, Volume 9, Issue 2, pp 181–204 | Cite as

Anti-racism beyond empathy: Transformations in the knowing and governing of racial difference

  • Sam Binkley
Original Article


This article applies Michel Foucault’s provocative treatment of racism to a critique of contemporary forms of White anti-racism. From Foucault’s reflections, it is possible to extrapolate two key functions: racism as a mode of knowledge aimed at destabilizing sovereign power, and racism as a mode of government aimed at establishing divisions within society. These functions are reproduced across the program of White anti-racism, which aims at the cultivation of empathy for racial minorities. Moreover, this article examines racism and anti-racism in terms of their functioning within the economy of a social/racial contract, in which anti-racism is understood as an obligation to return to the other that which racism has taken away. Alternative modes of White anti-racism are proposed that, drawing on Foucault’s notion of an ethics of the self, imagine alternative practices of White anti-racism beyond the terms of a moral economy of anti-racism.


Foucault racism anti-racism empathy biopower necropower 

That Michel Foucault had anything at all to say on the topic of race is a fact that has only come to light in the comparatively recent past (Stoler, 1995; Elden, 2002; Kelley, 2004; Mendieta and Paris, 2004; Macey, 2008, 2009; McWhorter, 2009; Rasmusen, 2011; Taylor, 2011). Though his comments were brief, they appeared at key moments in his work, opening new vistas on some of his most established themes and pointing toward new critical and empirical engagements that have not yet been fully explored by his readers and students (Foucault, 1990, 2003, 2007). Perhaps most importantly for the contemporary discussion of race is the link Foucault suggests between racism and expert knowledges, specifically those oriented around the problem of popular government. Racism, commonly understood as an interpersonal disposition or an emotional state, in fact derives from a history of medical, scientific and institutional discourses that described humanity in a new light, and related that knowledge to new strategies of government, whose aim is to divide societies into populations warranting distinct forms of regulation. For Foucault, racism has its roots in two unique configurations. First is the medieval and early modern discourse of ‘race war’, through which the seemingly timeless facade of sovereign authority was undermined by a hidden history of clashes between warring peoples. Race war, as a critical and oppositional system of knowledge, gave the notion of race its character as a unique and particular way of knowing others and knowing the world. Later, through the medico-juridical lens of the eighteenth century, race was incorporated into the logic of biopolitical government, where its power to penetrate the spectacle of sovereignty was wedded to the wider mandate to govern, through the safeguarding and enhancement of the life of the population. Through state racism, the popular sovereignty of specific groups was reduced to a category of human biological variation, separated off from the normal population for specific and unique strategies of containment and correction. With state racism, racism’s relation of knowing was conjoined with a new practice of separating and dividing, grounded on a fundamental ontology of differences.

Taken together, Foucault’s explanation describes racism less in terms of an emotional, psychological or existential relation between opposed persons or social groups (what Foucault calls ‘ordinary racism’, or what contemporary race theorists might identify as ‘aversive racism’) and more in terms of unique forms of highly institutionalized discourse and government (Dovidio and Gaertner 1986; Foucault, 2003, p. 258). Racism is a way of knowing: it implies the penetration of sovereign presences and the disclosure of hidden biopolitical realities. But it is also an act of governing: it separates populations based on fundamental differences for the purposes of specialized modes of government. It is the argument of his paper that a reflection on race and racism as the product of knowledge and the logics of government allows us to consider deeply embedded continuities between racism and other discursive and governmental formations. In what follows, I will consider the broader problem of race as an effect of changing ways of knowing and governing, with the aim of uncovering concealed continuities between racism, and its purported opposite, anti-racism. This is not a new idea: Bonnett has argued that anti-racism ‘cannot be adequately understood as the inverse of racism …. Anti-racists have frequently deployed racism to secure and develop their project. The most characteristic form of this incorporation is anti-racists’ adherence to categories of “race”; categories which, even when politically or “strategically” employed, lend themselves to the racialization process’ – a point conveyed in 1948 by Sartre in his praise for the ‘Negritude’ poets, whose works he described as ‘racist anti-racism’ (Sartre, 1965; Bonnett, 2000, p. 3). But in the present context, the association of racism and anti-racism raises specific stakes.

In advanced capitalist societies, anti-racism is an institutional formation that targets the behaviors and dispositions of the dominant racial group. Anti-racism seeks to convert chauvinistic assumptions by inducing a sensitivity to cultural diversity, and the tolerance and recognition of difference. As Ahmed (2012) has pointed out, the discourse of anti-racism is more typically encountered in a series of euphemisms, from the more palatable ‘multi-culturalism’, to ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusion’, all that serve the undeclared function of a ‘containment strategy’ (p. 53). This is particularly true of the current American setting, where new activist and critical discourses identified with an emergent politics of race are incorporated into the practices and policy positions of ‘sensitive’ organizations eager to display their responsiveness to the experiences of clients, employees, customers and students, and to the broader well-being general public itself. As such, today’s anti-racisms aim at a certain opening of the racist subject to the other: inherited and unexamined blindnesses are made conspicuous, interrogated and discarded as the other is humanized, redeemed as the possessor of unique ways of feeling and experiencing the world (Bonilla-Silva, 2006). Within the frame of contemporary critical race theory, the configuration we encounter as diversity and multiculturalism is often read through the lens of a cooptation of an original, more radical critique of racism, or as Anzaldúa (2013) puts it: ‘a radical political agenda is often reduced to superficial efforts to serve international foods, wear ethnic clothes, and decorate corporate complexes and airports with native colors and art’ (p. 278). However, for the purposes of the present analysis (which takes place against the backdrop of heightened popular attention to issues of racial justice in the United States, particularly as it is taken up by the student left and in progressive educational and public institutions), the relationship between racism and its current institutional form is at once more simple and more complex than the cooptation model allows.

