What Is Antiracism?: How liberal ‘diversity training’ cancelled structural racism

What Is Antiracism?: How liberal ‘diversity training’ cancelled structural racism
12 min read
11 October, 2023
Book Club: While liberal anti-racists obsess over diversity; new forms of racism have seeped into the routines of liberal regimes. Arun Kundnani's 'What Is Antiracism?' instead theorises an anti-racism that is radical, universal, and anti-capitalist.
Liberal antiracism has proven powerless against structural oppression. As Arun Kundnani demonstrates, white liberals can heroically confront their own whiteness all they want, yet these structures remain [Verso Books]

In the summer of 2020, as 15 million Americans took to the streets to demand justice for George Floyd, the abolition of prisons, and the defunding of the police, DJ David Guetta stood on top of the Rockefeller Centre in New York and ended racism.

The timing felt right. In the throes of a global pandemic and a racial reckoning, Guetta’s United At Home livestream – sponsored by Hewlett Packard – was an opportunity too good to miss.  

“The world is going through difficult times,” the DJ admitted, “America too, actually. So I’ve made a special record in honour of George Floyd… and I hope we can see more unity and peace when things are already so difficult. Shout out to his family!”

After a brief build-up, he took his chance. DJ David Guetta gestured to the heavens before mixing in Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” over EDM, to the delight of thousands of fist-bumping fans and celebrities on Zoom. The curse of racism had finally been lifted, and all it took was a little soul-searching and some business techno.

“The liberal brand of anti-racism understands racism as an individual pathology, a psychology of animosity, solved by confronting our own irrational prejudices"

Three years later, I regret to inform you that racism still exists, and “David Guetta ends racism” has since ascended into meme folklore. But even he could be forgiven thinking his actions would make a difference.

That summer, social media was inundated with black squares, hashtags, and undergraduate reading lists. From the football terraces to the boardroom, we learnt about unconscious bias, diversity champions, and micro-aggressions, and how these terms – often used synonymously - would be the antidote to “systemic racism”.

Liberals thought they’d cracked it: semiotic paternalism + personal development = racial rehabilitation. And in continuance with our self-help obsession, a $4.3 billion industry for diversity training soon sprung up across the US, with books teaching anti-racism to children becoming bestsellers.

The liberal brand of anti-racism understands racism as an individual pathology, a psychology of animosity, solved by confronting our irrational prejudices. We are racist because we are uneducated, or so the logic goes.

But there arose a problem. For all the talk about “systemic racism”, understanding the system and its functions was left absent, dissonant, or squeezed into the liberal definition. How could individualism solve a systemic problem?

Furthermore, capitalism – our overwhelming economic system – is absolved of accountability. Instead, thinly veiled statements of solidarity would suffice for past and present offences.

Hewlett Packard’s role in maintaining Israeli apartheid is excused after their CEO quoted a “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Disney’s history of racist imagery in films is forgotten after a memo urged employees to “further strengthen our commitment to diversity and inclusion everywhere,” and Lockheed Martin’s role in human suffering is wiped clean after a three-day diversity training program to deconstruct white male culture.

The traditional optics of racism have been rendered invisible: no more public lynching, no concentration camps, no colonial famine. Today, the same liberal infrastructure, shored up by the “mute compulsions of market pressures” avoids blame through a rhetoric of cultural relativism and enforces its rule through new means: racially coded bordering, incarceration, policing, and war.

Hewlett Packard provides the Israel with surveillance technology used against Palestinians in the occupied territories [photo credit: Peter Marshall/Alamy Live News]
Hewlett Packard provides Israel with surveillance technology used against Palestinians in the occupied territories [photo credit: Peter Marshall/Alamy Live News]

Arun Kundnani’s What Is Antiracism? And Why It Means Anticapitalism challenges the liberal idea by fleshing out an alternative, radical anti-racism forged from the embers of empire.

For Arun and his fellow radicals, racism isn’t simply a matter of irrational prejudices, as the liberal tradition suggests. Rather, racism is the routine of liberal regimes by which “land, labour and rights are politically and socially organised.”

It’s the racially differentiated laws, conventions, precedents, and practices sealed by the state: visa controls, urban planning, lending markets, aid, health, borders – the structure.

Nor is, as A. Sivanandan reminds us, racism fought by diversity champions or other forms of “potty training” that teach people to behave like normal human beings.

“The border violence of detention and deportation… is driven by the need to maintain a worldwide racial division of labour; it does not diminish in the slightest if the deportation officer who carries out the violence and the capitalist who profits from it have done terrific jobs of examining their unconscious bias,” Arun writes.

