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The Wages of Whiteness | by Hari Kunzru – The New York Review of Books


Hari Kunzru

Black Panthers, Chicago, 1969
Hiroji Kubota/Magnum Photos
Black Panthers, Chicago, 1969

In 1981 members of a revolutionary group called the Black Liberation Army robbed a Brink’s armored van at the Nanuet Mall in Rockland County, just outside New York City. In the robbery and a subsequent shootout with police, a guard and two police officers were killed. Assisting this Black Nationalist “expropriation” operation were four white Communists, members of a faction of the Weather Underground called the May 19 Communist Organization. They acted as getaway drivers, and three of the four were unarmed, yet they were convicted of murder and sentenced to decades in prison.

One of these white participants, Kathy Boudin, told a skeptical Elizabeth Kolbert, who interviewed her in prison for a 2001 profile in The New Yorker, that she didn’t know anything about the target of the robbery, how it was planned, who was going to commit it, or the intended purpose of the money. She was approached only a day before it took place. This wasn’t mere ignorance, she explained, but a political act of faith. She told Kolbert:

My way of supporting the struggle is to say that I don’t have the right to know anything, that I don’t have the right to engage in political discussion, because it is not my struggle. I certainly don’t have the right to criticize anything. The less I would know and the more I would give up total self, the better—the more committed and the more moral I was.

Boudin had decided to “put myself at the service of a Third World group,” a category that in the thinking of the Weather Underground could be extended to include Black Americans. Her extreme passivity in the planning and execution of the Brink’s robbery was the outcome of a logic described in Prairie Fire, the Weather Underground’s most substantial theoretical statement, distributed in various semi-clandestine forms between 1970 and 1974:

The Black struggle for self-determination is the strategic leading force of the US revolution…. Black and Third World people’s right to determine the direction of their struggle is undeniable. Self-determination means the right of oppressed people to seize and organize their future and the future of their children…. Whatever decisions Black people and other oppressed peoples make in exercising this right to self-determination, white revolutionaries and anti-imperialists have a very clear-cut responsibility to support those decisions once they are arrived at. This does not mean to support only those choices one approves of.

Boudin’s surrender of agency in an action that cost three lives and led to her spending twenty-nine years in prison is an extreme interpretation of this “responsibility.” The political moment in which she acted seems distant, but her choice echoes now, as a younger generation of Americans tries to formulate a politics to address systemic racism. One idea inherited from 1960s radicalism is that of “white privilege,” a protean concept that has found its way into conversations about political power, material prosperity, social status, and even cognition. Invoking whiteness can stand in for older leftist ideas about class and power, or it can be a way of modifying those ideas. Whiteness can name a specifically American caste system—a historical product of plantation slavery—or a set of unexamined beliefs about a person’s own centrality, neutrality, authority, and objectivity. It can also take on a transhistorical, even transcendental quality, naming something more like a spiritual condition, a fallen state that is paradoxically also one of culpable innocence.

Kathy Boudin at an arraignment for her involvement in an armed robbery and shootout by members of the Black Liberation Army, New City, New York, 1981
Joyce Dopkeen/The New York Times/Redux
Kathy Boudin at an arraignment for her involvement in an armed robbery and shootout by members of the Black Liberation Army, New City, New York, 1981

For Boudin, “white privilege” was the reflex she needed to annihilate in order to serve Third World liberation. For the right in our own moment, this concept is at the dark heart of “identity politics,” liberalism’s Trojan horse, a carapace of anodyne nostrums about fairness and equality that surely hides a cargo of Black (or just black-clad) radicals braced for pillage. Many conservatives affect to believe that we are on the brink of an American rerun of the Cultural Revolution, or possibly even the Haitian one, with dark-skinned folk emerging out of the cane fields and the Amazon warehouses to execute a terrifying inversion of the social order. This fear certainly looms large in the political imagination of the far right, driving recruitment to militias and Boogaloo groups and giving license to the most extreme authoritarian impulses of the White House.