What I am calling White anti-racism today represents a broad constellation of expert discourses and institutional practices centered on new ways of knowing about race, variously manifested in the imperative to better relate to, understand and empathize with members of marginalized racial groups – an objective that often entails the simultaneous adoption of a new reflexive awareness of one’s own White privilege (McIntosh, 1989; Frankenburg, 1993; Bonnett, 2000). But, I will argue, as much as White anti-racism seeks to foster understanding and intimacy, and to close the distance between one subject and another, it does so by keeping a certain distance in place. Anti-racism invokes a certain technology of knowing and separating whose function it is to authorize novel forms of empathic understanding, by attributing profound and irreducible differences to racialized individuals and populations. In this way, the apparatus of White anti-racism is less the cooptation of an original critical stance than a form that fundamentally reproduces many of the key categories, assumptions and relations of the very racism from which it develops. The special way of knowing across an irreducible divide that constitutes White anti-racism emerges as a modified version of an older form of knowing and separating borrowed from racism itself. This is not to assert that anti-racism has an agenda that is secretly racist, that it is a strategy of ‘containment’, as Ahmed would have it, or a ruse that secretly continues racism through other means. Nor is it to argue that racism itself is entirely the product of anti-racism, and would simply go away if anti-racists would just stop talking about race as some conservative critics claim. To argue the continuity of White anti-racism with racism is to consider the ways in which the former operates as a complex and polyvalent assemblage through which, on occasion, the latter passes. It is to consider anti-racism as an assemblage that, like any assemblage, alternately aligns itself with any of a broad number of strategies, whose effects are disseminated through its operation on a plurality of levels. Understanding the specificity of this assemblage points the way to more profound and intense challenges to racism for members of dominant groups.

More precisely, the point will be made that contemporary logics of anti-racism, bound as they are to inverted forms of racism’s knowing and dividing, return the problem of anti-racism to a certain economy – an exchange, or an obligation between sovereign subjects, not unlike the arrangement described by Mills (1997) as one of a ‘racial contract’. Within the tradition of contract theory from which Mills draws, civil society comes about as a conventional form, as the state of nature is transformed through agreement and consent, into a contractual understanding regarding law, authority and mutual recognition. In the case of anti-racism, as I intend it here, this contract can be grasped in terms of a certain economy of obligations that is meant to reverse the effects of an older contract, premised on racial inequality. While older forms of biological racism understood the hereditary body of the raced subject as fundamentally deficient, limiting its capacity to reciprocate either as a free member of civil society, a subject of economy or simply as a subject before the law, they licensed a certain power on the part of Whites to collect on that deficiency through a form of racial violence. As Black people could not, for reasons of biology, meet the terms of the social contract, the balance of that payment could be collected by force, directly on their bodies, or through racist bias and discriminatory policies. This meant easier access to the labor of Black bodies, unequal provisioning of public resources in housing, education and employment, inequalities of deference in public settings and in more extreme cases the exercise of violence directly against Black lives themselves. All of this was licensed by a morality that demanded a payment from racialized groups that, when defaulted upon, mandated a violent retribution. Similarly, in Mills’ racial contract, the role of the pre-social, natural body is to demarcate ‘the permanently prepolitical state or, perhaps better, nonpolitical state (insofar as “pre”- suggests eventual internal movement toward) of nonwhite men’ who are brought into the social contract only as ‘subordinated citizens’ (p. 13).

With anti-racism, this relation is not only reversed, but also maintained intact. Anti-racism substitutes for the category of biological deficiency a new object, that of a psychic or existential wound, knowable through a technically enhanced act of empathy. Owing to the injured inner nature of the racialized other, and the responsibility dominant groups bear in relation to this injury, an obligation to pay is imposed on the White subject, which shows itself in the demand to fulfill the terms of a new racial contract, to return to the other that which has been taken away. This is apparent in the adoption by anti-racist Whites of a specific racial etiquette, the assumption of a guilty disposition and the cultivation of special sensitivities and sociabilities meant to redress and take responsibility for the past violence of racism itself – all in the name of the repayment of a contractual debt. As Lasch-Quinn (2002) has noted, ‘This unspoken, invisible list of sensitivities that all enlightened Whites are expected to master evokes the same kind of racially differentiated codes that suffused the segregation era, even while it turns them on their head’ (p. 14). But most importantly, payment is made in the form of empathic knowledge: anti-racism imparts a technology of empathy, through which privileged groups cultivate a capacity to understand and co-experience the suffering of others. The exclusion from the social contract that Mills traces to the racial contract is doubly undone through a concerted effort to attribute humanity, subjectivity and civility to the one for whom these things have historically been denied, chiefly through the adoption of an empathic regard for the other. In fact, White anti-racist empathy, bound together with the self-examination of White privilege, is the studied removal of blockages to these empathic payments, the labor of which represents a payment on this debt that is owed to the other for a history of damages.

The critique advanced here does not aim to challenge the basic assumptions or the concrete political gains reflected in this form of anti-racism, nor to imagine that a social constructionist argument can explain away harsh social realities and the necessary solutions offered by anti-racism. The point is to propose alternative anti-racisms by exposing the limits of existing ones. What specific limits are imposed on a White anti-racism that remains enclosed within this economy of obligation, one that takes for granted the continuing existence of a set of self-same contractual subjects over time, subjects capable of assuming and discharging debts? As McWhorter (2005) has written in her Foucauldian genealogy of Whiteness as an anti-racist strategy, greater attention to the ways in which racial discourse produces uniquely racialized subjects takes us out of the juridical frame of power, through which legally culpable White subjects are necessarily read as somehow already there, already ready to pay on their debts and presumably capable of walking away once payment is complete. The point of this critique is not to erase that debt, nor to make the obligations that come with a history of racism and privilege disappear through some act of deconstruction. The point is to consider the limitations of this juridical frame in the reconstructive work of White anti-racism, and to expand the range of possible anti-racist practices beyond the need (even, in some cases, the compulsive desire) to pay, perpetually, a debt that must never be fully paid.

At many points in his work, Foucault tried to conceive of an ethical horizon that operated beyond the confines of a restricted moral system, one that bound the individual by an inescapable responsibility to the welfare of the other. This morality of responsibility, narrowed the range of ethical conduct to a fixed code – a ‘code morality’ (Foucault, 1986, p. 45). Drawing on the ethical practices of the Ancient world, he proposed instead an ethics centered on the precise manner in which a way of thinking or acting might effect, not the being of the other, but the formation of the self, opening a new relation to the self as one of the possibility and innovation. This was an ‘askesis’, or an art of the self, understood as an ethical practice, a way of making or remaking the self, whose aim was fundamentally esthetic in character. An inquiry into askesis, Foucault argues, holds the potential to transform the way we think about moral and political problems in the present (McGushin, 2007; Dilts, 2011). Code moralities, on the other hand, employ universalist categories of right and obligation to demobilize the self, to fix a relation of self to self that is ultimately normative and regulatory.

