Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Hannah Arendt on Anti-Racism as a Totalitarian Ideology

By Connor Grubaugh, Tablet

When it entered office, the Biden-Harris administration promised to “lower the temperature” of America’s divisive conflicts over race, identity, and recognition. While Biden’s campaign appealed to moderates, however, his policies and appointments so far show him embracing a progressive “anti-racist” agenda fundamentally at odds with his image as a liberal centrist: Equality is dead, long live “equity.” The stage is set for another round of clashes between the radicals and reformists, the race-conscious and colorblind, that have been a familiar feature of American racial discourse at least since the 1960s. If we wish to avoid replaying this predictable and irresoluble conflict (though it is by no means clear that we do), we should turn back to a philosopher whose insights penetrated to its source.

Sixty years ago, the émigré political theorist Hannah Arendt argued that American anti-racism is by its very nature beholden to a kind of totalitarian temptation. In an instantly notorious 1959 essay, “Reflections on Little Rock,” Arendt defended a tragic outlook on America’s race problem, and on the movement against Jim Crow, that has since faded from public memory as the ’60s ethos has been sacralized. She knew that slavery had left a stain on the American tradition, and she detested racist bigotry. Yet she insisted that American civil rights talk was dangerously incoherent, and warned that its contradictions—if unthinkingly enshrined in law and liberal opinion—could only be worked out on the corpse of the American republic, to the grave peril of American Jews. In suggesting that our chosen cure for Jim Crow was worse than the disease, she did not deny the urgent need for a cure or the horrors of the disease; she only regretted that a more permanent and effectual remedy had not been found for a patient well worth saving.

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