Further toward the center, the politics of whiteness has disrupted journalism and academia, with opposition to it coalescing around the defense of free speech, an issue that has united right-wingers with centrist liberals. The spectacle of American conservatives wringing their hands about being unfairly profiled on the basis of race may seem to an observer like watching a very drunk person trying to fit a key into their front door—so close to getting it, this time!—but after four years of Trumpism, even the most trusting establishment Democrat must suspect that the Republican Party’s commitment to campus debate contains an element of bad faith. Could the elevation of “cancel culture” from irritation to existential threat be just a bit of business, a sleight of hand to divert the free-expression crowd at this crucial moment, getting them to punch left instead of right? Though some of the objections to the politics of white privilege are clearly performative, there is reason to be wary of this politics, particularly now that these ideas are being refashioned by corporate America. Whiteness is a concept that can be made to serve many interests and positions, not all of them compatible.

The Weather Underground’s identification of “Black and Third World people” as the revolutionary vanguard was born out of a frustration with a white working class that, in the Nixon era, seemed to be a thoroughly reactionary force. The 1970 “hard hat riot,” in which New York construction workers, mobilized by the AFLCIO union, attacked long-haired protesters at a memorial for the students murdered at Kent State, exposed fissures of class and culture that seemed impossible to close. “In the US in the past 20 years,” grumbled the writers of Prairie Fire,

the white industrial proletariat has seldom exercised its revolutionary initiative. Third World peoples in the US, and also women, youth and members of the armed forces have shown the most consistent initiative and practice.

The failure of the white working class to manifest revolutionary consciousness led some heretical Marxists to start looking beyond class for an explanation. At the same time, a decisive rupture was taking place between Black and white radicals. “We’ve been saying ‘Freedom’ for six years,” explained Stokely Carmichael, later Kwame Ture, after his arrest at a protest in Mississippi in 1966. “What we are going to start saying now is ‘Black Power.’” Black power named a demand (for political agency), a strategy for achieving it (building institutions in the community “for ourselves, by ourselves”), but also a kind of mental reset, a rejection not just of the “slave mentality” of passive victimhood but of any impulse to seek validation or permission from the white world. The word Carmichael used in a 1966 speech was “sanction”:

We are now engaged in a psychological struggle in this country about whether or not black people have the right to use the words they want to use without white people giving their sanction. We maintain the use of the words Black Power—let them address themselves to that. We are not going to wait for white people to sanction Black Power. We’re tired of waiting; every time black people try to move in this country, they’re forced to defend their position beforehand. It’s time that white people do that.

In May 1966 Carmichael had taken over from John Lewis as chair of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). In December of that year, a vote was taken to expel white members. “White people who desire change in this country should go where that problem [of racism] is most manifest,” wrote staffers of the SNCC’s Atlanta project, in a statement that was excerpted in The New York Times. “The white people should go into white communities.”

White activists took this call seriously and began to try to formulate a politics of what would now be called “allyship.” Their consciousness of their whiteness was sharpened by the dominant Black Nationalist mood and the way it was finding a mirror on the white right. Just as “All Lives Matter” emerged in 2015 as a coded rejoinder to the slogan “Black Lives Matter,” so “white power” began to make its way through a far-right milieu that was self-consciously organizing itself around racial identity.

Among the activists beginning to think about the complex interrelationship of race and class was Theodore W. Allen, a lifelong Communist who had been a coal miner and labor organizer in West Virginia. Allen took as a starting point a now famous passage from W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction in America (1935):

It must be remembered that the white group of laborers, while they received a low wage, were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage. They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent on their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness.

In an essay first published in 1967 by the Radical Education Project of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Allen identified the “Achilles heel of the American working class” as what he called “white-skin privilege.” Du Bois saw the “psychological wage” as a conscious strategy of the ruling class to co-opt poor whites and prevent an interracial solidarity that might have threatened their ascendency during the period of Reconstruction. Allen edged toward a more sweeping position, identifying this offer of a psychological wage as one of the motors of American history that went back as far as seventeenth-century Virginia. The first use of “white” that he could find was in a Virginia statute of 1691, and he contended that the construction of whiteness as a social and legal identity was a response to Bacon’s Rebellion in 1676, in which Blacks and whites, including indentured servants, combined to oppose the governor and burn Jamestown. The task of the radical white ally to the Black struggle was to repudiate this privilege, to reject the blandishments of the rulers and persuade white workers to follow suit, developing class unity across racial lines.