To consider how the subjects of racism and anti-racism are not given but are produced through the generative effects of discourses, and also how they might produce themselves differently through the esthetic practices through which anti-racism is undertaken – what we might call practices of anti-racist de-subjectification – opens the way to an anti-racism that escapes the narrow economy of the subject-to-subject cycle, the code morality of contract and debt, and with it an account of power as something held, transferred and repaid. It points the way to a White anti-racism of self-fashioning from within. What this means is, in part, the critique of a form of institutionalized anti-racism, mediated by a host of experts on this problem, that reinscribes the horizons of anti-racism within a code morality, one that locks in place a set of subject positions implied by an anti-racism of contract and payment. The juridical frame of anti-racism as code morality demobilizes alternative anti-racist strategies and the possibility of an anti-racist askesis. Further, my claim is that code-moralities of anti-racism operate in ways that allow – even require – that key elements of White racist subjectivity remain intact. The agreement to pay implicit within the empathy imperative presumes a cache of resources from which the White subject can draw, and to which she can ultimately return. A payment, after all, is only a moral act if one possesses the freedom to not pay – and with that freedom the subject of payment itself. With payments made, one is free to go about one’s way, even to return to one’s old ways.

Having established this objective, the thrust of what is to follow will undertake an examination of the regulatory apparatus of anti-racism, by tracing its connections with racism itself. Following a critical framing of the Foucauldian view of race as epistemo-governmental assemblage, a general outline of a trajectory that passes from state racism to anti-racism will be considered, or what Omi and Winant (1994) call the ‘great transformation’ in race relations, with attention to the changing relations of knowing and dividing articulated in selected experts texts on the problem of racism and anti-racism alike. At the conclusion of this essay, the implications of this investigation will be offered as an opening for a renewed ethics of anti-racism that surpasses the goes beyond the contractual constraints of the empathic economy.

The Double Function of Racism

What is particularly striking about Foucault’s discussion of racism is the uniquely dynamic character he attributes to the discursive dimensions race. As a way of talking and writing about human differences, the problem that race poses is alternately insurrectionary, oppositional and critical, but also regulative, and linked with more general strategies of domination and even extermination. This reversibility comes together around the common theme of war, of struggle between ontologically differentiated, genetically continuous communities. War, as Foucault develops its meaning in his lecture course of 1975–1976, Society Must Be Defended, serves as an inclusive cipher for any critical engagement between populations. (Pasquino, 1993; Marks, 2000) From the early modern period, several tendencies came together to produce a discourse on war that provided a potent matrix for the analysis and contestation of power – a ‘historico-political’ discourse to which Foucault would variously attribute a variety of contentious critical traditions from twentieth-century class warfare of the socialist block to the bio-warfare and state racism expressed in Nazi race policies.

War, as a discursive and critical mode (with which Foucault ultimately identified not only the socialist critique prominent among the French left of the 1970s but also his own intellectual project), reveals that the ground upon which political authority rests is radically contingent, rooted not in the timelessness of an unbroken lineage or in the sovereign triumph of ideas, as political authorities themselves would have it, but in deeply historical relations of force, and in the happenstance of conflict and the spoils of victory (Elden, 2002). This concept of war shows clearly the imprint of Nietzsche’s account of the ubiquity of violent forces undergirding our contemporary ideological and moral systems: states of rule and the forms of civil order they bring, as well as populations and societies themselves, are all traversed by struggles between the weak and the strong (Foucault, 1977; Reid, 2006; Rasmussen, 2011). Sovereign authority rests on a ‘philosophico-juridical’ discourse that, as Foucault puts it, operates through a ‘subject-to-subject cycle, the cycle of power and powers, and the cycle of legitimacy and law’. Law, in this case, not only provides the basis of a certain peace, the King’s peace, but also the peace that constitutes the daily security of the population, mediated by right (Foucault, 2003, p. 44). What race war discourse reveals is the conflictual underside of this peace, a concealed war of races waged between distinct human groups, bound by generationally transmitted interests. All forms of law – together with the political edifice of a peace imposed by such law – are unmasked as a continuation of war ‘by other means’. Moreover, the very disclosure of these struggles immediately constitutes an expression of force itself: knowledge that draws back the veil of peace to reveal ongoing war is essentially an act of war (Foucault, 2003, p. 48). From this it follows that, if peace is in fact war, and if law is in fact violence, then the historico-political discourse of race war describes a unique way of knowing that discloses a population in perpetual division against itself, between the powerful and the powerless. Notably, such a split is decipherable, Foucault tells us, in terms of an ongoing war between distinct groups constituted by their own respective blood lineages – or races. ‘Historical discourse’, Foucault (2003) writes, ‘was no longer the discourse of sovereignty, or even race, but a discourse about races, about a confrontation between races, about the race struggle that goes on within nations and within laws’ (p. 69). Or as Mendieta and Paris (2004) puts it, ‘If one form of history was the memory of kings, priests and popes, the other is the memory of peoples, of warriors, of races’ (p. 5).

Race, then, is the operational term through which a barely perceptible contingency and conflict is disclosed within and against the perpetuity of sovereignty. Knowledge of this conflict is, as Foucault writes, one that equates the force of truth entirely with its capacity to wage war, to crystalize and draw to the surface of a seeming peace regulated by the timeless laws of reason and justice and embodied in subject-to-subject cycles of a social contract, the conflict-to-death that sovereign authorities wish to exclude from public consciousness. ‘Peace is waging a secret war’, Foucault (2003) writes, asserting the discourse of race war’s fundamental critical and epistemological relation: to pull back the curtain of sovereign perpetuity, to unmask and expose the arbitrary and bloody conflict suppressed by the placid face of sovereign power (p. 50).

