Wisconsin’s most liberal city was rocked back in February by allegations of racism on Madison’s citizen committee on sustainability. In one incident, committee member Denise DeMarb responded to the death of George Floyd by commenting that it “awoke white people to racism in this country.” In another, member Lance Green described the committee’s efforts make energy efficient homes more accessible to low-income people was “anti-racist work.”
Two of the professional activists on the committee resigned in protest of these outrages, demanding the resignations of the offenders and the committee chairs. In the ensuing struggle session, other committee members denounced themselves for failing to speak out strongly enough against such “dehumanizing” statements. DeMarb decried the “horrible, negative impact” of her offensive statements. The Mayor weighed in on the incident, explaining “that we have work to do in the city to live up to our anti-racist ideals.” No word on how this will impact the city’s sustainability efforts.
Wokeness is getting weird. Protestors in San Francisco last summer toppled a statue of US Grant. Post hoc justifications were mostly incoherent. Occam’s Razor slices down to the simplest explanation: reaching the nearest Confederate monument would have required a long car ride across hostile terrain and no one could raise that much gas money.
Portland protestors, facing an even longer journey to find a worthy target, tore down statues of Abraham f’g Lincoln. In Madison, protestors destroyed a statue of abolitionist and Union soldier Hans Christian Heg. Nobody even bothered to cook up a rationale for that one.
At some point, iconoclasm is just iconoclasm. A riot is just a riot. Somebody’s eventually gonna rip down a statue of Fredrick Douglass and make up an ex post facto justification. There isn’t always a profound social statement in disorder. People like to break things. The trigger might be a police shooting or the Dodgers winning the pennant, or no identifiable reason at all. Disorder always lurks beneath the fragile veneer of civilization.
Republicans have seized on the absurdities at the margins of wokeness to stir white fears. In their telling, expressions of anti-racism in any form are a slippery slope toward mayhem. Here’s the thing – they’re right, in a sense. Whenever a prevailing mythology is challenged to the point that its power falters, a period of disorder will ensue. Order, of a sort, is one of the core values delivered by a unifying mythology. The first achievement of a successful awakening against our white supremacist mythology will be a disarrangement of old power alignments that held our society together. Wokeness is not a goal, but a waypoint.
Defining wokeness is like defining a slang term, the effort itself is awkward to the point of comedy. Much of its meaning is lived, and therefore subjective, eluding categories. There are however some common ideas that are consistently connected to “wokeness,” most notably critical race theory and intersectionality.
Critical race theory has become a terror word on the right where, like socialism, no one there actually knows what it means. Exposing conservative audiences to these concepts honestly, from original sources, would be too dangerous as it would only produce more converts, so it must be equated with already-existing bogeymen like Marxism and atheism to keep audiences scared.
CRT came into public conversation largely through the work of Harvard law professor Derrick Bell. Bell highlighted the ways in which law reinforced systems of racial domination independent of any conscious racist intent by malignant actors. As summarized by Bradley Mason:
“Law is not neutral but is itself ideology and politics, a contingent artifact of social history. It functions in society to preserve the reigning moral code, the current power structure, and the status quo by making such systems appear natural, neutral, necessary, and ultimately just. Even antidiscrimination law, according to CLS scholars, though sold as a site of reform, is more likely to legitimate racism and racist systems than it is to remedy them, since it is only a reflection of a society’s dominant morality, existing distributive systems, and power structures.”
CRT and related theories challenged the liberal approach to civil rights, which focused on barring expressions of racial bias or hostility. Their criticism was that racism operates deep inside long-established systems, systems in which even liberal whites have a powerful investment. Under such conditions, mere racial neutrality or color-blindness will simply put a smiling face on a still-cruel, discriminatory system. Some modern examples of these systems are zoning laws that operate to keep neighborhoods segregated, school systems premised on those zoning systems, banking, credit and pretty much our entire police and criminal justice infrastructure where embedded racist assumptions produce exploitative outcomes despite enormous “racial awareness” campaigns and anti-discrimination efforts.