Allen’s paper was hugely influential. Racism had been thought of as a question of beliefs and practices—beliefs about racial inferiority and actions taken as a result of those beliefs. Now there was a shift toward a consideration of what might be thought of as the pleasures of whiteness, satisfactions derived from a position of structural superiority that might not align at all with conscious intent. The conceptual groundwork was laid for what is now called “unconscious bias,” a notion that has trod a long and rather crooked path from its origins in the 1960s conjunction of Marxism and psychoanalysis to its current perch in the lexicon of corporate “diversity training.”

Allen’s essay was published in conjunction with a text by a younger activist named Noel Ignatiev. “The US ruling class,” wrote Ignatiev,

has made a deal with the misleaders of American labor, and through them with the masses of white workers. The terms of the deal, worked out over the three hundred year history of the development of capitalism in our country, are these: you white workers help us conquer the world and enslave the non-white majority of the earth’s laboring force, and we will repay you with a monopoly of the skilled jobs, we will cushion you against the most severe shocks of the economic cycle, provide you with health and education facilities superior to those of the non-white population, grant you the freedom to spend your money and leisure time as you wish without social restrictions, enable you on occasion to promote one of your number out of the ranks of the laboring class, and in general confer on you the material and spiritual privileges befitting your white skin.

In 1969, when SDS disintegrated, one faction (including Boudin and the other future Brink’s robbers) became the Weather Underground. Another, known as the Sojourner Truth Organization (STO), disillusioned with the direct-action antics of the student milieu, set up in the Midwest, determined to build a base among the urban working class. Ignatiev was one of around fifty STO members who took factory jobs in Chicago and Detroit to be close to the “point of production.” In the early 1990s he cofounded a journal called Race Traitor, under the slogan “Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity.” The betrayal of whiteness was now firmly understood not as a repudiation of biology, or even culture, but of a particular kind of social contract. As the editorial for the first issue of Race Traitor put it:

The existence of the white race depends on the willingness of those assigned to it to place their racial interests above class, gender, or any other interests they hold. The defection of enough of its members to make it unreliable as a determinant of behavior will set off tremors that will lead to its collapse.

This understanding of whiteness has had significant influence on today’s movement politics. In the streets it is embodied in the practice of white protesters moving in front of Black comrades in confrontations with police. But like many aspects of leftist thought, it also has a parallel life in academia, notably in the study of history. In the early 1990s, as Ignatiev was working on Race Traitor, the historian David Roediger published The Wages of Whiteness, a book that expanded Theodore Allen’s account of whiteness as an organizing principle of American society, arguing that as new immigrant groups like the Irish arrived, they learned how to “become white” by aligning themselves with “white” interests. It was not just a question of adopting the manners or even displaying loyalty to the political priorities of the Anglo elite. Whiteness was earned by displays of performative “anti-blackness” (riots, lynchings, and so on), constituting and reinforcing a community that depended for its identity on differentiation from Blacks.

That account has always been looked on skeptically by some labor and social historians, who see it as inattentive to the particularities of time and place. Has whiteness really been experienced in a consistent way from Jamestown in 1676 to Tulsa in 1921 to Charlottesville in 2017? The Marxist historian Adolph Reed chides that “appropriations of Du Bois aim to validate effectively ontological arguments about the primacy and impermeability of whites’ commitment to white supremacy.”

In an essay called “The Wages of Roediger: Why Three Decades of Whiteness Studies Has Not Produced the Left We Need,” Cedric Johnson argues that the American labor movement of the earlier part of the twentieth century was forged in struggles that relied on interracial coalitions, but by the 1960s, under the pressure of antiunion laws, McCarthyism, and the increasing spatial segregation of suburbanization, those coalitions splintered. “Whiteness discourse,” he writes, “misdiagnoses the Cold War disintegration of the Left, treating the symptoms as the disease itself.” For Johnson, whiteness is not a motor of history, but an epiphenomenon, an “amalgam of underlying, disparate class positions and interests” that does no useful conceptual work. It should be retired and replaced by “historical-materialist analysis that begins with the careful examination of society as it exists, and that does not reduce complex motives and material interests to markers of identity.”

In Roediger’s 2008 book (revised in 2019), How Race Survived US History, he rebuts what he sees as the unfair charge that race is not real or material, pointing out “Marxist historians’ tendency to divorce the concept of labor from the bodies and cultures of those performing it,” and reminding us that the tradition of European political economy underlying Marxism is itself one of highly refined abstraction.

