Anti-racism’s mission drift

Privileged progressives have turned their attention from structures and systems to sentimentalism.

The summer seminar promised the kind of elite educational experience top high school students covet. Set on a leafy Ivy League campus, Anti-Oppressive Studies was tailor-made for those who prefer their education privileged and progressive. The professor was as impressive as the students. Educated at Princeton and Berkeley with street cred as a veteran activist and organizer, African American theologian Vincent Lloyd seemed perfectly matched to the occasion.

Yet the students would come to use the seminar’s innovative democratic governance to vote their teacher off the island. The seminar’s ambitions, especially its attempt to hold together its privilege and progressivism, meant that it could not long bear the weight of its contradictions. Something had to give. Someone had to go. As Lloyd later reflected, in a Compact essay that blew up academic Twitter, “the students had all of the dogma of anti-racism, but no actual racism to call out in their world, [channeling] all of their desire to combat racism at me.”

The story sounds outlandish, as if motivated by agendas and axes to grind. But in our current context it’s entirely plausible, even predictable. Over recent decades American anti-racism has detached itself from the very structures and systems it was meant to address and repair.