets precisely outline least we too be called out as "racist" or "lacking empathy." Such mandates to empathize, however, pose a problem for leftists like myself who see these protests as symptomatic of the left’s inability to cogently address class and economic inequality while enacting another hue of what I term "woke racism" currently emanating from these same circles.
Where there is a refusal to analyze the material reality of the people being killed at the hands of the police, the analytical scope of how we might view Floyd’s murder beyond that of a purely racial framework is lost. Indeed, the larger analytical frameworks that might serve us best would necessarily necessitate a wider lens that examines related fields of disempowerment. For instance, it is no secret that the justice system is failing the poor or that legal aid in countries like the UK means that the poor receive inadequate legal representation, forget about finding a pro bono attorney in most areas of the country.
Woke racism occurs when people of color offer alternative readings of these events and are deemed in denial of their ethnicity, even accused of racism should they challenge the liberal consensus-driven assumption that racism was the sole attributable cause of Floyd's murder. Even taking into account America’s long history of slavery, through to institutional racism, there are many academics and writers who are questioning this knee-jerk response to Floyd’s death.
Scholars Glenn Loury and John McWhorter offer alternative readings of the tragic circumstances surrounding Floyd’s death which merit not only our attention, but our involvement in the discussion. Loury points to the reinforcement of the "family of narratives" of murdered black men like Trayvon Martin and Aumaud Aubrey for whom the current cultural establishment will not allow their full stories to be told because they are forever locked together and flattened by the simplified liberal narrative of racism that runs roughshod over their humanity and the unique circumstances of their deaths.
McWhorter elaborates how the media frames the lives of black men where one would think that black men must be forever hyper-conscious of race. Or, as he puts it: "jogging while being black." Both men push back on the narrative offered by the mainstream left and groups like Black Lives Matter which suggest that black men go about their lives in fear of doing everything. McWhorter responds, "That frankly isn’t true...That is not what it is like to be a black person."
Adolph Reed Jr., Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, has also come under fire in recent years for his critique of neoliberalism within the left. In his 2016 essay, "How Racial Disparity Does Not Help Make Sense of Patterns of Police Violence," Reed elaborates the dangers of a critical social discourse entirely rooted in anti-racism stating, "[A]ntiracism is not a different sort of egalitarian alternative to a class politics but is a class politics itself: the politics of a strain of the professional-managerial class whose worldview and material interests are rooted within a political economy of race and ascriptive identity-group relations." These politics represent a "left wing of neoliberalism in that its sole metric of social justice is opposition to disparity in the distribution of goods and bads in the society, an ideal that naturalizes the outcomes of capitalist market forces."
Reed notes the disparity of black deaths at the hands of the police relying primarily upon data furnished by The Washington Post. Urging those on the left to shift their focus away from race as singular cause, Reed writes: "[T]he glaring fact is that whites are roughly half or nearly half of all those killed annually by police. And the demand that we focus on the racial disparity is simultaneously a demand that we disattend from other possibly causal disparities."
He further analyzes the data from Alaska, New Mexico, Arizona, South Dakota and Wyoming, noting that the disproportion of those killed by police were Latinos, Native Americans, and poor whites, adding: "What the pattern in those states with high rates of police killings suggests is … that it is the product of an approach to policing that emerges from an imperative to contain and suppress the pockets of economically marginal and sub-employed working class populations produced by revanchist capitalism."
Underscoring the need for the left to abandon reductive anti-racism as a platform, Reed vituperates the hackneyed, leftist tropes that focus on "broken windows" and "zero tolerance" theories, excoriating those who insist that "blacks are victimized worst of all and who give ritual obeisance to the liturgy of empty slogans." Reed firmly situates the problem of neoliberal antiracism in the demand "that we not pay attention to the deeper roots of the pattern of police violence in enforcement of the neoliberal regime of sharply regressive upward redistribution and its social entailments."
In rereading Reed’s essay while collecting my thoughts, I realized that there are many conflicting ways of how to handle the senseless killing of black men like Floyd, and while watching traditional and social media reporting, it became apparent that much of the left is reverting to a quasi-religious solution to the current predicament, privileging narratives of fault and redemption: just confess to your privilege as a white person, admit that "all white people are racist" and half of the problem is solved, right?
However, such public confessions only serve to beef up the speaking subject’s credibility as a "true leftist," rather than mitigate racist oppression or answer to the individual death of a person. In the end, the deaths of unarmed individuals at the hands of the police are either ignored entirely or highlighted and ideologically framed within the theatre of individual confession and moralistic framing. To boot, many critics of race essentialism have themselves become targeted as "class essentialists" to include Reed. Now it would seem the problems we are facing are both structural injustices and the smearing of individuals who criticize race essentialism.
Where class critique was once the primary domain of the left, we are currently witnessing the rise of the woke, neoliberal left for whom what matters is the elimination of all discussions of political economy and material reality. So many political struggles evoked within the left today are reduced to identity as the overriding rationale for all political matters pushing class analyses into the recesses.
Alongside Reed, there are others on the left who push back on the current embrace of neoliberalism and identity politics. I submit that racism has made a comeback within the left as many currently advocate for a notion of race as biologistic classification, couched under the banner of anti-racism. Just as gender identity has rehabilitated sexist stereotypes, so too has racial essentialism been embraced by many on the left, with free speech dragged into the silencing of open debate.
On the one hand you have the woke left attempting to give political power to the state to rubber stamp what we say and think and on the other, the left is promoting ideals of racism that Enlightenment philosophers long ago dismantled. Even British comedian, Andrew Doyle, has recently pointed out that promoting certain ideals of racial essentialism within the left has resulted in a type of "soft racism" which promotes very patronizing views of people of color.
Because of this rebirth of racialism within the left, a fetishizing of the non-white subject has emerged whereby the death of a white man in police custody yields silence, but the death of a black man under similar circumstances sparks outcries of structural bigotry. As protests and riots have persisted throughout the country, the message of violence has taken on a strangely unidirectional function as one type of violence (that of the police) is deemed immoral, but the violence of others (that of the protestors) is a public good. The lesson that the woke left is spreading is this: it’s not what you do, it’s who you do it to. It’s no irony that now black scholars like Reed, McWhorter and many others are speaking to the need to move away from race essentialism and towards a class-based analysis of structural oppression.