Connor Grubaugh argues that Hannah Arendt’s often-maligned essay “Reflections on Little Rock” offers clues to overcoming new clashes between what he calls “race-conscious and colorblind” advocates in anti-racist movements today. Grumbaugh rightly places the core of Arendt’s argument in her refusal to insist on eliminating both social prejudice and social discrimination, and her arguments that the effort to do so was dangerous. Grubaugh writes:
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.
Just as Arendt envisioned, the ideology that calls itself anti-racist has steadily expanded to demand the leveling of inequity in ever more and further flung domains—however ill-suited to analysis in racial categories—while doing depressingly little to correct concrete injustices or materially assist the disadvantaged. It has also formed an alarming alliance with corporate business interests, especially in the technology sector, that stand to benefit from the flattening of hierarchical or exclusive social institutions (such as labor unions) and the elimination of laws designed to protect them. Yet this is not, as many liberals would like to believe, merely the radical perversion of an earlier virtuous doctrine, the corruption of civil rights by “identity politics.” Nor is this malaise imported from abroad, via Frankfurt and Paris, as conservatives tell the story. The truth is more difficult to accept: Anti-racists of the woke left are consummating a dangerous potential that Arendt recognized was always latent in the rhetoric of civil rights and the American conception of equality, but is only now being fully realized.