But the discourse of race war does not yet account for contemporary manifestions of racism. Race war underwent certain transformations with the rise of the modern state and the development of the biological sciences, from which followed its general appropriation and colonization by a range of technologies of government whose effect was ultimately to reverse and contain its oppositional force. Foucault describes, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the appropriation of themes of race war into a new discourse of national sovereignty and security, organized around specifically biopolitical governmental objectives – in particular the uniquely romantic-nationalist appropriation of race war that would give rise to the Third Reich. What Lemke describes as the ‘organicist concept’ of the state is one that incorporates a vitalist conception of the population, which ‘understands the state not as a legal construction whose unity and coherence is the result of individual’s acts of free will but as an original form of life … [which] serves both as a mythic starting point and as a normative guideline’ (Lemke, 2011, p. 10; also Lash, 2006; Jones, 2010). Consolidated around rhetorics of biology, evolution and a theory of degeneracy, but also a new governmental concern with the continuity and purity of hereditary chains, the power to disclose is linked to the power to divide, and the discourse of race war migrates from the side of insurrection and opposition to that of racism per se. In other words, the discourse on race ‘is now inverted into its opposite: the State is no longer an instrument that one race uses against another’, Foucault (2003) writes: ‘the State is, and must be, the protector of the integrity, the superiority, and the purity of the race. The idea of racial purity, with all its monistic, Statist and biological implications: that is what replaces the idea of race struggle …. Racism is, quite literally, revolutionary discourse in inverted form’ (p. 81).

As such, racism entails the establishment of certain cleavages within the population defined by distinct modes of being. Racism specifies zones of government characterized by the imperative either to make live or to make die. Through state racism, the biopolitical or life-giving state recuperates the operations of the life-taking sovereign, as a counter-history of race war is transposed onto an administrative and ultimately necropolitical project of rule centered on a hygienics of heredity and blood line. Where the act of killing had been excluded from the repertoire of a state whose sole imperative became the safeguarding of life, racism, as the knowledge one holds about a popular segment defined by their only partially human life, allowed the state to reclaim the act of killing, under the mantle of an extension of the act of caring. Caring for the lives of the human meant restricting or exterminating the lives of the partially human. Indeed, the knowledge that discloses the racial forces traversing civil society is also a knowledge that imposes a break or a division within society. On the one hand is a sovereign population of law governed citizens, while on the other is a population unfit for sovereignty, to whom laws and rights do not apply, which necessarily resides outside the law and the subject-to-subject cycles of sovereignty. This is a population whose life is lived on the other side of a divide, a remove defined by an irreducibly natural difference of race. ‘What in fact is racism?’ Foucault (2003) asks: ‘It is primarily a way of introducing a break into the domain of life that is under power’s control: the break between what must live and what must die’ (p. 254).

Taken together, racism is a double function of knowing and dividing, and of disclosing behind the façade of civil peace a warring biological substratum, while dividing the world into those predisposed by blood line to civility and those requiring exclusion from civilization itself – this double function provides the prism through which racism can be considered. Shifting registers from a genealogical theory of racism to an empirical account of racism and anti-racism as problems of knowing and governing, I will consider the mutation of this double function from earlier forms of scientific racism to contemporary discourses on race, and how these features of knowing and dividing ultimately insinuated themselves into contemporary formations of White anti-racism.

State Racism and Expert Knowledge

Human groups have always expressed hostility toward each other for differences that are general in character, but it is not until these differences are articulated in terms of a fundamental vital ontology that this hostility acquires the intensity and force we associate with modern racism (Jones, 2010). Thus, racism is intrinsically bound up with an expert discourse on the science of human bodies and their distinct qualities. A reflection on the history of scientific racism reveals the broad range of disciplinary and scientific resources that have been brought to bear on this project. Physical anthropology, psychology, criminology and human biology have all served in the racial classification of human groups into hierarchically ordered anthropologic typologies based on genetically transmitted biological attributes (Fredrickson, 2002, Richards, 2012). Moreover, throughout the scientific racializing of human differences, if we accept Foucault’s argument, a fundamental division was developed and exploited between two key figures: on the one hand the sovereign status of a subject of law and right, and on the other the embodied subject as repository of hereditary attributes and behaviors. Racism institutes a split between these two moments of subjectivity, between the one that chooses and the one that just is. Or, more precisely, it is through scientific racism that the sovereignty of the subject was inscribed with a certain transparency, as the edifice, as mere tip of the iceberg, underneath which the stirrings of the other, corporeal subject could be sensed. Racism knows the body through the face: it draws back the curtain of this sovereignty to uncover forces of the racialized body. Race emerges at the specific moment of a critical tension between these two moments, as a problem of knowing and sensing, through which the racialized body is made to surface as a new object of knowledge with the power to disrupt, diminish or reduce the sovereignty of the subject into itself (Moten, 2008).

This moment of emergence/reduction derives its force from the uniquely expert status of scientific racism itself, which enables racial discourse to perform its epistemological trick from across the distance of a certain authority. In many ways, racism is only possible when expert discourse deploys its categories against the organic sociabilities of everyday life. Scientific racism mobilizes against lay chauvinism, which it considers vulgar, non-scientific hostility and incapable of apprehending the unique vitality of a deep, racialized body. But it also acts against misguided egalitarians who indulge sentimental appeals to the ultimate humanity of downtrodden groups that occlude these bodies altogether, scientific racists are able to disrupt both of these views through the assertion of another, deeper and more profound relation of alterity. This is a difference grounded neither in law or right, nor a common humanity recognized across the space of difference, but in an insurmountable incompatibility derived from a biological trait itself. This is not to suggest that only experts can be racist. But it is to insist that everyday sociabilities only acquire the intensity of racism when they are inflected by the dispassionate discourse of expertise.

It is in this spirit of this perception that, in 1851, Cartwright published a series of articles in DeBow’s Review, a pro-slavery periodical read throughout the American Southern states in the Antebellum years, titled ‘Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race’ (Cartwright, 1851). Cartwright claimed to possess special knowledge on the physical and psychological composition of the Negro that would dispel many of the simplistic and naïve impressions of northern abolitionists, who mistakenly attributed to the Negro the same rights to freedom, citizenship and suffrage that was the birthright of every man. But Cartwright’s challenge was also to the observations of plantation overseers, who attributed Negro misconduct to ‘rascality’, punishable by a good whipping. A proper grasp of Negro physiology and psychology, a neglected field of medicine owing to the undue influence of sentimental Northern abolitionists, would reveal such behaviors as laziness and the tendency to flee as the expressions, not of faulty moral character, but of medical conditions brought on by a unique physiology (Cartwright, 1851). The Negro’s laziness was explained by a condition he termed Dysaesthesia Aethiopica, and his desire to escape was a condition labeled Drapetomania.