The “1619 Project” of The New York Times, created and led by Nikole Hannah-Jones, which owes much to Roediger’s understanding of whiteness, asks what happens if we use the date of the arrival of the first Africans in the Jamestown colony to replace 1776 as the key to reading American history. Whether or not this thought experiment counts as “history” in an academic sense, the substantial claim is that if we look at the American story as one of violent struggle and contestation, formed to some large measure through the Atlantic slave trade, we arrive at a very different picture from the one that starts with a formal claim of rights and expands in the direction of an “ever more perfect union.” Opposition to the project, loud and histrionic, has come from a variety of quarters. From the Miss Scarlett fainting fits of Tom Cotton and Newt Gingrich (“a lie”) to Adolph Reed’s class-first dismissal of it as a “race-reductionist” “just-so story,” the 1619 Project has sharpened some contradictions, forcing a lot of people to be clearer about their political preferences in the study of American history.

Outside the library, it is clear that since the Ferguson uprising of 2014, we have been living through the most sustained and broadly supported civil rights movement since the 1960s. Notably, it is a movement initiated and largely led by Black women, operating in a theoretical tradition derived from the work of Black women. In its focus on dismantling the machinery of policing and incarceration, it is abolitionist, drawing on the perspective of contemporary activists such as Ruth Wilson Gilmore and Mariame Kaba. One part of the program of the Movement for Black Lives, the organization that grew from the work of Patrisse Cullors, Opal Tometi, and Alicia Garza, states that:

We believe in centering the experiences and leadership of the most marginalized Black people, including but not limited to those who are trans and queer, women and femmes, currently and formerly incarcerated, immigrants, disabled, working class, and poor.

The identification of the wretched of the earth as the revolutionary vanguard is as old as the sansculottes, but in this specific form, it’s a position originally outlined by the Combahee River Collective (CRC), a radical Black feminist group formed in 1974 from the Boston chapter of the National Black Feminist Organization. Disillusioned with a Black Nationalist scene marked by extreme misogyny, and alienated by white feminist groups that did not see racism as a priority, the CRC named itself after the site of an 1863 raid led by Harriet Tubman that freed 750 slaves.

Its influential political statement has recently been made widely available in How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. The CRC made the claim that the experience of Black women, and Black lesbians in particular, could be a kind of index of the success of liberation movements more widely. “We might use our position at the bottom,” they wrote, “to make a clear leap into revolutionary action. If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”

This was so because the “major systems of oppression are interlocking,” and queer Black women’s position at the intersection of these systems—racism, patriarchy, heterosexism, and capitalism—meant that their liberation could not be accomplished except by overcoming all of them. They took rape as a concrete example of “oppression which is neither solely racial nor solely sexual,” a crime light-skinned Black Americans bear as a visible part of their heritage, and which has been used as a weapon against lesbians to punish them for their sexual orientation. The CRC did not actually use the word “intersectionality,” which first appeared in the work of the legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989, but Taylor makes the case that the CRC should be credited with its formulation.

The politics of the CRC valued personal experience, since that experience had not been previously articulated:

Above all else, our politics initially sprang from the shared belief that Black women are inherently valuable, that our liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else’s but because of our need as human persons for autonomy. This may seem so obvious as to sound simplistic, but it is apparent that no other ostensibly progressive movement has ever considered our specific oppression as a priority or worked seriously for the ending of that oppression.

The ability to work without “translating” for the benefit of others was in itself affirmative: “Even our Black women’s style of talking/testifying in Black language about what we have experienced has a resonance that is both cultural and political.” Because they used their personal experience as an analytical tool, the CRC called their framework “identity politics,” a term that almost fifty years later has been so thoroughly abused that in some quarters it is no more than a slur.

The chief charges against identity politics are that it creates a hierarchy of victimhood (the “oppression Olympics” beloved of conservative pundits) and that the emphasis on experience shuts down debate, because the validity of a position is judged on its subjective authenticity rather than an objective assessment of facts. For the CRC, the aim was not to force others to defer to them or to their assessment: “To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.” Their perspective was only privileged outside their own discussions insofar as it was a measure or standard by which political success could be judged. As Taylor points out in her introduction, relating a set of grim statistics about Black women’s social and economic position, there is nothing subjective, let alone narcissistic, about the material basis from which the CRC was proceeding.

