I recently got asked to comment privately about Thomas Sowell’s work and why his views about racism and personal responsibility are so anathema to Critical Race Theory. The short answer is, obviously, that not only does he disagree and not only is he at least significantly right about what he’s saying, he’s also putting responsibility on what Theory considers, in a not-at-all-racist way, to be a permanent victim class. That’s simply not allowed. Critical Race Theory ultimately seeks to “empower” blacks and (kind of) other “minoritized races” by forcing onto them and leveraging a perpetual victimhood status. Admittedly, this clearly has some short-term practical efficacy, though that comes at significant, if not Pyrrhic, costs.
This isn’t empowerment, though. It’s disempowerment, even if we discount the other costs of such a not-at-all-racist doctrine. It’s really important to understand that the Woke movement is significantly about deferring responsibility from groups it defines as “victims of systemic oppression,” which it, in turn, defines as ordinary and all-but-permanent states of affairs that are woven into the very fabric of society. That’s one of the main points of the whole Woke project: to make “it’s not our fault; nothing is” a motto for the “oppressed.” So when someone like Sowell tells people that there’s some issue with that inherently disabling perspective, or with the visibly and very discriminantly abusive “politically black culture” (“Blackness”) that has risen up around it, advocates of Theory and the grifters who can use the narrative of perpetual victimhood to their own advantage get really mad at him.
Even taking the cynical race-hustling angle out of the discussion, though, and just sticking to the not-at-all-racist Theory that enables it, you can see that its advocates clearly believe that Sowell’s advocacy of onboarding individual responsibility denies the victimhood of authentic black victims. The “empowering” and not-at-all-racist message is simple: victims can’t take responsibility. Sowell has been constantly pressed dishonestly on this point for decades, even to the point where he basically hides from the media now.
An interesting conversation developed in our conversation around this point, and I was subsequently asked quite simply: “In the history of humanity—when has giving away agency resulted in mass advancement?”
The answer to that is “never,” but they’ve already flipped that script—they being the not-at-all-racist advocates of Critical Social Justice or Woke Theory. I don’t think people get what we’re dealing with Critical Social Justice. Its advocates have decided that taking up a “critical” victimhood-centric narrative is taking up agency, and the system has already removed all agency otherwise. For them, agency only exists in white people, who have given themselves the authority and autonomy (through “whiteness”) to act. That’s what “whiteness” really is, in some respects: the conferral of individual agency upon those groups that whites deemed trustworthy enough to have it. They call understanding this “reality” a kind of “consciousness,” specifically a critical consciousness, which is a form of awakened (or, awokened) political consciousness with respect to a narrow, divisive, and generally unpopular approach to identity politics.
The claim goes further too and asserts that something they call “white supremacy” stripped all agency from all “minoritized” groups. Now, they don’t mean real white supremacy, like is adopted and pushed by genuinely racist extremists groups. Instead, they mean a vague ideology that allegedly permeates everything and is defined by favoring certain cultural values that the not-at-all-racist Woke ideology sanctifies as “white,” including things like reason, science, civility, keeping an agenda, being articulate, and so on. Members of those identity groups can, according to the Woke ideology, get a simulacrum of agency for themselves only by three means: adopting a “Woke” critical consciousness and joining their ranks, “acting white,” or otherwise turning race traitor. None of these are great options, and one of them (acting white) only confers half-agency because the Theory says it is forced upon the people who take it up, so, “not their fault.” But of course. Nothing is.
Theory is really detailed around the issue of agency and its relationships to political consciousness. It is, in fact, one of its primary occupations. Often, no matter what a member of a minoritized group does, unless it’s directly at odds with Critical Race Theory (as Sowell would be), it’s “not their fault.” How could it be? These poor brown and black “folks” (meaning the “minoritized” group members Theory claims to speak for) aren’t really thinking for themselves, you see, because they have a false consciousness that has been socialized into them. They’ve been forced by the dominance in the system into having “internalized their oppression” or, say, more specifically taken on “internalized racism” or “internalized misogyny.” Why the not-at-all-racist Woke ideology wants to consider all members of minoritized groups who don’t agree with them too asleep—or too stupid—to realize that they’re participating in their own oppression without even realizing it is anybody’s guess. That ambiguity of intention doesn’t change the fact of it, though.
