John McWhorter recently noted the resemblance between religious fervor and anti-racist activism:

An anthropology article from 1956 used to get around more than it does now, “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema.” Because my mother gave it to me to read when I was 13, of course what I remember most from it is that among the Nacirema, women with especially large breasts get paid to travel and display them. Nacirema was “American” spelled backwards—get it?—and the idea was to show how revealing, and even peculiar, our society is if described from a clinical distance.

These days, there is something else about the Nacirema—they have developed a new religion. That religion is antiracism. Of course, most consider antiracism a position, or evidence of morality. However, in 2015, among educated Americans especially, Antiracism—it seriously merits capitalization at this point—is now what any naïve, unbiased anthropologist would describe as a new and increasingly dominant religion. It is what we worship, as sincerely and fervently as many worship God and Jesus and, among most Blue State Americans, more so.

To someone today making sense of the Nacirema, the category of person who, roughly, reads The New York Times and The New Yorker and listens to NPR, would be a deeply religious person indeed, but as an Antiracist. This is good in some ways—better than most are in a position to realize. This is also bad in other ways—worse than most are in a position to realize.

One of the rituals of this quasi-religion is the acknowledgment of white privilege. It was demanded of the University of Missouri president. As McWhorter explains:

The Antiracism religion, then, has clergy, creed, and also even a conception of Original Sin. Note the current idea that the enlightened white person is to, I assume regularly (ritually?), “acknowledge” that they possess White Privilege. Classes, seminars, teach-ins are devoted to making whites understand the need for this.

McWhorter notes that several private schools in New York are now offering courses in White Privilege. There are also college courses and a conferences on White Privilege and people far to the left of McWhorter, like Corey Robin, have written about the emptiness of some of these conferences. If you look at anti-racism as a religion, however, this collective ritual makes sense as a symbolic religious gesture.

On the other hand, not everything is symbolic. Passionate beliefs on racial issues have created wicked polarization, with academics clustered at one pole. The result is that discussions on say the genetics of racial difference emphasize that there is little genetic diversity among humans, which is an essential point to make, but then skip the point there is still enough genetic clustering in subpopulations to identify a person’s ethnicity using genetic analysis. I’m non-white, so I understand why we wouldn’t want students to think of humans as divisible into a fixed set of races. But I believe that some aspects of genetic diversity have to be recognized. Luckily, sociologists are starting to discuss these aspects more openly. However, it can still be risky for junior faculty or graduate students to venture into these areas.

Religious fervor creates problems for researchers who, despite their prior commitments, are willing to go where the data lead them. And it also challenges university administrators, who have to deal with the fact that any push back against minority demands can seem sacrilegous to some observers, at least in the eyes of some liberals. That is unfortunate because minority students can, on occasion, demand policies that might diminish the likelihood of inter-race contact and increase feelings of exclusion and permanent victimhood.

The line between good passion and scary religious fervor can be blurry. Non-violent resistance movements, which we often only admire in retrospect, need passion to keep them going. And although most of my co-bloggers would probably disagree with me, I’m happy that student activists have been passionate enough in their activism to make some progress in divestment. On the other hand, as a sociologist, I know that if I do any research on race, I would probably have to reach a predictable conclusion (“we’ve made very little racial progress”) or deviate in a more pessimistic direction (“we’ve made less racial progress than so-and-so thinks” or “this anti-racist policy failed because it didn’t accomplish as much as it aspired to”.) If I reached an optimistic conclusion, I would violate a moral imperative, and possibly get accused of being racially insensitive or an advocate of color-blindness. Yet, if social scientists suppress optimistic news about racial progress, we might be doing a disservice to racial minorities themselves.

As McWhorter notes, the religious self-flaggelation of today’s antiracists may not be focusing on helping racial minorities to begin with:

Antiracism as a religion, despite its good intentions, distracts us from activism in favor of a kind of charismatic passivism. One is to think, to worship, to foster humility, to conceive of our lives as mere rehearsal for a glorious finale, and to encourage others to do the same. This kind of thinking may have its place in a human society. But helping black people succeed in the only real world we will ever know is not that place.

Real people are having real problems, and educated white America has been taught that what we need from them is willfully incurious, self-flagellating piety, of a kind that has helped no group in human history. Naciremian Antiracism has its good points, but it is hopefully a transitional stage along the way to something more genuinely progressive.

Much of the antiracist activism in the fall was not of the self-flaggelating sort, but it did rely on quasi-religious passion, making no room for negotiation. Can we make antiracism a negotiable issue instead of a sacred one on college campuses? I would have answered pessimistically if you had asked me a few months ago, but just last month the president of Oberlin College stated that he was rejecting the demands made by Oberlin student protestors, noting that the demands violated the philosophy of the institution. That development may be tied to the fact that the demands at Oberlin were much stronger than elsewhere, and included a list of faculty to be promoted and list of faculty to be fired. Nevertheless, this rejection is a hopeful sign for campuses, one that portends a future where grievances can be aired, but where administrators do not fear a religious counter-reaction when they treat demands as negotiable rather than sacred.