The more complex charge—that identity politics is a form of extreme relativism, its elevation of subjectivity rendering impossible any standard of value or commonality of experience across “identities”—has become a staple of centrist liberal discourse and an article of faith on the right, where it often shades into apocalyptic claims about the evils of postmodernism and post-1960s social norms. Speaking about Black Lives Matter on July 30, the Fox News host Tucker Carlson told his viewers that “arguing with them is pointless…. They’re nihilists, they don’t believe in the existence of truth or in the fixed meaning of words. They care only about power.” Carlson himself is not known for his commitment to objectivity or lack of interest in political advantage, so one may be forgiven for thinking of these remarks as little more than Trumpian projection.

There is a hunger for information about the new civil rights movement, and many companies and institutions are beginning to feel that by ignoring it, they are exposing themselves to liability, or failing to get the best performance from their workforce. At the individual level, people who may not have thought much about racism are hurrying to educate themselves. This past June, the top five New York Times nonfiction best sellers were all books about antiracism. At number one was White Fragility, by a diversity consultant named Robin DiAngelo.

DiAngelo’s distinctive contribution to her field is the identification of the condition named in her title:

We consider our racial world-views as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people. Thus, we perceive any attempt to connect us to the system of racism as an unsettling and unfair moral offense. The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable—the mere suggestion that being white has a meaning often triggers a range of defensive responses…. Though white fragility is triggered by discomfort and anxiety, it is born of superiority and entitlement.

The feeling of walking on eggshells will be familiar to any nonwhite person who has ever tried to challenge a white friend or colleague about racist behavior. Other New York Times best sellers, So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo and How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi, are anchored by personal stories. Most of DiAngelo’s observations come from interactions in her professional life. As she explains on her website, “I provide keynote presentations on whiteness, white fragility, race relations and racial justice. Many key points can also be made more conversationally through a ‘fireside chat’ style dialogue with another person.” Her clients include Amazon, Unilever, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Seattle public schools.

Diversity consultancy is as much a product of the 1960s and 1970s counterculture as Black Lives Matter, but its lineage is not that of the New Left but the Human Potential movement, and the belief that the goal of existence is “self-actualization,” the apex of the famous pyramid described by Abraham Maslow in his “hierarchy of needs.” Much of the popular literature of antiracism, though it uses the lexicon of left politics (“whiteness,” “identity politics”), deploys self-actualization as its primary enticement to the reader. Follow these rules, and you too can grow into an antiracist. Antiracism is “the work,” and even if the goal is an antiracist society, the royal road runs not through organizing but through personal transformation.

Through concepts like “lifestyle” and “wellness,” the Human Potential message has transformed consumer culture. In corporate America, marketing, sales, communications, and leadership have all absorbed the ideology of self-actualization. In 2015, as a series of police shootings propelled the Black Lives Matter movement into national prominence, McKinsey announced that “our latest research finds that companies in the top quartile for gender or racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have financial returns above their national industry medians.” Though they scrupulously warned that “correlation does not equal causation,” and “greater gender and ethnic diversity in corporate leadership doesn’t automatically translate into more profit,” the dots were there to be joined. One impact of the movement that grew out of the Ferguson uprising of 2014 is that in 2019 234 of the companies in the S&P 500 had diversity professionals—63 percent of whom had been appointed or promoted to their positions in the previous three years.

The interests and priorities of the growing diversity consultancy sector intersect with those of antiracist activists, but they are not the same. Some explanations for racism may be welcome in a $30,000 “fireside chat,” others not so much. In a recent interview with The New York Times, DiAngelo said that “capitalism is so bound up with racism. I avoid critiquing capitalism—I don’t need to give people reasons to dismiss me.”

Regardless of DiAngelo’s personal politics, this truth remains. Her business model depends on making people uncomfortable, but not too much, or rather only along certain axes of discomfort. She will not get hired if she asserts that the problem she is proposing to solve may be structural and best addressed by the redistribution of power and resources, rather than maximizing the human potential of the marketing department. Of necessity, in a corporate forum, solutions need to be presented in ways that do not threaten the host organization, and that inevitably leads to their being framed as matters of personal, individual behavior.