Cartwright’s account of Dysaesthesia Aethiopica argued that freedom actually made slaves sick. When released from servitude, the overwhelming tendency to indolence that was the biological birthright of the Negro brought on the slowing of the respiratory system and poor circulation of oxygen, which further diminished the development of the Negro’s moral and cognitive faculties. Negroes, writes Cartwright, ‘will not take sufficient exercise, when removed from the White man’s authority, to vitalize and de-carbonize their blood by the process of full and free respiration’. Therefore, they ‘can only have their intellectual faculties awakened in a sufficient degree to receive moral culture and to profit by religious or other instructions, when under the compulsatory [sic] authority of the White man’ (p. 335).

What the scientific racism, which would become state racism, did, then, was to augment the face-to-faceness of sovereign sociability with a biologized current. What seemed freely chosen behavior was in fact determined. This project of disclosure became central to state racism as it developed from the scientific racisms of the nineteenth century into the eugenic and totalitarian racisms of the twentieth century. Galton (1904), originator of the field of eugenics and in many respects a key architect of the ideology of state racism, described eugenics to the scientific community in an article in the American Journal of Sociology with a brief etymology: ‘eu-’, deriving from the Greek, is the approximate equivalent of the English ‘good’, with ‘genics’ conferring stock or inheritance – eugenics is simply ‘good inheritance’. But the good of eugenics, Galton cautions, should not be confused with the more common usages of this word, in association with the goodness of morals or character. ‘Good’, used in association with morality and civic virtue, like the overseer’s assessment of rascality or abolitionist appeal to the common humanity of slaves, is utterly unscientific, prone to the relativism of given cultural situations. The ‘eu’ of inheritance, on the other hand, not only lends itself to scientific analysis and conforms to a universal standard of measure, but also it specifically explains the goodness of morality itself. ‘All creatures would agree that it is better to be healthy than sick, vigorous than weak, well-fitted than ill-fitted for their part in life; in short, that it is better to be good rather than bad specimens of their kinds, whatever that kind might be’ (Galton, 1904, p. 3). Goodness of stock, then, stands in a critical, disruptive relation to goodness of citizenship and morality: a truly scientific consideration of the former reveals the dynamics of the latter.

The specific configuration of state racism, then, can be understood in terms of its suturing of such an epistemo-governmental axis into an intensive program of rule, in which the government of one good infiltrates and displaces the government of the other. Indeed, where a biological disposition is understood in terms of the dangers it poses to the security of the social order, the only form of government appropriate to this segment of the population is total suppression of that life itself – the eu of eugenics – in the defense of those others capable of truly good lives. Such a racial program represents that moment in which biopower, the power to give life, establishes profound divisions within society, on the other side of which is only the imperative to kill. The necropolitical fixes a division through which a rationality of a killing consolidates biopower’s authority over life, not through campaigns aimed at popular health, reproduction and hygiene, but through extermination and annihilation, all in the name, ultimately, of preserving and strengthening the life of the population. Through race, as Mbembe (2003) puts it, ‘the calculus of life passes through the death of the Other’ (p. 18). Thus it is possible to speak of a bio/necro political axis, with the problem of race as one of knowing and dividing, situated at the fulcrum of these linked strategies (Sexton, 2011).

The Psychologization of Racial Difference

For a long time now, the explicitly necropolitical program of state racism has been discredited, although new racisms have emerged to take its place (Barkan, 1992; Richards, 2012, p. 135). Balibar (1991) has described the current state of what he terms ‘neo-racism’ as one that has largely disengaged the explicit ideology of biology and blood characteristic of state racism, substituting instead cultural, social and psychological categories as a means of essentially reproducing racism’s ontological differences (p. 21). Racial otherness has become a problem of sensibilities and cultures, understood as ways of living and perceiving the world. This is a shift of emphasis that carries a broad significance, not only for how we think of race and racism, but also for how we understand racism’s critique, and the increasingly hegemonic status that has been ascribed to anti-racism since state racism’s demise (Bonnett, 2000, p. 97). Anti-racism under these conditions is defined in terms of the capacity to exercise empathy, to co-experience the emotional states of others and to adopt temporarily the others’ point of view on the world. Cultural and psychological anti-racisms place certain demands on Whites as interpreters and empathizers, bearers of cultural competency and the capacity to divine the others’ standpoint – a task that is premised on the persistence of profound divides of racialized difference that demand of anti-racist Whites a robust sympathetic imagination.

At the forefront of the shift from state to cultural racisms were developments in the field of psychology, and the displacement of an older paradigm of biologized ‘race psychology’ with a model of cultural and psychological differences derived from environmental and social conditions. With the events that culminated in the defeat of fascism and the signing of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, along with the changing dynamics of race within US borders, scientific inquiry into the biology of racial differences turned to the social and environmental conditions shaping the psychologies of minority groups, and specifically to the impact of the prejudicial and chauvinistic attitudes of the majority. In other words, racism, and not race, became the problem. Samuelson (1978) has attributed this change to popular political and demographic changes in the United States, which culminated in a ‘shift in public interest from racial homogeneity to interracial harmony’ (p. 271). These included changes in immigration policy in the United States during the 1920s, which cut back significantly on the influx of Eastern European immigrants and on the need to ‘screen’ them on the basis of mental aptitude, but also on the internal migration of African Americans from Southern states to Northern cities and on the emerging need to produce a racially integrated labor force. The scientific and activist work of W.E.B. Dubois and W.I. Thomas, among others, pressed the study of ‘interracial attitudes’, bringing the psychology of race-prejudice to the forefront of the psychological agenda, partially in an effort to disclose the attitudinal biases of an earlier generation of race psychologists themselves. According to Samuelson, this shift entailed a strategic move on the part of professional psychologists who were able to abandon the increasingly untenable project of race psychology, while retaining their authority under the mantle of the more palatable psychology of racism itself (Samuelson, 1978, p. 268). With the publication in 1954 of Allport’s Nature of Prejudice, racism was understood in terms of flawed categorical thought, deeply embedded in the chauvinistic patterns of everyday social typing among social groups (Allport, 1979; Cherry, 2000). Prejudice was a deeply biased form of knowledge in which the true dimensions of the subjectivity of others was obscured in the fog of pre-formed perceptions, cultivated within the restricted memberships of everyday social groups. Prejudice was defined as ‘an antipathy based on faulty and inflexible generalization. It may be felt or expressed. It may be directed toward a group as a whole, or toward an individual because he is a member of that group’ (Allport, 1979, p. 9). As such, prejudice was curable.

