Recap: Paul C. Taylor's Moffett Lecture "What's Wrong with Anti-Racism"

May 15, 2024

As is aptly evidenced by the lecture’s title, in his 2024 James A. Moffett ’29 Lecture in Ethics, Paul C. Taylor, the Presidential Professor of Philosophy at the University of California-Los Angeles, explored and analyzed the expanding terrain of anti-anti-racism with an eye towards gaining a clearer understanding of the imputed wrongness of anti-racism. 

Taylor began his lecture by elucidating the context in which the term anti-racism was popularized: the 2020 racial reckoning that followed the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. These killings sparked important waves of protest that were quickly labeled anti-racist (despite the fact that the activists that participated in them conceived of them in much broader terms), which subsequently led to the spread and popularization of the term, a process that was further aided by the promotion of publications such as Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Antiracist.” 

In Taylor’s view, this initial wave of activism led to a corresponding wave of backlash where the notion of anti-racism was at times responsibly and constructively, and at times irresponsibly and excessively, criticized. Dissecting the intellectual terrain left behind by this wave of anti-anti-racism, an effort that Taylor argues has sorely been undertheorized, constituted the lecture’s main purpose. Taylor identifies 5 big categories of anti-anti-racism: racist, indirect, conservative, liberal and left. Racist anti-anti-racism, argues Taylor, is the most straightforward kind, insofar as it is founded on the belief that what makes anti-racism wrong is the conviction that racism is warranted: some populations are less valuable or capable than others, and so deserve to be treated worse. Indirect anti-anti-racism, continues Taylor, is marginally more complicated, given that it portrays itself as pro-anti-racist while merely being interested in the material benefits that can be derived from adopting such a position, rather than in truly combatting racism and its causes. For their part, conservative and liberal anti-anti-racisms are founded on the belief that a commitment to anti-racism stands in direct opposition to core conservative and liberal values such as freedom or equality. 

Taylor’s analysis then moves on to the final type, left anti-anti-racism, which he further dissects into critical theoretic and social critical critiques of anti-racism. Critical theoretic critiques, argues Taylor, seek to interrogate anti-racism as a distinct social enterprise, with the aim of understanding its chilling effect on our ability to call out and resist oppression. These critiques can be further subdivided into genealogical or conceptual critiques. Genealogical critical theoretic critiques conceive of anti-racism as a self-contained enterprise that emerges at a certain moment in time, in response to certain kinds of social factors. As a consequence, Taylor maintains, these critiques help us to identify the ways in which certain official anti-racisms are marshalled with the aim of supplanting more radical political programs. For their part, conceptual critical theoretic critiques maintain that a focus on anti-racism is conceptually problematic because it obscures other important sources of oppression, an idea that, Taylor argues, can be found in Kimberlé Crenshaw's early essays on intersectionality. Finally, social critical critiques of anti-racism seek to criticize not the concept of anti-racism as a whole, but rather particular implementations of it. Here we can find, for example, critiques against Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) initiatives.

Having mapped out with scintillating clarity the intellectual space of anti-anti-racisms, Professor Taylor closed his lecture by returning to the work of Ibram X. Kendi. For Taylor, the analytical clarity achieved through the mapping of the different types of anti-anti-racisms allows us to interrogate Kendi’s work in a new light. A genealogical and conceptual critical theoretic approach to Kendi’s work, argues Taylor, exposes the convergence of this work with the project of indirect anti-anti-racism. In other words, Kendi-style anti-racism, whatever the intentions of its most prominent architect, aligns with projects that do little to uproot racism and its causes, and contributes instead to the de-radicalization and conceptual obfuscation of anti-racism. Taylor’s parting words were thus of caution: when intellectual spaces such as that of anti-anti-racism are left undertheorized, it gets hard to tally up the real costs of letting figures such as Ibram X. Kendi rise to fill the silence.