Black Lives Matter Day – Race, Class and The Woke Theory

If it is not a cultural divide, then what is it?  Perhaps it is a matter of divisions in class? 

5 mins read
Woman holds up a sign at the Black Lives Matter protest in Washington DC [ Photo Credit: Clay Banks/ Unsplash]

Black Lives Matter Day falls  annually on February 26 in remembrance of Trayvon Martin, an African American teen who was killed by a white American seemingly out of hatred. It is a movement that emerged in July 2013 as a campaign against systemic racism and violence against black people. It’s impetus was strengthened in 2020 when George Floyd – another person of the African American community – was forcibly strangled to death by a white police officer in Minneapolis who knelt on Floyd’s neck until he choked to unconsciousness and subsequently to death. The killing sparked vociferous and sometimes violent protest marches across the United States  where an estimated 15 million to 26 million people demonstrated inter alia for criminal justice reform in the country.

At the heart of the protests was an implicit intellectual accusation that the United States was holistically and systemically racist, harking back to the Declaration of Independence.  This view was reflected in the Critical Race Theory (CRT) which was originally introduced on divisions of class and which morphed into the overall theory that every institution was philosophically and structurally racist. Stokely Carmichael, the originator of CRT argued in the1960s that although the Civil Rights Act of 1965 seemingly barred discrimination based on  racism, this was not so in practice.  In his own words “ it is white power that makes the laws, and it is violent while power that enforces those laws with guns and nightsticks”.

Ben Shapiro, in his book The Authoritarian MomentHow the Left Weaponized America’s Institutions Against Dissent (2021) says: “ Carmichaels intellectual heirs formally launched the CRT project in the late 1970s and early 1980s,  Expositors Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic set out the basic principles of CRT: first that racism is ordinary, not aberrational; second, that our system of white -over-color ascendancy serves important purposes, both psychic and material. The system, in other words is designed to create racially disparate outcomes; any proof of racially disparate outcomes is evidence of the malignancy of the system”.

Stanford psychologist Steven O Roberts says: “Racism is a system of advantage based on race. It is a hierarchy. It is a pandemic. Racism is so deeply embedded within U.S. minds and U.S. society that it is virtually impossible to escape”. Michael Rizzo, a postdoctoral fellow at New York University says: “just as citizens of capitalistic societies reinforce capitalism, whether they identify as capitalist or not, and whether they want to or not, citizens of racist societies reinforce racism, whether they identify as racist or not, and whether they want to or not….Many people, especially White people, underestimate the depths of racism”.

It is not a matter of cultural difference that fuels this perceived division as African Americans have blended well.  An extract from The Spectator of 3 June 2019 says: “In this, black Americans are exemplars. Most of them came originally from Africa, the least individualist of all world regions. Yet they have made prodigious contributions to American life. And over time, a substantial share of the group has become individualist. Blacks now regularly appear as leaders in every realm of national life because they pursue advancement just like other groups. This fusion of group and national style is a model for the nation. The black middle class shows everyone the way forward”.

If it is not a cultural divide, then what is it?  Perhaps it is a matter of divisions in class?  Scott Woods says: “The problem is that white people see racism as conscious hate, when racism is bigger than that. Racism is a complex system of social and political levers and pulleys set up generations ago to continue working on the behalf of whites at other people’s expense, whether whites know/like it or not. Racism is an insidious cultural disease. It is so insidious that it doesn’t care if you are a white person who likes black people; it’s still going to find a way to infect how you deal with people who don’t look like you. Yes, racism looks like hate, but hate is just one manifestation. Privilege is another. Access is another. Ignorance is another. Apathy is another. And so on”.

To counter this growing division and distrust among whites and blacks in American society, a new movement or theory has sprung up called The Woke Theory which advocates “wokeness” which is defined as “the quality of being alert to injustice and discrimination in society, especially racism”. Ben Shapiro, who was cited earlier, at an event titled “How Wokeness is Destroying America” said: “ America is fundamentally racist, and that western civilization is, at root, similarly racist, is ruining the country”. Linking racism to wokism Shapiro went on to say “the woke  concept that racism is not just a product of individual bias or prejudice, but also in legal systems and policies…Racism, as anyone who looks at the world right now could note, is present in every society forever for all time… “It’s just an ugly part of human nature.”

In a 2020 article titled US Racism and Inequality Are Rooted in The Law, Robert J. MacCoun,James and Patricia Kowal Professor of Law at Stanford Law School, writing in Annual Reviews says: “the Racism and racial inequality in the U.S. pervade policing, but also the justice and prison systems, the job market, and housing, among others. This is a policy problem and fixing it will require broad legislative action”.

This statement points to a class division as well as  inequality among the two categories where the average income of a white family has been set at  $ 170,000 whereas it is $ 20,000 (on an average) for a black family. Psychologist Michelle P. Maidenberg says: “The first and most important step to take to eradicate racism is facing ourselves and noticing our personal part in it. It is easy to deny something we are unaware or shameful of, but realistically, based on our sociocultural and neurocognitive development, we all come with personal biases and prejudices. It makes sense, as how we were raised and how are mind functions impacts directly on our perceptions and assumptions”.

My Take

There does not seem to be a quick fix to the problem.  I would prefer to mesh Dr. Maidenberg’s view and the view of a young playwright in Ottawa – Vishesh Abeyratne – who is staging his play “Divide and Rule (as originally titled) with the new title White Lion and Brown Tiger. The play  highlights a confrontation between a member of the Sinhala community and another from the Tamil community – both of the Sri Lankan diaspora – who work together. In Vishesh’s words: “The play examines the lasting consequences of colonial violence in the interactions between two members of a diaspora, but it doesn’t examine Canada’s own shameful colonial past. To answer this question, you’d have to go back through years and years of history; the British ruling powers pitted the Sinhalese and Tamils against each other, which went from peaceful protests to riots to civil war, forcing Tamils out of the country. Our two main characters take up the fight that took place in Sri Lanka, from the privileged place of diaspora, but under a racist capitalist rule that values neither of them”.

Vishesh Abeyratne asks the pertinent question: “Which one of them is more “whitewashed” in the end? The guy who uses the same tactics of manipulation and subjugation as his country’s former oppressors? Or the guy who reads Kurt Vonnegut and listens to the Tragically Hip?”

Ruwantissa Abeyratne

Dr. Abeyratne teaches aerospace law at McGill University. Among the numerous books he has published are Air Navigation Law (2012) and Aviation Safety Law and Regulation (to be published in 2023). He is a former Senior Legal Counsel at the International Civil Aviation Organization.

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