While the flawed knowledge of prejudice was embedded in unexamined everyday attitudes, solutions could be found in therapeutic techniques centered on the disruption of these worn, cognitive habits. This meant the cultivation of empathy on the part of dominant groups, the apprehension of the other’s view of the world, and a reflection on the sloppiness of one’s own typifications – higher-order ways of knowing the other that could be transposed onto the crudities of vulgar prejudice. Allport describes various ‘training programs’ undertaken by therapists in community and institutional settings, aimed at dispelling prejudiced attitudes, such as exercises involving role playing and psychodrama, but also at open discussion and the sharing of pent-up emotions concerning race. For example, participants ‘are required to act out the roles of other people – of employees, of students, of Negro servants; and [participants] learns through such “psychodrama” what it feels like to be in another’s shoes. He also gains insight regarding his own anxieties, his motives and his projections … as perspective grows, a deeper understanding of the feelings and thoughts of others develops’ (Allport, 1979, p. 491). In the years that followed, the overcoming of racial prejudice by Whites assumed a broad and far-reaching agenda, ultimately occupying a central place in the self-understandings of White Americans in both institutional and private settings.

In much post-war psychology of prejudice and ‘inter-group relations’, African Americans were thought to carry deep emotional and psychological scars resulting from their encounter with White racism. What became known as the ‘damaged Negro’ thesis invited speculation on the accumulated consequences of racism on the psyches of Black people, afflicted with low self-esteem, anxiety, a neurotic sense of split consciousness, as well as anger and rage (Scott, 1997). In their 1951 study, The Mark of Oppression: Explorations in the Personality of the American Negro, Kardiner and Ovesey (1962) provided an account of the Negro personality that traced Negro instability to the matriarchal families that predominated in Negro society, and to the insecurities Negro men held with regard to their masculinity. Importantly, this was understood as an adaptational response to the limited worldview of White prejudice – a prevailing environmental condition that impacted every feature of Negro psychology. To the extent that Whites could correct for their simplistic attitudes toward Negro subjectivity and bring about a new understanding capable of comprehending the depths of that private suffering that constitutes Negro life, one could diminish the environmental causes that brought about the abnormality of Negro psychology itself. In fact, it was the responsibility of the White anti-racist to do precisely that.

The theme of Black suffering leveraged an appeal to the empathic sensibilities of liberal Whites, and to the sympathetic work of interpreting and sharing in the emotional troubles of Blacks. But this was an ambivalent appeal: while Moynihan’s (1965) thesis on the pathological Black family was ostensibly anti-racist, it nonetheless shrouded Black suffering in paternalistic liberal sympathy and generated a powerful backlash among civil rights activists and the emerging Black militant movement. Rising racial tensions and the shocks of race riots in the heart of American cities made it apparent that Whites had to change their attitudes toward others – a point conveyed in the reports of the Kerner Commission that, in the wake of violence in Newark, New York and Watts, laid the blame for Black frustration squarely on the shoulders of Whites who directly or indirectly participate in the deeply structured racism of American society itself (Herman, 1995, pp. 208–238; Eisenhower Foundation, 2015). In this context, the task of anti-racism expanded from an organic problem of interpersonal life to one of national security and civil order, refracted through a new discourse of popular security that made itself felt on the most minute levels of institutional and everyday life. ‘White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II’ warned the Kerner Commission – an indictment that demanded of Whites a new reflexivity and self-awareness, and that the flaws of prejudicial thinking be corrected as a duty of citizenship. It was everyone’s responsibility to comprehend the depths of Black suffering and rage. White anti-racism, as a newly derived empathy for the Black emotional condition, was the extension of a policing technology. To ensure public order, it was the responsibility of the normal to co-emotionalize with the abnormal – to know the other across a distinction that was fundamental and irreducible. ‘The major need is to generate new will – the will to tax ourselves to the extent necessary, to meet the vital needs of the nation … The major goal is the creation of a true union – a single society and a single American identity’. The Commission recommended ‘Increasing communication across racial lines to destroy stereotypes, to halt polarization, end distrust and hostility, and create common ground for efforts toward public order and social justice’ (Eisenhower Foundation, 2015).

To put this in Foucauldian terms, the anti-racism of prejudice psychology staged a complete inversion of the operation of state racism. Where the latter had collapsed the sovereignty of the raced subject into the biological body, Allport’s training programs and the popular anti-racist agenda that emerged in the aftermath of the civil rights movement and the rise of Black militancy sought to invest and restore this sovereignty, to recognize and confer dignity upon its humanity. Where state racism had incorporated a necropolitical technology of killing, imposing what Patterson (1982) describes as a ‘social death’, anti-racism subsumed that effort into the wider biopolitical agenda of making live – even for those who under a previous regime had been made to die. Mainstream Whites had to train themselves to engage the damaged sovereignty of African Americans through an exercise in sympathetic identification, mediated by a discourse of expertise. But such a reversal also reproduced and incorporated the very logic of the model it sought to undermine. Where state racism deployed the biological body, as a remote, barely perceptible yet deviously causal force to collapse the sovereignty of the raced subject, anti-racism would recover this sovereignty by employing an emotionalized, psychologized version of this same biological body. In place of the body of heredity, the psychologized subject was defined by an emotional disposition that was equally incompatible with the norms of civil society, and equally determining of sovereign conduct. In place of the scientific way of knowing, through which biological traits could be detected in the racialized other, was inscribed another form of knowledge, an emotional, empathic and hermeneutic knowledge sensitized to the other’s affective and cultural state – a task that demanded the development of new interpretive and cultural competencies. Both assumed a radical alterity, an object that existed at a remove, knowable across a divide so great as to warrant expert intervention.

