Many people are having ‘hard conversations’ right now about anti-Black racism and social change. These conversations with others and ourselves are confronting the routine ways non-Black people rationalize and excuse the violence inflicted on Black people, and then take issue with the protests that periodically erupt in response. Many who are engaging in them see these conversations as necessary for ‘changing hearts and minds’ and ultimately addressing anti-Black racism.
When anti-Black racism is confronted, the responses are typically defensive, derisive, dismissive, and/or deflective. We hear them repeated by countless different sources on news channels and social media feeds. Yet somehow these responses remain so consistent, so patterned, so predictable: You know he had a criminal record? But what did she do to make the officer respond like that? We don’t really know what happened. They should protest peacefully like Martin Luther King Jr. if they want to be heard. Black on Black violence. All lives matter.
Much of the time, we think of these formulaic, anti-Black views as misinformation, prejudice, bias, or ignorance. But they need to be understood in another way as well—namely, as ideology.
The word ideology is used in different ways, but one of the specific ways sociologists and political scientists use it is to point to belief systems and viewpoints that arise from the existing power relations in a society, and that serve to shield and protect those power relations. Ideologies, in this sense, provide us with the ideas and arguments that rationalize and justify our hierarchies, inequalities, and relations of exploitation, or at least allow us to proceed in spite of them. They are beliefs that just happen to secure or advance our material interests. In short, ideology is when the mind comes to the aid of the pocketbook and the property deed.
To think in terms of ideology is to emphasize the function of arguments rather than their content; what the words are doing rather than what they are saying. To think about ideology in the present context is to take seriously that a characteristic set of viewpoints, arguments, excuses, deflections, and rationalizations serve as a front line defense for the many tangible ways non-Black people profit and benefit from the subjugation, exploitation, oppression and brutalization of Black people. We encounter similarly consistent, and often overlapping, sets of responses when confronting misogyny and other forms of oppression and exploitation.
Understanding these anti-Black views to be part of an ideology shifts how we think about them in a couple of important ways. First, while we usually think about misinformation, bias, or ignorance as residing in an individual’s mind, we recognize ideology as being rooted in, and emanating from, our collective social relations and political-economic structures.
Second, especially in so-called democratic societies, we often think that the views of the public determine what our public policies and social arrangements look like. In other words, we usually think of our beliefs, values, attitudes and viewpoints as the cause of our relations of oppression and exploitation. It follows that in order to transform an injustice in our society, we need to go to the root cause and change people’s minds. But when we think in terms of ideology, we see that values and viewpoints can also be the effect of existing power relations. They often reflect and reinforce our unequal social arrangements and the distribution of material resources produced by those arrangements.
So what does this shift mean for current attempts to confront anti-Black racism? What it tells us is that we can’t just count on changing people’s minds without simultaneously transforming our collective political-economic structures. The causal arrow of social change doesn’t just go from changed social beliefs to changed power relations. It also goes from changed power relations to changed beliefs.
Of course, enough non-Black people’s minds do need to be changed in order to gain sufficient power to start transforming our political-economic structures. This can and is happening, especially amongst those whose livelihoods are less immediately reliant upon the oppression and exploitation of Black people. This also speaks to the importance of foregrounding the work of Black people in this struggle, as they are the ones who are least likely, relative to others, to be actively invested in reproducing anti-Black ideology and the social arrangements upon which it is based.
For many non-Black people, ‘tough conversations’, while daunting, are more palatable than deep political-economic restructuring of our social arrangements. Reparations, expansive universal social programs, and defunding the police sound far too radical. I’d rather just have a tough talk with my racist uncle.
Those conversations are important. Just keep in mind that the ideological viewpoints and beliefs of many won’t start to give way unless and until we start to transform the social arrangements that make those beliefs materially beneficial to them.
Jakeet Singh is an Assistant Professor of Political Theory at York University in Toronto.