So “minoritized” group members who like to be reasonable instead of “critical” are told they experience a double-whammy of agency removal by the powers that be. They’re upholding their own oppression because the oppressors have brainwashed them into complicity in their own oppression, and this is definitely not a conspiracy theory because nobody—or everybody—is technically in on the conspiracy. Their sole escape hatch is to admit that they’re an intentional traitor to the nonsense “liberatory” cause or to really relinquish their agency to the critical cult in the name of awokening to “agency.” Sowell, of course, rejects this false choice, so they hate him.
Actually, it gets a little more twisted too in this not-at-all-racist, in-fact-anti-racist Woke ideology. Theory holds that it’s often not technically white people’s fault that they’ve created this system and perpetuate it—selfishly and to their own inexorable benefit. Sure, they’re morally responsible for it due to “white complicity,” but they didn’t mean to learn to make and maintain it. They’re just a bunch of poor white “folks” who, unless they actively resist, need to be made aware of how awful they are for their participation in it. These people aren’t bad until they decide that the whole anti-racism program is a scam; they just suffer “internalized dominance” that’s made them fat, comfortable, and willfully dumb.
This luxurious state—described literally as a “privilege”—has also made these poor white bastards morally deficient, not by virtue of their skin color but by virtue of the fact that their skin color makes them automatically and unavoidably complicit in whatever is meant by “white supremacy” in the not-at-all-racist Woke ideology. This is, of course, an important technicality, so make sure to note it well. Specifically, the luxury of having been deemed white has made all such unfortunate fools psychologically and ideologically “fragile.” It’s not their fault they were socialized into a state in which they intrinsically lack things like “racial stamina” and “racial humility.” This is why Robin DiAngelo says things like “no one chose to be socialized into racist systems, so no one is bad, but no one is neutral.” “Racial stress” is hard to deal with, after all, when it’s put upon you by a not-at-all-racist ideology that’s calling you “white supremacist” without being at all clear about what that means. Critical whiteness studies—an important dimension within Critical Race Theory—exists to some significant degree specifically to make white people realize how spoiled rotten their skin tone and the racial categorization ideas of their long-dead forebears have made them so they’ll try to reverse it.
None of this can get whites off the hook with regard to the crime of having given themselves (and only themselves) personal agency, though. The trouble is, whiteness is still viewed in the not-at-all-racist Theory as containing the only existing capacity by which a conferral of “individuality” (“not being a racial group member”), and thus individual agency, can take place. This is the point of Barbara Applebaum’s book Being White, Being Good, which develops the idea of “white complicity” in the way only such a not-at-all-racist Theory could possibly achieve. Because white people are complicit and therefore bear moral responsibility for their whiteness, they must have agency in doing whatever it is they do that’s considered “white.” Agency and moral responsibility are, after all, two sides of the same coin; just the opposite of “not our fault, nothing is.”
The goal of Applebaum’s book is simple: to torture the definition of “complicity” until it confesses that everyone who “benefits” from whiteness carries moral responsibility for all of the harms Theory assigns to it, to “systemic racism,” and to “white supremacy.” This moral responsibility necessarily includes having stripped, by systemic magic, the agency away from “racialized” minoritized groups. Remember: Theory says white people did the racializing and believes it, alone, is undoing that racialization, which is believes is permanent, by racializing everything that liberal society managed to make not-racialized—another useful technicality. Also remember: this is a not-at-all-racist, indeed-anti-racist way to think about the world.
According to the not-at-all racist Woke Theory, whiteness set itself up as the arbiter of who qualifies for individuality and agency through the social acknowledgement of being “white.” It thus confers individual agency as suits it and its interests (the cynicism is never more than a millimeter beneath the surface). This has been done selectively and, inherently, never to black people (this is “anti-Blackness,” which is considered a fundamental property of “whiteness”—and obviously and usefully technically so because how could black skin be seen as “white”?). That is, of course, why whiteness is considered evil by the not-at-all-racist Woke ideology.