Without analysing the structure, we fail to understand what powers the prejudice that troubles the liberal mind or trace racism’s mutating character.

If our image of racism is the Jim Crow South, and our vocabulary is diversity and inclusion, then by all accounts the liberal North has come a long way.

If, however, our framework is structural, we realise recent right-wing successes – ladened with anti-refugee and Islamophobic vitriol – are not a reaction against so-called anti-racist progress, but rather them “making explicit what’s already implicit in the violently racist practices of liberal states.”

The value of What is Antiracism? therefore lies in its ability to provide a structural analysis of racism, including colonialism and capitalism, whilst showing how liberal ideas of anti-racism can be easily co-opted to support new forms of racist power.

Summoning Fanon, Arun writes with precision: “A society cannot be unconsciously racist, but it can function in a racist way without a majority of its citizens holding racist beliefs.”

What is Antiracism? not only tells the story of the two anti-racist movements but how neoliberalism reordered the world. And whilst the two theories have differing metrics of success, Arun proves they aren’t mutually exclusive. Instead, the liberal structure has produced a radical reaction.

The theory of liberal anti-racism was inspired by the work of American anthropologist Ruth Benedict and German gay rights activist Magnus Hirschfield, who sought to understand the rise of Nazism in the 1930s and antisemitism in European culture.

Both Benedict and Hirschfield believed racism was borne out of fear and used to gain political power. It was, nonetheless, a temporary, extremist mindset. Educating the masses would be the ultimate solution to overcoming racism.

By measuring prejudice, Arun explained to The New Arab that education became an opportunity to assert the West’s spiritual superiority and moral conversion toward a liberal worldview. “It also forced a pivot from archaic forms of European scientific racism to cultural relativism – which emphasised tradition and habits as the determinants of behaviour.”

However, their solution was elitist, top-down, and relied on a number of exclusionary assumptions. They restricted the issue of racism to the white-black relationship in the United States and antisemitism in Europe, whilst separating domestic forms of anti-racism from international struggles. Ultimately, the liberal brand of anti-racism was and is clouded by Euro-centrism.

“A society cannot be unconsciously racist, but it can function in a racist way without a majority of its citizens holding racist beliefs”

The periphery is where the future reveals itself, and across the corners of the Global South, another anti-racism emerged.

The radical theory of anti-racism started before the 20th century with a history of the colonial experience. As independence movements began to flourish, anti-colonial theorists showed how imperialism created an economics of racial inequality and an ‘epidermalization’ of inferiority.

What is Antiracism? draws on the work of a number of radical theorists – “stars of a common constellation” – to counter the dismissal of third-world agency and explain how the Global South is not the other story but the story of the modern world.

"Not to erect a pantheon [of theorists],” as Arun writes in the introduction, “but to draw on these radical anti-racists as a way to see how neoliberalism reinvented racism” and show how liberal anti-racism props up a system of racial capitalism.

Fundamentally, racism and capitalism are connected in three ways. Firstly, racism creates a divide between white workers and the rest of the global working class. Secondly, it enables the exploitation of specific groups of workers – colonial subjects, enslaved individuals, migrant workers. Lastly, it provides a rationale for discarding workers deemed unnecessary or excessive to the global, neoliberal economy – “surplus populations”.

From C.L.R James to M.N Roy, Claudia Jones to Aimé Césaire, each recognised how “racism and imperialism have been continuous, structural features of capitalism.”

Frantz Fanon identified how sterility of national bourgeoisies that tended to replace the colonial force with a new class-based system replicating colonial structures of exploitation
In 'Wretched of the Earth', Frantz Fanon identified how the bourgeoisie replaced colonial force with new systems that reproduced the same structures of economic exploitation.

To explain this, What is Antiracism? offers anecdotes about how racism has evolved over time, with the Vught concentration camp in the Netherlands an especially revealing example.

Set up in 1942, the camp functioned as a transit base for Jews before being taken to the Nazi death camps. The site was also used as a prison for surplus peoples, and for Dutch multinational company Phillips to exploit their forced labour to make flashlights and radios.

Today, like many former concentration camps, Vught is a memorial to those afflicted by the horrors of Nazism. Visitors ‘experience’ the living conditions of the concentration camp – complete with watchtowers and barbed-wire fences – and learn about the history of Nazi Germany in Europe. There is also a ‘reflection room’ where guests watch a series of short films that aim to prevent such atrocities from happening again by promoting a liberal, diverse outlook.

But despite Vught being a site of genocide, the memorial is essentially devoid of distress. It fossilises racism as a thing of the past and “nullifies the possibility that what happened at Vught might be more than superficially instructive in understanding Dutch racism today.”