Along with critical theory, wokeness leans heavily on the concept of “intersectionality,” the idea that people who face oppression due to an identity, like being Black, may also have unique disadvantages rising from other identities, like being LGBT, female and so on. The concept originated with a paper written by legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw in 1989, outlining many of the ways that Black women find themselves at the bottom of the pile in terms of discrimination. Crenshaw explained the colloquial meaning of the term:
Intersectionality is just a metaphor for understanding the ways that multiple forms of inequality or disadvantage sometimes compound themselves and create obstacles that often are not understood within conventional ways of thinking about anti-racism or feminism or whatever social justice advocacy structures we have.
Intersectionality is interesting for the ways in which some of its central premises “intersect” with conservative ideas. Conservatives agree with the central narrative of intersectionality, that America is inherently divided into a complex hierarchy of castes. Conservatism simply assumes that such hierarchies are a natural order. That assumption inspires white terror that intersectionality might turn America’s caste system upside down, leaving them on the bottom. Since they cannot conceive of a more equitable political and economic order, conservatives must fight to the end to preserve their place in a fundamentally unequal and exploitative order.
As this concept has trickled out into the popular culture of wokeness it has inspired oppression contests that can appear comic. Like a card game, a hand of Latinx, female-identifying, middle-income, queer, from a blue collar family trumps the player holding just Asian-American, cis-gendered, high-income, second-generation immigrant. As this race toward wokeness becomes increasingly abstract, complete with its own language, etiquette and norms, class largely disappears as a subject of concern, which should be a concern. Hardly anyone with less than a masters degree can understand the rules of the game, meaning wokeness becomes increasingly a pursuit of the affluent class, an abstraction consuming enormous energy toward little apparent policy purpose.
Our new unifying mythology will not emerge directly from this kaleidoscope of bespoke identities. Wokeness has no animating sense of “us,” only an ever expanding galaxy of ever-finer and smaller “us”-es, each competing to gain recognition and support for their niche. This is ok. Wokeness is not meant to be a unifying mythology.
Wokeness is a blooming of unique identities, voices trampled and abused under the cruelty of white supremacy. For people persecuted under the old regime, forming connections with those who share their unique experiences is a vital, humanizing step, even if in the short term it tends more toward faction than unity. Wokeness is not a new unifying mythology, but a stone through the stained glass windows of the old. It is inherently destructive. That’s good. Out of those countless shards we can assemble a new mosaic.
At some point, however, this grand game of woke posturing will have to yield to something larger, something that can bind Americans together. We should be prepared for resistance to a new unifying mythology from those who have gained material rewards from the woke movement.
Like Lenin’s Vanguard of the Proletariat, these elites are meant to lead the less enlightened working classes toward liberation in the new order. As evidenced by support for Trump among immigrant working class voters in the last election, not all are cooperating.
As a survivor of an evangelical fundamentalist childhood, the zealotry of the woke brigades is highly distasteful. Its dogged insistence on the use of an obscure, “in-group” vocabulary helps sort the most accomplished Wokerati from the mere tourists. You’ll hear terms like centering, erasure, colonizer, cisgender, microaggression, unpack, problematic, spaces, settler, “doing the work,” and “checking your privilege.” There will be unconventional spellings like Latinx, womxn or folx, long strings of acronyms that still aren’t long enough so they include a plus-sign at the end to avoid the “violence” of “erasure.” You’ll be asked to identify your pronouns and expected to know what that means. One’s facility with these terms of art are like the secret handshake of a cult.
Take these terms and practices into a lower caste minority neighborhood and at best you’ll get blank stares and rolled eyes. These are the habits and religious practices of an affluent and increasingly white, educated elite, jockeying for status among themselves, with a diminishing connection to real world conditions.
To everything its season. Purity rituals played out in woke circles, as obnoxious as they can be, are a hallmark of revolutionary movements everywhere. Out of the rollicking division of this tumult comes a more peaceful future. We must allow ourselves to become many before we can hope to become one.
A time will come, though, when fiefdoms and honored categories carved out in the woke struggle could stand in the way of a unifying, post-racial mythology. Those who piled up hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers for championing the oppression of some category represented by an 18-letter acronym might not readily surrender their grievances to a remedy.
A successful revolution must remove its Robespierres. We have many battles to win before being blessed with that problem, but it would be wise to prepare.