The result is that minoritized group members are thus forced into an ugly and not-at-all-racist choice about claiming their own agency (again, forced by the whiteness in the system). They can claim agency by taking up a critical consciousness that is “Woke” to the “system of white dominance” and how it harms everyone and steals their agency if not-white (meaning: they can become a Critical Race Theorist filled with revolutionary zeal and mandatory not-at-all-racist anti-whiteness and pro-Blackness attitudes), or, if that’s unpalatable, they can sell out to the white system, which is complicity in evil. Staying asleep is choosing complicity, after all. There is no neutral.
The nasty irony here, which Sowell sees and they hate him for seeing, is that taking on a critical consciousness is the real removal of all agency. Once you have one—once you go Woke—you have to be the victim group intersectionality says you are. You have to say the things authentic (meaning Woke) members of your various intersecting minoritized groups would say. You have to toe that line perfectly or else you’re inauthentic to your positionality, a race traitor, and in immediate need of re-education or cancellation by the not-at-all-racist foot soldiers of the not-at-all-racist Woke ideology. We see this again and again when people step out of line. Not really black. Not really gay. Epithets I won’t write here. They probably have not-at-all-racist brown complicity, brown privilege, and brown fragility, if “brown” applies to them too.
This portion of the dialogue elicited the obvious question in response: “So no one is an individual anymore?”
This is mostly correct. Intersectional Theory doesn’t allow people to be individuals. They’re members of their various “social” groups, which really means identity groups, which really means identity groups as those are relevant to doing particular kinds of identity politics (specifically, radical identity politics informed by the neo-Marxist tradition of applying conflict theory to politically relevant identity categories). Individual people are treated by this not-at-all-racist ideology as something like ambassadors of their various identity groups, and they can represent it well or badly. Representing it well means, by definition, giving the Critical Identity Theory report on what it means to live life as that politicized identity (the “lived realities” of being a member of that group). And be sure to note well: this isn’t essentializing these identity groups because it’s about their experiences that are essential to who they happen to be, not who they happen to be—an important technicality.
So, generally, no one is an individual. The only complexity to this idea is down to “whiteness,” again. (And of course it is.) The sin of whiteness in this not-at-all-racist worldview is that it confers the capacity for individuality upon people who have been accepted as “white” or “white-adjacent” and no one else. These become the privileged people who don’t have to think of themselves in racial terms, while the “systems of racism” in society force everyone else to “be a race.” The point of Critical Race Theory, in general, is to make everyone aware of this (Woke) and increase their awareness of their politicized racial identity—indeed, its goal is to make that consciousness a necessity and necessary part of all of not-at-all-racist existence. In the subdivision of Critical Race Theory that applies to whiteness (critical whiteness studies), the objective is to do the same: make whites realize that they are a race that gets to pretend it isn’t one. This is not at all racist; it is, instead, a project meant to “level the playing field.”
There’s a bit of a flaw in this plan, though, and perhaps you’ve noticed it. The Woke ideology requires a kind of totalitarian submission in all of the many groups who get to be “whites” and anyone aligned with or adjacent to whiteness. All such people have to realize their racial identity and that the politically correct thing to do with that racial identity is to unmake it and subjugate it, while also recognizing that this is impossible to do because racism is ordinary and permanent, according to the not-at-all-racist Critical Race Theory making these claims. That’s the definition of totalitarian submission, though, and the entire project pushed by Theory depends upon it. It cannot work without white people becoming aware both of their race and that it is intrinsically a bad thing to be—and agreeing to this not-at-all-racist proposition, effectively permanently.
This, you see, is the price of agency according to a not-at-all-racist analysis that endlessly defers responsibility. In fact, if the above conditions are rejected, it should be remembered as yet another useful technicality that Theory predicts it. In not wanting to have to give up or share their agency—or basic human dignity—white people and everyone else who is complicit in whiteness are predicted to resist, even by rising up in a “white backlash,” and this is to be understood merely as a means of preserving their privilege and a final unmasking of the “white supremacy” that the not-at-all-racist Theory assumed was there from the outset. It just needed to be “made visible.
Of course, such things and any consequences that come of them also cannot be the result of Theory being put into application. The central point of Theory is to defer any such responsibility and put it on whiteness, which it achieves by stripping the people it claims to speak for of their own agency and blaming even that on everyone else. So goes the Woke motto, “It’s not our fault; nothing is.”