Of course, these two knowledges were in many ways utterly distinct: state racism was paranoid and brutal, tied to the securitizing imperatives of the biopolitical society, while anti-racism was sympathetic and trained on the benevolent objectives of social integration through a humanistic social contract. But they both shared the effect of a certain dividing practice that produced an object that could only be known from afar, with the wider aim of drawing that object into a certain relation of order and control, under the mediating authority of a code morality and an expert discourse. This background psychological disposition that the sympathetic anti-racist sought to know, the anguished state that was racism’s scar, was patterned on the same racialized substrata, the suffocated lungs of the indolent slave or the better ‘eu’ of eugenics, whose movements the state racist studied beneath and within the sovereign actions of the other.

The Empathic Labor of White Anti-Racism

Anti-racism today extends its unique biopolitical imperative through a latticework of institutional policies, regulations, habits of conversation, norms of everyday interaction and private techniques of self-interrogation that extends from private to public sector institutions, from civil society to the most intimate recesses of emotional, interpersonal and corporeal life. Few institutions today are without some mechanism, formal or informal, for the production of empathy sufficient for the integration of a diverse work force, student body family, neighborhood or civil society (Benn Michaels, 2007; Ahmed, 2012; Melamed, 2015). Few White Americans today have not, at one moment or another, considered the possibility of their own deficit of empathy, and perhaps sought, through some indirect measure, to nullify the problem through a compensatory gesture of one kind or another. This is a process largely patterned on a notion of racism centered on the juridical framing of obligation and debt, inscribed in a code morality: White anti-racism is compelled to make good its arrears through the adoption of a set of cultural competencies, and the development of the unique faculty of a sympathetic imagination.

Under neo-racism, racial categories can be sustained as long as they are made the object of a program of a cultural competency: privileged groups can regard the other as radically different, providing they develop the ability to read, interpret, understand and appreciate the weltanschauung of the other. Indeed, the remoteness of this difference is in many ways the product of, or given a unique form by, the efforts to understand it. Empathy, therefore, becomes a potent objective, and a characterological attribute rich with significance in what Pedwell (2014) has termed the ‘empathy economy’ (p. 4). ‘Empathy is perhaps most commonly articulated as the affective act of seeing from another’s perspective and imaginatively experiencing her or his thoughts, emotions and predicaments’, writes Pedwell (2014), although its codification within anti-racisim is one that frequently undermines the universalist appeal of empathy, lending itself to a fetishism of difference and ultimately the obfuscation of the empathizer’s wider complicity in structures of domination (p. 10).

In either case, empathy invokes a certain labor: it provides a technical capacity for inversion, a power to reverse the place of equal and reciprocal positions – a switching of places that not only assumes an underlying commonality, but also the remoteness of the other’s experiences necessitating the empathic effort in the first place. This reversal takes place through the inversion of the necropolitical imperative: that which was made to die is brought back to life by being given the right to hold a perspective on the world, a right confirmed by the empathic subject who shares, if only through a temporary and deliberate act of sympathetic investment, this point of view. As Nussbaum (2010) has argued, empathy serves as a powerful instrument for the erosion of social boundaries, in this case, those very social boundaries that were established and maintained through state racism. But empathy, as the inversion of a necropolitical imperative, is also the instrument of a technology of security and control, serving as a kind of dispositif that extends the logic of neoliberal governmentality itself, serving as an instrument or apparatus for the production of a certain formation of juridical subjectivity (Binkley, 2014; Dilts, 2014). As such, the dispositif of empathy was not installed all at once, but gradually, and through a series of slow and uneven developments, in the course of which the intensity and character of this apparatus changed in fundamental ways.

In the United States, the institutionalization of anti-racism was propelled by the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and specifically the provision of Title VII of that act, which prohibited the discrimination in hiring and other workplace practices. In the decades that followed, a large number of discrimination lawsuits encouraged businesses to implement anti-discrimination training programs, mostly centered in the legal and managerial aspects of discrimination and bias (Rohini and Winters, 2008). Initially, these programs were compliance oriented, legalistic in character, restricted to the recitation of company policy and federal law. Over time, however, the emphasis of these policies would shift from mere compliance to the personal and cultural dimensions of workplace dynamics, assuming an increasingly therapeutic character capable of addressing a broader range of interpersonal, emotional and cultural dimensions of professional life (Thomas and Ely, 1996). A report from the Hudson Institute released in 1987, Workforce 2000, predicted large numbers of women and minorities entering professional life, and the need to create diverse work environments, not just to avoid litigation, but also for the purposes of enhancing profitability and for business survival itself (Johnston and Packer, 1987). As the imperative of institutional diversity developed from one of legal policy to business strategy, and as diversity became a means of gaining a competitive edge, the focus shifted to the problem of workplace cultures, to the individual sensibilities and outlooks of workers and managers and to racism as a private ethical concern.

In short, the problem of racism itself underwent a process of transformation from one of ideology to one of unconscious psychic disposition – a shift to a therapeutic project that would open a broad range of instruments and procedures for the transformation of an inner psychic defect that was coy and evasive, everywhere and nowhere, and thus the target of a procedure that was unending in its descent from the highest perch of expertise to the most remote depths of White subjectivity itself. The invocation to awareness of this object could be disseminated throughout institutional and personal life. White Awareness: Handbook for Anti-racism Training is an instructional manual for corporate and educational diversity and sensitivity training workshops first authored in the 1970s by Katz (2003), and subsequently updated in new editions. It provides a technique and a precise methodology for the treatment of workplace racism through an intervention in the private folds of consciousness, inviting privileged groups to take up and examine, to know and transform the unique mental and emotional states that constitute their own racism. Racism is understood as a wound that brings suffering, not only as a psychological abnormality but also as a deeply experienced emotional and existential challenge that Whites are compelled to confront through careful self-attention and therapeutic self-work: ‘White people do not see ourselves as White …. Lack of understanding of oneself owing to poor sense of identity causes Whites to develop a negative attitude toward people of color on both of the conscious and unconscious level’ (Katz, pp. 14–15). For Katz, the invitation to greater self understanding, as a project of White anti-racism, is established in a set of actions and measures that can be woven into the daily practices of everyday life. Citing points developed in Bill Clinton’s Presidents’ Initiative on Race in 1998, the author recommends:

1. Make a commitment to become informed about people from other races and cultures. 2. If it is not your inclination to think about race, commit at least 1 day each month to thinking about how issues of racial prejudice and privilege might be affecting each person you come into contact with that day. 3. In your life, make a conscious effort to get to know people of other races. 4. Make a point to raise your concerns about comments of actions that appear to be prejudicial, even if you are not the targets of these actions.

