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A review of Reinventing Racism by Jonathan D. Church. Rowman & Littlefield, 250 pages (December 2020)
If the release of Robin DiAngelo’s 2018 book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism launched her into orbit, this past summer’s “racial reckoning” has made her a star. The book has been on the New York Times best-sellers list for a staggering 116 weeks in a row (and counting), while DiAngelo has been busy hosting workshops at universities and fortune 500 companies at perversely exorbitant fees. She gave an address to 184 Democratic members of Congress in the summer, and even made an appearance on the Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. It would be an understatement to say that her work has polarized opinion. In the introduction to White Fragility, Georgetown University professor and public intellectual Michael Eric Dyson called DiAngelo the “new racial sheriff in town.” On the other side of the debate, the linguist and writer John McWhorter has called the book a “racist tract” that treats black people like children in order to make “educated white readers feel better about themselves.” Missing from the debate has been a thoughtful and meticulous critique of DiAngelo’s ideas.
No longer. Economist and prolific writer Jonathan D. Church’s forthcoming book Reinventing Racism: Why “White Fragility” Is the Wrong Way to Think about Racial Inequality provides a definitive and fair-minded analysis of White Fragility, and a powerful bulwark against DiAngelo’s most poisonous claims. If DiAngelo “makes her prescriptions from beneath a blanket of Ativan,” as one reviewer put it, Church approaches them like a surgeon at the operating table. The writer Wesley Yang has pointed out that White Fragility may well be the perfect memetic weapon in the culture war, and DiAngelo’s clerical, slightly unnerving manner is the perfect vessel for its transmission. But Church, a brain cancer survivor who embraces a philosophy of stoicism, is unfazed, approaching White Fragility as a set of ideas to be explained and examined like any other piece of scholarship. Readers will walk away from this book knowing exactly what the concept of “white fragility” is about and what’s wrong with it. They will also walk away with a better understanding of racial inequality today.
Church first stumbled upon White Fragility after raising concerns about trends in social justice activism with friends and family, only to be met with raised eyebrows and mind-reading accusations. But rather than cutting his losses, his curiosity got the better of him, and he wrote numerous articles and essays on the problems with white fragility theory that laid the groundwork for this book. He has probably spent more time with DiAngelo’s work than anyone besides DiAngelo herself, and his diligence shows.
It might seem obvious that white people—or any people—would object to their skin being directly associated with the brutal legacy of historical oppression. But Church, characteristic of his openness and good faith, cautions against writing off DiAngelo entirely, insisting that we “should not simply discard what DiAngelo is trying to say. She has undoubtedly observed common forms of resistance and reaction among the white people she has attempted to educate on racism over the years.” This may be of some sociological significance. However, we “can acknowledge that these patterns of resistance and reaction can also function as a kind of Kafka trap.” By starting from the premise that all whites have inborn racial privilege and are woefully fragile as a consequence, resistance to the white fragility charge merely proves its validity. Denying the accusation is seen as evidence of one’s guilt.
Church lays out 10 interrelated issues with White Fragility in the opening segment and dedicates a chapter to each. The chapter on implicit bias training is probably the most devastating: It just doesn’t seem to work. This is a gigantic hole in the progressive framework on race issues that should immediately throw almost everything taken for granted in this worldview into doubt. The concept of structural or institutional racism is the central building block of modern antiracist activism. It rests on the belief that declining rates of overt racism since the 1960s are less significant than the more subtle, subterranean forms of bias that have come to be codified through implicit institutional practices that perpetuate racial disparities in outcome today. The problem is, as Church shows through quoting numerous studies, the test from which anti-bias training programs derive—the Implicit Association Test or IAT—is remarkably inconsistent and has no proven connection to real world bias.