In White Fragility, DiAngelo identifies “Individualism” and “objectivity” as “two key Western ideologies.” Individualism “claims that there are no intrinsic barriers to individual success and that failure is not a consequence of social structures but comes from individual character.” She then makes a case for why social structures and group identities matter in overcoming bias. Cognitive dissonance must afflict anyone advocating for social constructivism in today’s rigidly neoliberal corporate environment. The solution, which in essence is post-1960s liberalism’s answer whenever it is called upon to address the thorny question of collectivity, is to route the argument through consciousness. Raising or changing consciousness is conceived of as a prelude to possible future collective action. Perhaps if enough minds are changed, then social or political progress will be a natural (and preferably nonviolent) consequence. The difficult questions—of collective organization, of how the individual gets subsumed into a collective project, and of course the exercise of power—all fade tastefully into the background. The time is always soon, but never now.

Essentially, a diversity consultant has to be able to tell both an activist story and a business story, while persuading each audience that theirs is the real one, the important one, and the other is secondary. Apart from any gains in productivity that might arise from a more diverse, harmoniously functioning workforce, the corporate client also receives what could be called American liberalism’s psychological wage, the good feeling of social responsibility. The pageantry of respect is cheap, or at least cheaper than paying reparations, so on Martin Luther King Jr. Day (and latterly Juneteenth) an unlikely parade of organizations, from the FBI to ExxonMobil, came down from the mountaintop to judge us by the content of our character rather than the color of our skin. There are many variants of an Internet joke that mocks the substitution of symbolism for material change: “Black People: Stop killing us. Liberals: Hey we’re renaming the Pentagon the Maya Angelou War Center.”

But perhaps it works? Making antiracism into a personal goal seems commonsensical, and material change comes about, in part, because of a shift in popular will as an aggregate of individual preferences. There is much to be gained from organizations sincerely examining their own practices, particularly around hiring. Still, measuring the effectiveness of diversity and inclusion training is complex and politically fraught, and its results are contested. The theory of “unconscious bias,” which is popular in the consultancy industry, has run into trouble, as social psychologists fail to substantiate the Black-White Implicit Association Test, its chief diagnostic tool, a test in which subjects are asked to react to various combinations of words and images, and their reaction times are measured. Positing a direct and uncomplicated relationship between a physiological response and the complex phenomenon of racism seems risky. The academic trend appears to be moving toward using unconscious bias as a statistical measure of behavior in populations, just as consultants are selling it to organizations as a metric for individual racism.

There’s no doubt that corporate diversity training imposes a cost on employees, who are expected to “do the work” or risk being considered a “bad fit” with the newly discovered goals and values of their employer. Much recent theoretical writing on labor has stressed its affective form, defined as the work of producing, managing, and displaying emotion, in situations ranging from childcare to customer service. An argument could be made that a political goal (antiracism) has essentially been captured by a service industry that treats the subjectivity of workers as a resource to be managed and shaped in the interests of capital. Very often the liberal version of identity politics, shorn of the radical goals of its founders, takes on the familiar contours of American Protestantism. People get to play at smiting the devil and enjoy the satisfactions of moral purity. There is a worrying focus on representation within existing structures of power, as if the point were to make a world in which, say, the percentage of Black prison officers exactly matched the percentage of Black people in the population, rather than asking what prison is for and whether it should exist.

If whiteness is just a story about sin and salvation, then it becomes a metaphysical condition, outside history. One of the bleakest recent books about race is Frank Wilderson’s Afropessimism. “Blacks are not human subjects,” writes Wilderson, “but are instead structurally inert props, implements for the execution of White and non-Black fantasies and sadomasochistic pleasures.” This ontological commitment to nonbeing is, as Wilderson’s title indicates, the counsel of despair. If Blackness is necessary as the inferior pole to an eternal, immutable dyad, nothing can ever change. And where does that leave the rest of us non-Black people of color, rendered invisible in this schema? Are we just subaltern tormentors, as we are for Wilderson? For those who find this answer unacceptable, race cannot be everything, at least not in this absolute, metaphysical sense. Nor can it be nothing. The indecent haste with which commentators rushed to praise America as a “post-racial society” after the election of Barack Obama drew a lot of hollow laughter at the time. The joke has only worn thinner.