(pp. 18–19)

Racism is not just a moral failing or an ideological distortion: it is a psychologically rooted barrier to empathy, and as such demands careful self-study on the part of every White subject. Katz writes: ‘Racism has severely hindered White people’s psychological and intellectual development. In psychological terms racism has deluded Whites into a false sense of superiority that has left us in a pathological and schizophrenic state … the intellectual perspective and growth potential of Whites has been severely limited by racism’ (pp. 17–18).

In recent years, however, this appeal to a depth hermeneutic has been surpassed by anti-racist methodologies of more behaviorist origins, such as that reflected in a more recent concern with ‘micro-aggressions’ in everyday interaction. In a popular and influential series of articles, Columbia University social psychologist Derald Wing Sue has provided a typology of racial ‘micro-aggressions’, by which he means ‘brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color’. Microaggressions are often unconsciously delivered in the form of subtle snubs or dismissive looks, gestures and tones. These exchanges are so pervasive and automatic in daily conversations and interactions that they are often dismissed and glossed over as being innocent and innocuous (Wing Sue et al, 2007, p. 273). Building on a tradition of psychological research on the question of ‘aversive racism’, or the implicit, unaware and habitual expression of racist sentiment and conduct, Wing Sue breaks down micro-aggressive encounters into three general types: Microassault, microinsult and microinvalidation.

Microassaults are described as a form of ‘old-fashioned’ racism. They entail ‘an explicit racial derogation characterized primarily by a verbal or nonverbal attack meant to hurt the intended victim through name-calling, avoidant behavior, or purposeful discriminatory actions’ (p. 274). While they are often deliberate and intentional, they are also, the authors contend, anonymous in character, allowing the racist actor to escape any direct responsibility for their actions. Microinsults are ‘subtle snubs, frequently unknown to the perpetrator, but [that] clearly convey a hidden insulting message to the recipient of color’ (p. 274). For example, asking a person of color how they got their job suggests that it is surprising that a person of color could hold such a position at all. Microinsults can also extend to such non-verbal interactions as turning one’s eyes away or seeming distracted. Microinvalidations are comments or behaviors that ‘exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person of color’. Distinct from an insult, which attributes a specific defect to its recipient, a microinvalidation downplays the uniquely racialized character or quality of another’s experiences, as when White people assert, against racism, that ‘we are all human beings’, or in the case that a White couple might tell a Latino couple ‘Don’t be so sensitive’ when they complain about being passed over for seating at a restaurant. Indeed, even the denial of having committed a micro-aggression is itself constitutive of one.

The discourse on microaggressions has permeated the conversation on race, and reshaped diversity and multi-cultural training methods in corporate, university and other institutional settings where empathy deficits among Whites are presumed to motivate seemingly innocent gestures and remarks that deliver invisible emotional blows to members of minority groups. But in contrast to the broad objectives of White awareness training, a theory of micro-aggressions presents a particularly truncated version of the anti-racist imperative. It does not require that Whites interrogate their lives on any profound level, nor that they co-experience any particular emotional intensity with members of other groups. It is a technical discourse of pure payment, on the presumption of insurmountable debt: Whites repeatedly and habitually transgress the boundaries of civility in their interactions with people of color, and for this reason owe them the effort of special modes of self-monitoring and restraint. The fabric of everyday sociability is so shot through with these aggressions, which are themselves so invisible not just to Whites but also to minorities who feel their pinch but cannot always identify the source – as to require a terminology of interactional expertise, one that permeates everyday life, though it originates from the authorities above. Thus technicized, the truncated project of an anti-racist empathic imaginary becomes one of management rather than soul searching, doing away with any need to apprehend on any deep level the emotions of others, or to reflect very deeply on one’s own emotional responses.


The recuperation of a politics of anti-racism for a new ethical practice, one bound less by the reciprocal obligation defined by a code ethics and more closely resembling an askesis of the self, is necessarily a problematic task, given the very foundational assumption of anti-racism itself. Anti-racism assumes a renunciation, a sovereign refusal before the law, the denial of something (racism), in which one could otherwise partake were it not for the terms of the social contract to which one is obliged to act. Indeed, the politics of anti-racism has always trafficked heavily in guilt: the guilt of the one who stands before the law, of a Whiteness that indulges in a pleasure that it should renounce. Anti-racism presumes a pleasure-guilt cycle, an anxiety–catharsis relation that is as ongoing and seamless as the embedded racism of White subjectivity itself, from which no payment no matter how grand can provide any durable sense of relief. Revealing the continuities between racism and anti-racism, along the lines of the twin operations of dividing and knowing, shows the limitations of anti-racism as a code morality. Payment is not transformation: it presumes the continuity of the subject before, during and after payment is made. It also, on a cryptic level, licenses the very pleasures – the pleasures of racism – for which it ostensibly makes remuneration. Where repayment affords such pleasures of catharsis, certainly the desire is given to transgress again, in order to prepare further moments of cathartic release.

An askesis of anti-racism is oxymoronic: it would need a new name. It could not proceed within the binary structures of a pleasure (racism) and its guilty negation (anti-racism). Is there a pleasure of non-racism, or a-racism? Might that pleasure provide the basis of a new White politics of race, one that is not conducted for other people, but for the enrichment, beautification and pleasure of the position of the subject herself? Foucault famously wrote in the first Volume of the History of Sexuality that ‘the rallying point for the counter-attack against the deployment of sexuality ought not be sex-desire but bodies and pleasures’ (Foucault, 1990, p. 157). ‘Sex-desire’, for Foucault, meant the normalized dispositions of those sexual subjects produced and regulated through a heteronormative matrix of normal and abnormal bodies. But to resist this matrix, we must look elsewhere to the bodies themselves, to the pleasures they produce externally to their capture in systems of sexual normalization. Is it possible to seek a similar rallying point for a counter-attack against the deployment of a normalized racial difference? For this, the juridical code morality of an anti-racism of debt is ultimately insufficient.


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Copyright information

© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Sam Binkley
    • 1
  1. 1.Emerson CollegeBostonUSA

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