Critique of Anti-Racism in Rhetoric and Composition

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* Book: A Critique of Anti-Racism in Rhetoric and Composition: The Semblance of Empowerment. By Erec Smith. Lexington Books, 2019



"critiques current antiracist ideology in rhetoric and composition, arguing that it inadvertently promotes a deficit-model of empowerment for both students and scholars. Erec Smith claims that empowerment theory—which promotes individual, communal, and strategic efficacy—is missing from most antiracist initiatives, which instead often abide by what Smith refers to as a "primacy of identity”: an over-reliance on identity, particularly a victimized identity, to establish ethos. Scholars of rhetoric, composition, communication, and critical race theory will find this book particularly useful." [1]


Erec Smith:

"I just want an anti-racism that does not require a feeling of victimization or, at times, infantilization and learned helplessness in people of color. I want an empowering anti-racism that provides and maintains racial dignity while encouraging deliberative engagement with the social and material realities of American society. Unfortunately, most contemporary anti-racism suffers from a primacy of identity that consists of four parts: a narcissistic embrace of lived experience as its primary ethos and epistemology, a tendency to essentialize people based on race, a demonization of critical inquiry (let alone blunt disagreement), and a neglect of fundamental aspects of rhetoric like context and audience consideration.

The primacy of identity tends to produce what is known as “prefigurative politics”—a politics in which people try to perform the world they are trying to bring about. Prefigurative politics is not a problem when coupled with clear strategy and concrete planning. Unfortunately, the real-world strategies needed to create that world are often neglected by those willing to settle for the comfort of make-believe. The prefigurative bubble can be a conference, an institution, a department, or a club in which modes of behavior indicate a societal structure unreflective of social and material realities. It is therefore unsuited to the demanding task of actually bringing about meaningful change.

In my recent book, A Critique of Anti-Racism in Rhetoric and Composition: The Semblance of Empowerment, I spend very little time discussing Critical Race Theory (CRT) that informs most contemporary anti-racist pedagogies and trainings. This is because CRT is downstream from the primacy of identity, and therefore a symptom and not a proximate cause of the real problem. The primacy of identity is itself the result of personal and interpersonal disempowerment, which has a number of causes.

First, Dr. Joy DeGruy has argued that it is produced by what she calls Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome (or PTSS). “Slavery,” she writes, “yielded stressors that were both disturbing and traumatic, exacting a wound upon the African American psyche that continues to fester.” Second, the rhetorical embrace of the religious promise that the downtrodden and meek shall inherit the Earth was an early and understandable tactic of black survival. However, it proved to be so effective that it is still the basis of much activism today, irrespective of context. Third, Shelby Steele has argued that the anxiety and insecurity produced by a new discourse or interpretive community—what he calls “integration shock”—can be expressed as righteous defiance of innocuous norms and expectations. For those drowning in a soup of PTSS, victimhood, and integration shock, seeking refuge in the primacy of identity may provide relief—CRT is simply the buoy to which they cling to stay afloat.

John McWhorter has recently argued that many of the loudest anti-racist voices in the black community suffer from a distinctly black insecurity. In response to the coerced “resignation” of the New York Times‘s veteran columnist Donald McNeil, McWhorter writes:

The reason a black person engages in this kind of inquisition is not ill-will, and it isn’t stupidity. It’s insecurity. Slavery and Jim Crow have many legacies, and one is on black psychology. People who really like themselves can’t be destroyed by someone referring to a word, even a word that has been used against them. If the blackest thing you can do is get someone canned for referring to a slur, we see that the frame of mind that famously led black kids to choose white dolls in the 1950s experiment lives on.

As a black American myself, I am obviously not claiming that disempowerment is the condition of all black people (and I find it depressing that I must say so). I am saying that those who feel disempowered are more likely to embrace radical activism driven by a primacy of identity intended to protect a vulnerable self. Not all black people are prone to PTSS, integration shock, or victimhood. Many embrace a healthy self-esteem and the ability to express themselves in their various civil and professional lives. Unfortunately, these people are often disparaged as dupes, traitors, or multiracially white.

Nor am I claiming that nothing good comes of group solidarity. A sense of belonging can provide fulfillment and security, and a sense of duty can provide meaning and purpose. However, many people are only looking for the belonging and purpose (what Max Weber called the “ethics of ultimate ends”) with no real concern for strategies that can realistically secure progress and societal improvement (what Weber called the “ethics of responsibility”). Prefiguration crafts a make-believe world of heroes and villains at the expense of the real world in which people are nuanced, multi-dimensional, and often on board with the ostensible goals of progressive social justice movements: the eradication of racism and inequality.

In A Critique of Anti-Racism, I offer empowerment theory as a framework for anti-racist work, whether it is activism or pedagogy. Empowerment theory is derived from psychology and social work, prominently championed by Marc Zimmerman and Judith A.B. Lee, respectively. It also has a tacit presence in the work of writers like Chloé S. Valdary and organizations like the Greater Good Science Center. And it overlaps with theories of emotional intelligence set forth by Daniel Goleman, George Kohlrieser, Vanessa Druskat, and Richard Boyatzis. (The work of Ronald Heifetz, Marty Linsky, and Donald Laurie in Leadership Studies is also relevant.) Empowerment has three components: the intrapersonal, the interactional, and the behavioral. One needs all three components to be truly empowered." (

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