Vincent Lloyd: What's Gone Wrong with Antiracist PoliticsHistorians in the News
tags: racism, culture war, academic freedom, antiracism, Woke
Vincent Lloyd is a Black professor at Villanova University, where he directed the Black-studies program, leads workshops on anti-racism and transformative justice, and has published books on anti-Black racism, including Black Dignity: The Struggle Against Domination. Until recently, he was dismissive of criticism of the way that the left talks about race in America. Then he had an unsettling experience while teaching a group of high-school students as part of a highly selective summer program that is convened and sponsored annually by the Telluride Association.
The students began the summer excited about the six-week seminar, called “Race and the Limits of Law.” But soon, they moved to expel two of their classmates from the program amid political disagreements. Then, as Lloyd later recounted in an essay for Compact Magazine, the remaining students read a prepared statement about “how the seminar perpetuated anti-black violence in its content and form, how the black students had been harmed, how I was guilty of countless microaggressions, including through my body language, and how students didn’t feel safe because I didn’t immediately correct views that failed to treat anti-blackness as the cause of all the world’s ills.”
Before, he had quickly rejected the linguist and social commentator John McWhorter’s argument that anti-racism is a new religion. “Last summer,” Lloyd wrote, “I found anti-racism to be a perversion of religion: I found a cult.”
When I read Lloyd’s essay, I valued the distinct ideological perspective that grounds his critique of how anti-racism could improve. I wanted to converse with him about his experience, the lessons he took from it, and ascendant social movements on the left, in the hopes that our very different perspectives might help solve problems that worry us both.
Below is a lightly edited version of our correspondence.
Conor Friedersdorf: Early on, you distinguish your essay from other “laments about ‘woke’ campus culture, and the loss of traditional educational virtues.” Given your academic scholarship and varied work on behalf of social justice, no one can credibly claim that you’re reflexively hostile to efforts that get coded as “woke.” Yet you believe that something went terribly wrong in your seminar. I hope we can drill down on what specifically went wrong and why.
But first, for any readers who come to anything coded as “woke” with skepticism, or who want to understand where you are coming from a bit better, could you explain why you’ve dedicated so much time and effort to Black-studies programs, anti-racism workshops, and transformative-justice workshops?
Vincent Lloyd: In our lives, we all encounter a deeply human problem: domination. Some have the capacity to arbitrarily assert their will over others. We find this in our families, with bosses at work, with politicians, and systemically: Patriarchy, racism, and colonialism are all systems of domination. Anti-Black racism is the closest we get to a paradigm of domination. Even a century and a half after slavery, the master-slave dynamic, dominator and dominated, fuels anti-Black racism, which is now incorporated into laws and institutions as well as personal vices.
I want a world free of domination. I think we all do. That requires working together to root out systems of domination, some on the surface but many deeply ingrained in our world. Black studies aims to root out domination, in the university and in the world. It grew out of Black-student struggles in the late 1960s and early 1970s, themselves born of the civil-rights movement and anti-war protests. It aims to draw attention to the forms of anti-Black racism that infect each of us and the institutions we inhabit, and to catalyze justice movements today. Behind the “woke” label are powerful new visions of justice, new ways of imagining a world free of domination. Instead of politely requesting incorporation into unjust institutions, today’s justice movements rightly demand new institutions that are more responsive to human needs.