Feet away from the symbolic barbed wire of the memorial, hijab-wearing ladies solemnly walk through another barbed-wired entrance: the current ‘super-max’ prison constructed on top of the former concentration camp. It’s a powerful revelation.

170 inmates are currently held at Vught, an overwhelming number of them Muslim. They face solidarity confinement, psychological torture, and degrading bodily treatment. They are punished for speaking Arabic, have their prayer times cut short, and are denied contact with the outside world.


The concentration camps of the 1940s and the high-security prisons of today aren’t, of course, equivalent. But Arun argues they aren’t entirely divorced from one another either.

“Nazi Antisemitism instigated the original site of incarceration… the War on Terror shaped a new logic of confinement… all these different oppressions can be described using the term ‘racism’… [as] the term’s power lies precisely in its enmeshing of different histories of oppression,” Arun writes in the chapter How To Hide A Genocide.

Under the radical definition, both oppressions at Vught are condemned. Yet, under the liberal definition, only one racism exists. “At a site to commemorate Nazi racism, we become bystanders to the other racism that surrounds us.”

Meanwhile, capitalism’s fingerprints, having exploited forced labour in the 1940s and profited from the prison-industrial complex of today, are conveniently smudged away; liberal anti-racism is blind to the material interests that support racial prejudice.

Liberal anti-racism’s denial of new forms of racism is hardwired into its definition. But, as What is Antiracism? reveals, for every liberal squeeze, there is an equal and opposite radical stretch.

Radical theorists have shown how racism has mutated into subtle forms of domination under the pretext of security and abstract economic processes. As demonstrated by Vught, it no longer reveals itself openly.

In contrast, the liberal theory continues to fit all forms of racism into the paradigm first understood through Nazism.

As Arun explains, “The experiences of the US system of apartheid or of European colonialism only made sense to liberals if they were squeezed and reshaped to fit a pre-existing mould of what racism was to be. Those aspects that could not fit the mould were cast off so that the liberal theory of anti-racism could preserve its intellectual authority.”

Some forms of racism, like Islamophobia, are not only cast off but endorsed. What is Antiracism? shows how a fabricated link between Islam and terror became essential to the emergence and maintenance of the neoliberal order, with Palestine at its apex.

In the devastating chapter, Policing the Wastelands, Arun explains how the Yom Kippur War of 1973 brought together petrodollars and Palestine, creating a new global enemy: the Arab, Muslim radical.

How many Palestinians have been detained since the Oslo Accords?

Rather than ending the occupation of Palestine, Saudi Arabia's use of the 'oil weapon' to pressure the United States and Israel had the opposite effect.

The agency exercised by Arab states became a major concern in the liberal North, and the media reworked stereotypes to direct public anger toward a new enemy. Islam was touted as the sole motivation of Arab dissent and the Muslim problem was born.

The oil embargo of 1973 also enabled racial capitalism to remodel itself. The flood of petrodollars was quickly lapped up by Wall Street to exploit, extract, and indebt countries around the world. For the first time, a truly global marketplace was available.

At the same time, oil funds enforced market discipline via US allies, who suppressed anti-imperial insurgencies. Israel became a crucial strategic partner in the fight against Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim radicalism, now under the racially reworked guise of ‘regional security’.

Palestine is now a microcosm of US-sponsored neoliberalism: Israel’s ‘battle-tested’ weapons and surveillance technologies are flaunted to authoritarian regimes around the globe, and the occupied territories serve as a laboratory for racial capitalism. It’s no surprise that Israeli weapons manufacturer Elbit Systems has a hand in Israeli apartheid, the US-Mexico border, and the Grenfell Tower fire.

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Today, liberal anti-racists care more about representation in film than they do about Palestine. Their fetish for diversity and dictionary has enabled neoliberalism to capitalise upon “immense systems of racist macro-oppression,” whilst stripping oppositional movements of meaning, history, and network.

Time will eventually expose the liberal balancing act. Until then, Arun’s work will remain vital in understanding the co-dependency of racism and capitalism, and as a repository for a history of anti-imperialist thinkers whose struggles “ebbed and flowed into the struggles of the other.”

It is not enough to simply celebrate different cultures and their ‘diversity’, the capitalist system will incorporate them into their interests.

To truly combat racism, a structural, united, and universal theory is needed. Arun Kundnani’s What is Antiracism? goes a long way to achieve this, and will be an essential read for years to come.  

Benjamin Ashraf is The New Arab's Deputy Features Editor. He is also a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Jordan's Centre for Strategic Studies and a board member of Red Pepper's Admin Collective

Follow him on Twitter: @ashrafzeneca